Make Great Podcasts with Free Open Source Software

by Carla Schroder

Podcasts are great promotional tools for small businesses and in this guide, we'll show you how to make top-quality podcasts without spending a ton of money.

Your customers and potential customers hunger for information, but they don't always want to deal with salespeople. That's why podcasts and videos make such great promotional tools for your small business. You can showcase your products, demonstrate how to use them, and serve up ingenious tips and tricks.

I encourage you to invest some serious energy into creating short, focused how-tos, because your customers don't know your product line like you do; even long-time customers will be surprised at what your products can do. They buy your wares to do something, not to have something, so the more you can show them cool things to do the more you'll sell.

You must pay attention to production values; you don't have to be Hollywood, but you do need clear, well-lit videos and pleasant, easy-on-the-ears audio. Maybe you're more forgiving than I am, but when I listen to a podcast or a video with a poorly-produced soundtrack I cringe and think uncomplimentary thoughts. Sometimes I even stop listening.

Create Audacious Podcasts

I'm going to teach you how to produce excellent audio in a few simple steps using Audacity, the wonderful, free, open source audio recorder and editor. It's a free download, and it runs on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. Go ahead and install it, and we'll get this show on the road.

Audacity is a mature, reliable open source program that you can use for both simple and complex recordings. It supports all major audio file formats, records as many channels at once as your computer can handle, and it offers powerful editing tools such as clips, loops, overdubbing and all kinds of special effects. In this how-to, I'll review the basic steps for creating a simple, pleasing voice recording for podcasts and video soundtracks.

Required Audio Hardware

Any decent computer that's less than four years old comes with an adequate sound card; in fact today's low-end sound cards have better specifications than professional recording equipment of the 1960s. The most essential piece of audio hardware you need is a high-quality microphone. You don't have to spend a huge amount of money, but do get something better than those little cheapo "computer" microphones.

I recommend a higher-end USB headset, for example Logitech and Plantronics make great USB headsets for less than $100. A headset lets you hear yourself better, and you don't have to think about where your microphone is. A USB headset is the most portable. Headsets that plug directly into your sound cards with the little mini-plugs are good too, if you have audio ports on the front of your computer.

Practice speaking into a mic, even if you're experienced, and listen to yourself critically. Listen for annoying verbal tics, weird breathing or nose sounds, background noise, and plosives. Most people speak too quickly, so slow down and lower the pitch of your voice. Relax; you are the face of your business, and this is a great way to connect with customers.

Setting the Recording Level

Now we get to the fun part—recording and listening to yourself. Audacity has a little quirk; it does not dynamically detect your audio device. Make sure that you plug in your headset before you open Audacity. When you open Audacity, look for the recording monitor  and turn it on.

Now speak into your microphone, and you will see the red volume bars in the recording monitor (Figure 2). Aim for -12 to -6. Don't go over zero, or you'll hear distortion.

Now click the red Record button and start talking. Behold! A new stereo track appears with blue waveforms.

Click the Stop button, and then click Play to hear yourself. The playback monitor automatically displays green volume bars.

Saving Your Work

You save your project by selecting File > Save Project As from the menu. The default save format is an Audacity project folder full of files with an .aup extension. Note that this is not a playable audio file, but rather a special Audacity format.

You'll save all your recording and editing as an Audacity project, and then when you're finished you'll export it to your desired audio file format, which we'll get to presently. Audacity has an excellent auto-recovery feature if you have a power interruption or system crash, but you should still remember to save your work periodically.

Recording Podcasts: Audacity Edits and Cleanups

Go ahead and finish your audio recording. You can pick up where you left off by pressing the Shift button and clicking Record at the same time, or you can start a new track by clicking Record. This adds a new stereo track, so if you want to start over delete the existing track by clicking the little X on the top-left of the track.

Cutting and pasting in Audacity is just like cutting and pasting in any application. Select a portion of your track with the mouse, and then you can cut or copy the selection with Edit > Remove Audio > Cut, or Edit > Copy, and then paste it into another location. (Use the Zoom buttons, which have little magnifying glass icons, to adjust your view so you can see what you're doing.)

To delete a segment of your track, select the part you want to delete, and then press the Delete key. This removes it and closes the gap the deletion made, which shortens the timeline. To keep your track the same length, you can silence your selection with Edit > Remove Audio > Silence Audio.

Remember, you always have Edit > Undo if you make a mistake. If you want to keep your selection and delete everything else use this command: Edit > Remove Audio > Trim.

Fade to Black

Fades are essential, and they're easy in Audacity. Select the part of your track that you want to apply a fade to, and click Effect > Fade In or Fade Out.

One of the most useful items in the Effect menu is Normalize. This evens out your overall volume so that it's consistent, and it brings the volume up or down to whatever peak level you want. Before applying Normalize first look for any excessive peaks.

You need to get rid of excessive peaks because you don't want to startle your listeners, and because they'll throw off the overall balance. Carefully select just the peak (remember the Zoom tool) and then click Effect > Amplify. Reduce the level of the peak by entering a negative Amplify value, such as -10. You may need a little trial and error to figure out a good level.

Once you have reduced all your peaks click Effect > Normalize. Check both "Remove any DC offset" and "Normalize maximum amplitude to," and then enter your maximum volume level. Use the default setting: -1. (Unless you have to match volume levels with other recordings. Just remember all values are negative, and -1 is louder than -10.)

Exporting to a Playable Format

When you're finished editing, you need to export your recording to a playable format. Learning about the different audio file formats and quality levels is a rather large subject; for today we'll go middle-of-the road and make a good MP3 file suitable for online streaming.

To do this, click File > Export and in the save window select MP3. Then in the Options menu check Bit Rate Mode: Preset, and select Standard, 170-210 kbps quality. Finally, check Stereo (do not check Joint Stereo—that's a hack to save bits, and it ruins your stereo separation. We're not that desperate for bits).

You now possess a good-quality audio file that can be a podcast or a video soundtrack that will please and inform your customers. To learn about Audacity in-depth, read Book of Audacity (authored by yours truly) at No Starch Press.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 3rd 2013
Mobile Site | Full Site