Any day you can work a Fresh Prince reference into a blog post is a good day.
So, here’s the situation. You’re podcasting, and you’ve realised that your audio is not up to scratch. Maybe your audience has complained, or worse, they’ve just switched off. Dodgy audio quality can kill your intelligibility and make your show really hard to listen to. So, the natural reaction is to go out and drop a heap of money on new podcasting gear, right?
Not so fast, there, I know you’d rather be putting money towards snacks to see you through those long editing and recording sessions. And there’s plenty of stuff that you can do to improve audio quality that doesn’t cost you the Earth.
Namely, that means making sure your recording space (whether you have a dedicated room or not) is a space conducive for a good recording or not. I’ve spoken a little bit before about why the room you’re recording in is super important to your overall quality of recording, but I feel like I’ve skipped a few steps to get there. So let’s go back a bit and explain why treating your room is so important, and what you can do about it.
Treating my room? What, like taking it out for ice cream?
No, acoustic treatment! Look, actual, proper acoustic treatment involves maths (I failed in Year 1o) and casually shifting walls around to improve resonant frequencies (I live in a rental, and I feel like my landlord wouldn’t be impressed). So, for our purposes, we’re gonna talk about ONE aspect of acoustic treatment: reducing reflections (or reverb, or echoes… all words for the same thing).
You see, in an ideal world, the sound of your voice would travel straight from your face hole to your microphone, and that would be that. But it doesn’t. Some of it bounces off the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and THEN goes into your microphone. Net result being that the same sound (i.e. you saying “hello”) gets into the microphone not once, but multiple times; sometimes directly from your mouth and sometimes after bouncing off a wall or two. Which kind of has the same effect as moving the camera when you’re taking a photo- you end up with a blurry, horrible mess (“hello-oh-oh-oh”).
It’s easy to hear it somewhere like an underground carpark or a cave or an old church. But it still happens in your house, too. Listen for it next time you’re speaking and you’ll probably notice it. Even better, clap your hands, hard, once, and listen for the flutter as the sound bounces off the parallel walls.
Using the blurry photo analogy, it’s easy to see how this can affect how easy your podcast is to listen to. Controlling reflections is the difference between a nice relaxing listen, and your audience straining for 45 minutes to understand what you’re saying.
Ok, so how do I improve my room for podcasting?
Let’s control those reflections. “Uh oh” you think as you picture having to turn your spare room into a padded cell with that egg-crate foam stuff everywhere. But don’t worry!
Notice how I say “control” rather than “stop”. That’s because even professional studios will have some reflections- humans are used to hearing them and having zero reflections sounds unnatural and weird. The only places on earth that have zero reflections are specially constructed anechoic chambers used for scientific testing. Fun fact, you’re only allowed to work in one of those things for 15 minutes at a time because the complete lack of acoustic reflection will actually send you crazy after a while. So having some reflection is a good thing! Your spare bedroom will still look like a bedroom!
What we actually want to concentrate on, is controlling what are called “first order” reflections. These are the ones where the sound only has to bounce off ONE surface before it enters the microphone. You see, as sounds bounce, they lose their power. The further they have to travel, the more power they lose, and the bigger the gap (both in time, and as a volume difference) between the “direct” sound (the stuff coming straight from your mouth) and the reflection will be. This helps your audience discern what is speech and what is reverb much more easily, and they’ll enjoy listening to you speak that much more.
So what we want to do is cover up our hard, reflective, echoey surfaces where there would be a direct bounce between your mouth and the microphone. On the walls, on the floors, on the ceilings. The following dodgy diagram should help:
Yes, you can buy acoustic treatment, and there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on making acoustic panels, with varying levels of price and success (especially as old mate in the video has hung his panels in a TERRIBLE spot!). These are fine, if you have the cash and the commitment. But not all of it has to cost money, though. You could:
Another thing that you might have to battle, is the, er, “lack of enthusiasm” from your significant other when you start attaching big foam blocks to the walls. Especially if you record in your living room and still need to use it for, you know, living. Some things that might help seal the deal with your partner:
As always, your ears are the best judge of when you’ve gone far enough, so once you’ve done your room treatment, record a little sample recording and see how you did. Compare it to your previous recordings, I think you’ll be surprised how much it’s improved!
But what if you’ve already recorded your podcast in an awfully echoey room and it sounds horrid? I might be able to help you rescue it! Get in touch, and let’s see if we can’t sort it out!
Chris Plumridge is a freelance audio producer, voiceover artist and writer from Leongatha in South Gippsland, Victoria, Australia.