Different audio levels on podcasts are a pain for the listener. Sometimes that means the podcast volume is too low. Or the volume goes up when the host speaks; it goes down when the guest speaks. Or vice versa. Either way, fiddling with the volume because of varying audio levels while listening to a podcast show is not very listener friendly. In fact, it might just drive listeners away.
With the increase in podcasts – by brands and others – production value will become more critical and is a differentiator. According to Listen Notes, there are now over 3 million podcasts. That number was 2 million not that long ago.
A couple of years ago, production value may have had less importance, but now it’s moving up the list of priorities. Listeners might not even give your episode a shot because it sounds terrible. Audio levels, unfortunately, can contribute. So how do we get better audio levels that align between the guest and the host?
Now, plenty of articles give you highly technical solutions to this problem. They talk about normalization, what dB level your audio should end up on, etc. Indeed, if you have the budget to hire an audio engineer or editor who can help with that route, go for it. Or if you have the skill set to dive that deep into the technical aspect – great!
Like many other content creators, I’m more on the creation side and am not an audio engineer. But I still want to produce the best shows that I can. So this article is probably most helpful to that group.
Start with the right equipment
The right equipment does matter, and that includes:
- a good microphone
- perhaps sound paneling
- the proper setup (make sure the computer is picking up the better mic, for example)
You don’t necessarily have to start with the most expensive equipment out there, but make sure to test it to make sure the mic you want to use sounds suitable when you record using it. Sound paneling does help, but I don’t think that’s a Day 1 purchase. I didn’t even install my sound panels until 400 episodes into the Business Storytelling Podcast.
I also now added a section on my podcast booking form to remind guests of the importance of the correct setup. For example, most built-in laptop mics usually don’t get the job done.
Start with the tech check
When it’s time to record your podcast and livestream, start with a proper tech check. I have plenty of things to do producing the show, so here’s the rough checklist that I use when joining backstage before a show:
- Welcome the guest. Chit-chat for a few moments.
- Check my background and camera framing. I livestream my podcast episodes with video and audio. If you do audio-only, this step certainly won’t apply to you. If you show up before the guest, do this at that time.
- How is the framing for my guest? I may suggest lowering the camera, pan left or right.
- Lighting. Is everyone’s lighting as good as possible? Is nobody sitting in front of a bright window?
- Check everyone’s audio. When the podcast volume is too low, that can be a problem for you and the listeners. I also ask them if they can hear me crystal clear. And I do a visual check of the audio levels. My microphone also lets me check the sound with headphones.
- Fix any issues – many can be fixed with a restart, as is often the case in tech. Other times, a problem persists because the program picks up the wrong microphone. That’s also an easy fix, usually.
- Ask the guest if there are any other questions.
- Go live/start recording.
Once the show starts, speak in the same level of voice consistently. But also don’t be monotonous. Add inflections and be engaging, but don’t yell into the mic one second and whisper the next. Instead, speak like you would in a conversation.
Use post-production tools
Back in the day, when I was field producing training videos for the financial industry, we had a saying: “We can fix that in post.” And some things can indeed be fixed in the post. We knew the limits. Some shots could be improved. Certain audio levels could be bumped up or down, but not everything can be fixed in post.
In other words: When audio levels are too far apart, it will be hard to equalize them in post. But it’s possible.
Read next: How do I know if I have LinkedIn audio?
Adjust audio levels while recording
I use Restream.io to livestream and record my podcast. While the platform is best known for livestreaming, you can also use it to record your podcast in its Recording Studio – as opposed to the Live Studio.
Once the guest and I enter either studio, I can see my guest and my audio levels on the left side.
The green bars show the level. I verbally count to five to see where my story is, and then I ask my guest – in this case, Sabrina Horn – to count to five. When our green bars match, we sound roughly the same and are good to go. If the levels are off, I can use the slider button to bring one audio up or down to adjust.
I prefer this method because it gets me a better-sounding episode out of the gate, and since I livestream most episodes, this makes total sense for my workflow.
Technology and following best practices certainly can make our podcast episodes better. And while, at times, production value might not be the most important thing, it does matter. Especially now, with consumers’ expectations rising and even the availability of spatial audio, the quality is rising in importance. Of course, that doesn’t even mean it needs to be over-produced. But it’s good for shows to sound good so people will listen.