Tips for Recording Remote Guests

Tips for Recording Remote Guests, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich
Tips for Recording Remote Guests, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

Best practices to follow when you and the person you’re interviewing aren’t in the same room.

Guest interviews are the lifeblood of so many podcasts, but unless you’re Terry Gross, most of them won’t be taking place in an intimate studio. More often than not, it’s impractical to get your interviewee in the same room as you. Skype, Google Hangouts, and other VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technologies have become a relatively easy way for far-flung guests to talk to podcast hosts. But capturing both sides of the conversation at a quality that’s appropriate for podcast streaming isn’t as simple as you, the host, recording it on your end exclusively. You and your guest will both need to record.

Thankfully, the barriers are still low. With audio-capture programs like Audacity, Anchor, or Soundtrap, or built-in solutions like Skype’s Call Recorder, guests can record audio on their end, then send it to you and your producers for post-production. A little knowledge and advance planning on the part of both you and your guest will make it sound like you’re sitting across from each other in the most high-quality sound booth. Once you’ve secured the written permission to record your guest (and any other peripheral characters that may crop up in the recording), here are some tips to make sure your remote guest interview goes smoothly.

Schedule a time to check the software on both ends

Syncing up via VoIP services is supposed to be easy—but sometimes the communication-protocol gods can be in a finicky mood. Before you're scheduled to conduct and record the official interview, make a test connection with your guest. You’ll want to ensure a few things: that they’re running the most up-to-date version of their software; that their setup is capturing their voice effectively (this will give you a baseline idea of their audio quality); and that the connection on both ends is strong enough that you'll be able to understand each other in real time during the interview, so you're not asking each other to repeat things, or talking over each other because of delays.

Have your guest get mic-ed up, if they can

As a podcast creator, you’ve no doubt worked out the best way to capture a high-quality recording of your own voice (the pros recommend using an external mic, rather than the built-in one on your computer). Let your guest know that background noise will be reduced and the audio quality will be maximized if they, likewise, use some sort of external microphone. J.W. Friedman, of the podcast I Don't Even Own A Television, explains why. “If you’re looking to sound moderately professional,” he says, “you’re going to need to invest in a mic that’s designed for recording—not just for communication. An iPhone headphone mic, for example, has a very narrow frequency range, so you’re going to lose all the low end and most of the highs, and end up with a very tinny-sounding recording."

If the only mic option your guest has is on the level of iPhone headset mics or their computer’s built-in mic, the audio correction will be coming on your end. "You can still make it work—just get ready to spend some time learning about [production techniques involving] compression and EQ [equalizing audio levels], and be aware that a cheap mic will always sound like a cheap mic no matter how much you finesse it," says Friedman.

Ensure that your guest is situated in a quiet place

It almost goes without saying: Background noise can be ruinous to audio. But your guest may be less aware of its pitfalls than you are. Talk to them about it before the interview and ask for specifics about where they plan to be during the interview. Don’t be shy: It may be necessary to help them identify the least street noise-affected, least echo-prone place in their home or office to record. "Most people, especially us city-dwellers, don't realize how noisy their environment can be because we've grown used to it, so make sure to remind guests to find a quiet place to record," says Friedman. "The smaller and less 'reflective,' the better—it's good to avoid tile floors, cathedral ceilings, and so on.”

Get your guest in sync

Friedman and his co-host, Chris Collision, connect with their guests via Skype; they have their guests record their side of the conversation independently, then edit each speaker's recordings together. (Recording a group chat to separate audio tracks can also be done via Soundtrap.) "It’s very hard to synchronize a recording via internet call so both sides start at the exact same time," says Friedman. "Because of this, we usually just start recording whenever, chat for a while, and then before beginning the actual show, I’ll count down from three and the guest or guests and I will clap our hands once simultaneously. This produces a very obvious visual 'spike' in the waveform that makes it easy to line up the beginnings of each track.

"I also recommend just doing this occasionally throughout the show, during natural breaks in conversation," he adds. "This ensures that you have some visual cues to deal with delay drift [which occurs when online calls have varying delays because of bandwidth or hardware problems]."

Test the levels

"Make sure to do a test recording, and have your guest do the same," Friedman says emphatically. Even if you’ve tested the setup previously, do it again at the time of the official interview. "I’ve learned this the hard way, when we’ve done entire shows only to hear later from the guest that their mic wasn’t on or their audio was distorted or something,” Friedman says. “Just take a few seconds to record some idle chatter, play it back, have your guests do the same, and make sure you’re good to go. You don’t want to waste your time. It will break your heart. Trust me."

—Maura Johnston