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Life

The Podcasting Story So Far

We are now a little way into the podcasting adventure, and I thought it might be interesting to expand a little on the learning curve I have mentioned a few times. Although I knew how to plug a microphone into the computer, I really had no clue about anything beyond that. It turns out there was quite a lot to learn.

My first purchase was a condenser microphone on an arm that could be bolted to the desk, and swung into position as you often see in radio studios. It turns out this was a mistake – but it took me a week to figure out why. I’ll explain why later. The microphone does look very lovely though – and was very inexpensive.

After plugging in the microphone, I realised I would need some software to record my inane babble, and turn it into something people could download. I installed “Audacity”, a program my children had used at school to mess around with sound. After tinkering for a little while I figured out how to record, and how to wield an imaginary pair of scissors to cut out coughs, “urrrs”, and “ummms”.

While Audacity was great, and just about worked for the first episode (ridiculously titled “Episode Zero”), I knew there had to be a better way of editing, and fiddling with the sound – partly because I grew up in a house filled with music keyboards and sequencing software, and partly because one of my friends composes and records his own digital music, and often shows me the latest production software.

I needed a “DAW” – or rather, a “Digital Audio Workstation”. It’s a piece of software that lets you mix together multiple recorded tracks of audio into a complete whole – with a virtual mixing desk stretching across the screen, replete with dials, knobs, sliders, and various needles bobbing around in meters. You go from “Billy No Mates sitting in the junk room” to “Benny Andersson sitting in the studio”.

I found a wonderful free piece of software called “Cakewalk” that ticked every box, and then some. There was only one problem – I had no idea how it worked, or how you were supposed to use such a leviathan. Enter my friend from work from stage left again. One lunchtime he sat with me, and showed me just enough to get me from “clueless knob twiddling” to “more by luck than judgement”.

So – now I could record myself, and make myself sound vaguely human in a recording. Given that I wanted to record a podcast, the next problem was how to record somebody else at the same time. After a little googling, I came up with another free (and really quite wonderful) piece of software called “VoiceMeeter”. It’s officially designated as “donation-ware”, so I will be donating soon. It’s worth it. It took me hours and hours to figure out.

There are three versions of VoiceMeeter available – the most capable is called “Potato”. Don’t ask me why – the previous version was called “Banana”. It probably makes sense to somebody. VoiceMeeter lets you do all sorts of things – such as grabbing the sound from the microphone, and mixing it with the sound coming from Skype. You can then fiddle with the volume levels of the various sources, and route the result into your recording software.

So. I had seemingly figured everything out – and recorded the first two “real” episodes over the course of the next week – the first with my eldest daughter, and the second with a blogging friend on the other side of the world.

There was a problem though. Hiss.

I had bought an analogue microphone. I couldn’t understand why the microphone was very quiet, no matter what I did in terms of recording volume levels. It took an age to realise that “real” microphones – such as the one I had bought – are expected to be plugged into a “pre-amplifier” before being routed into the device that records them. They are quiet by design. Not long afterwards I found a setting in the sound card of the computer to boost the volume of the microphone significantly – and unfortunately this brought hiss with it. I’m guessing most of the hiss is being caused by the sound-hardware in the computer itself – being interfered with by the rest of the hardware inside the box.

Over the course of several nights, I experimented with all manner of methods to remove the hiss – mostly revolving around “noise reduction” effects in the recording software. While I could get rid of the hiss, it also affected the recorded voices quite significantly – introducing phasing effects on the sound, and occasional digital artifacts.

After describing the problem to my all-knowing co-worker, he suggested I buy a pre-amp for the microphone. I could pick one up for �50 second-hand on E-Bay. If I had �50 spare, I might have followed his advice. Instead, I decided to go another route.

Last night I ordered a USB microphone from Amazon. Had I known what I needed at the beginning, I would have saved myself some money. For �20, I have solved all of my recording issues. It records voices perfectly within perhaps a meter before the levels start to drop, and at rest records silence. I can now sit at my desk, and relax into the conversations with those I’m talking to around the world – secure in the knowledge that what’s being recorded is about as good as it will get without spending an exponentially larger amount of money on hardware, and soundproofing the room.

The new microphone is a “Yanmai SF-777”, if you’re looking to solve the same problem as me on a tight budget. It came with a good quality tripod stand, and a pop filter – to stop breathy noises being recorded (“plosives” – see, I’m learning!).

It’s worth noting that I already had some USB microphones. When the girls were younger, they had a number of singing video games – where you follow along with a variety of pop-songs on the TV, and get scored on how well you followed along. I thought those microphones might work as a good fall-back, but it turned out to be a false hope – they are designed to be held against your mouth – or at least held in a microphone stand. If you move your hands at all while talking into them, you can hear the clunking and crunching sounds moving through their body.

I have no excuses any more – and the focus is rapidly turning towards who to record conversations with, and when. I’m also thinking about perhaps expanding the podcast a little – to do more than just conversations with bloggers. I’m thinking a few episodes about the history of blogging might be fun too – to talk about the various platforms – their history, how they work, how much they cost, and where they are headed. I need to get talking first though.

By Jonathan

Software Developer, Writer, Blogger, Podcaster

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