I started a show in 2019 called List Envy. Each week I featured a new guest, and we had a conversation on a topic they chose. I started by chatting with my improv performer friends, which meant getting us both in the same room.
How we record podcasts in-person
The gear involved included
a couple of cheap XLR mics
some pop shields
a couple of desktop stands
a Zoom H4n handheld recorder
an SD card for the recorder
AA batteries for the recorder
There were only a few, minor issues with this setup:
Good dynamic mics are expensive and this was a hobby project
They needed to be dynamic (as opposed to condensers) so sound wouldn’t bleed from one mic to the next
You can’t seem to buy a desktop microphone stand that actually brings a mic up to a person’s face (or at least I couldn’t find one)
SD cards sometimes fail and you have no way of knowing until you check the recording
The Zoom line of handheld recorders eat batteries for breakfast
Possibly the biggest issue here was mic bleed. That’s what happens when you have two or more mics, and each mic picks up a little of what the other mics are picking up. If you have each person speaking on a separate track or recorded in a separate file, it doesn’t sound too bad when you listen in isolation. But combine the tracks, and everyone sounds much further away than they actually are.
A way to avoid mic bleed is to sit side-by-side, so each mic isn’t picking up noise from the mic in front of it. But the best way is to invest in mics with better noise rejection.
Sadly, mic bleed is something you’ll never eliminate on a budget. It’s the sort of thing you can only really get rid of in a studio, and where everyone is properly distanced.
Recording remotely is easier
The rest of the first season of List Envy was recorded over Skype, and the episodes sounded much better as a result. Here’s the long list of reasons why:
- My guests and I could get closer to our mics
That’s it. Mic placement is by far the most important consideration for you and your guests. I was still using a condenser mic, but because I was closer, there was far less reverb.
There were other benefits too:
If one of the tracks had some background noise, I could remove it. That’s tricky to do in-person.
I was recording straight to a computer, so there was nothing to transfer, and no SD card issues to worry about.
If I lost my primary recording, I had a backup going.
Even though we weren’t in the same place, our recordings sounded warmer and more inviting. There was less distraction. Each person’s voice could be tweaked to sound its best, and editing boring bits was easier. That’s because it’s easier to cut a bit of someone’s speech when a second mic isn’t picking it up.
Setup your remote recording rig
All anyone needs to record remotely is
a decent mic (preferably a dynamic one, with good noise rejection)
a pair of wired, over-ear headphones
a computer, and a way to plug the mic and headphones into it
A Mac or Windows PC is better than a smartphone or tablet. Although some services say they work in mobile browsers, it’s not worth the gamble. If your guest only has a smartphone or tablet, that’s what you should use. Otherwise, always recommend your guests use a “real” computer.
As the host or show runner, you’ll need some software to record the call. You can do this a few ways:
use a voice-over-IP service like Zoom (or even Skype if you’re feeling nostalgic) and simply record the call
use a VoIP service like the above, but ask each participant to record their side of the call. It’s fiddly but results in far better sound quality, and each speaker on their own track
If you can avoid it, never record a conversation with everyone on the same track. That goes for conversations had over Crowdcast or StreamYard. Having a single file with all your participants bundled together is worse than editing something recorded in person. It’s really hard to pick it apart, and make everyone sound their best.
An intro to remote recording tools
Services like Riverside or SquadCast combine video calling and recording into one. Each participant is invited to a remote recording studio via a link. The service asks to use their webcam, so everyone can see each other. You can choose whether to record the video or discard it, but the video is an important part of the call. Seeing the other participants means you can give non-verbal cues, and receive others’. You can see when someone’s itching to jump in, so you can invite them to share.
Remote recording tools feel, to your guests, just like they’re on a Zoom call, but in their browser. But the crucial difference between these tools and Zoom is what happens when you press Record.
In Zoom, each person’s audio is sent the cloud, then back down to your computer for you to download after the call has finished. That audio is treated and compressed by Zoom, so when you get it back, it won’t sound great. Encouraging guests to wear headphones will improve the quality a great deal. But if their Internet connection drops for a second, you’ll lose that portion of the audio.
Remote recording tools work differently. When you hit Record, each participant’s microphone is recorded locally, on their computer. The audio is stored in your guests’ browsers, and is periodically fed back up the cloud. That means if someone’s connection drops for a second, you’ll notice it on the call, but the audio won’t be affected. That’s because the audio is being recorded separately (offline), and then sent up later, when the connection is more stable.
Locally-recorded audio also means better quality sound. That’s because it’s not being compressed to fit over wifi. The call will still sound compressed when you’re in the studio, but the files you get back afterwards will sound better.
Pro tip: Don’t let your guests leave straight after you’ve stopped recording. Check your recording interface, and check if everyone’s audio has been uploaded. Because audio is recorded locally, it’s fed up to the cloud gradually. So you need to wait for their audio to finish uploading before they can disconnect.
This all sounds like a lot
Although I’ve just given you the science, the practical reality is really simple:
You setup a session in your remote recording studio.
You invite each participant to the studio, with a special link.
They click the link, and you see each-other’s smiling faces.
Hit Record, and everything you say is saved.
Hit Stop, and wait for everyone’s audio to trickle up to the cloud.
Once you’re ready to edit, download the individual tracks from your studio.
You now have nice, clean audio from each person speaking.
Oh great, another subscription
It’s true – those subscriptions do start to add up after a while. But think about why you’re making your podcast. We all invest something in our hobbies and passion projects without a hope for a return – that’s what makes them passion projects. If it’s a business, these are legitimate expenses.
Plus, think about the time and stress you’ll save. Both Riverside and SquadCast give you access to their cloud recordings. That way if something goes wrong in the recording process, you have a backup. And all your guests and co-hosts have to do is open their web browser and click the link you give them.
I’ve recorded and edited in-person interviews for years, both for myself and for clients. I can tell you that recording remotely results in better audio. I’ve helped clients record their side of a Zoom call, and it’s no fun. If you’re trying to bag an important guest, you’ll make their lives far easier by inviting them to your remote recording studio. And you’ll look pretty pro in the process.
Then, when you come to edit the episode, everyone’s tracks are delivered as separate files. That way you can tweak them, edit out coughs and fidgets, and make everyone sound their best.
Over to you
What’s been your experience? Do you have a favourite tool? Are you an ardent in-person recording fan, or have you made the switch? Let me know in the comments.
And if you haven’t tried any of these services yet, give Riverside or SquadCast a go. I find it hard to pick a favourite. In my experience, Riverside is a bit more stable, but SquadCast has better tech and community support.