You know what’s annoying? Tuning in to a podcast that advertises a really great guest, only to find that the whole 30-minute interview with that guest is a phone recording.
Phone audio can be so bad that I will personally stop listening to a show because of it. This is especially frustrating because there are easy ways to record a remote guest (or co-host) with better quality. So, podcaster, quit torturing your audience with terrible audio and read on.
Here is a flowchart to help you along on your journey
Complicated, right? Before we start dissecting that, we’ll start with how to record yourself, then move on to how to record your remote guest or co-host—including all the gear you’ll need, with different options for those who want to make their podcast simply and on the cheap, as well as those who have a bit more time and money to spend.
The budget option
The cheapest way to record yourself is to use whatever recording app comes with your smartphone, such as the iPhone Voice Memos app.
The Voice Memos app will give you pretty decent audio; however, be mindful of the environment you’re in when you record and how you handle the phone. You want to be in a space that isn’t too echoey, and while the phone is recording, you want to place it up against your ear as if you were speaking to someone on it. You DO NOT want to place the phone right in front of your mouth and speak directly into the microphone. This will pick up a ton of mouth wind noise and plosives, which make it sound like someone is harshly blowing directly into your ear.
You might also consider buying yourself a USB mic like a Blue Yeti and recording yourself on your laptop with easily accessible software like Audition, Garage Band, Audacity, hell, you can even record yourself via QuickTime.
A bit about mic placement: Whenever you are using a mic, be it a Blue Yeti or something more sophisticated, placement is key. In general, you should place the mic at a 45-degree angle off to the side toward your mouth (so it isn’t directly in front of your face, and to minimise plosives), and make sure your mouth stays within about a 3-4 inches from the head of the mic.
The quality option
Choose a good audio interface, recorder, and mic
There is a lot equipment to choose from out there, and this can all get pretty pricey. One of the cheaper routes is to buy a USB audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 and recording your audio through a program like Pro Tools or Audition (even GarageBand will work).
You can also get an audio recorder like the Zoom H6 or the Marantz 661, which record in very good quality. It will be a little tricky to record Skype (or Google Hangouts) or phone audio with this equipment.
One thing you can do is get a male TRS to female cable, as well as a male TRS cable, which will allow you to plug into your phone—or laptop/tablet for Skype—send the male into the recorder, and use the female for your personal headphones. You won’t be able to monitor your own voice levels, but you will be able to monitor your guest’s.
Using either the audio interface or recorder also gives you the ability to listen to your voice as you are recording it, which is very useful for finding good mic placement and avoiding plosives (you do not have this option with a phone recorder like Voice Memos).
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up your audio interface or recorder to record your Skype or phone call, you can use an app like AudioHijack or TapeACall, although it will sound better being recorded through the equipment. One thing is for sure: your recorded end will sound much, much better than using Voice Memos.
If you’re very serious, and have the money
I would recommend getting an audio interface like the Sound Devices MixPre-6 Audio Recorder/Mixer and USB Audio Interface. The Sound Devices will allow you to record yourself on a mic, an in-studio guest on mic, a person on Skype, and someone on the phone.
In order to record a phone call through the Sound Devices, you will need a cable like Azden i-Coustics HX-Mi TRRS Mic & Headphone Cable for Smartphones & Tablets, so that you can connect the recorder to your smartphone.
Equipment to consider
For studio mics, I recommend getting Shure SM7Bs. They record a bit quiet, but they sound good, and are durable and reliable. I am also a fan of the Shure Beta 87A, especially if you went down the route of buying an audio recorder and want a good portable mic.
I like the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Closed-back Studio and Live Monitoring Headphones. They take a little time to break in and feel comfortable, but they are really solid, sound great, and fold up nicely.
The headphones you’ll see in most studios, though, are the Sony MDR-7506 Closed-back Professional Headphones.
If you’re partial to using earbuds, I also like the Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones. These sound great, especially for the price, and give you a 3.5mm detachable cable which you can switch out with a bluetooth cable.
Recording your remote guest or co-host
The cheapest option: the self-sync
As shown in the flowchart at the beginning of the article, the first question you should ask yourself is, “Am I willing to spend money to record this guest?” If you aren’t, the most cost-effective option is to connect to your guest or co-host via Skype or Google Hangouts on your computer. You record them on your end via Skype, while they simultaneously record themselves on their end with their smartphone Voice Memos app or the equivalent.
If you didn’t go the route of an audio interface or recorder outfitted to record a Skype call, there are apps like Audio Hijack. This program allows you to record audio on your computer from any app that is open. It is really powerful software and will give you a solid recording.
Just select your Output Device (where you want to hear the audio coming from) to your headphones, set the Recorder quality to WAV, 24-bit Stereo, and set Application to the app you want to record the audio from (Skype in this case), and hit the big red button.
Now that you are connected to your guest via Skype and are recording them, ask them to record their end of the interview using the iPhone Voice Memos app. This is called a self-sync.
If they don’t already know how to use the Voice Memos app, here are instructions you can send them:
1. Slide your finger down from the top of your iPhone screen to the bottom. This will pull up a search bar.
2. Type in “Voice Memos” and click on the app.
3. Hit the red record button and hold the phone as close to your mouth as possible (I know this can be awkward holding two phones to your head, but this will give the best audio quality).
4. Once the interview is done click the red button again.
5. Click “done” next to the red button.
6. Name your recording and hit “save.”
7. Click on the new recording, and click the share button in the lower left hand corner.
8. Click your mail app and send the file to this email.
Make sure that while you are chatting with your guest on Skype that both you AND the guest use earbuds with a microphone like the generic white apple EarPods. You want to keep the audio you are recording of yourself, as well as the audio they are recording of themselves isolated, meaning that you just want your voice to be picked up by the recorder, and not the Skype call itself. This will give you less of an issue when you sync up the audio later. Syncing audio is when you replace one recorded track of audio with a (hopefully) better-sounding track of that audio. (In this case you will be syncing your guest’s Voice Memos audio to the Skype audio you just recorded via AudioHijack.)
In order to sync audio, you will still need some audio editing software such as Pro Tools, Audition, GarageBand, etc.
This is a clip of Voice Memo audio of an interview done for Lifehacker’s The Upgrade podcast for an episode titled, “How to Identify a Cult, With Rick Alan Ross.” The guest, Rebecca Stott, was located in the UK, and we called her up, and had her do a self-sync. Lifehacker Deputy Editor Alice Bradley, who asks the question at the beginning of the audio, is being recorded in our podcast studio.
If your guest doesn’t have access to a laptop, see if they have a landline (or an extra phone other than their main iPhone). You cannot use the Voice Memos app on the same iPhone you are making a call on. The same self-sync technique from above can work with your guest connecting to you on another phone.
It will require them to hold the landline receiver up to one ear as well as their iPhone up to their other ear, but assure them that getting good audio of their interview is worth them looking silly for a little while.
If you didn’t outfit your audio interface or recorder to record your phone calls, there is a smartphone app called TapeACall that will record any phone call you make on your smartphone. If you yourself are using Voice Memos to record yourself, the same thing applies to you as your guest: you will also need a second smartphone to use TapeACall on, because, once again, you cannot make a call on the same phone you are using the Voice Memos app on.
If your guest doesn’t have a smartphone on which they can use a recording app to do a self-sync, just use the Skype recording that you gathered. Skype and Google Hangouts audio typically sounds a bit robotic, hollow and glitchy, but it should at least be intelligible, and it will be much better than regular phone audio.(And for future reference, landline audio typically sounds much better than cell phone audio).
The better-sounding options: studios and tape syncs
If you are willing to spend some money on recording your guest, try to book a radio station or recording studio where technicians can connect them to connect to you and record your guest in good quality. Here is an nifty list of radio stations around the United States with the emails and numbers of the station’s engineers.
Depending on the station, they will be able to connect you to your guest via phone or Skype. Make sure to ask the engineer for “isolated audio” of your guest, so that after you are done with the interview they can send you a file of just the audio from the guest, which you can sync up with whatever phone or Skype audio you recorded of the guest on your end.
If your guest is unable to go to a nearby studio, ask if they would mind someone with a recorder coming to their home, office, or wherever to record their end of the interview. This is called a tape sync, and the person recording it is called a tape syncer. There are email list serves and places like the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) where you can put out a call for a tape syncer available in your guest’s area. Once you connect with the tape syncer, ask them what kind of recording equipment they will be using, and request that they send you a sample of one of their tape syncs.
On the day of recording, when your tape syncer is with your guest, connect with them via phone or Skype and MAKE SURE that your guest is speaking to you using earbuds with a mic, so you just get their isolated audio and not audio of yourself coming through the phone as well. A good tape syncer should be able to provide headphones if the guest doesn’t have them, but check with the tape syncer to make sure that they do indeed have them. Once the interview is done, the tape syncer will send you the audio of your guest’s side of the conversation, which you can sync up with the phone or Skype audio you just recorded on your end.
All of what you’ve just learned can also be used to record a remote host, as well. Except, instead of having your other host record themselves with the Voice Memos app, urge them to buy the SM7b mic and one of the audio interfaces or recorders listed at the beginning of the article (Focusrite, Zoom H6, etc).
If all else fails...
But Levi! What if the guest doesn’t want to go to a studio, have a strange tape-syncer come to their home, they don’t have access to a laptop for which to Skype or a landline (or extra phone) to self-sync, and they are ONLY willing to speak to me on their mobile phone?
This is where you must ask them one final question: “Are you willing to download the Skype app on your phone?” If they are, then connect to them via Skype and use that recording. Even if they are speaking to you on their phone through the Skype app, that will at least sound a modicum better than just a recording of a normal phone call.
But what if they aren’t even willing to download the Skype app on their phone?!
In this most tragic of events, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is this guest worth the garbage audio I’m about record off a mobile phone call and inflict upon the ears of my dear listeners?” Sometimes the guests are worth it, especially if they are high profile and you know they will give you awesome content—any audio is better than no audio in that case.
But, for the most part, if a guest is being too difficult, you can probably find another guest to talk about the same subject and who will be more willing to work within your recording parameters.