Just when it seemed that commercial radio couldn't possibly become more corrupt or boring, along came podcasting — Internet radio by and for the people. And with it comes unprecedented opportunities for electronic musicians and music fans.
The word “podcasting” is a combination of “iPod” — the ubiquitous portable music player — and “broadcasting.” But you don't need an iPod to participate, and the listening experience is more like subscribing to an Internet radio show with a TiVo (if that were possible) than dialing in a broadcast.
FIG. 1: HHB''s new portable recorder, the FlashMic, is well suited for remote -recording. The unit includes 1 GB of flash RAM and a Sennheiser mic capsule.
Podcast producers upload audio files (usually MP3s) to the Web, along with a text file containing background information about the show and links to the audio files. When listeners load the URL of the text file — for example, http://www.example.com/joes-show.rss — into a program called an aggregator or a podcatcher, they're given the option to subscribe to the series of audio files.
Once the listeners subscribe, the podcatcher software checks the online text file once a week or so for new links. If it finds some, it downloads the corresponding audio files automatically. The listeners can then play the files on their computers or transfer them to portable players like the iPod. Additional data in the text file allows the player to display enhancements such as cover art, the producer's URL, and extended comments about the episode.
Just as TiVo ensured that there'd always be something to watch when you get home, podcatchers fill your computer with interesting music and radio-style talk shows from around the world. Unlike TiVo, though, podcast subscriptions and podcatchers are still free, and anyone with an Internet connection can create a show.
Indeed, searching Google for the phrase “how to” plus “podcast” returns more than 12 million hits — phenomenal for a field that's barely a year old. As with many crafts, the technical steps are relatively simple; artistic success comes from learning what works aesthetically. In other words, there are 12 million sites that can tell you how to record and distribute a podcast; in this article, I'll concentrate on the fun part: doing it well. That said, I devoured a significant number of those 12 million sites. Visit www.emusician.com for helpful links (see Web Clip 1).
Finding and Listening to Podcasts
Before jumping into podcast production, grab a podcatcher program and take some time to check out what other producers are doing. Three leading podcatchers are iTunes (Mac/Win), iPodder (Mac/Win/Linux), and iPodderX (Mac/Win). (See the sidebar “Contact Information” for URLs of all software, podcasts, and other resources mentioned in this article.) iTunes is the most popular, netting more than a million subscriptions within two days of adding podcatching capability in version 4.9. It also lets you preview podcasts before deciding if you want to subscribe. (That's an important reason to make sure the beginning of your audio file is enticing.)
All three programs contain podcast directories with scads of entries, but there are numerous Web sites with podcast directories as well. Podcast Alley, Podcast.net, Audio Weblogs, and Yahoo are good starting points. If you find a link you like on a directory site, you can simply copy and paste the link into a podcatcher program to set up a subscription. The link is usually attached to a small button labeled RSS or XML. In iTunes, you access the subscription entry form in the Advanced menu.
One of my first stops was at the Daily Source Code podcast, hosted by “podfather” Adam Curry, the former MTV VJ credited with inventing podcasting. This is a podcast about podcasting, so you'll pick up lots of tips.
Curry's production values are head and shoulders above the ones in the typical mumbling podcast talk show. He makes extensive use of background music and sound effects, and has a voice that sounds confident yet personal. Although Curry obviously feels comfortable with the mic, his recordings don't have the polished sound of a traditional radio show. Background noises creep in, he rambles at times, and the bright, compressed sound makes me think of a Finalizer cranked a few notches too high. But that informality adds to the personable vibe. One could argue that the over-polished sound of commercial radio is part of the reason it feels so sterile.
Podcasters can learn a lot from radio, so I interviewed several accomplished radio producers for this article. (See the sidebars “Take Me to Your Leiderman” and “Hitting the Posts,” as well as Web Clip 2.) Ironically, I discovered one such producer through his show's podcast. Echoes, at www.echoes.org, is a beautifully crafted interview show featuring electronic music.
Another electronic-music podcast I like is called Spacemusic, which delivers an hour of smoothly crossfaded indie music every week. The host, TC, has a great time presenting the music and interviewing other artists (in his thick Dutch accent). He actively solicits original tracks from listeners.
Independent musicians have another outlet in Slashdot Review. That podcast juxtaposes a spoken recap of hot topics from the popular News for Nerds site with a full track from a non-RIAA band.
Give the world an open mic, and you'll get other strange juxtapositions as well. One podcast I found (www.rocket15.com) featured a guy named Chaz driving around Louisville in a VW Bug, muttering into a digital voice recorder. Film composer Fumitaka Anzai (www.anz123.com/English) found a way to stuff so many images into his podcast feed that it turned into an animated movie.
Gearing Up to Podcast
To make a podcast, all you need is an audio file and an Internet connection, but additional gear offers more flexibility and sound quality. For example, it sounds as though Chaz the “Bugcaster” simply dragged the WMA file off his voice recorder, converted it to MP3, and uploaded it. For a more polished vocal, you'd want to use a higher-quality microphone, a pop filter, a compressor, and a USB or FireWire audio interface on your computer. For remote recording, a battery-powered digital recorder such as the Edirol R-1 or the M-Audio MicroTrack would be a cleaner choice. HHB just announced an intriguing portable recorder that combines a gigabyte of flash RAM memory with a quality Sennheiser mic capsule (see Fig. 1).
For recording telephone interviews (interviews are a popular podcasting genre), I use a JK Audio QuickTap. This tiny device connects between my phone's handset and base, providing an output jack to my Korg PXR4 flash RAM recorder. I have to do a lot of cleanup on the recordings, though, because of the abysmal sound quality of the United States telephone system. Many podcasters use Skype or iChat telephony instead, though routing the audio signals to your recorder requires some fancy virtual cabling. There's a comprehensive tutorial at ITConversations.com, a leading tech interview site.
Speaking of voice-overs (see Web Clip 2), here's a tip from producer Spencer Critchley: “Match your vocal sound to the aesthetic identity of the program. Be aware that the big, booming DJ voice has become a cliché; I think it grew out of the fact that people tend to associate authority with big chests and deep voices (it's an ape thing), the availability of compressors and equalizers to exaggerate the effect, and the tendency DJs have to be vain. I'd suggest starting with a good mic, good mic technique, and moderate compression to achieve a more natural sound that still stays forward in the mix.”
And don't forget the cleanup. Echoes producer John Diliberto reveals, “That seven-minute feature that has three minutes of talking in it? That's edited down from an hour or so of interview material.”
On the software side, a multitrack audio sequencer such as Pro Tools, Acid, Sonar, Live, or GarageBand will help you create and lay out the sonic elements in your show. Another benefit of those programs is that they come with royalty-free audio loops. As a podcaster, you're not allowed to distribute copyrighted material without permission.
FIG. 2: CastBlaster is a Windows podcast-creation program based on triggering clips in real time rather than arranging them on a timeline.
One podcast I found, called the Overnightscape, has an interesting work-around to that limitation, using a MadWaves algorithmic synthesizer (www.madwaves.com) to generate royalty-free background music in real time. There are also many artists who will allow you to play their music in exchange for promotion. Three places to find them are the Association of Music Podcasting, Creative Commons, and the Podsafe Music Network. It's easy to submit your own music at these sites as well.
Dedicated podcast-creation programs are springing up all the time. For Windows, there's CastBlaster (see Fig. 2), Propaganda (see the sidebar “Podmeisters Sound Off”), and ePodcast Creator. The latter is also being ported to the Mac. In addition to organizing or triggering audio clips, those programs export MP3s and the specialized text file that defines the podcast. They can also assist with file upload.
Compressing the Audio File
Your next step is to create the data-compressed audio file. For voice-only programs, consider using mono and a bit rate of 64 or even 32 kbps instead of the standard 128 kbps. Because of the way data compression works, mixing a stereo signal to mono doesn't shrink the file size as it would with uncompressed audio; the bit rate determines the file size. That means a 64 kbps mono MP3 will sound similar to a 128 kbps stereo one, except for the lack of spatial information. If you have a choice of sampling frequencies, stick with integer multiples of 11.025 kHz (22.05 and 44.1 kHz, for example). Some players “chipmunkize” files at other rates.
Also experiment with filtering out high and low frequencies before compressing the file so that the encoder doesn't squander bits on sounds that your listeners won't hear anyway. For example, analog telephone lines in the United States top out at 3.2 kHz, so you could prefilter phone interviews heavily. For music podcasts, try joint stereo encoding and a 128 kbps rate. Daily Source Code encodes at 96 kbps and sounds reasonably crisp.
FIG. 3: If you encode your podcast audio in AAC format, you can insert colorful -bookmarks in the file that show up in iTunes and -compatible iPods. Few other portable players handle the AAC format, though.
Make sure to fill out the ID3 tags for your MP3s so that listeners and podcatchers can organize them. You should specify at least the title, artist, album name, and comments. Ideally, you should also include a contact URL in one of the fields. Adding the show number or date to the name field helps.
In iTunes 4.9, Apple added a slick feature that lets producers add chapter markers to audio files (see Fig. 3). The drawback is that you need to save your file in AAC format (M4A) rather than MP3, and AAC playback support is not nearly as common. Spacemusic host TC reported that 30 percent of his listeners unsubscribed after he switched to AAC, so he switched back. If you do opt to use AAC (perhaps in parallel), check out the shareware program ChapterToolMe, which is the easiest way I've found to add chapter graphics.
Just Say Yes to RSS
After switching back to MP3, TC found a clever way to restore a table of contents to his podcasts: he added it to the text file that accompanies them, inside the tag. Given the format of his show (an hour of seamless music from independent artists), that was invaluable for helping listeners zoom in on individual songs (see Fig. 4).
FIG. 4: Podcast producer TC adds a cue list inside the tag in his RSS file, separating the lines with
tags. When you click on the Info button in iTunes, the items line up.
The step that gives podcasting its unique characteristics is its companion file. That companion file is what transforms an ordinary audio file into a podcast. It's written in a format called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), a “dialect” of the XML language. As I mentioned, there are tools that will generate that file for you, so you don't need to know the inner workings of XML, but it is instructive to see how it works. Bart Farkas's book, Secrets of Podcasting (Peachpit Press, 2005), has the clearest explanation of RSS for podcasting that I've found.
Fig. 5 shows a basic RSS file. If you've ever selected View Source on a Web page, the syntax should look familiar. Note that this example podcast has only one episode, denoted by the block. To add a new episode, you'd add a new block and modify the dates. For maximum utility in podcatchers, especially iTunes (which has its own RSS tags), you'll need to add additional tags. Take a look at some of the RSS feeds online for ideas. The Spacemusic feed, for example, is at http://spacemusic.libsyn.com/rss. You can check your RSS files for proper syntax at http://feedvalidator.org.
FIG. 5: This screen shot shows the most basic RSS file you can use to publish a podcast. Note that the URL for the MP3 is bogus, but when I changed it to point to an actual MP3 and uploaded the RSS file, iTunes was able to find the audio.
Although the easiest way to create the RSS file is to use a dedicated podcasting program like Propaganda, there are some alternatives, such as FeedForAll and Feeder. While I was learning the concepts of RSS, it was useful to take an experimental approach. I uploaded some 5-second MP3s to my site, created a simple RSS file in my HTML editor, uploaded the RSS file, pasted its URL into iTunes, and then subscribed to the podcast to see what happened. I then added or changed parameters in the RSS file and uploaded it again. That process let me see quickly what effect the RSS data had on the way iTunes displayed the podcast, because I didn't have to wait for long MP3 downloads.
Hosting and Promotion
If your podcast becomes popular, you could get hammered for bandwidth fees, so it's prudent to figure out where to host your audio files. (They don't have to be in the same location as the RSS file.) There's a good summary of the current options in Podcasting Hacks by Jack Herrington (O'Reilly, 2005). Fortunately, that chapter is free at http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com/2005/09/07/hosting-podcasts.html. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page called “Ten Tips for Improving Your Podcasts” and “What Is Podcasting.”
Speaking of freebies, Ourmedia.org provides free podcast hosting, although you'll have to license your music under a Creative Commons license. For more control, try Liberated Syndication, which currently offers unlimited bandwidth for $5 a month. People with .Mac accounts can use them to store audio files; Apple deals with bandwidth excesses on a case-by-case basis. If you're an Acid user, check out the ProZone membership at www.acidplanet.com. For $49.95 per year, you get unlimited bandwidth and other goodies.
Once your podcast is online, you can promote it by submitting it to directories such as Podcast Alley, Audio Weblogs, Odeo, and iTunes (through the iTunes program itself). Be sure to add an RSS link to your site as well.
Creating a Podcast Soundtrack
As fate would have it, I recently had the chance to write the theme music for O'Reilly Media's new podcast Distributing the Future. The company — where I work as editor of the Digital Audio site — requested an intro, an outro, and a collection of “interstitials” to use for transitions. I started by asking some questions:
- What are some topics that you plan to cover in the show?
- What style of music are you looking for?
- What emotions do you want the music to convey?
- What duration should the segments be?
- When do you need them?
- Do you also need a background loop that could be extended indefinitely? (Think of a traffic report on the radio.)
The show's producer and host, Daniel Steinberg, is also an editor at O'Reilly, but he used to be an on-air personality at a top-rated Cleveland radio station. He surprised me by giving open-ended answers, which I've paraphrased here:
- Science and technology.
- Your choice, but make it accessible.
- A range, from excitement to worry.
- I'd like 30 or 60 seconds for the intro and the ending, and 10 to 20 seconds for the interstitials.
- Whenever's convenient, but the sooner the better.
- I like this idea.
To begin, I developed a few themes on the portable keyboard in my living room; I didn't want to get distracted by computer editing. Back at the computer, I launched Ableton Live 5 and reperformed the theme using piano and horn samples from the Garritan Personal Orchestra. I also made a more aggressive theme with drum loops and an echoing sine-wave melody inspired by the X-Files theme.
Producer Steinberg liked the second theme better. He recorded a rough version of his introductory monologue over it using Apple Soundtrack and sent me an MP3. I noticed that the musical intro (called a ramp in radio) went on too long before the bombastic drums came in. I also noticed some weird sonics. (I'd mixed the theme on headphones late at night — bad idea.)
FIG. 6: My podcast theme used just eight tracks, but I still did substantial carving with volume and reverb envelopes to avoid overwhelming the announcer.
Comparing the new mix with my previous version, I realized that I liked the first one better in some spots. It sounded cleaner, because I'd overdone the effects in the second version. So I reduced or eliminated the reverb using automation envelopes, added a few more transition sounds (an extra snare hit here and there), and shaped the volume of individual tracks with envelopes to make them swell and ebb (see Fig. 6). I was reminded of the line from The Little Prince: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
I then made 20 variations of the theme using different instruments. I also created some submixes of the rhythm tracks to use as loops. When Steinberg sent me the next iteration of the show, I was reminded of those PowerPoint presentations that use every possible transition. I suggested he pick just one or two of the theme variations and use it throughout. I also made some suggestions about balancing the voice levels and cleaning up the audio in the interviews.
After the project wrapped up, I asked Steinberg to reflect on what he'd learned in his long journey from radio to podcasting. He sent some thoughtful comments, which you can read at www.emusician.com (see Web Clip 3). To hear the Distributing the Future podcast, visit www.oreillynet.com/future. Notice how it follows a tried-and-true format: during the ramp (intro), Steinberg announces the name and the focus of the show. That section will stay the same in every episode. After the drums hit, he uses the remainder of the minute to list what the episode will cover. Audio stingers delineate sections of the show, then the outro comes in. While it plays, Steinberg reads the credits, invites commentary, and looks to the future.
Radio Your Way
Podcasters can pick up many tips from well-produced radio shows. In turn, I asked Echoes podcast producer John Diliberto what radio could learn from podcasting. “Well, it's not what radio can learn — it's what radio is going to have to do to compete with podcasting,” he replied. “Because it's going to get to a point where people don't want to wait until 10 o'clock at night to hear Echoes. They'll want to hear it whenever they want. The best way to do that would be a podcast. And radio is probably going to be heading that way in many regards.”
Echoes engineer Jeff Towne agrees, “I don't bother to try to find Le Show on the radio anymore. I download the podcast and listen to that. But at the same time, when you get in the car, it's so much easier to turn on the radio than try to hook the iPod up to the stereo and find the podcast you want to play. So, it's a mixed bag. There's still an appeal to being surprised by radio, too.”
Playing with that element of surprise is one of the great rewards of being a musician. Whether you're producing podcasts, promoting your music on them, writing theme music for them, or simply collecting them for rainy-day listening, you're sure to enjoy the dramatic opportunities they bring.
Podcasting will likely bring musicians new revenue opportunities too. “I don't think it's a coincidence that there are ‘Buy It’ buttons in the podcast section of the iTunes Music Store,” says Towne. “Everything's free right now, but it couldn't be too hard to have a podcast aggregator that would hold passwords so that you can sign up and pay for the subscription. I don't think people would mind that if it were relatively affordable.”
For years, the ultimate goal of many musicians was to get on the radio. Thanks to podcasting, we now have the power to produce our own radio shows and send them out to a worldwide audience. So give it a try — all you need is an Internet connection and an audio file.
HITTING THE POSTS
Echoes is a national radio show about innovative music and musicians, and it makes elegant use of music to weave the narrative elements together. (The show is also available in condensed podcast form at www.echoes.org.) I asked producer John Diliberto and engineer Jeff Towne how they structure their shows.
“The whole idea is to create an underscore,” says Diliberto. “It's almost like doing a movie. Yes, we're talking about the music, but the music itself is also an underscore to what's being said.”
Renowned interviewer John Diliberto -produces the elegant Echoes podcast and its radio show heard nationwide on FM stations and XM satellite.
Towne adds, “And that might be a little showoffy, but it sounds better. It's not like, ‘Oh, the voice stopped, so I'll turn up the music.’ I always get a little frustrated when I hear that on other radio shows, when there's an opportunity to say something with the music underneath the narration and then make a dramatic statement once the music's in the clear.”
“We do try to hit those posts,” Diliberto continues. “The music's building underneath, the person's talking about it, and then suddenly — boom! — it's out there. We spend a lot of time trying to hit that right moment when it's going to have the biggest impact after somebody's talking.”
“It actually takes a little time and energy to arrange that,” Towne laughs. “It's not quite as simple as, ‘We'll start the track and move it around till it comes up right.’ There's often a lot of pushin' and shovin' and clippin' and twistin' and trimmin'. But that's what you should do. At least, that's what we want to do.”
I asked how Echoes got away with using copyrighted music in its podcasts. “We're covered under Fair Use,” Diliberto explained, “because we are commenting on the music. You'll notice there is rarely a music track in the clear that's more than 30 seconds long; in fact, I'd say 20 seconds is probably the average. So we're never playing a whole track on the podcasts.”
Towne adds, “We have an online service that we do indeed pay performance royalties on. But obviously podcasting is a little murky. And that's the reason we don't podcast the [entire] show.”
TAKE ME TO YOUR LEIDERMAN
Emmy Award — winning composer BJ Leiderman (www.bjleiderman.com) has written the theme music for National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and Car Talk; Public Radio International's Marketplace; and countless jingles for Coca-Cola, General Mills, HBO, MTV, and more. Soon he will release a career-spanning CD called Life at the Bottom of the Dial. I spoke with him about radio, podcasting, and the art of theme music. You can listen to the full interview in podcast form at www.emusician.com (see Web Clip A).
BJ Leiderman''s home studio contains mostly midline gear. His motto: “It''s the music, stupid!”
What's involved in making theme music for a radio show?
Usually clients think of it in terms of a package. They think of a main theme, which usually has talking on top of it now [laughs]; a closing theme, which is usually a longer variation of the main theme so they can talk right up until the end-melody statement; and a whole package of bumpers, which are short 2-second, 5-second, or 10-second things — they're also called stingers — based on the main theme.
Jay Kernis, who was one of the original producers of Morning Edition, invented something called the bleeble, which is nothing more than a longer stinger, but it's a repeating phrase. He probably invented the original loop; it was way before sampling. And usually the local stations talk over that, too. The same idea can be applied to podcasts, if you want to make your podcasts sound more professional and radio-like.
What is it that makes your themes so catchy?
I used to say that I hate to say it, but … it's the melody. Let's face it — when clients want a theme, they want something that brings listeners back and has an identity. And it's usually the melody that does that. If not, then it's an aggressive rhythmic structure or a sound effect. For example, with Marketplace, which starts with just that bell — that's all they'd need to play. It's so identifiable now.
When you're working on a melody, how quickly do you have to state your theme?
It's got to be on the short side, because someone's got to start talking soon. And that's been my biggest pet peeve about the whole thing. It's not simply because I want people to hear three minutes of my music. I do, but there's a different place for that — my CD.
It's the music that sets up the emotion of the show. Good producers realize that even if they have to cut 15 seconds of voice-over, they can really sock it to the audience emotionally and put something in their heart that does a lot more than a voice-over. One of the famous jingle-writers in New York once said, “Nobody hums the announcer.” And it's absolutely true.
What are some ways to use sound to connect the elements of a story and make it flow?
One of the best examples of how to do a radio show, not necessarily a music show, is This American Life. That show is a work of art from start to finish. And using music in an unexpected way — that's what I love most of all.
There's an art to picking a piece of music that does a lot more than simply reiterate the emotion of the story. A great producer is one who will pick a piece of music that will take the feeling the listener has from that story and not only turn it up a notch, but also make it take a right turn. It should take the audience somewhere else, in their heads and in their hearts.
NPR pioneered that, so you've got to give them credit. Say you're sitting in your car, listening to a story. The story comes to an end, and the piece of music that's played blows your mind so much that you're left there in a puddle of mush in your car seat. It's like a tidal wave. You've got all these emotions at the top of that wave, and it's incumbent on that piece of music whether that wave goes forward and crashes to the shore or just settles back and becomes a little ripple.
PODMEISTERS SOUND OFF
Here are some expert podcasting tips from Aaron Higgins and Dave Sampson of MixMeister Technology (www.mixmeister.com), a developer of beatmixing and podcasting software.
MixMeister Propaganda is a complete podcast -production system for Windows, designed for ease of use. It handles -everything from audio recording to RSS creation and upload.
- Don't try to record your whole show all in one take. Your odds of getting a high-quality recording of high-quality content, organized in a high-quality manner are very low.
- Musical interludes between topics can be great mood setters, but if they go on for more than 30 seconds, you can lose the momentum of your show.
- If your first minute isn't fabulous, nobody will ever know about all the great stuff that comes later. Try to devote half your production time to making that first minute spectacularly interesting.
- Include a brief table of contents near the start of your show, so listeners know what to listen for and when.
- Give a preview of upcoming podcasts at the end of each recording to give listeners something to look forward to.
- Include a list of relevant keywords at the end of the text summary on your podcast page. That will help interested people find your show.
- If you have content with questionable production quality — a location recording with a lot of background noise, for example — don't use it. New listeners won't fight to hear those parts; they'll stop listening altogether.
- Make your podcast as short as you reasonably can. Most amateur podcasts drone on three times longer than they need to. Since skimming is much harder to do when listening to a podcast, make every single word count. Record your topics again and again until they are as tight as possible.
PODCAST DIRECTORIES AND HOSTINGAudio Weblogshttp://audio.weblogs.comLiberated Syndicationhttp://libsyn.comOdeowww.odeo.comPodcast Alleywww.podcastalley.comPodcast.netwww.podcast.netYahoohttp://podcasts.yahoo.com
RESOURCES, READINGS, AND ORGANIZATIONSAssociation of Music Podcastingwww.musicpodcasting.orgCreative Commonshttp://creativecommons.org/findPodcasting Hacks
(free chapter)http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com/2005/09/07/hosting-podcasts.htmlPodsafe Music Networkhttp://music.podshow.com
SOFTWAREApple Computer iTuneswww.apple.com/itunesBoKu Communications CastBlasterwww.castblaster.comIndustrial Audio Software ePodcast Creatorwww.industrialaudiosoftware.comiPodder (open source)http://ipodder.sourceforge.netiPodderX (open source)http://ipodderx.comMixMeister Technology Propagandawww.makepropaganda.comNotePage, Inc. FeedForAllwww.feedforall.comReinvented Software Feederwww.reinventedsoftware.comRomain Bossut ChapterToolMehttp://rbsoftware.net