Podcasting While Social Distancing

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It has been said through the ages that necessity is the mother of invention and, based upon the surge in interest we’re seeing in remote podcasting during these strange and uncertain times, I’m realizing that it truly is. COVID-19 has upended life as we know it for much of the US. People are cooped up in their homes, and everyone is wondering if this is the new normal. Many jobs have been lost, and if you’re lucky enough to have one, you’re working from home, doing everything you can to keep it. As many podcasters did, we scrambled to take the B&H Photography Podcast fully remote. While it wasn’t without hiccups, we did manage to pull it off, and we learned some things along the way that we’d like to share.

When we record the B&H Photography Podcast under usual circumstances, we’ll often have three or four people in the studio, and sometimes a call-in guest or two via Skype. Everything that we record from Skype, whether there’s one, two, or more call-ins, gets recorded onto one track. While that’s certainly not ideal for work in post, it’s pretty rare that we have multiple remote guests for one show, and when we have had them, they usually aren’t interviewed at the same time. In other words, there wasn’t much chance of people talking over each other. Now, we find ourselves in a situation where we all become remote guests, and if you’ve ever listened to our show, then you already know that our guests and hosts talk over each other incessantly, so getting each speaker on their own discrete track is crucial for mixing and editing.

That really only left two options. One would be to have each guest record themselves separately, presumably using their personal computer or phone. There are some well-known podcasts that record remote interviews in this way, but those generally comprise just one interviewer and one interviewee. Our show has a host (Allan Weitz) and a co-host (John Harris) to begin with, and if you add one, two, or three guests into that equation, all responsible for recording their own audio, there’s a huge margin for error.

The only other potentially feasible route that I readily knew of was a web-based multi-track audio recording platform called Zencastr, which I’d heard was used by a number of shows. After some digging, I did find some alternatives, such as Squadcast and Anchor; but, time was of the essence, and we needed a platform that allowed for recording at least six sources simultaneously. Zencastr certainly seemed to fill the bill, offering unlimited guests on their reasonably priced Professional plan.

Zencastr

Zencastr can be used with newer versions of Chrome or Firefox on Mac or PC, and it records all your sources to separate tracks, which is a prerequisite for our show, since we do a lot of editing and mixing in post. Zencastr does not work on mobile devices at this time, so all guests will need to call in from a laptop or desktop computer. One thing that I thought was interesting is that Zencastr records each track locally, on each individual participant's computer, and then uploads all recordings once complete. This is intended to reduce the chances of a slow or shaky Internet connection disrupting the recordings. When individual dropouts inevitably occur (Zencastr has been getting slammed with traffic in light of recent events), the other recordings aren’t affected, and then the person who dropped out can, in theory, simply rejoin the group to continue.

Zencastr

The Professional plan lets you record WAV files at 16-bit, 44.1k, and it also records smaller, MP3 files. The free plan only records MP3. There’s also a fairly intuitive “Soundboard” feature that allows you to play intro music, ads, or sound effects, and it records this to its own MP3 file. This feature is great for playing back theme and break music while recording, but since it only records to MP3, it’s really only viable as a placeholder, and you’ll likely need to replace this audio in post with higher quality files.

After some testing, we settled on Zencastr, and I moved on to picking microphones to have sent out to our host and co-host. USB mics are definitely the way to go for fully remote podcasting with everyone recording in different places. They’re the easiest to set up, especially for those who don’t have a background in audio, and there are some great options out there these days. Since we normally use the RØDE Procaster, I wanted to get a similar-sounding dynamic USB mic with a built-in pop filter to keep some inkling of our usual sound, so the RØDE Podcaster USB seemed like a logical choice. We found the mic to be easy to set up, with no drivers needed on Mac or PC. It does not come with a stand, which you’ll need, or a shockmount, which I highly recommend. The shockmount absorbs a lot of the low-frequency rumble from your desk that can get picked when you’re just using the included mic clip.

RØDE Podcaster USB Broadcast Microphone

Quite appropriately, for our first fully remote episode, we interviewed four New York Times photographers who are covering the coronavirus story. We had a total of six sources throughout the show, with up to four people recording at a time. We did have some issues with guests dropping out, but all were able to reconnect, and all the audio that we captured sounded great. I did use some of the noise-reduction tools in IZotope RX to clean up some clicks and pops in some of the guest recordings, but that was no fault of Zencastr’s and was likely due to the fact that our guests weren’t using the RØDE mics our hosts had, instead recording with the built-in microphones on their laptops.

iZotope RX 7 Standard Audio Restoration and Enhancement Software

Are you thinking of taking your podcast fully remote? I encourage you to ask any questions on this subject in the Comments section below, and I’ll get back to you with any help or and guidance I can provide. I also would like to extend my best wishes to you during these difficult times, and thank you for reading.

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