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Sound tips for podcast hosts and guests

Liz Drury Voiceovers microphone

Have you been invited to be a guest on a podcast? Or are you thinking of starting a podcast of your own?

If you have, are you confident that your audio quality is the best it can be?

You don’t need a professional home studio to record a podcast interview, but there are a few simple things you can do to make sure that your recording is clear and that the listeners don’t switch off!

The first thing to remember is it’s not the microphone that makes the biggest difference to how you sound, but the environment you record in. You can have the most expensive mic in the world, but if you just stick it on your desk in a room with no carpet or other soft furnishings and speak into it, it’s going to sound bad….

The worst environments to record in are ones with lots of hard surfaces such as kitchens or bathrooms (not sure why you’d record in a bathroom, but maybe it’s the only place you can get any privacy!). A better option is a living room or bedroom where there is a carpet, curtains, cushions etc. What you want is lots of ‘soft stuff’ that will absorb the sound and reduce the amount of echo on your voice.

A trick that voice over artists use if they are recording away from home is to build a ‘pillow fort’. A stack of pillows behind and to the sides of the mic will really improve the sound quality of your recording. Another tip is to place a blanket or towel under your microphone to prevent echo from the hard desk surface, and reduce vibrations from the desk passing up the mic. If you can manage to get something soft hung up behind you, that will help too. I’ve been known to hold a duvet behind my head, but you can only do that for a short period of time!

Another option is to get under a duvet and record. It sounds pretty good, but it gets warm quickly and I wouldn’t recommend it for a long interview!

Coming back to microphones, expensive ones tend to be very sensitive and will pick up every tiny noise. They only work well in an acoustically treated space such as a recording booth. If you are a podcast interviewee, and you’re not planning on being a guest on lots of shows you can just use the mic that’s built into your laptop. The important thing to remember is you need to stay fairly close to it, and not turn your head away. If you move back and forth or side to side a lot while you’re speaking, some of what you say will be lost.

A headset with a built in mic is another option, though it’s difficult to get the mic in the right position so that you’re loud enough but not popping the mic by being too close.

If you are planning to be a podcast host or hoping to be a guest on multiple podcasts then you probably want to invest in an external mic. There are two types of microphone for voice recording – condensing and dynamic. I use a condensing mic for my voiceover work, it’s very sensitive and suited to use in a professional studio. Dynamic mics are more forgiving when it comes to the recording environment, and they tend to be cheaper too.

There are two ways to connect your microphone – USB and XLR. The USB variety can be plugged directly into your computer, whereas the XLR type needs to be plugged into an audio interface, and then the interface is connected to your computer. For podcasting purposes the USB types are cheaper and easier to use. There is lots of advice online about the best microphones to buy for podcasting and I’m not going to go into more detail here.

If you are investing in an external mic, once you’ve got it do a few experiments to find out what the best mic position is for you. A general rule of thumb is that your mouth should be about a handspan away from the mic. You don’t want to be right on top of it, and you don’t want to be too far away. Be aware of ‘plosives’, the harsh letter sounds such as p, b, and d. When we say these letters we produce a blast of air which will make the mic ‘pop’ and you’ll have an ugly noise on your recording. You might need a ‘pop shield’ or ‘pop filter’ in front of your mic (some mics have this built-in). This is a piece of fabric or wire mesh usually over a circular frame which you place between you and the mic. In an emergency a pair of tights stretched over a coat hanger will do the job!

If you are going to be a podcast host then in addition to your mic you’ll also need some recording/editing software. I started out with Audacity which is free to download, and perfectly adequate. Of course you’ll need to learn how to use it before you can get going but there are lots of tutorials on YouTube.

Before you go into a recording session, either as a guest or a host, there are two really important things you can do to make sure you sound as good as possible. The first is to make sure that you’re well hydrated. A dry mouth is a noisy mouth. We don’t notice it much in everyday conversation, but it’s very noticeable on recordings. We makes all sorts of unwanted clicks and pops when we’re dehydrated and they can be very difficult to edit out. You need to start drinking plenty of water at least 2 hours before the interview – and if the recording is first thing in the morning then you need to start the night before!

The second thing you can do is make sure your voice is warmed up. Making a few siren noises is good (sliding your voice up and down from low to high and back again), lip trills (blowing through the lips whilst sliding the voice up and down), and my favourite – speaking with a pen between your teeth to really get the muscles working.

During the recording don’t forget to smile! We can hear a smile and it makes us sound more warm and friendly.

If you are the podcast host and you’re recording a solo episode, imagine you are talking to someone. At the end of the day, someone is going to be listening to you, probably on their own, and possibly through headphones, so imagine your voice going into their ears! It can help to have a picture of someone, or even a teddy in front of you when you’re recording, and tell your story to that person/soft toy. It will make a huge difference to your delivery.

Also try to have in mind some adjectives of how you want to come across – knowledgeable, friendly, upbeat etc etc, and keep those words at the back of your mind as you record. Think too about your pace, tone and volume. When you’re recording a solo episode you probably need to be slower than you think.

If you are interviewing someone you want it to sound like a natural conversation but you probably need to have some questions prepared – even if you don’t stick to your script. I don’t recommend sending questions to guests in advance though. It’s fine to tell them what you plan to cover, but don’t send them a list of questions because they will be tempted to prepare answers which they then read out – and that doesn’t sound at all natural. If there will be a question that you think they might not have an answer to off the top of their head, by all means let them know about that one beforehand, but definitely don’t give them everything.

My final really important tip is try not to record too much at once. It can be tempting if you are a host to try and record lots of episodes in one go, but it’s harder on the voice than you might think, especially if you’re not used to long recording sessions. If your voice starts to sound tired or feel scratchy for goodness sake stop! The last thing you want is to lose your voice!

If you’d like help preparing or practicing for a podcast interview do get in touch.