Your Remote Podcast Audio Still Sucks (But it Doesn't Have To)
Here's How to Record the Best Remote Audio for Your Podcast
Like nails on a chalkboard, I heard everyone sing the praises of Zoom when it was first released. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, it revolutionized a space that had been neglected and taken for granted by Skype for years. Since its launch, Skype was synonymous with video-calling in the same way Band-Aid is with bandages. The problem was that they got complacent. They knew full-well podcasters were using the service, but never upgraded call quality or added a feature for recording. Take it from someone who ran a podcast over Skype in 2014, it was a pain in the ass that required multiple third party programs across multiple computers.
By the time Zoom came around, people would’ve accepted any alternative, but it’s still not ideal. Most are content to just take what we have and call it good enough and I suppose there’s some rationale behind that, but there are alternatives. You don’t have to settle for Zoom-quality audio either. I’m practically begging you not to. The audio from a Zoom call may be better than Skype or “call-ins” on radio shows, but it is not a replacement for studio-quality audio and there is a process for having your remote-podcast cake and eating it too. In a past life, I produced some podcasts for iHeartRadio San Francisco. We ran into the problem of having guests in places outside of the studio long before it was cool like it is now. The third option we, like many other A-list podcasts, settled on was the obvious one: if a guest can’t come to the studio, mail the studio to a guest.
Of course, there are some things you’ll need to arrange before you decide if this is the best route for your podcast. Do you have the funds to buy additional sound equipment and do you have the funds to mail said equipment? Do you also have the time and advanced notice to coordinate the shipment to guests and ensure enough time for transit? Lastly, are you disciplined enough to work through the process yourself and document it in laymen’s terms so that your guest can repeat the process? If you’ve answered yes to all of the above, keep reading for my workflow. The way I see it, assuming you are already recording studio-quality audio on your end, there are three-tiered solutions for recording a guest’s remote audio.
*Sigh* Use Zoom audio
Ship a USB mic
Ship a mobile recording studio.
Use Zoom to do your interview and record the session. The Audio isn’t the best but it will do. If you are able, also couple it with options 2 or 3. I’ll cover why later.
If it’s within your range, buy a USB microphone like this:
USB mics are a great alternative to Dynamic and/or Condenser XLR mics. They don’t have the same audio depth, but they are a breeze to set up and MUCH better than video-call audio. Assuming your guest is using a laptop to video call you, instruct them to do download a DAW (digital audio workspace). If they’re on a Mac, GarageBand, and if they’re on a PC, Audacity. Then, in the same way, they set the microphone input in Zoom or Skype to the internal laptop mic, instruct them to also change the input in the DAW to the microphone you’ve supplied them with. Before you record, tell them to press record on the program. You can still record within your video-calling program of choice if you want, but assume the above has been done correctly, once the conversation is over, you’ll have audio that doesn’t lag, distort, or sound like it was recorded through a tin can.
Finally, the third and final option and my personal favorite. If you can afford it, look into a mobile audio recorder like this:
If this is the route you go with, you’ll also need an XLR mic (dynamic or non-phantom powered condenser), a wind filter, and an XLR cable. If you get this recorder completely set up before you ship it, it creates a system where your guest can plug in the mic and cable, hit record, hit stop, and mail you back perfect audio without the complications of working with a DAW. While more expensive, this option tends to be more foolproof than the former. Whichever option you go with, collect all the recorded audio and bring it into your DAW for syncing. Line up the waveforms and you’re good to go! Just like they were there in the room. Now you only have to worry about your audience thinking you broke quarantine.
Instruct your guest on selecting audio recording spaces. Insulated spaces like closets or rooms with carpets or furniture.
Instruct them on proper microphone techniques. The rule of thumb is to keep the microphone one “fist length” away from the mouth at all times.
Instruct them on how to properly export and/or save the DAW session. The last thing you want is to go through all this trouble only to end up with an MP3 that’s compressed to all hell because your guest has no idea what export settings you need. (WAV files with maximum bit depth (41mhz) or the session with all associated raw files.)
If shipping a mobile recorder, ensure the gain is low when recording. Anyone who’s ever produced audio knows that the volume someone says they’re going to speak at, and the actual volume they speak at after hitting record is always different. By turning the gain down, you double-check that your audio isn’t clipping as they record. You can always turn their volume up in post.
Remind everyone to wear headphones. Nothing is worse than hearing the audio from the call on a delay in the background of your audio. By wearing headphones, you remove hearing yourself or your guest’s call-audio in the background of the beginning of each of your sentences.
While editing, remove the audio track of anyone not speaking. While you may think you’re silently waiting for your guest to speak, you may be breathing into your mic. If you have the time and patience to do so:
Cut and remove the microphone audio from anyone not speaking. Or, apply a slight noise-gate to everyone’s audio.
Use Recording Option 1 (Zoom) to cover any gaps in the audio. On the off chance someone bumps the mic or clips the levels on the recorder, if you are simultaneously recording digitally over your calling program, you can supplement your podcast with this backup audio.
Give them a shipping return label. It’s a common courtesy. Don’t stick them with the cost and hassle of paying to ship your equipment back to you.
In summary, save yourself a headache or embarrassment in post-production. Use these tips and invest as much time, effort, and money as you can afford and do it better the first - or the next time.