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By Jason Snell
April 26, 2016 9:24 AM PT
Low-cost USB audio interfaces review
If you’re podcasting or recording voiceovers for video, you need a good microphone. Fortunately, there are good options to be found even if you’re on a tight budget. Unfortunately, there are so many options that it can be dizzying. I reviewed five low-cost USB audio interfaces in a search to find the best of the many options.
The USB/XLR choice
For most podcasters on a budget, the right microphone is almost certainly a USB microphone. They’re easy to use and convenient—just plug it in to your computer and start recording.
I’ve recommended the Blue Microphones Yeti for years after using one myself for several years, and it’s still a great balance of quality and price.
But as Marco Arment points out in his microphone mega-review, there are a lot of other good options. Right now the Audio-Technica ATR-2100-USB (sold in Europe as the Samson Q2U) seems to be the best buy; for a lot less money than the Yeti, you can get a USB microphone that doubles as an XLR microphone for more complex set-ups, with a built-in headphone jack. If you’re usually recording in an echoey room, this noise-killing dynamic microphone is a great choice.
However, there are reasons to choose XLR microphones over USB models. XLR microphones, differentiated by the large three-pinned XLR connector that’s been in use for ages and has plugged into many an analog sound board, come in many shapes and sizes, including some remarkably good-sounding microphones that are available for astonishingly low prices.
Unfortunately, XLR microphones won’t work with a computer or other audio recorder unless you can connect them to an interface that, in turn, connects to your computer via USB. If you’re planning on recording more than one microphone at a time, XLR interfaces are also handy, because you can connect many microphones to an interface box and then record it all on your computer.
They’re also flexible; I can connect my XLR microphones to anyone’s interface box or mixer, and on more than one occasion I’ve been a microphone short and been able to borrow one from a friend. I also own a Zoom H6 recorder
that allows me to connect up to six microphones via XLR cables in a portable setting.
There are a lot of uses, but also a lot of parts—but if you take the XLR plunge, you’ll need not only the microphone, but the interface and (of course) XLR cables to connect them all.
By Jason Snell
March 25, 2016 10:00 AM PT
Recording the Upgrade in-car podcast
On Monday afternoon I recorded this week’s episode of Upgrade live from Interstate 280, driving home from the Apple event in Cupertino. It was an experiment—I thought it might be fun to do something different for our post-event podcast, and on a day absolutely packed with work, it also allowed me to do something productive with the long drive between Apple and my home north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’m pretty happy with the final result, though I wouldn’t recommend recording every episode of your podcast in a moving car. I’m impressed that we only seem to have received one complaint about the danger of podcasting while driving—if you’re opposed to all in-car phone calls, then we’ll just have to disagree—and happy to have heard from numerous people who were entertained by the sound of my turn signals, the beep of the Automatic connected to my car, and the sound of the sudden downpour that happened in the vicinity of San Francisco International Airport.
A few people were wondering what equipment we used to make the podcast, so here’s the scoop:
My microphone was a Sony ECM-77B, which is a small clip-on design that I usually use for recording videos. With it clipped to my shirt, I was able to record without taking my hands off the wheel of my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. I attached it to my Zoom H6 portable recorder, which I bought last year. It’s capable of recording six microphones at once, but in this case I was only recording the one.
Myke Hurley and I tried to chat via Skype, but that connection wasn’t stable, so we switched to the telephone. Myke loaded some credits into his Skype account and called my iPhone from Skype, and I kept one earbud in my ear (you can’t cover both ears while driving in California) and talked to Myke during my drive. Listeners to the live stream heard me sound like I was on the telephone, because I was.
Once the drive was over, I ran the file through the automatic dialogue denoiser plug-in in iZotope RX 5, and then sent it off to Myke so he could use it to replace the audio he had recorded of me talking via the telephone. He imported the file into Logic and manually ducked the audio when I wasn’t talking, so the sound would seem consistent—if we cut it off entirely when I wasn’t talking, the change in sound was really distracting. This was a lot of extra work on Myke’s part, but I think it made the end product sound that much better.
I left Apple in the early afternoon, and there was almost no traffic on my return home, so the podcast literally covers every moment I was driving from Cupertino to my house. We wrapped up the podcast with me sitting in my chair at home as I usually do! I leave the calculation of my average driving speed across the trip as an exercise to the listeners.
By Jason Snell
March 24, 2016 2:00 PM PT
A few Lightning USB 3 Adapter follow-ups
Some additional items that came up after I posted my story about Apple’s new Lightning adapter:
As is detailed on the product’s spec sheet, it works with lots and lots of iPads. It also worked fine with my iPhone 6S, even though it’s not listed on Apple’s chart. The product’s marketing seems focused on the iPad Pro—and USB 3 transfer speeds can only be achieved on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro model—but it’s got more broad off-label utility.
Though my story was focused on the iPad as a podcasting platform, after I recorded with my iPhone 6S I realized how amazing it would be to record a full-quality podcast with nothing but a small, high-quality microphone and an iPhone. Talk about portability! Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the story, Apple needs to open up microphone access to multiple apps on iOS before this can work. (My preferred iOS audio editing app, Ferrite, works just fine on iPhone. It’s just cramped.)
Fraser Speirs asked on Twitter if the Camera app on the iPhone or iPad would automatically pick up the audio from an attached USB microphone. This morning, I attached the adapter and the Yeti to my iPhone 6S and took some video in the Camera app, and the sound that was captured came from the Yeti itself. So the answer is yes!
Phil Schiller said you can connect an iPad to Ethernet via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, so I tried it. Even in Airplane Mode or with Wi-Fi turned off, I was able to connect to the Internet via my Ethernet adapter, so it works! However, I can’t figure out where you can see any evidence that you’re on Ethernet, or any way to adjust networking settings. But it does seem to work.
By Jason Snell
March 23, 2016 4:09 PM PT
Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 adapter brings iPad podcasting one step closer
While introducing the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro at Monday’s press event, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller made an aside about a new accessory, the $39 Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter:
This is a really powerful accessory, a USB [adapter]. Sure, it lets you plug in your camera, which many of us do, but because it’s powered, you can use a lot of powered USB devices. For example, you can plug in an Ethernet adapter to get on your corporate network. And for those of you who are podcasters, you can plug in a microphone and do your podcast right from an iPad Pro.
I’m a podcaster and an iPad Pro user, so I considered letting out a cheer in the small Town Hall theater, but didn’t want to be the only one. I looked down at iMore’s Rene Ritchie, two rows in front of me, just as he started to clap, and then I joined in. (We did it, everyone, we got podcasting on an iPad to elicit a cheer at an Apple event!)
It’s two days later and I’ve taken delivery of one of these adapters, and have given it a try. The short version is, yes indeed, it works as Apple indicated. But there are also a few quirks to be aware of—and this doesn’t remove all the roadblocks to using an iPad Pro as a dedicated podcasting machine.
Powering microphones and mixers
Though there’s been a USB-Lightning adapter for some time now, the issue with using a USB microphone for podcasting has been all about power. As Schiller indicated, most common USB microphones require more power than the iPad can deliver—and so they just won’t work if you plug them in to the adapter. One workaround people discovered for this was to attach a powered USB hub to the adapter, and then plug a microphone into the hub… but it was a messy solution.
The new adapter solves this problem by getting wider, adding a Lightning port right next to the existing USB port. This means that you can use a USB device while powering your iPad, which wasn’t possible with the old model. (I sometimes stream live podcast audio via an external USB device, but had to be sure that my battery was fully charged before I did that. Similarly, if you want to hook your iPad to your corporate Ethernet network, as Schiller suggests, you’d probably also want to keep your battery topped up while you worked.)
The power that comes to the adapter via Lightning doesn’t just power the iPad—it’s also feeding the USB device you attach to the adapter. When I first tried to attach audio devices to my iPad Pro, I learned an important lesson: If you want to get power out of the adapter, you’ve got to put power into it. When I attached my USB-to-Lightning cable to Apple’s 5 watt USB power adapter—the tiny cube Apple includes with iPhones—I had no success. When I switched to the larger 12-watt brick, though, everything started to work.
I was able to attach both my Blue Yeti microphone and an XLR-based microphone via the Sound Devices USBPre 2 USB mixer to my iPad Pro with no problem. Both showed up as inputs in Ferrite Recording Studio immediately. This all worked on my iPhone 6S, too—same adapter, same microphones, same result.
One funny thing I noticed accidentally is that when I removed the USB end of my Lightning-USB cable from the power adapter and plugged it into my iMac, it didn’t register the iPad as being present—the adapter seems to only use its lightning port as a source of power.
But we’re not there yet
So once the applause from Phil Schiller mentioning iPads and podcasting on stage dies down, where does this leave us? If you’re someone who wants to record a podcast in person using an iOS device and a USB mixer or microphone, you’re set. But most of the podcasts I do are conversations that are conducted over the Internet, usually using Skype. And for the iPad to be a viable device for those kinds of podcasts, Apple needs to update its software.
In short, the audio inputs on iOS need to be accessible by more than one app at a time. Right now I can make a Skype call on my iPad, or I can record my voice to a file on my iPad, but I can’t do both at once—the moment a second app wants access to the microphone, the first one has to give it up. Changing that one behavior in iOS 10 would be enough to allow me to travel and record podcasts without bringing my MacBook Air with me. (I can already edit podcasts on iOS quite well—I edited this week’s Incomparable on my iPad Pro, in fact.)
There’s more Apple could do here, like offer apps access to system audio or the audio output of individual apps, so I could record the sound coming out of Skype, as I do with Call Recorder or Audio Hijack on my Mac today. This seems less likely to happen to me, but I can still dream. (Skype could also adopt Apple’s existing Inter-App audio, allowing other apps to record its output, but this seems even less likely to me.)
(An aside: Yes, you can record remote podcasts entirely on iOS today if you use two devices, such as an iPhone and an iPad. One of them serves as your Skype device while the other one acts as a recorder. It’s really not an ideal situation, especially if you want to hear both your own microphone input and the voices of the people you’re podcasting with.)
It would also be helpful if Apple improved importing files from USB devices and SD cards. Right now iOS is a whiz at importing photo and video files from attached USB devices and cards, but it fails at other file types. I travel with an audio recorder that saves files to an SD card (and also can attach via USB)—but once I record audio there, there’s no way to transfer it to my iPad. It would be great if external media was accessible via standard iOS open and import sheets. Right now, if I want to travel and record something on my fancy six-track USB recorder, I am unable to work with those files on my iPad without the intervention of a Mac.
So there’s more work to do on this front, but this new adapter removes another barrier. Podcasters like me are now one step closer to the dream of doing it all on iOS. I hope Apple eliminates the final roadblock with iOS 10 this fall. Until then, my MacBook Air will be mandatory equipment whenever I’m traveling and podcasting simultaneously.
By Jason Snell
January 11, 2016 5:03 PM PT
Loopback extends Mac audio flexibility
On Monday, Rogue Amoeba released Loopback, a $99 (currently on sale for $75) audio utility that dramatically enhances the flexibility of Mac audio. If you’re a podcaster, DJ, or other person who spends time trying to route audio between different Mac apps, you may find Loopback to be an essential tool.
OS X frustratingly doesn’t let you route audio directly from specific apps and input devices to other apps. With Loopback, you can create virtual audio inputs and outputs that appear in the Sound preference pane and in just about any app that works with audio. (It’s a trick that I previously used Ambrosia Software’s WireTap Anywhere tool for, but that app broke in Lion and is no longer being developed. The open-source tool Soundflower does the same thing, although I find its interface confusing and its compatibility and reliability wanting.)
Loopback uses the audio smarts of the makers of Audio Hijack to create an audio utility that’s reliable and offers an interface that’s much more easily understandable. I’ve been using Loopback during its lengthy beta period, and have found it to be an invaluable tool for some very specific audio needs.
Here’s a simple example of how Loopback can be helpful: Even if you’ve got a multi-channel input device attached to your Mac, Skype will only ever use the first channel. With Loopback, you can create a virtual input device that mixes all the channels of your mixer into a single channel. (When I was at Macworld, we had a ridiculous setup where Skype used an iMac’s audio-input jack as its microphone, fed by an output from our mixing device, so that the people on the other end of Skype could hear all four microphones in our studio at one time. Ridiculous.)
Alternately, if you’ve got two USB microphones, you can plug them both in, and create a virtual input that combines them both. Switch to Skype, choose the new virtual interface as your “microphone”, and the app will be none the wiser. (Rogue Amoeba also suggests that screencasters will like Loopback because you can combine apps and input devices exactly as you want them when you’re recording.)
You define what goes where via Loopback’s simple, drag-and-drop interface. You can also create a “pass-thru device,” which serves as both an input and an output, so that you route sound directly from one app to another—for example, from GarageBand to Skype.
One of the frustrations I’ve had for a while is an inability to play audio clips into a Skype conversation. I actually figured out a way to work around this using Audio Hijack 3, but the approach is only functional when Audio Hijack 3 is actively recording my session. With Loopback, I can create a virtual device that combines my microphone and either iTunes or a soundboard app, and use that device as Skype’s “microphone.”
Is this an esoteric audio tool that will only be of value to people who do weird things with Mac audio? Yep. But if you’re one of those people, Loopback is potentially a workflow-shattering experience—and in the best way.
By Jason Snell
December 4, 2015 11:01 AM PT
Podcasting from inside a browser with Cast
Recording a podcast with other people over the Internet can be complicated. Everyone needs microphones, sure, but they also need to connect to you so you can hear one another, and for the best audio quality, they need to record their end of the conversation and then send that file to you.
The new web service Cast makes the recording process easy by not requiring that panelists install any special software (beyond Google Chrome—it doesn’t work with Safari yet) or sign up for anything in order to be a part of the conversation. You just send them a link, they open it in Chrome, and they’re up and running. (The service also provides basic in-browser audio editing and podcast hosting, all in the aim of making it easier than ever to get your podcast heard.)
I tried Cast a few times this summer as a part of the service’s beta test, and wasn’t thrilled with the results, but now that the service is officially ready for the world, I gave it a spin this week. Dan Moren and I recorded a short podcast available to Six Colors subscribers using Cast.
I was pretty happy with the sound quality of the conversation, both as we were talking and when we played it back. There weren’t any noticeable artifacts, and the final version on the server sounded good. Cast works by streaming live audio while simultaneously recording your microphone locally and uploading a higher-quality version in the background.
Cast is limited to three guests (plus the host), but large panels are unruly and difficult to edit (take it from me), so I’m not sure it’s a major limitation.
Cast’s recording interface also takes care to add some features that will be quite useful to hosts and panelists alike. A Show Notes button lets hosts write down information about the recording, including when there were issues that will require attention when it’s time to edit the podcast. And the Raise Your Hand button allows a panelist to indicate that they’ve got something to say, which can help smooth out the conversation—I know a lot of podcasters who type the word “hand” into their Skype windows to get the same effect.
Once the recording is done, you can jump into Cast’s editing interface, or—and I like this feature a lot—just walk away with everyone’s files, recorded locally and uploaded invisibly behind the scenes, and pop them into your audio editor of choice. Since the host controls the start and stop of the recording session, the files all start at the same point, which saves you from having to manually synchronize them. Files come down as 128kbps MP3s, which is absolutely acceptable quality for a spoken-audio podcast. (The first time I tried this with the files from my session with Dan, the download failed. I went back later and tried again, and there was no problem.) The show notes are also downloadable as a text file, tagged to the time code of your recording.
Editing in Cast is pretty basic, as you might expect from a browser-based editor. You can edit out chunks of the entire recording, which is useful to make the beginning and end of the show line up perfectly, as well as remove any digressions or mistakes in the middle. You can also adjust the volumes of various tracks, so you can balance out the relative volumes of all your guests. Unfortunately, you can’t trim out noise from a single track, so if someone has a coughing fit while someone else is talking, Cast can’t help you.
You can add new audio layers to the Cast editor, letting you overlay audio (say, sound effects or music) on your session. There’s also a clever “Wedges” feature, which lets you insert audio that pauses your session, plays the audio file, and then continues your session—useful for introductions, ads, and that sort of thing.
Once you’re done, click Mix and Cast with collapse all your audio files into a single mixed-together file. You can choose Standard mix, which leaves your audio alone, or a dynamic-compression mix, which is supposed to smooth out your audio levels. Unfortunately, I found the dynamic-compression mix to be too aggressive—the whole thing sounded overmodulated.
Cast is $10/month (for up to 10 hours of recording time) or $30/month (for 100 hours of recording). I didn’t test Cast’s podcast-hosting feature, but offering unlimited hosting certainly sweetens the deal if you’re currently playing for hosting with a service like Libsyn or Podbean. I published an excerpt of my podcast with Dan to Cast if you’d like to give it a listen and, in the process, test out Cast’s hosting infrastructure.
If you’re a podcast host who has a lot of different guests, non-technical panelists, or panelists who don’t remember to press the recording button or send you their file in time, Cast offers an appealing and simple way to get good quality audio out of guests without asking them to install Skype. If you’re a podcaster or potential podcaster who is frustrated or confused by the Skype-and-local-recording rigamarole, Cast also seems like a service worth trying. And if you don’t want to do more than basic editing, Cast can potentially be a one-stop shop for all your recording, editing, and hosting, which is quite compelling.
Check Cast out for yourself at tryca.st.
By Jason Snell
November 24, 2015 4:46 PM PT
Recording podcasts on iOS (or not)
When I wrote about editing a podcast on iOS using the Ferrite Recording Studio app, and then discussed it on The Talk Show, I heard from a bunch of people who wanted to know what I used to record audio on the iPad.
That’s an easy answer—I didn’t—with a more complex issue wrapped inside it. This is a tough one. Even Federico Viticci of MacStories, who uses iOS to do his entire job, still uses a Mac for recording podcasts.
Audio on iOS is primitive when compared to OS X. Only one app can play audio at a time—if you’re playing music and you open YouTube and start playing a video, your music doesn’t keep playing (as would happen on the Mac)—the music is stopped and then YouTube begins to play. And while the Mac’s innate audio-input abilities are not great (thank goodness for utilities like Audio Hijack and Sound Siphon and Call Recorder for Skype), they’re a darn sight better than what’s available on iOS.
As with playing audio, only one app can record audio on iOS at one time. And yet most of the podcasts I create on iOS require that I use a communications app—usually Skype—to talk to the other people on the podcast. The moment Skype begins a call on iOS, it grabs control of the microphone and any other recording app is stopped in its tracks.
There may be some workarounds possible—GarageBand and other apps have been written to use an app called Audiobus to send audio back and forth across apps. It’s a clever hack, but I’m unclear if it could work with Skype (given that it’s sending and receiving call audio all the time, which is more complex than either playing or recording alone), and even so, it would require Skype to be updated to support the feature. (Skype could, of course, offer a feature that let you record your own microphone locally, or offer a recording of your call in the cloud, but Microsoft seems uninterested in pursuing such features.)
So the best hope here is that iOS gets an update at some point that allows multiple apps to have access to audio input. Every year I hope it’s one of those little features that Apple displays on a slide at WWDC that says, “100+ other great features!” or somesuch. It’s never been there.
In the meantime, there is a way to make a Skype call and also record on a high-quality microphone using only iOS. It’s just kind of ridiculous: You make the Skype call on your iPhone, presumably with iPhone earbuds or other compatible headphones with a microphone, while sitting in front of an iPad that’s attached to a microphone and recording locally. The people on Skype hear your bad microphone, but your good microphone is what gets used on the actual podcast. Serenity Caldwell used this method for both this week’s Incomparable Radio Theater and Upgrade episodes. The risk is that if your recording fails, all that remains is a lousy recording of your voice on a set of earbuds via Skype—not a great backup.
I’ve got a Zoom H6 recorder, so if I wanted to travel with just iOS devices, I think I would just record my microphone locally using that, then transfer the file for editing. That also allows me to bypass another problem with recording on an iPad or iPhone: support for external microphones.
There are a few microphones and mixers out there with a native Lightning connector, but most USB devices that rely on Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter. Unfortunately, the Lightning connector is limited in the amount of power that it can supply; most USB devices won’t work with it unless you connect the microphone via a powered USB hub. Things get messy quickly. It’s workable—I discovered that even my Sound Devices USBPre2 audio interface can work with the iPad if you bring a powered USB hub and put it in a special compatibility mode—but it’s not ideal.
That’s the longer answer. The short answer is, recording podcasts on iOS today is not as easy as editing them. It can be done, but only with a number of workarounds that aren’t necessary on the Mac, which has a more mature sound system that can handle playing and recording multiple audio streams in multiple apps simultaneously.
Ah, well. Maybe in iOS 10.
By Jason Snell
November 13, 2015 5:04 PM PT
Editing podcasts on iOS with Ferrite
Like a lot of iPad users, I dream of traveling with just the iPad, and no laptop. I’m not sure what it saves me, really—my 11-inch MacBook Air is about as small as they come. But still, it’s a dream.
What gets in the way of it, for me: podcasting. iOS has come a long way in terms of power and functionality, but when it comes to audio there have always been lots of issues. iOS basically doesn’t allow two apps to use the microphone simultaneously, and Skype for iOS doesn’t support built-in recording or a pass-through technology like Audiobus, so if you want to talk on Skype while also recording your microphone’s input, you either need to use two devices or a Mac.1
Using an iPad to do the kind of multi-track podcasting editing I do in Logic on my Mac has been possible for quite a while. Auria is the app I’ve liked the most for this sort of thing, but its interface always struck me as ungainly. I could edit a podcast in that app, but it was slow, and not very much fun.
This week writer/podcaster Fraser Speirs mentioned a new podcast editor he liked, Wooji Juice’s Ferrite Recording Studio. I had been looking for a project to take on in order to test out the iPad Pro, so I took Ferrite for a spin.
In a word, wow: This is the iOS multitrack editor that I’ve been waiting for. Ferrite has all the features that have made my podcast editing workflow so efficient: Strip Silence, compression, noise gate, ripple delete, quick selection of all following clips. It’s all there. And it’s all built inside an attractive interface that’s a pleasure to use. It’s like Ferrite read my mind.
Only later did I realize that Ferrite did, in a way, read my mind. Canis, the lead developer of Ferrite, has listened to my podcasts and read my articles about podcast editing, and apparently some of that rubbed off on the product? During development, he asked me to send him some of my sample podcast files so that he could test using real-world examples, and I sent him a zipped folder full of the raw files that I use to edit The Incomparable. I just hadn’t connected the dots.
Like Logic, Ferrite will break long podcast tracks into short blocks by removing the silence between noisy passages; just select a track and choose the Strip Silence command from a pop-over menu, then specify a couple of settings. It’s got a built-in compressor and noise gate (able to be turned on via an in-app purchase), to level out volume. Trimming individual blocks of sound is as easy as tapping and sliding a finger left or right. And when I want to pull everything in the project forward or backward in time, I just tap on a clip, then triple-tap to select all of the following clips.
Ferrite works much better for me with a keyboard than without, mostly because I spend an awful lot of time pressing the space bar to toggle playback on and off. There’s a play/pause icon on the interface, of course, but it’s way down in the bottom right corner, which is not a convenient location, especially on the enormous iPad Pro screen. I also needed to use the keyboard to rapidly delete clips that were full of stray noise, because Ferrite’s touch-based multiple-clip selection feature is a little bit finicky.
Still, the fact is that my temporary can-I-do-this experiment with Ferrite iPad Pro never reached the stage where I bailed out and decided that I couldn’t do it. A couple of hours later (par for the course for these things), I had an entire finished episode of The Incomparable ready to go2. (I did have to export the final file back to my Mac to re-encode it as an MP3; Ferrite currently only lets you output projects as AAC files.)
Will I edit next week’s episode on an iPad? Probably not, but that’s more a function of the tools that surround my editing experience (MP3 taggers and encoders, track-sync utilities, and the like) than the core editing experience itself. But for the first time I can see myself traveling with just an iPad and using it to edit podcasts wherever I go. (But if I need to record a podcast on the road, I’ll need to record on my iPad while I’m talking on Skype using my iPhone…)
One final note: I did this all on an iPad Pro, but Ferrite works on other iPad models, and even iPhones. So even if I don’t end up sticking with the iPad Pro, I suspect that I’d have no problem editing a podcast on my iPad Air 2.
Ferrite is free to download from the App Store, with its more advanced features accessible via two $10 in-app purchases. If you’re a podcast editor who dreams of using an iPad to do the job, I highly recommend you give it a try.
By Jason Snell
October 9, 2015 1:51 PM PT
Overcast 2 begins a new (podcast) chapter
Today Marco Arment released Overcast 2, a free update to his iOS podcast app. There are a lot of great iOS podcast apps out there, but Overcast remains my favorite, thanks to its excellent Smart Speed and Voice Boost features, as well as its flawless speed-boosting features.
Speaking of those features, in previous versions of Overcast they were unlocked when you made an in-app purchase. Beginning with Overcast 2, they’re free. The entire app is free, in fact, with Marco going to a patronage model—he requests donations if you use and like Overcast, to help support its continued development.
It’s an interesting move, but Marco was right to be concerned that the 80 percent of his users who didn’t pay weren’t seeing his app’s most notable features. Now everyone can use those features—and if a small percentage of Overcast users figure that it’s worth paying to thank Marco for his work, it should all work out.
That’s the End of That Chapter
An inside joke in the tech podcasting community has been that, for quite some time now, there have been some vocal podcast listeners who will strongly and repeatedly suggest that real podcasts embed chapter marks. It’s not fair to say that people are almost always German—sometimes they’re Austrian or Swiss.
For a long time I made AAC versions of my podcasts specifically to create chapter marks using GarageBand. But years ago, I gave up and went to MP3 versions only. However, it turns out that the MP3 format does support chapter marks too—it’s just never been supported in most podcast-creation tools or podcast-playing clients1.
Today, with the release of Overcast 2, the number of people who can take advantage of podcast chapter marks has skyrocketed. If you’re a podcaster wondering how you can add chapter marks to your podcast, your options are limited right now.
In fact, right now I know of only one, and it’s what I’ve been using for Clockwise for the last couple of years: the web app Auphonic. Auphonic is an audio processing tool—you upload your file and then set it to encode it, add chapter marks, provide leveling and filtering, and even automatically upload it to your host. You can process two hours of content per month for free, and there’s a sliding scale of what you need to pay for more processing time.
Auphonic also sells a Mac app called Auphonic Leveler Batch Processor, which does all the leveling and filtering, but unfortunately doesn’t (yet?) support adding MP3 chapter marks.
So for now, if you’re a podcaster and you want to experiment with chapter marks, I’d recommend that you check out Auphonic. But it’s hard to believe that someone won’t build a tool—even a quick and dirty one—to make this something you can do right on your Mac2.
By Jason Snell
August 12, 2015 2:54 PM PT
Use plug-ins in GarageBand to improve podcast sound
I used to edit podcasts in GarageBand, but switched a few years ago to Apple’s $200 Logic Pro. I don’t use most of Logic’s high-end audio production features, but it’s got a few features that make it much better than GarageBand for my purposes.
However, GarageBand is perfectly suitable for podcast editing, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Every Mac comes with GarageBand, meaning every Mac user has access to a free multitrack audio editor capable of generating high-quality podcasts. And while it’s true that the latest version of GarageBand (version 10) lacks some of the podcast-specific features of GarageBand 6.0.5 and earlier, it’s not true that you can’t edit a podcast in the current version of GarageBand. You can! (Earlier on Six Colors I wrote about editing podcasts in more depth.)
GarageBand 10, in fact, based on the same core set of features as Logic, which means you can take advantage of some plug-ins to make your podcasts sound much better—if you can figure out how to use those features. GarageBand doesn’t make it easy. Let me give you a tour of where these features are and make you some suggestions about how you can use them to make a better podcast in GarageBand 10.
By Jason Snell
July 17, 2015 2:18 PM PT
10(ish) years of podcasts
This month Apple’s celebrating “10 Years of Podcasts“, meaning that it’s been a decade since Apple introduced podcasting features into GarageBand and iTunes and added a podcast directory to the iTunes store.
Of course, podcasts have been around for more than 10 years. I remember Shawn King broadcasting radio on the Internet in 1994, and several other Apple-themed podcasts date from the early 2000s.1 Leo Laporte founded TWiT in 2005, though in a fit of pique about Apple making noises about owning the word podcast, he re-dubbed them netcasts and you still hear that word on TWiT’s promos today.
Prompted by Rene Ritchie, I looked up the first podcast I actually hosted. It was probably Macworld Podcast 27, February 8, 2006, live from a cruise ship in the Pacific Ocean—though I more vividly remember the very next episode, which featured Leo Laporte and was largely conducted in a shipboard bar. As Leo and I talked, more geek cruisers stopped to watch. By the end of the chat, Leo and I had gathered a studio audience, which applauded when we concluded. It was awesome.
The first podcast of my own was the original TeeVee podcast, in July of 2006. It was sporadic and didn’t last very long. I didn’t resume podcasting independently from my job until August of 2010, when The Incomparable debuted. Hard to believe it’s been nearly five years, until I look at the calendar and see that I’ve got to prep episode 256 for posting tomorrow.
These days I host or co-host four weekly podcasts and produce several more.2 Thanks to the rise of podcast sponsorships (and my departure from my old job), I can say that I’m not just a writer and editor who podcasts on the side—I’m also a professional podcaster.
That’s weird, but it’s good. I love to listen to podcasts and I love to make them. It’s good to be doing something you love. If podcasting couldn’t help me make a living, well, I’d still be doing it. (Just probably not quite as much of it!)
- Adam Christianson’s Maccast premiered in December 2004. ↩
- Upgrade (Mondays), Clockwise (Wednesdays), TV Talk Machine (Fridays), and The Incomparable (Saturdays) are my four weekly podcasts. I also do Total Party Kill fortnightly, TeeVee weekly during “Doctor Who” and “Game of Thrones” seasons, Robot or Not irregularly, and parts of the Incomparable Game Show. ↩
By Jason Snell
June 24, 2015 12:21 PM PT
Podcast nerdery: Wrong microphone, right microphone
One of the reasons I promote Call Recorder as a tool for Mac podcasters is that it records what you hear on Skype. Whatever microphone is selected as an input in Skype, that’s the one Call Recorder records. So if I can hear you, and you sound good, and you’re using Call Recorder, you’re going to give me a recording of your microphone that sounds good.
When people don’t use Call Recorder, I often discover that while they sounded great on Skype—their fancy high-quality external microphone was selected as the input in Skype’s Audio/Video settings—they were accidentally recording their conversation using their computer’s built-in microphone.
It’s very sad. It means I have to choose with a local recording of a bad microphone or a Skype recording of a good microphone. The Skype recording is generally of pretty good quality, though I prefer a local recording because it doesn’t ever get weird Skype sound artifacts (common when someone has a dodgy Internet connection) and it’s an isolated version of the one person’s voice. A recording of a Skype conversation contains everyone in the conversation, and when they all talk at once there’s nothing you can do to pick them apart.
Anyway, this scenario happened this week. One of my guests accidentally recorded using their computer microphone rather than the good microphone we heard on Skype. So I was going to have to use the Skype recording, but I had local recordings of the other guests.
This is doable, and in fact what I have to do when someone’s local recording utterly fails. (The most recent episodes of Total Party Kill feature a recording failure, so when one person talks I have to delete everyone else’s voices and use the everyone-on-Skype track instead.)
But in this case, I did have a track from the person. It did record a voice, just not one at a quality I could use. To save the day (and my time), I cheated. Here’s what I did.
First, I had to trim the local recording so that it synced perfectly with my Skype reference track. Then I dropped both tracks into Logic and synced all the other local audio files with them, using the Skype track as a reference.
I use Logic’s Strip Silence feature to make noisy areas in a track visible, and remove all areas of a track that contain silence. Once I run the Strip Silence command, only areas containing noise remain on any given track.
In this case, I could use Strip Silence to my advantage. I ran Strip Silence on the local recording of the computer microphone, meaning that Logic was only using that track at times when that panelists was speaking. It was, essentially, a map of when that person talked and when they were silent.
If only I could use that set of Strip Silence-created audio blocks as a sort of audio mask (forgive me, that’s my Photoshop creeping in)? After all, when the panelist is taking, it’s going to be (mostly) just them talking in the Skype track, too.
So that’s what I did. I quit Logic, opened both the local recording and the Skype reference track in Sound Studio, copied the Skype reference track, and pasted it right over the local computer-microphone recording, replacing it entirely. Then I saved the file and quit Sound Studio.
When I opened Logic back up, it did yell at me—it looks like this file has changed!—but then continued on its way. In the place of the old local audio was now the audio from the Skype reference track, but only the moments when my panelist was talking.
At that point, I still had some work to do—stripping out coughs and microphone clicks that weren’t actual talking, removing other audio tracks when there truly was cross-talk, and the like—but it was clean-up work. And much less work than having to manually cut in the Skype track (and cut out all the other tracks) every time the panelist with the bad recording spoke.
By Jason Snell
June 19, 2015 10:53 AM PT
Podcast nerdery: Subtracting audio from a stereo file
Here’s some podcast/audio nerdery that won’t be of interest to most people, but it’s saved my bacon more than once and just this morning it appears to have saved the bacon of a fellow podcaster, so here goes.
I broadcast my podcasts live using Nicecast, a $59 utility from Rogue Amoeba. One of Nicecast’s, er, nice features is that it’ll also optionally save an archive of your broadcast locally. I’ve enabled this feature, mostly just in case the recording software I usually use—Call Recorder—fails.
There are a lot of reasons I use Call Recorder, most specifically that it records whatever microphone is selected as an input in Skype, so if you sound okay to your fellow podcast participants, your recording will sound okay too. You won’t believe how many times I’ve had it happen that someone has sounded great on Skype, only to send me a local recording of themselves that was made not with their fancy USB microphone, but with the lousy microphone embedded in their laptop or with the (somewhat less lousy) microphone on their earbuds.
But a failure in Call Recorder can be catastrophic. Call Recorder saves its files as QuickTime movies, and if the program doesn’t finish saving that file—say, there’s a crash or a power failure—the entire thing is unsalvageable. So it’s good to have a backup, if not more than one.
Anyway, I had a recording failure a few weeks ago and turned to my Nicecast backup. When I opened the file, I discovered something curious: The file was a stereo recording with both my voice and voices on Skype on the left side, but only the voices of my panel on the right side. This probably happened because I’m using a stereo USB audio interface but only a single microphone.
So I had a thought. Having an isolated audio track of my own voice would improve the quality of the recording and reduce the amount of time I’d spend editing the podcast. Could I somehow subtract the content of the right side from the left, leaving me with a recording of just my own voice?
The answer turned out to be yes. I used my basic audio touch-up tool of choice, Sound Studio, to recover my microphone audio and save the day. First, I copied out each side of the stereo track into their own individual mono files. Then I selected the entire contents of the right track (the one containing just my panelists’ voices) and chose Audio: Invert Signal Polarity.
Go back to high school physics for a second. A wave can be cancelled out by an identical, but inverted wave. This works in the ocean (where two waves can interact and end up cancelling each other out) and it works in sound, too. It’s also a principle used in noise-cancelling headphones.
Anyway, once I inverted the polarity of the panelist-only signal, I copied the result and switched to the window containing the audio of my voice and the panelists together. Using Sound Studio’s Mix Paste command, I pasted the inverted sound over top of the original. And, much to my surprise, it actually worked! The mix paste had subtracted the other voices from the file, resulting in a track that contained only my voice.
Though the quality of the Nicecast archive wasn’t as high as my Call Recorder file (because I was using lower quality settings for the backup), it was still pretty good. I used the track in an episode of The Incomparable and I’m pretty sure nobody noticed a thing.
Like I said, I’m not sure how often this sort of thing comes up in the real world. But if you ever run into this problem, I hope you’ll remember this story and try this approach. It might save your bacon like it saved mine.
By Glenn Fleishman
March 16, 2015 7:00 AM PT
I, for one, welcome our new newsletter and podcast overlords
Back in the depths of time, newsletters were a big business. Printed inexpensively in small quantities for investors or people in specialized industries, like lumber or printing, subscriptions could run hundreds to thousands of dollars a year. A few hundred subscribers made them profitable; a few thousand, lucrative, allowing for staff writers and researchers.
These newsletters had timely information that wasn’t found in daily newspapers or weekly magazines. There was no cable news network, and radio was local with generally directed nationally syndicated programs.
Even when cable TV started to add channels, news radio proliferated, and early dial-up services added news features, focused information important for someone’s profession was difficult to find. Newsletters were exceedingly lucrative and appreciated. Some newsletters included or offered cassette tapes — proto-podcasts! — or omitted the paper part entirely and were just audio tapes. I knew of one on desktop publishing that was mass-faxed, and if I recall right, cost $495 per year for weekly dispatches. (MacPrePress, produced by the late Kathleen Tinkel and Steve Hannaford, for those with long memories.)
The Internet’s emergence derailed a lot of these newsletters, because scarce data became easily available, and specialized information sites rose quickly. Often some data previously acquired with scarcity justifying its high expense was suddenly or within a few years available freely, ubiquitously, and instantaneously. In some cases, the dollars shifted: the money paid on postal-dispatched paper shifted to online subscriptions to Web sites, email newsletters, and access to databases. The excellent credit-card industry newsletter, the Nilson Report, now delivers 23 issues in PDF form and snail mail each year for $1,495, for instance, plus the past fives years as an electronic archive. In others, they evaporated entirely.
Blogs were certainly part of the reason. Once easy-to-use blogging software appeared in the early 2000s, a hundred million blogs bloomed, and a tiny portion were dedicated to reporting and analysis, including my own Wi-Fi Networking News (WNN) blog. In a previous era, WNN would have been a newsletter that, based on the interest I saw on the site, would have grossed hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. (The blog brought in $30,000 to $40,000 a year in the mid 2000s.)
Many of the most prolific and focused bloggers who covered tech and finance turned those blogs into businesses, were acquired by larger media companies, or were hired by publications to write for them and often start in-house blogs.
By Jason Snell
February 2, 2015 7:18 AM PT
How I podcast: Editing
Once you’ve recorded your podcast, it’s time to edit. Editing can be incredibly simple—trim the beginning and end point and be done with it—or as complicated as you want to make it. I use a few different editing approaches based on my tools and the needs of the particular shows I do. Let me describe them to you now…
By Jason Snell
January 14, 2015 1:16 PM PT
How I podcast: Recording
I do a lot of podcasting. And I am often asked about what tools I use and how I produce my podcasts. So in a series of articles on this site, I hope to detail my approach to making podcasts. What I don’t intend is to suggest that this is the only way to make podcasts—it’s just the way that I make them. If I can provide some sort of inspiration—or even a cautionary example of what not to do—I’m glad to do so.
While I think it’s true that many people underestimate how much work goes into making a podcast, I also get the sense that other people overestimate the time I spend. And depending on what kind of a podcast you’re creating, the amount of time required to put it together can vary widely. The average episode of The Incomparable probably takes three or four hours to edit; the average TV Talk Machine I can turn around in 10 minutes.
By Jason Snell
November 28, 2014 11:37 AM PT
Want to do a podcast? Don’t be intimidated
I make podcasts as part of my job now, but despite my year spinning records at my high-school radio station, I don’t have much of a background in audio. Like many podcasters, I’ve learned as I’ve gone along, and I’ve upgraded my hardware and software along the way.
I’m frequently asked for product recommendations for podcasting, and while I can’t claim to have tried every USB microphone out there, I have tried many of them and heard the recording results of many more. I’ve also talked to audio experts, sometimes even voluntarily.
Last night I had a couple of exchanges on Twitter that really irked me. I mentioned that the Blue Yeti, the microphone that I use, was on sale at Amazon. (That sale has since ended.) It seems like every time I mention the Yeti on Twitter, I’m immediately sea-lioned by an audio expert who wants to point out that the Yeti is not suitable for professional use.
Point one: I wasn’t recommending it to professionals, I was recommending it to podcasters who are not pros, the ones using headsets and Blue Snowballs and Apple EarPods. Point two: It’s the microphone I’ve used for the last two years, so I think maybe calling it unfit for professional use is not only insulting to me, but wrong on its face.
Anyway, the great thing about podcasting is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to have access to a broadcasting company’s radio transmitter and studios packed with equipment. You can reach people with your voice right now. Yes, these days there are a lot of big names (often from those big broadcasting companies) doing podcasts, but there’s also an incredible diversity of voices and subjects.
If you’re just starting out, don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by all this audio talk. If you have something to say, say it.
I don’t deny that I’ve heard some pretty awful sounding podcasts in my day. Audio quality does matter. I’d just argue that beyond a certain point, it only matters to audio snobs. My favorite podcast, The Flop House, often has some severe audio problems—but it doesn’t matter, because the content is great.
So start with the equipment you’ve got. You could literally do a podcast by talking into your iPhone and posting it. (I don’t recommend it, but you could do it.) Every Apple laptop comes with a built-in microphone. Again, I don’t recommend you use that microphone, but you could. You could use the EarPods that come with your iPhone—and I’d recommend them over that laptop microphone any day. Add an external microphone when you get the chance. Learn how to use GarageBand or Audacity to edit your podcast—both of them are free.
Beyond that, here’s a tiny bit about hardware.
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