Since it broke onto the scene in the early 2000s, podcasting has gone through a roller coaster of popularity. After years of stumbles, podcasting has finally overcome its major setbacks, thanks to more affordable equipment and new online services. These breakthroughs have solidified podcasting’s use in the news, radio shows, sports networks and even in education.
Despite its newfound popularity, the word “podcasting” is still a misunderstood term that evokes thoughts of complicated equipment, time and money. Truth is, there are varying degrees of podcasting, ranging from quick mobile podcasts to full-blown studio productions. But podcasts don’t need to be complicated to be effective, especially in education.
Many teachers are using podcasting at its most basic level to simply document class work or rehearsals.
At Oneonta Middle School in Oneonta, NY, Cynthia Donaldson teaches music and creates podcasts of choir rehearsals for her students.
“I use my phone and record with the Voice Memo app,” she says, “and then I use iTunes to convert it.” After posting the recording on her website, her students have access to their rehearsals so they can continue to rehearse on their own.
While this is a very simple example with virtually no equipment, this is in fact podcasting. And if you have never podcasted before, this is a really easy way to get started. Once you get the hang of it, you can take podcasting production as far as you’d like to go.
Just remember: There are so many options to gear and software that you’re not limited to what’s mentioned in this article—there is no right or wrong gear. Your podcasting approach aside, it all comes down to the same workflow. So let’s break it down into three stages of production.
Recording a Podcast
Regardless of how far you decide to take production, getting good audio is the most critical part of a podcast. Good audio isn’t about having the most expensive gear, either; it’s about how you utilize your space and wield your equipment.
“The most important things are the acoustical composition of the room and the levels of your sound source,” says Alex Perialas, owner of Pyramid Sound Studios, based in Ithaca, NY. “Place yourself in the space in different locations until you find the sound that’s pleasing to ear.”
It’s also important to pay attention to any fans, traffic, noise from the hallway or wind—all these factors can add noise and hiss to your recording that can really detract from its quality.
Once you have found the right spot in the right space, you’ll need to find the right distance away from your microphone. This will maximize your intelligibility. Too close to the microphone and it can be boomy; too far, it can be too reverberant or even tinny.
“If it’s a good space and you are too close, you’ll get too much localization, says Perialas. “It’s all about the critical distance between the direct and reflective sound.”
For pretty much any microphone you might use, three inches to about a foot is a good place to start. You should experiment a bit to find the sweet spot.
Once you have found the sweet spot, make sure you have the recording levels set correctly. You don’t want the recording to be too quiet, but being too loud can cause clipping or distortion—and none of these situations are desirable. So try the loudest part of your narration or performance and set the levels appropriately. This will ensure that the rest of your recording will be just the right volume.
As mentioned before, your phone is a pretty decent device to start collecting audio. You can use apps like Voice Memos (iOS) or Audio Recorder (Android). Other free apps like Spreaker give you a full-blown production studio in the palm of your hand and provide you with ways to share your recordings to social media or Spreaker’s podcast hosting.
To take your podcasting to the next level, you could purchase a higher quality microphone or recording device. Zoom, an audio and video equipment manufacturer, makes the iQ microphone series, which plugs in to your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Another microphone option is the Blue Snowball USB microphone, which is an extremely versatile workhorse. It hooks directly to your computer via USB to be used in conjunction with audio recording software. The Snowball has a number of different settings and sounds great for normal talking, or even things as loud as a trumpet.
But if you were interested in a better recording device, Zoom makes a wide variety of audio recorders. Colleen Harwood from Zoom notes, “The feedback from consumers is that the H-Series, especially H4n/H5/H6 has really become THE recorder for podcasting.”
Any of Zoom’s H-Series portable audio recorders can record multiple channels of high-quality audio simultaneously. They are battery operated and record to an SD card so it’s really easy to upload your files to your computer.
Editing and Mixing a Podcast
Again, this comes down to how use your tools, not what tools you use. You can record and edit simple podcasts directly on your phone, or you can use your computer to create a more complex podcast. No matter what software you use to edit, there are a number of things to keep in mind.
You will most likely want to use software that can do “multi-track” audio. This means you can layer multiple audio files like lasagna and move them around independently of one another. This gives you the ability to arrange and “mix” all of your audio recordings together into one cohesive podcast.
When layering audio files—such as interviews, background music, or sound effects—getting the balance between your audio clips is of the utmost importance. This is done with a combination of EQ and volume.
“When it comes to mixing, music and sound effects need to complement—not compete—with the narration,” says Chris Lavigne, Video Team Lead at Wistia in Cambridge, MA. “Mixing is not formulaic; it’s just finding the right balance. It is an art form and you’ll find it with practice.”
And of course, all of your narration or interviews should sound roughly the same volume, even if they are different people speaking or were recorded with different equipment in different environments.
The narration should convey the story from start to finish—very much like characters having a conversation in your favorite book.
Many podcasters use Audacity, which is a free multi-track audio program for both Mac and PC that allows you to record, edit, and mix multiple channels of audio. Other good options are Garageband (Mac only), or more complex programs like Adobe Audition and Reaper.
Sharing Your Podcast
Let’s face it: There are so many ways to share files and connect online, that you have no shortage of choices. Whether you decide to upload to social media, use file sharing like Dropbox and Google Drive, or post to your own website or a virtual classroom, you need to make sure that all of your students can access the podcast and play it back properly.
Exporting your podcast as an MP3 is the best way to guarantee that it can be played back on any device. The most common settings for an MP3 are 128 bitrate at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. These settings will ensure that your file sounds good, but is still small enough to be accessed by both computers and smart phones.
And if you do decide to use a podcast hosting company like Spreaker, Podomatic, Blubrry, LibSyn or BuzzSprout, you will simply upload your MP3 and they will take care of the rest. They all will use a universal audio player so listeners can download or play back your podcast on any computer or mobile device.
Creating a podcast doesn’t have to be incredibly complicated, and it doesn’t have to be meticulously produced. But it does need to sound good. These tips should help you get started. Now go press record…on whatever device you have.