What we expose listeners to
It will come as no surprise to anyone that we, as a company in the audio industry, hold the high ground when it comes to good sound quality. Of course, good and bad are not absolute, comparable values. We often hear the word good in connection with audio quality as soon as the person taking part in the conversation can be understood perfectly and noise and digital artifacts remain within tolerable limits. But should that be our claim? After an exhausting day in countless video conferences, do we seriously expect our listeners to listen to another one as a passive participant? And if so, for what reason? Because we think our topic is so exciting and relevant that it probably outweighs this imposition? Or perhaps because we lack the awareness of what good can also mean in this context?
Zoom call and podcast have different requirements
A podcast is not a Zoom call. Even if you can record a podcast with Zoom. We are primarily concerned with creating awareness that the two mediums have different goals and associated requirements. A video call is usually used for direct communication between two or more parties via video and audio. The most important parameter from our point of view is speech intelligibility. If this is guaranteed, communication between the participants is massively simplified. Speech intelligibility is also an important factor when it comes to choosing the right equipment. For example, participating in a video call with a laptop without an external microphone and headphones already produces satisfactory results. Among other things, this is ensured by the algorithm of the video service, which efficiently suppresses echoes caused by playback via the built-in speakers and recording via the laptop’s internal microphone. Many headsets – as long as they do not come from the pro-audio sector – were also consistently developed for high speech intelligibility and sometimes massively influence the audio signal. That’s good for the zoom call. But bad for the podcast.
Because a podcast is not just about high speech intelligibility. The bar is much higher here: a podcast is a media product with its own requirements that should be able to tie in with the listening habits of media consumers, which we all are in our free time. And that starts with thinking about the format from the listener’s point of view – with all the associated demands and preferences. In addition to the benefits of a podcast (e.g. gaining knowledge, entertainment, etc.), we believe that the quality of a podcast is the most important demand that listeners have for the format. This applies to both the content and the sound aesthetics. When we use a video service to record a podcast, we should therefore always be aware: crucial is what is recorded and what creative freedom results from it. The zoom call is only the vehicle for this. Because podcast listeners would much rather have the feeling of sitting at a table with the protagonists of the podcast. And not be participant of a zoom call. There is another reason for high audio quality:
Poor audio quality is exhausting
Intuitively, this headline will evoke agreement from many. After all, the fact that clanging headsets transmitted over poor, unstable data lines leads to stress in the long run sounds understandable. In fact, there are studies that support this. Back in 2012, a group of researchers at the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin) was able to show that as audio quality deteriorated, brain activity also increased – even in areas that were not addressed when audio quality was good, which could lead to fatigue and exhaustion in the long run. And in the 2020 study conducted by Sapio on behalf of Epos, “Quality Audio: A Sound Investment – the changing role of audio in business” 95% of all participants said they felt their concentration and efficiency were affected by poor audio quality.
We should also not ignore another effect: while it is usual when recording podcasts to have a video connection for the participants, this component is omitted for the listeners. The focus then remains exclusively on the audio part – with all its strengths and weaknesses…
Kid-glove treatment is over
From the beginning of 2020, we occasionally encountered this narrative. People claimed that it was okay now that the podcasts wouldn’t sound as good sometimes, since they couldn’t meet in the studio anymore. That was due to the situation and the listeners would forgive that.
For a daily news podcast, this argument could still be valid for one or two episodes. But one of the great things about podcasts is that many episodes will still be listened to in a few years. Especially if the content is not related to the current day. And one day this pandemic will be over. And what will be left behind? A bad sounding podcast and annoyed listeners. Or even worse: fewer listeners.
The current situation has shown us how much we need to catch up on all fronts. In terms of tools, employed equipment, and know-how. And of course we don’t exclude ourselves. But how do we get out of it?
How can we make podcasts sound better?
This is a joint task for all those involved in the project, and it places a responsibility on both the client, the audio service provider, and the podcast participants who are to be recorded. The client should be aware in advance that he wants to achieve a certain standard of audio quality when commissioning the production and, to be on the safe side, plan some additional budget for this.
The audio service provider or recording studio should be able to advise the client well on production options and be able to send additional equipment to the podcast participants if needed. It must be ensured that equipment is used that does not already massively influence the sound aesthetics during recording (for example, through unsuitable headsets, see above). The studio should also be able to record locally on the computers of the podcast participants, so as not to be dependent on fluctuating Internet connections (end-to-end recording). In any case, he/she should also make sure to brief the podcast participants well regarding the preparation of the recording and the equipment used.
But the podcast participants also share responsibility for the audio quality of the podcast: in a remote production, they are part of the studio. The best microphone won’t help if the recording takes place in a reverberant kitchen and the refrigerator is whirring away comfortably during the recording: the microphone will record a reverberant kitchen with a refrigerator whirring away comfortably. And even if some people don’t like to work with headphones – for recording a remote podcast they are an absolute must.
There’s a lot that can be done in post-production. Still, it’s a myth that I just talk into my laptop and the sound engineer(s) in the mix “make everything sound good.” For a high-quality podcast, we all need to pull together. It doesn’t take much and it’s not expensive. Let’s do it!