Pandemic Podcasting: The Sound Quality and The Fury

Microphone Settings Are Making Me Crazy.

As I discussed a few weeks ago, I have a podcast and it’s taken over my life. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, since roughly nine tenths of the American population now have podcasts and are apparently able to juggle that work with other responsibilities. But I’m not always the best monotasker, let alone multitasker, so every day is a battle to not completely screw up in some way.

With the U.S. population at approximately 333 million, my above-cited data would suggest that 33.3 million people do not yet have podcasts. Among those, approximately 29 million have contacted me asking if I think they should start one.

What’s the most challenging part of doing an interview podcast, they ask? Is it hard to find guests? Do you have to spend a lot of time preparing? Are you worried that rivals like Joe Rogan and Marc Maron might catch up with you and overtake you in popularity? Was happens if you accidentally book Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen for the same slot and have to reschedule one of them?

My answers, in order: No. Yes. No. Hey, shit happens.

No, it’s not hard to find guests. (One of the pleasant surprises of this endeavor is the number of people who are clamoring to be guests.) Yes, you have to do significant preparation if you’re going to interview someone intelligently and respectfully. As for the other two questions, no one actually asks them, though I keep them on my vision board in the hope that I’ll have such problems one day. In the meantime, my biggest problem is one that you’d think would be solvable but apparently is simply not. My biggest problem is how to keep guests from sounding like they’re talking through a tin can.

My biggest problem is how to keep guests from sounding like they’re talking through a tin can.

Since launching the podcast last summer I have been obsessed with audio quality— or lack thereof. Like just about all podcasters these days, my interviews are recorded remotely, computer to computer, from my home to the guest’s home. In the pandemic, hardly anyone is using professional recording studios and I couldn’t afford such a thing even in normal times. As such, listeners have grown accustomed to less-than-perfect sound quality. Trust me, I’ve heard big time podcasters patch in guests who sound like they’re speaking through the S-Band transponder on the Apollo 11.

Still, this is a sore spot. I come from a family of audiophiles. My brother is a an extremely high-level Hollywood sound engineer. When I started the podcast, he was so appalled by the audio quality that he sent me multiple mics and interfacing devices in the hope that I would not bring shame upon the family. After several weeks of calling him hysterically before interviews because I suddenly couldn’t remember the difference between a plug and a jack, I eventually worked out the kinks. On my end, I usually sound fine. The guests, however, are a crapshoot. And occasionally they sound like crap.

I’m reluctant to say this out loud, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from listening to the podcast. But after waking up this morning to an indignant tweet from a listener asking why I bother to hold interesting conversations when the sound quality makes those conversations inaudible, I felt I had to say something. First of all, the quality is not that bad. Not even the episodes that make me wince the most would fall even remotely into the category of “inaudible.” If an interview was inaudible, even if it was with Barack Obama, I’d scrap it and ask (beg?) the guest to redo it.

Second of all, would someone like the job of traveling to the homes of my guests and physically sitting down at their computers and getting the mic settings right while also strapping the guests to their chairs to keep them from moving around? If so, you’re hired. There’s a year-end bonus if you can keep family members and pets from making noise in the background and ensure that neighbors don’t start mowing their lawns or using circular saws the minute we start recording. (As I noted previously, my own pet is kept on mute via a steady flow of bully sticks.)

The most maddening part of the whole guest audio quality conundrum is that there’s no discernible pattern to it. I’ve had guests with professional-grade home recording studios who still manage to sound like they’re on the telephone. At the same time, I’ve managed to get practically NPR-level quality from people talking into their laptops from their bathrooms. Often it’s a matter of the overcoming the tyranny of the system preferences menu. Only the exact right configuration of input/output settings will achieve the desired outcome. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a guest stumble on the right setting for a moment — that’s it, that’s perfect! I’ll shout — only to hit some random key or tap some Bluetooth device the wrong way and throw the whole thing off again. That fleeting moment of clarity will then be lost forever — notwithstanding the times when it mysteriously returns later in the interview, making everything that came before sound that much worse.

Last week, an interview was delayed for more than 30 minutes while the guest and I tried to figure out why she couldn’t hear me when she used her good mic and I couldn’t hear her through my headphones. We finally just decided to proceed at half mast. Halfway through the interview, her cat stepped on her laptop and cut off our connection. The whole session took so long that my dog went through six bully sticks. Did I mention that the guest herself had a podcast? This was hardly amateur hour—except it was totally amateur hour.

And maybe that is just where we find ourselves at this moment. Considering that even MSNBC experienced a massive technical pileup on Wednesday night, with 11th Hour anchor Brian Williams staring at his desk in lolling silence for ten seconds, unaware that his show had started because he couldn’t hear Lawrence O’Donnell’s toss from the previous show, I guess home podcasters should go easy on themselves.

Still, I remain haunted by the howls of muffled audio. I like awake at night, fantasizing about being a guest in the homes of my guests, bringing them gifts in the form of expensive microphones and enough goodies to keep the other members the household quiet for an hour. Then, in the fantasy, something happens that hasn’t happened yet on my podcast. I interview the guest in person. I sit across from them, mask-free and unafraid, and have a conversation the old-fashioned way. The sound quality is out of this world.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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