The last 18 months have been an audio-visual adventure, requiring many of us to improve and refine our at-home tech setups for virtual meetings and remote work.
And just when we thought we’d figured it out, we were hit with an entirely new scenario: hybrid work, with some people together in the office, and others dialing in from home. Getting things to work seamlessly in these situations is no easy task.
This can be especially challenging when you’re trying to get good sound.
We’ve struggled with this on GeekWire’s podcasts. Pre-pandemic, we recorded almost entirely in the studio. During the pandemic, we were entirely remote. Now, we’re all over the place, often with multiple people in the studio, and others joining us remotely.
We’ve figured it out through lots of trial and error. We’re sharing some of our lessons learned on this behind-the-scenes episode of the GeekWire Podcast, including details on hardware and software we use.
Even if you’re not recording audio or video, or producing your own show, these insights might help with your own hybrid meetings.
We used a few of our favorite mics to record the show, letting you hear the difference in quality. In addition, we discuss mics to avoid, based on our experience.
Also making an appearance are some new Microsoft headsets and microphones that we’ve been trying out on loan from the company.
Stepping out from behind the virtual booth to participate in this episode is Curt Milton, who edits and produces the GeekWire Podcast every week.
Listen to the show above, or subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app, and keep reading for notes and links.
The space: Our “studio” is room at the GeekWire offices. We use acoustic foam panels to keep the sound from bouncing off the walls. However, the room is not soundproof, and we frequently deal with exterior noise, sometimes pausing to let a plane pass overhead, for example.
Computers: Our workhorse studio machine is a Dell Alienware Aurora R7 with 16 GB of memory, a 256GB solid state drive and a 2TB hard drive and NVIDIA graphics card, running Windows 10. It’s usually reliable but balked at all the mics we hooked up for this episode, so we shifted to our reliable Lenovo Thinkpad Carbon X1 laptop for this session. We’ve also used an older MacBook Pro, as pictured above.
Studio mics: Our go-to mics are Electrovoice Re/20 condenser microphones. These are standard at many public radio stations. They cost about $450, although we’ve found them at lower prices on Amazon Warehouse Deals. These are dynamic cardioid mics, which means they pick up sound in an isolated pattern, avoiding extraneous noise. These use XLR audio connections.
USB mics: We love the $99 Rode NT USB Mini and recommend it to anyone who needs a (relatively) inexpensive yet high-quality mic for podcasts, etc. It also sounds clear and crisp in meetings.
Despite the built-in p-pop filter, it isn’t perfect on that front. We’ve had the best luck avoiding p-pops by placing it close but just off to the side of our mouths, positioned at a slight angle to avoid p-pops. Or get an external mic screen.
USB/XLR mics: We also use a few mics that have both XLR and USB outputs, including the $80 Audio Technica AT2005 USB and the $70 Samson Q2U. The versatility is nice, although the audio quality isn’t quite as good as the NT USB Mini, in our experience.
Audio hub: Connecting multiple XLR mics to the computer, to link to a remote guest, was probably our biggest challenge as we shifted to hybrid recording.
We solved this with a $220 Zoom PodTrak P4 portable audio recorder which accepts multiple XLR mics and connects to the PC via USB, with four headphone jacks to let everyone hear without creating an echo.
Microsoft audio gear: We used a few different Microsoft mics and accessories that integrate with the company’s Teams software.
- Curt is using the $50 Microsoft Modern USB Headset during this recording. A wireless version sells for $100. We found these mics to be much higher-quality than many other common headsets, some which tend to suffer from extreme sibilance, harsh “ss” and “sh” sounds that can make it difficult to listen to someone.
- We also tested out the $100 Microsoft Modern USB-C Speaker, which doubles as a microphone and is our favorite of the Microsoft devices we tried. You’ll hear it during the show going over the air to the studio mic, which doesn’t do justice to the in-person audio quality. It has a neat flexible base that lets you wind up the cord for storage.
Software and services: Here are the main tools we use.
- We’ve settled on Squadcast for remote recording of our shows. It’s like Zoom, except it records tracks individually and at higher quality. Squadcast offers video recording, as well, but we’ve opted not to use or pay for this at this point. Several other services, including Zencaster and Riverside.fm, offer similar remote recording capabilities.
- We like Audacity for audio editing. It’s free, open-source, and cross-platform. We find it perfectly adequate. Many audio pros prefer Adobe Audition or Pro Tools. We’ve had good luck syncing Audacity files across Dropbox between Macs and Windows PCs to collaborate on editing (although, ironically, a bad internet connection made the sync go haywire when editing this episode).
- We also like Levelator, a free tool that automatically evens out the audio levels among the different people on the show. It’s still available for download but not longer being updated or supported, and the official page is looking increasingly janky, so use at your own risk.
- For best results, use a noise reduction tool on the audio file, judiciously, to take out extraneous background noise before processing through Levelator. Curt has us start every show with 10 seconds of silence to help him isolate the background noise later, which I appreciate for the opportunity it provides to quiet my mind before we begin.
- We use OmnyStudio to distribute the show, with dynamic ad insertion that automatically puts new ads into both current and past episodes. I’ve also had a good experience with Anchor.fm.
Record locally: If you (or your guests) have the capability to record your individual track on a high quality mic directly to a recorder on your desk (using a separate mic to communicate through Zoom or another program) you can sync up the files in your editing program later for much better overall quality. As a bonus, this also gives you redundancy and a backup audio file (see below).
Get creative: Don’t be shy about your search for quiet places to record. Closets work, but I recorded the narration for this episode of our Day 2 podcast one night last week in the back of seat of my parents’ minivan, parked in their garage during a visit home. The soft seats and fabric ceiling worked almost as well as a studio to dampen the sound.
Backups and redundancy: This is the toughest lesson of all to learn the hard way. Make sure you’re recording multiple ways. We like to run Audacity in the background as a backup recording for remote guests, and record the in-studio mics on the SD card in the PodTrack as a backup to the Squadcast recordings … just in case.