Can We Have a Bit of (Attention to) Level Please?

Can We Have a Bit of (Attention to) Level Please?

Getting Levels Right Aides An Easier Listen

I have been listening to a lot of podcast recently. From history to politics and, it seems, pretty much everything else in between, there is a podcast catering for it.

The “content” (as an aside I can’t say I am a great fan of that word. It makes the producers efforts sound like something written on the side of a cereal box: “Contents may settle in transit”) of many are well researched, structured and delivered and make for a great listen. 

But some are marred but poor attention to the audio aspects of a production: Levels, acoustics and mic placement.

These aspects don’t require a massive budget to get right, even a cheap microphone, well-placed, will produce an acceptable sound. Conversely even an expensive mic will sound pants if you put it in the wrong position of environment. So I offer a few tips that to polish the sound of your podcasts. Microphone placement and type If possible, on a group discussion, try and use the same type of microphone across all voices and resist the urge to share microphones.

Granted budgets may not stretch to having a “quality” microphone on all voices but good results can still be obtained with budget models. (If you can run to higher priced, large-diaphragm, mics, beware that this in itself may be an issue as, sometimes, since they are designed to pick-up the nuances of the voice, they can be pretty unforgiving to the room acoustic.) Having them all the same model will at least mean the frequency response and angle of pickup should be consistent.

Two people sharing a microphone is not advisable either as this will lead to a relative levels’ issue that is discussed at the end of this blog.

The next thing is to make sure those with a microphone know how to use it or, at the very least, have it setup for them properly. Having it the correct distance from the mouth is the first place to start. Spreading your thumb and little finger and using this as a measure between mouth and mic is a good rule-of-thumb (‘scuse the pun). If the user is prone to “popping” the mic (the explosive P and B consonants, that thump the microphone) then angle the mic head away from their mouth. Finally, make sure the user is speaking into the microphone at the right place. I have seen many an image, some staged, some for real, of people speaking into “side-fire” microphones at the end!

Acoustics

Unless they are atrocious, such as trying to conduct an interview in a steelworks, the ear can be forgiving to a recording made in a room that is too “live”, sounding, e.g. like a bathroom. Initially the listener will hear the acoustic is very reverberant, but as the recording progresses, providing what the speaker says is audible, their ears will become accustomed to this acoustic and accept it. That said, if two mics are in use and the acoustic changes between them, that will make for a hard listen.

However, if the room sounds very “dead”, the listener is less likely to put up with it long term. Such a recording will just sound “laboured” and unnatural. Bear in mind too that, if the recording of the room sounds like that, then for the people in that room it will sound worse, to the point they may not like to be in there anyway!

Audio Levels

There are two aspects to consider here. The overall level of the recording. Too low and it will force the listener to turn their volume up to an un-necessary level. Too high and you will open yourself up to distortion. The other aspect, and this is the principle one that seems to be over-looked, is the relative levels between audio sources: For example, an interviewee who is louder, or quieter, than the interviewer.

Differences in relative levels are by far the most annoying of poor audio attributes to the listener since they require a manual riding of their volume control. Get the relative levels right and the overall level can easily be set, leading to a pleasant listen. Incidentally DON’T use the AGC (Automatic Gain Control) function on your recorder to set the recoding levels. You will come unstuck.

Meters and Loudness

Using the on-board meters of your chosen editing software is a start, but don’t rely on them. Psycho-acoustics play a part here. For instance, pop music recorded in the last 20 years or so will sound louder than material recorded in the 1960s, . Bon Jovi will sound louder than The Beatles, even if the audio meters are indicating the same level.

This is to do with the production techniques employed in the studio and the use of audio “compression” – reduction of the dynamic range of the music so as to make the overall sound “punchier”. Use your ears as the final judge of relative levels. Does the male contributor sound at the same level as the female contributor? Is the opening music drowning out the presenter?

Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the audio fraternity of Loudness. You may have read about LuFs or “Luffs”. These are industry recognised standards that have been adopted to try and get over the complaints, usually TV broadcasters, receive that the adverts are too loud relative to the programme, or that viewers cannot hear the actors deliver their words. There are various software-based apps and plug-ins available to make your podcast recording comply to the loudness standards demanded by various podcast platforms and I suggest you do some research into them. A web search will provide useful information. In the interim using our ears and listening to your podcast as a listener would i.e. for the first time is a good start.

Listen back to your final mix on variety of speakers and headphones and don’t let any software or recorder-based level control have the final say in the sound.

No matter how good they are, they don’t have a brain and pair of ears like you.

You should be the final judge of what sounds right.

Iain Betson