Go Outside: podcasting shouldn’t be limited to studios
I don’t often write blogs where I talk about how to make better podcasts. And that’s not least because I know that not everything I’ve ever made is brilliant. There are producers who output a few hours of content, at most, per year, but what they make is so exquisite — the Fabergé egg of podcasting — that they can pontificate on quality. And then there’s someone like me, who creates several hours of content a week. Inevitably, when you’re working with quick turnarounds and bulk orders, quality is the prime consideration.
All the same, I saw this quote circulating on Twitter (shoutout to producer, Holly Fisher) and thought I’d share.
It’s from the Financial Times’ review of a new podcast, Why Women Grow, where writer Alice Vincent visits, as you’d expect, women growers, speaking to them in the landscapes that shape their professional and personal lives. For me, this is also a pertinent reminder of what podcasting can do — and a lot of the things that have possibly been forgotten in the rush to “challenge” prestige radio.
The idea of being in an air-tight, sound-proofed studio is nice. It’s necessary for, say, music, where you’re mixing different elements and want them all to be recorded as cleanly as possible. It’s necessary for live radio, where you want a central hub of controls, with producers and studio mangers on hand to hit cues, bring in links, deliver a cast of guests.
What it’s not necessary for is podcasting.
Sure, all those crummy podcast conversations about Star Wars, real ale or why Keeping Up With The Kardashians sucks (usually recorded between two blokes, in a basement lair somewhere) would be improved, aurally, if they were in a sound-proofed studio. But the reality is that, for most podcasts, working in a proper sound-proofed studio is beyond their financial means. And, additionally, most podcasts gain astonishingly little from recording in that environment. The great thing about pre-recorded content — the clear advantage it has over live broadcast — is that we can take risks on the quality of the record. We can start recording next to, say, a busy road, and if it proves too noisy, guess what? we can move! We can adjust mic positions, re-record segments, mix field recordings with indoors recordings. And nine times out of ten (according to scientists, who go to another school) a conversation recorded in a meadow, or a pub, or an antique steam train, is going to sound better and more dynamic, than if that same conversation had been recorded in an airless, slightly bouncy room.
Last week I recorded a six-way panel conversation in a pub in Notting Hill. This is just about the most, on paper, rubbish recording environment possible: full of noisy patrons, noisy participants and all the controllable factors you could hope for, from local traffic to dishwasher vibrations and the last orders bell. I only agreed to do it because the talent wanted to; they fancied podcasting with a pint and a bite to eat. But, you know what?, the final product is so much more interesting sounding than it would’ve been if we’re recorded in the Podot office, or even a fancy recording studio. There’s a bit of hubbub, sure, but it sets the whole tone for the conversation. Loose, almost languid, amiable and ambling, it’s the perfect setting for that conversation.
All of this is to say that skilled producers can do great things with podcasts — and the possibilities are far more exciting than just setting up a couple of Shure SM7Bs in a conference room and hoping for the best. If your sound conditions are going to be sub-optimal, why not embrace that imperfection? I’d rather the sound of trees and bees, footsteps and clinking glasses and distant chatter, to the sound of participants’ voices bouncing back off plasterboard walls and mineral fibre roof tiles.