Since we first started doing the Conference Call several people have asked us how we put it all together. Saying we do it with a couple of tin cans and some string kind of gets old, so Shawn decided we should do a write up for the front page, and then volunteered me to do it. The bastard! (This article is written by Rob Borges, in case you haven't figured it out yet - Shawn)
So what does it take to get the Conference Call up every week? A crap load of equipment, something interesting to talk about (we hope), and someone insane enough to spend hours editing it all together. That last part would be me, by the way.
So here are the answers to all your questions and possibly more than you really ever wanted to know. Enjoy!
Hey let’s start a podcast! Wouldn’t it be cool? We could get a bunch of us on Skype, record us talking for about an hour, and then post it on the web for people to listen to. It’ll be easy. So easy, in fact, that there are thousands of podcasts out there. Anyone can get a bunch of people together in a room or on one of the many voice over IP programs, record the conversation, and post it on the web. Unfortunately what you get out of that can be a pretty mixed bag. There's nothing like listening to people cough, eat pizza and breathe into their microphones for an hour.
When Shawn and I first started talking about doing the podcast the one thing we wanted to make sure of was that at the very least it would sound “professional”. We wanted something that would be easy to sit back and enjoy. I can’t remember how many podcasts I have listened to where one of the individuals, usually the guest, is barely audible and the rest are deafening. This was something to be avoided at all costs, and I think that so far we have done a pretty good job of it. Another objective was to be able to include other people using Voice over IP or VOIP for short. This would allow us to include people we couldn't be in the same room with, like Sean for example. We were also hoping to get game developers on if we were lucky enough. I believe it is the ability to include people using VOIP that helps make the show as good as it is, unfortunately it is also what makes our setup so complicated. So why don’t we start there and talk about the equipment we use.
I remember having several conversations with Shawn about how the show would all come together, but it wasn’t until we finally decided to actually do a test run that I realized just how much equipment we were going to need. Thankfully the most expensive components we already had, and that was the two computers we needed for our setup. Our next problem was a mixer, for without one we were sure to fall prey to the same problems most podcasts face with their recordings. Thankfully we had some great people we could turn to, not only to help find what we were looking for but to also help purchase it under our nonexistent budget. And so it came to be that we ended up with the Presonus Inspire 1394 mixer. With the mixer taken care of the next item on our list was Microphones.
First let me just say that it is completely possible to record a podcast using a regular gaming headset microphone and end up with something that sounds decent enough, in fact Sean still uses one for our show. Having said that a headset microphone can be fairly inconsistent and I wanted to make sure that at the very least Shawn and I had something that I knew would perform better. After looking around at some options I decided to go with the Behringer C-2 Studio Condenser Microphones. While these microphones are used primarily for recording acoustic instruments we found they sounded really nice and as a bonus they were much cheaper than any of the other microphones we were looking at, again a must considering our nonexistent budget. I have been really happy with the way C-2 microphones have preformed, and it wasn't until very recently that we decided to upgrade to something better. In fact Julian was the inspiration behind it.
When Julian became a regular on the Conference Call it took all of one episode for him to realize just how much better Shawn and I sounded, and even though I told him it was mostly due to the compression Skype uses he still went out and bought a mixer and a studio microphone for himself. He’s such a whore. Ever since his purchase however, I have openly lusted over his choice in microphones and have waited patiently until the day I felt I could afford to buy one for myself. A couple of weeks ago Shawn and I ordered two of the Studio Projects B1 Microphones, and we can’t wait for them to arrive. Stupid backorders!
Next on our list of equipment are the accessories. First on that list is microphone stands. Studio microphones are pretty sensitive and most are not meant to be held in the hand. So we bought a couple of stands to put on our desks for when we record. We also bought a couple of Pop Filters which are basically just a circle or square frame that has stretched nylon in between. You place the Pop filter in front of a microphone and it helps prevent the sharp popping noise you get when saying words that start with P and B. You can actually make your own using some stretched nylon and a coat hanger, or if you want something that’s a little more professional looking you can do what this guy did. The last item on the accessories list is a good pair of headphones, the quieter the better. When we first started doing the show I didn’t think much about headphones and figured any kind would do. Boy was I wrong, and I paid for it when editing. Have you ever been out in public and had a kid walk by listening to his Ipod and the music is so loud you can actually hear it coming from his headset? You want to avoid that when recording because microphones will pick that up and it’s a pain to edit out. The closed design headsets are good for eliminating that problem and there are lots of models out there to choose from. The ones Shawn and I now use cost like thirty bucks each and they work great, so you don’t need to spend a fortune, but you could.
Last but not least we come to cables! Cables are often the last thing anyone ever thinks about and where most people skimp when it comes to cost. It’s usually a bad idea. Knowing we didn’t have much of a budget to work with I decided to make my own. I had some excellent quality mic cable at home and I had made cables before plenty of times so I figured it would be easy, right? Oh the hubris! Obviously things didn’t go so well, and we will never speak of this again! In the end my brother helped me pick out some really nice, and fairly inexpensive premade cables and I have never looked back since.
Now that you know what equipment we use the next step in getting the Conference Call out to you every week is the setup. While at first glance it may seem a little complicated, it really isn’t all that bad. The key thing to remember is that audio goes in one way and comes out the other. This is true for setting up any audio device whether you’re the head audio tech at a rock concert or just a guy trying to hook up a stereo.
So let’s start where the whole thing ends (where all the audio comes out), and work our way back from there. Our whole objective when recording is to get everyone’s voice into the recording device. In our case it is a computer which is hooked up to the mixer, our next piece in the system, using a Firewire cable. The mixer is where all the magic happens. It is how we are able to get every ones voice recorded at once and have everyone able to hear each other as well.
The Inspire 1394 mixer we use has four channels. This means we can hook up four different audio devices all at the same time and record them to their own track on the recording computer. Two of those channels are for Microphones only and are capable of providing Phantom Power. Phantom power is basically just an outside power source that some microphones require in order to produce a strong enough signal to record. The other two channels on the mixer can be used to hook up anything from guitars to CD players or anything else capable of sending out a strong enough audio signal to record, like for example our Skype computer.
Shawn and I live in the same city so our end of things is actually quite simple. The microphones that Shawn and I use plug into channel one and two on the mixer, which than get sent to the recording computer where it is recorded as tracks one and two. The Skype computer is a little different. The audio signal starts with the people we are talking to over the net. That signal is then sent over the intertubes into our Skype computer and from there gets sent to the speaker output on the Skype computers audio card. We plug that into channel three of the mixer and the signal gets recorded as track three on the recording computer. This takes care of getting all the voices recorded but another important part of doing the show is being able to hear everyone as well. Thankfully another feature of the mixer is the ability to send each person’s voice to everyone else in real time. So I can send both Shawn’s and my voice back to the Skype computer so they can hear us and send their voices to the headsets Shawn and I use so we can hear them. To complicate things even further Shawn and I also record in separate rooms to ensure my voice doesn’t end up recording through his microphone and vice versa, and equally as important, so that I don’t punch Shawn in the face every time he sniffs into his microphone. Thankfully through the magic of the mixer we are also able to hear each other.
That pretty much takes care of the setup, and brings us to the final step in creating an episode of the Conference Call, editing!
I believe editing is what separates our show from the others, in that we actually do it, a lot of it. In fact I spend hours on each episode, and it’s totally worth it. One of the reasons we have as intricate a setup as we do is that it makes editing the show a hell of a lot easier and in some cases just plain possible. Sure we could do the show with a lot less equipment but then we would face the same problems most other podcasts face. You would have to jack up the volume just to hear Shawn when he spoke and go deaf before you could turn down the volume when I piped up. Or listen to Sean chew his ice while Julian tried to tell us about his latest adventures in Hoop and Stick. It would basically be a mess. In fact I am so averse to having more than one person on the same track that several months ago we started having everyone on Skype record their own track at home, including our guests. After each show everyone uploads their track to me and I synch it up with the Skype track that I recorded before I edit. This method has greatly improved the overall sound quality of the show and while it means I have more tracks to deal with it actually makes the show easier to put together. It also makes it possible for me to edit what everyone says so that it sounds like they all agreed with what I had to say. Not that I have to worry about it much, because really who in their right mind wouldn’t agree with me!
As for what editing program we use, I didn’t have to look any further than the one that came with the mixer. Cubase LE has been great. It works well with the Presonus Inspire mixer, it has pretty much everything I need to record and edit the show, and I really like the user interface. Cubase can be overwhelming for someone just starting out though, so I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. There are a lot of good programs out there it just depends on how much you want to spend and just how many features you need. Julian has fallen in love with a program called Reaper, it is pretty user friendly, has a lot of great options, and is cheap to buy. Don’t have any money? No problem. Audacity is an open source recording and editing program that works pretty well. It also has a lot of great options including some that I use which Cubase LE doesn’t have, and Audacity is really user friendly. In fact it is so user friendly it’s the program we have our guests use to record their tracks when they are on the show.
In case you were wondering what one of our shows looked like before it was compressed into an .mp3 there you have it. All of those tracks you see are .wav files (uncompressed audio). They can get pretty big, usually several hundred megs each depending on show length. As you can see everyone has their own track and every time I find a noise I don’t like or a section that just doesn’t sound as good as it could I cut and paste, and move and arrange things until it does. Once I get all the sections to sound as good as I can, I mix the project down into a stereo track so that it’s easier to manage and add the music and mix it down again, than I take that stereo track and compress into an .mp3 file. Once the .mp3 file is ready I upload it to a server and when the time comes Shawn creates a post to the front page with a link to the file and voila you have your Conference Call podcast for the week!
So there you have it! It’s a lot of work and even though we’re careful sometimes things go wrong, like losing an entire show (two of them in fact and trust me it totally sucks). Still doing the show has been a great learning experience and I hope you guys enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoy putting it together. I’d also like to take this chance to once again thank all of you who have contributed to the show in some way or another, whether it be help with purchasing equipment, sponsorship, contest prizes, music, audio submissions, e-mails, hell even if it’s just listening to the show. It totally makes it worth it. Okay, I should probably end this before it starts sounding like an acceptance speech.