So You Wanna Record And Release A (Cheap) Podcast
It happens to every millennial, you’re not alone. We all one day wake up with that itch, that feeling just under the skin and that voice like a resident demon in your head saying “You want to start a podcast”.
You promised you wouldn’t become one of them, that this wouldn’t happen; you break out into a sweat. You scream, but the microphone wasn’t armed and so you have to do another take. This will happen, it’s okay.
But you’re here now, you have a perfect idea for the next Welcome To Nightvale, or have flunked out of enough journalism ethics classes to research the next Serial. You’ve written a year’s worth of scripts in the spare minutes at work between entering time-sheets and looking busy. What comes next? Where do you go from here? Don’t fear. You are now simply a part of the great podcasting pilgrimage that all modern young adults must go on. Let’s start with the basics.
You may have heard of an ‘elevator pitch’ before, the concept that you’ve reduced an idea into something that can be lumped on someone unwillingly in a tight space as a self-promotional tool.
Well, not only are you now in the podcast-shaped business of unwilling lumping, but it’s important to know what you’re trying to say with your airtime.
Scripted or unscripted
The two big kinds of podcasts that you’ll see are scripted content — narratives, research, creative writing — and unscripted content — conversations, ramblings and panel discussions. How you structure your podcast will have a big role in its feel, and how you get across what you’re trying to say.
Podcasts like Woodland Secrets are simply conversations, often beginning and ending at the start and finish of the episode with greetings and farewells. There’s a very real sense that almost no planning goes into these, other than that they’re interesting people that the host, Merritt K, wants to talk to and takes an interest in.
Alternatively, podcasts like Questionable at Best and Just A Spoonful have a similar loose conversational structure, but are framed around a single topic or question. Many of these types of shows will have different sections of content, and maybe the ability for listeners to write in questions or stories.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have podcasts like 2015’s Limetown, and the wonderful Alice Isn’t Dead which use the medium to create a deep fictional world, complete with diegetic background sound and, in Limetown’s case, multiple characters. In the middle you have the brilliant The Worst Idea Of All Time that has a central structural premise, but quickly deviates into something entirely different.
In a different world again, there are scripted podcasts like Hardcore History or Her Ink Stained Hands, which look at a subject in detail and in which the hosts write and research about their topic at hand. In a similar vein, you have podcasts like My Favourite Murder and The Dollop, which comprise of half well-researched script, and half off-the-cuff riffing on the subject.
These are just a few styles, and there are many others that cover subjects investigative, journalistic, fictional, creative and otherwise. You probably have a good idea of your subject already, if you’re reading this, but considering how you’ll present it is key.
“In this podcast I talk about Lego” is nowhere near as clear (or interesting) as “In this podcast I talk about Lego with my buddy Jim, who also likes Lego”, or “In this podcast I talk about Lego, and research the history behind individual bricks and their creation and use”.
How long your podcast is will depend heavily on the structure. An hour of conversation between friends is far easier to produce than an hour of researched and cited written content. If sticking to your truth is important, shorter episodes aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
By general rule, most free-flowing discussion podcasts I’ve listened to keep their episodes between 45 minutes and 1 hour and 15 minutes, keeping longer episodes for special guests or subjects, but you’re a millennial, rewrite those damn rules if you need to.
How often are you going to record and upload episodes will be based on a few key factors, including:
- how long it takes you to write an episode
- how long it takes you to record and edit an episode
- how long it takes you to procrastinate uploading an episode
- how frustrated you become by this process
As we’re going to find out, making a podcast can take a bunch of work, and committing yourself to a tight schedule you don’t have time for can be more frustrating to your listeners than having a looser schedule.
I release my podcast every two weeks, and even then will occasionally miss a fortnight or take a break. You may even choose to not have a schedule, and just record and release episodes as you see fit. Focus on making your first episode first, and see what your capacity is in future based on that, keeping in mind that burn out is a real thing.
Take the time to really think about what you’re trying to say, and who you want to say it with. If you plan on having guests, start a list of them, and ask a whole bunch of them up front, maybe asking someone you know slightly better to take part in a first episode to see what it’s like. If you plan on writing content, get writing and rewriting.
The rest of this tutorial will cover what to do once your content is ready, but none of that will ever be able to make up for bad or uninteresting content. Don’t be discouraged by this, but use it as a starting point to make sure you’re ready to dive headfirst into the next steps with a body of work you’re proud to show off to the world and save yourself the regret later on.
You’ve made it! You’ve written a script or convinced a friend to sit for an episode with you — that’s honestly half the work done!
We are lucky to live in a world of fairly level playing fields when it comes to podcasting, in that you can create fairly high fidelity audio content using just a smart phone and regular personal computer.
If all you have is a phone, record on that! If you can borrow a friend’s USB mic, give that a go. If you want to throw a little cash into this, there are great roundups of microphones for speaking voices online, which I don’t have the time or the effort to go into here; google is your friend. I personally use a Zoom H4N and can vouch for it working very well.
It’s important to keep in mind that the tech involved should always be secondary to your content and your voice. Many of the earlier popular podcasts started with what people had on hand or could afford, and became popular due to what they were saying. A story worth telling or an interesting conversation will always win out with your audience.
- Have a glass of water and an apple on hand to eat. You want to speak naturally while minimising mouth sounds.
- Find a silent space. The less background noise in your recording, the easier it will be to clean up. Close your windows and put a towel underneath the door. I record my podcast episodes after 10pm on weeknights when my suburb is mostly quiet, and pause speaking whenever cars drive past or flatmates walk through the house.
- Place your microphone/phone/tin can and string at least 12 inches away from your face, preferably a bit further. Place a pop filter in front of it, or if you’re running on fumes, a pair of old 30 denier stockings over a coat hanger and place that in front of it.
- Sit up straight.
- Say what it is you’re recording, aloud. This allows you to quickly know which file is which later. Record 20–30 seconds of room tone (silence) at the start of your audio file, which we will use for noise reduction later.
- Record your content. Smile! You’re having so much fun!
While recording, if you make mistakes or some background noise crops up, don’t worry. Just take a deep breath, have a sip of water, and start the whole sentence again. We will be editing out these moments later, rather than stopping and starting the recording now.
It’s also good to at least initially try and keep your mouth the same distance away from the microphone throughout the recording. This will ensure the audio tone and volume remains the same throughout.
When solo podcasting and reading from a script, practise your content. Look up the pronunciations of words you are unsure about. Figure out how you want phrases emphasised and pauses left. If your content is speaking off the top of your head, practise reading other work aloud to get an idea of how you want to use your voice.
Podcasting with others
Having a conversation with another person isn’t that different to podcasting by yourself, you just need to have another microphone handy.
If your guest/s are in the same room as you, set everybody up with a microphone/recording device and make sure to remind your guests to remain the same general distance from their mic during recording. When you start recording, clap a few times so that you can sync up the tracks easily.
If your guests are remote, you can either record their income call on your computer, or ask them to record themselves on their own end with a microphone/phone and upload that audio file to send to you. Unplug your headphones for a moment and have the other person clap so you have a rough starting point to sync audio.
It’s okay if you have different audio streams on different files, we’ll combine them all later on.
Note: If someone has their device die or fill up, everyone else should stop recording too. Wait while the person fixes the problem, and when everyone is ready again, start a new track. This interval can be cut out later, but will make it easier to line up the sources in the edit.
If you’re able to see the levels of what you’re recording into, you’ll want to aim to have the volume of your voice in the sweet spot listed below.
You’ll also want to ensure that your recording doesn’t go above “0” on the meter, as this may result in the audio clipping, which is when there is no more amplitude left in the signal and as a result you lose information, which sounds like a glitch.
When you’ve done recording, if you won’t remember, make sure to write down the details of your set up — how far you were away from the microphone, if you used a pop filter, how much background noise there was, what the microphone gain was set to, etc. This allows you to recreate the same sounding content in future, and gives your podcast an element of professionalism.
Download the files onto your computer and back them up — the last thing you want is to lose them after all your hard work so far.
Editing is taking the raw recorded audio and turning it into something people will voluntarily listen to. There are many methods for doing this, and I am simply outlining the method that I use here, partially because it’s what I am used to, and mostly because it’s free.
The program Reaper by Cockos is an audio editing suite for which you can buy a license for $60 if your podcast is making less than $20,000 per year (and if your podcast is making more than 20 grand a year, stop reading this and hire an audio engineer, holy shit).
In addition to this, you can download a free trial of the software that has 100% functionality, and Cockos have a great range of manuals available for different skill levels. I am here to tell you to buy a license for this software and support the company, but while you’re figuring out how it works you can edit a demo episode with no financial risk.
While it may look imposing at first, and there is a lot of power behind this software, it’s easy to get started with. Above you’ll see a basic podcast edit open. We’re going to:
- Import your raw audio into the software
- Clean up the background noise and adjust the gain
- Edit out the material we don’t want and add music/effects
- Apply some basic compression
- Export for upload
1. Import your audio
Step one. Drag your raw audio file into the Arrange Area of Reaper. It’ll flash up a little bar and then be available for editing.
If you’re importing multiple audio streams (ie. recordings of several people in conversation), drag them all into separate tracks and line them up so they’re in sync.
2. Clean up noise and gain
In the above image, you’ll see I’ve applied effects to my track. You’re going to do the same for yours! Pop your headphones on and let’s get to work.
I use a combination of the plugins that come with Reaper (all of which are fantastic), and freeware downloads. In the case of this podcast, I have used SGA1566 (a preamp) and TDR Kotelnikov (a dynamics processor/compressor), and I use and recommend both of these frequently. There are installation instructions and use manuals on their websites for those wanting to go more in depth.
I also live and die by Reaper’s on ReaFir, a dynamics plug in with a beautiful subtraction noise reduction ability.
Click on the track effects box to open up a panel to select effects.
Start with adding SGA1566, and depending on the original volume of your recording, we’re just going to bump up the gain and the output to push the Master Channel levels into that safe zone between -6 and 0.
Play a section of unbroken speaking, and play with the gain a little to make sure that your audio still sounds natural, because while this preamp has a clean sound, it can sound over-processed if you push it too far. I also like to set the CPU to high, but if your computer’s not got that much juice that’s not essential.
Now add ReaFir to your track, and navigate back to the half a minute of silence near the start of your track. Listen back to the silence, and find a 5–10 second segment where you’re making no noise (ie. coughing, shifting your chair) and there are no occasional background noises (ie. cars passing, plans flying over).
Under Mode, select Subtract, and check Automatically build noise profile. Now play back that 5–10 second segment and watch the plugin build a waveform profile of what that silence sounds like. Uncheck Automatically build noise profile again and listen back to your voice recording. The gentle background hiss should now be mostly or entirely gone, leaving your voice sounding pristine.
If your voice sounds a little off, or like it’s cutting off the beginning and end of words, hold command (for mac) or control (for PC) and drag the waveform itself down slightly. Do this while listening to the audio playback until you have a good tradeoff between reduced background noise and a natural sounding voice.
Note: If your computer is struggling with playing these effects in real time, you can shift-click on them to switch them off during the edit, and just turn them back on for your final export.
Cleaning up multiple audio sources
Chances are if you’ve recorded on multiple devices or with multiple microphones that your audio streams won’t all be the same volume and tone. Granted, this isn’t the end of the world — your audience understand that they’re listening to a podcast in which people may be having a conversation from opposite sides of the planet.
That said, it’s nice to make your content as easy to listen to as possible.
After importing all the different audio sources for your podcast, lining them up so they sound in-sync, and applying ReaFir to each track individually, play through the audio. While it’s playing, use SGA1566 to adjust the balance of each so that they’re all in that ideal -6db to 0db spot, and all sound level with each other. You can fine tune this later, but you will at least be able to hear each track during your edit.
I’m not a great spoken word voice artist. If you were to listen to my original recordings for my podcast, they are full of pauses, breaths, coughs, sips of water, and other intrusions, let alone the incidental background noise that comes from living in a busy suburb.
When you listen to the finished product, however, all these things are no longer present: editing is magic. You may have perfect enunciation and timing, in which case this section may be very short for you, but for the rest of us, editing is a way to shape the sound you have into the sound you want.
Note: As tempting as it is, don't set your computer's volume too loud. Not only can it cause strain if you are editing for long periods of time, but it can sway your brain's perception of what you're listening to!
The bulk of your edit will be cutting your audio into pieces, removing some of them, and leaving the rest, in the form of your pristine polished deuce of a podcast. The instructions below apply to Reaper, but assuming slight variations in tools and keystrokes, this could be done in any multi-track audio editing software.
Start at the beginning of your track, and find the first line. Use the cursor to select the point shortly beforehand, and hit S on your keyboard, which will insert a cut. Remove the material you no longer want. Repeat. Now repeat again.
Continue through your recording cutting out the bits you want to remove. If you’ve repeated a line a few times, choose the best take and cut the others, dragging the clip along in the timeline so the audio flows steadily.
You can also use edit points to change the timing of sentences, inserting extra emphasis after a word or period, or reducing the gap to make something flow faster. Your ear is the best judge of this, play around to see what works best for you.
If you’ve used multiple mics and so have multiple audio files, select them all and hit S, as shown above, and they’ll all cut at the same point. If you have Ripple Editing switched on, when you drag the tracks back and forth in the Arrange Area the other files in other tracks will drag with them.
In the case of a hard start to a word, or a pop that you can’t quite cut without missing the end of a word, you can drag a fade from the top half of the track (dragging from the bottom half adjusts the length, as seen above). This can help cover any harsh audio changes or plosives.
I like to edit out all breaths and mouth sounds, which is quite an intensive editing process. You may not mind these in your podcast, or may be using recording equipment that makes them less audible.
Work your way through the whole file and edit out everything you don’t like, making sure to take breaks as you need — your ears can get tired too. When you’ve finished your edit, take a break and come back to listen to the edit later. Fresh ears will hear things you missed the first time, and you may well end up with a tighter cut as a result.
I’d suggest asking your friends to have a listen for you, but they’re probably already coming up with excuses for why they “haven’t managed to catch the episode yet, I’m so sorry man”, so ask your housemates instead as it’s harder for them to avoid you and they still feel guilty for using the last of your milk.
Many podcasts use music at the beginning and end of the episode as themes, and music or sound effects during the podcast to signify different sections, topics or just because!
I generally try not to be the arsehole here, but here’s where I put my foot down: don’t use copyrighted music or sounds in your commercial work. I get it, that Pink Floyd riff would be perfect as the opener to your podcast, but if you can’t afford a license for it then just don’t use it.
If you’ve a musical friend who likes alcohol, commission something from them for the podcast, or use sites like the Free Music Archive and search by commercial use cleared tracks. There is a wealth of free music you’re legally allowed to use out there, it just takes a little more digging. You can also pay for music, which is fine I guess.
When you’ve chosen your music, import it into your Arrange Area in a new track and cut it to the length you want. Adjust the track volume, add some fades if you’re so inclined, and place it where you want it.
Bam, your podcast now has music.
Mastering is a highly skilled role where someone takes the pretty okay audio that’s been engineered in an edit and makes it pretty great audio. Real mastering experts charge a lot for this, and it shows, because their work sounds amazing.
We are not those experts, so we do with what we can. For you, right now, that’s a free plugin and a few knobs. Don’t thank me too fast.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great tools and resources online for learning entry-level engineering and mastering skills, and if that’s an area that interest you, google is your friend, lord, and master (ha). If you just want to get this podcast online already for god’s sake, read on and don’t @ me.
For general mastering, I tend to use TDR Kotelnikov, a mastering compressor. Compressors, in a sentence, take the loudest and softest parts of the audio and lessen the distance between them.
Apply this effect to your master track and open it up. Go up to the top menu that says ‘No Preset’, and choose the preset Mastering — Warm. If you boosted your gain earlier into the right range, this should have an effect on your audio pretty instantly.
Note: This is literally a one-button solution, and will not fit all cases, but this is also a free tutorial. If you're interested in how this works, I'd suggest reading the TDR Kotelnikov manual and searching YouTube for some tutorials about how mastering compression works.
You’re so close to being done! We now just have to turn this mess of edits and effects into a single sound file — a process called rendering.
There are many formats you can export audio to — WAV, MP3, AIFF, FLAC, OGG, AAC, etc. If they all went over your head, don’t worry — we’re going to stick with the simplest one for now: MP3.
The codec MP3 was developed in the early 90s specifically to allow for acceptable compression of the voice — meaning that the creators wanted to cut out more information in frequencies that didn’t matter to humans than information in frequencies that do matter.
Note: The song they used to test early versions of the codec was Suzanne Vega's Tom's Diner, and to this day she's still known as the mother of the MP3.
To export MP3s from Reaper you’re going to have to install LAME, an open source MP3 encoder. If you navigate to File > Render, and select MP3 under Output format, it’ll prompt you to download and install the necessary library to do so.
Now, in your Arrange Area, select the area that you want to export (it’s those little white triangles at the top). Under Render bounds select Time Selection, and update the directory (where it will save to) and the filename.
Under the MP3 settings, set the Mode to Target Quality and set the quality to 60. Don’t worry, this won’t make your podcast ‘sound’ worse, the quality in this instance is referring to how much the MP3 will be compressed, and the voice can handle a lot of compression.
Double check all your effects are turned on and you don’t have any channels accidentally muted, and hit Render!
When it’s finished exporting, make sure to listen back to the whole thing, and take a few notes of any things you want to fix up or change, then rinse and repeat.
Upload and Release
You’ve done it! You’ve written, recorded and edited your podcast, and are ready for it to be shared with the unwilling public.
First you’re going to need somewhere to actually put your podcast.
I use Libsyn, I have for a while now and not only have they been around since ’04, but they’ve been consistently great. There are other services out there like Blubrry, Amazon, Podbean, BuzzSprout and others, and I’d advise you shop around for prices and needs and not just take my word for it. I’d also suggest against using Soundcloud, as leaked documents have shown that its future is uncertain, and you want a solution that will last.
You’ll also need some art for your podcast.
iTunes requires a square JPG image between 1400x1400px and 3000x3000px, and you’ll want an 800x800px JPG version of it to add to the audio files themselves.
It’s up to you where this art comes from, though I am going to repeat don’t use images/audio you don’t have the right to use. Worst case scenario, buy a friend who has Photoshop a few beers to mock you something up and save it at the right sizes.
Upload and release
You’re so close now!
Before uploading your audio file to your host of choice, update the ID3 (metadata) tags of the file. Mac users can download MusicBrainz Picard for free, PC users can use ID3 Editor.
Simply load your tracks into the software, update the title, artist, track number (episode number) and album art, then save. This will mean your audio files have this data embedded in them, no matter where you upload them to.
Now upload your file, add your title and show notes (including any links to images/music that you need to attribute), and schedule your release date! Pop a bottle of champagne, or tweet the cake emoji, whichever seems more your style.
Submitting to iTunes
Your first episode has gone live, your fans (cats) adore you, now it’s time to submit your podcast to iTunes!
To submit your podcast, you need:
- a unique title
- your artwork
- an episode already published
Once you have these, paste your RSS feed into FeedValidator to check if there are any errors — submitting a feed with errors to iTunes may lead to your podcast being rejected.
After fixing any errors, you can now submit your podcast to iTunes. You will need an up-to-date Apple ID and a valid email address to do so. After submission, it can take a few days for your podcast to be approved, but you will receive an email when it has been.
Well you actually did it. You’re unleashed another podcast on the world and people may actually listen to it. Pat yourself on the back, because now the work begins.
The hardest part of producing a podcast isn’t what you’ve already done, it’s what’s next. Regularly writing, recording and editing content is hard work, even if it does have its charms. It’s from here that you decide where your podcast goes, what direction it takes, how it interacts with a fanbase and if/when you might finish up. These are all big questions, but they’re indicative of the work that’s yet to be done.
For now though, you’ve actually done something and seen it through to the first step of completion, which is further than many have gotten before.
Well done! Now let’s never talk of this again.
Liz Duck-Chong is a writer, photographer, musician and podcaster. Her podcast Love Letters exists and you can listen to it much the way you might listen to other things.
You can support Liz by buying her a Ko-Fi, which is a platform for small one-off donations, or by naming her in your will to receive any spare gold bullion.
If you found this tutorial useful, you can also support their work by recommending this on Medium, or by sharing it on Twitter, preferably with personal anecdotes about how great Liz is and how you often think fondly of our brief time together in Prague, by the river.