A guide to creating great podcasts with pod-safe production music
All great podcasts leverage music to help tell a story and keep things moving and establish brand identity and series cohesion. Different use cases in podcasting call for different types of production music, and understanding the advantages of using pod-safe royalty free music in podcasts can go a long way to help you meet your creative and audience retention goals.
If you’re looking to improve the quality of your podcasts, or just brush up on some audio basics, this guide has you covered. Throughout, you’ll find helpful tips that will help you create and plan podcasts that will meet your creative goals and ultimately grow your audience. We’ll dive into a common podcasting workflow, taking a look at how podcasts are put together, the tools you can use, and the steps to take. This guide explores the different types of music you’ll want to leverage in your podcast, where they fit in, and how to find them. We’ll uncover some basic music editing techniques from the pros, and wrap up with how to protect yourself legally with pod-safe music.
Note: This guide assumes that you are familiar with podcasting basics, so we won’t go too deep into the content writing, finding guests, and publishing portions of the workflow. We’ll mention them, but will stay focused on creating the audio and utilizing production music.
Creating a podcast is no small task. But there are common steps that all podcast creators take that can be standardized into a basic checklist. These are:
Think about something that is interesting both to you and your audience. You’ll need to be able to talk about it for at least 10 minutes to have a podcast that’s worthwhile. Most great podcasts are north of 30 minutes in length, so the topics covered in each episode need to be well planned and thought out. Take inspiration from websites you visit, blogs you read, news events, or create a calendar of topics that are appropriate for your podcast’s theme.
As interesting as you are, you may find that it helps to include others in the production of your podcast. Try to reach out to at least one other person in your industry or who has knowledge in your topic area, and invite them to join you on your podcast. Most people are happy to oblige as long as you’ve put in the leg work to identify the structure and topics for discussion. It’s important to have some good questions and prompts to get the discussion going.
Once you have a topic and a guest or two, it’s time to record your primary content. This could be pre-written or off-the-cuff, or a mixture of the two. The key at this step is to record more audio than you think you’ll need. In many cases, you’ll need to record double the amount of audio than you’re planning on releasing. This is because you’ll inevitably find mistakes, or hear things on your next listen that you’ll want to cut out. Worst case, you won’t be able to use half of what you recorded. Best case, you’ll have enough content for a series of podcasts! Not sure how to record? We’ll cover the tools of the trade below.
This is the most time consuming part of podcast creation. Careful editing is what separates great podcasts from mediocre ones. When editing, you’ll be diving into an audio editing program and listening critically -- sometimes for hours at a time. This is the stage where you’ll add music, ensure that your content stays on track, and that the pacing is correct. During editing you should:
Look for a high quality microphone designed for spoken word or vocal recording. You can add even more professionalism by purchasing a pop screen, which is a small fabric attachment that clips onto your microphone stand and sits in front of the microphone. These help minimize unwanted noise from hard consonants.
You’ll want one microphone per person you’re planning on having speaking simultaneously on a podcast to make sure you can edit each person. This makes recording easier, but can take more time editing on the back end if you’re a perfectionist.
If you’re on a budget, you can get away with one microphone, but will have a harder time editing and pacing interactions after the fact. You’ll likely need to spend more time up-front getting your takes correct so that you don’t have to try to make cumbersome edits later.
Tip: If you’re totally strapped for cash and just can’t afford a microphone, you can get started podcasting by using the built-in microphone on your computer.
Some microphones designed for podcasting are powered by USB and plug directly into your computer, but others require a piece of hardware that converts the mic’s audio signal into a digital format that can be interpreted by your computer. This is known as an audio interface.
There are several kinds available out there, so check with your local computer store or musical equipment store. Audio interfaces range in quality and features, but all you need to focus on is finding one that can support the number of microphones you’ll be using and the type of inputs you have on your computer (USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, etc). Audio interfaces that support multi-tracking (several concurrent channels of audio) can be helpful if you’re recording on multiple microphones to ensure that each mic has its own dedicated audio stream on your computer.
Digital Audio Workstations (or DAW for short) is just a fancy name for audio software. Like everything else, DAWs come in a variety of sizes and flavors, each with differing levels of features. Some are single-track, and only let you work with one audio file at a time, while others are multi-track, and will let you simultaneously play and edit any number of audio files at once. Some will let you work with video, and some with virtual instruments (synthesizers and samplers), while others limit you to strictly audio. The important questions for your DAW for podcasting are:
(You’ll need to be able to layer music with your narrative track -- so a minimum of 2 stereo tracks is required for anything other than spoken word).
Most podcasting platforms require a web-friendly playback format, and MP3 and ogg are the most popular for podcasting, however many browsers are supporting other formats.
Once you’ve found an audio editor that meets these two requirements, the rest is gravy (depending on what else you want to do!).
When you’re producing a podcast, being able to listen to your end-product accurately is key. If you’re listening back to your work on low-quality speakers, you may not hear all of your mistakes, glitches, or noises that will ultimately give you low grades with your audience. Find a pair of high quality headphones or studio monitor speakers that have a reasonably flat response. Avoid playback systems that automatically boost bass or cut high-end. While it might make your mix sound great right off the bat, they don’t give you an accurate picture of how your podcast will sound out in the wild on your audience’s speakers.
Once you’ve decided on a topic, invited guests, and recorded your podcast into your DAW, you’re going to most likely need music next. You should let your story be your guide, and the editing process will highlight places where music would fit well. That said, there are several common types of production music that you’ll find that you turn to over and over again. Those are:
Notice that we’re referring to production music here. You’ll want to make sure that you’re sourcing your music from pod-safe music libraries to avoid copyright infringement issues. You can read more about this in our royalty free music licensing guide or our podcast-specific licensing recommendations here.
Also known as intro and outtro music, these tracks are used over and over again in episode after episode. This is the song that represents your brand. Your audience should know that they’re listening to your podcast as soon as this music starts playing without a word, and without checking the title on their podcast player.
When selecting title music for your podcast, that means that you need to be sure of two things:
First, the music that you use is suitable for your brand. Is it the right style or genre for your topic? For example, a country western track might not fit a high-end lifestyle podcast. In short, your title music should convey your brand image. If you’re having trouble figuring out what image you should be conveying, it can be helpful to picture your key audience. What do they like to do? What kind of music might they like to listen to? What does your overall theme bring to mind? A pet podcast might do well with a playful music track, and searching for children’s music might be a good place to find that.
It goes without saying that the energy of the music you use for titles needs to match your podcast’s theme as well. Aside from a few exceptions, you’ll be looking for tracks with a solid beat and pretty uptempo and positive. You wouldn’t want sleepy music to introduce your motivational sales podcast. However, a happy, up-tempo track might not be suitable if you’re creating a bedtime stories podcast.
Here are some genres matched up to common podcast themes to help you get started:
|Podcast Theme||Production Music Genre|
|Finance||Corporate or Jazz|
|Movies||Action & Adventure|
|Entertainment & Pop Culture||Rap, Hip Hop, R&B|
|Pets / Animals||Children’s Music|
|Self Help||Ambient, New Age, Adult Contemporary|
|Meditation||Ambient New Age|
|News & Long Form Reporting||Dramatic|
Second, title music needs to have the right length. It’s very likely that you’ll want to use your title music in more place than just the opening and ending of your podcast. Make sure that the production music you pick for your podcast is a minimum of a minute long. You can always cut it down later (see background music editing tips below), and you’re going to want to ensure that you have enough music to last through your credits and introduction, as well as the potential for use as background music. Most royalty free music sites will let you limit your search for music by length.
Background music is probably the second most important non-spoken portion of your podcast. Traditionally in most mediums, background music is carefully planned out by a director or producer, and then a composer is tasked with writing a track to fit the scene.
While this approach may work for film and television, podcasters likely don’t have this kind of time or budget, so finding an appropriate piece of stock music can be helpful.
Either way, the first step, of course, is planning. Identify places in your story or dialogue where you think background music can help move the story along. Maybe it’s to add some pace to a dry section of facts and figures, or maybe it’s to add suspense. Background music can also signal that you’re about to transition to a different topic (see stings and transitions below). Mark the start and stop, and the overall emotion or end goal of the music bed in that particular portion of your podcast.
Once you’ve identified the ideal start and stop times for some background music and the reason you want music in that position, it’s time to go shopping. Ideally, your background music should be similar to your title music, but it doesn’t have to be the exact same. In fact, you can use dramatically different background music than your title music. This tells the listener that they’re still within the confines of your podcast.
Some great podcasts also use different styles of background music for different sections of their podcasts. Those that sell advertising may also signal that what you’re listening to is a paid placement rather than intentional programming by using different sound palettes.
Using music at transition points in your podcast starts to elevate your production to another level. Great podcasts are able to signal to their audience that something is about to happen with a music cue.
A transition point can be any point in your project where you either change topics, sections, or insert unrelated content like an advertisement.
The difference between transition music and background music is simple, but important. Transitional background cues create a distinct sense of direction. Usually these cues will build in momentum, volume, or instrumentation as the actual point approaches. While background music can be loopable or have an indefinite ending, transition music cues need to be written in a way that has a clear ending, but tell the listener that more is to come.
Another way of marking transitions in podcasting comes from the television world. Stings (or stingers, logos, or idents as they’re commonly called) are extremely short versions of your title music that signal that a section has ended or is starting. Gimlet Media does this well in their Reply All podcast with a 5 second simple Boom-boom-crash that is a direct homage to their opening title music. It helps serve two purposes: 1) mark the transition, and 2) remind you of the brand.
Many composers of production music provide multiple versions, mixes, and lengths of their music for this exact purpose. On a music library like Productiontrax, you can search by length, or even type phrases like “15 sec” or “stinger” into the search box to pull up appropriately written tracks. Can’t find a matching stinger for your theme music? You can also edit your title music to create a transition or sting (see our background music editing tips).
As a podcast producer, you may be so concerned with your background music that you overlook one key ingredient to creating a fully immersive podcast experience for your audience: sound effects.
Sound effects, when correctly and tastefully used, can add depth to your recording and improve your listeners’ ability to absorb the information you’re providing. Be sure not to overdo it, though. Unless your podcast is telling bedtime stories to children, sometimes too many sound effects can make a sound effect sound cheesy and unprofessional.
Instead of trying to match specific sound effects for specific words (unless you’re going for a PeeWee’s playhouse vibe), opt for ambient sounds that create environment. For example, nature ambience is a great one for signalling that your podcast is taking place outside. Introduce the sound effect, but then let it fade into the background. Remember that the primary focus of a podcast is not to hear a bunch of music and effects, but to convey information and stories to your audience.
Sound effects can also be used to signal important events or features to your audience. You can use an alarm sound effect or a transitional sound effect to let your listeners know that what you’re about to say is really, really, really important, or that it is an aside from your content. Maybe you’re running a contest or game within your podcast, and the sound effect can be used to highlight content relevant to the contest you’re running.
Whatever your reason for adding sound effects to your podcast, the key is to do so with caution and a sense of artistic integrity to ensure the quality of your end product.
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