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Podcasting Principles

By Steve Oppenheimer
 

Imagine that you had your own radio or TV station. You create the programs—featuring music, interviews, news, opinions, comedy, whatever you’re into—and listeners can tune in. Broadcast it over the Internet, and you have Internet radio. So far so good.

If you release your programs as audio, video, or other media files, and enable people to subscribe and automatically receive your programs and news flashes via the Web, that’s podcasting in a nutshell. Your subscribers can play the files on their computers and mobile devices—say, an iPod®—in order to listen or watch whenever they wish. The basic formula is: iPod + “broadcast” + online delivery to subscribers = podcast. The term “podcast” is a combination of “iPod” and “broadcast.” In practice, of course, the “iPod” could be any hardware or software media player.

We will focus here on audio podcasts, but before we get into what makes a successful podcast, let’s talk about what makes a program into a podcast.

Really Simple Syndication

The vehicle that makes podcasting possible is Really Simple Syndication (RSS). RSS allows information-based services such as news sites to constantly update and publish information that, in turn, is “pushed” or syndicated to other sites. For example, a news organization might publish articles to the Web twice a day. Their RSS subscribers will automatically be sent those new articles as they are published. The subscribers can then synchro- nize their RSS feeds on their computers and with their portable media devices so they can listen to shows anytime, anywhere. RSS feeds can be used in other creative ways, as well; for example, registered PreSonus Studio One users get an RSS feed to the DAW’s Start Page that provides Studio One news, update announcements, and so on.

But RSS is by no means limited to news flashes and text; it can send subscribers media files of all sorts. Because of the success of the iPod and support in Apple iTunes 4.9 and later, audio files became a primary form of podcasts.

Today, video podcasts, sometimes called v-casts, are also common. You’ll find count- less podcasts on every topic imaginable and with quality ranging from professional- caliber programs to unlistenable garbage. Since anyone with a computer, USB mic, freeware, and Web access can be a podcaster, you may have to sift through a lot of silt to find the flakes of gold—but there’s plenty of gold to be found.

The most common way to read these RSS feeds is with an RSS newsreader, also known as a podcatcher or aggregator. Many of these appli- cations are available as freeware or shareware. Apple iTunes is the best known, but a Web search for “podcast aggregator” will reveal plenty of choices. Many browsers have basic RSS capabilities built-in, allowing you to subscribe to podcasts without requiring additional software, but you still may want an aggregator in order to do more.

Braving the Elements

A podcast consists of two elements: a media file, typically an MP3 for audio podcasts, and a text or XML file—an RSS 2.0 document, often called an RSS 2.0 feed—that provides back- ground information about the show and includes links to the media file. The text file may also contain links to cover art, the podcast producer’s Web URL, and other information that can be displayed in the media player.

To get an idea of how this works, download a podcatcher application and listen to some podcasts. Most podcatchers include directories of podcasts with more entries than you probably thought possible. You also can find podcasts on an assortment of Web sites, such as Podcast Alley, Yahoo, Podcast.net, and Audio Weblogs.

Find a podcast that interests you and look for the small button labeled RSS or XML; that’s usually where you’ll find the link you need. Copy and paste that link into your podcatcher to set up a subscription. Usually you can preview a podcast before subscribing. (In iTunes, look for the subscription entry form in the Advanced menu.) After that, the podcatcher will check the podcast producer’s text file periodically, and if it detects new links, it will download the associated files.

RSS 2.0

Many people produce podcasts in connection with text blogs and Web sites. Partly that’s because they already have a text blog, and the podcast is just another type of blog; but this approach also is useful because a text blog has an RSS feed, which gives you a place to start.

A regular RSS feed doesn’t point to media files, so you need to turn it into an RSS 2.0 feed. Services like FeedBurner can convert to RSS 2.0 for you, or if you already have a Web site and just need to prepare the RSS 2.0 feed, you can use software like Six Apart Movable Type, Automattic’s WordPress, or Lemonz Dreams Podcast Maker (Mac only).

Liberated Syndication (LibSyn) is a hosting service that specializes in media content and podcasts and will ease the creation of an RSS 2.0 feed, and we'll use this service in our example. 

To get started with LibSyn, you have to set up an account. You can choose from accounts that offer different amounts of storage space, as well as support for smartphones. For a weekly podcast, the smallest account should be sufficient unless you’re doing a lot of video. A small monthly fee covers the bandwidth, hosting service, and site management.

After answering a few questions and paying for your new service, your Web site is ready! You can create your first show immediately and can then click the Publish icon to start working with the LibSyn Dashboard (see Fig. 1), where you create podcasts for the show. We’ve named our show PreSonus Podcast, admittedly not as exciting a name as you’ll come up with, but it will do for our purposes.

FIG. 1: When working with the Liberated Syndication (LibSyn) blogging and podcasting service, the action starts with this Dashboard.

If you’ve encountered no problems so far, you are ready to create the first post to your show. Keep in mind that an entry can be just a bit of text, an audio blog (such as an MP3 file), a mixture of elements in one entry, or several different entries. The choice is yours.

In the Dashboard, create a New Post, using the link at the upper left, and make a simple text entry into your blog. In the example, we’ve made a very simple text entry and added a PreSonus logo. It’s a good practice to put relevant keywords in your text summary; that helps people find your show (see Fig. 2).

FIG. 2: In LibSyn’s Publish section, you create an episode and enter a title, text, keyboards, and more.

Once you click on the Publish button, the entry is instantly added to your blog and will be visible on the site. Take a look at the entry as visitors will see it (see Fig. 3). The first entry appears in the Web browser, just as you’d want. Of course, you really want to podcast, so the next step is to produce your program.

FIG. 3: Here’s what your audience sees so far. Note we have not uploaded audio yet.

All You Need

At the most basic level, all you need to produce a podcast is a computer, recording software with a few key features (see the section “Audio Software”), and a USB microphone. But we want to produce really good podcasts that sound great and will inspire a following! That means we need to approach this much as if we were producing a radio or local TV program.

Good hardware and software are part of the story; the other part is learning how to create good content. Let’s start with the gear.

The First Stage

As with any audio production, good sound starts with a quality microphone. When considering mic selection for podcasts, think of it much the same way as you would vocals for a music recording. In general, a good condenser mic will give you the best sound quality. However, most dynamic microphones can take more of a physical beating than most condensers can (although modern condenser mics are much more robust than older models were), and they often can handle higher sound-pressure levels. So if you’re doing a podcast that requires you to record the sounds of loud, wild beasts (drummers, for example), and you think you might have to dive for cover, choose a dynamic. Otherwise, you’ll probably be best off with a good condenser mic.

Some podcasters find a stereo mic useful for in-person interviews and discussions, and you will get at least partial left/right separation of the voices. (Obviously, if you’re in the same room, you won’t have complete separation.) Other people prefer two matched mono mics; this allows you to close-mic you and your subject for better left/right separation and less room ambience. Lavaliere mics are a great choice for the latter approach. Either method can yield good results.

Although some podcasters use USB mics, and a few companies offer good ones, most USB mics are low-end transducers that rely on an internal preamp or the preamp in your computer, which are mediocre at best and often don’t provide sufficient gain. If you want a really good-sounding podcast, we recommend a good condenser mic and an audio interface with a high-quality preamp and phantom power.

The Magic I/O Box

But where, oh where, can you find an audio interface that sounds really great, provides phantom power, and what’s more, can do both even when bus-powered from a laptop computer so that you can use it wherever you go? We have two prime candidates for you!

If your computer is equipped with 6-pin FireWire 400 (the smaller 4-pin variety won’t work) or 9-pin FireWire 800, we have three words for you: PreSonus FireStudio™ Mobile.

The FireStudio Mobile recording interface is compact—it fits in one-third of a rackspace— lightweight, and built industrial-strong to take the stresses of travel, so you can throw it in your laptop bag and go. It sends up to 24-bit, 96 kHz audio to and from a computer via FireWire 400 and can be bus-powered, although it also comes with an AC adapter. The FireStudio Mobile is one of the few interfaces that delivers a full 119 volts of phantom power even when bus-powered, so it works fine with mics that are finicky about phantom. And it features two of our premium XMAX™ Class A solid-state preamps, which provide high headroom and crystal-clear sound. With two preamps, of course, recording in stereo is no problem.

Furthermore, the FireStudio Mobile has six line inputs and stereo S/PDIF digital inputs (and outputs) so you can record digital audio from S/PDIF-equipped CD and DVD players, for example. Two line outputs and a very loud, clear headphone output enable monitoring on speakers and “cans.” MIDI I/O provides connections for a control surface or keyboard controller. Finally, an internal DSP mixer lets you create custom mixes for each output on the unit and provides zero-latency monitoring.

If your computer doesn’t offer FireWire, or you just need two inputs and two outputs, check out the PreSonus AudioBox USB. This simple, sweet-sounding USB bus-powered interface offers two mic/instrument inputs with PreSonus solid-state mic preamps and phantom power, two line outputs, MIDI in and out, and our requisite Very Loud headphone output. It records and plays back 24-bit audio at up to 119 kHz. A mix control blends the input signal with the computer playback stream for zero- latency monitoring.

Like the FireStudio Mobile, the AudioBox™ USB is compact, lightweight, and built to take a serious beating. To prove it, we kicked an AudioBox USB around the street, jumped up and down on it, drove a full-size truck over it, and then used it to record an acoustic version of “When the Levee Breaks” that came out great. Don’t believe us? See for yourself!

If you like the features of the AudioBox USB but want to take the next step up, consider the AudioBox 22VSL. This amazing bus-powered USB 2.0 interface gives you the same basic features and I/O as the AudioBox USB but it employs our higher-end XMAX preamp. The biggest difference, however, is that the AudioBox 22VSL comes with tightly integrated VSL software that provides a mixer and the same dynamics processing and semi-parametric EQ found in the PreSonus StudioLive 16.0.2 digital mixer, plus stereo reverb and delay effects on dedicated buses. These effects operate with such low latency that you can monitor with all of this processing in real time—something that cannot be done with DAW plug-ins! Like all PreSonus interfaces, the AudioBox 22VSL comes with Studio One® Artist DAW software, which can run simultaneously with the VSL mixer and effects.
The FireStudio Mobile and the AudioBox USB work with almost any audio software for Mac® or Windows®, including Mac OS X 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) and Windows 7. Like all PreSonus interfaces, they come bundled with Studio One Artist, PreSonus’ easy-to-use DAW software. We’ll talk more about Studio One shortly.

If you plan to podcast an entire musical program with multitrack production, you can treat the music parts of the recording the same way you do any other music project. For that, you would need more inputs, preamps, and so on, so check out the PreSonus FireStudio Project interface and the StudioLive™ 16.4.2 and StudioLive 24.4.2 digital mixers, which have built-in FireStudio-series interfaces. But for most podcasts, the AudioBox USB or FireStudio Mobile will do the job fine.

Listen to the Music

We’re just going to touch lightly on monitoring because it’s not much different for podcasting than for any other type of recording. If you’re just recording for the podcast and are not likely to use the recordings for a larger release, you can probably do fine just monitoring on headphones. That’s especially the case with podcasts that are focused on the spoken word, such as interviews, with previously produced music layered in.

If you are producing music for the podcast, especially a multitrack session that will need to be mixed down, we suggest that you mix on good nearfield monitor speakers and double-check the mix on headphones. That’s because mixing multitrack music is much more complex and can create a lot more subtle sonic problems than mixing the spoken word, and you can hear things on speakers in a room that your headphones can’t accurately reproduce. Although your audience is mostly going to listen on headphones or ear buds, some may be listening on their car stereo or home sound system, since computers are increasingly integrated with home-theater audio systems nowadays.

Audio Software

To produce podcasts, your software only needs a few basic features; however, not every audio application provides these features. Obviously you need to be able to record and edit at least one track and preferably stereo. But even if you’re only working with mono and stereo files, multitrack recording software is the way to go. Having multiple tracks makes it much easier to assemble several segments of your program on a timeline, layer music and spoken voice, and lay in effects.

You also need to be able to output MP3 files and possibly AAC files. AAC is Apple’s standard format for iPod, iPhone, and iTunes, and in some ways it has advantages over MP3, but it’s not widely supported, so MP3 files are a better choice for serving a broad audience.

On the other hand, one of the advantages of Apple’s MPEG4 AAC file format is that it supports enhanced podcasts. These podcasts are divided into chapters that reference pictures or Web links that are displayed within the iTunes song-art viewer. Dividing into chapters enables readers to quickly navigate and listen to specific sections of your podcast. Enhanced podcasts can be created using Lemonz Dreams Podcast Maker or Apple’s ChapterTool, which is now part of GarageBand (see GarageBand.app/Contents/MacOS/ChapterTool).

Another crucial feature is the ability to enter ID3 tags. These tags contain metadata that provide crucial information about the podcast, including the title—say, the artist and album, if you’re showcasing music—and comments, which should be show notes that provide a short summary of the content.

The Ego and the ID

ID3 tags embed metadata into your text file that provide crucial information about the podcast, including the title—say, the artist and album, if you’re showcasing music—and comments, which are show notes that provide a short summary of the content. When you name your files, use a consistent, descriptive naming system so that your podcast names will be consistent and will look professional when viewed in a podcatcher or other listing.

To enter ID3 tag info in iTunes, go to the application’s main window and hit Command-I; this brings up the Info page. That’s where you can enter the metadata.

In Studio One, you can enter the basic artist information globally so it will automatically be entered for every Song. (In this case, the Song would be your podcast program or a segment of it.) To do this, go to the Start page and fill in the Artist Profile data, such as your name; mark the genre (you can type in whatever you want for this); and add a photo.

To enter Song-specific metadata, go to the Song/Song Setup/Meta Information menu, where you will find many fields of data that can be filled in for each Song (see Fig. A). All audio files exported from a Song will be tagged with the metadata supplied here, so you can enter data in Studio One Artist, and it will carry over if you prepare your final podcast in another application, such as iTunes.

If you are using Studio One Professional, you can create segments of your podcast as individual “Songs” and assemble the segments in the Project (mastering) section for digital release as an MP3 file. In this case, you can add all of your metadata for the Project—the podcast—in one place, rather than doing it in each individual Song file. (If you have entered the data in a Song file, it will automatically appear in the Project metadata.)

Although it’s very convenient to have every- thing you need in one application, sometimes you might need more than one application to get the job done. For example, your audio editor of choice might not export MP3 files or support ID3 tags. This is not a big deal because plenty of shareware and freeware can provide these functions, including Apple’s free iTunes for Mac and Windows.

At the top of the Track column, you will see three metadata fields, including Disc, Artist, and Length. The Length field is updated automatically based on the total length of your Project. To edit the Disc and Artist fields, click in the space next to the field, type your text, and then press Enter.

Beneath the file-type icon for each Track in the Track Column, you will notice a Down Arrow button. Click on this button to reveal the other metadata fields. These fields can be edited on a track-by-track basis, or multiple Tracks can be selected and their fields edited simultaneously. Among these fields is Comments; Comments are particu- larly important for our purposes because listeners often rely on them when deciding whether to check out your podcast, so don’t overlook this field!

FIG. A: In PreSonus Studio One, you can enter metadata directly into an audio file by going to the Song>Song Setup/Meta Information window.

If you own a PreSonus interface such as the aforementioned FireStudio Mobile or AudioBox USB, you have (or can get) a free copy of PreSonus Studio One Artist multitrack recording and production software. Studio One Artist provides the recording, editing, and assembly features needed to do great podcasts. Its 32-bit audio engine provides very good audio quality, and it comes with a wealth of effects plug-ins. Best of all, it is extremely easy to use, featuring extensive use of drag-and-drop, rather than making you dig through menus. With Studio One, you can create the audio for your podcast very quickly, without getting distracted trying to figure out how to use the tools.

Studio One Artist does not, however, provide MP3 export or support for ID3 tags. Again, that’s not a big deal, as you can use iTunes or other freeware or shareware to do that. If you’re going with a separate ID3 tag editor, we suggest you try iTunes first because it is very reliable and can also easily convert WAV files created in Studio One into MP3s.

However, if you are serious about podcasting or are also doing music production, you should seriously consider upgrading from Studio One Artist to Studio One Professional. Aside from having a great-sounding 64-bit audio engine and even more plug-ins than you get with Studio One Artist, Studio One Professional’s additional features make a major difference for podcasting. It converts to MP3, lets you enter ID3 tags, supports ReWire and third-party VST and AU plug-ins, and includes a video player so you can create audio for picture—great for v-casts. It offers a complete mastering suite where you can assemble program segments and process them together so that you can achieve a single, sonically integrated podcast. And it includes a built-in SoundCloud™ client, enabling you to upload files to the SoundCloud Web-distribution service; from there, SoundCloud will automatically send the file to your Web site, MySpace page, Facebook page—and to your blog.

Moreover, you can use the Nimbit® Extension with any version of Studio One to upload your music and immediately make it available for sale on your Nimbit store, which can be on your Facebook page, your Web site, and on NimbitMusic.com. A NimbitFree account comes with Studio One, as well. So with Studio One Professional, you can produce the entire podcast, from basic recording to final delivery and sale.

Producing Podcasts: Preliminaries

Now that you have a general idea of the elements and tools involved in podcast production, let’s get down to the process and philosophy of producing a good podcast. After that, we’ll discuss final delivery of your podcast.

As with music production, it’s best to record with 24-bit resolution in order to get the best possible signal-to-noise ratio. Yes, your final product will be a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz or 119 kHz MP3, but it will still sound better if the original recording is at high resolution. Unless you really want to go higher-end and record at 96 kHz (probably overkill for most podcasts), you might as well do everything at 44.1 or 119 kHz and avoid having to convert sample rates. To further maximize your signal-to-noise ratio, record as hot as possible— but keep an eye on the levels to avoid clipping (overload distortion).

Before you start, check your gear, including a brief test recording. Don’t forget to check your headphones!

Capturing Interviews

Many podcasts are entirely composed of the spoken word, such as interviews, opinion pieces, news reporting, and even comedy. Opinion pieces, news reporting, and one-person comedy routines are simplified by the fact that you are the only on-mic talent, although you might include pre-recorded sound clips and effects.

In-person interviews and multi-person comedy routines are best conducted in your personal studio or other private space where you can at least somewhat limit interruptions. (Remember to turn the ringer off on all telephones!) Be aware of ambient noise sources such as air conditioners and street noise; removing noise later can be a hassle, at best, and you’re far better off avoiding the problem. Also, you and your subject (or fellow comic) should speak directly into the mic, which should be placed as close to the source as possible to eliminate ambient noise and room reflections. If you’re using a stereo mic, move it between the question and the answer so that you won’t have handling noise while someone is talking.

As great as in-person interviews are, much of the time you’ll probably do your interviews over the phone or Internet. The beauty is, you can interview people who are halfway around the world; but getting a clean, clear recording can be difficult.

One possibility is to do interviews over the Internet using Skype. Skype provides free calls and offers video capabilities (great for v-casts). Recording is easy with third-party software, and a simple Web search for “Skype recording” will reveal a large range of choices for both Mac and Windows—way too many to list here. A few examples include Ecamm Network’s Call Recorder for the Mac; Netralia Skylook (which lets you record Skype calls from within Microsoft Outlook), CallBurner (audio only), or VodBurner (records video) for Windows; or Freebird's PowerGramo for Windows. If these applications don’t appeal to you, a sneakier approach is to use Rogue Amoeba Software's Audio Hijack Pro to grab the audio stream and redirect it to some other recording application, such as Studio One. Bonus: Audio Hijack Pro 2.9.11 and later also lets you edit ID3 tags. 

The downside of recording over the phone or Web is the lack of predictable quality. You’ll use a quality mic and interface but your subject could be using any old mic, including the computer’s internal mic; Internet connections can be flaky; and sometimes the recording can sound muffled.

Listen to the Music

Music is a crucial part of most podcasts. Countless articles have been written about musical production techniques, and they are beyond the scope of this story. However, you should keep in mind that a podcast can use music in multiple ways.

Of course, some podcasts are music-focused programs, in which case you are essentially a DJ, perhaps commenting in between cuts but mostly playing tunes. That can include “live in the studio” performances by an artist or band, playing your own original recordings, and playing recordings by other artists.

Many podcasts employ background music to support the spoken word or news clips. You also can make good use of musical interludes between other content. But keep your interludes short—say, under 30 seconds—or you’ll lose the flow of your podcast. In this case, you might want to employ a technique called ducking, which uses a compressor to reduce the level of the music when you start speaking and then returns the music to its normal level when you stop speaking.

Before we leave this subject, we feel it important to remind you that music by other artists is usually copyrighted. Please respect those rights and get permission when needed and pay royalties when required. If you play a recording of a traditional tune that is in the public domain, you don’t have to worry about the rights to the composition, but the artist or record label probably holds the mechanical rights to the recorded performance. We hope you will do the right thing. Nuff sed.

The Art of Podcasting

Producing podcasts is an art, just like producing music, radio programs, and so on. Here are some tips that will help you do it right.

Preproduction planning is as important in podcasting as it is in album production. Don’t just start recording and try to get it all right in one take. Plan your show; break it down into parts, including transitions; and record one part at a time.

A short table of contents at the start of each podcast helps listeners know what to listen for and when it will occur.

You must capture and keep your audience’s attention immediately or they won’t stick around to hear the rest. So make the first minute of your podcast as compelling and interesting as you possibly can.

Remember the show-business axiom, “always leave them wanting more”? That applies to podcasts big-time. Keep your podcasts short and to the point. Edit yourself mercilessly. You can always do more podcasts to cover additional material.

Never fall in love with your own work to the point that you can’t part with problematic sections. If your audio has sonic problems, such as buzz or too much background noise, don’t use it. New listeners will move on quickly if they can’t hear clearly. And if you think your content is too weak, you’re probably right, so dump it.

At the end of each podcast, give a brief preview of upcoming podcasts so your listeners will be motivated to tune in (so to speak).

Turning MP3s into Podcasts

You’ve equipped your studio for podcasting, developed compelling ideas, and produced the content for your podcast, whether it’s music, spoken word, or both. (Video is beyond the scope of this article.) Then you’ve used your recording software or specialized software like iTunes to save your podcast as an MP3 file. Now it’s time to turn that MP3 file into your very own Podcast and publish it.

Let’s go back to the LibSyn Web site, navigate to the Dashboard (the page with the tabs), and select Edit. This is where you will upload your MP3 and turn it into a podcast.

The Media Files section at the bottom of the page allows you to select your MP3 file from the local computer’s hard drive, use unpublished files that you already have uploaded to your LibSyn account (FTP/Queue), or from a Web site. Click on the Harddrive button and navigate to the MP3 file. Then click the Replace button to transfer your MP3 file to the server that will broadcast your show. Uploading could take a few minutes; meanwhile, you’ll see a red-and-white-striped status bar with a Cancel button where the Replace button was (see Fig. 4). (In the example, we’ve uploaded a 28-second excerpt from “Whose to Blame, Senorita?” by PreSonus artist Shawn Sahm and the Texas Tornados, a new song from a band that we like a lot and are using with the permission of the copyright holders.)

FIG. 4: We're uploading a music clip in this example but the MP3 could be an interview or any other audio you wish to publish.

Creating Your Podcast

With your file uploaded, you are almost done. Click the Publish button at the bottom of the page to post your new podcast. You will get confirmation that the blog entry has been posted. Then take a look at the site through your Web browser (see Fig. 5). Your podcast should now be syndicated so that a user can automatically be synchronized with your latest podcast every time you post.

FIG. 5: Here’s what the audience will see with the audio clip uploaded.

Just for safety’s sake, go back to the Dashboard, and click on Previous Posts; you should see all of the details for your new podcast (see Fig. 6).

FIG 6: Reviewing previous posts lets you check all of the crucial details about your podcasts.

You’re done! With luck, good content, and some hard work, you’re on your way to podcasting fame and glory!