Having quality podcast audio is essential to keeping your listeners happy and returning for more. However, it’s not always easy to avoid some common podcast audio issues. As podcasters, we can find ourselves having to record in less-than-ideal environments. Or, we have to remotely interview guests who aren’t equipped to properly record audio.
Understanding the issues and terminology can help you to capture the best recordings possible. Additionally, you can troubleshoot any problems along the way and communicate with your editor to achieve optimal results. Knowing what can and cannot be fixed in editing, what needs to be fixed during recording, and how to realistically tackle it, will be of great value to everyone involved.
In this post we’ll hear some examples of podcast audio issues, learn the terminology to identify them, and understand the root causes. Ultimately, we’ll learn how to resolve them!
There are a variety of words that audio engineers and the community at large have used, or invented, to describe certain audio characteristics. Sometimes what one person is describing may have a completely different meaning to someone else. Just to name a few: swishy, tinny, crunchy, warm, crisp, muddy, smooth, thin, boxy, and harsh. It will help to have you and your podcast editor are on the same page.
Clipping, also called distortion, occurs when an audio signal is too loud and the loudest part of the audio waveform becomes clipped. This is most often caused by a level being set too high and could occur at virtually any place a level setting exists in the signal chain. These could include a USB microphone’s level control or a gain/preamp control on a mixer or audio interface. It can even be created during editing if plugins or levels are set incorrectly.
Here’s what clipping sounds like in a podcast recording:
As you can hear, the clipped audio sounds overly loud and distressed, and may be described as crunchy or staticky. This is one of the most common podcast audio issues that we hear.
Fix: Turn it down. Like all audio issues, they’re best fixed before the recording even starts. While there is some amazing de-clipping technology available which can repair distortion/clipping issues, it won’t work in all cases. Also, it will never sound as good as not having the problem in the first place.
If your recording equipment has level meters or peak/clip lights, always check there when dialing in your settings. Generally being “in the red” is bad. If you don’t have any visual indicators, check the level meters in your recording software, or just record a test and check how it sounds. Ask your editor for help if you’re unsure.
Echo/Delay from Multiple USB Mics
We’ll insert the word echo here since this issue can commonly be described with that word. Though, in our opinion, it is technically more of a delay issue than an echo. Some may also describe it as if you’re speaking into a fan or a pipe.
We’ve created a full article on why multiple USB microphones should not be used in the same room for a podcast recording.
This is what can happen when this advice isn’t followed:
What you’re hearing is multiple copies of the audio being picked up by different USB microphones which are not perfectly in sync. The difference in digital timing of each microphone causes this delayed sound.
Fix: Check out the article for full details on this one. The short answer is don’t use multiple USB microphones in the same room at any time. It won’t turn out well!
Room echo, or just “echo”, adds a reverberation or hollow sound caused mostly by the recording space, but can also be impacted by the microphone used. Think of the sound you’d hear if you shouted into a canyon, but on a smaller scale.
Recording in an open space with hard, reflective surfaces will cause echo as your voice bounces around the room. This is because the reflections are picked up by the microphone. Using a lousy microphone, such as one built into a computer, will make the problem worse. This is because the farther from a microphone you are, the worse the ratio of direct to reflected sound it will pick up. If your mouth is closer to the mic, then your direct voice is a whole lot louder than the reflections created by the room, thus lessening the problem. If your mouth is farther away from the microphone, its level will be closer to that of the reflected sound, making the ratio worse, hence increasing the echo problem.
Here’s what this sounds like:
Fix: This is a common problem especially with podcast guests, since they may not have an ideal space to record in, and perhaps not even a decent microphone. The most simple fixes would include recording in a space with a low amount of echo, like a smaller room with carpet and/or soft furniture. Next, a microphone that’s closer to the mouth, whether it’s a fancy microphone or just iPhone earpods. Anything is better than the built-in microphone on a computer! Finally, if you’re working with a budget and already have a decent mic, treating the room with some acoustic foam is the crème de la crème!
Connection drops and internet problems usually manifest as a complete loss of audio for some period of time. Unless each person is making a local recording, audio dropped when recording online is usually not recoverable.
The severity of this problem can vary from just a partial lost word or two during an entire episode, or constant dropouts for the whole time. If you hear this happening, know that it is affecting the recording. If your distant recording buddy is not also recording locally, stop and troubleshoot the issue before proceeding.
What this sounds like:
Every online recording platform is different. Zoom, for example, will sometimes still have the beginning and end of a word if the dropout is brief. These can be patched together and still sound pretty good – though your editor may charge extra if this happens a lot. If the dropouts are severe and take out longer portions, there’s nothing that can be done aside from removing the entire passage.
Fix: Connection issues most often originate from the internet connection on the person’s side who is dropping out. It could be the internet service provider, though WiFi is the most common offender. If possible, ensure all remote guests are using a wired connection, or are absolutely certain that their WiFi signal is strong and reliable.
If you’re still experiencing dropouts, try disabling video (if it was being used) to save bandwidth. Your guests should also be given a prep sheet with instructions to turn off bandwidth-intensive services for the duration of your interview.
Finally, if you’re recording solo, use a local software like Audacity or GarageBand. There’s no need to use Zoom, or any online service. They transmit your voice through the internet and thus is subject to dropouts and quality degradation.
Some recording platforms like Zoom, Squadcast, and others, enable a function known as “auto-ducking” by default. Zoom actually refers to it as “echo cancellation.” Auto-ducking mutes the microphone opposite of the person who is speaking. Its purpose is to stop delays and echoes from happening when one or more people are not using headphones on the call.
If two people are on a Zoom call, and neither are wearing headphones, each voice would be coming out of the other person’s computer speakers, able to be picked up by their microphone. This would cause the original speaker to hear a delayed copy of their voice back in their speakers and create a feedback loop, not to mention ruin the recording.
Auto-ducking is designed to prevent this by muting the microphone of whoever isn’t speaking. Problems develop when both people speak at once, resulting in one or both voices to become garbled.
Here’s what this sounds like:
Fix: The easy solution is to turn this setting off, if possible, on your recording platform. However, to do this you and your guest ABSOLUTELY MUST each be using headphones. Otherwise you’re going to have the problem that auto-ducking was created to prevent. Zoom makes this easy with the Original Sound function. Always ensure everybody involved with a remote recording is using headphones. Once you’ve done that, you can disable the auto-ducking setting. As well, the less speakers talk over each other, the better. Hosts should refrain from making statements like “mhm”, “right”, etc while the guest is talking. Train yourself to give a moment for guests to finish their thoughts rather than jumping right in with yours and potentially causing a speech collision. This is good advice for avoiding common podcast audio issues and for having an enjoyable end result in general.
One of the most common types of noise could be described as hissing or white noise. Generally, this type of noise is consistent throughout a recording and may come from noisy equipment like a microphone or preamp. It could even be caused by improper settings. Air conditioning, computer fans, or even the hum of a city street can manifest as this type of noise as well.
Other types of noise may be louder and inconsistent. This could be things like dog barks, a siren passing outside, a phone notification, etc. These are often times not removable. The best thing you can do is ensure a quiet environment before recording, and avoid the mindset of “we’ll fix it in editing.” This attitude often results in disappointment.
What background noise sounds like:
Fix: Low-level, consistent background noise can most times be dealt with in editing. The louder the noise gets, the less possible it is to remove without damaging the quality of the voice. Intermittent sounds must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as a variety of factors will come into play. Knowing this in advance can help you during the recording. For example, if a guest’s phone goes off, have them stop and start their thought or answer over. This way, you can easily cut the bad part out in editing.
The best thing you can do is prepare. Ask your guests ahead of time to silence phone notifications, notify others not to interrupt during recording, find a quiet space away from loud traffic, etc. Noise problems, like all common podcast audio issues, are best resolved before the recording even starts.
You don’t need to spend much on a microphone to get decent sound. The Blue Yeti is reasonably priced and sounds great. Where we start to run into problems is with very cheap microphones. Exponentially worse is guests who don’t have an external microphone at all, forcing them to use their computer’s internal microphone.
Generally, computer built-in microphones are of low quality to begin with. Problems are then compounded, since the mic is farther from the speaker’s mouth. This makes them more susceptible to pick up noise and echo.
Even iPhone earpods are better than nothing. They have a small microphone in the volume control button, which is closer to the mouth. Though, be careful, it can rub against clothes and cause noise.
This type of bad audio can also occur if a person has a good mic but doesn’t have it correctly selected in settings. If you connect a good USB microphone, but in your Zoom settings it is not selected as the input, the call audio will still be picked up from your computer’s internal microphone. Double check this when you get a new microphone and before each recording.
Here’s what a bad microphone sounds like.
Fix: Pretty self-explanatory but sometimes easier said than done. Although some podcasters ship their guests a microphone to use for the recording, this isn’t practical for most. Therefore, with guests you are usually at the mercy of what they have available to them. One you can always control is your own, so if you host a podcast, invest in a proper mic!
Bad Recording Platform
There are a wealth of options out there for creating recordings with you and one or more remote guests online. Even Zoom, which once sounded quite poor, now has had its sound quality upgraded and even offers a high-quality audio setting.
Some platforms, however, are still quite poor.
Any time you have somebody connect using a traditional phone call, they of course will be limited to the sound quality of a phone line, which is not good to begin with. Then, if you’re using one of the various free/low-cost conference call-recording platforms out there, the quality is deteriorated even further.
Here’s what this sounds like:
With all of the options listeners have available to them, they will not put up with poor audio quality and struggling to understand words. Additionally, with all the recording options available to you, there’s no reason to be using something that sounds bad.
Fix: Use a dedicated podcast recording platform like Squadcast or Riverside. Even Zoom has moved up in the ranks. Only let a guest connect by phone if it’s the only option and they don’t own a computer or smartphone.
Common Podcast Audio Issues Summary
There you have it, a rundown of some common podcast audio issues and how to resolve them.
As you may have noticed, a common theme here is to deal with problems before recording rather than in editing. Not only will this always get you better results, but some issues can’t be fixed in editing anyway, so they need to be taken care of up front. Check out our guest prep sheet to help you and your guest get an awesome recording the first time.