Some tips for better podcast sound

Sunday, January 15, 2017
Snappy answers to frequently asked questions:

What do great interviews have in common?
(Photo: Sergey Galyonkin)
Your answer’s as good as mine. Probably better. Depends on the interview’s goal. If you’re Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and your goal is at least partly to entertain, it’s great interplay between the guest and the host, with lots of laughs or emotion along the way. But most of us aren’t Stewart or Colbert; our goal is to connect our audience seamlessly with our guest and his or her insight. To that end, the less of us and the more of the guest and the guest’s wisdom the better. Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been those in which I just ask a little question and let the guests run with it. I get the first words (the words that explain why the guest is interesting or important) and the last words (to say whatever I want); I don’t feel compelled to be anything more than just a low-profile instigator along the way.
(Image: Dave Gandy)
What’s the best way to structure an interview?
Depends on your intent: Do you want a full interview segment, or just soundbites? (I recommend going for the full interview, so you have that option even if you just wind up using soundbites.) Ideally, you script a strong intro and a strong close and insert well-scripted questions in between. Here’s a piece I wrote with four tips for creating a great audio interview. Here’s slightly more basic advice, created mainly for students.

How important is it that I not interrupt someone?
Very important. Makes editing harder. If you’re interviewing someone in person or on Skype, you can prep them in advance to watch for your hand gestures, like the raised finger to indicate you’d like to interrupt; or the “wind it up” motion to indicate you have all you need and it’s almost time to close or move on to the next subject. If you have a sense of how much you need from your guest, or how longwinded she or he is, you can coach them beforehand with guidance like “Hey, we have a lot to cover in a little time. Do me a favor and think in terms of (2-, 3-, 4-, whatever)-sentence answers, OK? If I need more on a subject, I’ll ask a followup question.”
What kind of questions should I avoid?
Yes-or-no questions. And plain statements that aren’t questions. (See my interview tips above.)

I can only interview someone by phone. How do I get great sound?
Each of you can record your voices using a smartphone as you talk over a landline. (Clap a few times at a recording’s start to create marks for syncing.) Then your guest can email or otherwise share with you the audio he or she has recorded at that end for melding with your voice. Key to doing this right: Make sure the phone is about 5-6 inches from the speaker’s mouth, preferably pointed at the corner of the mouth so as to avoid popping Ps and blowing Bs. Note: Some phones (early iPhones, among others; newer ones are more flexible) aren’t able to send long recordings. If you’re not sure, you’ll want to test or record in short increments (8-10 minutes) and so each segment’s not too big. Or give each user software that has no limits. (I use Twisted Wave.) Failing this—for instance, if timeliness is more essential than quality—you can use Google Voice, which records both ends of the conversation at phone-quality.

I’m interviewing someone by Skype. What should I do? Use the best microphone available, ideally a nice USB mic attached to the computer. These don’t have to be expensive; the Blue Snowball, for instance, can be had for under $50 and it works fine. Failing that, an iPhone or other smartphone headset can be better than a computer’s onboard mic. But the onboard mic on most desktop and laptop computers can work reasonably well, too. The key is figuring out where the mic is located on a computer and getting yourself and your guest to sit as close to your computers’ mics as possible. It’s not always intuitive; the mic on some computers is in back of the screen, for instance. On some MacBooks, it’s along the edge—a couple of pinholes next to the headphone jack.

How do I get the best sound when I’m not recording in a studio?
Regardless of the tech you use to record, minimizing echoes is the biggest key to a professional sound. (Clap and listen carefully and you’ll get a sense of how much echo a space has. It’s often a lot more than we realize in everyday life.) For someone using a smartphone to record, simply draping a coat over one’s head can (look stupid, yes; but also) improve the professional sound of the recording tremendously, eliminating the sound of one’s voice bouncing off a nearby wall, mirror or computer screen. Another option: Unmake the bed and get under some pillows or a blanket. Or make a fort out of couch cushions.

How can I make the interview more conversational and casual to get good information?
If you're aiming for a talk-show vibe, you can achieve a lot by constructing and ordering your questions thoughtfully. As I explain here, it’s not an easy thing to write a script (or questions) so that, when read, they don’t sound like they were written and they don’t sound like they’re being read. Note: This isn't so important when you're in the hunt mainly for soundbites or quotes; in that case, your goal is to get your listeners useful, actionable information as frictionlessly as possible. They’re not listening for small talk. Either way, reduce the noise: The “uh-huhs” and the statements that repeat or foreshadow exactly the things your guests have said or will say.

Bonus tips:
  • Avoid the urge to make statements, like, “So, that works pretty well for you, then.”
  • Avoid the old reporter’s trick of seeming to agree with your interviewee to get him or her to keep talking. This is fine if you’re just taking notes, but it makes lame (momentum-killing) listening and difficult editing if you punctuate interviewees’ answers with things like “Huh” or “That’s great” or “Yeah.”
  • Bite your tongue. Your job is to be a question-asking machine. Ask questions and then get out of the way. The easiest way to do that is to write out your questions in advance. You can always ad-lib, but do so knowingly. If you have nothing substantial to say or add, just move on efficiently to the next question.
More questions? Drop me an email.

[Adapted from advice to a Meyerson Strategy client.]

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