Early Learnings in Podcasting

Sifting through my recent posts here, I think I forgot what this blog is supposed to be, and made it something like a LINMOB thingy again. So here is a post about nothing for a change. It may turn out quite personal, I don’t know yet.

Recording setup in Copenhagen.
SZB001 recording setup in Copenhagen.

When you start doing something new, you always learn a lot. There are two sides to this: There are things you need to learn in order to get whatever it is that you just started doing done. And then, there are things you learn about the world by doing these new things.

Part one: Getting it done

With podcasting, there is a lot to learn, when you start out. Well, maybe there isn’t. You can do it by just choosing a simple hoster, taking an ok microphone and just get going. Add a little cutting in a simple program like Audacity ((I guess there are simpler programs than Audacity and I understand that it can be quite a powerful tool, but since I have used it for more than 10 years (on and off) and the UI did not change much, it is what comes to my mind when I think of “dead simple tools for audio editing”.)) upload it, submit your podcast feed to iTunes/Apple Podcasts and you’re done. But still, all these steps are, when they’re new, a learning experience.

Setup woes

Now I took a route that involves dealing with a lot of new software, and some known quantities. While I know WordPress by heart, I didn’t have any prior experience with the PodLove-Plugin for it. That was easy, it just took a little reading through settings panes and putting in the necessary information. The much harder part is recording. In all the audio stuff I have done prior (most of it has vanished from the web, fortunately) I never took multiple microphones to record something. I would just take a smartphone and put it on a table. Or I would just take one Microphone and talk into it. Really, the most complex setup I ever used before setting out to do Schnapszahlbrothers was a Skype call and recording it with some software or a joining a “TeamSpeak” session.

But for this new thing, I wanted to make it great, and therefore followed some suggestions by experienced podcasters whose productions I listen too. I set out to go the Sendegate route, got an Apple MacBook Air ((I admittedly would have likely gotten a Mac anyway, as using Linux and Windows both has some frustrations, and it is fun to go for the different set of frustrations you face on a Mac, but that is a topic for another day.)), bought Reaper, installed the UltraSchall add-on and got first a Behringer Xenyx 302 USB and one Superlux HMC 660 X headset and then more of these headsets and in addition to that a Zoom H6 because I wanted to have great audio recorder for a long time.

It’s a fine setup, but boy, it is complicated. The Xenyx 302 suffers from being easily affected by magnetic fields, so my brother has to run his laptop on battery when we’re recording. And I, while I sounded fine in the first episode we recorded in Copenhagen, did not manage to get the Microphone into a position where it would not capture so many mouth noises and breathers the second time around. ((Also I learned that my chair is squeeky.)) And then there is the software (REAPER + Ultraschall add-on), which, while it is made for recording podcasts, ((The add-on is.)) is really not that super easy to use after all. I mean: I lost a recording this time, because it does not force you to autosave or to save a project. Now I don’t want to blame the software for that, what happened here is the definition of user error, and with Reaper being quite a powerful Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), it is target at intermediates and professionals, so … yeah, my bad. It just overwhelms me sometimes, and I think that this being overwhelmed makes the result worse. It’s tough to look at the recording screen, put in edit markers (I haven’t nearly mastered it enough to put in chapter markers during recording) and staying engaged in a discussion and now what you’re talking about. So if you are not recording in person in a studio setup, maybe go the simple route, buy some okay USB headsets (or a simple USB codenser mic) and just use Skype Call Recorder or another simple setup. You won’t sound that much worse, and the content matters more than the sound (to most people).

If there weren’t some clear signs of learnings, I would just switch to a different setup right now. ((That setup would likely involve Mumble and then Audacity (using at least this plugin) Marco Arments’ excellent Forecast utility to get the production done.)) I am slowly getting familiar with the software and there are already some things I know I can do with Reaper+Ultraschall, but not with Audacity.

Other things you have to learn the hard way – I threw away two hours of fine cutting for the second episode because I could not find a way to move a part of the recording to an earlier position in the frame after you applied some fine cuts to it in Reaper+Ultraschall ((Unfortunately, in order to make the release schedule, I was not able to reapply these fine cuts and produce the resulting podcast well enough to like it.)) (BTW, if there is a way to do this, and I did not find it, please do let me know.).

Further learnings

  1. There is no need to really worry what other people will think about your podcast: Since Podcasts have made it to the mainstream, there are just tons of other offerings while days are still limited to 24 hours, so no one will listen to your stuff (unless you are an already popular internet persona that has some following).
  2. Concepts don’t turn out the way you would want them to: I wanted to make “Schnapszahlbrothers” a very personal, intimate thing. We did not reach that point yet, which is in part due to the fact that I should have discussed this target of maximum intimacy more with my brother beforehand, and also due to the topics we discussed until now. So you should really come to an agreement with your co-host on how far everybody is willing to go.
  3. Only record when you feel up to it: For the first episode I was dead tired, and then drinking alcohol because there is “Schnaps” in the title did not help at all.
  4. Take care of your setup and how it sounds: Make sure that you will produce as little noise you don’t want to be in the production as you possibly can. So wipe the nose, don’t wear shirts with buttons that might make loud noises on your table, don’t sit on squeaky chairs if you can avoid it and so on.
  5. Be careful with the schedule you choose. The less good you are at talking (see 3), the more time editing will take if you want a good sounding product. So record early enough. Also, an alternating, non equi-distant release schedule does not seem to be a good idea, as it takes the regularity out of it. ((I am so glad that “Schnapszahlbrothers” was from the very beginning intended to be a limited, eleven-episodes-only-thing, as this 11th/22nd day of the month schedule is really tough.))
  6. Unless you are a natural born story teller or all you want to do is ranting: Prepare carefully, even when you think that you will not need it. It never hurts, and you will have to listen to the shit you’ve been saying over and over again in editing, so you will appreciate your own diligence later.
  7. Make sure to create an outline of the stuff you prepared, that is usable in the recording, meaning it contains the necessary detail and is easily understandable ((In other words, don’t use etherpad just because it is open source.)).
  8. Take a moment to re-think your outline before starting to cut.
  9. Broad strokes first, tiny bits later.
  10. In Reaper+Ultraschall: Save your project file before you record, take the care to choose sensible folder structures and file names and save it immidiately after the record. Also, save under different names at different stages during the editing, so that you can easily go back if you mess up and can’t undo it. ((This also applies to different setups.))
  11. Related to 1, not applying to “Schnapszahlbrothers”: Think about promotion and marketing when coming up with your podcast. Who is your audience? What would be a good name? Is there a niche where you could add unique value? Which platforms do you want or need to target, what does this to the time required to publish your episodes and can you automate some of the repetitive tasks?
  12. Chill and just do it. Don’t worry too much, it doesn’t help.

Part two: What you learn about the world

Once you’ve encountered several ways to fail with regard to a topic at hand, you become more tolerant with others screw ups, because you have first hand experience on how easily something can go wrong.

For me, the one big thing that was the most unexpected is how hard continuity is. I used to think “Wow, how could they not notice this.” Now, being involved with really simple media production (in the grand scheme of things, podcasting is ridiciously easy). Especially when you tend to take breaks, in which you continue talking and lay out the next section (don’t do it!), or one of the hosts butchered a sentence and restarts it, but this time forgets to mention a tiny detail and then later refers to it, you will be faced with a shit-sandwich of editing decisions.  Pinky swear: I will never moan about continuity screw ups again. While they are avoidable with unlimited time and ressources, they do happen in reality.