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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Six Colors coverage of podcasting



By Jason Snell

Review: Audio-Technica ATR-2100x microphone

audiotechnica-mics-compare
The new ATR-2100x microphone (right) replaces a Mini-USB connector with USB-C.

For a while now my go-to podcast microphone recommendation has been the Audio-Technica ATR-2100. At around $100 it’s relatively cheap, sounds great, and thanks to its USB port it doesn’t require you to buy a separate USB audio interface. (It’s not just me—Marco Arment also really liked it.)

The ATR-2100 has been discontinued, and replaced with the new Audio-Technica ATR-2100x. After traveling for a week with the ATR-2100, I returned home to discover its successor waiting for me in a box on my desk.

The good news is that, so far as I can tell, the new microphone sounds just as good as the old one did.

One of the most important features of a microphone, especially one that you’re going to use in unforgiving spaces (i.e., noisy or echoey places like where most of us live and work and record podcasts), is the ability to suppress room echo and background noise, and the ATR-2100x does that really well.

Here’s how Marco describes it:

An amazing value for the money: it sounds great for the price, and pretty decent at any price, as long as you speak up very closely to it…. Compared to other inexpensive USB mics aimed at beginners like the Blue Yeti, the ATR2100x picks up far less room echo and background noise, and is much easier to travel with. But you have to speak up closely to it — if you’re using its desk stand, elevate it up to mouth level (with e.g. a stack of books) if possible.

This microphone also has a few other features that make it more flexible than other microphones. The big feature of this new version is that it’s got a USB-C port, rather than the previous model’s Mini-USB. In practice, I don’t think this port swap is especially meaningful—you could use the old microphone with a USB-C-to-Mini-USB cable—but we’re entering a world where USB-C cables will be common and Mini-USB cables rare and weird, so this is better.

Like its predecessor, the ATR-2100x also has a headphone jack, which is vitally important because it gives you immediate feedback of your own voice in your ears while also relaying audio from the device it’s attached to. It’s always better to hear your own voice in your ears as you talk (without any delay) to reinforce good microphone habits like facing toward the microphone when you talk.

Most importantly, both old and new models also include an XLR connector, meaning they’re compatible with external devices such as USB audio interfaces and portable recorders. And both XLR and USB ports can be used simultaneously, which lets me connect to my iPad for use with Skype while also recording my audio directly via an external XLR recorder. Since iOS won’t let me make a Skype call while also record my local audio, that’s a vital bit of flexibility.

The only significant difference is the replacement of Mini USB (left) with USB-C.

Beyond the USB-C port, there aren’t many other changes to the design of this model. The color scheme is different, the mute switch is slightly different (but just as noisy), and the LED that indicates the microphone is connected via USB is now a part of the same housing as the switch, rather than being separate. (Alas, it doesn’t change colors or turn off when the mute switch is on.) The included small, cheap mic stand has been redesigned—it’s still small and cheap, but it’s functional.

Overall, this is an exceedingly small upgrade, but that’s just fine—this microphone was already great. Pair it with a cheap windscreen (a must, because you need to be close to it to be picked up properly) and consider adding a shock mount and a better mic stand to create a low-cost podcast studio. Like I said, I recorded four podcasts on the road with one of these microphones last week. You won’t do better for the price.


By Jason Snell

Why my iPad podcast workflow still includes the Mac

I’ve long been a proponent of using the iPad for podcasting, whether recording or editing them.

When the new Apple Pencil came out a year ago, I integrated it into my iPad editing workflow. I can edit podcasts with the Apple Pencil at a pretty impressive rate of speed, and the precision of the Pencil means that I’m more inclined to make detailed edits on the iPad than I am when I’m editing on my Mac with Logic Pro X and a trackpad. In fact, every episode of The Incomparable that I’ve edited in the past four months has been done on my iPad Pro.

I started editing podcasts on the iPad when I was traveling, since I haven’t regularly traveled with a Mac laptop in a few years now. But this summer I decided I’d rather edit The Incomparable, which I tend to do on Saturday mornings, somewhere other than at the same desk I use during the week. It’s nice to be in the same space as the rest of my family, even if we’re all doing our own thing and I’ve got headphones in while I edit the podcast.

Ferrite Recording Studio is a fantastic app that does almost everything I’d want an editing app to do, and combined with the power of the iPad Pro I can even edit podcasts with enormous panels, like our Incomparable draft episodes—though I had to rotate my iPad to fit all the tracks on screen.

This year the iPad has become much more capable at being a podcasting device than ever before. iPadOS 13 and the updated Files app give me access to audio files on USB media, which was a major hurdle before. A new update to Ferrite added support for recording on up to 8 tracks simultaneously, so I could record a multi-person session directly into my iPad if I wanted to. (In general I use a Zoom recorder for this, though—I will trust dedicated recording hardware over computer software every time.)

That leaves a couple of places where the iPad still lacks, though.

First: Recording multiple people via the Internet. On my Mac I use Audio Hijack to record my own voice as well as the audio from all the other people on a session, but you can’t run two audio apps at once in iOS. I’ve taken to recording many podcasts using Zoom Cloud Meetings, which will theoretically record the audio from participants on iOS as well as it does from those on desktop operating systems. I’ve also used RINGR, a cross-platform conferencing app, with results of varying quality. And I figured out a way to record my own audio locally onto an external recorder, so that’s an option.

But the truth is, I just record my podcasts on my Mac most of the time. On the road, I have iPad-only alternatives, but they offer enough trade-offs that I wouldn’t use them if I have a Mac handy.

Now here’s the tough one, one I don’t have a good answer for as yet. As cool as it is that I edit every episode of The Incomparable on my iPad, the fact is that all the audio files for that episode are prepped on my Mac before they get to my iPad. I sync audio tracks using a proprietary tool, then use iZotope RX to remove background noise, and finally use a compressor (currently it’s Klevgrand’s Korvpressor, but it’s the latest in a string of ones I’ve used, they’re like Spın̈al Tap drummers) to balance the volume of audio across different tracks.

Ferrite includes a compressor plug-in and a volume-leveling preprocessing feature, neither of which can I get to generate the output I desire. Korvpressor has an iOS version that I can use as a plug-in in Ferrite as I do on the Mac with Logic Pro X, but the iPad version crashes reliably, so I can’t use it. And there’s absolutely nothing I’ve found on iOS that can match the quality of noise and echo removal that iZotope provides on the desktop.

Now, I have definitely posted podcasts that were entirely processed on my iPad. I’ve made use of existing tools to make the audio sound as good as I could. And yet, when I listen back to those podcasts, I can tell that they don’t sound as good as the ones processed on my Mac.

Maybe iZotope will bring a subset of their audio tools to iOS at some point. Maybe I’ll find a plug-in that’s more stable inside Ferrite, or maybe I’ll figure out a way to use Ferrite’s leveling features more effectively. But for now, my iPad editing workflow still passes through my Mac.

Things are a lot better than they were even a year ago, but we’re not all the way there yet.


By Jason Snell

A week of podcasting with only an iPad Pro

Equipment hooked up
Recording Liftoff from the spare bedroom at my mother’s house in Arizona. (The little blue box is a mute switch.)

Last week I took a trip during which I needed to record three podcasts (Liftoff, Download, Six Colors Subscriber Podcast) with guests who would be participating via Skype. I almost took my trusty old MacBook Air with me, but I decided to see if I could figure out a way to replicate the bulk of my home recording setup without requiring a Mac.

In the past, I’ve done something similar using the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB, a microphone that can output a digital signal using USB and an analog signal via an XLR cord simultaneously. The problem is that the last time I tried to use the ATR2100-USB with my iPad Pro, it didn’t return my own voice into my ears, making me unable to judge the sound quality of my own microphone. After years of having my own voice return to me, I strongly prefer not to record unable to hear my own voice. (I use in-ear headphones that largely shut out audio from the outside world, so the experience of speaking while not hearing yourself is even more profoundly weird than it would be with leaky earbuds.)

This time I wanted it all, or at least as close to all as I’m able to get with iOS in the mix: A pristine recording of my own voice, that same high-quality microphone audio also flowing across digitally to my podcast guests via Skype, and the ability to hear both my guests and myself at the same time.

I made it work with the addition of one box to my usual iPad workflow. Here’s what I did:

A flowchart.

First, I plugged an analog XLR microphone into my Zoom H6 recorder. That solves the “get a pristine recording of my own voice” problem. But how to get that audio out of my Zoom recorder and into my iPad Pro? If I plug my headphones into the Zoom, I’ll be able to hear myself but not my guests. If I attach the Zoom to the iPad, I can relay my audio—but the Zoom is unable to record audio when it’s being used as a USB audio interface.

Second, I need to route my microphone audio out of the Zoom to a device capable of transferring it to my iPad Pro (and also transferring the voices of my panelists from the iPad back to me). Any standard USB audio interface should be more or less capable of that, and so I used mine—the Sound Devices USBPre2. The trick was how to connect the Zoom to the USBPre2. Fortunately, the zoom has a Line Out port on its front, and the USBPre2 has a line-in port on its side, and I happened to have the right cable (minijack on one side, stereo RCA on the other) to connect the two of them in my random drawer of audio cables.

Third, I attach my USB audio interface to my iPad Pro. (I used a USB-B to USB-C audio cable for this, but an old-school cable will also work with an adapter.) I haven’t yet met a USB device that my iPad Pro is incapable of powering by itself, so the USBPre2 worked just fine. I also attached my headphones to the USBPre2, so I could hear myself and my guests.

That’s it! I could launch Skype, press record on the Zoom, and record a podcast. My guests heard my high-quality microphone audio, I could hear them, and I could hear myself (with no noticeable latency). The only thing I’m really missing is the ability to record my guests’ audio too, as a backup, but I chose to live dangerously and speak only to people who know what they’re doing when it comes to recording for a podcast.

The final step was one that I’ve described before, namely using an external Wi-Fi box to transfer my audio files back to my iPad for editing. This workaround remains until the day where Apple decides to let iPads see external storage devices directly. Then it was off to Ferrite to put the podcasts together after the participants sent me their files and I imported them into Ferrite. (As an added bonus, in a recent update, Ferrite has gained the ability to split multi-track QuickTime audio files into their component tracks. Ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype uses this approach and until Ferrite was updated, I’d have to use a Mac to split those audio files in two. No longer.)

And that’s it! It’s not pretty, it’s two more boxes than I’d otherwise bring, and I refuse to weigh the difference in boxes and compare it to the weight of my 11-inch Air. The important thing is that I was able to travel with my iPad and no Mac and have more or less the same podcast experience that I have when I’m sitting at home at my iMac.


By Jason Snell

Exporting MP3 files from Ferrite Recording Studio

Back before all the MP3 patents expired, my favorite iOS podcast editing app, Ferrite Recording Studio, couldn’t export MP3 files. Instead, I tried various alternative methods, including using the Auphonic service and various other iOS apps that didn’t seem to care so much about potential outstanding patents.

The good news is, the patents lapsed and Ferrite now supports MP3 exporting. Not only can you set it to export at various MP3 quality levels—bit rate, stereo or mono, and CBR (most compatible) or VBR, but you can enter MP3 tags and show art, and even optionally embed chapter markers with links and custom art. There’s even an automatic volume adjustment feature that will level the volume of your file so that everyone sounds like they’re speaking at the same volume.

Here! Let me show you a video.

If you want a great, low-cost, full-featured editing app for podcasts, I can’t recommend Ferrite Recording Studio enough.


By Jason Snell

Transferring SD card data to iOS, fast

For more than a year I’ve been trying to give myself the maximum amount of travel flexibility by finding ways to record and edit podcasts on iOS, so I don’t need to bring a laptop with me just to make podcasts. Ferrite has solved my editing needs, and I’ve found a few ways to record audio locally while using iOS.

The big challenge has been iOS’s sad and continued lack of support for external storage devices. When I’m traveling with only my iPhone and iPad, I can record audio on an external device—an SD-card recorder from Zoom, usually—but how do I get those files onto my iOS device? iOS can’t see the contents of a standard SD card.

A year ago I extolled the virtues of using a Wi-Fi enabled SD card to transfer files. And while that works, the problem is that the kind of Wi-Fi that’s embeddable in a tiny SD card is slow. Painfully slow. Especially when transferring large audio files.

This year, though, I found a new device that solved my problems. It’s the Kingston MobileLite G3, a peculiar little multi-tool of a product that can charge iOS devices, act as a mobile router to convert hotel Ethernet into Wi-Fi, and more. But there’s only one feature that I really use: its onboard SD card slot.

Like the Wi-Fi-enabled SD card I previously used, you have to download a custom app in order to view the contents of the SD card and transfer it over to your iPad or iPhone. The difference is speed. The MobileLite’s Wi-Fi transfer speeds are vastly better than those from the tiny SD card.

It’s still a little bit silly that, now that iOS has a file-management app, you still can’t plug in a mass storage device via a USB adapter and copy files off of it directly. But until Apple relents—or if it never does—the MobileLite G3 gives me a fast way to transfer audio files on the road.


By Jason Snell

Forecast: A must-have tool for Mac podcasters

Marco Arment’s Forecast is a newly released (into a public beta) Mac MP3 encoding and tagging tool for podcasters. It’s a tool that Marco built a couple of years ago to serve his own needs, and for the last 18 months or so I’ve been using it (in a private beta) to encode most of the podcasts that I create. Here’s an overview of how Forecast works and what it does.

Forecast takes input files—generally uncompressed audio exported from an audio editing app in WAV format, though it can open other file formats—and outputs MP3 files for use in a podcast feed. This is nothing remotely new. What makes Forecast interesting is the details of how it encodes and tags those files.

First off, the encoding process itself: Forecast is extremely fast at encoding MP3 files for a few different reasons. At its heart, it’s using the common (and excellent) LAME MP3 encoder, but Forecast spreads the encoding job across all of your Mac’s processor cores. The result is that files encode much, much faster (in 29 percent of the time as standard LAME, in my tests, and 80 percent of the time of the iTunes encoder)—and your Mac’s fans will probably spin up briefly, because Forecast is pushing your processor to use all its power to do the job.

Encoding uses your Mac’s processor to the fullest.

There’s also a perceptual trick that Forecast uses to make encoding seem quick: When you add a file to be encoded, encoding begins immediately in the background. By the time you edit your file’s metadata, the encode may have already completed in the background. The first time I used Forecast, I thought something had gone wrong—because when I typed Command-S to save the file, it just saved. There was no wait. The file had already encoded—it was waiting for me, the slow human, to finish typing in episode titles and show descriptions.

All the rest of Forecast is about tagging files to include things like the episode title, show art, and chapter data. Just about any MP3 app can add description tags, but only a handful support MP3 chapters. (Some others are Rogue Amoeba’s Fission and Thomas Pritchard’s Podcast Chapters.)

It turns out that the WAV file format includes support for markers—specific designations of events that happen at particular time codes—and that most audio editors (including Logic and Audition) that export as WAV files will export any markers found in that particular project. This means that in order to add chapters to my podcasts, I don’t need to add a step where I laboriously write down time code for all the events in the episode and then input them one by one into Forecast.

I add all chapters inside of Logic as markers.

Instead, I just click the Plus icon next to the Marker label in Logic and add a marker. When I export that project to a WAV file and import it into Forecast, the app automatically reads the markers and converts them into chapters. I don’t need to do anything.

That said, Forecast also does support the manual entry of chapter times and the editing of chapter data, including title, URL, and custom per-chapter images. (Manually entering times is a little bit buggy—frequently I need to do it twice before it displays properly. I don’t do this a lot, but it’s an annoying bug I hope Marco will fix.)

There’s also a checkbox that allows for the creation of invisible chapters that don’t display in the episode’s chapter list, but do change the displayed art or link at a particular time. There’s a lot here, depending on how much work you want to do to add a rich media layer on top of your podcast.

Forecast also tries to save you time by recognizing that similarly named source files are probably part of the same podcast, and attempting to intelligently autofill data based on that assumption. When I add a file called theincomparable382.wav to Forecast, it realizes that this is almost certainly episode 382 of The Incomparable and automatically enters The Incomparable in the Podcast Title field, adds 382: to the Episode Title field, adds the right image to the show art, and even sets the proper MP3 output format—and all because it knows what I did when I encoded theincomparable381.wav last week. (This autofilling extends to URLs and art in chapters, too. If I have a regular sponsor for a podcast, Forecast is smart enough to remember the URL attached to those sponsorship chapters.)

For editors of sponsored podcasts, Forecast can detect your sponsorship chapters and export those out as separate files, ready to be sent to your ad network or sponsors as “airchecks”—i.e., proof that the ad spots aired as promised. There are also quick-copy features that let you quickly put the show’s duration or file size on the clipboard—apparently this is something Marco needs for one particular podcast host, though I’ve never needed to use those features myself. There’s also a feature that warns you if your audio file contains long amounts of silence—a sign that perhaps something is wrong with your podcast, so you might want to check it before posting.

If you’re a podcaster, you should give Forecast a try. It’s free, and a whole bunch of podcasters have been using it enthusiastically for more than a year, so it’s battle tested. I recommend it highly.


By Jason Snell

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.

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.

Zencastr

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.


  1. Since many of my podcasts feature more than two people, two-person tools like FaceTime are not an option. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 

By Jason Snell

What’s Apple’s next chapter in podcasting?

Last month at the Code Media conference, Apple’s Eddy Cue was interviewed by Recode’s Peter Kafka about a variety of subjects. The trailer for “Planet of the Apps” seemed to get the lion’s share of the attention immediately afterward, but I was intrigued by what he said about podcasting:

I think there’s a huge resurgence in podcasting. And it’s exactly what customers want because it’s the ability of listening to something on demand when you want. And that’s exactly what it’s about. Can we do more and will we do more? Absolutely…. We’re working on new features for podcasts. Stay tuned.

I’ll grant you, Cue didn’t say much about podcasting. He was cryptic as any other Apple executive on stage at a non-Apple event might be. But I care a lot about podcasting—it makes up a surprisingly large share of my income these days—and Apple’s place in the podcasting world has always been a strange one. It has been a prominent player for well over a decade, but a strangely passive one. So much so that last year a bunch of prominent podcasters complained to the New York Times that Apple wasn’t doing enough to help them.

Cue’s remarks at Code Media could easily be interpreted as mumbly marketing-speak by an executive who doesn’t have anything to say. But I take Cue at his word that Apple is “working on new features for podcasts,” and that the company has noted the huge resurgence of podcasting. I suspect that, after more than a decade of slumber, Apple’s about to become much more active on the podcasting front.

IMG_0937
Apple’s podcast directory in the Podcasts app.

A decade of podcast curation

Apple holds such a prominent place in podcasting because, very early on, it embraced the medium as a way to improve what was available for the iPod. In June 2005—at the very predecessor to the Code Media conference, All Things D—Steve Jobs demonstrated podcast integration with iTunes, as a part of iTunes 4.9. Now you could subscribe to a podcast in iTunes and sync episodes directly to your iPod—a process that seems barbaric today, but was a delightful innovation 12 years ago.

Key to Apple’s strategy was its creation of a large and relatively open directory of podcasts. Three years before the App Store, Apple repurposed the iTunes store infrastructure to build a global podcast directory. Anyone could submit their podcasts to Apple’s directory and, once approved, those podcasts would remain in the directory more or less forever. And it’s been pretty much this way ever since. At some point Apple provided podcasters with some back-end tools to make publishing and promoting their podcasts in the directory a bit more hands-on; it was a scattershot process, but in recent years it’s rolled those tools out to a much broader audience of publishers.

Other than adding some podcasting-related features to GarageBand (which it stripped out of a later version), Apple hasn’t been particularly active in the realm of podcasting. There’s a small iTunes team that promotes podcasts in the iTunes interface, and those promotions can be very helpful in acquiring new listeners. Apple’s release of an iOS app for listening to podcasts, and its bundling of that app with releases of iOS, was a huge step forward in both the visibility of the format and the curation being done in iTunes.

After 12 years, Apple’s directory is the definitive directory of podcasts. You don’t have to be in iTunes to be a podcast, but most podcasts are in iTunes. Other directories exist, but iTunes is the big fish. Google’s trying to build one, sort of, with Google Play Music—but Apple has a decade head start. Even third-party podcasting apps tend to use Apple’s directory data, either as their entire directory or as a verification tool for their own homebuilt podcast databases.

Apple looms large in the world of podcasting, but in all this time, it hasn’t really changed its basic approach from what it was in 2005: A simple, open directory of podcast submissions with a set of curated pages to help people find new podcasts to listen to.

When Eddy Cue says Apple is “working on new features for podcasts,” he might not be indicating a change from Apple at all. He could simply mean that there are some new features coming to the Podcasts app that will make it better. But I suspect that Apple’s planning on some larger moves, given the increased popularity of podcasting and the leverage Apple has built up over a decade.

So, shifting into pure speculation mode, here are some things that Cue could be talking about when he promises new features for podcasts:

What Apple won’t do: Provide a lot of user data

This is, I suspect, what every podcasting startup wants. Unlike the web, where user behavior can be closely measured and quantified, podcasting is a bit of a mystery. In general, we know that you downloaded a file—and that’s it. To know more, you need to be inside of the apps that people use to listen to podcasts.

Apple’s Podcasts app might be the most popular single piece of podcast-listening software out there today; if Apple were to measure how its users listen to podcasts and then shared that data with the publishers of podcasts, it could be revolutionary to our understanding of how podcasts work. Podcasters (and podcast advertisers) could know how many downloads lead to plays, how deep most listeners get into any given episode, and whether people listen to or skip the ads. It would be a flood of data, and most modern digital publishers say they love data.

Consider me skeptical. While I’m frustrated by the lack of detail and consistency about podcast listenership—I’ve got a podcast that regularly hits 30,000 downloads by one measurement and 20,000 by a different one—I’ve see what the flood of user data has done to the world of web publishing. Most web data is used to justify reducing ad rates and increasing the invasiveness of advertising.

Besides, if an advertiser is happy with the result it receives on a podcast that claims 20,000 listeners, doesn’t that mean the advertiser is paying the right price? If it turned out that same podcast only had 10,000 listeners for a regular episode, it wouldn’t change the result. In fact, you could argue it shows that podcasts are that much more effective at connecting with an audience. But someone else might use that data to argue for a 50 percent rate cut for the podcast instead. More data doesn’t generally improve the quality or price of advertising.

I’m also dubious about what anyone would do with that level of data. For more than a decade I’ve been flooded with page-view data, and I have ignored most of it and focused on using my judgment to make good stuff. In aggregate, it could be useful to find out when people tune out podcasts, whether certain podcast topics or lengths are more or less successful, and what makes podcast advertising successful versus unsuccessful. But the day to day drone of stats? On the web, you just let it fade into the background, because there’s too much data and a lot of it is conflicting.

I doubt Apple will do anything that increases individual surveillance on the habits of its users, and then shares that with third parties, because that’s not what Apple does. While this is the progress that many commercial podcasters say they want, I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

What Apple might do: Support paid podcast subscriptions

There is a technical barrier to making money from podcasts: They have to be free. The podcast and RSS format make it essentially impossible to charge for podcasts and protect them with passwords, as you can to subscription websites. You can make your podcast feeds secure-ish via obscurity, but a dedicated person can find their way to the crown jewels. Right now if a podcaster wants to wall off content—whether it’s new podcasts, back episodes, or everything—the only real choice is to use a separate app. I listen to “Presidents are People Too” in the Audible app, and “Offices and Bosses” in the Stitcher Premium app for these reasons.

But I know a company with a whole lot of credit-card numbers and a great facility at taking payments on the internet, including subscription payments. Apple could potentially build a paid podcast subscription system, using Apple’s payment infrastructure and its podcast-playing apps, and open it to all podcast publishers. Listeners would still need to download a specific app—Apple’s app—but they could mix the free podcasts in Apple’s catalog with the ones they’re paying for.

This one feels a whole lot more likely to me. Yes, it means that Apple’s podcast directory would shift from its current emphasis on the open standards of RSS to a hybrid model that also features limited-access content. But if Apple wanted to encourage the commercial growth of the podcast world, it would be entirely within its powers to make it happen.

Of course, for an approach like this to work, Apple might need to expand its podcast-playing empire a little bit, which takes us to…

What Apple might do: Expand across platforms

For Apple to get podcast publishers on board with paid podcast subscriptions, it’s going to need to answer the questions about users on non-Apple platforms, most notably Android. The answer here is for Apple to create a version of the Podcasts app for Android, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. There’s already Apple Music on Android—why not Podcasts, too? Google Play Music’s support for podcasts is weird, and while there are a few good Android-based podcast players out there—Pocket Casts comes to mind—combining standard podcast functionality with the ability to get access to new, subscriber-only podcasts could be a winner.

iTunes for Windows already exists, but it would be great if Apple created a standalone Podcast app for Mac and Windows alike. Failing that, how about a Podcasts web app that syncs subscription status with mobile players? It works pretty well in Overcast today, and Apple’s upped its iCloud game lately. It could happen.

What Apple will probably do: Keep iterating on app and curation

Beyond offering subscriptions, the Podcast app could get better, with better speed adjustment settings and automatic silence removal. It’s a pretty solid basic player today, but there’s always room for improvement. Maybe it’s time to add chapter support?

There’s never going to be an ultimate solution to the problem of giving people good suggestions about what kinds of podcasts they might like, but I expect that Apple will always keep pushing in this direction, both with curated features like the ones currently in the Podcasts section in iTunes, and algorithmic lists tailored to individual listeners. Maybe there’s some intelligence to be gleaned from Apple Music’s equivalents to these features.

If I had to place a bet on a major change in Apple’s approach to podcasting, I’d place it on adding money to the equation. It’s an area Apple knows well, and it’s already got many of the pieces in place to quickly bring on publishers and create its own library of premium, subscription-only audio programs. All while taking its traditional 30 percent cut, of course, at least for the first year. And if it does that, I’d be surprised it it didn’t offer a version of its Podcasts app on Android, too, just to make publishers confident that they’ve got all their bases covered.

It would be the first major change in how Apple has approached podcasting in the 12 years of the iTunes podcast directory. But after 12 years of inaction, maybe Apple finally feels it’s time for podcasting to become more than just a hobby.


By Jason Snell

The flexibility of Audio Hijack 3

Audio Hijack 3 has become my go-to tool for recording audio for podcasts and pretty much everything else on my Mac. But even if you’re already using Audio Hijack, you may not realize just how flexible its modular, block-building approach allows it to be.

Let me give you two examples. The first one comes from the Session I use for recording and live streaming podcasts on The Incomparable or Relay FM.

This session is doing an immense number of things at once. It’s recording my microphone as a full-quality mono WAV, deposited to my Desktop, named something like jason-20170227-0834, indicating the date and time the recording was started. It’s recording the audio from Skype and saving that to the Desktop, so I can use it as a reference (or backup if one of my panelists fails to record their own microphone). It’s routing the Skype audio into my USB audio interface so I can hear people’s voices in my headphones.

It’s also routing both sets of audio through Rogue Amoeba’s Loopback, a virtual output device that serves as the audio source for Nicecast, another Rogue Amoeba app that connects to our live-stream servers and lets me stream that mix of my voice and my panelists’ voices to live listeners. (There’s a Volume block on the Skype side, so I can reduce the volume of the skype audio a tad so that it’s the same volume as my own voice.)

Finally, that last mixdown of my voice and the Skype audio is also saved to the Desktop, with some very particular settings. Audio Hijack gives you remarkable control over the audio format your recordings can be saved as. In the case of this mixed-down file, I’m saving it as a 64kbps mono MP3, complete with tags and even custom album art.

Members of The Incomparable get access to a special podcast feed containing an archive of all of our live-streamed sessions. Audio Hijack makes the process dead simple—I upload that MP3 file, unchanged, to my server, because it’s in exactly the proper format, right down to the show art.

Here’s another example that’s one I use less often, but still goes a long way to showing just how powerful Audio Hijack can be. For The Incomparable’s beer episode, I had to record four people around a table in my house, as well as a bunch of people who were connected via Skype.

To do this, I connected my Zoom H6 portable recorder to my Mac in USB interface mode—one of the handy features of this device is that it can transform itself into a six-track USB audio interface on demand—and attached four table microphones for my in-person participants. I connected a multi-way headphone splitter to the output from my Mac, and each of us brought our own set of headphones.

Everything got routed by Audio Hijack: each individual track from the H6 was saved to its own file on my Desktop, and then routed to Skype via Loopback to everyone else on the call could hear us mixed together. I recorded the Skype audio to my Desktop and routed that out to the headphone splitter. Shockingly, the entire thing worked flawlessly, despite it being operated by increasingly tipsy people.

Back in the day at Macworld I was frustrated by how hard it was to set up a multi-microphone recording session in our podcast studio. Getting a civilian to understand how to properly configure GarageBand or Logic for a foolproof multi-microphone recording session? Forget it. But with Audio Hijack, I was able to make it simple, by creating a Session that recorded the output of all four microphones in the studio to individual files, a format I replicated for the beer episode.

Combined with tools like Loopback and Nicecast, there is not a single audio problem on my Mac I have not been able to solve with Audio Hijack. Its flexibility and clever interface continue to amaze me.


By Jason Snell

Removing podcast room noise, hum, and echo

I produce podcasts featuring different people using different microphones in all sorts of different homes, which is to say that the nature of the sound files I receive from my panelists can vary widely.

My goal is to make everyone sound as good as possible for the benefit of the listener—and eliminate telltale background noises that would come and go as different people speak. As a result, I spend a lot of time (and have spent more money than I’d expected) trying to remove noise from people’s audio files.

This sort of stuff isn’t for everybody—you don’t need to buy expensive software and spend a half an hour or longer processing all of your audio files in order to make a good podcast. (Also, in most cases the best long-term solution is to get your panelists to improve their equipment or technique, not to fix it in post.) In fact, there are times when I wonder if all the work I put into the removal of noise from audio files is something listeners even notice. But I notice. And I do think getting the noises out improves my podcasts.

Anyway, there’s a lot of software out there that will let you remove noise from your podcasts. Most of them work the same way: you “train” the software on a portion of the audio that contains only the noise you want to remove, which is generally a moment when your subject isn’t talking. In that moment of personal silence, the recording is pure noise: the whirr of a laptop fan, the buzz of a heater, and the hiss of a microphone that does a very good job of picking up room noise.

If you’d like to try this out, consider Audacity, which is free and offers a de-noising plug-in. Another option is the $149 SoundSoap. Adobe includes a de-noising effect with its audio-editing app Audition. As for me, for the last year or so I’ve been using the $249 iZotope RX 5, which is a combination of audio utilities that let you de-noise, de-hum, and de-reverb audio.

Here are some before-and-after samples. We’ll start with a particularly noisy track from my pal David J. Loehr, which may have actually been recorded in a hotel room, not his usual location. From the waveform, you can already tell this is a noisy track: The big spikes are when David is talking, but when he’s not talking there’s still a pretty thick line. That’s the sign of background noise. (There’s also a big empty gap in the middle; that’s when David muted his microphone entirely.)

iZotope RX 5 also provides a second way of visualizing audio, which is via an orange-tinted interface that indicates noises at specific frequencies. That’s most visible across the bottom of the screen. Those solid bars are background hums—they sit at specific frequencies and just keep on making noise.

Most de-noising plug-ins will take care of background hums, but iZotope RX 5 offers a separate de-hum plug-in that is especially effective at destroying those hums. To remove the hum, I select a portion of the audio that contains the hum and click the Learn button in the De-hum window. Then I select the entire track (or at least the portion of the track that contains the hum) and click Process to remove the hum from the selected area. As you can see in the image below, after I click Process the two orange bars at the bottom of the waveform have vanished from the selected portion of the audio file. That hum has vanished entirely.

While removing the background hum is a major part of the noise-removal puzzle, there’s still other background noise. That’s why I’ll now select a portion of audio and click Learn on the De-noise window. Then I select the entire track (or the portion of it containing the noise I want to remove) and click Process to remove the noise.

As you can see from the image below, the area I processed shows up with the thinnest of waveform lines and appears largely black, with no overlaid orange speckles indicating noise. This “silent” part of the track is now truly silent.

In truth, most of the “silent” portions of my guest’s audio tracks aren’t ever heard by podcast listeners. Whether you use a noise gate or a Strip Silence feature like Logic Pro or Ferrite (that’s my approach), quiet portions of someone’s audio tracks are automatically squelched.

The value in removing noise isn’t making the quiet parts quiet—it’s making it so that the parts in which your panelists are talking don’t also contain hums and other background noise. Even when someone’s talking, there are natural pauses through which the hums and noise can bleed through. If I can remove them from everybody’s audio track, you won’t get distracted when the character of the audio changes dramatically every time someone else starts talking.

The screen shots from iZotope RX 5 are fun, but hearing is believing: Here’s a section of that track from David Loehr, before and after I removed the hum and noise.

I mentioned above that iZotope RX 5 also includes a de-reverb effect. That’s actually the primary reason I upgraded to iZotope from SoundSoap—some of my panelists have very echoey recording spaces. In time, perhaps they’ll change their recording set-up and it won’t be a problem, but I’d like to be able to suppress as much room echo as I can in the meantime.

Musicians add reverb to tracks all the time, but the idea of removing reverb seems kind of crazy. In fact, it requires a whole lot of wacky mathematical modeling of sound decay at various frequencies. But you know what? When it works, it’s magical.

This Christmas, my friend James Thomson joined me (and David Loehr!) for a podcast about the “Doctor Who” Christmas Special. James couldn’t use his usual recording location, however, because his mother-in-law was in town and was sleeping in that room. So he recorded from his kitchen, which was not the ideal recording location. It was a bit echoey.

If you’d like to hear how James’s original audio sounded like, what it sounded like after de-reverbing, and then what it sounded like with de-noising added, here’s a sample file.

Should aspiring podcasters run out and spend several hundred dollars for professional audio software? No. Start with Audacity or, if you’re using Audition, the built-in de-noising features. But if you’re interested in taking the next step—or you’ve got some brutal audio that you need to improve—you’d be surprised at the quality of the results you can get with a little bit of time and some clever software.


By Jason Snell

Editing podcasts on iOS: A video example

I’ve written about using Ferrite to edit podcasts on iOS, but sometimes a video does a better job of demonstrating how software works. So with that in mind, I edited (or to be more accurate, re-edited) this week’s episode of Clockwise in Ferrite on my iPad Pro and captured the audio and video while I was doing it. The full edit took about 25 minutes, but I’ve compressed it substantially in this annotated video of the process.

At the end of the video, you’ll see me encoding an MP3 via TwistedWave, though sometimes I use Auphonic instead. Finally, I upload the result with Transmit for iOS.

(You can see a time-lapse of me editing on the Mac in Logic Pro X if you’d like to compare.)


By Jason Snell

Transferring audio files from an SD card to an iOS device with FlashAir

There were some podcasters at the Úll conference in Ireland last month, and at one point when we were talking shop I complained again about how iOS doesn’t support files on external storage devices that aren’t photos or videos.

This means that if I travel to record a live podcast using a multi-track recorder like the Zoom H6, I have to bring a Mac with me to offload the files. Oh, sure, I can edit a podcast on iOS with ease, but how to get the files over there?

flashair

One of the people at Úll—I believe it was Elias—suggested I try the Toshiba FlashAir Wi-Fi SD card. There have been many Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards—I used an Eye-Fi for years—but this one has an iOS app that actually lets you select any file on the card and open it in any app.

There are a bunch of caveats, as you might expect. The FlashAir app isn’t particularly elegant, but it’s functional. The functionality to open a file in another app via the share sheet is off by default, so you have to turn it on. Wi-Fi cards can suck battery, though the FlashAir turns off its Wi-Fi functions after a few minutes if they’re not being used.

But the upside is tremendous! With this approach I can travel somewhere with only an iOS device and my portable recording set-up, record a live audio session, import those files to my iOS device, and then edit and post that audio session, all from iOS.

Now, this doesn’t get Apple off the hook—its card-reader accessory should really be able to read other file types, and more generally iOS should be able to connect to storage devices and let you see the files, whether they’re photos or Word documents. But it closes another gap for my own iOS-based podcast workflow, and so I’m excited about that.


By Jason Snell

Recording a podcast locally on iOS without a Mac

One of my recent tech quests has been to find a way to record and edit podcasts when traveling with an iOS device and no Mac. The best approach I’ve found so far—and I’ve used it a few times—is to talk on Skype on an iPhone with a pair of earbuds while simultaneously recording myself on a good microphone on an iPad.

Look, I didn’t say it was a good approach. Just that it was the best one I’d found so far. Though I never travel without my iPhone and iPad, the two-device approach to recording is inelegant to say the least. In addition, the person I’m talking to on Skype hears me through a lousy microphone, and I can’t hear my own voice being returned to my ears. (That’s important, because if you can hear your own voice you can tell when you’re not talking into the microphone, and it makes your own impression of your voice sound less like you’re talking with your ears full of water.)

In testing the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB for my story about the sub-$100 podcast studio, I realized that I had a better option for iOS-only recording. It’s still clunky, but the person on the other end of the Skype call can hear me clearly, and I can hear my own voice in my ears.

Here’s the trick: The ATR2100-USB is a rarity, a microphone that offers both a USB port, for direct connection to a digital device, and an XLR port, for an analog connection to a mixing board or other audio interface. And you can use both connections simultaneously.

So I attach the ATR2100-USB to my iPad or iPhone with Apple’s Lighting-USB Adapter — the old model will work, my iPhone 7 was able to power the microphone itself, though it’s possible that some models might require a power assist from the newer Lightning-USB Camera Adapter. Once the microphone is attached to the iOS device, it becomes the audio input and output for all apps, including Skype.

I plug my headphones into the headphone jack on the microphone, so I’m getting zero-latency feedback from my own voice as well as hearing the audio from Skype, channeled back from my iOS device.

Then I attach an XLR cable to the microphone and to a portable audio recorder. I use the Zoom H6, but you might have the Tascam DR-40 or the Zoom H4N.

Once that’s hooked up, all I need to do is record my microphone audio on the recorder while conducting my podcast via Skype. In the end, I’ve had a clear conversation and been able to hear my own voice, and my recorder has a pristine copy of my microphone audio.

There’s one final step—transferring the audio file from my recorder back to the iOS device—which requires more hardware. And this setup still doesn’t let me walk away with a recording of the other side of the Skype conversation, which is useful as an insurance policy in case someone else’s recording fails.

If you don’t already have an ATR2100-USB and a portable recorder with XLR plugs, I don’t think I can recommend that you spend money on this option. But if you happen to have the component parts, like I do, you have a single-iOS-device podcast studio ready to go.


By Jason Snell

A podcast studio for under $100

Audio Technica ATR2100-USB

Podcasting is rapidly becoming an industry, with big money and big companies rushing in. But it is also still what it always was: A place where anyone’s voice can be heard. Anyone can make a podcast and post it to iTunes and, with luck and perseverance, find an audience.

One of the biggest hurdles in making a good podcast has always been the expense of equipment. Audio equipment can be expensive, especially the stuff that’s made (and priced) for professionals. One of the good things about this latest podcast renaissance is that the price of pretty good recording equipment has come down a whole lot lately.

Since I write about podcasting a lot, I get asked a lot about what the right starter set-up should be for a podcaster. To be clear—you could use your iPhone’s microphone or a set of EarPods and record a podcast with no extra investment, and you don’t need to spend a dime to get started. GarageBand is free with every Mac, Audacity is free for everyone, and Ferrite is free on iOS with a couple cheap in-app purchases for extra features.

But if you do want to invest a little bit in a better microphone, where should you put that cash? Here’s my recommendation for how you can get a great set-up for under $100.

The microphone

at-tall

At this point my recommendation for a podcast starter microphone is the $79 Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB.

This is by far the cheapest microphone in Marco Arment’s top four podcasting microphones, and since it’s got a USB port, you can use it without buying an XLR audio interface box.

The ATR2100-USB excels at keeping out room echo and other background noise (the stuff that can make podcasts hard to listen to), though that means you’ll need to work on your microphone technique and never stray too far away from the mic, or your voice will fade out rapidly. The good news is, it’s also got a headphone jack in its base, so you can hear your own voice as you speak and get immediate feedback if you stray too far away from dead center.

It’s a really amazing value at $79, and it’s often discounted on Amazon to between $35 and $50. The ATR2100-USB even has an XLR port on the bottom, so if you do end up wanting to plug it into a mixer or portable recorder, you can.

The accessories

The problem with audio hardware is that you need to buy a bunch of accessories. The good news about the ATR2100-USB is that it already comes with XLR and USB cables, a microphone clip, and a desk stand. You don’t need to buy those.

What you do need to buy is a $3 foam windscreen. The ATR2100-USB requires you to get up close to it (because it’s blocking out room noise and echo!), but getting up close to a microphone can lead to lots of ugly popping sounds from your mouth. The windscreen will help filter those out.

You should also probably buy a $11 shock mount to replace the basic microphone clip that comes with the ATR2100-USB. If your microphone is sitting on a desk or table, you will probably be doing things like typing on your keyboard and bumping the work surface with your elbows. These are noises that you won’t notice, but they’ll reverberate right up through the mic stand and sound like explosions on your recording. A shock mount isolates the microphone so that it floats on a springy set of elastic bands.

Getting it off the table

The prices of all of these products can fluctuate quite a lot, but as I write this, those three purchases meet our goal of staying under $100! If you want to spend a little bit more money, well, there’s always a way to spend more money with audio equipment.

The next purchase I’d suggest is a boom arm or mic stand, to elevate your microphone off of your desk or table entirely. If you’ve got a desk you’re willing and able to semi-permanently mount an arm, buy a boom arm like this one (I haven’t tested that one, fair warning). These arms clamp to your desk (so make sure you’ve got a place you can clamp one!) and generally you can screw on the shock mount you bought above rather than use the microphone clip that comes with the arm.

If you don’t have a permanent podcasting location—I didn’t for years after I began podcasting—consider a stand like this $20 model. I used this stand for quite a while when I was podcasting while sitting on my bed. When I was done, I could just fold the stand up and stash it under the bed.

No matter what your budget, podcasting can allow you to have your voice be heard. And if you do want to spend $100, you can have your voice sound that much better. The choice is up to you—but you don’t need to lay out a whole lot of money regardless.

[Thanks to Antony Johnston, author of the Podcast Guest Guide, for the topic suggestion.]


By Jason Snell

Follow-up: Exporting MP3s from iOS

TwistedWave Audio Editor for iOS.

Last week I wrote about how I use the web-service Auphonic to do post-production on podcasts I edit on iOS with Ferrite Recording Studio.

Since then I’ve discovered a few new facts worth mentioning:

  • Auphonic’s got an iOS app, Auphonic Recorder. It’s iPhone only and designed mostly for audio recording, but it contains a share extension that allows me to export from Ferrite and immediately upload to Auphonic, without using something like Dropbox as an intermediary. If I’m using an Auphonic preset I’ve previously configured, it will even automatically begin processing my project using those settings once the upload is complete.
  • The $10 app TwistedWave Audio Editor will export in MP3 format, upload to Dropbox or a server via SFTP, and supports detailed MP3 tagging.

Depending on my needs, I could see myself using either of these tools. If I want to to audio post-processing and have a bit more fiddly control over every aspect of my tags, Auphonic will do the job. But TwistedWave seems to do the job when it comes to encoding and tagging.


By Jason Snell

iPad podcast post-production with Auphonic

Last weekend my wife and I took a quick car trip to Ashland, Oregon to catch some plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The night before we left, I realized I hadn’t edited that weekend’s episode of The Incomparable yet, and I didn’t want to bring a laptop with me.

No problem—as I’ve written about before, I have used Ferrite Recording Studio to edit numerous podcasts over the past eight months or so. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you want to edit podcasts on iOS.

There’s just one thing: Ferrite won’t export projects in MP3 format1. Neither do many other iOS apps, and the reason is that MP3 encoding is still encumbered by patents. Any app that builds in MP3 encoding is risking a bill of thousands of dollars from some of the patent holders—and so most of them just don’t do it. I’ve searched for an iOS app that would encode my audio into properly tagged MP3s, ready for uploading to my server, but have come up empty2.

Instead, I turn to the web service Auphonic. Auphonic is free for two hours per month of processed audio, and charges for additional hours of encoding—I bought 10 hours of credits for $22, for example.

Getting my file from Ferrite to Auphonic is a little bit tricky. I export a file from Ferrite and instruct the app to save it to Dropbox. My iPad then uploads the file to Dropbox via the Dropbox app. Once that’s done, I use Dropbox’s Sharing feature to generate a link to the file, and tell Auphonic to use the contents of that URL as my audio source.

Within Auphonic, I can set show art (which I can upload directly from my Dropbox via Safari using iOS’s document-picker interface), tags, and even chapter markers with time codes, as well as the bit rate and file format of the final file. Auphonic also offers optional audio processing, creating a more level volume and reducing noise across the final track. Finally, you can add your own servers—SoundCloud, Libsyn, and any old server via SFTP—to your Auphonic account, and set Auphonic to automatically upload the result once it’s done processing the file.

I was able to export and upload The Incomparable while sitting at a comfortable table in an Ashland pub, drinking their beer and using their free Wi-Fi. Auphonic did the rest, re-encoding the file as an MP3, tagging it properly, and uploading the result to both my Libsyn account and to The Incomparable’s FTP server. When it was all done, I received an email alerting me that the entire process was completed. (It took a couple of minutes, start to finish.)

I wish there were a tool on my iPad that would do everything that the Auphonic web app does, but that may be impossible as long as the MP3 patent remains intact. Fortunately, as far as I can tell the final patents covering MP3 encoding will be expiring in 2017, at which point I’m sure Ferrite (and other tools) will add that feature. In the meantime, Auphonic is a solid and affordable alternative.


  1. Yes, I could just post certain episodes of my podcasts in AAC format (and Ferrite will tag them), but I’d rather stay consistent, and it’s possible there are still some podcast clients out there that don’t like the AAC format. 
  2. Auphonic has an iPhone app that will upload directly to its servers. I haven’t used it, but I suppose that would be an alternative to using Dropbox. 

By Jason Snell

No shame in using free tools

This Indy Week profile of musician Al Riggs contains an interesting aside about GarageBand:

Yet when it comes to making music, he’s not some minutiae-minded perfectionist. He actually prefers cheap gear and homemade sounds, which help him sidestep the gatekeepers of the music industry and open the frontier to sidelined groups.

“There was an article on Pitchfork about GarageBand, and it was the case for and against GarageBand,” he tells me. Very little argument against the low-cost recording platform was given, except for the choice to spend much more money for some increase in quality. “All the pro-GarageBand stuff was from people of color and women and queer people. The audiophile types, from what I remember, were white men. You can kind of see where I’m going with this.”

It probably happens in lots of fields, but I’ve absolutely seen it in audio recording—an attitude that unless you spend a lot of money, your work is going to be inferior. GarageBand has issues, but it’s free with every Mac and incredibly powerful. (And for low-cost Windows 10 laptops, there’s also Reaper, a cross-platform multitrack editor that’s $60. And also Audacity, a free audio editor.)

There are some amazing $600 microphones out there, but there are also great ones under $100—and your iPhone earbuds will absolutely work in a pinch. If you’ve got an iPad or iPhone, Ferrite is $20 and has almost all the features I use on Logic on my Mac.

I don’t think there are any conspiracies at work here. People learn about a subject, dive in deep, and don’t even realize that their expertise and pursuit of perfection at any cost has turned them into gatekeepers. Yes, you can spend an almost endless stream of money on recording software and hardware… but you don’t have to. And a lack of fancy hardware or software should never stop anyone from podcasting or recording music. The upgrades can come later, or not. The important thing is to start making things.

[Hat tip: Chip Sudderth]


By Chip Sudderth

Skype causing more headaches for Mac podcasters

[Chip Sudderth is the host of the Two-Minute Time Lord podcast and co-host of The Audio Guide to Babylon 5, as well as a frequent panelist on The Incomparable.]

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.

skype-AH-window

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.


  1. 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. 

By Jason Snell

How I podcast: Live and in person

The cast of [Inconceivable!](https://www.theincomparable.com/gameshow/18/index.php) records live from a hotel room with a Zoom H6 and a variety of microphones. And a bell.

The bulk of the podcasting I do involves me sitting alone in a room talking into a microphone to other people who are somewhere else, doing the same thing. There are lots of advantages to this approach: It lets me host podcasts with people who live all over the world, for one thing, but it also isolates everyone’s sound. We’re all recording in our own little isolation booths, and that can make editing a whole lot easier, since I can clip out the coughing fit or barking dog from your recording and it won’t bleed through from anyone else’s microphone.

Unfortunately, when you’re recording live and in person, the isolation booth is gone, and things get much more complicated. The environment itself can be noisy and challenging, and using more than one microphone at one time can make things complicated. But on the bright side, you won’t need to spend much time editing, because there’s not much point, since even if you clip the sound out of one microphone, it’ll still be audible on the others.

Here’s the set-up I use for remote recording:

The recorder. I recently upgraded to the $400 Zoom H6, which allows me to record up to six XLR microphones at one time (with an additional adapter for the extra two microphones). My previous recorder, the $160 Zoom H4N, is only capable of recording two XLR microphones alongside its own built-in mic, which wasn’t enough for the larger groups I find myself recording live, so I sold it and upgraded. It’s a great value as a starter recorder, and can double as a USB microphone interface when you attach it to a computer. (And yes, if your subjects are willing to snuggle up a little bit, you can record many people with just two or three microphones.)

I choose to use a portable recorder rather than a computer and a USB interface mostly because it’s a much simpler set-up. With a laptop (or iOS device), you need you make sure it’s got power, you need to tote along a second box for the XLR-to-USB interface (and it may need its own power source), and you have to count on your recording software not to let you down. Small portable recorders are self contained, writing their output to a SD card for later import to a computer for editing. They can be powered by AC power or AA batteries that you can find in any store, in a pinch. It’s better this way.

(You may be asking yourself, can I attach two or more USB microphones to a Mac and record that way? I don’t recommend it. I’ve tried it in the past and the microphones generally seem to get out of sync, so when it comes time to put the tracks together later, it gets all echoey and weird.)

The microphones. I have a small collection of XLR microphones. Look at Marco Arment’s review of XLR microphones for details, but if you’re recording live you’re going to need to buy more than one, so price will be a factor.

The best trait of a microphone for live recordings is that it rejects sound that isn’t directly in front of the microphone. If you record with microphones that tend to pick up a lot of room noise, that noise will be magnified and you’ll get a noisy, echoey recording. I have two $150 Shure Beta 58As, but I also have two $20 Pyle PDMIC58s. If you buy the excellent value $60 ATR-2100-USB, you can take advantage of the fact that this USB microphone can also work as an XLR microphone and let it pull double duty.

The accessories.. All the handheld microphones get covered with a $3 windscreen, and I screw their microphone clips onto a cheap fold-up mic stand. You’ll also need to buy XLR cables, and if your microphones are going to be spaced far away from each other and the recorder, you’ll need to make sure that they’re long enough to manage that.

If you need to use microphones in a space where there’s no table or desk, you could have everybody stand and hold the microphones as if they were ready to belt out some classic rock at the top of their lungs. Or you could invest in a few $25 boom stands. I bought one of these and it’s incredibly flexible—I’ve used it to record in all sorts of environments, and because it’s not attached to a table, it isn’t affecting by people doing something noisy like pounding on that table.

The environment. This is a tough one. Record where you can record; if you can avoid super echoey spaces (empty walls, high ceilings, huge glass windows or doors), do so. Recording outside can be surprisingly quiet, unless you’re standing on a crowded sidewalk next to a major road. If you can find a quiet, non-echoey space, you’ve hit the jackpot. But I’ve done some good-sounding outdoor podcasts and some lousy-sounding indoor ones.


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