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Make An Accessible Podcast With The Right Equipment & Environment

Aug 21, 2019

Today (and all this week) I'm continuing to raise awareness of accessibility in podcasting, specifically for those of us with hearing loss. With that comes a discussion about equipment used and the environment in which that equipment is used to record and produce a podcast.

For this conversation, I’d love to get deeply practical, digging down into and teach you techniques that explain exactly how you can ensure that your podcast is accessible. And I'm going to do that -- sort of. But you’ll remember that this is not a “how-to” show. This is much more a “why-to” show that paints a broader picture. But I’ll try my best. 

Equipment and the environment where those tools are deployed have massive implications on your ability to make that podcast episode accessible. Accessible, in short for the purposes of this episode, means “audible to everyone” -- even those of us with hearing loss. That also means every part of your podcast episode should be enjoyable. Not just the loud parts. Those intimate moments you painstakingly placed inside your episode should be listenable not just to those with pristine hearing, and not just to those who have the luxury of sitting in a perfectly quiet room as they listen to podcasts. We want to hear those moments too.

Accessibility improves your podcasts listen-ability for everyone. 

Let's look at the equipment. Microphones have the job of picking up the sounds you're recording, so that’s a good place to start. Now’s the part where you’re likely expecting a link to the perfect microphone to ensure you always have an accessible podcast. And you’re going to be disappointed.

I can’t tell you what microphone you should buy. The right microphone is the one that you own that gets the job done. Yes, many podcasters (including me) have upgraded to higher quality mics. But it’s not just a microphone that makes the difference. Different voices and environments necessitate different mic choices. What works well for me may not work well for you, for very good reasons. My voice sounds great on a Shure SM7B not just because it’s a great mic, but because I’m stationary in my studio, I’ve been trained to never to go off-axis, and I constantly monitor myself with headphones as I record. 

Those last two points -- staying on-axis and self-monitoring -- are huge. Last week, when I recorded a bonus miniseries from Podcast Movement, I used a $30 microphone at a desk in my hotel room. And it sounded pretty good, mostly because I was keenly aware of my technique in the less-than-perfect environment. If you or the voice talent you're recording aren’t as disciplined to stay on-axis, then a high-end dynamic microphone like my SM7B may not be a good choice. If the voice you’re trying to capture comes out of the face of a body that’s prone to gesticulation, a good headset microphone might be right -- and I never recommend headset mics! But again, the right microphone is the one that works best for a particular environment.

(Side note: If you're carrying super high-end condenser microphones around as you’re recording in hotel rooms, stop. Stop right now.)

But there is a natural floor to how much you can get away with. To illustrate that point, I’ll tell you about a bass player I once knew who looked a lot like me. He wasn't very good, but he managed to fumble his way into semi-pro band. They made a couple of records. They got a couple of gigs. So this guy, who also fancied himself a bit of a gear-head, started needlessly buying new guitars looking for the perfect sound. When he still sucked on just about any guitar, he finally took one -- his first basic four-string -- into the shop for a complete overhaul. He wanted it tricked out with new strings, new pickups, and was even interested in re-fretting the board. A big-ticket for the technician, right?

Wrong. The tech showed me -- sorry, this person -- that the guitar itself was shoddy. The neck was warped and the body was what you’d expect from a beginner guitar. Sure, the tech could trick it out as requested, but the damned thing still wouldn’t hold tuning for more than a song or two.

Wrong product for the wrong person. The same thing goes for the equipment you use to tweak the sounds captured by the microphones. You can do a lot with today’s free or a cheap DAWs -- digital audio work stations. But only up to a certain point. When you move beyond the basics and start layering in multiple microphones, removing room noises, or just generally trying to produce a high-end final product... you're gonna run into limitations. 

I know people who can produce (and do produce) amazing audio with free or cheap software. But free and cheap software are designed to get novices to create something -- anything! -- with that software. They are not designed to help those novices to make audio that sounds amazing. 

But don't assume I’m advising you go to the other extreme end. Don't go buy Pro Tools,  because you don't need Pro Tools, simply because you don't know how to use Pro Tools. Don't rush out and buy a 16-channel mixer, because you probably don't need a 16 channel-mixer.

What I am advising is that you use equipment designed for the task at hand. Equipment specifically designed to produce podcast episodes instead of capturing the sounds of a band in a garage. 

Choosing Equipment dedicated to and designed for the job at hand is always the best choice. 

Once you have the right environment and the right equipment for the show you’re making, you have the best chance at making accessible audio that anyone can hear. 

Tomorrow I’ll get even more specific, now that I’ve laid the groundwork. Yes, I’ll talk about some plugins and processes you can actually put in play to your podcast production right away.

Before I go, those same two things from yesterday: 

Tomorrow is Thursday, and I shall wrap-up this miniseries on making accessible content for those with hearing loss right here on Podcast Pontifications.

Cheers!