With the deadline for the World Nomads Travel Podcast scholarship less than two months away, we thought it was time to write a guide to producing a short audio feature. There’s a focus on the workflow and techniques which will help the scholarship applicant tell their story.
Recording podcasts on your computer
Most laptops have built-in microphones, but few are high quality. However with a little creative sound engineering, your built-in microphone can produce sound that’s good enough quality. The difficulty is that the computer makes all sorts of noise which is very close to the microphone: it’s impossible to eliminate this although it can be mitigated in post-production.
Getting your microphone some way from the laptop is a good idea: a USB headset, like you would use for gaming or Skype calls, would do the trick. Many podcasters use these rather than investing in professional equipment and, if you’re already carrying one to keep in touch with home, it’s a perfect solution.
Portable recorders for travel podcasting
If you would like to get away from the laptop for more freedom and portability, then a “cheap” portable recorder might be what you’re after: unfortunately “cheap” starts at around US$150.
Three popular field recorders for podcasters are the
M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96,
After extensive research — focusing on these three choices — we bought a Zoom H2 in 2008 and can definitely recommend it as a great microphone for travel podcasters. It’s light, runs on ubiquitous AA batteries, records to SD and can simulate surround sound thanks to the four microphones within its head. The winner of the World Nomads travel podcast scholarship will receive a Microtrack II.
Obviously we want the recording environment to be as quiet as possible; this can be quite difficult when you’re travelling full time. Traffic noise, hostel dwellers and echoing hotel rooms with noisy air conditioning all seek to damage our recording.
While we want it to be as good as possible, most podcast listeners have some grace. The more interesting your content, the more likely they are to forgive you the occasional bad recording session. People understand that an independent podcaster doesn’t have a radio production manager standing behind their back to add depth to the sound field and fiddle with gain and, for now at least, they’re happy with our indie efforts.
Recording podcasts using Garageband
Words like gain, reverb and echo don’t mean a lot unless you’re an audiophile. Fortunately, basic knowledge and good software go a long way in helping us use them. Let’s look at creating a “podcast voice” profile using Apple’s Garageband which aims to minimise hiss and avoid vocal flatness.
After some fine-tuning this will ensure that all your recordings sound similar. Unfortunately it’s impossible to achieve true consistency when you’re changing location all the time.
Open Garageband and create a new project. Get rid of the piano floating in the middle of the screen and create a new track by clicking “Track > New Track–“. Choose “real instrument” and “vocals > no effects”; this gives us a clean palette to work from.
Click the “Details” drop-down arrow and you can see several options for changing all sorts of technical things. Drag the sliders to approximate the screenshot below and “Save instrument.” I called mine “podcastvoice.”
Now it’s time to record something. Have a listen and play around with these settings until you have something you’re happy with. You can edit and save your new “instrument” at any time by double clicking the head-shaped icon.
If you don’t have a Mac, I’d recommend the free recording studio, Audacity. It is cross-platform, open-source and does an increasingly excellent job.
Still got hiss? As far as this software goes the only thing you can do is nudge the “gate” higher and higher: beware of raising it too high and cutting out your voice! Audacity provides an effective method for tackling intensive hiss which is well covered by Deepak Morris.I’ve used both of the above methods to minimise hiss over the last few years, but the best way to deal with hiss is in the “studio” itself, even if it is a hostel laundry at three in the morning. A room that sounds deathly quiet to us has background noise and (obviously) inbuilt microphones will pick up the sound and vibrations from a recorder too.
Sound deadening can be done with some kind of sound insulation foam, but I’ve also used a couple of books to good effect in creating a “cave” for my microphone. The hard edges create echo though; it’s a delicate balancing act.
Another shock in early recordings are the pops and splutters that appear in the recording. These are caused by “plosives” — sounds made by certain letters such as P and T.
In order to avoid plosive pops, professional broadcasters use a mesh-like filter between their lips and the microphone. I can’t imagine any traveller wanting to carry that! The Zoom H2 comes with a dense foam wind filter which can work wonders.
Without a filter, simple mechanical tricks can also provide suitable results: pointing the microphone at your ear or moving it a little further from your mouth both work. In addition, it certainly doesn’t hurt to practise saying the target sounds without that sharp breath which comes with them.
In the next instalment of this series, we’ll look more closely at post-production; making sure the interviewee is at the same volume as yourself; and creating the final file for publication.