Music Production vs. Podcast Production
How Music Production Differs from Podcast Production
11.25.19 | Podcast Hosting | By: Mandy Pennington
While recorded music has been around for over a century, it is only in the last decade that podcasting has become a phenoma, quickly making its mark on the media industry. Many audio engineers today are trained in music production, recording, and mixing, but are scrambling to translate those talents into the world of podcasting, where work is abundant and the demand is growing exponentially. So what are the similarities between producing music and producing podcasts?
What Knowledge Translates from Music Production to Podcast Production?
First, let’s make a universal statement – the goal of musicians and podcasters is one and the same: to create content for consumption. Musicians and podcasters have something to say – a message they want to share or a feeling they want to express. How do you get your content out there for people to consume? The number one rule of thumb is to create a quality product. Sadly, there are many great pieces of art in the form of music and podcasts that were poorly recorded, edited, or produced, and that will therefore never be appreciated to their fullest potential.
Poor audio quality stops the listener in their tracks and keeps them from enjoying the content, no matter how impactful. You may have heard that you have up to thirty seconds to make a first impression on someone – well, the same is true of your podcast or your song. Think about your own listening habits – I bet most of the music you choose to listen to is pleasing to the ear, and most likely not made by a teenager with an SM57 in his bedroom. (Don’t get me wrong – there are some brilliant musicians who started out that way.)
Consumers are impatient and have low attention spans, so you want to make your podcast as easy and enjoyable for your listener as possible. The good news is that it’s easier to make a professional-sounding podcast at home than it is to make a professional-sounding record. So how do you go about this? Let’s take a look at the biggest differences between music production and podcast production.
Differences Between Music Production and Podcast Production
1. The Vocal Stands Alone
The biggest difference between mixing music and mixing podcasts is pretty obvious: a podcast’s vocal has to stand alone. There are no instruments to forgive mistakes such as room noise, artifacts, or thin EQ. Now, the fact that a podcast has only a few moving pieces makes the mixing process much easier: instead of fumbling around in your recording software trying to level out 50+ instrumental tracks, you probably will only have to deal with a few vocal tracks and a music track. Of course, depending on the genre of your podcast, it could get more complicated, but for most interview-style and non-fiction storytelling shows, you will generally only have a few tracks.
The con of fewer moving pieces, however, is that each of those pieces must be pristine quality, as they all stand on their own. Bad edits, audio quality, background noises, and room noise are immediately noticeable.
2. Vocal EQ
The way engineers approach mixing vocals for podcasts is different from a musical approach. Vocals in music must be bright, clear, and are usually pretty thin so as to be in a different frequency range than the instruments. This helps a vocal stand out from the rest of the music and cut through more cleanly, but when soloed, it sounds thin and unnatural. When learning how to mix vocals for a podcast, err on the side of a richer, meatier sound. Since podcast vocals stand alone, we want them to sound as natural as possible, whereas music producers often create rather unnatural-sounding vocals that complement their musical counterparts, but would be shrill and unpleasant when alone. A good rule of thumb is to set a high-pass filter around 80-100 Hz to remove plosives and any low humming in the room, but to still leave space for the natural tones of the voice.
Another technique in music is to place each voice and instrument in its own frequency range. However, when EQing vocals for a podcast, you want each voice to be EQed as similarly as possible so that all of the speakers sound like they are in the same room (even if they weren’t). Depending on the mic you use, your EQ may look different.
When applying boosts and cuts, use reference tracks of podcasts you think sound good. Consistently compare different sections of your podcast with one of your favorite podcasts, and try to adjust the EQ accordingly. Trust your ears! They are usually more correct than an EQ formula.
3. Dynamic Levels
The third difference between podcast mixing and music mixing is dynamic range. While listeners of music typically want to be enveloped in the sound and don’t mind a swell in the bridge or a louder final chorus, a podcast listener doesn’t want to be shocked by a sudden peak in the background music or a sudden yell from the host.
4. Compression Techniques
A good way to control dynamic levels in your podcast is compression. Generally, podcast vocal compression should be less aggressive than that it might be in a musical recording, because a listener can more clearly hear the attack and release than they might be able to when a vocal is supported by instruments. While compression in music is often used aggressively, when mixing a podcast it is often a better practice to start with a gentle compressor than only activates in the loudest parts of the episode. Then write automation or adjust clip gain by looking at the sound waves.
When setting a compressor, don’t use fast attack or release times, and keep the ratios low (below 4:1). Lower the threshold of the compressor until it only jumps into action on the loudest parts of the episode. Then, raise the volume of the entire track.
You generally want a podcast that sits at an RMS level around -12 to -18 dB. Resonate Recordings produces final products that sit around -16 dB. If you want a simple test, compare your volume to a podcast that you enjoy listening to.
Of course, there are many similarities between podcast production and music production as well. They use similar recording equipment, DAWs, and mixing techniques, and much of the baseline knowledge is the same. Here are a few specific similarities to think about.
Similarities Between Music Production & Podcast Production
1. Telling a Story
A big similarity to note is that music and podcasts both tell a story. A good producer knows how to implement elements that move the story forward and complement its purpose. For example, a perfect musical intro track can set up the theme of your podcast, just as an epic guitar solo can lead into the dynamically richest chorus. Just as songs often have a clear structure (the typical pop song is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus), so should your podcast. Lead your listener through your episode, whether it is an interview, a motivational talk, or a storytelling podcast. One way to effectively do this is to have an outline, a list of questions, or even a full script prepared beforehand. Knowing what to expect and what is coming next helps the listener stay engaged in the story you’re telling.
Podcasts may not have a literal rhythm like a rock ‘n’ roll song might, but pacing and tempo are still very important. Be aware of not talking too quickly or too slowly; cut out any long pauses that keep the listeners waiting, and be careful in the editing process to not push clips too tightly together. Be prepared to insert a second or two of room noise when necessary to keep the flow of the podcast in tact.
3. The Importance of Sound Quality
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the post, now that so much music and so many podcasts are available, most listeners will choose the ones that are higher quality. There are so many to choose from, why not? We want to make sure your podcast is the best-sounding podcast it can be. We’ll go into how to ensure this high quality a little later.
4. A Second Chance at a Perfect Take
When recording a song, the vocalist often gets as many takes as he or she needs. A good engineer can even pop two words into the middle of a line, and a common practice in vocal recording is comping: combining multiple takes to make the best possible final product.
Back when I was a studio vocalist, you wouldn’t imagine how precisely comped my tracks were! We would use five or six takes to compile the most perfect vocal possible. Now, while it might sound rather unnatural to insert certain words into a podcast recording (because, again, there is no instrumental bed to cover your tracks), there IS a way to get a more perfect take: you can always stop and restart.
The best sounding podcasts that we edit here at Resonate are the ones in which the speaker calmly stops and restates the sentenced they messed up. It seems that podcasters often feel they have to just stumble their way through difficult sentences, which more often than not cannot be repaired in the editing stage. You will save yourself a lot of time and energy by just stopping and restarting a messy sentence. It’s actually incredibly easy to piece together, and will help you sound even more well-spoken in the finished product.
So now that we’ve taken a look at the differences and similarities between music production and podcast production, how can you apply this knowledge?
How to Make Your Podcast Audio Stand Out
1. Setting Up Your Studio
A point I really want to drive home here: You will save yourself so much time and frustration if you make your podcast sound good BEFORE you get to the editing and mixing stage. It’s the same with music; if your initial instrument recordings don’t sound good, it’s gonna be a whole lot harder to make them sound good in the mixing stage. It’s a lot easier to get it right the first time, and you’ll save yourself a lot of work!
A big part of doing this is having a good-sounding room for recording your podcast. You can implement noise reduction in post-production, but it can be difficult and will never be exact. Environment is very important. Most vocal booths in recording studios are small, dry, and covered in padding; a podcast studio should be even more so carefully cured. Hard surfaces reflect sound and cause it to bounce around the room; the bigger the room is, the farther it has to bounce. An ideal room is a small one with carpeted floors. If you’re the only speaker, a closet works best, but that obviously isn’t the best setting for interviews. A cheap way to reduce echo in a room is by hanging up thick curtains or sheets on the walls to absorb the sound. Moving blankets work well, and you can purchase acoustic foam pretty cheaply. These materials tend to reduce the echoes in the room while still maintaining a live, natural feel. You don’t want your room to sound too dead, but too much echo makes it difficult to edit anything out of the podcast, such as ums, ahs, or stutters.
Some podcasts choose to record in a unique setting. This works well when the setting is part of the podcast’s concept, such as a restaurant setting for a food podcast, but isn’t always the most enjoyable to listen to. Imagine hearing loud chewing in your earbuds and struggling to understand the content because there is so much chatter in the background. Think carefully about how your setting is going to sound on a recording before going all in.
2. Microphone Placement
A safe distance to place your microphone is about six inches from you, depending on the size of the room. It is best to place a microphone off-axis, which means about 45 degrees to the side of you. An on-axis microphone would be directly in front of you. Placing a mic off-axis prevents plosives, sharp “s” sounds, and other mouth sounds from being recorded. When placed correctly, an off-axis mic will still pick up the richness and quality of the voice.
Another tool to reduce pops and plosives is a pop filter. It can also help dictate the space between you and the mic. When using a pop filter, you can more safely place the microphone on-axis, and a larger pop filter can keep you from moving closer to or farther from the mic; place the pop filter six inches from the mic and then just keep your mouth right on it! Standing can also help with a quality-sounding vocal, because it provides you better air support and often helps you sound stronger and more confident. It can also remove any reflections that could be bouncing off of the table or desk you might be sitting at. If you are standing and use a music stand to hold your script, make sure you use a cloth, foam, or piece of carpet on the stand to limit the reflection from the metal.
Positioning microphones for multiple speakers can be difficult. On the one hand, having the speakers far apart helps the mics only pick up their main speaker, which makes it easier to edit later. However, if the podcast is conversational, it may sound less natural and be less fun to record if you’re ten feet away from each other. Find a balance between the two, and try to keep the microphones at an equal distance from each speaker so that they sound equally present.
On the other hand, if you have quite a few speakers in the room, especially if they’re all of the same gender, you may want to position their mics each a little differently so that they sound distinct on the recording. If you’re listening to a podcast where six men are speaking, it can often be difficult to discern who is talking. Having mics at varying distances can help create different tones in each voice. You can also pan each voice slightly to the left or right if this is a big problem.
3. Input Level
Before you start recording, you should always check your input level. It is difficult to fix clipping and distortion in post-production, so you want your input level to be healthy: not too quiet, not too loud. Just as an engineer has the vocalist sing the loudest part of the song when testing a microphone, always have yourself and your guest speak as loudly as you would on the show and see if it clips. However, if your input level is too low, when you turn up the recording in the final product, the room noise will also be louder. A safe input level is -18 to -12 dB.
4. Noise Reduction
If you set up your studio as suggested above and there is still room noise, or if you don’t have access to a small, dry room, there are some techniques you can try to reduce the room noise. Room noise is a big deal – as I’ve mentioned a few times, podcasts are empty and listeners will hear every little thing in the vocal track. First, try EQing your track and see if you can lower the room noise with that alone.
If it’s still present, you can use a gate to dip out the sound whenever the speaker isn’t talking. However, be sure to use non-aggressive setting on gates, as they can sound unnatural. Gates are more commonly used when editing vocals in music, because you can’t usually hear them working as clearly as you can in podcasts.
If you can afford it, iZotope RX7 is a leader in the field of noise reduction, and, when used carefully, can clean up your podcast quite nicely.
Other noises you want to look out for are lip smacks, ums, ahs, weird breaths (especially through the nose), etc. These are typically pretty easy to cut out if they are separate from a sentence, but remember to paste room sound over the empty space and place a crossfade on both ends to make your cut sound seamless. If you use a declicking software (such as Todd AO-Absentia-DX, Acon Digital DeClick, or iZotope RX7) to take out mouth noises while someone is speaking, be sure to make it very gentle and non-aggressive, and only use it if absolutely necessary, as it can cause your recording to sound overly affected.
5. Do It Right On the Front End
My number one advice for podcasters is to be prepared! Adjust your microphones before your guest gets there. Do a test recording and then listen back before you do the actual episode to make sure it meets your expectations. There is nothing worse than finishing a great episode just to realize it was clipping the whole time!
Another tip is to leave your recording room or microphones set up so that each episode will sound the same, and it’ll save you time when preparing for a recording session.
6. Work From an Outline
Lastly, work from an outline, even if it’s a simple one. You want your podcast to be as easy to follow as possible. Your listener should always be able to understand which speaker is talking, and there should be a clear structure to the conversation – even if this requires some voiceovers throughout the episode to guide your listener through.
Whether you’re a music producer who wants to get into podcasting, a podcaster who wants to get into music production, or a new engineer who wants to learn the differences between the two, I hope this post was helpful to you. Remember, let your audio quality aid in telling the story you want to tell, and create a product that keeps the listener coming back for more.
If you’re looking to outsource the editing, mixing, and mastering of your podcast, or want to learn more about what Resonate can do for you, schedule a call with our team. We would love to hear more about your podcast and see how we can help take your podcast to the next level!
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By: Mandy Pennington
Mandy is a graduate of Greenville University, where she received degrees in Commercial Music, Audio Engineering, and English. Mandy continues to hone her passion of audio engineering through podcasting editing work and music production, while also working in church music part-time. A Louisville native, she describes herself as a Harry Potter nerd and a Taylor Swift enthusiast.