One of the most frequent questions beginner (and many experienced) podcasters have is “how do I record a podcast with my co-hosts/guests being far away?”
If you want a simple recommendation, then use SquadCast. This is my own service of choice since July 2020, and so far I’ve been pretty happy with it.
If you want to explore other options, first let me explain which factors to look at when choosing a service. Then I’ll share my own experience of using different services.
What you should pay attention to
Are you getting individual tracks or a mix?
Once you finish recording, will you get a single file with all voices in it, or a file (“track”) per participant containing only that participant’s voice?
You should always prefer recording individual tracks. It may seem like more work to edit and post-process multiple tracks than a single one, but if you care at all about your audio quality, getting that quality out of a mixed track is very hard. Here are some things that a multi-track recording process lets you do:
- Apply a noise gate to each track, so that when someone is not talking, their noise does not get into the final mix.
- If two participants talk at the same time, you can mute one of them to let the other one be heard, or even let both of them be heard by rearranging their utterances in time so that they don’t overlap.
- Adjust the audio levels of each participant so that their loudness is roughly the same in the final mix.
- Use different effect settings (EQ, compression, de-noise, de-reverb) for different participants.
I find multi-track recording such an important feature for podcasters that I won’t even consider here any options that don’t provide it.
Are tracks recorded locally or remotely?
Most remote recording services that do multi-track recording do them locally: each participant’s track is recorded on that participant’s device, and then gets uploaded to the server once the recording is finished (or progressively while it lasts). A notable exception is Cleanfeed, which records tracks on their servers in real-time.
The advantages of recording locally (also known as “a double-ender”) are:
- Since there is no need to compress audio for real-time transmission over the network, it is generally recorded in higher quality locally than remotely. However, this depends on the codecs used and the available bandwidth.
- Locally recorded tracks are immune to network glitches. If your guest’s voice turned robotic or simply vanished, their own computer probably captured their voice in its original form.
But there are also disadvantages:
- The tracks recorded on different computers tend to get out of sync with time — the effect known as “audio drift”. Some services attempt to combat this with various degrees of success. However, in practice I tend to readjust pieces of audio anyway to achieve the right duration of pauses between speakers, so unless the drift is enormous, it doesn’t really matter.
- When the audio resides on your guest’s computer, there’s somewhat higher risk of it being lost or corrupted. When evaluating a service, find out whether they provide any options to restore the audio if something goes wrong, but also always have a backup recording on your side.
To elaborate on the last point: regardless of what service you use, always record two tracks locally: one with the audio from your own microphone, and another with the audio that goes into your headphones. (For Linux, see my audio recording guide; for other OSes, you can often use your DAW or a third-party app to do that.)
The first of these two tracks — the one with your own audio — probably will be of higher quality than the same track recorded by the service (even when the service records locally), so if the audio drift is not too bad, you can routinely use it in the podcast. On the other hand, the second track — the one with your guests — will probably have lower quality than the one recorded by the service (and will be a mix-down when you have multipe guests), so you wouldn’t normally use it — but if something goes wrong with the service, you’ll be glad you have it.
To summarize, I generally prefer services that record locally, but in some cases Cleanfeed can be a good alternative.
Is there video?
Here I am not talking about recording video — I am talking about being able to see other participants while recording an audio-only podcast with them.
While video is not required for recording podcasts, it’s very nice to have. In addition to being generally helpful for establishing rapport, here are some specific situations in which I’ve found it useful:
- When there are issues with guest’s audio (like bad mic positioning), they are much easier to diagnose and address when I can see what’s going on on their side.
- When the guest speaks, I can acknowledge their words with simple nods, instead of polluting the audio with regular uh-huh’s. When they or I need a bit of time to think on what to say, we don’t need to use filler sounds to let other person know we haven’t dropped off.
- My co-host and I can use small gestures to coordinate who’s asking the next question.
Can the guest record on a mobile device?
When the guest doesn’t have an external microphone or a headset, a smartphone’s microphone can potentially give much better results than a laptop’s built-in microphone, though I haven’t tried this in practice yet.
Here’s a list of remote-recording services you can try:
Out of these:
- Cleanfeed records audio on their servers; all the other ones record locally. Welder offers simultaneous local and server-side recording (the latter considered a backup).
- SquadCast, Zencastr, Riverside, Remotely, and Welder have video during recording.
- I’ve only used Zencastr, Cast, and SquadCast for a significant amount of time. I left Zencastr and Cast because of audio issues — subtle ones in the case of Cast, and no so subtle ones in the case of Zencastr. I’m happy with the quality of SquadCast recordings so far.
- Also, with both Cast and Zencastr I had (very rare) cases when the service would not work for a guest. I am yet to encounter such problem with SquadCast.
- Ennuicastr is the only one that is open source. It is currently in beta and lacks video, but other than that it looks very promising.
The only service I would definitely advise against is RINGR:
- This was the only service I couldn’t make work at all.
- Despite advertising a free trial, they charged me and never refunded, even after my explicit request.
- Their Android app requires a lot of permissions, including your identity, contacts, files, Wi-Fi connection information, and device ID and call information.