Listen up: How to start thinking like an audio engineer

To upgrade your sound, learn to listen

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When you’re learning to cook, you should probably just find recipes for the stuff you want to make, and do exactly what they say.

But eventually, after you’ve eaten enough of your own cooking, you can start to take the recipes less literally. You’ve come to understand how various ingredients will affect the way a dish tastes. So you double the garlic, or you replace the balsamic with red wine vinegar. You’ve learned to trust your intuition.

Yes, this is an analogy. With a new tool like Descript, you can create a podcast, a video, a bunch of social-media videos by essentially following a recipe.  

Record your show, then make a rough cut by editing in the transcript. Use Studio Sound to get rid of the background noise. Then add EQ and compression to clean up your sound. You don’t have to know what EQ is, or what compression does – you may not even be able to hear the difference after you apply them.

You should use them anyway. Don't worry about how they work, or why. Just follow the recipe and focus on making your content as good as it can be. The sound won’t interfere with the story you’re telling or the message you’re trying to deliver, and that will be good enough.

Eventually though, good enough won’t be. Or at least it shouldn’t be. You’ll hear the difference between your show and the shows you hear from Pushkin Industries, PRX, NPR, and so on.

A lot of that is because they record on top-of-the-line mics, in well-outfitted studios. You should aspire to optimize your recording setup too, and in fact most audio engineers will tell you to start there if you ask them how to make your stuff sound better.

But you should aspire to upgrade your sound in post-production, too. And just like you can learn to tweak a recipe to make food taste better, you can learn how to use audio effects to make your content sound better. You just have to develop your intuition.

Mostly, the way to do that is through trial and error. But we can help you start nurturing your intuition, with a little insight on how sound works. Audio engineers understand how the human ear organizes sound; their job is to exploit that so that listeners hear clear voices, hitting the right beats with the right inflections.

Record or import audio, make edits, add fades, music, and sound effects, then publish online, export the audio in the format of your choice or send it directly to your hosting service.
Create your podcast from start to finish with Descript.

Learn to listen

Listening is the most valuable skill an audio engineer brings to the table – and the one you want to start nurturing if you want to work toward a superior sound. You want to listen carefully (with headphones, of course) to your own stuff, and to shows produced by folks at the top of the game.

Listen to how clear the voices on those productions come through. Some of that is because they’re using top-of-the-line recording equipment in well-outfitted studios. But even when their hosts and guests are in the field, you’ll notice how easily your ear picks up the speaker’s voice – and how natural the voices sound.  

“Does it sound like I’m in the same room with whoever’s talking?” is the question sound designer Tina Tobey Mack asks herself when she’s mixing for the radio or a podcast — like the HBR podcast Women at Work, which she’s working on now.

Ian Coss, a PRX producer and, most recently, the creator of the Forever Is A Long Time podcast, thinks about each speaker’s proximity as he listens. The host should generally be the closest – inside-your-head close. That means they should sound the cleanest and clearest, with no ambient sound or noise clutter. Others, like guests on an interview show, are likely remote, on Zoom or a phone, possibly in the field, and the listener knows that. So Ian lets their sound breathe a little more, to give it a more ambient feel.  

Start tinkering

How they go about making it sound like speakers are in the room, or your head, is the hard part, of course (though much easier if you had a good recording setup). But the tools are fairly straightforward – if you start using them, you’ll start to see improvements pretty quickly.

Both Tina and Ian start by applying a noise-reduction tool, like Studio Sound. Then they reach for the EQ. It’s the single most important tool an audio engineer has.

EQ allows you to manipulate frequencies by cutting the ones you don’t want or boosting the ones you do. When you’re trying to make voices sound more natural, cleaning up the lower frequencies – by using EQ to eliminate everything below a certain level – is often the first step.

That’s because our brains mainly process speech on the lower end of the frequency spectrum; so when you have low room tone, or a boomy echo, it can muddle the voice. EQ can help fix that by cutting the lower frequencies.

Applying compression also limits the frequencies on recorded audio, on both the high and low ends. It’s a good way to instantly make voices feel richer, closer – just be sure you’re not using it on something you recorded in Zoom, which might already be compressed.

Both of these tools have their limits. Tina cautions against overusing either. “Too much EQ and the voice could become tinny, or too flat,” she says. “And you want to avoid too much compression so your audio doesn't whoosh as the compression kicks in and out.”

For example, she often starts mixing by boosting the lower frequencies in a voice – that makes it sound, as she says, “warmer,” with a fuller vocal range. But too much boost and voices become unintelligible, or they just start to “sound funny.”

To get it right she just adjusts the parametric EQ – a manual tool that lets you calibrate frequencies precisely at every moment in the timeline – until it sounds right to her. It’s meticulous, time-consuming work, and you have to know what sounds right means. But it can also be the difference between sounds fine and sounds great.

If you’re using Descript, you’ve got a bunch of EQ presets you can play with; just toggle them on and off and see what sounds better. Try applying a High Pass Filter – it cuts off the lowest frequencies, which makes voices sound less rumbly and cleans up that lower end.

You can do all of this in a few clicks, if you’re not already. If you are great. Next, try reading up on both tools – there are a million tutorials on EQ and compression out there – and start tinkering.

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