On both the blog and the podcast, I’ve always taken the stance of making things as good as I can and then putting them out in the world without any apologies. Nothing drives me crazy more than listening to a podcast and hearing the host immediately start apologizing.
I resolved never to do this. I would make the best product I could and then just present it without and excuses or “aw shucks” commentary.
Today, I’m letting loose. This is all the stuff that I have struggled with behind the scenes over the years. All the times I slapped my head in frustration at my missteps. My biggest podcasting screw-ups.
As I was getting ready to launch in 2006, I spent a lot of time researching what podcasters were using for their shows. Here’s what I started out with:
- iRiver IFP-890 ($30)
- two Sony ECM microphones ($100 each – leftovers from my MiniDisc days)
- Griffin iMic 1/8” jack to USB interface ($30)
- Headphone splitter (for plugging two mics into the iRiver)
- Acer Laptop
- Levelator (free – for normalizing volume and cleaning up levels)
- Audacity (free – for editing audio and mixing episodes together)
- iTunes (for converting from WAV to MP3 and adding ID3 tags)
- Skype (for recording interviews)
My Early Workflow
For my own dialogue, I would plug one of the Sony microphones into the iRiver and record as a WAV file, then plug in the iRiver to my laptop and transfer the files over.
I would then use Levelator to balance everything out. This software uses an algorithm to basically make all the voices on a podcast sound the same volume. It works on solo dialogue as well, and I got in the habit of using it on most audio. I would then import my dialogue into Audacity, where I would mix it with my intro and outro music.
One downside to using Levelator is it will bring out any background noise in a recording as well. This became a big problem for me early on. More on that later.
For live recordings, I would plug both of my Sony mics into the iRiver using a headphone splitter. Had I known better, I should have held one of the mics and had my guest do the same, or at the very least put them on a table directly in front of them. Big mistake on my part. In addition to capturing their voice (kind of faintly), I got a lot of room noise and ambience. In order to make the interview audible, I ran it through Levelator and/or boosted the overall volume post-production. This made the background noise pretty obnoxious.
A couple of my recordings were so rough in terms of noise that I finally ended up buying a plugin called SoundSoap. It’s a great plugin and I still use it to this day, but at a certain point you just can’t clean up bad audio. Apply too much of this plugin and everyone on the podcast sounds like they’re trapped in metal boxes on Mars.
Lesson Learned: Either use lavalier microphones (which I now have) or put a pop filter/windscreen on two mins and get them really close to you and your guest.
Recording with Skype
If my live interviews had problems with sound quality, my Skype interviews were drastically worse. I had read about the importance of recording externally and not relying on a piece of software on the computer alone. If the computer crashes and you’re recording on it, you may lose everything, Recording to an external device gives you a backup. If you’re interested in learning more about this, here’s a well-written article by Colin Gray on the topic.
Honestly, I can’t remember what the heck I did in terms of the external setup and how I ultimately ended up getting an external recording. It involved the iRiver, iMic, headphone splitter, a bunch of 1/8” cables, and even an external volume control. I remember having to sit and stare at that heap of gear every time I recorded, trying to remember what connected to what.
However I did it, it did not produce great results. The biggest problem (and I don’t know how I didn’t notice this) was that my dialogue and my guest’s dialogue would slowly slip out of sync with each other, so I would start talking over them before they finished their thought.
It got worse the longer we recorded, so with my older Skype-recorded episodes, it sounds like I’m a lunatic. My guest will be speaking, and all of a sudden I start laughing maniacally. Then my guest says something funny, and there’s dead silence.
Here’s an example (fast-forward to 5:30 and listen for 30 seconds):
It was a great interview, but I sound like a crazy person!
I did my best to clean these sync issues up in post production, but at a certain point there’s just nothing you can do. I ended up giving up on my hardware setup and just recording on the laptop using some PC plugin software with Skype (can’t remember the name). There was the risk of losing an interview, but that never actually happened to me. I did royally mess up a couple of episodes, but more on that later!
Lesson Learned: Do a few test recordings before recording interviews and make sure you’ve got good levels. Also, check your audio after you’ve recorded to make sure that you aren’t doing something boneheaded.
More Background Noise Problems
Using condenser microphones to record podcast dialogue (which is what I was doing with those Sony mics) is generally a bad idea if you’re in a suboptimal audio environment. I was usually recording in my kitchen, which is a terrible space for recording with condenser mics. As a result, my audio was bouncing all over the place, adding a lot of background noise to everything I recorded.
Zoom H2 to the Rescue
These audio problems finally resolved themselves thanks to a Christmas gift from my wife: a Zoom H2. This versatile little device was the best thing that ever happened to me on the audio front. It was a much simpler and more appropriate piece of gear for what I was doing, and it got rid of a lot of the background noise issues with which I had been struggling.
Solving My Microphone Problems
Also, it allowed me to plug right into my computer and use the device as a USB mic. Gone were the days of recording all my dialogue in little awkward chunks and then transferring them to my laptop. This little guy let me record right into Audacity, which felt more natural and saved a ton of time.
This was also around the time that I bought my first MacBook. It was a major upgrade from my sputtering Acer laptop, and I ended up using GarageBand instead of Audacity after a few weeks of Mac ownership. I’m not actually sure that anything was easier in Garageband, actually. It’s prettier than Audacity, but I was so comfortable with the workflow in Audacity that I think the audio was actually a little worse for a while in GarageBand until I got my head wrapped around that interface.
Another Bad Decision
Right around this time, I started to get busy. Not that I wasn’t busy throughout this entire process, but I had taken an orchestra teaching job in the Chicago suburbs, and my free time dropped down to about 10% of what it was. I was still scheduling interviews when I could, but my mind wasn’t in the game like it had been in the past. As a result, I think that the few dozen podcasts before my “retirement” suffered in quality, mainly due to me not really giving enough brainpower to the whole endeavor.
Due to this new level of business, I looked for ways to cut corners in the podcasting recording process. I’m not sure what made me do this, but I started just calling someone on my iPhone, turning the speaker on, putting it up again one side of my Zoom H2, and recording like this. I would talk into the other side of the Zoom, and we’d do the interview like this.
It was easy, but the audio quality was… er, not good to say the least. I don’t know why I did that. I think that the podcast was melting down slowly at that point. In fact, you can pinpoint the exact date that I started teaching high school by looking at the decreasing frequency of my publishing.
Everything was humming along until September 2009 (the month I started teaching high school). Weekly podcasts became bi-weekly, then monthly, then when I felt like doing it, then… nothing.
Time Involved in Podcasting: An Honest Look
Doing a podcast right takes a substantial amount of time. I think the least amount of time I can spend on a standard interview podcast is 10 hours. This includes:
- researching the guest
- scheduling and conducting the interview
- editing the interview
- thinking about what I want to say in the intro and outro
- compiling listener feedback and news
- recording my own dialogue
- mixing in music
- mixing and mastering
- converting to MP3
- writing show notes
- creating an image
- uploading the podcast
- writing a blog post
- promoting the episode
Looking at that list, it’s probably closer to 15 hours per episode, maybe even 20 for a complicated one!
Doing solo show takes way less time, but it’s still a good 2-4 hours for a 20-30 minute solo show. Some steps just take the time they take. Going real bare-bones, I could probably get it down to an hour, but that would be just dumping the raw file online with nothing extra at all.
To Edit or Not to Edit?
This is a sticky subject, and I’ve changed my mind many times about editing over the years. I wish that I could put things out and not edit. I really do. It would be so much less time consuming. Though I also edit myself a bit as I’m editing my guest, I would be totally fine with putting myself out 100% unedited.
I edit for two big reasons:
- My Guest – Telling them that I do edit takes a lot of pressure for them to say everything perfectly. It creates more of a safe environment, and it allows us to talk about all sorts of things that might not end up in the episode. I know that a lot of podcasts don’t edit, but a lot of the people that I have on don’t do many interviews, and being able to tighten up their audio really can help.
- The Listeners – I know that the human brain filters out much of the circular speech patterns that we all have. But if I can cut out a good 5-8 minutes of “um” and “you know” words, plus long pauses and misstatements, I feel like I’m saving people that much time in their lives. Multiply those 5-8 minutes by the 20,000+ downloads that some of these episodes have had, and that’s a lot of time that I’m saving!
What to Look Out For When Editing
It’s easy to go too far when editing and make people sound like caffeinated robots. I’m always working to get a more natural pacing in my editing. For example, if I take someone with a slower pattern of speech and pull out all the pauses, their delivery sounds really strange.
I now use the editing as an opportunity to take notes on what we talked about, which helps both in writing my own dialogue and show notes but also helps me to catalog topics that we covered for my podcast series projects like Winning the Audition.
Interviews that I’ve Screwed Up
I’ve probably mildly screwed up a lot of interviews, but two major blunders come to mind. Here they are:
Nick Lloyd – I recently put out a podcast featuring bass luthier Nick Lloyd. What I didn’t mention was that I had actually interviewed Nick many years back and had totally lost the interview file after handing my work laptop back in. I had forgotten that it was on that laptop, and I hadn’t made a backup. This was in my “retirement” phase, and I was only doing interviews if someone approached me directly.
Charlie DeRamus – I had totally forgotten about this until I went back through and listened to everything I’d ever recorded in preparation for the Winning the Audition series, but I somehow lost all of my own dialogue for this interview, leaving my only with Charlie’s responses to my now finished questions. This probably happened since I was in my “retirement” phase and my podcasting tech chops had therefore slipped.
Check it out below–fast-forward to the 4:00 mark and let the weirdness (from me, not Charlie) begin:
My Vision as I Rebooted the Podcast
I resolved to get the podcast back up and running during the fall of 2015, but I wanted to make sure that if I was going to be back in, I would be all in and committed to weekly shows.
First of all, I scheduled an interview with Alex Hanna, the principal bassist of the Chicago symphony and someone I had wanted to interview for years. We recorded the interview at his place in October of 2015:
I decided to alternate new interviews with NPR-style rebroadcasts of classic favorites from the archives. This was, in reality, an every other week commitment to myself, with that off week being a rebroadcast. This seemed like an achievable schedule. The important thing for me was to create a schedule that I would be able to stick with.
It had been so long since I’d done a podcast, and I had moved four times in the interim and switched jobs three times as well, so even finding my gear was a challenge!
Getting my Podcast Mojo Back
I think that I recorded the Alex episode on my iPad with an external mic, and I recorded my introductory dialogue with my iPhone. A few episodes in, after struggling with a Blue Snowball (not recommended for your own dialogue, by the way), I finally bought an Audio Technica ATR-2100, which is a great microphone. It’s both USB and XLR, so you can plug it into your computer or a mixer.
I had lost my cute little Zoom H2 somewhere along the way. It’s probably sitting in the orchestra office at one of my former jobs.
Figuring Out a Release Schedule
Momentum started to build over those first new episodes, and my enthusiasm for the project was rekindled. I started to schedule more and more interviews, eventually switching to two podcasts a week just to get them all out to the world.
I had a moment’s hesitation moving to the two podcast a week model.
Would I run out of people to talk with?
Looking at my ever-growing list of prospective guests, I realized that I could do a podcast every day for the rest of my life and I would never even begin to run out of guests.
I may not keep the two podcast a week model up for the long term. On the other hand, maybe the show ends up being five days a week, with an all-music show one day, a rebroadcast another day, and a Q&A episode on yet another day. That’s the beautiful thing about podcasting: the model is very flexible and can morph over time.
What I’m Using These Days
After a few months being back in the podcasting saddle, I started to make some some new purchases. Here’s what I’m using these days in terms of tech:
My current hardware setup
My current software setup
- eCamm CallRecorder
- Ableton Live
The Zoom H6 is a beast. It has four XLR inputs plus an optional mic capsule, and it records up to six tracks at the same time. It’s also a great audio interface, and I use it plugged into my MacBook Pro with a Shure SM58 for my own dialogue
I got the idea of using two Shure SM58 mics and the Zoom for doing live interviews from Tim Ferriss. Nowadays, my guest and I each hold a mic, which eliminates the background noise problem and makes for a much cleaner final product. You can hear how crisp it is in this podcast with jazz bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst (jump ahead a few minutes to get into the conversation):
My Philosophy: Get the Interview
In an ideal world, I would interview each guest at my place in San Francisco, each of us with a mic in one hand and a tasty beverage in the other.
This happens maybe 5% of the time.
The rest of the time, I’m trying to get the best interview I can using the methods available to me.
Podcast Recording Methods Ranked
From best to worst, here are the methods of podcast recording:
- in person, each of us holding a microphone
- over Skype or FaceTime
- cell phone
My #1 priority is to get the interview. If my guest is computer-savvy and has Skype, we’ll use that. But I’d rather have my guest comfortable and talking with me rather than struggling to figure out how to make an unfamiliar piece of technology work. I’d rather have a great cell phone conversation than a confused Skype conversation.
If you enjoyed reading this, be sure to check out the first part of this series covering the lessons I’ve learned interviewing people. I also did a three-part series for ArtsHacker in early 2016 where I laid out my recommendations for hardware, software, and distribution in podcasting. It’s a much more organized “how-to” series on podcasting.
Are you thinking about starting a show? Do you have a show and struggle with some of the topics I covered here? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know—I’d love to hear from you!
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