By Chip Sudderth
May 23, 2016 10:41 AM PT
Skype causing more headaches for Mac podcasters
Hobbyist and professional podcasters alike depend on Microsoft’s Skype for mustering panels and interviewing guests, even as they curse it under their breath for its occasional lack of stability and call quality. Skype is ubiquitous because it’s widely cross-platform, relatively easy to install and use, and free—but it may be time for Mac podcasters in particular to pursue more options.
Skype’s Mac user support forum has been abuzz since December with complaints that the ability to adjust conversation volume had been removed since version 7.25. A Skype community manager acknowledged that client and server changes were responsible, and that restoring the functionality would not be easy: “For the speaker volume controls we are still working out how to address this for the scenarios where OSX global speaker volume controls are not the answer.”
This did not amuse podcasters on the forum, because Skype for Mac now consistently outputs “hot” and distorted audio to both headphones and capturing software. “Double-ending,” or recording both sides of a Skype conversation at the source for the producer to sync, is a podcasting best practice. But if a guest is unable to independently record their side of the conversation or has a technical failure, the producer depends on the Skype track for backup. Since Skype for Mac 7.35, that track is likely to sound jarringly worse than the host’s.
The changes in Skype may relate to a new problem I have in putting together my panel podcast, The Audio Guide to Babylon 5, using Skype and one of Rogue Amoeba’s indispensable tools for podcasters, Audio Hijack. Audio Hijack typically and cleverly captures audio from any Mac application. Using the Skype preset, however, as soon as I press the “record” button Skype audio becomes even hotter and largely unusable if my co-hosts have a recording failure.
Audio Hijack’s technical support team researched the issue and responded to me by email (emphasis added):
We’ve been digging further, and it seems that there’s a bug or major change in Skype that’s affecting Audio Hijack’s ability to capture and split up the input and output audio, and we’re looking into ways of improving that behavior. We might suggest using an alternative method of capturing your audio, by disabling the setting to include audio inputs with Skype, and capturing your microphone separately.
That’s what I did. My new Audio Hijack session (pictured) includes two separate audio inputs: a direct link to my USB microphone interface on the left channel and Skype audio output minus my input on the right channel. (The two inputs don’t even have to be combined into the same file; Jason’s preferred Audio Hijack layout sends each audio source into a separate mono file.) The result is that my Skype recordings are still hot but no longer too hot to use in an emergency. 1
The short-term lesson here is that podcasting tools that directly integrate with Skype may be somewhat risky, as Microsoft changes its clients and underlying technology without considering edge cases. On the Mac side, guests can simply record their side of the conversation using QuickTime Player. Producers can record the Skype track and their own microphones separately.
In the long term, however, this serves as a warning to podcasters. Is podcasting support on the Mac so much of an edge case that we need to more thoroughly explore alternatives to Skype? FaceTime is Mac-only. Google Hangouts, which runs as an extension to Chrome, can integrate with Hangouts on Air and YouTube for live video, but it can be a strain on both bandwidth and resources.
Cast seems to be the most promising alternative for traditional podcasting. Even without using its online editing and hosting services, it seamlessly records and syncs native audio from guests. It’s perfectly designed for novice users: just open an emailed link in Chrome, choose your microphone, and go. The host can directly retrieve the individual MP3 files for editing. In my experiments with Cast, however, it seemed unforgiving to guests with spotty internet service or overburdened computer hardware, and Cast doesn’t support more than four participants at one time.
More challenging to many podcasters is the cost: Cast charges a minimum of $10 per month for 10 hours of recording time. For all its headaches—and if you’re confident you’re not going to need to use its audio output—Skype is free. However, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the social media sphere, if you’re not a service’s paying customer your needs are more likely to be less of a priority when technological underpinnings or business models change.
My podcasting community tends to grumble a lot about Skype. Maybe we should take our attention, and even our money, elsewhere.
Plenty of podcasters use raw Skype audio to begin with. While the resulting audio quality isn’t ideal, a guest with a fast, reliable internet connection and a high-quality microphone should sound all right. ↩
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