Lessons learned from editing my first podcast
If you've been following my blog or Twitter account, you probably saw this appear a couple of weeks back:
During the European Testing Conference, Dan Billing and I were inspired by a great opening talk from Rosie Sherry, entitled Why and How Testers Should Act Like Marketeers. Rosie challenged us to find inspiration, share stories, get people excited and to "infiltrate the web with goodness".
At that exact same time, I was drafting the blog post which would become Screen Testing: Deepwater Horizon, and mulling over an idea that this could make quite an interesting podcast series. I'd also been looking for an excuse to record with Dan, after we had to abandon our previous plans for a Father Ted podcast when I discovered there's already a really popular one.
So, spurred on by Rosie's message, and after replacing the rubbish placeholder "Testing In The Movies" name with a much better one, Screen Testing was born!
We went from initial concept, to first episode launched, in two weeks. That might make it seem as if it was plain sailing. It wasn't, but we at least had the good sense to plan for problems. Here are a few lessons that I learned on the road to Episode 0, together with some audio outtakes that we might have preferred had stayed buried!
Always ALWAYS test your audio!
We took the common-sense step of recording an episode which we knew that we never intended to air, purely so that we could iron-out any major problems before we were recording content that mattered. And, oh my, am I glad we took this decision. Our demo episode (AKA "Episode -1") had some really good material, but I would have been heartbroken if I'd been intending to release it, because there were some massive audio problems (read on to discover/hear more).
The demo episode certainly served its purpose, but we haven't stopped testing our audio. As it can often be a couple of weeks between episodes, during which we might have reconfigured any number of our audio devices (I use three separate microphones and two separate cameras through the course of my day-to-day work!) we still did a full end-to-end demo (recording, editing, exporting) immediately before we present record on Episode 0, to make sure the sound was up to standard. We'll do this before every episode, as it's one less thing to worry about once recording starts.
Don't skimp on microphone quality.
As a remote worker, I spend a lot of time on video calls with colleagues. So I've got a couple of semi-decent headsets, and I thought that I could probably get away with using one of these for the podcast.
Important lesson learned today: never utter the sentence "I'm sure this headset mic will be pretty much good enough for hosting a podcast"— Neil Studd (@neilstudd) February 17, 2017
As soon as I joined the call with Dan to start our first episode, he commented that he could hear a weird hiss from my audio. I told him not to worry about it, but it turns out that I should have listened to him.
Here's a brief clip from our demo recording, where you'll hear how hissy my audio was, particularly in comparison to Dan's crystal-clear vocals:
The hiss (whatever it was) actually cleared up after a few minutes, but it didn't solve all of my audio problems. My posable headset mic also had issues with registering that I'd started talking, and as a result it kept crushing or dropping syllables when I spoke; here's a non-hissy section which is still not up to standard -
The chaos with my microphone is the main reason that we could never release Episode -1, because although the content was top-notch, so much of it (my audio in particular) was incomprehensible.
Not wanting to mess around or take chances, and through the power of Amazon Prime, I had a production-quality microphone at my fingertips the very next day - and I have to say, it was love at first listen.
Don't take too many steps at once
One of our other reasons for recording a demo episode was to check that we could play audio clips throughout the episode, and still have them sound okay. And again, it's a good job that we practiced this!
I got cocky and assumed I could solve the problem by setting my Audio Input to my PC's "Stereo Mix" (i.e. the main mixed sound source on the machine). This way, both my microphone and our YouTube clips would get routed through the same channel, and I wouldn't have to worry about a third input source.
This worked okay for the first clip that I played, as I'd tested its levels in advance to make sure it would be the correct volume for us to talk over. However, Dan provided me with his YouTube link quite late, so I didn't have time to balance the levels. And because my microphone was on the same channel as the YouTube clip, it was impossible to reduce the sound of the clip without also making it impossible to hear my voice.
WARNING: This gets VERY. LOUD.
For Episode 0, we took the decision to do any audio inserts (such as the opening/closing theme, and spoiler alarms) in post-production, to reduce the number of moving parts. I'm intending to do the same for Episode 1 too, which might be a hassle when we're recording ("this is the bit where I'll insert a clip") but it severely reduces the editing headache.
Pick a tool, learn it, embrace it
I opted to use Audacity for editing our episodes, as it has quite a powerful toolset (and it's free). However, it was rather overwhelming at first, and I was quite worried that the editing process was going to become time-consuming.
However, with practice I've learned that there are only a few important buttons. There's an option for silencing part of one track (useful if you start talking over each other), there's one for cutting out sections (if bits go wrong), and a "time shift" tool which lets you drag gaps into the middle of your recording (to make room for a clip). With just these tools, I was able to edit Episode 0 in one single session from start to finish, making subtle cuts/mutes where needed.
There are plenty of similar tools to Audacity, and you may find a different one that you prefer. The key thing is to experiment with what it can do, and learn which options will benefit you most - you'll thank yourself when you're editing.
My current setup
Here's a list of all the tools which are involved in bring an episode of Screen Testing to your ears. Aside from the initial (and, IMO, necessary) outlay for the microphone, I was surprised how many excellent tools are available for free:
- A Blue Yeti microphone. I opted for the Blackout Edition (RRP £129.99) because I'm a slave to having all of my equipment colour-matched, but there are bargains to be found on some of the other colours - at the time of writing, PC World will sell you the white version for £89.99.
- Any half-decent noise isolating headphones, so that you can concentrate on what your co-presenter is saying, without being affected by tiny outside distractions.
- Zencastr - web-based software for managing a recording session over VoIP. It keeps each participant's track separate, and records them on the client-side before automatically uploading them to Dropbox at the end of the recording session. Importantly, this means that all speakers retain their original audio quality - you don't end up with one of the participants sounding like they're on the end of a phone. Their free tier should suit most hobbyists (allows 2 people to record 3 hours a month), but if you want extra features/recording time, the tiers are very reasonably priced.
- Audacity - free desktop audio editing software which works wonderfully in conjunction with Zencastr. All I need to do is drag my audio recordings from Dropbox into Audacity, and I'm straight into an editing session.
- Libsyn - It's normally a toss-up between this and Soundcloud for hosting your episodes, and which one you pick will depend largely on your requirements. Libsyn's automatic webpage generation was the deciding factor for me. Their tier pricing isn't brilliant; their $5p/m tier is not quite enough (it only allows 50MB of uploads per month, which is only enough for about an hour of good-quality audio) so we're currently paying $15p/m for more than we need (250MB of uploads per month).
- Trello - I love Trello, and I use it to organise pretty much every aspect of my life. For our podcast, it's an important dumping ground for ideas (for future episodes, themes and guests) as well as for arranging dates/deadlines for our recording sessions. I could live without it - but it would be a real hassle.
So, ignoring the initial outlay for my microphone, we're hosting our podcast for only $15 per month! Those costs might increase if we release longer, more frequent episodes, or if I decide to take on a second podcast (which I might do - I've certainly caught the bug).
This all meant that we were able to publish Episode 0 only two weeks after having the initial idea for the podcast - including the time to record the unreleased episode, and to learn from those mistakes. It just goes to show, time and money needn't be an issue if you have a great idea that you want to share with the world!