Thursday Oct 25, 2007

Behind the scenes of the HELDENFunk podcast production

Marc, our heroic HELDENFunk producer Earlier this week, we posted episode 4 of the (german) HELDENFunk podcast to the Systemhelden.com site. It includes a CEC 2007 roundup with a pointer to Alec's excellent Futurology presentation, some information on the new UltraSPARC T2 based servers and some coverage of the Team Jefferson project.

Christian Müller, our studio guest in the latest episode told us that Systemhelden.com and the HELDENFunk podcast are now known as a great example of a well functioning "B2B messaging platform" (you have to excuse Christian, he's in marketing...) and he's busy travelling from marketing droid conference to marketing droid conference telling people what Systemhelden.com actually is. To me it's just a nice place for german sysadmins to hang out in :).

To the right, you see Marc Baumann, our heroic podcast producer while he's making sure that HELDENFunk listeners enjoy good sound. And so, let's take a look behind the scenes of the HELDENFunk podcast:

Once (now twice) per month we gather in a small conference room to record the next episode. Marc got us some nice microphones to record with: An Audio Technica AT-2020 for the moderator and two Røde NT5 for our guests. The audio goes through a Behringer Eurorack MX 802A Mixer where Marc can adjust the volume and pan for each individual speaker, then goes to a Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1 A/D converter (which I already blogged about) and audio interface that is connected to my Apple Powerbook. We use Logic Audio Express 7 for recording (I'm still waiting for my upgrade to the new Logic Studio 8) and Marc uses Logic Studio 8 for mixdown and mastering (he already got his upgrade). Unfortunately, there are no good pro audio software solutions on Solaris, but who knows what the future will bring...

As you can see (and hear), good audio quality starts with good microphones and good mixing and A/D equipment. Still, post-processing is very important. I listen to a lot of podcasts while driving to work and these are the most common things that annoy me about podcast audio quality:

  • Overall low volume: It's such a hassle to have to turn up the volume a lot so you can actually understand what people say, then get yelled at once you switch from MP3 player to radio. Make sure your podcast has a volume that is comparable to radio or normal music. This usually means peak levels of just below 0 dB.
  • Poor audio quality: As said, 90% of a good sounding podcast is using good equipment before sound goes into the computer. Quality matters and the better quality audio comes into your computer, the better the outcome will be. For mastering, we prefer 128 kBit MP3 because it gives you reasonable audio quality (for a podcast) and maximum compatibility with devices at acceptable file sizes.
  • Large variations of speaker volume: When having multiple speakers, make sure their volume is more or less equal, otherwise some will yell while others will whisper. It's hard to adjust the volume while driving to work :). Using a compressor during post processing helps a lot here.

Me, talking to a microphone, trying not to look too silly.For the casual interview, we use a Zoom H2 audio recorder (here's a great and helpful review). This device offers excellent portable audio quality, ease of use, lots of recording options and great sensitivity, even in very difficult recording situations. For example, listen to the final episode of the CEC 2007 podcast (another podcast I was involved with) where we had a lot of background noise, still the voices could be heard nicely. Thanks to the 24 bit audio resolution, we can increase the volume way up for more distant or less loud speakers without introducing too much noise or artifacts. This can be heard during the second episode of the same podcast, where we spontaneously added John Fowler to the round of guests, while he was sitting at the other end of the table, more than a meter away from the microphone. Still, his voice can be understood quite well.

Yesterday, we recorded another interview for our next episode, which will be recorded next monday. With the new two week cycle, we now live in an "After the episode is before the episode" kind of world...

 If you understand german, try the HELDENFunk podcast. It's also listed in the iTunes podcast directory. And let us know your feedback and suggestions by writing to kontakt@systemhelden.com. Thank you for listening!

Credits: Thanks a lot to Randy and Mel for shooting these pictures during the recording of episode 2.

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