How extraordinary is it that we can make a remote recording through video chat! Part one of this blog post is an ode to the revolutionary potential of this technology. Part two is a checklist that I use when making remote recordings.
Part 1. How amazing is video chat
When I was a kid I used to watch a show called seaQuest DSV which was an adventure show set in a submarine sometime in the future. Throughout the show the protagonists communicated using video chat and I would simply goggle at this futuristic technology. Back in those days the internet was just emerging and video chat seemed a long way off. You could barely download an image but the text-only messages we were sending people in other countries seemed sufficiently extraordinary, even revolutionary. This technology gave people a hope that if we could communicate across countries and cultures then we could break down arbitrary divisions and work together for a better world. In 2022 video chat is a feature of my every day life, and although we have yet to achieve utopia I have never stopped being amazed by this technology.
As an audio engineer who works in podcasting I am often called upon to conduct remote interviews using video chat. Being able to conduct these interviews means that we don't have to guess about the experience of a person who is living a very different life from our own; we can just ask them. All through my childhood I heard about "the poor, starving children of Africa" but it was only in my adult years that I was able to access media that gave voice to diverse perspectives from across this continent. So remote recording through video chat is a tool that has increased the possibility of representation in independent media such as podcasting, and therefore has the kind of revolutionary potential that people dreamed about in the early days of the internet.
Part 2. My checklist for remote recordings
As an audio engineer it's my responsibility to make sure that recordings are of a high quality so that recordings are accessible to a wide variety of listeners.
There are a number of compromises to the audio quality of a remote recording when you compare it to recording in person. Double-ended recording services such as Zencastr and Riverside have greatly improved the quality and ease of making a remote recording, but there are still many things to consider. The person who you're recording might not have the greatest equipment, or they might not be very confident with technology. Have a discussion with them ahead of time to scope out the situation. If their equipment isn't very good you might need to send them something in the mail, or have them hire equipment locally. If they are not very confident with technology you might need to send a tape sync to help out. If there's no tape sync working on site then you will have to conduct a sound check remotely to get the most out of this recording technology. I have developed a checklist that I use in this situation, which is what I want to share today.
Checklist for creating a remote recording:
The following information assumes that we are recording human speech.
1. Have the person who you're recording sit comfortably. Often during a sound check people will sit up straight and lean into the microphone, but then once they start talking they'll slowly move into a more comfortable position far, far away from the microphone. It's better to start off with all equipment calibrated to the comfortable sitting position.
2. Ask the person to adjust their camera for the comfortable sitting position. If you're recording video as well as audio this is the time to discuss lighting.
3. Ask the person to turn off their smartphone.
4. Reduce lag by asking the person to turn off any unnecessary programs and downloads on their computer. Double-ended recording means that you can edit out lag, but lag still interrupts the flow of the conversation.
5. If echo is present, take steps to resolve it. Ask the other person if they're hearing echo from you.
6. Ask the person to position their microphone about a fist's distance from their mouth at a 45º angle. It should be pointing at the mouth but out of the way of the breath (see image). Remind them to bring the microphone to themselves rather than moving their body to the microphone.
7. Ask the person to speak. Ask them a question that will take their mind off the sound check so that they speak at their normal volume. I like to start with "what did you have for breakfast?".
8. Set the levels so they hover around -18dBFS when the person is speaking.
9. Ask for silence and listen to the sound of the room. If possible ask the person to turn off any sources of unwanted noise.
10. Once the person is back in front of the microphone have them speak again. Listen for mouth noises, sibilance and popping and have the person adjust the microphone to resolve these issues.
11. Listen for little sounds, such as if the person's jewellery is hitting the desk or if their chair is creaking.
You are now ready to make a quality remote recording, and to share a person's unique perspective with the world. As we continue to use video chat to make remote recordings I hope we can remember the radical potential that has always existed in the technology.