How to improve your remote recordings with guest packs

Say goodbye to tinny laptop audio, and hello to reusable all-in-one recording kits

Having your guests join you remotely to record can be the difference between getting them on your podcast and not, but if they just open a laptop and start speaking, they’re going to sound thin, echoey and possibly even distorted if they haven’t even bothered to plug in headphones.

This will do in a pinch, but when it’s pretty easy and affordable to get them sounding broadcast-ready, it’s worth spending the time and the money.

The first problem most people run into with remote recordings is that your guests may not have access to a good microphone. Some podcasters will simply purchase a mic for delivery directly to the guest, who gets to keep it as a thank you for their time, but this can quickly get expensive, particularly if you’re using high-quality equipment.

Another option is to create a little cache of home recording kits you can round-trip out to remote guests, including microphones, accessories and setup instructions. This is a simple process, and means you know exactly what they’ll be recording on, so you can support and guide them better. It will also give you much more polished sound – a courtesy to your listeners.

Note that purchasing a fresh mic each time is an option you should still consider if dealing with international guests; round-tripping a mic overseas (especially when you consider the faff and cost of customs) is usually more trouble than it’s worth, but if you mostly deal with domestic guests on your show, maintaining your own supply can be a better long-term solution.

This guide will walk you through how to create handy and intuitive starter kits to get your guests set up. Some considerations here will be practical and logistical, and some are more technical. We’ll also suggest some specific product examples, but the basic principle is the same regardless of which choices you make.

Packing microphones for transit

The first step is deciding how you’ll pack your guest kits. You don’t want to trust a cardboard box and some scraps of bubblewrap to protect delicate equipment for more than a couple of trips, so you should pick something rugged enough to survive a bit of punishment. It should also be waterproof, because inevitably there will be occasions when it will have to withstand rain. 

Happily, both these considerations are easily solved with a flight case. Peli (Pelican in the US) is the usual go-to, though there are alternatives. The boxes can come empty or with ‘Pick ‘n’ Pluck foam’, where the big block of foam inside the flight case is pre-scored into long cuboids you can pull apart to create voids for your kit – though we’d recommend using a bread knife and hot glue gun.

Unless you’re doing really heavy traffic with the mics, Pick ’n’ Pluck is probably fine, but you can also commission custom foam inserts for your cases. Doing this is about more than just providing the maximum protection by ensuring the perfect fit, as it should be more robust than the Pick ‘n’ Pluck foam too; although Pick ‘n’ Pluck is easy to replace, careless guests can start to damage the foam through mishandling. Custom foam can be expensive, but a lot of that is in getting the cut designed. Once done, replicating it should be reasonably cheap.

Selecting your microphone

So what mic to choose? Usual advice pertains here: unless your guest is prepared to huddle under a duvet-draped clothes horse, it’s probably a good idea to avoid condenser mics, especially those that are omnidirectional. A dynamic mic with a cardioid pickup pattern is fiddlier to use, and you will need to build in time and develop a patter to get it well positioned before a recording (and sometimes during…), but you’ll usually get richer, cleaner sound that requires less work in post.

To maximise compatibility and ease of use, you also want a mic that at least connects directly over USB, but if you opt for a model that also includes XLR, then your stock of mics can be redeployed in different ways too. It might be, for example, that your regular show is just two people recording onto a PodTrak P4, but if you decide to do a special live episode with guests, you could connect up some of your stock of mailable guest mics over XLR. If you choose a USB-only mic for your guests, you don’t have that option.

You’ll rarely go wrong standardising on the podcaster’s favourite, the Samson Q2U, packed inside a Peli 1150 case. Prices for the Q2U fluctuate, but the ballpark figure for a complete guest pack is usually not much more than £100, and you can use it over and over again. Here’s how you could cut the foam inside the Peli 1150 to accommodate the Q2U with its basic little fold-out tripod.

The Q2U is a good balance of cost and quality, but it can be fiddly for guests (it requires you to be close but it’s susceptible to plosives, and it picks up handling noise through the table even when you use a shock mount) so you could consider some more expensive alternatives, including the Q2U’s bulkier big brother the Samson Q9U (which has wildly better plosive rejection) and the Shure MV7.

Guest pack accessories

For quick and easy setup, make sure your packs include any relevant cables or adapters to allow the mic to connect to a PC or Mac whether it has USB-A or USB-C ports. You could also think about including headphones to plug directly into the mic – so that guests can monitor their own audio levels – but for hygiene reasons, you’ll either have to swap out the ear cups after each use, or just ask them to use their own headphones.

Along with the audio equipment, you should think about what else you can include for your guests in the pack. For example, you might want to supply a simple, picture-heavy guide showing them how to set up and re-pack the kit, but you can also have a bit of fun by throwing in some extra goodies, such as some branded podcast merch, or even shipping a martini in the box

Shipping remote recording kits to guests

Do some research to find out the best option for shipping. If you’re part of an organisation, your office’s post room will be able to advise, but otherwise do some price comparisons for postal and courier services. 

Consider not just the speed and price but also convenience – for example, if they will collect the pack from you or whether you need to make a trip to a depot – as well as the granularity of tracking for you and your guests, and what the options are for insurance. Consider locking the box for transit (though this may not be necessary if they’re insured through the courier), and remember to include a return label. 

It may be, though, that a mic pack lost in transit is more of an operational pain than a financial hit, so you may consider not paying for insurance but instead using the money for extra mic packs to give you a little spare capacity that can absorb these bumps. You’ll want to name or number the packs so you can keep track of them, either in a simple note, or by blocking out their time in a calendar or other asset tracker.

When it comes to getting the mic packs back, you could simply arrange uplift by courier (though equally you could consider prepaid postage labels) but having a label printer will make things simpler and more professional. Think about what least inconveniences your guests.

There’s a soft benefit with this setup too: most guests love getting a flight case couriered to them, and just because it’s everyday for you, you should remember it can be an event for them, so if they’re excited, play along!

Whether you exactly replicate the guest packs we show here or find a setup that works better for you (and you’d better believe you should tweet pics at PodPod!), taking the little bit of time and money to create something you can quickly ship out to guests to help them sound like they’re in the room with you is really worth considering. Plus, it makes them feel special, and if you can do that before you even record a second of audio, you’re going to capture a great conversation.