If you're a musician, podcasting is the perfect application for the studio skills and equipment you already have.
The term 'podcast' has been around for 15 years, and the basic concept dates back to at least the turn of the millennium, but the last few years have seen podcasting really hit the mainstream. For many, the unprecedented success of award-winning true-crime show Serial really blew the lid off in 2014, and we've since seen concerted development by mainstream media outlets such as the BBC, NPR, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Audible, as well as an explosion of niche channels developed by grass-roots enthusiasts. But the podcasting scene still feels a bit like the Wild West, with plenty of opportunities for creative new shows to carve out their own piece of this rapidly expanding audience.
In this article, I'll provide some down-to-earth tips for SOS readers who are considering putting together a podcast for the first time. The good news for project-studio owners is that your music equipment and technological skills give you a massive head start. Indeed, I only got into podcasting myself a few years ago, but have managed to produce a couple of different monthly podcasts — the Cambridge-MT Patrons Podcast (www.cambridge-mt.com/podcast) and Project Studio Tea Break (www.projectstudioteabreak.com) — without the benefit of any traditional broadcasting experience.
The simplest podcast format is where you speak directly to your listeners about a topic. This requires minimal gear: a mic, a stand, and a cable; an audio interface with at least one mic input; and some DAW software. And if you're recording direct from your studio chair, you can combine the workflow of recording and editing in a very natural way. Just record a few phrases; edit and quality-check them; re-record and patch up anything substandard; then rinse and repeat! You quickly learn the habit of backtracking a few words whenever you make a mixtape... er... whenever you make a mistake, so that it's easy to edit seamless repairs. It also becomes second nature to favour slice-points in gaps, breaths, or noisy consonants, and you soon realise how much quicker it is to rerecord dodgy sections than spend ages editing audio snippets around.
The mechanics of speech recording should be straightforward for SOS readers, since it's not a million miles away from capturing sung vocals, but a crucial difference is that the voice will usually be more exposed in podcasts. This means paying greater attention to background details, so large-diaphragm capacitor mics are a decent first choice, on account of their typically high output and low noise floor. A down side is that many such mics are designed to emphasise a vocalist's high frequencies, bringing a danger of excessive sibilance and lip smacks (those little clicks you get when the speaker's lips and tongue briefly stick to each other), both of which are more distracting in the absence of a backing band!
One way to square this circle is to use a dynamic mic (the Shure SM7B and Electro-Voice RE-20 are popular choices), minimising the noise floor by miking up close and perhaps using an inline gain booster such a Cloudlifter, sE Electronics DM1 or Triton Audio FetHead (pictured) to help out the mic preamp.
The dynamic mic's heavier diaphragm will reduce lip noise and sibilance, and typically gives a more rounded 'radio DJ' tone that many people like. I prefer the high-frequency 'air' and detail of a capacitor mic, so I use the least forward-sounding of my large-diaphragm mics instead, miking above my mouth height to reduce sibilance (which tends to be worst in a horizontal plane at lip height). The secret to keeping lip smacks at bay is to take a sip of water every few phrases so that the vocal apparatus remains well hydrated. But the biggest reason I like using a capacitor mic is that its higher sensitivity allows me to work further away without noise problems: maybe 12-18 inches, with the mic around forehead height. This keeps the mic out of my line of sight while editing, but also allows me to move around a fair bit without the mic's proximity-effect bass boost or off-axis frequency-response variations unduly affecting the vocal tone. For me, this makes it easier to talk freely and naturally while recording, without causing mix difficulties later on.
Whatever gain-management precautions you take while recording, noise-reduction processing can prove beneficial at the editing stage. Most real-world project studios aren't particularly well soundproofed against external noise (especially from traffic), and there will frequently also be sources of unwanted noise in the room, such as fans, central-heating systems, lights and other appliances. Fortunately, products like iZotope's RX Elements make removing steady-state background noise (hiss, buzz, hum, and the like) straightforward and affordable. My main advice here is to remember, when recording, to capture some of the background noise in isolation, so that you can use it to train the noise-reduction algorithm for the best results. (Don't leave this until later, as some noise sources will vary in character at different times of day).
One way to make a podcast feel instantly more polished is to add theme music — and this is where being a recording musician really works in your favour! Not only does using your own music sidestep the potentially thorny issue of licensing fees, but it also allows you to generate multiple variants of your theme music for different purposes. You might have an intro theme ending with a simple rhythm-section 'bed' that fades away gradually under your opening comments, and a selection of short five-second 'stings' to place between your podcast's different thematic segments — things like readers' questions, product tests, interviews, quizzes and (if you're lucky!) advertising spots. And, finally, you might have an outro version of the theme, with a slow fade-in and a strong, clear ending to round out the show. This is one area where music producers are uniquely placed to set their podcasts apart, both because plenty of new podcasts can't afford to use music at all, and because your spoken content will be easier for the listener to digest if you use regular musical 'punctuation' to give listeners a bit of a breather from the sound of your voice!
One of the most frequently cited tenets of online content generation is that your output should appear regularly, so every extra 'production hour' you spend per episode increases the likelihood that you'll have to start postponing or skipping episodes...
There are also plenty of shows that make much greater use of musical underscore and sound...