Don't let guest audio suck
As a rule, listeners are more forgiving of a guest with sub-par sound quality than they are of a host. That’s no reason to let your remote guest muddle through with tinny, glitchy audio. But if you don’t have control over your guest’s gear, internet connection, or tech skills, how can you ensure they come in clear?
The producers at Twenty Thousand Hertz have solved this problem by crushing it. It’s sort of a necessity for them – the show is about the world’s most interesting sounds, so it’s ride-or-die on audio quality.
“We’ve canceled interviews because of bad recordings,” says Nick Spradlin, a sound designer for the show.
Early on in the show, it was up to each producer to record their interviews as best they could. But that led to a wide range of recording quality; they had to find a better way. So they decided to either send guests to a nearby recording studio or hire a local sound pro to record the guest in person. It cost them a couple hundred dollars per interview, but they considered it worth the investment.
Then, a pandemic. Suddenly, sending people to do anything in person was off the table. After some experimentation, they landed on a solution: if the guest doesn’t have a microphone, just buy them one. (The mic they landed on is the Audio-Technica ATR 2100x, a dynamic mic with dual USB-XLR output that costs around $100).
Not everybody can swing a hundred bucks per show, we know. It’s also possible to rent a mic, from places like BorrowLenses. But even then, if you’re an indie podcaster making a show for fun on the weekends, that’s a lot of money. Fortunately there are other ways to safeguard your guest’s audio quality.
One tried and true technique: have the guest record a voice memo on their smartphone while they talk to you on their computer. The recording quality on most modern smartphones is surprisingly good. You can even use an app like TalkSync to get the recording automatically sent to you. But have them hold the phone like a phone, Nick stresses. Talking into the end like an old person in the grocery store will introduce breath sounds and plosives that can ruin your recording.
But if you end up stuck with crappy audio — and at some point, you probably will — there are ways to fix it after the fact. One, of course, is Studio Sound, the Descript feature that uses AI to strip out background noise, then regenerate and enhance voices.
Nick says he once started an interview with someone who said he was in the office. Fine, thought Nick. But it turned out the office was open-concept and the guy was sitting right next to the kitchen. Ten minutes into the interview, someone started cooking breakfast.
“It just ruined it,” Nick says. “But we turned on Studio Sound.” That made the recording usable again.
Hold their hand
The first thing Nick does before every interview is email his guest some guidelines on how to get the best audio from their microphone. He tells them to position the mic 4-6 inches from their mouth, and suggests placing it on a stack of books to raise it up to the right level.
“It’s good to think about those sorts of things — what is every person likely to have in their house, just available?” Nick says.
Then, he asks the guest to set up in “whatever room in the house that has the most soft things.” Rooms with carpets, drapes, couches, and pillows, and so on.
Once the interview comes, Nick recommends dedicating the first 10 minutes to tech setup. And don’t be afraid to ask the guest to change things — most of the time, you’ll be a better judge of their audio quality than they are.
Pick the right platform
For a lot of podcasters, Zoom is an easy default platform for remote recording — most of us live on it at work these days. But the audio quality is pretty meh. That’s because it and other remote-meeting apps are designed to cut out speaker echo, background noise, and other sonic chaff. “They do a good job of cutting those things out, but they also cut the life of the person you’re talking to,” Nick says.
Instead, try a platform that’s specifically designed for remote recording. Twenty Thousand Hertz uses Cleanfeed, which they like for its dependability — though it doesn’t have a video component. If you want a platform that lets you see — and record — your guest’s face, Riverside, Squadcast, and Restream are good options — and, shameless plug, you can jump from recording in any of those three to editing in Descript with a single click.
Before you decide on any recording platform, test it out. “Whenever we test a new platform, we bring three or four people on and we just say, all right, just start doing weird stuff,” Nick says. They change out their microphones, unplug their internet cables, refresh the page, do whatever they think might mess up a recording when the stakes are high.
Put them at ease
Sound isn’t everything — what you want above all else is a good conversation. If your guest doesn’t have a lot of experience with recording gear, they may end up stuck in their own head and unable to talk like the real person they are (presumably).
That’s why once you’ve established that their setup is as good as it’s going to get, you should put all that aside and just focus on making your guest comfortable. Give them a break to get a glass of water or breathe a little fresh air before the real conversation begins. Let them focus their attention on the stuff you want them to talk about.
“The tech is just a means to the interview,” Nick says. “What's really important is the story of that person and what they have to offer.”