Over the last few years, podcasting has grown into a hugely successful market, with a variety of shows covering a diverse range of themes. One of the advantages that podcasts have over other formats is the feeling of immersion they can provide to listeners, and sound design is crucial in creating that environment.
Andy Goddard, former producer at BBC Studios, explained there are three key purposes of sound design: to drive storytelling with an emotional backdrop, to fill gaps when people stop talking, and to make the content sound expensive.
Studies suggest that audio quality has an effect on whether listeners believe what they hear. With that in mind, here are some top tips on how to make your podcast sound polished.
A suitable room trumps an expensive set-up
Before going out to record, choosing an appropriate place to record is essential. You can invest hundreds of pounds into high-quality equipment, but if you record in an echoey room or loud area, it will not make any difference.
“In my early days, I made the rookie error of doing an interview near a coffee machine. That espresso steam is an all frequency sound, so you cannot cut that out. Garbage in, garbage out.”
Removing unwanted noise
Background noise is sometimes unavoidable, be that cars or air conditioning. Using a dynamic microphone or a shotgun mic at close range can limit some of that sound coming through though.
The other option is to use noise gates, a device that can automatically mute sound during parts of a recording when a person is not speaking.
Be sure to un-mute it once someone begins to speak, though, otherwise you will achieve complete silence during gaps which will sound odd. You can always record some background noise or wild track to go underneath vocals, in that event.
Building emotion through music
Once you have perfected the audio, you can be creative and add extra layers, including music, to give your show a production value and emotive edge.
"Music is such a great shorthand for getting people into the state you want them to be in while telling them the thing you want to tell them," Goddard explained.
You do not have to break the bank either. Several free websites exist with royalty-free tracks, but be sure to check terms of usage first.
But anyone can get their hands on this music. If you want something more original and rewarding, Goddard recommended reaching out to music artists to licence their music.
Listen to it like a listener
The best measure of whether your podcast sounds good is to listen to it how your audience would: through headphones or on your car stereo.
This can help you spot needed adjustments overlooked in the initial edit. Doing this ensures it all sounds natural and optimised for the listener.
Do not be afraid of more complex tools
Whilst sound design and especially editing software can seem daunting, Goddard said that new starters only need to know the basics to get going.
"The only two things that are really important in putting a show together technically are level and time. Is it loud enough and is it the right length?
"If you can work out how to use faders and how to cut audio files, which you probably can, then it’s okay if you don’t use the other tools yet."
You can pick up the more subtle tools through online tutorials, like YouTube explainers and mailing lists, and start experimenting from there.
"Implement your maddest ideas at the first drafting stage and then drag them back. It’s hard to be creative when you’re already restricting yourself," he said.
Find your voice
Regardless of how much work you put into making the sound quality as professional as possible, content is still king. Goddard said a lack of equipment should not put you off discovering your niche and a following.
"If you’re doing something that is so specific that no one else could do it, you can do it on a laptop microphone and people will listen to it.
"However, if you want to find a bigger audience and you want to do something which crosses boundaries, a lot of trust in the person talking comes from audio quality."
Find out how to use live podcasts to drive audience engagement at Newsrewired on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets