Recording your podcast outside of the studio
If you’re starting a remote podcast with modest means, you might be looking around at your recording environment wondering how you can possibly make it work. Whether you’re contending with room echo, noisy neighbors, or a goddamn legion of leafblowers that seem to howl ceaselessly from dawn to dusk, the three main steps to improving your audio are: (1) choosing the right gear, (2) working with your surroundings to create a good recording environment; and (3) using an editing tool to remove remaining background noise in post-production.
As it happens, Descript has the best such tool you’ll find anywhere. It’s called Studio Sound, and there’s more on it below.
How to get a clean recording outside of a studio
Get the right recording equipment
High-quality podcast equipment ensures a certain level of sound quality and makes your recordings easier to edit and enhance later on. Be sure to calibrate your setup to match your environment.
A good mic makes a world of a difference. Look for one with a cardioid pattern, which means it’s better at picking up what’s in front of it rather than what’s in the background.
There’s now a wide range of USB mics that conveniently plug directly into your computer or laptop. They’re affordable and easy-to-use, but don’t perform well as XLR mics, which are pricier but produce professional-sounding audio and give you more control over recording levels.
(Note: XLR mics use XLR connectors and cables that can’t plug directly into your computer or laptop. You’ll need a digital audio interface or XLR-equipped portable recorder to connect to your device.)
Don’t underestimate the importance of headphones—you need them to monitor your sound. Headphones, especially noise-canceling headphones, allow you to hear what you’re recording as you’re recording and help you make critical adjustments on the fly. You want to know if you or your guest sound muffled or distant, if you’re picking up background noise, or if anybody’s equipment isn’t working—and you want to know while you can still do something about it, not in post-production when it might be too late.
If you’re interviewing a guest, get them to also wear headphones to prevent feedback.
- Consider placing a pop filter—sometimes called a pop shield or pop screen—in front of your mic, which helps reduce or eliminate hard plosive sounds, like ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds, which are accentuated when you speak into a mic.
- Depending on your space, you might also want a reflection filter that fits around your microphone to cut out echo.
- When recording audio outside, you want to prevent the wind from cutting your audio. Even a gentle breeze can render an otherwise perfect recording unusable. Use a windscreen, sometimes called a wind muff, or “dead cat,” which are synthetic fur covers you can slip onto your mic to block the wind.
In the end, don’t let wires, buttons, and filters get in your way. Your setup should balance audio quality with comfort and manageability. While recording a podcast, you want your focus to be on your conversation, not your gear.
How to record a decent-sounding podcast remotely
The techniques that follow can help you replicate the advantages of recording in a studio. Here are a few ways to improve your audio recordings, wherever you are:
- Eliminate distractions. Your surroundings impact the feel of your recording. Find a quiet space away from distractions, potential interruptions, and background noise.
- Close windows and turn off electronics. Your mic picks up more than you might think. Keep your windows closed to block outside noise. Turn off or relocate nearby electronics, including loud appliances and your computer, if possible. If you need your computer during an interview, restart it first to lessen the chance of fan noise.
- Reduce echoes. Keep in mind that the sound of your voice bounces off of hard surfaces like windows and tiles, causing echo—which you want to avoid. Try recording in a room with carpet, ideally one with soft furniture and curtains, all of which can absorb and dampen echoes.
- Cover up hard surfaces. If none of your rooms match the one described above, you can lay blankets or towels over nearby hard surfaces, including your desk. If you have curtains, close them.
- Use blankets or pillows. If you’re still struggling to find or create a quiet space, hide under your covers, pillows, cushions, or a coat. This might seem strange, but it works. NPR’s Don Gonyea told Current he’ll often use “nine or 10 pillows and just build a little three-sided pillow fort.”
- Point your mic away from the noise. Mics—even those with cardioid patterns—pick up sounds in the direction they’re pointing. Point yours away from the noise, and away from solid surfaces, especially windows.
- Record in a closet. Soft surfaces, like clothing, absorb sound, which is why many podcasters, journalists, and other professionals record their shows in their closets. If you’ve got one that fits you and your equipment, use it, like This American Life host Ira Glass uses his (none of this explains why he’s wearing a suit in his closet).
- Record in a car. Surprisingly, cars can make great isolated recording booths, especially if you’re parked in a quiet spot. Try it—but for obvious reasons, don’t record while driving.
- Record a few seconds of silence before speaking. Wherever your setup is, your recording environment has a certain audio quality when no one is making noise. Some call this the sound of silence; professionals call it room tone. Capture a few consistent quiet seconds of your environment before or after recording your voice. Room tone can be useful for reducing noise and cleaning up your recording in post-production. By creating a bit of free space, it can also be useful for making creative edits to your audio sequence, like creating pauses.
What if I’m recording with a guest?
With remote interviews, there’s also your guest’s recording to think about. While your listeners may forgive their audio quality to some extent—and while Studio Sound can help enhance it—you should offer your guest some guidance.
For the highest quality audio try double-ender recording, where the guest or co-host records each end of the conversation locally. Your guest sends you a file containing their side of the recording, which you then stitch together with yours in post-production. This preserves each side’s quality. Recording locally, rather than over video call software like Skype or Zoom, prevents audio compression and internet connection issues from messing up your interview.
Double-enders require a bit of work. Try to match both ends’ setups as much as possible; use similar gear and record in similar environments, lessening the difference in audio quality. Try some of the above-described recording techniques, and make sure your guest is wearing headphones to cut down echoes and interference. If your guest doesn’t have a proper recording setup, get them to record themselves using their phone’s voice memo app.
What if I want to record outside?
Natural sound, or nat sound—e.g. birds chirping, leaves rustling, waves crashing, or cars passing—can help you set the scene and add depth to your storytelling. Use it, but don’t abuse it: Natural sound can quickly become annoying or overbearing. You still need to be heard above the ambient noise. If your natural sound is too intense, consider recording it separately and adding it to your mix in post-production—or use Studio Sound to control the intensity.
How to remove background noise in post-production
Once you have the recordings, the next step is to edit your podcast. This includes stitching together your interview, cleaning up your recording, and cutting out filler words (like ums, uhs, likes, you knows, and repeated words), adding an intro and outro, and layering in natural sound and music.
Quick note that there are many software options available for audio and video editing, and Descript is definitely the best. Yes, they pay us to say that, but it’s also true. It’s the only editing software that lets you edit your audio or video by editing text, and it’s loaded with magical AI features like automatic filler word removal, voice-cloning—and Studio Sound.
Descript’s Studio Sound feature uses artificial intelligence to enhance speakers’ voices while reducing and removing background noise, room echo, and other sounds you don’t want. The technology could revolutionize podcasts and other audio storytelling by reducing the need to seek the perfect environment.
“There’s no replacement for a great recording setup,” says Prem Seetharaman, an AI researcher who leads Studio Sound engineering, “but that gap is going to close pretty rapidly.” Prem helped train the Studio Sound machine learning model, which takes incoming audio, extracts its desired aspects—like what’s being said and who’s saying it—then re-generates the audio as if it was produced in a clean recording condition, i.e. a studio. It only takes a couple of clicks in Descript.
To test—and ultimately prove—Studio Sound’s capabilities, Prem did a test: he recorded himself talking on his phone in multiple locations around his house. He read from a script in a closet, next to an air purifier, and downstairs in the kitchen where his wife’s grandmother was cooking. He then went outside, where he could hear one of Sacramento’s many leaf blowers down the street.
“It all sounds like I was in a recording studio, without any of that stuff happening,” he says. “Machine learning is at a point where you can really do magic.”
Then, all that’s left is to publish your podcast.