M-Audio Podcast Factory

It was not long ago (late 2004, to be exact) that websites started offering Internet surfers the ability to subscribe to a service known as “podcasting.” A catch-term derived from Apple’s ever-popular iPod units, Podcasting became a new means of distributing files via the Internet for broadcast purposes on remote devices.
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Fortunately it takes very little, hardware and software-wise, to begin podcasting, and chances are you already have all the necessary tools for creating your own. If you don’t (or if you need a setup that’s separate from your main studio), you have many options. As described in the “21st Century Recording” column on page 66, it’s possible to turn a laptop into a portable podcasting setup. However, quite a few pro audio companies now offer podcasting setups complete with a mixer, a mic, headphones and/or monitors, and bundled software.

This review covers M-Audio’s recently released Podcast Factory. It’s a hardware/software bundle intended to provide all of the hardware and software necessary for making a podcast. The bundle includes:

-M-Audio Broadcast Bundle. Includes a dynamic microphone with on/off switch, a desktop stand, cable, and soft case.

-USB audio interface. A small, portable USB bus-powered interface/mixer with mic input, switchable instrument/line input, headphone out, and stereo out. It records at rates up to 24 bit/48kHz.

-Audacity. Mac/Windows software that allows for basic recording, editing, and file conversions for podcasts.

-Podifier. Mac/Windows software that automatically posts a podcast to the web. This program creates the necessary RSS feed that contains all of the tags and information pertaining to your podcast.

-Ableton Live Lite. Pro-level MIDI/audio software that can create soundtracks and backgrounds by integrating loops and sound effects into a production.

-Sound and Loop Libraries. A large selection of loops and pre-recorded material for use in a podcast production.

It’s a fair assumption that anybody reading this article has already become amply initiated into the world of recording, so we need not waste time explaining how to record material for a podcast. The set-up described above is bare-bones and incredibly simple — signal to USB interface; interface to computer running Audacity (or a similar program); Ableton Live and the Sound and Loop Libraries for effects/loops; finished recording to Podifier for web publishing. It doesn’t really get much easier than that.

AND THE DIFFERENCE IS . . .

One of M-Audio’s big “hooks” is the inclusion of Ableton Live Lite and the various sound and loop libraries. Podcasts benefit greatly from music, and maybe you have fantasies of being a DJ, spinning other people’s tunes into a cool set. But the whole concept of “who owns what” comes into play here. There’s a lot of gray area because the Internet, being global, is without a governing body. The country of location of the web hosts (and of the companies owning the domains) currently serves as the de facto governing body. So, you are at the mercy of the laws of the land you inhabit, and these laws vary widely across the globe.

For example, if I used a Metallica track in the background of my news podcast, which was hosted by Yahoo, it would be much easier for Lars Ulrich to have my podcast removed from the server, as I would be violating U.S. law. However, if my hosting company were based in a country with far less stingent copyright laws, it would be much more difficult to force removal of my podcast.

You also have to be very careful about “fair use.” Generally, you won’t get into trouble if you’re doing something educational and non-commercial, and use restraint. For example, if you used a clip of a song to illustrate a particular music technique, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will come after you. Or, if you took a piece of music and applied “creative input” to demonstrate the power of digital signal processing, again, you’re probably okay. But don’t believe any of the myths that using less than a certain amount of music is okay; if you use anything, you might as well hang out a sign saying “Lawyers, please call.”

Sherri Hendrickson’s article on page 20 mentions some ways to deal with the music issue, but there are some additional fine points. For example, assuming you are a U.S. citizen, using a U.S.-based web host, you might think that using public domain material would be okay. For the most part, the public domain contains songs and lyrics that were written in the U.S. before 1922 or earlier. But be careful in doing your research, as there are a lot of re-makes of public domain songs that are under copyright. And there’s always “canned” production music, for which you can pay a one-time fee for use, and not worry about royalties. But always read the fine print, as caveats differ for different companies.

Which is why including Live and a sound library is a good move on M-Audio’s part, as you can put together your own sound tracks easily. In fact, M-Audio has an extensive library of royalty-free loops available separately, so you can really put together a convincing musical production without much effort. Furthermore, Live can “time-stretch” the music to fit various tempos, so if you want some intense, fast music in one part and you have an ideal drum part but it’s mid-tempo, Live can solve that problem for you.

THE MP3 THING

With Podcast Factory, Audacity handles all needed MP3 conversions. We all know there’s a tradeoff between file size (less or more download time) and quality, but here’s what’s used for most podcasts:

-48–56K: Mono speech, talk radio

-64K: Stereo talk programs

-128K: Stereo music

-320K and above: High-quality stereo music

For maximum universality, you should probably encode using a constant bit rate (CBR) rather than the variable bit rate (VBR) supported by some software. Variable bit rates produce better sound quality for a given file size, but not all players support this.

Once you have converted the file to MP3, you must now upload the file to a website, either your own site (assuming you have the bandwidth, which you probably don’t), or one of the many on-line MP3 hosting sites such as garageband.com, ourmedia.org, or archive.org. Just make sure that after uploading your MP3 file, you check to make sure that everything is in proper working order by downloading the file and playing it back using an MP3 player.

REALLY SIMPLE SYNDICATION

RSS basics are described elsewhere in this issue, so let’s look at the M-Audio way of doing things. The Podifier RSS feed software included in Podcast Factory is a very user-friendly piece of software. (If you have not purchased a podcasting kit and are instead opting to use your existing studio gear, you can hop online and download the Podifier for free at www.podifier.com, or seek out any of the other RSS feed generators offered for free download on the net.)

Now that you’ve opened the feed generator, all you have to do is type in the feed details, the MP3 file(s), and the FTP details, and the program will output an RSS file (Figure 2). Also, now that you’ve done all the necessary legwork in creating your first podcasting file, you can use your work as a template, replacing only the applicable information for your most current updates. Upload these RSS files to your website in the same manner in which you uploaded the original MP3, and you’ve published your first podcast.

Promotion is also touched on elsewhere; make sure when describing your podcast that any description is riddled with choice key words that will appeal to your targeted demographic. Some of the larger, more popular podcast directories are: http://podcasts.yahoo.com, www.apple.com/itunes, www.ipodder.org, www.podcastalley.com, www.podcast.net, www.odeo.com, www.podcastpickle.com, and www.podnova.com.

Given the rather tumultuous nature of the modern recording industry, the onset of podcasting as a popular means of entertainment can mean great things for all of us. M-Audio has certainly made podcasting both easy and affordable, and I’m sure Podcast Factory will serve to get many people involved in this exciting new art form.

Product type: Podcasting studio with software for Windows XP/Mac OS X.

Target market: Podcasting neophytes who want the easiest, lowest-cost way to create podcasts.

Strengths: User-friendly. Proven M-Audio gear. Includes facilities (Ableton Live Lite, loop libraries) for making your own music free of copyright hassles. Simple to connect.

Limitations: Audio interface has limited mixing capabilities.

Price: $179.95 list.

Contact: www.m-audio.com