Locked down, but not out – how podcasts are being produced in the pandemic

As our working lives continue at home, the Story team has been exploring how podcasts can be recorded remotely, using technology we already have. In an interview with our sound partner and audio expert Micky Curling, director at Mix Broadcast, we explore some tips for creating audio in isolation

At the beginning of Louis Theroux’s new podcast on BBC Sounds, he describes what it’s like to record from home. The journalist and documentary maker has launched a series called Grounded, which develops conversations with personalities including author Jon Ronson, musician Boy George and actress Helena Bonham-Carter.

Using a laptop, microphone and the internet, he says “I’m relying on my guests to record their half of the conversations”, during the introduction to episode one, “and we get to see each other using state-of-the-art video conferencing software.” In a few short weeks, since the series was launched at the end of April, Grounded with Louis Theroux is already topping the podcast charts.

Micky, how does remote recording work?

“All forms of internet phone call, whether on Zoom, Skype, Teams or FaceTime, reduce the quality of your voice to send the information over the internet in an efficient way.

“Remote recording is about asking you, the contributor, to record audio in the best quality you can. You would still join a live call, and that can be recorded as a backup, but we would ask you to record your audio at the same time. When the interview is over, you would just provide the audio file that you have recorded for editing, alongside other contributors.”

Do I need to invest in specialist equipment to do this?

“Yes and no. At the very minimum, the microphone in your iPhone or Android device can sound amazing. There are free apps available that allow you to record in very high quality and many radio reporters use these daily. Most people are shocked to learn how good an iPhone microphone can sound.

“That said, nothing beats a high-quality broadcast microphone and we would recommend anyone doing regular recording to invest in the technology. Radio studios are full of thousands of pounds of equipment, but you can pick up a basic high-quality set-up, for anything between £50 and £250. Some microphones can plug straight into the USB port of your laptop and will allow you to record your voice into free, easy-to-use software.”

Is it still possible to achieve broadcast quality sound in isolation?

“More important than technology is the environment that you record in. Radio studios are built with padding on the walls to prevent sound reflections. It is unlikely that your lounge or kitchen will sound the same. Even the most expensive microphone will sound dreadful in an echoey room.

“Many radio presenters working from home genuinely record their audio under a duvet! You don’t need to go to these lengths, but we recommend you find the room in your house with the softest furnishings and the fewest bare walls – most likely a small bedroom. A walk-in closet is also popular with many journalists.

“A soft cloth on a table, some cushions around your recording space, a blanket or duvet draped on the back of a chair can all help to make your space sound more professional. If you have got a car – and you can still get on your Wi-Fi from there – that can be a great acoustic environment.

In summary, what are your top three tips for making audio in lockdown?

1. Think about the environment you are recording in and ask yourself this question: is it too noisy? Avoid kids, clocks, washing machines, neighbours, road noise, trains and planes. Walk around your house or flat and think carefully about recording in the quietest room. If you have got curtains or blinds, close them. Close the door of the room you are recording in.

2. Record in the best quality you possibly can. iPhone microphones are great, even the microphones in ear buds can sound good. But avoid recording into your laptop microphone – we have rarely heard good examples of people doing this. If you want to invest in proper equipment, we can help you discuss the options, including the software you can use to capture the sound.

3. Even the most expensive microphone can be susceptible to ‘popping’ when you use words starting with B or P. Put your finger in front of your mouth as you say ‘Bertie’s Pop Party’ and you’ll be able to feel the power of the air that would be hitting your sensitive microphone. Two or three woolly socks over a microphone can help if you don’t have a proper filter.

To find out more about remote recording and how we can help you launch your podcast, get in touch with Suzi Dale – suzi@storypublishing.co.uk