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Two Podcast Production Sins

Last week, I was on #zinechat talking about podcasting & new media. As these discussions tend to go, we talked about production. I was asked to go into further detail into two of those production topics by a reader.

Sin #1: Cutting All The “Ums”

I understand the impulse to do this. When you’re editing audio, every “uh”, “um”, stutter, restarted sentence, vowel elongation and the like are discordant notes. Many of us as podcast editors hate those. They grate on us. So we remove them.

I did this in the early days of Master Plan. I thought it was “good audio.” Today, I can’t stand to listen to that. I did what I call today over-editing. The end result was (a) many hours of work on my end to produce the show, (b) a lot of cut waveform artifacts you can hear, and (c) the remove of the human quality in a voice.

It turns out that only I really noticed them. Listenrs, it turns out, are used to human speech. Ums and Uhs and the like are a part of that. However, jarring cuts in the waveform are not a part of that — and those do get noticed by listeners, particularly headphone & earbud ones.

Today, on the rare occasion I still edit audio, I don’t slave over every Um. I only work on the ones that happen in succession — “Back when we were uh uh uh developing Podcast the RPG…” And even then, I’m as like to leave one in for the human element as I am to cut them all. It largely depends on how easy it is to cut all of the Uhs in a moment without leaving a cut artifact behind.

I saw it as part of my duty as an interview podcaster to leave my guests sounding human. A few Uhs and restarts helps convey that humanity in a way we unconsciously recognize. Now, I was incredulous to this idea, until I started watching and listening to professional interview pieces. Stutters are at times left in. They’re character.

And it makes editing easier if you aren’t trying to remove them all. As to which ones I remove? Generally ones in succession (“uh uh uh”), sentence & thought restarts that last ten or more seconds, and anything that makes it hard to understand what’s being spoken.

Sin #2: Separating Speakers in Left & Right Track

I’m going to use a bit of hyperbole here. If you have some people speaking in just the left track, and others in the right track, you either intentionally or accidentally despise your audience.

Often, your listeners are going to be listening on headphones or earbuds. When you do that, you’re saying “fuck you, you don’t get to listen to my show” to:

  • Folks partly deaf or completely deaf in one ear — can’t hear half the conversation
  • Folks with a sore ear or ear infection — can’t hear half the conversation
  • Folks who have inner ear disorders — the conversation is literally disorienting, dizzying (this applies to grossly non-normalized audio as well)
  • Folks with suddenly-busted headphones (since they do wear down) — can’t hear half the conversation (this also applies to commuters with stereo system problems, which is much more expensive)
    I had this happen on a plane trip once. That…sucked. Luckily, the shows I listened to were in mono.
  • Folks with a reason for only wearing one ear bud, like going jogging in a traffic-busy urban area and still wanting to be aware of your surroundings. Cuz, hey, cars.

Some of these situations are temporary, some permanent. But even cater to the temporary — if I can’t listen to your show when people are talking about it, what are the chances that by the time I can, ten other things have grabbed my attention instead?

And that doesn’t even address when the two tracks are not normalized, so that one side is quite and the other loud. There’s one indie podcast years ago that used to do this. I stopped listening the day that the grossly un-normalized spiking laughter happening in just my left ear nearly caused me to clutch my head in pain and disorientation. Remember, we use our ears for balance. Don’t fuck with that, and you’ll keep more listeners.

If you’re just doing a talk show, make it mono (or barring that, identical stereo…which is just like mono except you’ve doubled the file size). Unless, of course, you like telling a portion of your audience that you are comfortable discriminating against them–because that’s what we feel when podcasters thoughtlessly make such audio.

– Ryan

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7 Responses to Two Podcast Production Sins

  1. Jeff says:

    I have to agree with you on the Sin #1. I had been asked/told that I needed to do just that. Sadly, this removes the natural sounds and flow that I personally want to give to my audience. Now like you, if it’s really bad or there is a horrible spike or something, I will remove that. Still I can even think of how long it might take some people to do the production work on their Podcast if they spend time trying to edit everything out. In the end, you end up with a Podcast that sounds dull and prefabricated with no life of it’s own.

  2. Thom says:

    I was very guilty of the first point, and started multi-tasking during the editing process so that I only noticed and took out massive fubars. I’ve also started leaving in mistakes just because it’s funnier.

    The second one has only really affected me as a listener. It’s made worse when all the presses are running and I have to turn the volume up just to hear the speech. There’s always one guy sitting a foot from the mic with great stuff to say and three guys right up on the mic agreeing to every point I can’t hear.

  3. Wayne says:

    Good stuff, Ryan. Thanks. I suppose this would apply more to the podcaster than an interviewee, but I could also see sort of doing a second take if you’re having lots of “ums” or flubs of other sorts. There’s also Toastmasters, who will ruthlessly ding the ums out of you!

    Audio level is one of my big gripes, especially if you listen to a lot of different ones on a drive or the like.

    I really liked some suggestions that I saw in feedback to a recent podcast that you were on regarding pop filters, proper microphone distance, etc. I’d like to start a podcast of my own, maybe one of these days I’ll get it going.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Wayne,

      I’ve thought about Toastmasters for that sort of thing.

      Huh, you remember which podcast episode that was? I have talked about that in a few places, but it’s been some time, so I can’t remember where. :)

      – Ryan

    • Wayne says:

      I could have sworn it was from the Drifting The Game podcast, http://ryanmacklin.com/2011/03/interview-about-drifting-games/, but I’m not seeing the comment that I remember and the format of the page is different.

      I’ll keep looking.

      Two points stuck in my mind. First, don’t use boom mike gamer headsets for recording podcasts. You need a little distance, and you need a pop and wind filter. Second, don’t talk “down” to the microphone. If the mike is higher, you won’t hunch over, you’ll have better breath, and better breath control.

      I don’t think you’re guilty of either offense. ;-)

      For those not familiar with what Toastmasters does, you have to give speeches, sometimes impromptu and sometimes prepared, and there are two people with the little ding bells like hotel registration desks sometimes have. If you utter an “um” or similar time-wasting utterance, you get a ding. Someone keeps a tally, and the person with the most dings gets gently mocked. Or something like that.

      (having looked at my Mac’s desktop, I see a two-part interview for Dresden, maybe that’s it. I can’t spend any more time looking right now as I’m remoted in to work.)

  4. Rich says:

    Ryan,

    Interesting post, glad you’re still thinking about podcasts. I completely agree on Sin #2, no defense there. There’s only one podcast where I keep listening even though they do this, which is Geeks On.

    As for Sin #1. I agree on the suplemental over-editing points you make in the argument, but as far as actually deleting and cutting uhms, I am an unrepentant sinner on this. For the foreseeable future, I will viciously cut uhs and uhms where I can do so without leaving artifacts (which I think I do pretty dang well).

    When an interviewee begins every single statement with an uhm, it is not natural and to leave it in is a disservice to the interviewee, it makes them sound nervous and unprepared. Uhms usually serve to buy time for a speaker or to allow them to maintain control of the conversation and continue their point. So, if I control the audio and I can let the speaker continue the conversation, I see no need in the time wasted for the listener to hear uhms and uhs.

    A couple things I realized while doing Canon Puncture was that uhms serve a few functions that are needed.

    1. If you cut out all uhms without putting something back in, then the speaker sounds unrealistic. We all unconsciously expect everyone to take a breath. So, if an uhm follows a gasping breath, then I cut both and replace with an nearly equal amount of silence or near silence based on the background noise for the speaker.

    2. Some uhms are pauses for a speaker to give impact for a forthcoming statement, so they are useful to highlight a point and should be kept in. This is a case-by-case basis, but over time, I get a feel for it and can easily and quickly make that judgment in my first pass.

    In the end, your point about over-editing is that it takes extra time. I agree, it does. But when I listen to a raw file and a finished file for my shows, I find the difference to be well worth the time and effort. I mean, after all, this is my hobby. I wouldn’t be happy with my show if I didn’t do this.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rich,

      Sure. I think you and I could write a much more detailed post on the Art of the Stutter, or something like that. Keeping an Um at the top of an answer the interviewee should know about makes him or her sound unprepared, but I could see the point of keeping that after a question the interviewee is surprised by. (I had a few of these on Master Plan, since I got into more detail than other shows on a subject.)

      I should say that everyone’s threshold for over-editing will be different. You remember back when you taunted me for taking around 8x recorded time to edit my show? As time when on, that turned into “over-editing” for me. I didn’t want to spend that amount of time anymore. But that’s a somewhat different take on over-editing — a podcaster-satisfaction on rather than an end-result one.

      – Ryan