Setting up a podcast

By The Literate Programmer, Mon 20 March 2017, in category Podcast

Audacity, Jekyll, Octopod, podcast, Ruby, Swiss-Sided Dice

Recently, I started a podcast. In this post, I thought I'd go into the technical side a bit, as I learned quite a bit when creating it. Plus, it would've helped myself to have some more resources talking about people's experience creating podcasts. Most podcasters seem to record with only one or two, perhaps up to four people, and that creates quite a different setup to my RPG group of 6. Of course, I've only released one episode, and am working on the second at the moment, so all of this is a first snapshot. I will revisit this as I go.

Basic assumptions

Before I can tell you about the things I learned, I need to tell you what the situation I'm trying to record is like. After all, recording via Skype or Roll20 is a very different beast from recording a face-to-face game. Which is what we're doing. There are 6 of us, sat around a table, playing GURPS1.

That means we don't all have a mic already, there is some noise as people fidget, dice are rolled on the table etc. So, with that informing all other points, here we go.

Recording

This is the obvious basic thing that you need to do to even have a podcast. Somehow you have to get your content.

But how?

Just do it

It's easy to just get started, since today's smartphones and tablets actually have quite decent microphones. Some purists will get angry, no doubt, but the question you have to ask yourself is:

This is of course counterbalanced by the benefits of a proper setup:

Going with this setup is likely to cost you no money, if you already have a smartphone or tablet. If you don't, then getting a single mic with a round characteristic can stand in, and will likely cost you roughly 100€/$. The characteristic of a microphone is basically how "focused" or "directional" it is. Common microphone characteristics. Source: Shure blog

This is not going to get you the "proper" setup, however, as the pure audio quality is not going to be the problem with your recordings. More on that later, though.

Try the mic out before the first recording, to be safe, and think of some of the possible sources of noise in your room. Open windows, for example. Also try and record in a room which isn't bare, to minimize echo2 - but don't worry about it too much, as it takes quite a bit of echo to become really distracting. When trying out the mic, don't forget to try it out from all positions where people will be during the recording - it might be a very directional mic! If you're recording using a laptop, make sure that its fans aren't too loud.

Get yourself a felt-padded dice tray or two, because the clatter of dice can be surprisingly loud! Cellphones must be off or silent, and if they're silent, not on the table where they could make the mic vibrate.

Make sure you're recording raw WAV. Yes, Audacity can handle editing AAC or MP3 just fine. Yes, with a bit of luck, it will work out just fine. Why risk it and make your life harder than necessary?
This will take more storage space, so make sure that whatever device you're using to record has ample space - and if it is FAT32-formatted, that you can only record so much before it will hit the 2GB file size limit. We've only run into this once, for some reason, and got very lucky: I was literally about to pause the recording for a break!

Try not to rely on luck, though. :)

Doing it better

So I mentioned that audio quality isn't going to be the big problem and that simply buying a single good mic is not the proper upgrade path for my group or any group of more than 2 people. This has got to do with editing, which will be a later section, but what it means for recording is that the proper next step is3 to go to multi-track recording.

Everyone has their own mic, and these go into a single recording device. There, they could simply be mixed, automatically, into a single stereo track. However, the gains here are not as large as they could be and the costs will be only a little lower than when you go to multi-track recording. What gains am I talking about? Well, mainly ease of editing. With good mics and a properly set up recorder, whether you record multi-track or not, you will gain some things:

However, cross-talk will still be an issue, perhaps even more, since everyone will be the same volume and being intentionally more quiet will be harder. Cross-talk is a big deal. It makes your podcast much harder to listen to, as it makes it much harder to understand and to follow. People will get confused more easily and probably not listen to your podcast as much.

Roleplay it!

What you can do, again without investing any more money, is behaving better. That can feel restricting, but we found that it actually works well and was not at all onerous. The main thing is to minimize cross-talk - raise your hand, or use similar visual cues to signal that you want to "get the mic", so to speak. You don't want to speak over each other anyway, right? A short interruption is of course not really an issue, say, if you want to do something before the other character moves on. That's just a natural part of how people talk and if your recording is of decent quality, your listeners will easily figure it out. Longer instances of cross-talk are more problematic, though, as it gets difficult to follow the conversation.

You can also use character names more, which will help your listeners understand who's talking to whom and help keep you yourself immersed in the game. How much effort this is depends on your play style, but for us it wasn't an issue, as we are quite roleplay-heavy anyway.

Similarly, you should avoid whispering, or if you have to, do a stage-whisper. We tried and failed, because we're just not used to it, but with our setup this means that any whispered parts are really hard to hear. I got a tip from a fellow podcaster4 about using Levelator to improve that, and will try it out starting with episode 2. If this doesn't work out, I'll start to manually boost those volumes.

A last thing you can do, which will simply make the life of your editor so much easier, is to insert a short pause after any digressions. It's normal to get side-tracked and do silly jokes, but sometimes these distract from the story that your podcast is telling and they need to be edited out. If the GM or character is already continuing the game while others are still talking about something else5, it's nigh-impossible to cut and still make it sound good. If you have your joke, everyone laughs, then you pause for just two seconds before going on, your editor will love you for it.

Editing

Which brings us to editing. There is a subscription-based service called Auphonic which does everything bar cutting the things you don't want, and transcodes your files into several formats. I've heard only good things about it so far, but haven't tried it out myself yet. For me, the cutting is really the time-consuming part, so I'm not yet willing to pay for automating the rest. For cutting, there are various audio editors and Digital Audio Workstations: Reaper with the Ultraschall plugin comes heavily recommended, but as it, too, costs money, I went with the free Audacity audio editor. For my purposes, it turns out that Audacity is absolutely fine.

After all, what I need it the ability to cut out bits, add in an intro and outro, and apply a few specific filters/effects. Namely, I run Noise Reduction as well as Normalize on my audio.

There is a slight hum on the audio we record6, and Audacity is able to simply remove that. To use the Noise Reduction effect, you have to select a few seconds of audio that are purely the noise, open the Noise Reduction window and "Get Noise Profile". Then, select the entire track, open the window again and run Noise Reduction over the entire audio. Works wonderfully!

I do that first, so I get rid of any distracting waveforms in Audacity, allowing me to visually identify pauses much more effectively. This is very important as a lot of the work in Audacity is very visual and getting rid of noise in the audio gets rid of the visual noise, too.

Then I get to the really time-consuming part. Yes, even more time than producing the content and way less fun, too ;) Editing out too loud noises, like bumps to the table, loud coughs, long 'ummm's and 'aaah's as well as digressions. The goal of this step of the production is to make it easier to listen to the podcast by removing anything distracting and providing a tighter story. Of course, as it is an Actual Play podcast, I don't want to remove too much either and distort it too much, hiding what our play sessions feel like entirely. Still, if we riff off of a bad pun for a few minutes, it's not nearly as interesting or funny for anyone who isn't there or part of our group, so that goes.

To make this bit go faster, I listen at 1.5x - 1.8x speed, letting me go through the parts that are fine more quickly. It probably just makes up for the time I spend editing, but I haven't measured just how long it takes me and compared that to the regular running time7. Make sure to put "Play at Speed" on a useful keyboard shortcut, so you can play and pause purely with the keyboard, ideally with one hand always in the same position.

Then, I normalize to -6dB, to ensure that no part is too loud. For episode two, I'm also gonna try out the Levelator here, to bring quiet sections more in line with the rest of the volume.

Finally, I truncate silence. While it is natural to have pauses, they stretch the content (possibly by quite a bit!) and are boring to listen to. Roughly half a second is okay as it doesn't sound forced or too fast, but is also not noticeably long.

Publishing

Now that you have an episode, you need to publish it. If your content is shorter than certain set limits8, there are many good free offers for hosting. If you're like us, and record 4-5 hours of content, it gets tricky. The paid options aren't as cheap anymore and if you're not sure that you will stick with this hobby, you might not want to invest too much.

Well, there are good options in that case, too.

Podcast website

The easiest is to find a good web host with no (or high) bandwidth limits and a high amount of storage. Obviously enough, those are the two criteria that matter most to your podcast. If they offer out-of-the-box Wordpress hosting, even better. Pick one from your country, if you can, as it will make it easier if you need support.

If you're not that tech-y9, then using Wordpress, with all the themes it supports can be a great choice. Using the Podlove Podcast Publisher you can easily turn a Wordpress site into a nice podcast site.

That's not how I did it, though. I like static websites10. So I went and looked for a static podcast site generator to manage my podcast with. I didn't find very many, but I did find Jekyll-Octopod, whose maintainer I met at the 33C3 and who was very helpful. He can regularly be heard over at his own podcast, Aua-Uff-Code.

How you do your website and with what is really entirely down to preferences. What the website must offer is a way to embed to episodes directly in the website, using some sort of online player, the ability to download the files and, of course, an RSS-feed with the episodes. The RSS-feed is what makes a podcast, after all.

I think that the website should also offer some "About" information, link to the feed and any relevant social media, but strictly speaking, all of that is optional. If you are hosting your podcast on Soundcloud or Pinecast, you likely can't add anything other than the episodes. There are podcasts that have two free sites - one for the episodes and one for a free blog with any additional info.

Directories

Your own website is however not the only place to publish your podcast on. There are numerous podcast-directories, where users can search for and find podcasts on various topics. The most well-known such directory is iTunes and the Apple Store, but there are others too. All of these are meant to help your podcast reach a wider audience by making it easier to be found.

I listed my podcast in iTunes and at Bitlove. iTunes is not difficult to get into, but it does require you to have a logo of at least 1400x1400 resolution, so that it looks good on hi-DPI screens that Apple uses. Bitlove can help with any bandwidth issues, as it provides your podcast as a torrent for listeners to distribute amongst each other.

Licensing?

First off, I'm not a lawyer, none of this is legal advice. Obviously.

When you publish your podcast, you also attach a license to it, whether you think about it or not.11 However, it's usually a good idea to think about which license you want for your content. What you definitely have to think about is the license of content you are using, rather than making. You're always allowed to use stuff you made yourself, of course, but for content that others made, you have to be allowed to do so.

There are good resources for music and art that is licensed permissively, and of course you can just buy art or music made for you, or pay for a license to use things that weren't made specifically for you.

But back to licensing your own material. You need to look into it, because it helps protect you against content thieves and making the legal situation clear is never a bad thing. An easy-to-use solution to licensing are the Creative Commons licenses which are standardized and well-recognised.

My podcast is licensed under the CC-BY-NC 4.0 license, which essentially means that anyone can use my podcast, they can remix it, do whatever they want, but they have to credit me ("BY") and cannot use it commercially ("NC", non-commercial). I added the "NC" tag, because I don't like content stealing directories that add ads before or after or even during the podcast and this shuts them down. I'm pretty sure that I can grant specific exemptions or dual-license, should I wish for someone to use it commercially.12 Worst case, I can relicense, but for now, I'm safely covered.

A good resource on the legal situation for podcasts can be found here.

Advertising

Lastly, Now that your podcast has been made and is online, you will have to advertise it, spread the word about it and get people to listen to it.

I've left this for last because I'm not yet very good at it, which is okay for me, for now. I'm not yet entirely happy with my editing skills, and I while putting it online and out there provides great motivation to keep going, I won't mind if people find my podcast for the first time later, when the episodes are better.

Still, I post about it on relevant forums, I post on my Facebook page, I made a Twitter account for the podcast, which I use to interact with other podcasters and to promote the podcast, so I'm doing the basics.

Ultimately, you'll want to promote your podcast on many different channels. Not necessarily all channels you can find as not all channel are equal in quality, but you'll want at least a few of the most relevant forums and/or subreddits for your topic, quite likely Twitter and Facebook and possibly even Google+. Beyond that, it's up to you how much effort you can and want to spend.

As for what to say on these channels? I have no idea. I'm sure there's ways to properly craft your advertising messages, but I tend to go with whatever feels right.


I hope that this post will be helpful to someone and I will revisit this topic from time to time as I learn more about podcasting. I might update this post, but I will always have a new post about it , so that it shows up in RSS feeds, too.

I also hope that you'll follow along with our podcast and listen to the improvements we make on our journey to being great podcasters and have fun listening to our roleplayed exploits!


  1. And other games. 

  2. Picture frames and similar don't count! Their hard surface reflects sound just fine. 

  3. Most likely. Everyone recommends it and I have good reason to believe them, but I haven't verified it yet. 

  4. Shout-out to Tanner C. from Shadow of the Cabal

  5. Probably cross-talking, while we're at it. 

  6. Something a better setup should fix. Luckily it's a simple hum, so it's not a big deal. 

  7. I really should. Would be valuable data! 

  8. Depends on the service, but less than 2h per month is common. 

  9. ... I wonder slighty how you ended up on this blog. :) Still, read on.  

  10. Like this one. Powered by Pelican

  11. Loosely speaking. Which one depends on the country you're in! 

  12. As if that'd ever happen!  

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