By Jason Snell
April 21, 2017 4:04 PM PT
One podcaster’s (fruitless) quest to replace Skype
Every now and then when I complain about Skype, which most of my podcast peers and I use for our conversations, someone suggests an alternative voice-over-IP service and asks why we don’t switch.
The truth is, Skype’s terribleness may be overstated—people get cranky when they’re entirely dependent on a single product and that product isn’t reliable—and the product has gotten better recently after a few particularly rocky months.
But it’s not just about abandoning Skype. Yes, there are numerous services that will let multiple people connect over the Internet and have a voice conversation.1 Yes, we could move to Google Hangouts or some other web-based business conferencing tool or video game chat app2.
But here’s the thing: Everybody I know uses Skype. If I’m going to start the painful process of moving house—of getting everyone I’m on a podcast with to, over the course of many months, upgrade their software and get used to a new way of working—I want to move to something that is vastly superior to what we’re currently using. There is no point in dealing with transition costs—inevitably including many lost minutes as everyone waits for someone to install unfamiliar software and figure out how to use it—to make a lateral move.3
Leaving aside the fact that I have no real faith that alternative option X is actually better than Skype—one person’s “I’ve never had any problems” can be another person’s “omigod it was a disaster”—I’ve decided that I’m leaving Skype only if I’m forced to or if I can find a tool that solves other problems specific to podcasters.
Right now, the biggest issues I have with Skype, beyond the occasional bout of unreliability, are related to recording audio. This isn’t Skype’s fault—it wasn’t built with recording podcasts in mind!—but it’s a necessity for podcasters. While I’m doing a podcast, I need to record my own microphone and, ideally, the rest of the conversation—and in separate files or on separate tracks. And all of my panelists need to record their own microphones, locally, at full quality. (You can read more about this in my “How I Podcast: Recording” article.)
On the Mac, this is pretty easy. I bought a bunch of copies of Ecamm Call Recorder for Skype, which is a plug-in that integrates recording right into Skype, and distributed them to my most frequent panelists. For people who don’t have Call Recorder, QuickTime can record audio fairly easily. On Windows, it’s more complicated—the podcast guest guide that I use recommends downloading the free audio app Audacity. More complexity means there are more chances to do something wrong. (This leads me to an additional feature I require: The software involved needs to be dead simple for a novice guest to set up correctly.)
And then there’s iOS, where this is just impossible. You can’t record your microphone locally while talking on Skype. This severely limits iOS podcasting.
Plus there are some things that Skype does really well, that any replacement needs to do a decent job at. Skype massages audio before it reaches you, leveling and boosting audio and removing background noise and echoes. Its servers merge audio streams together so that multi-person conversations can happen even on on low-bandwidth connections. Skype may have its issues, but it’s also got a lot of strengths that I didn’t appreciate until I began investigating alternatives.
So if I’m going to move from Skype, I need to move to something that won’t be dramatically worse than Skype in terms of stability and audio quality, and it needs to make it easier to record podcast audio across all major platforms, desktop and mobile.
This is a big ask. And it turns out, there’s basically no solution today. But there is hope.
The closest we’ve come are two web services, Cast and Zencastr. Both of these services rely on WebRTC, a browser-based set of real-time communication protocols that let browsers transfer audio and video without special plug-ins. Both services automatically record the local audio of participants and upload them to a remote server, so panelists don’t need to install or run any special software to have their high-quality audio captured for later use.
Cast costs $10/month for its basic plan. I’ve used it for several months in the recording of the TV Talk Machine podcast, and have found it to be quite reliable. It can’t handle conferences with more than four participants, including the host, which disqualifies it from my large panels on The Incomparable, but most podcasts don’t have panels with five or six people in them. (And an expansion of that limit is forthcoming.)
Zencastr has a basic free tier, but to record with more than one guest it’s $20/month. Zencastr claims it can handle “unlimited” guests, though I haven’t tested this and suspect it will bog down quickly if you have a large panel. I’ve used it a few times and found it a little less reliable than Cast—I’ve seen files cut off a few seconds too early, and the quality of the live audio connection had more artifacts than I’ve seen with Cast.
I appreciate Zencastr’s cloud-storage integration: all source files are automatically deposited in my Dropbox after a session is over. In contrast, Cast makes me wait for several minutes before I can download my files.
If you’re recording a podcast with three or four participants, Cast’s $10/month plan is a pretty good deal. If it’s just a one-on-one chat, Zencastr’s free tier is even better. For more than four participants, though, you’re back to Zencastr and you’ll pay $20/month for the privilege. Still, there’s a lot to be said for automatically recording panelist audio without any intervention.
…but then there’s mobile. The fact is, Safari doesn’t support WebRTC right now, so you can’t use either Cast or Zencastr on an iPad or iPhone. It looks like WebKit will support WebRTC at some point in the near future, but we might not see support in iOS until 2018.
In looking for a solution that would work on my iPhone or iPad, I discovered Ringr, which offers built-in microphone recording and supports WebRTC on the desktop and offers iOS and Android apps. Unfortunately, Ringr only supports one-on-one calls, so while it would work great for two-person podcasts, that’s all it supports. A recent Ringr email to customers suggests multi-user conferences are forthcoming.
For the record, business-conference-call apps with desktop and mobile versions don’t support recording of local microphone tracks. Some of them will record the entire conference call on the server, which is cool, but that’s only good for reference—for the best podcast audio, you want to record the microphone at the source.
So the end result of all this? I’ve got a close eye on Zencastr, Cast, and on the progress of implementing WebRTC in WebKit. But for now, there doesn’t seem to be a single voice-over-IP product of any kind that will work on Mac, Windows, and iOS and automatically record local audio.
- Since many of my podcasts feature more than two people, two-person tools like FaceTime are not an option. ↩
- The open-source gaming VoIP app Mumble offers multi-track recording and mobile clients, but recordings aren’t supported on mobile and its ease of use is what you’d expect from an open-source project. ↩
- This isn’t just about Skype, but the tools people use to record their audio—if we leave Skype, often those tools have to change, too. ↩
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