A podcaster wants to record a telephone interview with a guest on another continent. An ad agency with key members of their creative team spread out around the country needs to collaborate with a production house on a video edit. An audio engineer has a client that got tied up and can’t make it to the studio but still wants to listen in on a voice over session.
Scenarios like these are many, and one application is surfacing as a friend to content developers who are searching for ways to integrate human interaction from remote locations into our content creation workflow.
That friend’s name is Skype.
Using Skype for Podcasting
Coming from a broadcasting background, when it came to develop a strategy for an upcoming ContentDeveloper.com project that will require the ability to record telephone interviews, I initially gravitated toward solutions similar to the way I’d seen many broadcast studios handle the telephone interview situation — using what is known as a telephone hybrid to patch audio from an analog phone line into a mixing board.
Gentner was the name brand I would see on a lot of studio hybrid’s back in the day so I looked there first to see what was the latest they had to offer, but as far as I can tell the Gentner name got absorbed by another company. So I widened the net and took a look at some hybrids offered by Telos. A friend recently installed a Telos hybrid to handle a multi guest telephone interview situation for a live internet radio program and had pretty good results.
During this research I also took a look at the Comrex DH20 digital hybrid, some low cost options for recording telephone interviews from Radio Shack and a series of hybrids offered by JK Audio, a company which seems to be gaining momentum as a solution for podcasters — so much so that they came out with a rebranded version of their Broadcast Host called the Podcast Host.
JK Audio Podcast Host product image from BSW
If you’re thinking about going the hybrid route to record your telephone interviews, one thing to keep in mind is that telephone hybrids face the challenge of separating out the audio from the sender and receiver in the phone conversation. The modern hybrid’s ability to isolate both sides of the conversation from each other is accomplished primarily through the use of DSP‘s. The resulting quality of this separation is measured in db, with the greater the db of separation, the better. Usually a higher end (and more expensive) hybrid will deliver greater separation. For example, JK Audio offers an entry level hybrid known as the Inline Patch which offers 20 db of separation between transmit and receive while their higher end and higher priced Broadcast Host offers 50 db of separation.
After weighing all these options and talking with a friendly and knowledgeable rep at the company, I’d pretty much settled on JK Audio’s AutoHybrid for being in the sweet spot of what this project needed. That is until I dusted off my trusty Mackie 1202 VLZ from the storage closet. The AutoHybrid is a basic hybrid and needs a mixer like the Mackie to pick up some of the functionality to successfully record telephone interviews. Problem here is that my Mackie somehow got damaged while it was packed away and had developed a loud, ever present hum.
Distracting hums usually aren’t a good thing when it comes to audio production, so with that bit of bad news I decided to look at other options for recording interviews that didn’t involve the use of a hybrid. Maybe one built on a VoIP platform.
And that is where Skype enters the picture.
I’d been following Skype loosely since it first came out, but had never actually tried it. Being a longtime EBAY stockholder, Skype became a bigger blip on my radar screen after EBAY acquired Skype for $2.6 billion in 2005.
Google Finance chart of EBAY stock since announcing Skype acquisition
EBAY took some heat over that acquisition, but if you look at it in the context that they bought a platform rather than simply an unprofitable global VOIP based phone company, they may turn out to get the last laugh. But that’s a topic for another post, so let’s just say I decided to support the home team and give Skype a try.
Download and installation of the Skype client went smooth on a couple year old Windows XP SP2 based box using RoadRunner for an ISP. One thing about VOIP apps is that you need good bandwidth so I ran a quick check to see if my pipes were clogged.
checking my bandwidth with the cnet bandwidth meter
Bandwidth looked solid, but it now dawned on me that since I no longer had access to the Mackie, I needed a new way to get the XLR input from my Shure SM58 microphone into the computer. (According to Shure, the SM58 was first introduced in 1966. How many technology products can you name that can still compete after 40 years? That’s quality.)
After updating my research on the soundcard market, I decided to go with the external M-Audio Fast Track USB. With a street price of under $100 US, the Fast Track looked like one of the better entry level values for being able to capture mic level XLR audio input. Plus M-Audio’s family ties with Digidesign suggested an acceptable quality level would be delivered, even at that prosumer style price point. And I wasn’t disappointed there. Even though you have to crank up the Fast Track very close to maximum to get a decent level from the SM 58, it still sounds extremely clean and quiet, with no noticeable heavy increase in noise correlated with the increase in gain.
The needs for this project were pretty well defined, but if your project requires a little more flexibility the M-Audio Fast Track Pro is an option worth a look. Or if you need phantom power to drive a condenser mic, then the M-Audio MobilePre USB may be an option to consider.
Beyond the M-Audio product line, another strong candidate in my search for a way to get XLR audio into my PC was the Zoom H4. A big benefit of the Zoom is that its primary purpose is that of a portable audio recorder which also just so happens can function as a SD Card reader and digital audio interface with XLR input. Translation – the Zoom not only gives you much of the functionality of the Fast Track USB, but can also take care of you if you’re going to be conducting face to face interviews or capturing other audio on location somewhere.
If you want to learn more about it, O’Reilly Digital Media has an in depth review of the Zoom H4 and you can visit 2090.org and check the Zoom H4 user community to stay up to date on how H4 owners are reacting to the product.
Zoom H4 product image from Samson Technology
As versatile an audio tool as the H4 looked to be, the Fast Track still felt like a better fit for this particular project. And now it was time to put that feeling to the test and see how it worked with Skype, so I dialed up an echo123 Skype Test Call using the Fast Track and SM 58. The Skype test operator reported all systems go. So far so good.
With our hardware acquisition, installation and testing now complete, the next question was how exactly do I record a Skype call?
To help find that answer, I downloaded several software plug ins for recording Skype calls, including PowerGramo, Pretty May and Pamela. I never got a chance to fully dig into many of them because I installed the Pamela application first, and, well, it worked.
Many of these applications offer basic or free versions which either limit recording time for calls or only record to one mono track with caller and receiver both on the same channel. The Pamela Basic version worked pretty well, so if you’ll only be recording calls under 15 minutes each and can live with the caller and receiver on the same track, then that would be all you need. Many of these packages also offer professional versions for around $24.95 US, Pamela included, which you’ll need to get if you want your caller and receiver put on separate tracks and have unlimited recording time. Those features were important for this project so I chose to go with Pamela Pro.
Pamela allows you to record your interviews in either MP3 or WAV file formats. I’ve always been a believer in starting with the highest quality original as possible, so I chose the 48 kHz, 16 bit mode – the highest resolution WAV setting available in Pamela to record our test interviews.
screenshot of setting audio options in pamela
The test files sounded good at this rate, so now it was time for post production.
ContentDeveloper.com’s office is located in the Geomedia animation and video post production facility, which includes access to a very nice dedicated ProTools suite for in depth audio projects. For smaller to medium audio jobs I usually rely on my own desktop audio setup at the office that is built around the audio tools in the Adobe Creative Suite Production Bundle – which btw used to include Audition but now will be shipping with Soundbooth.
But I’d been researching this project from my home office which didn’t have any of these audio post production tools installed or available. So I used this as an opportunity to finally try out the popular open source audio tool Audacity.
Download and installation of Audacity was clean and I found the feature set to be pretty impressive. No wonder it has become such a hit with podcasters.
One note here that might save you some time. For some reason the process for exporting a stereo WAV file (host and guest recorded on separate tracks) as a either a single or dual track mono MP3 file didn’t come intuitively to me so I turned to the Audactiy Wiki for help and found an article on how to mix stereo tracks to mono. You’ll also need to install the LAME MP3 Encoder to export WAV’s as MP3′s with Audacity.
To complete this test project, I wanted to turn out a quick little custom music intro. I usually rely on Sony Acid Pro for developing loop based audio projects, but again, being at the home office I didn’t have it installed. I did have several Acid loop libraries available though so I downloaded and installed a copy of the free Acid Express to see if I could create a simple music bed with it.
In so far as creating a down and dirty 10 track loop based music intro, this version of Acid was more than up to the task. But I was disappointed in the way Sony chose to limit the options in Acid Express regarding available file formats and settings for rendering out a final mix (I couldn’t even render out a WAV file).
screenshot of trying to export wav format in acid express
Despite that limitation, all the pieces appeared to be working together nicely and the workflow map for getting our project out the door was essentially complete.
While the solution presented here for recording telephone interviews with Skype is a great fit for our project, remember that it is just one of many options for you out there. For a look at several more ideas on how to record Skype calls, including some Mac based strategies, I found this article at Digital Inspiration to offer one of the more comprehensive lists of tools in that area. And if you’re still thinking about going with a telephone hybrid for your podcast, I found JK Audio’s article on recording telephone interviews to be pretty good at explaining the technology behind the process.
A couple other quick notes about podcasting with Skype -
- When I first installed Skype and tried to use the included five free minutes to test the Skype Out feature which is used to call land lines and mobile phones with Skype – I got an error number 9502. A quick search showed that I wasn’t alone in this. I wasn’t too upset over being stiffed to what amounts to about 20 cents, so I just went ahead and bought ten dollars worth of Skype credit. Everything worked as it should from there.
- When making several test Skype Out calls to different devices on different carriers, the caller id on the receiving end would display varying messages. For example, on an AT&T landline, the caller id from the Skype Out call read as 000-012-3456 while on a Sprint mobile device it read as Unknown. I mention this here so that if you’re going to be placing a call to the subject of your interview you may want to give them a heads up during your pre interview that the caller id may read something strange when you call.
- If you want to learn more about using Skype in a Pro Tools environment this article from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism offers a set of instructions for students using their Radio Lab to follow. It might help give you ideas.
- Skype recently introduced a feature known as Skypecasts which are basically large hosted calls open to up to 100 people from anywhere on the planet. Worth a look.
Now, what else are content developers doing with Skype besides podcasting?
Using Skype in Production
Collaborative editors targeted at working on text documents, like the popular Writeboard from 37 Signals are great tools. But what’s a content developer to do when you need to collaborate on a bandwidth hungry and resource intensive video or animation project with a team that is spread out in multiple geographic locations?
syncVUE is working to meet this challenge with a new application that takes advantage of Skype. Here’s how they describe their product:
syncVUE makes the review and approval process easier than ever before. Multiple people can simultaneously view and annotate local copies of the same media files in perfect sync from different locations – whether separated by cubicles, city blocks, or continents.
The good news here is clients and collaborators don’t need to invest the time and expense of physically traveling to your edit studio to give notes on a project. Depending on the client though, this of course could be bad news for you as well, since it will be much easier for more people to annotate your edit frame by frame.
Still, it’s easy to see the day arriving soon where this kind of remote collaboration feature will be expected by just about every client, and as a result (either through acquisition or innovation) the capability will be built into future versions of popular video editors like Final Cut, Premiere and Avid.
In the meantime, if this is a feature that will make your life easier, you’ll want to keep your eye out for SyncVue Pro 2.0 which should be available soon.
One aspect shared by high bandwidth collaboration tools like syncVUE is the need to transfer extremely large files. Email just won’t due for 50 MB+ file sizes, so many shops upload large media files via FTP to their server where geographically dispersed members of the creative process for that project can download them on demand. That system gets the job done ok, but has left plenty of opportunity for applications like Pando from Pando Networks to create a better way to meet this large file transfer challenge.
screenshot from pando.com
While Pando and syncVUE are great examples of the way developers are leveraging Skype to overcome collaboration challenges, a lot of work remains to be done in this area. Still, as the world gets flatter and more and more Web 2.0 companies open up their API‘s, the future looks bright for content developers searching for new ways to improve our workflow.
Related item: Looking for a set of circumaural headphones? I’ve had good luck with the Sony MDR V6 Studio Monitor series. One downside to this model is that the ear pads may wear out over time, but you can find replacement pads for the Sony MDR-V6 at B & H and other vendors.