One of the reasons studio people are so fond of the studio is you’re able to control the environment. Gear never gets dirty, things are never lost, and weather is almost never a problem. In fact, we’re so spoiled it rarely occurs to us to go outside professionally.
Having said that, in recent months I’ve been having a lot of fun with field recording, specifically for podcasting. Of course, it’s not just about fun. In a lot of cases, it can make for a better discussion and overall product.
Any music fan could name a live recording of a favourite song that’s better than the studio version. In fact many studios and producers go to great lengths to try to capture the feel of a live performance in-studio. Studios are great for controlling the environment and subsequently being able to deliver a clean, professional product, but by their nature, they tend to be very sterile, confining environments. If you’re talking about an upcoming event, what’s going to feel more immediate? What’s going to give you and the guests more freedom: a sterile studio environment, or the ambience of an open and relevant location?
Being on location has a profound effect on the discussion. If you can talk about an upcoming event on the very stage where it will take place, think of how much more excited the hosts and guests will be to be talking in that very setting. You can paint the picture for the listener. You can talk about the stage setup, where the audience will be, and how they’ll interact with the performers. It also inspires you to ask questions that would never be apparent or relevant in the studio.
Being on location also puts the guest at ease. One of the best compliments we receive is when the guest says they forgot we were recording. Of course, this doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes we’re with someone with whom we already have a rapport, but often it’s someone we haven’t met before. With many of our podcast discussions, the guest seems a bit tense at first. After a few minutes, they usually become more comfortable and can converse more openly. But put them in an environment that is more welcoming and/or familiar than a studio, and you can really hit the ground running.
We go back to this one so often that it’s almost a cliché, but modern technology makes it so much easier to get very solid recordings on location with very little gear. When I’m recording on location, I typically bring some Shure SM7Bs with an equal amount of mic stands, my headphones, my Zoom recorder, and that’s pretty much it. You could also bring chairs and a table if you don’t anticipate there will be any at the location, as well as a power supply and extension cord if you’re expecting a long discussion. Obviously a field recorder such as the Zoom does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the technology, but really it’s the Shure SM7B mic that gives me the confidence to do this work on location. It’s so great at focusing on the voice while allowing just the right amount of ambient noise to add atmosphere. Bear in mind that it does have its limits; you still need to be mindful of the sound space around you, but I find if you’re in an environment where the speakers don’t need to raise their voices and can converse comfortably, you should get a good balance of sound. I’d like to point out that I’m not being paid to endorse any of these products. These things are the real deal.
I’ve talked about this before, but I can’t overstress the importance of imagery in an audio-only medium, whether it’s music, radio, podcasting, radio drama, or whatever. One of the things many podcast listeners like about the format, is that they feel like they’re almost part of the discussion. Being on location takes that a step further. If you’re on location, and the environment is relevant to the discussion, being there makes a huge impact. You can talk all you want about the beauty of a park, but all it takes is some singing birds, children playing, or some trees gently blowing in the wind, and the listener is immediately right there with you.
Of course the downside of on-location podcasting is you’re on-location. Plan ahead. Bring backup gear if you have it, and if you’re planning to be outside, coordinate an alternate location with your guests whether it’s the studio, or an indoor venue near your preferred location. Be mindful of the temperature as well. Not all gear functions well in extreme temperatures. And be sure to ask permission to record where applicable, and be respectful of others. Podcasting can be a lot of fun, and it’s easy to forget that other people may be using the same space as you. Every environment has its normal and acceptable volume levels. Make sure you recognize them and conduct your discussions accordingly.