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Recording remotely

A little context: although this was originally written in Zoom’s heyday, Skype was still considered the standard way professional podcasters recorded with guests and co-hosts. Some have moved to Zoom while others have migrated to services like SquadCast.

Most podcasts feature more than one person talking, and recording remotely is the easiest, and safest way to bring in other voices. There are a plethora of options available, some for free, some paid, and some easier than others to use. Let’s look at some of the most common.

Skype

Among podcasters, Skype is still perhaps the most popular means of recording a podcast remotely. Although the app receives frequent and sometimes frustrating updates, the voice service itself tends to be reliable.

The best way to get great-sounding audio from a Skype call is to use end-to-end recording, where all participants of the Skype call record their own voice, on their machine. The difference in audio quality is dramatic, so don’t be afraid to ask guests to do this, as most people don’t mind doing it. If you regularly work with guests, consider creating a page on your podcast website that you can link them to, that explains what they need to do.

Once you have your audio and your guests’, you’ll use your audio editing software to sync up the tracks. If you feel up to it, you can ask your guest to clap at the same time you do (on the count of 3), as this sudden burst of sound will give you a visual cue you can use to line up your tracks.

Dealing with audio drift

Audio or clock drift is a problem in which two digital recordings become slightly out-of-sync over time. It can happen if you record video using a phone or camera and audio using a microphone and a USB mixer, but it’s especially common when dealing with remote recordings. Digital audio is recorded by taking a sample of the current audio volume, typically 44,100 times per second. An audio file is a collection of those samples, listed one after the other. A computer judges whether it should take another audio sample based on its clock, but computer clocks run at minutely different speeds depending on their environment. If you and your guest start recording at exactly the same time, and then stop at exactly the same time, it’s common for your files to be slightly different durations, usually by a few seconds.

This audio drift will become more noticeable as you move through the recording, as the two tracks become more and more out of sync. It’s not a sign of faulty hardware or software, just a matter of how computers work, but it’s important to be aware of it so you know what you’re dealing with.

The simplest way to counteract audio drift in a conversation between two people is to align your tracks so they’re both in sync at the beginning, then check through the recording every so often, looking for longer gaps or overlap between the first person speaking and the second. If you’re recording your own end, use your track as the reference point, then look for a moment of silence in the other track, and split it in two. Then drag the right-most clip very slightly to the left or right, depending on whether you need to cut a little time or add a little time. Don’t do this in the middle of words or phrases, as this will be noticeable to the listener., and you shouldn’t be adjusting more than a fraction of a second.

You probably only need to do this two or three times within an hour’s recording, but the number may vary from guest to guest. Remember, the more people you add to your call, the more different computers you have to deal with, so the more audio drift you might have to account for.

Audio drift is also not affected by whether you use Skype or another app to co-ordinate your call. The same thing would happen if you used a FaceTime call or even a normal phone call, and the same would be true if you recorded face-to-face but using different computers. It’s merely a result of recording audio on two different computers.

Audio drift is a separate issue from lag, which is universal among all participants of a call, and is the effect of the time it takes for everyone’s voice to make it through the Internet and back out to people’s homes. You can reduce lag by switching from wifi to a wired connection, but some level of lag is unavoidable, and is simply a consequence of recording over the Internet.

Zoom and other VoIP services

Zoom has become a popular service for video and audio chat. While it does have the ability to record separate audio tracks, this is not the company’s focus, so the audio quality is poor. Unlike Skype, this also includes the host’s audio, so you can use Zoom to communicate, but follow the same principles as you would with Skype, and ask your guests or co-hosts to record their side of the call.

SquadCast

If asking your guests to record their side of the call — or even to download Skype if they don’t already use it — is too much, or you’d like to simplify your workflow and not have to worry about audio drift or syncing up your tracks, you can try a service like SquadCast.

Other services exist that do a similar job, but SquadCast provides lossless audio, which means, unlike those other services, you’ll get crisp, clear audio from your guests and co-hosts.

The downsides to SquadCast are that * it’s not free * it doesn’t work on the built-in Safari browser for Mac (meaning you need to use Chrome or Firefox) * it’s a much younger service than Skype and has far fewer users, so may be prone to more downtime

Those points aside, SquadCast provides your guests and co-hosts with a simple interface that requires almost no effort to get going. Guests simply visit a URL you give them, give permission for the website to use their microphone, and optionally enable their webcam, which is helpful for giving visual cues to other speakers, but isn’t saved anywhere (SquadCast only provides audio recordings).

When you hit Record, SquadCast will start recording audio locally on each person’s computer. That means the highest audio quality possible. Once you’ve finished recording, you click a button to transfer the recordings from each person’s computer and SquadCast will make these available for you to download and add to your DAW. There’s no need to sync the tracks as this is already done for you, and SquadCast even counteracts audio drift.

Remember to ask your guests to stay on the line with SquadCast open in their browser until the recordings have transferred to SquadCast’s servers. The files’ high quality means they’ll be large, so you might have to hang around for a few minutes after you’ve stopped recording, to make sure you have everyone’s audio.

Have a backup plan

No matter the communication method, it’s always sensible to have a backup. In Skype’s case, you might use an app like Skype Call Recorder — or enable Skype’s in-built recording feature. This will give you clean audio of your side of the call, but the audio from your guests won’t sound as good, however it’ll do in a pinch if you’re having problems getting their locally-recorded audio.

The same approach is true with Zoom. By all means enable Zoom’s recording feature and use those files if you lose one of the locally-recorded tracks.

In the case of SquadCast, look into apps or settings you can enable that can record your entire computer’s audio output. That way, if SquadCast encounters a problem and can’t deliver the finished files to you, you have a recording of the session as you heard it. Running through how to record your computer’s audio is out of the scope of this lesson, but you can search for guides on recording your computer’s audio tailored to your operating system.

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