The five main factors that affect your sound quality
Everybody wants their podcast to sound great. We all strive for that beautiful, silky smooth studio-esque sound.
But let’s be realistic – we don’t all have our own personal podcast booth at home, nor do we have access to a recording studio we can just pop round to whenever we have a new episode to do.
Most podcasters are recording in their homes and offices – that was the case pre-pandemic, but even more so now.
So that means your sound quality is going to be rubbish, right?
Yes, it certainly gives us a few challenges. But once you really understand the factors which affect sound quality, you can start to solve them.
Go through all five of these and you’ll get a good feel for how you can achieve the very best possible quality, whatever kind of space you have.
Let’s start with the most obvious one – microphones.
In my experience this is also the one most people are happiest to talk about solving as it gives them an excuse to buy a new toy!
OK, here is the starting point – if you want great sound, you need a microphone.
Yes, you can get by using the internal mic on your laptop or webcam. And as a listener, I’ll be able to hear what you’re saying. But I’ll know. Listen to a show recorded with a decent mic and then one using someone’s laptop mic and – well – it’s glaringly obvious.
So back to that previous point – if you want great sound, you need a microphone.
This is where it starts to get overwhelming as there are TONS of different ones available to buy, so let’s do a few feature comparisons to see what is right for you.
Standalone vs headset
This is an easy one – unless your format absolutely demands otherwise, go for a standalone mic. Headsets are convenient but they tend to struggle with the harshness of the ‘t’ and ‘p’ sounds (‘popping’ as it’s called in audio circles) and worst of all, they pick up breathing quite loudly. No one wants to hear someone’s breathing. It’s off putting, unsettling and frankly just a little bit weird.
If you have a really good reason as to why only a headset mic is going to work for you, then fair enough. It’s an obvious thing to say but the more expensive the headset, the better it’s likely to be. You’re going to struggle with a £20 one off Amazon, but dig a bit deeper and you will find some which really try hard to cure the problems outlined above.
USB vs XLR
We’re getting into some of the technical stuff now. You will probably be more than familiar with USBs. This is the industry standard connector used by computers and other equipment. XLR is a different kind of connector widely used in the audio and music world, with three pins inside a circle socket.
Some microphones are USB, some are XLR, a few are both.
You should already be starting to figure something out here. Computers already have USB ports, so connecting a mic to it is child’s play. Plug it in, and away you go.
Now, on the other hand, your computer isn’t going to have an XLR input. So to use an XLR mic means you’ll need another bit of kit in the middle to link the two – either an audio interface or some kind of digital mixer.
Let’s whittle it down a bit more – USB is simple, XLR is more complicated.
Now the pay off. It’s generally considered within audio circles that the sound quality from XLR microphones is better than USB.
And, it is. Absolutely is. Where I stray from the audio-circle-script is that I’m not sure whether it’s so significantly better that it is actually worth the extra hassle and expense for the average podcasters.
Earlier on, we talked about how easy it is to tell the difference between a laptop internal mic and a proper standalone mic. Well, I don’t think the same is true for USB and XLR. There’s a difference, but it’s slim.
So, unpopular opinion time – most people should go for a USB microphone. I have loads of them at home. My go-to mic is a Shure MV7 which has both USB and XLR – but I connect to my Mac using USB for nearly everything because it’s so much more convenient.
Dynamic vs Condenser
Now we go arms deep into the technical stuff. There are two different types of mics – dynamic and condenser. I’m not going to go into explicits, but it’s all to do with the parts and tech inside.
A really basic outline of what it means from a podcasting point of view can be summerised like this:
Dynamic mics are better at cutting out background noise
Condenser mics give a fuller, richer sound, but pick up everything in the background
I’m hugely simplifying, but a lot of the other differences just don’t really matter for podcasters. So if you have a good, soundproofed environment, then a condenser mic is an ideal choice. If you’re recording at home or at the office with minimal soundproofing, I’d lean towards a dynamic mic.
So now you know three of the main areas of difference for mics, you can start to whittle down a shortlist to find what’s right for you.
How much should you be looking to spend? Well that’s up to you. As a general rule of thumb, anything below £50 is likely to not sound amazing (and probably not be built all that well); £50-75 will move you more into a range of pretty decent; £100ish should get you something good; £200+ will sound great.
The second thing to consider when we talk about microphones is how you use it: your mic technique.
This really does make a difference. If you buy a decent mic but then place it a metre away from you, you ain’t getting the best sound possible.
To be fair, the right mic technique does differ slightly depending on the exact model, and is often a process of trial and error, but in most cases you want the mic to be around a fist-width away from your mouth.
Yep, that’s fairly close. But getting quite cosy with your mic means it’ll pick up your voice with a nice depth and fullness. I’ll feel that cosiness in your voice.
You might need a mic shield of some sort to stop that ‘popping’ we mentioned – the big foam ones are most effective, but the clip-on which look like fly squatters tend to look a bit nicer. Some mics come with a stand or arm clamp, but do check.
One final word on microphones – as things stand right now, the mics built into things like Airpods and other bluetooth earbuds aren’t good enough for podcasting.
If the microphone section got a little heavy at times, no such problems here.
The point on headphones is – get some. It doesn’t really matter if they cost £20 or £200. Even the free earphones you get with your phone (do they still do that?) will do the trick.
Why? Well because all that matters here is the job that headphones do.
Let’s explain that using a scenario that doesn’t involve headphones. You have two people, connected to each other remotely. One is the host, with a nice fancy mic; the other is the guest who is using their inbuilt laptop mic. They’re both using their laptop speakers.
When Person 1 speaks, what they say comes out of Person’s 2 speaker. It is then picked up by Person 2’s microphone. You now have an echo of everything Person 1 says a few milliseconds later.
When Person 2 speaks, the same happens in reverse. When they both speak at the same time, well, all hell breaks loose akin to when the Ghostbusters cross streams.
Why do headphones make a difference?
Let’s revisit that scenario but this time, both people are wearing cans (that’s audio geek speak for headphones).
When Person 1 speaks, Person 2 hears it through their headphones. Person 2’s microphone doesn’t pick it up. And the same in reverse. No echo.
Some platforms, like Zoom, have ‘echo cancellation’ technology which claim to get around the no-headphone problem by silencing each person’s mic when they’re not speaking. It works to an extent but it massively degrades the audio. You get that ‘underwater’ sound when both people speak at the same time.
In short – whether you have two or ten people on your podcast, every single one of them needs to be wearing headphones. Make this an absolute non-negotiable.
Wired headphones are better than bluetooth ones, by the way.
3. Your environment
OK so now let’s consider WHERE you record.
The first thing to decide is which room to use. Whether you’re at home or at work, there are a few factors to consider.
Generally the smaller the room the better it is for recording. Think about how echo works, and you’ll see the logic. If your voice has further to travel, then it’s more likely to sound echoey.
A small meeting room, or spare bedroom at home are probably good examples. If you have a little walk-in wardrobe, even better!
Bigger rooms like kitchens aren’t so good. Kitchens often have hard laminate or tiled floors as well which are terrible for recording quality as they reflect sound, unlike carpets and rugs which absorb it.
Rooms have windows and those windows let in sound. So there’s a bit of common sense here. If the front of your house looks onto a busy main road, a room at the back will be better. If one side of your building adjoins a mechanic’s workshop… you know what to do.
Distractions / Interruptions
This should be obvious but some people just don’t think about it until you make them. You want to be away from all distractions and interruptions. Be in the room furthest away from where there’s a TV switched on or someone chopping veg for tea. Make sure the kids know they can’t come wandering in, and don’t lock the dog in the next room to bark his cute little head off.
There’s a ton of other examples of noisy stuff that you don’t want to be near – have a think beforehand and work out what that might be in your environment.
Oh, and please don’t put the washing machine on ten minutes before you’re due to record. Schoolboy error.
Huh? Stuff? Yep, stuff is actually important for recording. Often, the more stuff the better. Stuff absorbs noise and therefore improves your sound quality.
Think about radio studios with foam on the walls – it absorbs noise and stops echo. If you want to stick foam all over your spare room then brilliant, but if not, be creative. How about getting your clothes airers in the room and hanging duvets over them? Duvets are brilliant for soaking up sound.
Stuff is your friend
4. How you record
The platform you use to record can actually make a big difference. All are not equal.
Let’s consider platforms like Zoom or Teams. They’re super convenient because everyone knows how to use them. But the downside is they are reliant on your internet connections. Your guests will always be VOIP quality, and if you or a guest has an internet connection which keeps dropping out or glitching, that’ll be reflected on your recording, simple as that.
Specialist podcast recording platforms get around that by capturing each person’s audio at their end of the call, and then uploading it afterwards. So no VOIP recordings; they’re all in perfect quality. And even if the internet connection plays up, it doesn’t matter, you still get top quality audio for each person at the end.
5. Post Production
The four areas we have considered so far have all been things you need to think about BEFORE you record. Last but by no means least is post-production – what you do with your audio AFTER you finish recording.
I’m not talking about editing out ums and erms here – just about how you can treat your audio to further improve the quality.
If you’re recorded on Squadcast or Riverside, you will have a separate audio track for each person, rather than just one overall file.
This is great as it means you can go through each person’s audio and make alterations without affecting the others. It’s most likely this will mean looking at the parts of the track where someone isn’t speaking – they might be typing a quick email or taking a sip of water and if they haven’t muted, you’ll be able to hear it. You can easily silence that section, so it isn’t there in the background when you do your final mixdown.
You can also see whether each recording is roughly at the same volume. If someone is much quieter, you can sort that out. Once everyone’s volume is level, it’s an easier listen.
Other post-production techniques include running some compression or filters on the audio to help give it a bit more ‘pop’ – a richer and fuller overall sound. Similarly, you might run some EQ on it too. These things are a bit more advanced and you might not feel like you really know what you’re doing in the way an experienced podcast editor would, and that’s natural. I only need to listen to a few seconds of a recording before I know what treatment the audio needs, but that’s from years and years of experience.
But, you can start to experiment. Save a second copy of your podcast, and try changing elements of the EQ or compression. See what happens. It’s a copy, so it doesn’t matter if you totally ruin the audio. You’ll start to get a feel for how you can change the audio – picking up the bass to give it a deeper richer complexion for example.
And there you have it – the five factors which have the biggest impact on your podcast sound quality.
There are plenty of other smaller factors, but if you can crack these five, you’re going to be sounding AMAZING.
And if you need any help, that’s what we are here for. We can help you get your sound quality spot on before you even launch your podcast – just get in touch.