Production

Many subscribers to my show are either themselves podcasters or interested in starting a podcast.  I often speak on the topic of audio production when I am an invited participant at the conferences and conventions I attend throughout the year.  I have also received questions about how I produce the show’s audio from folks with no interest otherwise in audio engineering or recording a podcast.  If you are interested in the audio work behind the show, here’s some information that may help answer some of the questions you have.

My production work evolves slowly over time as I change bits of the show’s sound and upgrade my home studio.  I’ll do my best to keep this page up to date with how the show is currently being produced.

Bed Music

I created all of the background music currently used in the podcast, except the new music for The Inner Chapters.  I used the stock loops that came with Apple’s GarageBand plus some loops from the free sample Jam Packs (which are no longer available).  You can download an archive of the raw music files and use them under the CC BY-SA 3.0 US license.

The music for The Inner Chapters is Mo Shang’s Asian Space remix of Tafubar’s “The Wicked Thoughts of You” from Mo Shang’s remix album, “Asian Variations“.  The track is used with permission from the artist.

Gear

My studio computer is a Mac Pro, the last model running the Intel Harpertown, or 5400, CPUs.  It is an eight-core system that I loaded out with 10GB of RAM.  The multiple cores and generous memory make short work of mixing audio, a chore that used to take the longest out of all my production work other than recording.

I use an Alesis Multimix 8 FireWire mixer and dearly love it.  I was saddened to learn that Alesis has stopped production on the FireWire version of this mixer in favor of the USB model.  I have never had any audio quality issues with this mixer, it is a real performer with no latency and great preamps.  I drive a single Audio Technica AT-3035 mic for in studio recording.  I’ve had that mic for most of the show’s history it being one of my earliest upgrades.  In researching for this page, it looks like the AT-3035 has been discontinued, not sure what the current model replacement would be.

For in studio guests I have a second AT-3035 and a pair of M-Audio Aries mics.  I also use the Aries mics for field recording as although they are also powered mics, they have internal shock mounts that help cut down handling noise.  My mixer maxes out at four powered XLR connectors so currently my mic collection and mixer are well matched.

In studio, I wear a pair of Sennheiser HD-280 monitors.  I have a PreSonus HP4 headphone amplifier which I use to support my monitors and up to three cheap Sony monitors the model of which I do not recall.  I also have an M-Audio iControl, a midi controller that mimics the look of GarageBand and matches its control layout.  The iControl is also no longer being made, there isn’t event a product page for it at M-Audio/Avid.

Field Recording

My portable recorder is a Samson Zoom H4n.  I recently acquired it to replace my aging M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96.  The H4n has these clever quarter inch/XLR combo ports and puts out standard voltage phantom power.  The quarter plug part of those ports is not TRS, so the cables I have to transfer power that way are now useless but I certainly have enough XLR cables that this isn’t really an issue.  The M-Audio Aries mics I bought to go with my old recorder’s off voltage still work well with the H4n’s more standard power output.  I also have a powered, boundary mic I keep in my gear bag and a pair of Shure MS58s that I also sometimes lug around depending on what my mic needs are.

A new addition to my mic menagerie is a Giant Squid Labs mic that is essentially two lavalier squibs with about ten feet of cable between them.  For tiny capsules, the sound is surprisingly good, especially for the price.  Giant Squid sells this as a podcaster mic and it is an excellent complement to the H4n.  The connector is standard 1/8 inch stereo plug but the mics do require plugin power.  This is a separate option on the H4n from phantom power and something to be aware of if your recorder doesn’t offer plugin power on its stereo mic jack.  Giant Squid sells a supplemental power pack if you need it.

The H4n can record up to 4 channels simultaneously.  2 will record to a stereo audio file, either from the built in electret mics or the mic in jack.  The other two channels come from the quarter inch/XLR plugs and will record to a second stereo file.  You can configure those channels a variety of ways, not just all four, all the time.  I record raw audio but the recorder also supports MP3 all the way up to its maximum bit rate.  Storage is standard sized SD cards and power is from either a pair of replaceable AA batteries or DC power.

My sole complaint about the H4n is that the built-in mics and the mic jack (which overrides the builtins when a mic is plugged in) cannot be leveled separately.  There is a single gain setting for them which can make finding a balance when using the Giant Squids a little difficult.  I may have to save my pennies to get some XLR terminated lavaliers to sort that eventually.

Software

I recently switched my Mac Pro to run Linux.  More specifically, I use the variation of Ubuntu that bundles KDE, Kubuntu.  I have used Linux on my work computer exclusively for years.  I’ve talked about my move back to Linux on my home systems at length on the podcast and on the blog.  It is primarily an issue of principle, supporting through action the principles of openness and freedom I share in my speaking and writing.  I expressly am not trying to proselytize though I do hope I am offering a good example that might gently cause my listeners and readers to consider leaning towards more open and free choices.

As a practical matter, I find Linux to be an excellent platform for podcasting, especially a show like mine that includes multiple formats and tons of metadata.  I cloned my local git repo of scripts to github for anyone interested.  By comparison, OS X’s support of automation is very limited unless you restrict yourself entirely to projects like MacPorts or fink that make all the usual GNU utilities available from a terminal.  Anything GUI based is very much hit or miss as to whether it offers much to AppleScript or other language bindings.

For the audio editing and mastering, I use primarily Ardour.  Ardour is a pro quality audio mastering program available under the GPL.  It uses JACK, a powerful low level audio driver.  Both Ardour and JACK can run on Linux and OS X (if you are interested in free software for audio but are not willing or ready to take the Linux plunge).  There is an excellent and accessible FLOSS manual for Ardour.  I have found that my years or experience with GarageBand have translated relatively easily.  Ardour is much more powerful than GarageBand, to boot, so I have realized some nice productivity gains.

I occasionally also use Audacity.  There are a few things, like noise reduction, that Audacity does better than Ardour.  Audacity is available for both Windows and OS X as well as Linux.  It can also use JACK, at least on Linux, so if you get your audio interface working with JACK, then you shouldn’t have any problem using it with Audacity.

For encoding and tagging of the final audio I distributed, see that github repository, specifically the encode.bash script.  Each format requires one or more specific tools.  All of the metadata tricks, including assigning cover art, are clearly commented in that script, along with the couple of quirks around getting the audio quality just right.