Thursday, March 07, 2013

How I podcast (Part 1)

I've gotten back into the swing of podcasting in the new year, primarily in a ~15 minute interview format. I find it's a great way to get a lot of interesting content out there. In some ways, it's easier than blogging (although the logistics involved in scheduling other people probably makes it somewhat of a wash effort-wise overall). In any case, it adds variety.

With the help of my UK colleague Richard Morrell, I've also upgraded some of my equipment and processes. I confess to paying less attention to detail than Richard shows, but I have upgraded my audio quality overall. It's still a learning process but I thought it worthwhile (for both myself and others) to document where I'm at so far.

For recordings in the office:

It's better to do things in-person when possible. It's both easier to get high quality sound and to have a natural-feeling conversation. I use a couple different types of kit depending on the circumstances.

When I'm recording a podcast in the office, I typically just use Audacity on a laptop, together with a USB microphone. (I have a MacBook Pro, but it really doesn't matter as Audacity also runs on Linux and Windows.) I generally use a Snowball Blue microphone, which is a cool retro-looking thing that always gets lots of comments. It's big though, so if I were doing a recording using my laptop on the road, I'd want something smaller. The Samson Go Mic is a good choice. In any case, it's really important to use some external microphone rather than the laptop's built-in mic. 

The best setup I've found is to sit next to (i.e. not across the table from) the person you are interviewing and set the microphone to the cardioid pattern, which is typically the #1 position. In general, I find the omnidirectional pattern (typically #3) picks up too much ambient noise for a top-quality podcast. 

Do a sound check and set the microphone volume within Audacity so that the microphone input is strong but not clipping. You'll also want to record some room noise for subsequent background noise removal. And you're off. (Note: Make sure that Audacity is set to use the proper input device; it won't use the external microphone automatically. It also seems as if you have to completely quit Audacity before plugging in the microphone for it to be recognized.)

The first thing I do when editing is go to Noise Removal under Effect, get a noise profile, and then apply noise removal to the entire recording. I think this capability was just introduced in version 2 and, in my experience, does a great job of removing ventilation and other consistent background noises. Of course, the quieter an environment you can find, the better.

The biggest challenge I have is interviewees who speak softly and/or who have trouble maintaining a constant distance and orientation to the microphone. In that case, a mixer like the one I discuss under remote recordings would probably help but I haven't personally tried this to date. 

At this point, I'm pretty comfortable with just monitoring the recording visually in Audacity. Alternatively, you could plug a headphone splitter into the PC's headphone jack and connect headphones for both yourself and your guest. However, this may make some guests feel less relaxed and I don't think it's generally that important so long as you have a relatively (acoustically) controlled environment.

For recordings on the road:

The above setup can also go on the road of course. However, when I'm at conferences and the like, I'm often in the position of having to grab someone and just interview them in some relatively quiet corner—in which case, I like to use an easier setup.

There are good digital recorders on the market. The Zoom H2N is a favorite of many.

However, I use my iPhone or iPad and plug in an iRig microphone. There's a corresponding iOS application but there's no reason you couldn't use any other recording application; the microphone just plugs into a standard 3.5mm jack. One nice detail of the iRig is that it comes with a splitter built into the jack. This means that you can easily monitor the recording with headphones, which can be useful if you're dealing with intermittent background noise.

I then just hold the microphone and move it up close to whoever is speaking at the moment. This generally works quite well for the style of interview podcasts that I do. I then transfer the recording to my laptop using whatever mechanism the recording app provides—in the case of iRig, I send it up to a server with FTP, then download it. I then edit the recording using audacity in the usual way.

Remote recordings:

This section remains something of a work in progress. The biggest challenge I find is balancing the desire for quality with the desire to keep things relatively simple for my guests.

It's certainly possible (with non-overlapping conversations) to record everything local at the endpoints and merge them in the edit process. One way to do this would be to have a Skype call and have all participants record using Call Recorder. But this only really works if it's a podcast with "regulars," rather than rotating guests. 

The following are some of the available options running roughly from least favored to most favored (at the moment). 

Most unfavored is anything that involves a cell phone on either end of the conversation. Cell phones are just really bad juju for any sort of webcast, interview, or whatever that doesn't involve talking to people who are out on the scene someplace. So just don't. Ditto for speakerphones. It's even best to not use cordless phones if they can be avoided. I have a cheap $15 corded phone with a handset that I use at home for any sort of broadcast or recording. Now, I realize more and more folks don't even have landlines these days. But, if they don't, I strongly recommend trying one of the other options here.

With that out of the way, one of the options is to just record a phone call. If you have a corded phone with handset, as described above, the easiest option is something like a Radio Shack Mini Recorder Control. It connects between the handset and the phone and outputs to a standard jack which can be plugged into a digital recorder with a line-in, smartphone, or other recording device. Not the highest fidelity option, but simple enough and workable so long as your guest is on a good connection.

Alternatively, you can call your guest's phone on Skype from your PC and record the call using the aforementioned Call Recorder. As you'll be using a microphone, the fidelity of your voice will be high, but your guest will still be telephone grade. Furthermore, I find Skype to be something of a mixed bag. I commonly get glitches because of dropped packets or latency problems while recording—requiring some re-takes during the interview. 

Of course, you can also call your guest using Skype on their PC and record with Call Recorder. They'll have to sign up for an account if they don't have one. And they should have a microphone and headphones (or a headset) on their end. (Some podcast producers will even mail microphones to upcoming guests who don't have them.) This is a pretty good solution, modulo the occasional Skype glitches mentioned above and the requirements for the guest.

However, my current remote recording setup of choice is Google+ Hangouts in combination with a USB mixer on my end. I'll be covering this in an upcoming post.

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