Blanket Forts and Pantyhose

How to set up a decent-sounding podcast studio at home

. 5 min read

How to set up a decent-sounding podcast studio at home

Note from the Editor: This article has been updated to reflect the remote recording tools that we currently use at Pacific Content.

Last week, my colleague Tara wrote about how to record a remote podcast guest. This week I’ll tackle how to help our hosts record interviews and narration at home.

Before COVID-19, most of our podcast hosts would attend recording sessions in professional studios. With self-isolation and social distancing becoming the norm for the greater good, we’ve stopped asking our hosts to breathe on a communal pop filter in a recording studio.

I’ve spent much of the past two weeks working with podcast hosts and show producers to figure out the best way to turn their homes into makeshift recording studios. In truth, it’s been nice to focus on a problem I can help solve right now. The challenge can be broken down into two parts: equipment and environment.

Equipment

In an effort to continue to deliver high-quality audio, we’ve been sending two different types of equipment packages to our hosts. The goal is to equip them with the tools necessary to record excellent audio at home without overwhelming them with technology that may be beyond their comfort level.

For those technically savvy, we send out our favourite voiceover mic, a Shure SM7B with a mic stand, and a Cloudlifter (used to turn up the lower-level SM7B without increasing noise). We pair these with an audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which connects the mic to the computer via USB and also provides a mic preamp for gain control, or a Zoom H5 if they would like the flexibility of recording without their computer.

In looking for a simpler plug-and-play solution for some of our hosts, we’ve decided on a USB microphone like the Shure MV7. This removes the need for an audio interface and makes it easy for a non-technical host to get better sounding audio. They just plug it into their computer and it works!

Strangely enough, we have a number of hosts who let musicians live with them, or dabble in audio art themselves. In these cases, we work with the tools they already have on hand and help them get the most of it.

Inevitably we want them to get as close to the microphone as possible. This has two advantages:

  1. It makes their voice sound extra beefy thanks to something called the proximity effect
  2. The closer they are to the mic, the less environmental sound is captured

Important to note: proximity breeds plosives (AKA popping p’s). If there’s no sweet foamy windscreen around for the mic, some (preferably clean) socks can do the trick. I prefer wool.

Or, if the host is crafty, a crochet ring and some pantyhose can make things a bit more professional.

Environment

This one is a bit trickier and has led us to some pretty innovative solutions. Inevitably, the room that our host chooses to record in has the greatest impact on the quality of their audio.

The first task is to identify noisy areas to stay away from. I’m looking at you, refrigerator. Any other fans from air conditioners, humidifiers, and old computers are also important to avoid. Traffic noise seems to be less of an issue these days, what with the pandemic and all, but windows generally are no friend of the audio engineer.

Studio recordings happen in acoustically dead spaces, with very little reverb or echo, thanks to super-fancy audio baffles and foam treatments on the walls. It’s not entirely practical to ask our hosts to staple mattress liners to the walls of their home offices, so this usually has us looking for the biggest closet in the house. A walk-in closet is a dream come true for us reverb-averse sound folks. With clothes hanging on two sides and space in the middle for a desk, we can avoid the reverberant pitfalls that most household rooms harbour. Heck, there may even be carpet in there! Perfection.

If no lavish closets abound, fear not! There are plenty of ways to help tone down the acoustic ambience in a room. First, we try to find the most cluttered room in the house, the more stuff there is, the less echo there will be. Also, think of every hard or reflective surface as your enemy and work to dampen them all. A rug on the floor is a good starting point. Then, instead of hanging things on all the walls, try to surround the host with makeshift walls. Or, in other words, build a blanket fort!

Since our hosts have likely grown quite a bit since the last time they built a blanket fort, the challenge becomes finding things that are tall enough to surround them with blankets and towels. Unless they are keen to sit on the floor (not the best for energetic voiceover reads), using things to elevate blankets is challenging. Maybe they have two tripods that they can use to spread a blanket wall across, or an ironing board could sit behind them, draped in drapery. Perhaps they’re near a doorway and that chin-up bar is now a baffle hanger. There are many makeshift solutions and even some reasonably priced ones. If Amazon ever gets back to shipping non-essentials, this order is a dream come true for the blanket fort enthusiast:

Once the space is treated and the gear is plugged in, we’ve been using a few different solutions for recording remotely. Browser-based solutions exist but can be temperamental at times. Zencastr is an old favourite, Riverside is our new favourite, but nothing beats having the host record the audio on their own computer. For this, we’ve used everything from Quicktime to Garageband to Logic to ProTools. Really it’s all about what the host has available.

The best tools are the ones we have on hand, and with the ever-changing express shipping options, we’ve had to improvise. The mother of invention will no doubt lead us down some even more adventurous paths as we continue to figure out how to deliver high-quality audio in less than ideal situations. Personally, I don’t think I could make any of these jury-rigged solutions work without the audio restoration tools that help convince all my co-workers that I’m actually a magician.

What does your makeshift recording studio look like these days?

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