Monday, April 6, 2015

On Podcast Audio

There is always a big debate in podcasting regarding audio quality. Considering that it is an audio only medium I guess it makes sense.

I think the debate really cripples the medium, however, because it puts a big barrier in front of people who could be sharing their stories online in a quick, easy and very intimate way.

Many people think they can't podcast because they will need thousands of dollars worth of recording equipment, and thousands of hours of editing time. The new hype surrounding shows like Serial only make this barrier bigger for potential podcasters because that show was incredibly heavily produced (and had a very large staff).

Here's the thing - your audio only needs to be "good enough". Sure, everyone has a slightly different idea of what "good enough" means, but basically you want to keep in mind that the average person listens to podcasts on headphones. You want to make sure there isn't a lot of high end noises like a high pitched hiss of white noise, peaking the microphone, or excessively sibilant S sounds. You also want to make sure the recording is loud enough so the listener doesn't need to turn their headphone volume up to maximum to hear you at a reasonable level. And that's about it.

Now, there are some exceptions I think to choosing "good enough" sound. And those exceptions are where people are trying to monetize right from the get go. And nowadays there are a lot more of those podcasts. I feel like if you are charging advertisers or asking your audience for money (not tips, but an actual salary) then you need to provide sound quality that is as good, if not better than listening to radio or television.

And this is where I talk about Gimlet Media. I love Gimlet Media and their shows StartUp and Reply All. I was a bit late to start listening, maybe by a few months, but I really enjoyed following the story of StartUp while watching the story of Gimlet Media in almost real time. And as a person who embraced the internet fully way back in 1996 I super enjoy the topics covered by Reply All.

But their audio is surprisingly bad.

Now, don't get me wrong, they achieve "good enough" and potentially even a bit better than that, but for a business which has thrown all of its eggs into the aural basket they should have bloody fantastic audio.

Most of the people working for Gimlet and producing shows have worked in public radio, including NPR and WNYC. They know what really beautiful audio sounds like, yet they have not achieved it.

I tweeted about this a few months ago and got a couple of responses from people who also felt the audio was not really great. Some even stopped listening over it. But I haven't. I really enjoy the content and look forward to the episodes.

I was reminded of the audio quality today though because I was listening to the newest episode of The Podcast Digest which interviewed Alex Goldman, one of the hosts of Reply All. Listening to the two voices of the host Dan Lizette and Alex talking to each other I was surprised to realize that it sounded way better than any episode of Reply All I've ever heard. I almost didn't even recognize Alex Goldman's voice because it was deep and warm sounding, almost lush.

I don't necessarily have a point, but I think it's worth noting that an "independent" podcast has better sound than a "professional" one.

I will add, however, do not judge The Podcast Digest by the intro and outro with a high pitched woman with a South African(?) accent and incredibly sibilant S sounds. I usually need to turn the volume WAY down when she comes on.


  1. I'm guilty of committing every audio sin there is. I used to try a lot harder to clean them up but now I just go with trying to figure out if what I recorded is A)worth keeping or B)crap or C)can be somehow recreated. B happens a lot. C never works. Rarely I just have to go with A and post it. Maybe the epiphany I had recording is worth the noise, I tell myself. Who knows. What I do know is that I don't dwell on these things that much anymore and I'm typically already thinking of the next episode, mapping it out in my head, even before the one I am putting together is posted.

    1. I think maybe that's mostly my point... it's the content that matters, not the sound quality. You are recording at your kitchen table and you say that in your show, so I expect your audio to be good enough, and it absolutely is. If you were asking people to donate money so you could get better equipment and it didn't sound any better... well that might be a problem ;-)