Podcast editing basics: How to boost your audio experience

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You planned your podcast, brainstormed topics, did your research, maybe you went out and conducted some interviews, or perhaps just recorded with your cohost. Now what? It’s time to edit. We can’t overstate the importance of editing. The post-production process is what transforms your recorded podcast into a finished product that dazzles listeners and makes your podcast seem credible out the gate. It’s the difference between, say, an untouched hunk of rock and a beautiful, refined sculpture.

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What goes into editing a podcast?

Putting a podcast on the digital airwaves takes more than just recording it, trimming it a bit, and shipping it off — it involves a lot of work to carefully craft an aural narrative and make sure that it all sounds amazing for your listeners. Even though there are many easy-to-use audio editing applications out there, it’s still important to learn the basics of podcast post-production. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect to tackle when editing a podcast.

  • Audio editing. This is the process of refining what you’ve recorded by looking for mistakes and polishing the overall audio experience. As you edit, you’ll remove anything you don’t want or that isn’t necessary (like that tangent you and your guest went on about marine mammal husbandry). By cutting, trimming, and moving bits around, you’ll also build your story into a more cohesive whole.
  • Sound design. Music and sound effects are both part of your sound design, and interweaving them into your podcast adds layers of emotional heft (or at least gives listeners a break from hearing you yacking away). Think carefully about what kind of image you want your podcast to project and tailor your sound design appropriately. Listen to some of your favorite podcasts and make note of when they use music as a background note or bring it into the foreground, and how they use effects. This will help you understand how to effectively use sound design to your advantage.  
  • Mixing and mastering. When dealing with multiple tracks of audio from different sources (like when you’ve done a podcast interview), you need to ensure each component comes in at the same level. Doing so prevents listeners from having to constantly fiddle with the volume and improves the overall audio quality of your podcast. There’s a lot that goes into this, from using compression to adjust volume levels and using an equalizer (EQ) to tweak certain frequencies, so we made a guide to mixing sound here.

Podcast editing basics

We sat down with Descript’s Managing Editor Ashley Hamer to talk about editing, who says first and foremost, that you should never be afraid to edit. “It’s your show,” she says. “The podcasts that are well-edited are the ones that you don’t notice are well-edited. If you notice the editing, that’s a sign it’s not well done.” Take the following steps to clean up your podcast.

  • Remove background noise. Not everyone has a professional studio to record in, and there are probably a lot of noises in your environment that you’ve become become accustomed to — computer fans, the gurgle of a fish tank, or that neighbor with a leaf blower. These might not bother you in your day-to-day, but if they pop up in your podcast recording, they’ll certainly distract your listeners. The good news is editing tools provide filters that can remove or lessen background noises. Even if you recorded your podcast from the back of your cohost’s van on your AirPods, you can use Descript’s Studio Sound feature to make it sound like you were recording in a pristinely soundproofed studio.
  • Get rid of (some) filler words. While you want your podcast to sound natural, you don’t want your listeners to struggle to find the point amid false starts, pauses, and filler words like “um” and “uh”. When deciding how much filler to cut, Ashley says a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Are they distracting? If someone is repeating the same word over and over and over as kind of a vocal tic, or because they’re nervous, that’s something you can take out.” Removing these extraneous utterances will tighten up your audio, making the speaker sound more concise, confident, and intelligent. But you don’t need to remove every filler word. If a pause or a “like” makes the conversation sound more natural, keep it. As Ashley notes, “We use a lot of these words to help ourselves communicate; they’re not just filler. You have to use your best judgment, but if you think the words are a natural part of the conversational flow, then keep them in.”
  • Delete unwanted material. Podcast editing is ultimately about finding your story and removing what doesn’t serve the story. Still, Ashley recognizes that cutting out material is hard for some people. “That’s a big thing for beginners — especially if they have a guest that they hold in high esteem. They don’t want to take out their words. But again, it’s your show. You should be able to create the story you’re looking for and make it interesting to the audience, which you know best.” Listen first and, once you get a sense of the story, you’ll know what parts feel superfluous. Remove those. As Ashley notes, it’s definitely possible to go overboard in editing. But you also don’t want to deliver “the raw file where you’re awkwardly meeting the guest and talking about how you scheduled the interview. Nobody needs that.”
  • Clean up volume levels. When combining tracks from multiple sources such as multiple sides of a conversation or parts of an ongoing interview that were recorded separately, you’ll find the volume levels of each track tend to vary. This can be hard on your listeners, who will have to frequently reach for the volume, either so they don’t miss things that are too soft or so they don’t blow their eardrums out from parts that suddenly get too loud. You should adjust each track’s level to create a more even listening experience. This is also where you'll want to use compression, which will raise and lower different levels within the same track to produce a generally even volume level.
  • Add sound effects and music. You might already have a tone in mind for your podcast — be it smooth and intimate, funny and raucous, or informative and journalistic. Your use of sound effects and music will help enhance that tone, keep listeners engaged, and even create a mood that evokes a feeling in the listener. Imparting information is an important part of podcasting, but if you can make your audience feel something, their listening experience becomes more personal. A travel podcast could feature sounds of a bustling market or the “whoosh” of a plane taking off. A cooking podcast could have some knife chopping or sizzling sounds to bring the experience to life. Be creative, but remember to stick to what’s appropriate.
  • Create intros and outros. Every good story has a beginning and an end, and your podcast should too. That's why you'll want a recognizable intro and outro to let your audience know what they're listening to and when it's over. Your intro doesn't need to be complicated — it can be as straightforward as Michael Barbaro’s: “I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.").
  • Listen (and then re-listen) to your material. According to Ashley, listening is an often overlooked step in the editing process and it’s the only sure way to catch mistakes. It may seem like a lot of work — and you might think you know what’s in your material since you’re the one who recorded it — but there’s no substitute for experiencing it as your audience will. “Listen to your podcast once before you touch anything, and then again after you think you’re done editing,” recommends Ashley. In taking the time to listen for the pieces that grab you and seeing how they’ve come together after the edit, you’ll be rewarded with a quality podcast.

Choosing the right podcast editing software

When evaluating the right podcast editing software for you, it’s important to consider your current comfort level with audio editing tools and how much power you really need. For example, if you’ve never even trimmed an MP3 file, you might want to start simple. But keep in mind that no matter how much you do or don’t invest in editing software, you’ll be able to give your podcast a thorough edit. Here’s what to look for in a podcast editor:

  • A robust editing interface. Look for a visual, timeline-based editor that lets you edit multiple tracks, cut and paste clips, adjust audio levels, and easily apply filters and EQ to individual tracks. At some point, you’ll also probably want to do things like cut silences, remove filler words, move sections around, and drop in re-recorded audio or pre-recorded clips. If your editor makes these things difficult, your editing process will take longer.
  • The ability to use transcripts. “When editing an interview, one thing I’ll always do as I listen is write down timestamps of when things happen. If that’s already laid out in front of you, that gets one big step out of the way,” says Ashley. Descript is an audio and video editor built entirely around transcripts, something none of the other commonly used podcast editing tools have. However, Ashley notes, “one pitfall of editing from a transcript is that you may not know how it’s going to sound. If you edit something as if it should be a complete sentence, you need to give it a listen — maybe the speaker cut off a word, or maybe it makes more sense for that sentence to start with ‘So…’ or another filler word, because that’s how they spoke it.”
  • Advanced filtering and mixing. Your recordings aren’t always going to be perfect, but with the right software, they don’t need to be. Make sure the editor has a noise reduction tool and even a room tone generator — a tool that can isolate and reproduce a standard tone for background noise in a speaker’s room across a track. That way, sections that have been clipped won’t stand out if the background noise varies. You also want compression and EQ, so you can make sure the volume is at a consistent level across each episode.
  • Something that fits your skill level and doesn’t break the bank. There are many advanced audio applications that have all the bells and whistles needed for editing, mixing, and mastering that you’d find in a digital audio workstation in a professional studio. Many of these higher-end features — such as the ability to accommodate hundreds of tracks or record sound retroactively — are nice to have, but not worth the cost for podcast editing. You don’t want to become bogged down in an interface festooned with options you’ll never use. Keep it simple and keep it right for you.

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