Imagine if a small change could drastically improve the quality, intelligence, likeability, and perceived importance of every human on your podcast.
Would you do it?
I’m here to tell you that the most important aspect of podcast production is audio quality.
I said it.
I may regret having said it. My colleagues may stop inviting me to zoom parties.
I understand that a narrative is about the story structure first. I know that a current events/news daily show is about fresh content and perspective. I get that an engaging host makes for an engaged audience.
The thing is, almost every show in existence could be up to 20% more effective/successful/impactful if the audio quality was better.
And I’ve got the receipts…
Norbert Schwarz and Eryn Newman co-authored a study for USC and the Australian National University in 2018. They had 196 participants listen to versions of the same academic experts delivering talks and being interviewed. When they decreased the audio quality the participants “thought the talk was worse, the speaker less intelligent and less likable and the research less important.”
You’re investing a ton of time, effort, and money on a project that can have a measurable impact on your place in the world. Why would you ever want to neglect the most important thing?
I get it, I know. I’ve heard it all:
“Skype calls are good enough for the cable news networks, why aren’t they good enough for a podcast?” (A famous person)
“I assure you, the CEO’s built-in laptop mic is of the highest quality.” (An executive assistant of a billionaire)
“We’re gonna have to record a zoom call, the founder doesn’t like using anything else.” (A person who hates audio)
Blame the Punk Rockers
In the beginning, podcasting benefited greatly from public radio growing the medium and pushing it into the mainstream. Beautiful-sounding audio stories that had an emotional and intellectual impact were often recorded in studios with the guidance of incredible audio engineers. At the same time, podcasting experienced meteoric success because anyone could do it. The tech was “good enough” and became accessible to the masses. And it turned out that great stories and content could come from everywhere. I love this.
It reminds me of the DIY punk rock ethos from my early days in the music industry. Songs were king and audio quality played second fiddle. Hearing the emotion roar through the speakers from shitty garage recordings proved that you didn’t have to be polished to have an impact.
And, sure, it’s true, a great story can have an impact even if it’s recorded on a crappy payphone from inside a prison.
But, seriously, if your guest isn’t inside a prison why not have them sound like they’re hanging out inside our brains, rent-free.
It’s 2021. Citizens are taking joy rides in outer space; AI has become sentient, and most people in the world use hand computers as bathroom magazines. We have the technology.
Every major electronics store in the world sells $30 USB mics, which are better than your laptop mic.
You can record high-quality uncompressed .wav files in real-time over the internet with a number of different programs readily available. (Riverside.fm is our favourite.)
The only excuse for bad audio quality is that you don’t care about bad audio, and that seems unwise when audio IS the medium.
Get Audio Conscious
We make great-sounding podcasts for big brands. Brands that invest wisely in the idea of creating a gift for their audiences. Our creative team works with our clients to help them identify what story only they can tell, focusing on engaging evergreen content instead of traditional advertising, and using their brand superpowers to promote this work widely. These brands are rewarded with unparalleled retention numbers and sometimes even sweet awards, no doubt making their parents very proud.
What surprises me is that despite the fact that we are in an audio-only medium, and regardless of the budget, I sometimes find myself in a position where I have to fight for the importance of audio quality.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised:
- Podcasting doesn’t even have a proper standard across all platforms for what bit rate your mp3’s should be
- Folks have low expectations after historically inconsistent punk rock sound quality.
- And some people think Airpods sound good.
The issue is that very few people consciously pay attention to audio quality. Whether you do or don’t, subconsciously it has a massive and indisputable impact on how your audience perceives your content. No one wants to sound less intelligent.
But, somehow the dots are rarely connected:
I watch NHL post-game press conferences where the journalists asking questions don’t even get mics.
“Doesn’t matter, hockey players’ insightful answers are the most important thing. (Gotta keep our stick on the ice and give 110%)”
I watch important remote presentations 19 months into a WFH pandemic where I struggle to make sense of the presenter in their reverb-drenched kitchen using their stock laptop mic.
“Doesn’t matter, the content was great!”
I hear podcasts from radio stations where they still just call people on the phone for interviews.
“Don’t worry, that’s what we’ve always done.”
Here are the important takeaways (because I was told people like takeaways):
- Get everyone on a dynamic USB mic and wearing headphones. I like the Shure MV7, the ATR-2100x, or try the CAD U1, depending on your budget.
- Use a program meant for audio recording, not a video conferencing hack job. Riverside.fm is our go-to, Cleanfeed is great, Squadcast and Zencaster also exist.
- Spend a little bit of time before the interview experimenting with acoustic solutions. Closets are great recording booths, and blanket forts create bonds that last a lifetime.
- If you want to spend no money at all, use a free recording app on a smartphone and sync up the files later in Audacity. Just make sure no one breathes into the phone, hold it by your ear. You know, like you’re using a phone?
Making your audience listen to bad sound is like giving a Ted Talk in old, filthy clothes and wondering why you didn’t get as many clicks as you wanted.
We fight so hard to get “good tape” and yet undervalue the importance of how that tape is being captured. There really is no excuse. Let me know if you need to be pointed in the right direction.
We’re in the business of transforming words into worlds using only audio.
That’s why sound matters most.
Train Your Ears
My kind and patient colleague Karen Burgess helped me run through some audio exercises, so you can hear the difference some wise choices can make in your overall audio quality. She humoured me by reading passages from “On the Sensations of Tone” by Hermann Helmholtz. She is sitting at her dining room table, much like a typical podcast guest would.
Our internet connections were top-notch, so think of these examples as the best-case scenario with the following tools.
Wired headphones with a mic on the wire on Riverside.fm. Notice how putting a microphone at your neck isn’t ideal, since that’s not where your mouth is and reverb becomes a problem:
Apple Airpods on Riverside.fm. Turns out your ear isn’t where your mouth is either. And Bluetooth remains the enemy of fidelity:
Fancy studio condenser mic on Riverside.fm. Sure it sounds nicer, but a condenser makes esses and mouth noises problematic, as well as being great at capturing reverb. This would be an issue with any USB condenser mic (I’m looking at you, Yeti):
Dynamic USB mic on Riverside.fm. This is what we like, the mic itself ignores more reverb (as a dynamic mic) and we can start to imagine Karen creeping out of the dining room and into our brains:
Everything above is from the wonderful sounding Riverside.fm platform, so what happens when we take that dynamic mic and record from a Zoom call instead:
Sounds a bit crunchier, yes? And remember this is with plugged-in, really good internet. Best case scenario. BUT, what if we record that mic on a Skype call instead:
Ouch. I’m not sure what Skype is doing to the audio but it’s clearly offensive. Okay, the last one, let’s bring back those sweet Apple Airpods and see how those sound in Skype:
That’s just horrendous. Here’s some ear bleach for you, just to end on a high note:
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