Bleeding Edge is Sometimes a Bloody Fail

DadCast Rig Phase 2 We have started recoding a new season of DadCasts and we had to change some of the recording aspects a little. In a previous post I described our DadCast rig for studio show where all the Dads were present and only we even managed to configure it to allow the odd one Skype in.

Well the kids are a little older now, the Dads have more duties and in the run up to the crazy Holiday season, we’ve started recording the show entirely via Skype. On the MacBook, this was fairly easy using Ambrosia’s Wiretap Studio. I would simply assign the analogue mic plugged into the Line in to the first recording channel and then assign the Sykpe audio to the second channel, since Skype does not route back your own voice for monitoring, this is fine and the sound is pretty good as long as everyone has good levels to start with.

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SM58 - well dented by Moritz* (Flickr)

SM58 - well dented by Moritz* (Flickr)

The problem is when one of the Dads has a lower level then everyone else, you have to try to break out his voice in post production and then manually apply some amplification. Now this is not impossible and the first three shows of Season 2 will prove that it can be done in both Adobe Soundbooth CS4 (Episode 6) and Apple Soundbooth CS4 (Episodes 7 & 8–out next week). But it is a long process, especially for busy dad who is only getting his editing done at nights and on weekends. Both of these pro tools have lift and stamp volume level ability which will match the level of the lower voice without also making the ambient room and line noise louder in the process. Trust me, if you have spent anytime atall using pro audio tools in the last 10 years you can appreciate who cool this really is. Cool: YES! But still very time-consuming. The best way to record good quality audio is to start with good quality audio. For this we use proper dynamic supercardioid stage mics like the Sennheiser Evolution series (e830 & e840) or even the odd Shure SM58 complete with a dented screen protector. These mics only pick up what is directly in front of them, perfect for SoHo recordings that are done in rooms without  sound proofing  and carpeted walls. So a good quality mic will usually give you nice clean audio as long as you talk in a normal voice and into the mic.

By now, you can surely agree that good “audio in” should produce good “audio out”. The problem is that the InterWebs aren’t as clean as those dedicated point to point ISDN lines we used to use in radio and voice over work. Other people are shoving crap down the Tubes all the time, not to mention the amount of packet shaping that the ISP’s do to “IMPROVE” your web experience. Skype does not help either, when it sees that your connection is struggling to provide that great quality sound we need, it starts to compress the audio and eventually will drop the odd second or two. Yet you still sent awesome rich sound into the mic and the computer captured it as very quality audio. The trick to making these great rich sounding podcasts without investing a ton of money on a Skypeasaurus like Leo Laporte of fame has is to have every participant record their own voice tracks separately in another application like WireTap Studio, Audio Hijack Pro or even Audacity. The Dads simply start recording then say a time sync keyword and then talk away for a while. Usually it’s a good precaution for the hosts to also record the other participants into a separate channel like I described above and in the previous set up guide, if something happened to one of the recordings.

When you multiply your variables…
You also have to multiply your back ups
and your fail safes.

So far this is pretty standard stuff that most podcasters already know from having either listen to any of Leo Laporte’s podcasts or phone in to his Tech Guy show and asked him directly. And the MackBook using WireTap Studio really made this process easy. But this is also where my problems started, you see my now off-white first gen Intel MacBook is about 4 years old and although it is performing fantastically as an every notebook should for our family needs, certain things about it are starting to become an issue in its night life as a multimedia production studio for 2FatDads. The fact that it’s core duo and not core 2 duo, means it’s not 64bit. It’s RAM is maxed out at 2GB and most recently the soundcard bus is starting to flake out, I now have to use a USB soundcard and plug the Mic into that. Adding just one more variable into the mic of things that can ruin a podcast. The poor CPU also seem to be struggling under the weight of Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS4, even though CS4 seems to behave a little better the Apple suite.

So with the memories of the gunfire interference that plagued episode 7 still fresh in my ear drums like the sounds of a Cylon invasion or a Stargate dialing itself in, I decided to put the newly Windows 7 installed Dell Latitude e6400 to the test of serving as conference host for last night’s DadCast session. A little but of research on Wiretap Studio-like software for Windows came up pretty blank, the  general consensus seemed to be to use Audacity for simple “Sound Recorder” duties and to use a Skype plugin such as Pamela or MP3 Recorder for Skype to record calls in general. You see that is the problem, although Windows Seven has finally solved the problem of being able to set application level sound, the recording software still only sees the the hardware and you then need a software layer sitting on top of everything  deciding what to record. OK let me explain this another way:

  • When you tell Wiretap Studio to record from Skype is records every little sound that Skype makes: conversations, user alerts, phone ringing… the whole thing.
  • When you tell Audacity to record the line in mic, it can only record from that one input. If you then plug-in a USB headset, you have to stop your recording and reconfigure Audacity to now use this new device.  You won’t be able to record from both sources.
  • When you use a call recorder like MP3 Recorder for Skype, you will only be able to record that one call, if you conference in someone else, you’ll have to start over. The something goes if someone drops off the call. The call recording ends.

On their own, none of these are big issues, but when you put them into the context of our DadCast, it tends to complicate matters. Very quickly do you realize that although Audacity is a very very good editor, it’s not that good of a capture device. The same goes for any Skype call recorder, what you really want to do is capture all of Skype audio, regardless of the number of class or participants. You also want to make sure that you turn off all notifications Skype’s preferences so you don’t get interrupted every time one of your contacts come on-line.  The more you look at the issue, the solution inevitably becomes clear: WireTap Studio just rocks. The only thing missing would be to slot every caller into their own channel so you can get nice clean audio from everyone.

So what happened last night, I set up a call with Steph and we tested our the recording on own sides, he checked his Audacity  and then I stopped and played back the recording from MP3 Recorder for Skype. Everything sounded fine, Steph was in the left channel and my voice was in the right.  And if the call had only been between the both of us, this set up would have been fine. But when we tried to add McGoo into the conference call, the first call was disconnected in favour of the conference call and the recording was stopped. About two 2 hours later, after the conference call was ended, there was no little notice stating the recording had been made and where I could find the MP3. “UH OH! This is NOT good!”  I thought, add in the expletives as you like. And like a moron, I was not running my Minidisc recorder out of the of the mini Audiotechnica mixer that I sometimes use to back up these recordings. So we now have a 3 audio files with large gaps of silence interspersed everywhere my sounds of laughter and interruption should have been.

So… What is the ideal podcasting rig? After almost 10 shows, we still don’t know either. But we are getting pretty good at knowing what it should not be. As much as I like the Dell running Windows 7, its just too bleeding edge to be trusted for the job of master control. I would prefer loading Cool Edit Pro on to an analogue capture device on an isolated Windows 2000 machine with a big old hard drive for a scratch disk before laying any more faith into a software layer plugin for Skype either.  Wiretap studio has really impressed me as a capture tool. It’s very solid and Apple’s own audio routing makes it ideal for the task of recording incoming call and outgoing audio.

So we’ll have to schedule another DadCast Session in the next week, but only after I look into the cost of getting a dedicated Mac Mini with 8GB of RAM for the Wendyhouse Studios and speak with my accountant to see if that would qualify as a business write off.

Stay Tuned For More…

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