Podcasting 101: The Basics (Recording)

From time to time, people ask me about how to produce the audio for a basic podcast. If you’re considering doing this, here’s a basic tutorial:

1) You’ll need a good recording device. The most cost-effective and technically simplest way to do it is to pick up a Zoom H2 recorder. It has gorgeous microphones that make almost anyone sound good, and can
operate as a USB mic, but it also records uncompressed audio straight to a SD card. I recommend the latter method for simplicity. Get the Zoom, a pop screen, and a basic mic stand (~$140 for the recorder + ~$30 for the pop screen + ~$20 for the stand) and set them up in a quiet, dead room. (Dead = no bare walls. You don’t want the echoes from your living room or bedroom walls. A library is the best environment that most authors have, as books provide excellent baffling. Otherwise, a closet hung with moving blankets can work, or a bedroom with blankets hung on the walls).

There are a lot of good reasons to pick the Zoom over most USB mics out there–they bear directly on sound quality.

2) Read your story. This may take some practice if you haven’t done voice work before. Your vocal technique, characterization, and intonation are what’s more important here. Don’t worry too much about
precision. If you flub, just snap your fingers and re-take the line. The snap is important–it’ll show up in editing and make your flubs easy to find. Aim for a reading pace of between 100 and 140 words per
minute–no faster. Enunciate clearly for the narration, as if you’re talking on the phone–most people’s normal speaking voices are pretty sloppy, and that can make your words sound muddled on a recording. Vary your pace, pitch, and volume for emphasis and mood.

While you’re doing this, be sure to record thirty seconds or more of room tone (silence in the room you’re recording in). You’ll need this for editing.

3) Copy the sound file (.wav or .aiff) to your hard drive (be sure to *copy*. Don’t delete your original until you’re done, just in case you make a mistake and have to start over). Open it up in Audacity (a free
program for all platforms–download from http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ ). You’ll see a waveform. Start
listening from the beginning, and edit your file for pacing and performance. Use your room tone to create spaces–do not insert digital silence, it’ll sound clunky and distracting. Save your work as you go–nothing sucks more than a program crash where you lose an hour of work.

There are good ways to do noise reduction in post, but do NOT use Levelator. There are quicker, easier ways that sound better–if there’s sufficient interest I can do a post on noise reduction.

4) Once you’re satisfied, you’ll need to record an intro and an exit (like the title sequences on tv shows). These can be as short as three or four seconds, just enough to orient your listeners so they know what
podcast you’re listening to. Some people (like me) get elaborate, with fancy intros and then post-story chat where the author talks about how he came to write the story, his upcoming public appearances, responds to listener feedback, etc.

5) When that’s all done, export the open/close sequence to a wav file and import it to your original project, then put it in front of and behind the story. Export the whole thing to a 44.1khz joint-stereo
encoded MP3. Upload it to your website. Make a blog post, add a podcast enclosure, and hit publish.

6) If you want to release on podiobooks.com as well, follow the guide at www.podiobooks.com. It’s pretty easy stuff :) You’ll also want to do id3 tags, but that’s another blog post (which I’m happy to do if you guys want me to).

7) Be sure NOT to export to mp3 until the very last step. Otherwise, you can introduce audio artifacts that sound tinny.

That’s it :) Chime in with questions or corrections in the comments.

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7 Responses to “Podcasting 101: The Basics (Recording)”


  1. Richard Green aka Mainframe

    Daniel,
    I use an H2 for all my recording. First, one should be able to buy one for significantly less than $200 (more like ~$140), so please buy (or make) a pop filter to attach to your stand in front of your mic.

    I record with the gain switch set to low, to reduce outside noise and I have my mouth almost touching the pop filter (and the pop filter has only a small gap between it and the mic). Is this a good idea or bad for podcasting fiction?

    One of the great thing about using the H2 as a USB mic is that it even works great even in Ubuntu Linux (I’m assuming that the hardware is well supported in Windows and Mac). Another great thing about USB mode is that the H2 will use the USB power so no need to use the power cord in this mode & it won’t use the battery.

    Even if you use the H2 to record your fiction stand-alone, you will want to use it as a USB mic for when you are on Skype for interviews. And you do want to be interviewed on podcasts and blogs to get your word out. Even if the interview podcast doesn’t have a big audience, you will have it to link to in your blog. That way you can plug your stuff when someone is asking you about your stuff, not just telling others about it solo.

    The plus for using the H2 for stand-alone recording is no additional sound (like from the computer fan).

    I really hope that Dan is going to cover this in another post, but I would say that using good, and consistent id3 tags is important. Not everyone is going to listen with an iPad, and for a lot of those other mp3 players (like mine), the id3 tags are essential. I have had to manually edit id3 tags for podcast novels before because they were done so poorly.

  2. Richard Green aka Mainframe

    Oh and one thing you may want to do is check out reviews of other podcast novels to see what elements work and what don’t. You can find reviews on iTunes, Podiobooks.com, and I’d definitely recommend ViewFromValhalla.com

  3. jdsawyer

    Richard! Thanks for dropping by :-)
    I’ll update the pricing on the H2 in the article. On your other points…

    Using low gain and closer mic technique is appropriate for some applications, but you’ll need to experiment. Risks you run include: more mouth noise (which requires practice to avoid making–you literally have to learn to move your mouth in a different way), bass biased sound characteristics (which isn’t flattering on all voices, nor is it appropriate for all characters. For male narrators it’s often nice, but not always). If your voice isn’t strong enough to show up really well without the gain boost, then when you get into post you’ll be left with the same set of noise problems, but potentially exacerbated because you didn’t take care of it further up the line.

    In other words, the mic still records the noise, and when you amp your voice in post it will all show up anyway. It’s always easier to reduce noise before you record it than to eliminate it after you’ve recorded it.

    And yeah, id3 tags are important. I’ll need to do a post on those.

    Thanks!
    -Dan

  4. Odin

    Hi Dan! I greatly enjoyed reading this post and look forward to more. Like Richard, I love my H2 and use it for both stand alone and USB powered conversations on the computer. I’m still learning and any mistakes are limitations of my own making rather than the mic. I find it interesting that through trial and error I’ve followed pretty much the path you’ve outlined here, differing only in the recording software (being a video guy, I had soundtrack pro available as part of Final Cut Studio).

    Thanks again for the great post and thanks Richard for the nod. ,^)

  5. Jacqueline Windh

    Thank you for an excellent and informative post.

    I use Audacity, and it is fantastic software. If you haven’t used anything like it before you’ll need to download the manual and really study it well – but all the info is there, and you can do amazing things with it.

    I’d definitely be interested in the post on id3 tags… I don’t know anything about that.

    Thanks again!

  6. Phil Olynyk

    Just a note for those looking at Zoom mics. I picked up an H4, thinking it must be an improvement over the H2. The problem is that the crossed mics in the H4 require the device to be mounted horizontally on a tripod, which is much less convenient than just putting the H2 down on the table. I haven’t seen a side by side comparison of the two, and I sometimes wish I had chosen the H2. So look at both, and decide carefully.

  7. jdsawyer

    Phil–
    You raise a good point. The H4 is more useful for some things–for example, it accepts 1/4″ and XLR inputs if you’re using pro mics, and the crossed on-board mics provide stereo imaging far superior to the H2. But, it does require more complicated mounting hardware, and it’s not as simple to use, and it’s about a hundred dollars more expensive.

    Your mileage may vary :-)
    -Dan