The Podcasters : Ben Alexander

This is the first entry into a new series in which I will be interviewing a number of great podcasters to learn about their podcasting setups. While the content is always the most important aspect of a podcast, the technical craft in bringing that content to the listeners also deserves attention. I hope this series will illuminate that critical piece of the puzzle.1

My first podcaster is Ben Alexander, who hosts a number of shows on his Fiat Lux network.

What podcasts do you currently host?

At the moment I’m co-hosting Pragmatic with John Chidgey, Accessible with Steven Aquino, and Cultivate with Jamie Ryan. I have an interview show, Pulling the String, thats on break for a few weeks while I rethink the format & approach. The Panel is a panel show where three or four guests hop on the line to talk about a specific subject. Seven is my weird fabulist scifi series that I’m procrastinating about the next episode of.

I also have a gaming show called Shooting The Core I’m producing with Blair Atom. We actually record that live, in person in his basement, with a few regular guests each episode. The idea behind that is for everyone to be playing the same video game for about an hour and then capturing the conversation that comes immediately after regarding their reaction & feelings about the game.

By the time this is up I’ll probably have released the first episode of Designing Creativity, which is going to be a short weekly show focusing on a specific aspect of creative work each show. We’ll be looking at different techniques, tools, and theories. I’m trying to do something more scripted, researched and prepped there.

What’s your physical rig? (Computer, mic, headphones, etc.)

I’ve got a pretty DIY attitude towards this stuff. I see a lot of people overthinking every little decision and theorizing some perfect setup and that keeps them from just getting in there and doing the real hard work.

To be honest, I know I’ve got a bit of that demon on my shoulder as well, so I decided early on I was going to spend as little as possible on tools, use what I had available and try to ignore the train spotting mentality.

So I’m using a Shure SM-57 mic via XLR cable into a little Behringer 5 track mixer, a Xenyx302USB, and that goes into my 2011 17” MBP. That machine has a fusion drive and 16 gigs of RAM and the big screen is nice for Logic.

I’ve got a couple different mic stands and boom arms, and a cheap Nady pop filter to help with the 57’s tendency towards loud plosives.

I picked up and used a Blue Yeti for a couple weeks, and we still use one for Shooting the Core – in omnidirectional mode, although we’re planning on just setting up multiple mics as budget allows for it and listenership demands.

What type of room do you record in?

My home office/studio. It’s definitely not an ideal environment. Windows on two sides, the road is out front and the room itself is pretty long. Still, the Shure is pretty good at rejecting room noise and I don’t really think some birds chirping or the occasional train in the background is so awful. Again, I’m not that precious – if I can ship what I can until I get a better room then thats what I’ll do.

If I had a better option I’d take it, but I don’t think folding myself up into a closet to get a quieter room is worth it. And I mean that from a listeners point of view – this is about comfort and flow and energy during a show and you’ve got to be willing to make tradeoffs to put any product out there. We’re not making high-fidelity music tracks here, its talk radio, its AM band quality.

What software do you use for recording and editing?

I record using Skype Call Recorder and arrange & edit in Logic Pro X. Logic can be a bit overkill, but with some customized key commands and templates works pretty well for me. I think Hindenburg’s software looks intriguing and I tried it on a couple episodes but I do enjoy the musical options Logic presents so I think I’m sticking with that.

What do you use to host your podcasts online?

I’ve tried several different options. Hosting directly on Squarespace was nice and easy but the total lack of stats was a no-go. Although I’m not using them at the moment I really liked and would recommend them to someone starting out.

Right now I’m using a combination of Squarespace for the website, Squarespace RSS + Amazon S3/CF for low to medium traffic media hosting and Libsyn for the shows with lots of traffic. S3 is great but once a show is getting a couple thousand or so downloads a week I think the numbers start to point back in favor of Libsyn.

I think for someone that doesn’t care about budget as much, just go with Libsyn. If you don’t care about stats or you think it’s a really niche thing, stick with just Squarespace. Probably don’t emulate me at all unless you’re trying to do the same kind of network thing and you want to have lots of control and survey the whole territory.

Incidentally, this is the worst part of podcasting. Hosting, distributing, dealing with discovery, linking, etc. It’s just a mess, the tools are a pain and eat up a lot of time. The reason I recommended is they seem to be really pushing to make things clean and simple and user friendly, which I appreciate. I’m not sure the tool is all the way there yet, but they’re certainly good enough to get started with, the price is right and it’s a small business which I like. I hope more developers and startups move into this space, at least give the big guys some competition, you can feel it in the UI of these tools that there just isn’t a ton of care. Theres a big opportunity there.

What’s your basic workflow for recording a podcast and taking it to the published stage?

Hopefully this changes soon with the next version of OS X. Ahem. But at the moment its Skype & Ecamm’s Skype Call Recorder. I’ve got some more complicated setups for The Panel, StC or live shows but the basics are simple and it hasn’t failed me yet, knock on wood.

Once the call is done I run a couple of the automator scripts that come with Call Recorder. One splits the tracks, the other converts to .aiff. Then I drag them into a Logic template I have set up for each show with settings tweaked for the cohosts, all the bumper music in place, etc.

Then it’s just a matter of chopping off the banter at both ends, going through and correcting any major mistakes I noted down during recording, general tightening up. Some shows are more structured and heavily edited than others. Sometimes I’ll go in and do some real surgery, moving whole segments of the conversation around, tightening up rhythms of speech where they got weird. But usually it’s pretty straightforward.

After that I bounce it down to mono 64kbps .m4a’s and upload to for distribution to the endpoints: Libsyn, S3, Soundcloud, etc.

Auphonic is something I’ve just started using recently, and I still need to set up my presets and completely automate the process, but I’d highly recommend checking it out. It saves a lot of time as I can upload once, have Auphonic run some of its crazy German audio engineering wizardry to level things out, reduce noise, and then distribute the final media files. It’s nice to be able to go do something else while the servers handle the busywork.

A couple German listeners had recommended the service to me on different occasions so I finally checked it out and it’s pretty great. Not quite sure how they manage to finance the whole thing but it’s very impressive.

Would you like to change anything about your current podcasting setup?

I’d like to change almost everything about it. Not a single tool I use is ideal, but that’s kind of the point. I’m very much trying not to over-do it, not to run over that cliff that Horace Dediu talks about and devote time and energy and money to optimize the wrong variable, the stuff that 99% of the market can’t appreciate anyway.

And lets be honest, this community loves to sing the refrain “if you’re not the customer, you’re the product” – well, listeners, you’re not customers. And producers, most of you, you’re not selling a product, because you’re not selling anything. No money is changing hands, that is, except for the money we send to the companies that run the servers and make the mics and computers.

I get a lot of flak for this, and don’t take it the wrong way: we love what we do, we love our listeners, most of us already do it for free and that’s fine. But what I’m interested in changing are the factors that prevent this medium from evolving to a viable, profitable operation for the people that produce. Because it is valuable, clearly theres value here but it either isn’t appreciated or there’s no way to capture it on the smaller scales that most of us operate at, and that increasingly we’re going to see more and more of.

Profit matters. Money changes podcasting from a hobby for those privileged with the time and disposable income and experience to make the kind of stuff that Ben Brooks rightly criticized to something that becomes a viable option for people outside our little bubble.

So there isn’t any one single piece of equipment or technology in the chain I’d like to improve. I’d like them all to be better, but more importantly I’d like to figure out a way to make things so that all falls into the background and the focus can be on the people, on the talent, because THATS where the magic happens.

I think maybe it’s coming in iOS. If we could record FaceTime Audio on an iPhone, if there was a way to get the quality level just good enough on consumer mobile devices, well then I think that would change things and open up a whole new world of options for productions, not tied down to desks or expensive gear or great mic technique. I think thats where the democratization will come from.

Sorry for the rant. I’d also like a Heil mic, a nicer mixer and a quieter room.

1. I must also give a big nod to Shawn Blanc and his Sweet Mac Setups series for partly helping to inspire this series.