Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

Ever since Apple’s release of iTunes 4.9 with built-in support for podcasting, hundreds of thousands of people have discovered the wide range of free audio programs now available as podcasts. While most will be content only to listen to podcasts, some – perhaps including you – may be ready to create their own radio-style programs. After all, distribution through iTunes is now easy, and subscriptions are the only thing separating listeners from your thoughts and ideas.

Creating podcasts isn’t simple, but it’s not too hard, either. You’ll need a small combination of hardware and software in order to create your own recordings, and in this iPod 101 tutorial Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation, we’ll walk through the different elements you need to create a simple podcast, from computer and microphone through to the finished product.

Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

First Things First: The Plan

Amazingly enough, this first step is the one many podcasters skip: develop a plan. Before you start recording, think about what you want to say, and organize your show accordingly. Make notes, prepare your interviews (if any), and try to improvise as little as possible. While a completely spontaneous show can sound good if you’ve got the knack, the best podcasters prepare their shows in advance and work hard to provide interesting content. (See Seven Rules of Effective Podcasting (offsite link) for some tips on creating good podcasts that people will come back to listen to.) There are thousands of podcasts available today, but it’s easy to pass most of them up because they don’t stand out – figure out your angle, and run with it!

Next Up: The Gear

You won’t need much hardware to record a podcast: typically, you’ll start with a Mac or PC computer with a recent version of either Windows or Mac OS X; Windows XP or Mac OS X 10.3 or later are recommended. (You can also use Linux, but we’ll only look at Mac and Windows software in this article.) The only other hardware you’ll need is a microphone.

The microphone is the most important element in the recording chain, other than your voice – the way listeners hear your voice is greatly affected by the quality of your mic. Don’t use an internal microphone in a computer, such as you’ll find on laptops and some desktop computers. These mics will pick up ambient sounds, such as the noise of the computer, as well as anything you move on your desk while recording. Don’t use a cheap mic that may have come with your computer either. These mics are generally very low-quality and are designed for voice chats, not recording.

You don’t need to spend a lot for a mic, however; many podcasters use USB headsets that are designed for both voice chats and recording. Logitech has an excellent line of USB headsets that range up to $50 in price, each with noise-cancelling microphones, which help filter out the ambient noise in your room or outside the windows.

Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

If you prefer not to use a USB headset, you’ll just need a microphone and a way to make sure your PC or Mac can record from it. Most PCs have sound cards that are capable of recording audio through a microphone-in port (often colored pink), but some PCs and many Macs don’t have such a port. Griffin Technology’s $40 iMic solves this problem with a small silver disc that connects to your USB port and adds recording functionality. An inexpensive microphone add-on from Griffin called the Lapel Mic ($15) can then be used as a collar-mounted stereo microphone.

Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

If you want to sound more professional, you’ll want to look for a condenser microphone, which will require an external power source (you don’t simply plug it into your computer) and result in more realistic sound. Behringer’s Studio Condenser Microphone C-1, at about $55, is a good starting point. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a professional mic, but only real pros need to go into that price range.

Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

We used a simple, inexpensive solution to create our own first two podcasts: Griffin’s iTalk ($39.99, iLounge rating: A-). Because we wanted to create the first podcast actually made with an iPod, iTalk was the best microphone option we could find. Belkin and DLO also make a few alternative products, which we review here for those interested in duplicating our efforts.

Recording Software

Recording your own voice is relatively simple, and there are a variety of PC and Mac programs that can do this. One of the most popular programs among podcasters is Audacity, which can record, edit and post-process your audio. It has several advantages: it is multi-platform (Windows 98 and later, Mac OS 9 and X, and Linux), and it’s free. This open-source program has become the standard tool for podcasters who want to record their shows, edit their recordings, and combine other recordings (such as intros, jingles or music, sometimes made with other programs) to create finished shows.

Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

Everything you record with Audacity appears on screen as sound waves that you can edit very much like a word processing program: as with a page full of words, you can zoom in and out to see more or less of the audio wave on screen at once, select portions with a cursor, and delete or format those portions as you desire. Many podcasters delete their “ums” and “you knows” wherever they appear, and you can also use the cursor to snip out boring or screwed-up parts of your recording. Audacity also has tools that reduce background noise and static, create echo effects, and increase or decrease the amplitude of your voice. After each recording, save your file in WAV (uncompressed) format – it’ll take up a bit of space on your hard drive, but it’s the best format to guarantee you don’t compromise on sound quality until you’re ready.

Audacity has one major limitation for podcasters: while you can use Audacity to record yourself, you cannot use it to easily record interviews with people who aren’t in the same room; Audacity only records directly from an input source such as a microphone. Many podcasters use the free teleconferencing program Skype to conduct their interviews of other people, and recording the interviews requires an additional piece of software. Podcasters use the Windows program Virtual Audio Cable or the Mac program Audio Hijack Pro. Either of these programs traps Skype’s audio and saves it so that you can edit it in Audacity.

After you’ve completed editing of your recordings and interviews, you can export your finished podcast in several formats, including MP3, AIFF and WAV. If you want to export your podcast as an MP3 file, you’ll need to download the LAME MP3 encoder as a helper for Audacity. But if you use AIFF or WAV, iTunes can handle the MP3 compression for you; this latter option is probably best, because you’ll have more flexibility in how you compress the file. We use iTunes for compression, as discussed below.

Converting Your Podcast

Once you have everything recorded, it’s time to get your podcast into a form that’s easy to share. A one-hour WAV file will take up about 600 MB; listeners won’t download such large files, so you’ll need to compress it into either MP3 or AAC format. As you already know, iTunes has the ability to turn your CDs into MP3s – now you’ll use the same feature to convert your podcast.

The first step is add your WAV file to your iTunes library. Drag it from your desktop to the library window, or drag it to a playlist. (One good way to work on files like this is to create a temporary “Temp” playlist, into which you drag files you don’t plan to keep.) Before converting your podcast, you should tag (identify details for) the file. You can enter a name, artist, album, and comments. Use these tags, because once listeners get a hold of your podcast, this is the only way they’ll have to identify it. Start by giving your podcast a name that is not too long; enter your name as artist (or your website’s URL), and, in the Comments field, add anything that you’d like listeners to be able to know. Also, use any of the other fields you want, such as Year, Genre, etc., to provide enough info about your podcast. If you have a logo or photo, you can add it as “album art” in the Artwork tab.


Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

Then it’s time to choose your compression settings. Open the iTunes preferences (iTunes > Preferences on Mac OS X; Edit > Preferences on Windows), then click the Importing tab. The Import Using menu lets you select the format you convert your file to. You’ll want to choose either AAC or MP3. AAC will only play through iTunes and on iPods; while some other software may support AAC, few other portable music players do, so your best choice is MP3. (If you do choose AAC, you can select Podcast from the settings menu to use a preset podcast bit rate setting.) Select MP3 from the Import Using menu, then select Custom from the Setting menu. Choose a bit rate of 64 kbps; you could go lower or higher, but voice sounds good at that bit rate, and your files won’t be too large. From the Sample Rate menu, select 22.050 kHz; this is high enough for voice. From the Channels menu, select Mono, unless your podcast is mostly music; voice does not need stereo, and this keeps your files small. Click OK.


Beginner’s Guide to Podcast Creation

Now, find your raw podcast file in your library or playlist, select it, then select Advanced > Convert Selection to [format], where format is AAC or MP3.