Over the past few weeks, we've recorded about 20 remote interviews for tech.eu Podcast — which is probably more than we did in the previous five years combined. Until recently, we interviewed our guests almost exclusively in person to spare them the hassle and frustration of trying to achieve decent sound quality at home or in the office. With a lockdown of varying severity in place across the continent, this is no longer an option.
Before each interview, we send a brief set of guidelines to each guest to ensure the audio quality is as high as possible. This post is essentially a more detailed version of these guidelines, aimed at helping and supporting anyone who’s suddenly found themselves invited to join a podcast without knowing how to prepare.
Before getting to the actual recommendations, let me also quickly explain why they are important.
Why do we even need good quality audio?
It seems like many people who aren't into podcast/audio production tend to think that what you say on air is much more important than your audio quality. When we listen to the radio, for instance, we're used to hearing important people giving comments on the phone, with the classic landline sound where half of the frequencies are cut out.
There's certainly some truth to that: great audio quality won't save you if you're talking nonsense. However, what works for a two-minute comment will not work for a 20-minute interview.
Most podcasts will normally run a significant portion — if not all — of the recording of your interview. This means anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour’s worth of audio where one person — that is, you — is talking for most of the time. Believe me, no matter how brilliant the stuff you're saying is, the majority of listeners won't make it past the first five minutes if they have to suffer through loud background noise or an echo that makes your speech unintelligible.
Simply speaking, the better your audio is, the bigger the chance that people will listen to you. And at the end of the day, you want to get your message across, right? If so, keep reading — it won't take too long.
0. Wear (wired) headphones
This one is really hard to overestimate. Although using your laptop's built-in speakers for a call with your co-workers may be fine, it will most certainly bring the sound quality to an unacceptably low level when recording a podcast interview.
The problem is that the sound coming through your speakers will bleed into the microphone you are using, no matter the echo cancellation algorithms. This will most probably render the resulting recording unusable.
Now, to the wired part. Of course, wireless headphones are better than no headphones, but if you have a choice, go for the wires. This way, you will eliminate the Bluetooth audio delay, which makes conversations sound weird and a bit stilted, creating a lot of extra work for audio engineers.
1. Get a decent mic
The microphone you use doesn't have to be an expensive high-end piece of gear, but again, what works reasonably well for a work call may not cut it for a podcast. The microphone built into your laptop or webcam is usually located about half a metre from your mouth, which means that it will inevitably catch a lot of background noise. Even if you bend over and talk right into it, however, it will still sound terrible.
Next come the ubiquitous wired headsets with earbuds and mics hanging on the wires. These usually don't produce good audio quality and are prone to brushing against your clothes, which leads to extra background noise that's hard to deal with in post-production. Wireless headsets (from AirPods to Bose's noise-cancelling gear) are usually even worse, as they bring back the latency issues in addition to the poor quality.
What you really want is a wired microphone that isn't too far from your mouth. If you don't have anything handy, I usually suggest that our guests order the Sennheiser PC 8 USB headset; for some €40 you get both wired headphones and a decent mic that you can use for calls with your co-workers, friends, and family in the future.
Bonus tip. If buying a headset isn't an option and you don't have a mic, there's a quick and dirty hack that has been used by radio and podcast people for many years. Many smartphones — iPhones in particular — actually have decent built-in mics, so you can try to use your phone to record your voice separately during the interview. Hold your phone with a recording app running as if you're calling someone — that's the position the mic is optimised for. After the interview is over, you can email your track. Just make sure you discuss this option with the host in advance — it doesn't work for everyone.
2. Find a suitable room
Most of the spaces commonly found in homes and offices have never received any audio treatment and were designed for the eye, not the ear. When choosing where to take the podcast interview call, think about the two most common problems you need to avoid:
- Echo. Lofty ceilings, hardwood and concrete floors, naked walls, and glass surfaces are enemies of good sound. They reflect the sound waves back towards the microphone, creating a cavernous reverberation that's impossible to fully remove in post-production.
- Background noise. Things you don't usually notice, like cars humming outside, a clock ticking on the wall, or a refrigerator turning on and off may become a problem when you need to record clean audio.
Essentially, what you want to find is a carpeted room with upholstered furniture and as little background noise as possible. In your house, it will probably be the bedroom; if you're travelling, your hotel room is likely to be the best option. Finding a good place in an office environment rich in glass, concrete and steel might be a challenge; look for carpets and sofas away from large windows.
If you've got a car, that could be your last resort: just make sure you're parked somewhere quiet but with a decent Internet connection.
3. Make sure your connection is reliable
Most podcast interviews take place online, either on purpose-built platforms like Squadcast (that's the one we choose) or Zencastr, or on Zoom, Skype, Whereby, and other similar apps. Some of them allow you to record your audio locally, some don't — but either way, it's better to make sure your connection is reliable enough for both sides to hear each other without significant delays.
Reliability (and low latency) is key here, while the actual bandwidth isn't as important — as long as it's higher than 3Mbps, which is not a lot.
The best way to achieve a stable connection is to go for the wired option. If your laptop has an Ethernet port and you can find a spot with good audio quality close enough to your router, you're golden. If that's not the case, disconnect your other devices from the wireless network and make sure you're using a 5GHz WiFi connection, because interference usually isn't as bad as with 2.4GHz.
4. Check your setup before the recording
It should be pretty obvious, but it’s still worth reiterating: after you've put your gear together, have a dry run to test it out. Ask a friend or colleague for a quick call to make sure you can hear each other, or ask the podcast host to do a sound check in advance — they will thank you for that.
Following these five essential tips should make your audio podcast-worthy. Speaking of which, we are still looking to interview more interesting people from European tech. Got a story to tell? Get in touch at [email protected] and let's talk!