How to Eliminate Ambient Noise in Your Podcast

By Tee Morris, Chuck Tomasi

Part of the charm that is podcasting is just how varied the content is, as well as how spontaneous the shows tend to be when the Record button is hit. Some podcasters believe that a “true” podcast (whatever that is!) must record everything in one take and deliver its content to listeners completely unedited.

This supposed mark of authenticity includes any background noise (also called ambient noise) you happen to capture while recording — from comforting sounds like rustling trees and birdcalls, to the more grating one like pounding car stereos and jackhammers.

Hey, if that’s the style of your show, that’s great. However, if you’re trying to take listeners to a place in their imagination, read on to find out how to reduce or eliminate ambient noise.

Identifying ambient noise

How much you edit depends on what kind of content you’re presenting. For example, if you’re doing an off-the-cuff, off-the-wall podcast about your life and a typical day in it, you may just grab the VideoMic Me, plug it into your iPhone, and head out the door, recording every step along the way.

This kind of podcast can be easiest to record. You’re podcasting a slice of Americana … or Britannia, if you’re in the United Kingdom … or Kiwiana if podcasting from the Land of Hobbits, Championship Rugby, and Pavlova. Especially if your goal is to capture the look and feel of your culture, ambient noise is not only welcomed, but desired. Up to a point.

Some podcasters cringe at the mere mention of ambient noise — ambient noise like … well, what was in Tee Morris’s very first podcast. When he podcasted MOREVI: The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana back in 2005, he worked to create a magical setting with voice, story, music, special effects … a world that was completely shattered by real-world interference like school buses, kids at recess, UPS trucks, the Virginia Commuter Rail system, and air traffic from two nearby airports. Even if you love the source of the ambient noise, sometimes it just doesn’t fit what the podcast is trying to do.

The best noise reduction happens in preproduction. If your podcast could do without input from the outside world, strategically scheduling recording sessions is the start of your production. Try recording at night or early morning. You’ll find that traffic is lighter, the kids are in bed, construction crews aren’t running those earlier-mentioned jackhammers, animals typically are less active — all adding up to less ambient noise, hence fewer takes on the mic.

Minimizing ambient noise

To reduce the intrusion of the outside world, record anytime during the day, and still maintain a budget, some creativity is in order.

Truth be told, there really isn’t an easy solution to podcasting in a noisy world. One not-so-cost-effective answer is to rent a studio and record your podcast there. Unless you have a sponsor who bankrolls your costs, your hobby could easily max out credit cards and cast a hungry eye upon your nest egg. (Let’s not even go there.)

A somewhat-less-expensive option is to soundproof your home-based recording room. That may sound simple, but it can involve a lot of home improvement before you have one room in which you can be sure the only sound is yours. But is it impossible or impractical? Not really. P.G. Holyfield of the podcast novel Murder at Avedon Hill built his own studio for podcasting.

Holyfield’s do-it-yourself adventure began with a house hunt, so a studio in a finished basement was on the list of what the house needed. The studio eventually came about from a large storeroom, a few new walls, and the addition of an air vent. The newly created 7-x-8-foot room was then soundproofed with foam tiles that cost around $500. Holyfield found the effort worthwhile. “The studio is working out great. It was amazing to hear the difference as the foam went up. Now I have a completely silent room, except when the A/C turns on, which I can turn off most times, since the basement is pretty cool.”

The image below shows the process he went through: the arrival of acoustical foam (left), measuring twice and cutting once (center), and the studio (right). The advantage of being in the basement is far less outside noise entering through the walls. The advantage of the acoustic foam is to reduce sound waves bouncing off the walls and creating unwanted effects.

Voices of Cairn Podcasting studio
The Voices of Cairn Studios started as P.G. Holyfield’s dream project.

Renovation, especially if you’re a fan of the DIY Network, makes this kind of home-built studio a possibility, but still may not be a practical solution for all homeowners. And this kind of aggressive home improvement is seriously frowned upon if you’re renting an apartment.

You can keep this home renovation affordable and within the lease agreement terms:

  • Stuff towels under the door. It decreases the amount of sound from inside your house filtering into your recording area.
  • Keep the microphone as far away from your computer as possible. Its fan (if audible) simply becomes part of the natural ambiance for the podcasting room.
  • Turn off any ceiling fans, floor heaters, additional air conditioners, or room ionizers. With fewer appliances running, you have less chance of additional ambient sound being created.
  • If you do encounter ambient noise that you don’t want in your podcast, simply give it a few moments. Wait until the noise subsides, pause, and then pick up your podcast a few lines before the interruption. That’s for the sake of post-production: With a substantial gap in your podcast activity, you can easily narrow down where your edits are needed.

When noise interferes with your podcast, leaving gaps of silence so you know where to edit isn’t exactly a foolproof method. Always set aside enough time to listen to your podcast — and really listen, not just play it back while you clean the office or call a friend. Make sure levels are even, no segments are repeated, and the final product is ready for uploading and posting.

Many podcasts rely on ambient noise to set a mood, but sometimes reality just doesn’t cut it. If you want to put more craft into the setting for your podcast, the ideas here help you keep the background down to a dull roar.

When holding podcasts on location, make sure the ambiance — be it a particularly busy crosswalk at a street corner, a frequented bar, or backstage at a concert — does not overwhelm your voice. Background noise belongs in (well, yeah) the background. Its intent is to set a tone for the aim of the podcast, not to become the podcast itself. It would also be a good idea, if possible, to do a few test recordings in the space to see how much volume you’ll need and how close to the mic you must be to be heard.