Technology & The Art Of The Podcast

Last week longstanding VoIP blogger and fellow Canuck Alec Saunders penned a nice post on the Calliflower Blog offering a collection of guidance for podcasters called “10 Podcaster Tips!” It’s a good read…not long…you should go read it now…then come back here. I’ll wait.

Over the past few years I’ve listened to a number of Alec’s Squawkbox podcasts, even attended a handful live & in-person. I respect and admire the man.

Taken in the context of the Calliflower conference service Alec’s post provides some sound, well-considered advice. Even so, I find there to be merit recasting it in a broader context and revisiting some of his points.

By “broader context” I mean specifically considering how someone could record a better sounding podcast by bypassing the legacy public switched telephone network (PSTN).

Have you ever listened to a radio call-in show and thought, “Wow, the host sounds great, but the caller can barely be understood?” Clearly no matter how ubiquitous, a traditional phone call is not an ideal way to record an interview. It can be even worse in the case of a conference call with multiple participants.

What I find simply amazing is the way that few people are aware that wideband telephony (aka HDVoice) even exists. HDVoice could be the single most dramatic improvement in the audio quality of your podcast, short of getting everyone gathered in a studio.

I do understand that some people prefer to focus on the topical material of their podcast, and not concern themselves with the underlying technology of its creation. However, if you have even a passing interest in improving the quality of your recorded audio it’s worth exploring the state of voice-over-IP (VoIP) and more specifically HDVoice.

Some will surely say that what I’m about to suggest is not worth the trouble. In my mind this is a matter of principle. While I’ve made a career in the technology sector I originally come from an arts background. From those early days I still harbor the belief that there can be no art without first achieving mastery of a craft.

A large part of mastering a craft is achieving intimacy with one’s tools. Only with mastery of the tools do they become transparent to the creative process, allowing you to create something truly artful.

If you’re a podcaster then amongst your tools you should come to understand a diversity of means for handling audio, including various aspects of telephony and conference services. It’s worth your time to dig a little deeper in understanding these things in order to produce consistently superior sounding podcasts.

If you’re not interested in producing superior sounding podcasts, well…thanks for coming out, pick up your coat at the door, please go on about your business.

An Example: The VoIP Users Conference

To be very clear about my background in this area, I’m not really a podcaster…I just play one now and then on the internet. While I am a regular contributor to the weekly VoIP Users Conference I only host calls periodically when VUC founder Randy (aka Zeeek) is not available. I’ve also conducted some interviews with Randy acting as host.

In November 2008 we did a call with David Frankel, CEO of ZipDX as our guest. The topic was audio conferencing and wideband telephony.

David was nice enough to donate a number of licenses for the wideband-capable Eyebeam SIP soft phone from Counterpath so that some callers could join the call in wideband using his service. This was one of those times when I conducted the interview, which you can still download here.

That call was recorded on the HDVoice bridge and the podcast certainly sounds very good. You can clearly make out which participants were called-in via traditional means and which were called-in via from wideband phones. The difference is rather startling.

As of this writing there have been 241 weekly VUC calls. The conference was founded in March 2007 using Talkshoe as the conference service. Their service, then vibrant, was truly built around the needs of podcasters wanting to develop an online community.

ZIPDX LogoSince January 2009, roughly the last 70 calls, we have used the ZipDX wideband conference service in tandem with Talkshoe. We actually cross-connect the two conference bridges. The fundamental difference between Talkshoe and ZipDX is the audio quality. Of course, the quality of the recorded podcasts reflects that of the live call.

Since we’ve been using both conference bridges we have seen the audience shift dramatically. At first there were 20-30 people on Talkshoe and only 6-8 on ZipDX. That has changed such that in recent months we have seen 50 callers (!) via ZipDX and only 2-3 on Talkshoe!

It’s very clear to us that people prefer better audio. In fact, they prefer it so much so that they are willing to purchase new hardware to realize the benefits of HDVoice. Many VUC participants have purchased G.722 capable desk phones. Some use soft phones but have purchased high-quality headsets or speakerphone devices. There are many ways to enjoy HDVoice.

All of this experience is in marked contrast to Alec’s initial point:

Be careful using VoIP products, like Skype. These can also have unpredictable results sometimes superior to a landline, and sometimes grossly inferior.

While I completely understand his advising “be careful” I also know that using a VoIP service is the only way to achieve truly superior audio quality!

In truth, it’s not difficult to take advantage of wideband telephony. There are various issues to be considered, some technical and others practical. Over the past year I’ve written a series of How-To posts about this called, “Making Use of Wideband Voice Right Now!” Collectively this series describes how you might start using HDVoice by way of free or nearly-free services.