5 Methods for Capturing High-Quality Audio for Your Podcast Interviews
There’s a growing divide in the podcast world between “haves” and “have-nots” — an audio quality gap.
Some podcasts have exceptional audio quality. Most others do not.
I’m here to help close the gap.
Have you ever excitedly downloaded a podcast about a topic you love, only to find that the audio quality is terrible? This happens constantly.
I’m always on the hunt for new podcasts about my personal hobbies, and most of them suffer from the same quality problem. I hit the unsubscribe button almost as often as I hit the subscribe button.
It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about the subject, it’s pretty hard to stay tuned if the levels are too low, the interview subject is scratchy, or the host’s microphone sounds like it was purchased from Fisher-Price.
The problem most often occurs with guest interviews. The host introduces the show with a decent mic. But then they turn to the guest — and, ack! — their audio is complete garbage.
The Skype connection is bad. The telephone line is tinny. The volume is too low. The EQ is off. Or there’s noise in the background.
You can have the most compelling data, slickest scripting, or the smartest hosts. But your audience probably won’t stick around if the guest’s audio is shrill, echoed, distorted or too quiet.
Think about it: would you expect someone to read your blog if the text came in 12 different fonts, sizes and colors? They’d get dizzy, and then click somewhere else. The best writer in the world would have a hard time holding onto readers.
That’s what inconsistent audio quality does to the listener. Quality is everything. It’s what separates the top 20% of podcasts from the rest.
This audio quality gap is not caused by budget or privilege. It’s a knowledge gap. A small group of people — often trained in audio production or with access to the radio community — know how to collect good audio without sending their guests to a professional studio.
I’ve spent years experimenting with different remote guest recording techniques on a budget. And now I’m going to share those with you.
Below, I’ll list five methods based on the set of decisions that I would make as a producer — starting with my first choice, all the way down to my last choice. I will explain how I use them. And I will also include the cost.
- THE TAPE SYNC
If you’re truly serious about audio quality, tape synchronization is your best choice. It’s simple: find someone with a nice audio kit and get them to record the other side of your guest’s audio. You then sync that audio in your editing software— and voilà, you’ve got yourself a radio-quality interview.
OK, I lied a little. Tape syncs are definitely for the “haves.” You need to have good connections with field reporters if you want to get consistently good audio. If you’re doing interviews with guests who are scattered around the country, you need a network of folks you trust. This is where it helps to have a production partner who can arrange tape syncs for you.
I love tape syncs because they’re simple. The interview can be conducted by phone. You don’t have to play around with Skype settings, or bother yourself with the guest’s audio. And assuming you trust the person holding the mic, you can be confident in the final product. (It’s not perfect, of course. I’ve been handed bad tape.)
If you are pricing these out yourself, the market rate for a 1-hour tape sync is $150. That can get expensive for independent podcasters doing it on their own. But if you have some budget, this is a wise place to spend some dollars.
2. THE ‘SELF-SYNC’
Don’t have the resources or time to find a field producer to do a tape sync? The next best option is getting your guest to record their own audio locally.
Many people have access to good USB microphones. If your guest doesn’t have one, see if they can get one from a colleague or friend. You’d be surprised at how quickly they can dig one up. (Academics, journalists, analysts, experts will often have equipment they can get from internal IT departments — believe me, I’ve asked many times.)
Personally, I keep a few portable USB microphones (ATR2100 with a pop filter) on hand to mail to guests. This can get expensive, particularly if you are overnighting a mic across the country ($120 for shipping from Boston to SF with a return label). But it’s often less than the cost of a tape sync, particularly if you are interviewing the person for a couple hours. I use UPS for shipping because you can just stick a return label inside the box.
If your guest can’t get access to a USB microphone, a pair of Apple headphones with a microphone built into the cord is the next-best option. (Note: after a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that Apple headphones offer the best quality of any consumer headphone.)
So how do you execute the self-sync?
Firstly, I have the guest download Audacity, a super-simple, free piece of software. The USB microphone or Apple headphones connect to Audacity and record the guest’s audio on their local computer. They can just record their end of the conversation, export the file, and then send to you via WeTransfer.
This strategy can present a lot of risks. You are relying on your guest to get the settings correct, and you also don’t have any control over the room noise (street noise, HVAC noise, etc). I always do a test with my guests before the interview to make sure the audio sounds clear.
Be aware: the self-sync is much more labor intensive. You have to send instructions to the guest, and you may have to do a test with them beforehand to make sure their settings are correct. You may also have to send a mic in the mail, adding extra time and cost.
Personally, I’m always willing to go through the trouble if it’s my only option for getting good tape.
3. THE VIRTUAL STUDIO
All the platforms work the same. You connect to a guest via your browser or an app on your mobile phone, and the audio is captured locally. You hear the person during the interview through a single connection, but the local audio for each guest is uploaded to a server afterward in WAV or MP3 format.
These are a good alternative to tape syncs. But be warned: all these platforms are all imperfect and fickle.
I currently use Zencastr’s “professional” option, which costs $20 a month. When Zencastr works well (i.e., you and your guest have a good connection) it sounds pretty good. But if there’s a connection issue, the audio can get super choppy. If you have more than three people on the call, it can be even dicier.
The same rules apply here — the sound quality is way better if the guest has a USB mic, or a pair of Apple headphones with a Mac. (Note: These platforms can sometimes be wonky with different combinations of mics — or with windows machines. I try to keep it simple and ask them to use Apple products to avoid headache.)
I used Cast ($30 a month) for over a year, but had some very serious reliability problems. People kept getting kicked out of the session. I haven’t used it since 2017, so it may have gotten better.
I tried a trial version of Cleanfeed ($34 a month) in 2018. It offered the best audio quality. But the platform didn’t separate the tracks. They have since offered track splitting, but I haven’t used the platform since this new functionality was released. Worth a try.
I am not a big fan of Ringr ($18.99 a month). The audio always seems to come out hollow. It’s good in a pinch because the person can record on their cell phone via the app, but I’ve always been mildly disappointed with the quality.
A word of caution here. I always do a test with guests to make sure they can connect the microphone and their room tone sounds okay.
How do I use these platforms? I’m biased toward the tape sync or self-sync. I mostly use these tools as a backup — so I have the guest or my co-hosts record locally via Audacity, while also recording them in Zencastr. You can’t go wrong with an extra backup.
4. VOICE MEMO
If these other options are not in the cards, you can simply have your guest record a voice memo on their phone. This is a common tool that top podcasters and public radio reporters use in a pinch. It’s often called the “isync.”
Either have them hold the telephone to their ear like a normal call, or use a pair of headphones with a mic built into the cord. I find that Apple headphones with an iPhone are the best combination.
Be aware: the voice memo app can limit the file size, so this probably isn’t ideal for interviews over 20–30 minutes. And you will need to connect with your guest via Skype or a landline telephone, since their phone won’t allow them to record a voice memo and use the phone function at the same time.
The benefit: it’s relatively simple and free.
5. SKYPE, GOOGLE HANGOUT, ETC
These are the tried-and true platforms for the majority of podcasters. There’s nothing wrong with using them, but they’re certainly my last choice. That’s because you are a slave to the internet connection — if the connection falters, you’re going to hear it in the final product.
I mostly use Skype call recorder to record telephone calls. (It costs 2.3 cents per minute if you are calling a non-Skype user on the phone.) I also use it to record one-on-one interviews with guests if I have no other option. I really don’t like using Skype (or any similar platform) for recording sessions with multiple people because it’s all mixed down into one VOIP stream. Not ideal.
The same rules apply here: if you can, test your guest’s audio beforehand so you understand what kind of sound you’ll be working with.
A lot of people don’t experiment with these options because of budget or complexity. I understand budget. But if you truly want to set your show apart from the rest, put the hard work in.
Getting good audio can be a very manual process. You just need to put workable systems in place to make the process as efficient as possible. Or, if it’s just too daunting, consider hiring a producer to take that work off your hands.
Stephen Lacey is a veteran business journalist, editor and audio producer. He’s been producing and hosting podcasts since 2006.
He is founder of Post Script Audio, a production firm that works with companies and organizations to make compelling audio. Post Script helps launch new podcasts, improve existing shows, and craft ad campaigns.