How to Edit a Podcast: Audio Levels, Content, Tips, Trailers & More
We can’t dig too deep into the topic of how to edit podcast audio without acknowledging that there are two distinct disciplines at play. First of all, there’s how to edit your podcast in terms of controlling the software and ‘physically’ going through the editing process. Secondly, there’s the more creative side which involves choosing when to edit, what to cut, where to take breaks or add music or effects (AKA sound design), and so on.
Both the scientific and the artistic sides of the brain are put to use in the podcast editing process. We’re going to be giving them both their time in the spotlight. Our goal is to help someone who has never edited a podcast before while still providing a useful resource for anyone who is already editing their podcast but might not be getting the results they hope for.
The podcast post-production process
Post-production - or all the work that happens after you hit record - can be split into a few stages:
Editing: This is our focus in this article. To really understand the role editing plays in how to produce a podcast we need to look at the bigger picture and how each stage in the production process contributes to a final episode. That includes the very important and very underrated steps of research and planning before you get behind the mic, writing your script, then recording it, then editing those recordings together to tell a compelling story. We'll touch on all these points here.
Sound design: This is the creative process of adding music and sound effects to embelish the story, evoke emotion, give the story momentum and keep the listener engaged.
Mixing/mastering: This is where you’ll adjust the levels of the various parts of your recording so they all sit well together. This includes making adjustments when people are speaking at different volumes, and where you’ll compress, EQ and process your audio to improve the sound of your recordings and create a final, polished product.
Syndication and promotion: After your podcast is ready to hit the airwaves, this step involves finding an audience and getting your podcast onto their devices. We’ve covered promoting a podcast in great depth here. (This bit isn't technically covered under the term 'post-production' but I'm including it here for the full picture).
Our focus today is editing (technique and style), but before we dig into the technical side of things, let’s think about writing for just a moment.
If you’re conducting an interview with a guest, doing some research and writing down some notes can have a much more profound impact on the quality of your podcast than getting it perfectly mixed down and mastered. It’s easy to edit out “umms” and “uhhs” but it’s impossible to edit in interesting questions, insights, or research that’s lacking from your recordings.
Still, that’s no reason not to get your mixing and mastering as close to perfect as you can.
Editing a podcast: the initial steps
If you’re wondering how much to edit down the length of a podcast, the answer is “it depends.” It depends on how much audio you have recorded and how much needs to be cut out or cleaned up. Some of the most popular podcasts can go for 2 or 3 hours, but with podcasts to grow your business, it’s usually a better idea to keep it concise. If your episodes run somewhere in the 20-30 minute range, it’s something people can listen to during their commute in the car, while they ride the train or bus, during a workout, etc.
What you’ll need
A DAW (digital audio workstation) is the software that you’ll use to edit your podcast. You can either record it using this software, or import an audio file that’s been recorded elsewhere.
A microphone that isn’t built-in to your cellphone or laptop is a huge upgrade in audio quality. You don’t need to get something super high-end for thousands of dollars. The sweet spot for most business podcasters is a microphone and digital recorder from a reputable brand in the $200-$600 range. You’ll want to grab a pop-filter for your mic, too. We’ll cover podcast equipment in another post, but starting points are a Zoom H6 recorder and SM58 mic, or an SM7B combined with a Cloudlifter and Scarlett 2i2 audio interface, or at the low end an ATR2100 USB mic which you can plug directly into your computer.
A quiet place to record without background noise is going to make the editing process much easier because there will be less background noise to try to work around. Also, a space with lots of soft furniture to absorb the sound is a huge help. As unsexy as it might sound, a closet full of clothes makes a great recording booth, where a cold boardroom sounds like an echo chamber that will result in super reverberant recordings!
A plan will ensure that you aren’t just going in blindly. A bit of planning and research can be the difference between being able to tell a compelling story to your audience, or having a really tricky time editing your audio into something interesting.
Which DAW should you use to edit a podcast?
This is where you’ll often find Audacity recommendations, but this popular piece of free software is not ideal. It’s simple to use and lets you record and edit in one place. But it’s a destructive editor, which means that you can lose the things that you edit out - which can make it tough (or impossible) to add them back in later if you decide to revise your edit. With a non-destructive editor, you can go back multiple steps to make changes.
If you’re looking for something free and you’re on a Mac, check out the classic GarageBand. It’s great for podcast editing, especially if you’re just looking for some default settings that’ll get the job done without having to get too bogged down in the details.
We use Pro Tools to edit podcasts professionally for our clients. It’s the industry standard for broadcast, not to mention most of your favorite music albums. It’s a very powerful platform but comes with the appropriate learning curve and price tag, so might not be the best place to get started.
Another option used by many professional podcast producers is Reaper. It’s a powerful platform for podcasting or music production with a small price tag. But similar to Pro Tools, it’ll take a little while to get proficient with it.
Hindenburg Broadcaster is tailored for audio publishers, with an easy-to-learn interface and a simple workflow that can help speed up your process. It’s a good middle-ground between the free apps and the more complex tools like Reaper and Pro Tools and is used by lots of podcast professionals.
Editing basics: what to look for, what to remove
If you have a rough outline or plan that you’ve written ahead of time, you’ll be able to edit out any tangents in the conversation that don’t contribute to whatever it is that you’re trying to get across.
Be merciless with your editing and don’t be afraid to cut, cut, and then cut some more. 20-30 minutes is a great length for a business podcast, we don’t all have to be Dan Carlin and release 5-hour long episodes of Hardcore History that take months to produce. Approach every sentence with the question: Is this adding to the story? If not, it can go.
On ums and uhs
A lot of focus in the podcasting blogosphere is put on the fanatical removal of every stutter, repetition, or crutch word (‘like’, ‘sorta’, ‘kinda’ etc). Sure, taking out 100 of them over the course of an hour-long interview can cut your episode length down some, but it’s a hugely time-consuming process that tends to end in unnatural-sounding dialogue.
People are humans - let them sound like it! Of course, we want to remove any obvious blunders or annoying ‘ya knows’ that can be taken away while retaining the natural flow of speech. But your time and energy is far better spent on removing or reordering entire sections of the discussion to tell a more compelling and engaging story in a shorter space of time than nit-picking over every little in-breath.
Remove noise, plosive pops, and any background sounds as much as you can. Be careful if you’re editing out any loud breathing, it can sound unnatural if you don’t hear people taking any breaths at all while speaking. Edit out any interruptions where you can, too.
Listen to the podcast and take note of any long pauses that could be jarring to a listener. A brief moment of dead air can feel like an eternity. Although, for the same reason, it can be a very powerful tool in the right circumstances.
You don’t want to be too precious with your content. Does it add value for your listeners? If not, cut it. Your definition of adding value will depend on what it is that your listeners are looking for. We’re aiming for a smooth, cohesive listening experience that flows naturally. That’s how to edit podcast content in a way that respects your listener’s time.
Topping and tailing is the process of cutting out any chit-chat that takes place before the start of your show, and anything that comes afterwards. You don’t want to release anything that your guest says if they’re under the impression that you’re ‘off the air’, but these moments can sometimes contain gems that are worth asking your guest’s permission to use.
Look for stand-out moments that could be used for promotions on other platforms. Short clips or hooks from your interviews can be used to create audiograms on social - something we covered in our article on podcast promotion.
9 quick podcast editing tips
1. Listen to your interview once before editing
If you start slicing out chunks of conversations before remembering the rest of the podcast, you could remove things that are referenced later on and creating a lot of extra work and potential for mishaps.
2. Take notes of things to edit using timestamps
As you listen, take notes of edits you want to make and include the timestamp of where this edit will take place in your recording.
3. Keep the blank space while editing
If you edit out short pauses in the conversation or long sections of dialogue, don’t smush the rest of the conversation together yet - leave the blank space. Otherwise, none of your timestamps will make sense anymore. Or, another handy trick is to work through your timestamped edits in reverse order.
4. Listen at regular speed
It can be tempting to listen to your podcast at a quicker speed to get through your edit faster. But this makes it difficult to edit pauses or lulls in the conversation and to get a feel for the overall pacing.
5. How to edit a podcast if one person is a lot quieter
Depending on how much quieter the recording is, this is something you may want to fix during the recording process by ensuring your guest’s microphone has a strong signal. If the level is too low then increasing the gain (or volume) in the editing process will result in a lot of background hiss which can be hard to remove. It’s always best to start with a good recording level in the first place.
But the easiest way to manage this issue in post is to increase the gain of the lower-level speaker before you begin editing. You can do this by normalizing the audio (a function available in all DAWs) or by adding some compression with makeup gain to increase the loudness.
6. How to edit a podcast trailer
Aim for something under 2.5 minutes. Pick the best quotes from your episodes to tease what is to come and compile them together in a way that whets the appetite of your potential listener. Tie it together with narration, but keep it short and sweet.
7. How to use sound effects tastefully
Using sound effects or sound design can make a huge change to the emotional impact of your podcast. It can help guide the attention of your listener and keep them engaged over the course of an episode.
But be careful - it’s a fine line between creative genius and just plain cheesy. And too much sound design and your narrative will be lost in the soundscape you’ve created.If in doubt, leave it out. But when used correctly, sound design can turn a good podcast into an amazing one.
8. Give it one last listen
Give your podcast one final listen before uploading it. Make sure you’ve cut out everything you can, and that there aren’t any editing, mixing, or mastering errors. Is it engaging and interesting to listen to from start to finish?
9. How to choose podcast music
The theme music that opens and closes your show will be a listener’s first impression. It sets the tone of your show and gives listeners an idea of what to expect. Good theme music will fit right in and may go unnoticed, which is okay because that means it’s a great fit. Bad theme music will stick out and instantly give people the wrong impression about your podcast.
If you don't know where to start, we recommend listening to other shows that you enjoy or that are doing a good job of appealing to the same target audience as you. You can find inspiration from the musical choices they make and select tracks that have a similar style or project the same emotion.
If your podcast is already out in the wild, a useful hack is to look at your Spotify podcaster analytics dashboard. If you head into the ‘Audience’ tab of your show and scroll down to ‘Artists they’re listening to’, you are given an insight into the most popular artists streamed by your audience in the last 28 days.
This can be a great place to get ideas of the kind of music your listeners enjoy so that you can find (or commission from a composer) something stylistically similar. But keep in mind you'll almost certainly want it to be instrumental - no lyrics to distract from your narrative!
Hiring a podcast editor or producer
Now that you know the basic ins and outs of editing a podcast, you’ll have a much easier time hiring an editor, producer, or podcast editing service if you don't intend to do it yourself.
If you have any questions about editing or any other part of podcasting for your business, you can reach out to chat to us.