The Ultimate Podcasting Hack: Record in your closet and use two pillows

I produce two podcasts that have millions of downloads (the CodeNewbie Podcast and the basecs podcast with Vaidehi Joshi). In producing my own shows, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money) trying to figure out the best way to increase the audio quality of my podcasts. Professionally produced shows are beautiful and easy on the ears, but it’s usually because they can spend thousands on equipment or have access to a fancy studio to record in. I have more humble resources. So how do you get as close to professional as possible without breaking the bank? I’ve learned a ton about different aspects of podcasting, like what mics to use, what software to buy, how to edit, but the one hack that’s been the most game changing in increasing my own audio quality is to record in my closet.

But why a closet tho?

When I first started podcasting years ago, I thought the most important part of getting great audio was the mic. I kept searching for the one amazing mic that would make my show sound legit. The perfect mic doesn’t exist, by the way. There are types of mics that are better than others in particular situations (which is a whole other blog post), but once you get to a certain level of basic quality, they sound more different than they do better. I know, this answer sucks but it’s true. In my obsession with finding the perfect mic, I’d completely ignored the room that mic was used in, and that room is as important (if not more important) than the mic you use.

Making sure the room you podcast in is suitable for audio recording is a process called “acoustic treatment”. If you do a search for “acoustic treatment”, you’ll get some really intimidating results. You’ll see wedge foam, acoustic panels, all this large, squishy material that covers the walls (and ceiling, and, sometimes, even the floors). It looks expensive (it is) and really time consuming to install (it is). Before you go out and buy all this stuff, it’s important to first understand what all this stuff is doing.

There are different tools that do different things, but the primary purpose is to reduce the reverberations in the room in a way that still makes your audio sound natural. Let’s break this down.

Bouncing sound waves

When you speak, the sound waves leave your mouth and bounce around the room and eventually hit the mic you’re using. The problem here is that those sound waves reach the mic at different times.

If I’m speaking directly into the mic, some of the sound waves will go straight into the mic, traveling the shortest distance to get there. But some of those sound waves will be just out of reach. They’ll pass the mic, hit the wall behind it, bounce back towards you and the mic, and get picked up by the back of the mic (this assumes the mic has a pick up pattern with rear sensitivity, which is a fancy way of saying that it will pick up sound from the back, but most mics have some degree of rear sensitivity). That’s a long way to travel! In that case, there’s a very slight delay between the sound waves that went directly into the mic and the ones that bounced around, because the length traveled by that bouncing sound wave is longer. So when you play back the audio, you’ll hear a reverberation.

But there’s not just one wall in that room, there are four! Plus a ceiling and a floor. That’s a total of six potential surfaces that my voice can bounce off of, all different lengths away, and getting picked up by the mic at different times. That’s a lot of reverb! But it gets worse.

What if you’re in an office with monitors? A desk? Now you’ve got even more surfaces those sound waves can bounce off of! The problem here is not that the room has literal surfaces. If a room had no walls at all, then it wouldn’t be a room. The problem is what those walls are made of. The more reflective the surface, the more bouncing occurs. You know those fancy conference rooms made of glass? Yea, that’s probably one of the worst places you could do a recording, because all that glass means a ton of really reflective surfaces.

What we want to do it make those surfaces less reflective to get rid of that bouncing. We want to soften those surfaces so the sound gets absorbed by the surface. We can do that by covering those surfaces in things that are literally soft. A common practice among field producers (journalists who are working away from a studio and therefore “in the field”) who can’t get to a studio is to record on a bed under a comforter. It’s a fort made of soft surfaces! If you’re in a room with a carpeted floor, that’s a huge help. If you’ve got bookshelves full of books, those books can help absorb that sound. If you’ve got curtains in the room, that’s awesome! But that’s just a start.

If we want to record in that room and really get rid of the reverberations, we need to work on all those surfaces and make them nice and soft. That’s where those foam wedges and acoustic panels come in. Their purpose is to cover all the hard surfaces in the room so we can reduce all that bounce and minimize the reverb.

Why studios look so pretty

If you look at a professionally acoustically treated studio, you might notice that the wedge and panels usually have some type of pattern to them. They’ve got grooves and indentations, the wedges are jagged. You might have even seen what looks like a beautiful wooden art piece that’s actually a sound diffuser.

Acoustically treated studios look beautiful! But that’s not the point. These grooves and edges give you more surfaces to absorb the sound waves, but something like a diffuser serves a different purpose.

Let’s take our soft-surface efforts to the extreme. We decide to cover every single surface with the most absorbent material we can find. We’re going to get rid of all that bouncing, darn it! That might sound like a good idea, but if you play back the audio, you’d sound like you have a head cold. It would sound super stuffy and stiff. To make it sound natural, you need some strategic bouncing. That’s what the sound diffuser does.

The foams and panels absorb the sound, effectively killing the sound waves and stopping them in their tracks (some do this better than others). But diffusers take those sound waves and spread them out over a surface. It lets the sound waves bounce around over its many little wooden squares, nooks and crannies, and in doing so, it helps the recording sound warm and natural. It gives it just enough reflection and bounce that it doesn’t sound completely dead, because real life spaces do come with reflective surfaces. To get that natural, warm sound, we need a little bit of bouncing, but just a teeny bit. You’ll usually find just one of those sound diffusers in a room that’s otherwise covered by panels and foam. For more info on how diffusers work, check out this amazing article on the science behind them.

So, let’s do a quick recap:

  • Most rooms have a lot of reflective surfaces which creates a ton of reverberations, so we need to soften those surfaces to get rid of all that reverb.
  • But if we make every surface too soft, than we risk having a totally dead space, which doesn’t sound great either. So, we need a pinch of reflection, and a lot of soft surfaces.

Now that we know what we need and why, what can we do with this information? We already talked about how expensive and time consuming it can be to properly treat a room, so now what? Now, we find the next best thing.

So how do we end up in the closet?

The next best thing is a walk-in closet full of clothes. Closets are freaking amazing, and if you think about all the reasons we discussed on why we need panels and diffusers, it makes a lot of sense.

A closet is full of soft surfaces. You’re surrounded by clothes! Even if the walls and ceiling aren’t treated, there are enough soft surfaces right in front of those hard walls that the walls become (almost) irrelevant. When I record from the closet, I actually hang a big comforter in front of my closet door, so there are no hard walls while I record. It’s a great place to kill most of those troublesome bouncing sound waves.

But because there are still some hard surfaces, it’s not a completely dead space. It’s not exactly a diffuser, but it does the job of preserving some reflection and keeps your recording sounding warm and natural.

Since around episode 147 of the CodeNewbie Podcast, I’ve been doing all my podcast recordings in my closet.

But what about the guest?

Great question! After all, I’m not talking to myself during my podcast. I do all my podcast interviews remotely. It makes it really easy for the guest (they don’t have to go anywhere) and it means I can have guests from all over the world! Upgrading my audio is one thing, but if the episode is mostly the guest speaking (which it is and should be) and they’re not in a studio or a soft closet surrounded by clothes, then I’ve still got a crappy sounding episode.

I have a whole system where I mail guests a mic to use for the recording (and they send it back after the interview), but as we discussed earlier, the room is just as important as the mic. I spent a lot of time on this problem. I built my own portable sound booth (which ended up being too big and prohibitively expensive to ship). I built different forts made of towels, comforters, acoustic panels. I did over 145 audio tests using different material with different mics in different rooms, and the easiest and most cost effective solution I came up with to take care of those bouncing sound waves were two pillows.

The setup looks like this:

Pillows are great for three main reasons.

  1. They’re thick and absorb sound pretty well, making them respectable sound panels.
  2. Most people have access to two pillows, so it’s not a big deal to ask the guests to grab two for an interview.
  3. Because they’re thick, they can lean against the mic stand and stand up on their own in a way that a towel or comforter can’t.

The key to the pillow setup is to make sure the mic is pushed back to where the pillows meet, and the guest is speaking into the pillow fort. That helps capture most of the sound waves and keeps them in our safe, soft, pillow space, free of hard surfaces.

To help with the setup, I print out this graphic and include it in the mic kit I mail to them (it should say reduce ‘reverb’ not ‘echo’, they’re very different!).

But this doesn’t get rid of the reverb as much as I’d like. Assuming they use nice, thick pillows and position them correctly, it gets rid of roughly 80% of the reverb I’d normally hear. If they’re in a room with soft surfaces, sometimes it gets up to 90%! So I remove that final bit in post production.

Why not just take care of the reverb in post production entirely?

What a great question, reader. The truth is, I could do that! I do my editing in Adobe Audition and use a plugin called Acon Digital DeVerberation that I’ve found to be really good at dealing with reverb. It has some great presets that I can tweak, and is pretty easy to use. In that program, I can press a few buttons and completely remove the reverb. The problem is that in doing so, my entire audio file gets distorted.

The plugin tries to figure out what part of the audio is the reverb, but it can’t complete isolate it from the parts of the audio that I want to keep. The more processing you do on an audio file, the more likely it is to sound strange and robotic. You’ll hear strange sounds, called artifacts, and it’ll sound less natural and human. If you go too far, it can sound so bad that you can’t understand entire sentences. So the better the source is, the less processing you have to do, and the less processed it will sound.

With my pillows, I can get that source to be good enough that I can do some mild processing afterwards and still preserve the quality of the audio.

Ok, time for another recap!

  • Record in your closet to upgrade your audio quality.
  • If you have guests on your podcast, ask them to prop up two pillows behind the mic to increase their audio quality.
  • And if you’re feeling fancy, try some plugins like Acon Digital DeVerberation and learn what the buttons do to get that nice, clean sound.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own audio tests! Get your mic and do some test recordings in different spaces and hear how it sounds to you. If you have questions on any of this stuff, leave a comment below! Best of luck on your podcasting adventure!