I listen to a lot of podcasts. The content is mostly great, but there are a range of problems I hear in the recording of voice. I’ve recorded hundreds of voices over a 35-year career in broadcasting, so I thought I’d publish a post with some tips.
In the early days (1980s) of my career we had limited EQ and processing, so the focus was on mic placement as a way to get the best sound. In most of the studios we had the luxury of Neumann U67s, or U87s.
It is still true that mic selection and placement is THE most important factor in recording the voice (or anything for that matter). It’s the foundation that you built on. Bruce Swedien (Michael Jackson’s engineer) said in an interview he’d pick the vocal mic for each track based on the what the track needed. Shure SM7, SM58, and Neumann U47 were just three mics reputedly used on the albums Thriller and Bad.
If you get the right mic in the right place less post-processing is required. More on that later, but let’s talk about expectations.
One of the biggest problems in podcasting is the desire to sound like ‘trailer man’. In this movie trailer Hal Douglas plays himself, in a send-up of the genre. In a world where most people don’t actually sound like this, attempts to do so result in a very unnatural and hard-to-listen-to sound. The other thing is that this style of vocal production – the sound produced by the voice-over artist, and the processing applied to the voice, are optimised for radio or theatre. Podcasts are (still) primary listened to on headphones.
You want to sound the best YOU can sound. That can be a slow process of experimentation as you try to minimise things you don’t like and enhance things you do like.
1. Use your natural voice
Don’t try to sound like someone else. I have a light tenor voice. I am never going to sound like Hal Douglas, no matter what I do. Learn to use your natural voice, and to extend the range of expression and colour you can use. I have worked with voice talent who have amazing deep and resonant voices, but can only do one style of read. I have worked with others who don’t have a sit-up-and-listen voice, but are far more flexible, can take direction, and can get the message across for a wider range of work.
A vocal coach may be helpful, but be careful that they work on developing what you already have, and focus on the basics such as breathing, and varying pitch and tempo.
Years ago a former colleague was constantly told by his coach that his voice was too light (he was an excellent and interesting communicator). He was encouraged to use some unhelpful techniques that eventually resulted in nodules forming on his vocal cords, forcing an exit from the industry.
The human ear and brain and highly optimised for human speech. Using you natural voice will be appreciated by your listeners, especially for longer-form work where an unnatural sounding voice will be annoying.
Professional voice talent have voices that are much more flexible than us mere mortals, and they can control resonance, timbre and pitch to a greater degree. Jon Bailey, voice of Honest Trailers is a good example.
2. Find the right mic
This is more of an art, than a science. Don’t be fooled by how other people sound on a particular mic – you really need to try it for yourself. Shure has a blog post on podcast mic selection, this is a useful post and video, or another perspective.
Try before you buy, and use the advice below to assess the microphone properly.
3. Find the best working-distance
The raw sound you get is a product of your voice, the mic, the room, and the distance you work from the mic. Some microphones are designed for close working, and have a tailored frequency response to allow this, without sounding unnatural.
The proximity effect occurs when low-frequency sounds are exaggerated when the sound source gets close to a directional microphone. Mics with a tailored low-end frequency response will sound thin when placed too far away.
If you have a voice with some resonance, close-working can enhance that a little. We want to find a nice balance though – too much resonance sounds boomy and is less intelligible.
Close working has other issues though – it increases the amount of lip, mouth, tongue and jaw noise, and when combined with the wrong processing can make for something that is hard to listen to. (Professionals have learned how to reduce some of these artefacts.)
Many people have less than ideal acoustics, and try to overcome this by working close. Invest in some basic acoustic treatment, and back off the mic a little.
4. Learn to Listen
Consider where your listener will be consuming your podcast. Smart-speaker use is on the rise, but last year 69% of US people surveyed listened on a mobile device, which probably means headphones. Almost no one listens on the studio speakers you use to edit your podcast.
You should be listening to your work on a range of speakers and headphones, so that you can develop an OVERALL impression of how it sounds. You should not optimise for only one platform, as it’ll make it sound worse elsewhere.
Less is more. Most amateur voices, and sorry but most of us fall into this category, are not robust enough to tolerate much processing. Audio compression makes sibilance (hissing ‘s’ sound) worse, excessive EQ creates a harsh sound that is hard to listen to for long periods. Heavy processing also increases the mouth noise noted above. Cheap microphones sounds worse when heavily processed as they often have high inherent noise (usually hiss).
When you EQ a voice, don’t try to boost things that are not there. For example, if there is little natural resonance in the voice, a bass boost won’t help.
The other issue with heavy processing on a host mic is that it makes it hard to match with any guest mic, especially if they are remote. The best sound balance is when the listener does not have to adjust the volume when one voice transitions to another.
Heavy processing is also fatiguing to listen to for long periods.
One issue I want to raise separately, is the use of vocal fry. More common in women, but I’m increasingly hearing it in men, it is an effect that sounds like a creak or croak in the throat. In small amounts it can be effective for emphasis. In large amounts, and with poor mic placement (too close) and excessive processing such as compression, it can be very annoying to listen to.
I think this harks back to my comment about speaking naturally, and recording the voice in a way that sounds natural. I have heard recordings of people with a lot of vocal fry that sound quite normal. I have heard others where I’ve had to switch off.
If you use vocal fry, back off the mic a bit, use less audio compression, and watch the amount of high frequency EQ that is added (it can make the creaking sound, well, more creaky). Remember that the person listening probably has a speaker literally stuck in their ear-canal.
Cwrote an excellent piece on the subject of vocal fry, and why it is used, concluding that,University of Sydney
“…vocal fry is not actually about the voice, but about power and status, and who is allowed to have it.”
The movie In A World explores the fallout when a women is considered as the successor to ‘trailer man’.
In the end, it is going to be the content you produce that attracts and hold listeners. With so much competition, and high technical quality being available to everyone, it is worth spending a bit of time and effort getting the voice recorded nicely.