Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Podcasting 101

This week for the Whostorian blog I thought I'd go off on a different tangent. I've been reading some articles and listening to a couple of shows by other members of The 76th Street Network talking about what process goes into making their podcasts and what equipment they use. So this week, instead of talking Doctor Who, I'd like to talk about podcasting in general and the learning process that went into bringing the show to where it is today. 

Two years ago myself and Shannon were talking one day about of all things, Doctor Who, and the former Whostorian fan magazine. He was the publications last editor and was remembering how much fun it had been and the enjoyment of bringing discussion of one of his favourite topics to the masses. I'd been a pretty avid listener of Radio Free Skaro at the time and as I mentioned it, Shannon said something along the lines of "I wish we could do something like that. We'd totally own it." I thought about for a few minutes as the conversation kept going.

I already had a Logitech headset with a mic for talking on MSN and Skype, it wouldn't be too difficult to pick up another one. I also had a copy of Adobe Audition on my laptop for some editing I'd been doing and it was capable of recording from multiple inputs. I also had an account on, and Shannon was co-hosting another podcast that used the same service, so that took care of finding a place to host the show. Finally I looked at Shannon and said "C'mon, I'll get my laptop and swing by Staples for an additional mic and we'll do this."  That was, as it turns out, the simplest thing about the Podcasting process, at least insofar as my education into it has been.
So there’s where it began, the decision was made that quickly and we were off and running. The original setup was my Toshiba A500 laptop  2 Logitech ClearChat headsets and recorded using Adobe Audition.

Like I said, it was that simple, or at least you think it would be. Shannon has repeatedly called me anal when it comes to The Whostorian and a lot of other things I do in my life. I admit that I am particular about how I do things and I tend to go in head first and try to the best job that I can do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I’ve been guilty all my life of tinkering and puttering with things that I’m working on in an effort to continually tweak and improve upon things until I’m happy with the result and I’m never happy with the result.

The first thing I learned about recording with the Logitech sets was that they were omnidirectional and picked up almost everything in the environment. People outside, the fridge kicking in, the cat, even myself and Shannon echoing in the recording because both mics were picking us up. So I turned to Google and YouTube and learned about noise reduction and hiss reduction and voice normalization and de-clicking and a host of other possible manipulations that can be done in Audition to improve the sound quality. Shannon would cringe and I could almost hear his teeth grind when we’d sit down to record and I’d ask for silence from us both for the first 10 seconds of the recording so I could use that for noise reduction in editing. In Audition I could take that 10 seconds and use it to remove most of the background noise from the episodes. No more fridge, no cat, no outside noise. I was happy with that... for a while.

It wasn’t perfect but it sounded alright, the editing was working, though at least on two occasions I went back to Shannon and told him we needed to record again because I thought it was crap and un-salvageable through editing, it was too horrible to use. Begrudgingly he agreed, the entire time I’m sure, cursing me as “too anal” and just being ridiculous. After those episodes I decided that it had to be an issue with Audition, so I went looking for different, better recording software. Sony Soundforge we discovered can only record from one input, so we couldn’t use two mics. Audacity for PC doesn’t do a good job of it either, at lot of recording programs it turns out are built around single input recording.

I finally settled on Sonar Producer by Cakewalk. This worked exceedingly well, but we discovered that we could only record for about 15 minutes before this echo developed in the entire recording that we couldn’t get rid of. We adapted to recording segments for the podcast that I would then cut together later to sound like a continual hour long conversation.

Happy for the time at least with the Software, I was listening to episodes when editing and noticed there was always a little echo or tinny sound to the podcast. I figured it was the microphones so the hunt began for new recording hardware. I spent a month looking at reviews of different microphones, comparing notes on features, USB vs. XRL inputs, learning about unidirectional and omnidirectional and the word cardioid. What ended up being the best and most economical choice was the Snowball Microphone by Blue. It’s USB, it’s plug and play, there’s no extra software to install and it works with almost every recording program you can think of. At the time I found a deal where I was able to pick up three of them for about half price, so I spent $150 instead of $300.

I added a couple of low cost pop filters and the sound was getting to a point where I was almost satisfied with the quality. Then lady luck stepped in, in the form of Shannon’s cat going into heat. When a female cat goes in heat, she can be very, very vocal about it and Shannon’s cat was a prime example it. We couldn’t record at his apartment as normal for about a month, so we moved production to my apartment. The hollow, tinny sound was gone, our voices sounded crisper, clearer, richer on the new recording and we realized that the problem was the open concept of Shannon’s apartment. His kitchen, dining room and living room all flow together with no walls to break up the space and nothing really on the walls to baffle noises from bouncing around the space. My living room is more enclosed and there’s more clutter. I have a bookcase that takes up three quarters of one wall and my sectional couch dominates another. I was finally happy.

Now that it’s just me hosting The Whostorian I’ve really only changed one thing. I record using Sony Soundforge now, I used to use it anyway for editing regardless of what software I used for recording. It’s a simple program with a lot of options for cleaning up sound and for zooming in for cut and paste edits. So the list I gave at the beginning has evolved to this point, my faithful Toshiba A500 laptop One Blue Snowball Microphone with a pop filter and Sony Soundforge 10.

Am I done? Hardly. I have a plan for the next steps and the next changes that I want to make. I have a Behringer Mixer and I want to pickup a couple of Audio-Technica AT2020 microphones. I’ll stick with Soundforge because it’s an awesome program and I’ll only be working with the input from the mixer into my laptop so I don’t have to change my recording software.

I’ve even done some testing with connecting the Snowball to my iPad and recording in Garageband on it. I get a really nice recording and that setup is super portable so I can take it basically anywhere. I can even mount the microphone to the dash of my car and record while I drive, press record before I leave my driveway and it’s no different than talking to someone hands free on my cellphone. The only drawback is that I find editing difficult on the iPad, but as with anything it’s a learning curve and if I work at it then it’s sure to get easier. Until I do, I can easily import the file to my computer and then edit in Soundforge as normal.

I have learned so much in the past two years about audio hardware and about editing and what works for me personally and what doesn’t work at all. It’s been a series of ups and downs, of frustration and excitement, trial and error and I’ve loved every minute of it and I’m looking forward to anything that I still have to learn about everything.

Stylin’ Steve

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