Podcasting is a challenging topic for a writer whose focus is technical books. With Podcasting Hacks I could have focused just on the technology angle, demonstrating all the cool stuff you can do with RSS and podcasting technology. But while I wanted to do that, I also wanted to cover the artistry of podcasting. Not just how to get a clean sound delivered reliably to your listeners' iPods, but more than that, to impart real-world knowledge and wisdom on producing podcasts that people want to listen to.
To do that, I couldn't just rely on my own limited experience. So I went out and talked with over 30 successful podcasters, as well as radio personalities, engineers, and producers. I visited studios and spent time on both sides of the microphone. It was a fascinating journey. I brought all of that experience into the book. And a few friends I met along the road added a few hacks as well.
In this article, I'm going to do a little condensation of the content in the book and give you ten ways to improve your podcasts. There is no priority to their listing, though the first five tips cover some of the basics: getting a good microphone, proper microphone technique, show preparation, reducing noise, and formats; the latter five are more concerned with the content of your show. All are practical methods for improving both the sound and the content of your show. Feel free to take from them what you will and leave whatever you don't agree with on the floor.
Getting the right microphone has been a hot topic since the beginning of podcasting. The options range from staying with the computer's internal microphone all the way to buying several high-quality microphones, each for a different task. At the end of the day, you will want a microphone that sounds good enough that people will no longer hear noise that distracts them from listening to you. Sure, the Nixon tapes sounded like garbage, but everyone listened to them because the content was compelling. I doubt, however, that your musings on advanced navel-gazing will be given the same deference.
What's a good microphone? Generally speaking, a podcaster using their home office as a studio will want a large-diaphragm, cardioid condenser microphone. Condenser microphones have more clarity and resolution than their dynamic microphone counterparts. And "cardioid" means that the microphone has a directionality to it. Sounds in front of the microphone will sound far louder than those behind the microphone. Omnidirectional microphones, which hear sound evenly in all directions, are not ideal for podcasting, because your voice will sound far away, and other sounds in the room will be included in your recording. A large diaphragm just means a larger surface to pick up the pressure variations that are caused when you speak. Any studio microphone that is used for radio will have a large diaphragm.
To use a condenser microphone, you will need to provide it with phantom power. Some microphones have a battery, while most take their power from the three-pin XLR cable. That means you have to hook the XLR into something. You can't just hook it into your computer directly. I recommend getting either a preamp that supplies phantom power to the microphone and converts the signal to a 1/8" or 1/4" output, using a portable mixer, or getting a FireWire or USB preamp box that both powers the microphone and digitizes the signal.
A good quality studio microphone will start at around $100. Mixers and preamps can start at around $100, and USB or FireWire preamps will run in the $200-$600 range. Podcasting Hacks has extensive coverage of many different microphones and connectivity options.
One more piece of advice about microphones: don't try to find a single microphone that is good in both the studio and in the field. Studio microphones need to be sensitive and low-noise. They are too delicate and unwieldy to take into the field. Field microphones need to be rugged and have excellent noise rejection. For this reason, field microphones don't have the best possible sound. If you want to do field and studio work, get two microphones. And get a portable recording rig to support the field work.
Proper microphone technique is a term that you hear a lot in podcasting forums. People will tell you if you have it or don't have it, but will be at pains to tell you what it is, because good technique is often a blend of many factors, including physical positioning, diction, speed, mouth form, presence, and more.
By far the easiest problem to fix is microphone positioning. To start, you should be about a hand's width away from the microphone. Put your thumb at your lips and your pinky on the microphone and use your hand as a spacer between the two. That is close enough to get some bass boost from a microphone's proximity effect, but not so close that you are eating the microphone.
Proximity effect is a feature of almost all condenser microphones, as well as many dynamic microphones. The effect is readily heard as you approach a microphone. Standing back from the mic, your voice will sound thin. As you approach the microphone, you will find that it picks up a lot more of the bass in your voice. That gives you a much fuller sound that is pleasing to listen to. Of course, you can take it too far and give yourself the "voice of God" effect if you get too close.
In addition to the distance from the microphone, you can also adjust your position relative to the microphone. Ideally, the microphone should be slightly above you and off to the left or right by up to 45 degrees. The vertical elevation will cut down on mouth noises. And the left or right adjustment will suppress "plosives." Plosives are the bursts of air that come out of your mouth when you say hard consonants like "p" or "b." These will create a popping sound unless dampened. Another way to dampen plosives is to use a popstopper. These are small screens that are positioned between your mouth and the microphone. They don't alter your sound, but they do stop large onrushes of air. You can buy these commercially for between $20 and $30, or use one of the do-it-yourself recipes on the Web.
I strongly recommend putting your studio microphone on a stand or flexible arm, and then experimenting with the position of both yourself and the microphone until you find a setup where you feel comfortable and the sound is good. Holding the microphone will create handling noise, which are loud thumps in the signal that will ruin your recording.
As you are experimenting to find the right position, you should wear a pair of monitor headphones. These are headphones that immediately replay the sound being recorded. This way, you always know what the final product will sound like. It's a major bummer when you record thirty minutes of show only to find that the gain was way down or way up. You can use any cheap pair of headphones for this purpose, but I would avoid "open air" headphones. These are great for playback, but will let in too much outside noise to give you an accurate impression of your sound. A good rule of thumb is that anyone who has their own mic should be wearing monitor headphones so that they can adjust their voice and position for optimal recording.
In Podcasting Hacks, I was very lucky to get the help of Vicki Merrick and Emily Dohahoe, both of whom are experienced voice coaches for on-air personalities. They contributed their expertise as a hack in the book and it's chock full of information on how to build a great on-air voice and presence.