Master FX for Podcasts

Riley Byrne, Owner, Podigy.co

15 September 2017

Google “audio mastering”, and you’ll undoubtedly come across dozens upon dozens of sites that call mastering “the dark art”  of production. To a large extent this is hyperbolic, but it does highlight that mastering for music is never a “one size fits all” approach. Mastering for podcasts is significantly less complex than mastering for music, because seldom are there different pieces of audio interacting with each other.

Whereas a good song needs room for drums, guitar, synths, bass and vocals all to sound cohesive but be individually articulate, rarely is there ever more than 2-3 audio cues playing at once on a podcast. The way we’ve written our Complete Guide to Podcast Editing sets up our tracks so that almost no effects on the master track are needed. Each of our voice tracks have effects that bring them level with each other, meaning we’re only relying on our master buss to control times when more than one person is speaking, and to bring our level up by a decibel to compensate for any loss of volume from our multiband compressors.

To achieve this we do two things. We first add one final instance of ReaXComp, at relatively high thresholds low ratios. Basically at this step all we’re trying to do is mitigate the increase in volume anytime two people speak over each other, or if for some reason a thump or other sound slipped through the cracks.

This is coupled with a limiter, which is a compressor with an infinite:1 ratio, meaning once the threshold is hit, no amount of increase in input volume will cause the output to rise. The limiter is our last line of defence against unforeseen audio events. However, because it’s ratio is so extreme, we only want our limiter to work in circumstances in which any further increase in volume would be detrimental to the listener experience. We could use a limiter to compress all of our audio at a ridiculously low threshold and add gain to level out our podcast, but it would sound horribly compressed and lose all semblance of dynamics. Instead, because our peaks for -19 LUFS audio should be around -6dB, I like set the limiter to around -3dB. This way, there is an appreciable increase in volume when people talk over each other, but not so much that listeners are constantly having to adjust the volume.

Here we have a limiter with our recommended settings. Notice how almost all the settings are ones we’re familiar with from compressors. In a pinch, you can use a regular compressor as a limiter, although most DAWs will include a dedicated limiter.

Also, a quick note on decibels. You might be thinking “hmm, there’s only a 3 dB difference between what Riley set his limiter at and 0 dB, does it really matter?” However, you have to remember that the perceived loudness of an audio source doubles every 10 dB. So a noise floor of -20 dB is  actually twice as loud as a noise floor of -30 dB. Similarly, an increase of 6 dB feels like a 52% increase in volume, as opposed to an only 23% increase in perceived volume after an increase of 3 dB.

All this being said, our master buss is not where we want to be fixing audio problems. If you’re having an issue that someone is too quiet in the mix, or if there are problems with noise or interference, trying to fix it by applying effects to the master buss is a bit like using a sledgehammer because you misplaced your scalpel. For podcasting, the purpose of master effects is less to “glue everything together” and more “safeguards against hurting listeners ears”. It’s not as sexy, but keeping things simple and level will give you some very happy fans.

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