As I've mentioned in previous columns, remote podcasting can be a bit of a double-edged sword. It's fantastically convenient in terms of bringing in guests from around the world that you'd normally never have access to, but the downside is that you have to surrender a lot of the logistic and technical control that you'd normally have in a studio setting.
Thankfully, most of the remote guests that we have on PodPod are in the audio industry, and understand that recording in a glass-walled office on a built-in laptop mic is going to be the auditory equivalent of dialling in from the bottom of a well. In my previous life, however, I had to handle a lot of remote guests that had never appeared on a podcast before.
Wherever possible, we tried to do a pre-interview call, both to go over the loose outline of the conversation topic, but also to check what their audio setup was, and whether it might present a problem. This was invaluable, because a significant proportion of the time, they showed up on the call with absolutely terrible audio quality. This isn't a massive issue if all you're doing is video meetings and the like, but it's a pain in the bum for podcasting.
When this situation rears its head, there's a limit to what you can do - unless you have the time and resources to send out dedicated guest packs. If it's a microphone issue, the guest will sometimes be able to scrounge up a USB mic from somewhere, but issues with room acoustics present more of a problem. Generally speaking, guests won't have a bunch of acoustic foam panels on hand to deaden any echo, so you've got to work with what you've got.
Last week Liam Heffernan - a freelance podcast producer who was recently named one of PodPod's Faces To Watch 2023 - articulated an excellent approach to this problem, which involves using a guest's environment to your advantage. “I'm no sound engineer,” he said, “but when it comes to room acoustics, I always think of the three Fs: fabric, furniture [and] foliage.”
This may sound like sacrilege to trained audio engineers, and admittedly, the resulting sound quality isn't anything like as good as if you fitted proper bass traps and soundproofing. However, when you're dealing with guests - particularly non-technical ones - it's an easy way to get better audio quality by framing it in terms they'll understand rather than burying them in jargon.
It's a tactic I've used myself on more than one occasion; very few potential guests have acoustically-treated rooms, but most of them will have at least one area filled with a combination of cushions, blankets and plants. The sound quality won't match a proper studio, obviously, but it's important not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
For most (if not all) podcasts, good audio quality should be a secondary concern to good conversation, and spending fifteen minutes getting a guest to tweak their microphone setup, physical position and recording environment can often put them on edge. They may feel like they're doing something wrong and holding everyone up, which often puts them in an anxious and stressed frame of mind - and that is not conducive to a fun, relaxed discussion.
Generally speaking, I’ve found that you can ask guests to make a maximum of two or three changes to their setup before they start to get antsy, but a potential way to miminise the amount of pre-recording faff needed to get good sound is to prepare a boilerplate checklist for guests guiding them through getting a “good enough” recording environment. It doesn’t need to be massively complex or technical; there are a number of basic things that can make a big difference, such as making sure they’re using headphones and using an external mic if possible, turning off any nearby fans or air conditioners, and so on.
As part of this, you can also incorporate the three Fs, advising them to record from a room with as many rugs, cushions and plants as possible, rather than one with lots of reflective surfaces. It may not sound like much, but a simple one-page document with simple tips like these can do wonders to make remote recording smoother and higher-quality.