The Simplicity of Apple’s Advertising : 1997-Present

The first part of this series can be found here.


The second coming of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1997 has been discussed many times, yet most don’t realize how complete a turn around of Apple he was able to accomplish. In addition to the big picture things he was able to do, such as saving Apple from bankruptcy and completely reinvigorating their product line, he also completely changed their advertising, bringing it back in line with Apple’s previous focus on simplicity.


When Jobs returned, his first order of business in advertising wasn’t to advertise the actual products. He realized the products at that point were not very good, although they had many new ones in the pipeline. Instead, he wanted to make a “mission statement” and show how Apple saw itself as more than just an average computer company. This was a similar idea to Jobs original “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication” ad from the 70s, in which the product was not even shown.

This “Leave your mark.” ad has no reference to any specific computer or part of Apple’s OS, but simply is aspirational. It’s meant to evoke a feeling of endless possibility one has as a child. Apple was playing on your emotions, not trying to convince you logically to buy a computer.

These are a series of three ads that show sections of the Mac OS (some zoomed in) that are starting points. A create button, a new button, and a blank text file. The ads contained nothing but these pictures of the OS, a small inspirational sentence at the bottom, and the Apple logo. Again, while they showed the OS, they really weren’t about the OS itself, but more about invoking a feeling of passion and creativity.


Apple went full force into the “mission statement” type ads with the Think Different campaign. This was probably the highlight of Apple’s advertising throughout its history and is significant even in the history of advertising as a whole. The brilliance of the Think Different ads was again the unwavering simplicity. They consisted of simple black and white photographs of famous visionaries, overlaid with small text that said “Think Different,” and a small Apple logo.

If you didn’t know any better you wouldn’t even realize that Apple was a computer company, as there was no indication in the ads. Apple wasn’t selling products with the Think Different campaign, they were trying to establish a narrative in the public’s minds, that Apple was a revolutionary company that was going to “change the world.”


Once Jobs was able to refresh Apple’s product line into his own vision, he began to extend out beyond these initial ‘mission statement’ ads to show the actual products. However, he continued the minimalist aesthetic by copying the earlier advertising templates of the Lisa and original Mac. The ads all were a single beautiful photo of the computer, coupled with a short phrase, and a small Apple logo. Some continued the “Think Different” phrase, although soon that was replaced with more specific and playful lines.

These ads are a starkly different from what Apple had been producing for most of the 90s. Here you can see a comparison of Power Mac ads before and after Jobs return:


Another big change Jobs instituted after returning to Apple was ditching the classic “rainbow” logo (which Jobs had originally instituted) in favor of a monochromatic version.

While not specifically related to advertising, this change shows the move of Apple back to minimalism and simplicity. The logo was stripped of its extraneous colors and reduced to its essential form. Apple could then merely add any color they wanted to the logo in any given situation, including in their ads.


By 2001, Apple started to expand the company beyond simply computers by introducing the iPod. With this new product category, they were faced with how express their vision to the public. While other companies might have went with the bang you over the head approach in trying to get you to understand why you needed an mp3 player, Apple continued to play it simple.

The phrase “1,000 songs in your pocket,” was so basic, yet sold the absolute key feature of the iPod – the fact you could store a tremendous amount of music in a tiny digital device. That’s all the consumer needed to know to get their attention. A beautiful device that stores lots of music.

A few years later Apple began a long running ad campaign for the iPod in which they would simply show silhouettes of people listening to their iPods with bright colors in the background. This was a different take on the minimalist philosophy of Apple’s ads, adding vibrant colors, but they became iconic. You could glance one of these ads on a billboard and even without the text saying iPod, know exactly what the ad was for.


With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Apple again was faced with how to express why this product was revolutionary in very stark and simple terms. This original iPhone ad does that in such a simple way that it seems obvious in hindsight. A finger reaching out and touching a glowing iPhone screen with the words “Touching is believing.” This harkens back to the original Mac ad showing a finger touching a mouse button. In both cases the ads cut to the core of why the products were revolutionary, the way you interacted with them. You touched the iPhone directly, and what better way to make a consumer realize that than literally showing a finger touching the device.


Apple stuck with minimalism with the introduction of the iPad, emphasizing the obvious feature they felt was important – the close, personal connection one has with an iPad. These ads all show people relaxing while using their iPads, using them to read books or watch movies. They wanted to show this was something different than what people usually associated with computers.


Apple has continued to stick with the simple advertising that Jobs brought back in 1997 up until the present day. This can be seen throughout their product line from new iPhones to iPads to Macs.


I think this retorspective of Apple’s advertising can be a lesson for other companies looking to make an impact with their own advertising. Figure out what forms the core of your product and emphasize that. You don’t have to throw as much information as possible at a potential customer, but instead cull down things to focus the core idea straight at them. Apple learned that this can be done with utter simplicity.

Advertisements

The Simplicity of Apple’s Advertising : 1977-1997

Apple has always been known for its beautiful minimalist design. Products like the original Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone all follow that guiding line of simplicity. Apple tends to winnow out any superfluous design accents that don’t fit within the overall oneness of a product. This obsession with minimalist design also extends out to other areas of the company, including their advertising.

I’ve collected print ads from Apple, from their earliest days in the late 1970s to the present, which illuminate their continued focus on simplicity in design. In the first part of this two part series, I’ll look at Apple’s first twenty years of advertising.


Apple came right out of the gate with their vision of simplicity fully formed. This “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” ad was one of the first produced by the company and eschewed most staples of advertising. No long winded ad copy, no technical specs, not even a picture of the actual computer. It was simply a “mission statement” as to how Apple wanted the world to think about their philosophy. In some ways it’s a bit pretentious, but I think Steve Jobs wanted to emphasize how Apple was different from its competitors. This ad made that abundantly clear.


Apple initially continued with extremely simple ads for the Apple II, this one being a great example. While obviously the kitchen and outfits are very dated, the composition of the ad is classic. A single photograph of a scene of people using a computer with the words “Introducing Apple II” overlaid. Apple wasn’t using gimmicks to sell the computer, but simply showed the product and the name.


However, this wave of initial simplicity in Apple’s ads took a turn rather quickly in the late 70s and early 80s and entered a dark period for a number of years afterwards. Apple began to rely on the typical computer ads of the day, including ones that had actors dressed as historical figures and other very cluttered ads that looked ugly and lacked any semblance of minimalism. I can only imagine Jobs was focused on other things at the time for some of these to be approved.


By the early 80s Apple once again seemed to get its footing back in its advertising and came back to focusing on simplicity.

This is the original ad for the Apple Lisa, which was Apple’s first attempt at a GUI based computer. I would bet money Jobs personally approved this ad, because it seems to have his handwriting all over it. It consists of only a beautiful picture of the computer, and a simple phrase, “Apple invents the personal computer. Again.” No specs, no long winded ad copy, not even an Apple logo. It’s pure simplicity and yet is very powerful. Unfortunately, despite this beautiful ad, the Apple Lisa didn’t make it in the marketplace.


Apple eventually moved beyond the Lisa and produced the landmark Macintosh computer, which used simplicity as its biggest revolutionary feature. That was reflected in the advertising for the original Mac.

Here’s the cover of an advertising pamphlet for the original Macintosh. Again, it follows a similar pattern to the Apple Lisa ad – simple text on top of a photograph.

When you turn the page over, there’s a two page spread showing the Mac in its full glory, stating simply, “Introducing Macintosh. For the rest of us.” It does add a bit of clutter with its extra paragraphs of text and a photo of the Mac team, but overall it’s firmly in the minimalist Apple ideal of advertising.


Apple later that year had an interesting experiment in buying out every ad slot in an issue of Newsweek magazine. While this could have led to a major overload of advertising, they thought out each page as part of a greater whole and made great use of minimalism in the ads.

You can see the first two pages combine to form a picture of the Mac. No title, no words, nothing besides a simple picture. While the later pages in the ad contain words and descriptions, having the section begin with a bare picture of your product is a bold move. Apple had the faith that they designed the Mac so well that it could look good without any adornment.

These two pages from the Newsweek ads are clearly the heart and soul of Apple advertising. Of course it has the simple picture with a sentence overlaid. But, the way it’s framed gets to why the Mac is revolutionary – because you can control it with a mouse. The simplicity is not just a gimmick, it emphasizes what’s truly important about the product. A person doesn’t get lost in ad copy looking at this, but sees a hand touching a mouse and knows that’s the focus of the Mac.

This is the back cover of the Newsweek, with one of my favorite Apple ads of all-time. Apple was so confident in how good the Mac looked, it didn’t mind using the back of it in a full page ad on the back cover of a major magazine. Nothing else, just the back of the Mac and an Apple logo. So simple, yet more effective at getting your attention than almost anything else they could have put on the back cover.


After the release of the Mac, Apple had more mixed results in their advertising although had sparks of beautiful simplicity. The ad campaign for the Apple IIGS was rather brilliant and used all the hallmarks of great Apple ads.

This might be Apple’s simplest ad ever for one of their products. It removes even pictures and is simply black text on a white background. It invokes the creativity of historical figures in a similar vein to their later “Think Different” campaign. The utter starkness of the ad actually makes it stand out more than a colorful ad full of pictures that would blend into the background noise of most advertising.

This “ear” ad for the IIGS consist of a simple picture, a short catchy sentence, and a small picture of the actual computer. It uses the simplicity of an ear to emphasize that the IIGS would have sound be one of the main features. The IIGS was Apple’s most advanced computer in terms of sound and music at the time. Instead of simply stating that through specs and long winded explanation, this ad conveys it in a simpler but more memorable way.


By the early to mid 90s, Apple’s ads still contained kernels of the former emphasis on simplicity from earlier years, yet, they started to lose their way. Ads began to cram more and more information into them, and became more similar to the competition. There are no clear examples of a truly minimalist ad in this time period that was on par with some of the earlier examples. Apple lost its way both in terms of computers and advertising during the 90s.

However, by 1997, Steve Jobs made his famous return to Apple, rejuvenating not only the product line, but also bringing back, in full force, their emphasis on simplicity in advertising.


Continue reading Part 2 of this series exploring Apple’s advertising from 1997 to the present.

The Podcasters : Brad Fortin

This is a continuing series in which I interview 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.

Brad Fortin is a Canadian podcaster (our third Canadian in this series) who is currently focussed on growing his own independent podcasting network.

What podcasts do you host?

My forray into podcasting began with my friend Tal. For a long time we floated around the idea of a podcast and finally got into it toward the end of 2012 with The Distraction. It started off as a tech site and podcast and slowly evolved into an interview show. We had quite a few good shows over its run but due to time constraints we weren’t able to keep a regular schedule and eventually decided to put the show on indefinite hiatus.

Then, toward the end of 2013 I decided to start my own podcast, with BlackJack, and hookers. Alright, no BlackJack, nor hookers, but I did start podcasting again. I actually started a few podcasts in the hopes of eventually creating a small network of podcasts, under the Two Mono Channels network. The name is a play on words from when Tal and I were chatting with Dan Benjamin of 5by5. We were discussing editing and quality, there was a bit of confusion about mixing, and the Two Mono Channels name was born from the confusion.

I’m still not quite sure which direction I’m taking with the network. In terms of content it’s all over the place with about a dozen ideas for podcasts, and a few episode ideas per podcast. In terms of scheduling I’m aiming for at least 1 new episode per month from the network. Eventually, if I get all my podcast ideas off the ground, I hope to have 1 episode of each podcast out per month. With up to a dozen podcasts that should work out to 2 or 3 episodes per week, which I think is manageable but might be a bit much if I’m trying to balance that with a full-time job. My current focus is on The Metacast, a podcast about podcasts and podcasting, and Handsome Bearded Gentlemen, a discussion show where beards and manners are optional but handsomeness is always assured.

The problem with podcasting is that there isn’t a very good way to make money from it. More than anything it’s a hobby for me right now. If I ever monetize Two Mono Channels I don’t want it to be through ads because I hate ads. I’ve had a few ideas for monetization but until I try them I won’t know how effective they are. I look forward to trying them out later this year.

What’s your physical rig? (Computer, Mic, headphones, other accessories.)

I use my iMac as my recording machine. It’s a late-2009, 27″ (2560×1440), 2.8 GHz Intel quad-core i7-860 (the only iMac at the time with Hyper-Threading), with 12 GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 4850 with 512 MB of VRAM, a 180 GB SSD as my OS X Mavericks drive, and a 120 GB SSD as my Boot Camp drive.

On the OS X side I have HiDPI mode enabled so that the screen behaves like a giant 1280×720 display, similar to how the MacBook Pro with Retina Display works. I also run most of my apps in Full Screen mode. I’m a monster. I keep Boot Camp for gaming despite the fact that the ATI 4850 can barely handle any new games unless I set the resolution to 720p.

I use a Shure PG27-USB as my recording microphone, which I got cheaply from a co-worker who didn’t need it. The only thing keeping me from “eating the mic”, as it’s commonly called, is a pop filter. Most of the time I have a pair of Apple EarBuds plugged into the mic as a secondary output for my Mac, but when I record I use my Bose QC-20s.

What type of room do you record in?

I record in my bedroom, of all places. Until I get my own place this is the best I can do and it’s worked well enough for me so far. It can get a little loud once in a while because my room is next to the kitchen, to the back door to the house, and to the bathroom. I try to schedule my recording away from those busy times, but once in a while you can hear someone doing dishes or running water in the background. I don’t mind it all that much.

Ideally I’d record from an office or recording studio (dreaming big!).

What software do you use for recording and editing?

I typically use Skype for the calls, Call Recorder for Skype to record the audio, and then GarageBand for editing. I don’t have very much experience with editing and GarageBand already has more tools than I know how to use so I don’t see myself upgrading my editing software until I have greater needs or a piece of software comes out that makes it easier and faster.

I’ve been told I should invest in a program like Logic or Hindenburg but that’s more than I’m willing to spend on a hobby that’s not making any money at the moment, especially when GarageBand already meets or exceeds my needs.

What do you use to host your podcasts online?

I currently use Squarespace (the all-in-one platform that makes it easy to create your own website, blog, or portfolio…) to host my podcasts, although I’ve also considered Simplecast for its simplicity, or Libsyn for its versatility and robustness.

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

The first step to recording any podcast is to create the universe.

When recording a podcast I like to start with some good show notes, or at least a good idea of what I want to record. It sometimes takes days, even weeks to come up with just the right set of show notes or show ideas. If there’s a guest I’ll get a hold of them and see how much information they need, such as the show notes, and schedule a recording time.

Once the show is recorded I split the tracks if I need to, then I meticulously arrange the audio files in a series of folders, backup folders, and Dropbox folders. Just in case.

After that’s taken care of I open an existing template for one of my podcasts or start a new one, drag the files in, and begin stripping the audio of all the parts I don’t want. It’s like taking a piece of wood, ice, or aluminium and carving it into a work of art. It takes lots of work, lots of time, and lots of patience. It also requires that I listen to the show multiple times, and parts of the show dozens or hundreds of times until it’s been put together correctly.

Then I export the audio, create a new post on Squarespace, upload the audio, fill out the metadata, and schedule the post for publishing.

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

The most important thing I’d like to change is portability.

Right now my life is split between living at home during the week (before and after work), and staying with my fiancé during the weekend. My biggest problem with this is that I can only go through most of my recording workflow when I’m at home during the week, either before or after work. The rest of the time I’m without my tools. Being able to bring them with me would give me a bit more versatility.

The alternative would be having my own place. My fiancé and I have been house hunting for over 2 years but still haven’t found a place that we like. Once we have our own place I won’t need my tools to be portable and I’ll be able to record in a better environment.

Neither of those would make my shows any better, but they would at least make the workflow easier for me.

I’d also consider getting a new Mac soon. My iMac is getting close to 5 years old, it’s running faster than ever thanks to my recent RAM and SSD upgrades, but the i7-860 and ATI (now AMD, that’s how long it’s been) 4850 can barely keep up with Mavericks. I’d like to upgrade to a 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display, but only if it gets a better GPU like Intel’s Iris Pro graphics or the dedicated graphics that the 15″ model can get. When I upgrade I want a machine that’s better than my current machine in every way, even if I’m going from a desktop to a laptop.

Also, if I could make enough money from this to hire someone to take care of all the booking, recording, editing, mixing, and publishing, that would be great.

The Simplified Complexity of Apps

On a recent episode of CMD+Space, Russell Ivanovic, one of the creators of Pocket Casts, discussed the competition that has grown around his app:

I think the downside though of us kind of being one of the bigger players is that a lot of these new apps that are coming out, their selling point is that they’re super simple. We started with that concept originally. In fact there’s an app that came out recently, Castro, and the way that app is laid out, obviously not the way it looks, but the way it’s laid out is very, very similar to version 1 or version 2 of Pocket Casts, even down to the podcast and episode toggle thing at the top. I’m not saying they copied us, I don’t think they would have ever seen those versions of Pocket Casts. But more that a lot of the ideas these guys are having are ideas we’ve had originally, and we’ve kind of refined those ideas and changed them over time. But the benefit they have is they can come into the market and they can say – here’s something super simple, way simpler than Pocket Casts, and so much easier to understand, and not many features and nothing to get sort of tripped over by. Where as we can’t really do that.

Once you have a customer base and once you’re supporting all of them and once they come to love all the different features that you have, it’s never easy to try and pare that stuff back. But I mean on the flip side of that is I see a lot of those apps that launch and people are like “I love his app, it’s so awesome, so simple.” And then they’ll request every single feature that they have in Downcast or Pocket Casts or Instacast or whatever podcasting app they use. It’s interesting to see what those guys do with that then. Do they keep their app simple or do they start slowly adding those features in?

CMD+Space “87: Developing a Podcast App, with Russell Ivanovic” 1:03:00

For years I’ve noticed that most applications slowly evolve from simple to complex. In some ways it’s just the natural order of the universe, that things will always evolve over time and become more complicated. However, the rapid pace of technology seems to push apps extremely quickly in this direction. Something like a stapler can pretty much remain in its original form for decades. However, a word processing application can’t remain the same for even a year or two without people complaining and wanting updates and new features and more functionality.

Therein lies the difficulty in making an app with the intention of having it be simple – can you keep that up indefinitely? Say you want to make a simple, elegantly designed photo editing app. You release it and it’s popular and widely praised for its simplicity. Then what do you do? Can you just decide you’ve achieved your vision and leave it in the app store, untouched, for the next five years?

Past history seems to give a resounding “no” to that question. Apps that aren’t updated or changed are seen as languishing or even dead. Users usually quickly flee and something almost always steps in to corner the market. So app developers are always under this constant pressure to iterate and improve an app – the biggest way being to add more features and complexity. Yet, that then quickly takes away the minimalistic aesthetic that made the app so appealing in the first place.

The quote about Pocket Casts shows the churn that this type of app development causes. You first have the super simple and elegant app that becomes a hit in version 1.0. However, as the versions continue, features are added, the interface is overhauled, more settings are added, more options, more of everything. At a certain point, a competitor usually tries to swoop in with a “simple” alternative and many flock to that. However, that simple competitor than will undergo the same evolution as the original hit app, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t exclusive to apps either. A great example of this churn can be seen in the evolution of Apple’s operating systems. Look all the way back to the early 80s and Apple had the rather complex and hard to use Apple II system in place. However, it ditched that for the Macintosh, a much simpler, easier to use OS. But the Mac OS followed the usual pattern of gaining more and more complexity over the years.

So what eventually happened? The churn continued when Apple introduced the super simplified iPhone, a complete break from all the complex baggage of the Mac. Version 1.0 of iOS (then simply called iPhone OS) didn’t have apps, multitasking, or even copy and paste. Yet, seven years later, iOS is tremendously more complex compared to the original 1.0 release. Yet, users wanted that, they cried out for features every year, and Apple added them back in every year.

I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy. You can initially satisfy the simple side, but soon users shift their focus and clamor for complexity. It’s contradictory behavior, as is much of human nature. It becomes a game of tug of war – the developer pulling on one side to keep his or her app’s ideal minimalist vision, and the users pulling on the other side by requesting more and more functionality. There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer to this issue, and instead we are left with the ever present churning of simple to complex, simple to complex…

The Podcasters : Sean Chin

This is a continuing series in which I interview 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.

Sean Chin is an up and coming podcaster from Toronto, Canada, who is deep into the music and pop culture scene.

What podcasts do you host?

Hello Linus! Thank you for having me in this fantastic podcasting series.

I currently host and produce the Capsule Podcast on Live in Limbo. This show is all about music, film, and pop-culture. I like to think of it as an audio extension of the photo and text-based website. The publication is now five years old and I thought it would be a good time to spice things up. Since starting Capsule at the beginning of 2014, we have been fortunate enough to talk with some phenomenal musicians and artists thus far. And can’t wait to feature more! Right now, we are attempting to put out two episodes per week.

In the past, I co-hosted a campus radio show called Detuned Radio. This show lasted for a good three years. While it obviously was not a podcast, I feel that it gave me a relatively solid foundation of how to present my self “on air” as we like to say. I also got to learn some really interesting things, such as mic technique, how to operate a mixer, and conduct interviews.

In the future, I would actually like to take part in a whole bunch of podcasts. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of topics that I’m interested in.

What’s your physical rig? (Computer, Mic, headphones, other accessories.)

I currently do all of my work on a mid-2010 MacBook Pro hooked up to a Dell Ultrasharp U2412m. My MBP has 8GB of RAM, which is seriously not enough for what I do anymore.

My sword errm…mic is an Electro-Voice RE20. It is incredibly overkill for podcasting. But it is also a radio broadcasting industry standard. I learned about this mic from my time in radio and luckily got a sweet deal on it. It is also the same mic that Radiohead front man Thom Yorke enjoys using for studio vocals. The EV RE20 is mounted on Rode PSA-1 arm, which is really smooth and flexible. Even though the RE20 has some built in pop filters, I still suited it up with an foam windscreen. And to add protection from vibration, I have an Electrovoice 309A shock mount.

The audio interface between my MBP and RE20 is a Zoom H6. This is brand new product that can host up to six XLR inputs and has physical gain knobs. It’s powerful yet incredibly compact. This is useful for doing shows and interviews on the road versus carrying a giant mixer.

The headsets I monitor with are the Audio-Technica ATH-A900X. They are very comfortable and neutral sounding. It’s great for listening to music and editing my podcasts.

What type of room do you record in?

I record in a medium sized room/studio in my house. There are two windows and hard wood flooring, which probably doesn’t help enhance the sound quality. There isn’t too much echo or other random noises that would ruin my recordings. But I know that I should probably add some sound proofing material on the walls.

What software do you use for recording and editing?

Currently, I use Skype for connecting with guests and have Ecamm’s Call Recorder running in the background. I record my own end and then edit in Logic Pro X . I take show notes afterwards on Byword for Mac in dark mode.

What do you use to host your podcasts online?

I am hosting all episodes of Capsule on the 400mb plan from Libsyn. It’s pretty good so far. It’s reliable and fast. I really like the statistics that package provides as well.

From there, I created a custom category RSS feed on Live in Limbo’s WordPress CMS using the PowerPress plugin. And then that RSS feed is read by iTunes, Instacast and other podcatchers.

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

Oh boy, where do I begin? I guess it all starts off with a topic or theme of each episode of Capsule. If we have a special guest, then we base the discussion around their thoughts, industry insights, and their new music or project.

From there, my co-host Andreas Babiolakis and I do quite a bit of research before the podcast session. We like to ask questions that artists have not really been asked before to keep things fresh and interesting.

We typically record on Wednesday nights or Saturday mornings. But a lot of time this is flaky, because it ultimately depends on when our musical guest is available. And you know how those types are.

We start recording about fifteen to twenty minutes prior to the scheduled time, just to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

I get asked this a lot. But I never ask our guests to record their own end of the podcast session. In my opinion, it puts too much friction on their part. And they are taking time out of their already busy schedules. So, I am very grateful for that as is. Can you imagine asking David Bowie to record his side of the conversation in GarargeBand?

After the recording is finished. I split the .MOV file made from Skype Call Recorder and then convert it to an .AIFF file. Then, I import that into Logic Pro X with my pre-made template and add my own track. The template I have has separate tracks for me, the co-host, the guest, and bumper music.

When the entire episode is edited, I save it as .AIFF file for archival purposes. And then create a 128kbps stereo .MP3 file in iTunes. Lately, I’ve been uploading this .MP3 file to Auphonic, which does a really awesome job at applying adaptive limiting, compression, and noise reduction (AKA I’m too lazy to do it myself). After downloading this normalized file, I add metadata to it with ID3 Editor.

This “master” 128kbps .MP3 file is then uploaded to Libsyn, which I then insert into a new post on Live in Limbo, along with a graphic and show notes. Podcatchers will capture that RSS feed and disseminate it.

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

As a digital photographer, website runner and now podcast producer, my old but trusty MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM just isn’t really cutting it anymore. Even with Mavericks.

I would love to get a 6-core 3.5 GHz Mac Pro with 64GB of RAM. That is definitely overkill. But I also use it for heavy duty tasks such as editing RAW files in Photoshop and HD footage in Final Cut Pro X.

While the Zoom H6 is great for recording multi-tracks. I found this really neat mixer called the Presonus 16.0.2, and it connects to your Mac via FireWire (or Thunderbolt adapter) and can record multi-tracks. And it has enough inputs to allow you to do a “mix minus” for telephone call interviews with a Telos HX2 Hybrid. It’s a hobby, but I love it.

If you’ve found me interesting, please feel free to follow me on Twitter @SeanChin and my personal blog.

The Podcasters : Erik Hess

This is a continuing series in which I interview 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.

Erik Hess is a man of many talents, from podcasting to web design to flying fighter jets. Yes, fighter jets.

What podcasts do you host?

I co-host Technical Difficulties with Gabe Weatherhead. Before that, I helped Gabe co-host the second half of his previous show, Generational.

We release an episode of Technical Difficulties once a week. One episode per month, we release an hour-long show where we chat with someone about their area of expertise. The other weeks we spend about thirty minutes covering one tech-oriented topic in detail. If fitting a lot of detail into thirty minutes seems like a difficult task, it usually is.

We make up for our short air-time by posting show notes that depart strongly from the traditional, context-free blizzard of links. Our notes provide time-stamped topic headers, asides with additional depth on difficult subjects, and extended commentary that would be too lengthy (and probably too boring) if we put it on-air.

We owe the new format to our silent co-host Potatowire, who wanted to create notes that could stand on their own, and in some ways overshadow the audio recording. They’re an experiment that’s still evolving week-by-week, but so far we feel they’ve been a great success.

What’s your physical rig? (Computer, Mic, headphones, other accessories.)*

My recording and editing machine is a 2012 Mac Mini with a Quad-Core i7 that I bumped up last year to 16 GB of RAM and a 480 GB SSD. There’s a 6 TB LaCie 2big Thunderbolt drive plugged in for extra storage, which comes in handy for uncompressed audio and video files.

As far as audio equipment is concerned, I talk into a Blue Yeti in cardioid mode on a Radius shock mount. That rig and a Nady MPF-6 pop filter are suspended from a Heil PL-2T boom mounted on the back of my desk. I wear a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones which sound great and are extremely comfortable. They connect through the Yeti’s headphone jack, so it’s all USB from there to the computer.

In an effort to minimize clicking and clacking while recording I use a Logitech K811 as my primary keyboard. It’s comfortable, very quiet, and the backlighting has come in handy during early-morning editing sessions. My mouse is a Logitech G700, but I try to avoid it as much as possible while recording. Instead, I use an Apple Magic Trackpad in tap-to-click mode, which is as close to silent as you can get. When editing I revert to the mouse, but the trackpad is still handy for scrolling left-to-right through long audio tracks in GarageBand.

I used to use an iPad mini for mid-show research and communication, and while it was quiet, it ended up being more cumbersome than using a conventional keyboard and trackpad.

What type of room do you record in?

I record in my home office, which is a bit problematic from a sonic perspective. It’s uncarpeted and there’s not much on the walls, so it ends up being a pretty loud space. The Yeti’s directionality helps a bit, and I’ve put a rug on the floor. The shutters on the windows probably help as well. We’ve also got a big dog who likes to bark. You can hear him on a few recordings when I wasn’t able to edit him out.

Overall my office is a nice space to work, it’s just not ideal for recording.

What software do you use for recording and editing?

We start with Skype and eCamm Call Recorder. It’s dead-simple to use and has proven extremely reliable in practice. Gabe and I each record the show to make sure we have a backup, but it’s rarely needed.

Call Recorder dumps the episode into a stereo .mov file, and we use their bundled tools to split the sides of the conversation and turn them into separate, uncompressed mono tracks. From there I import them into an older version of Apple GarageBand for editing.

Thanks to a tip from Ben Alexander of Fiat Lux, we’re trying out a new web-based post-production service called Auphonic that automates a lot of the audio tweaks I used to do manually (and poorly) in GarageBand. Auphonic has got a lot of features and is worth a look for any podcaster who isn’t a highly-confident audio professional.

What do you use to host your podcasts online?

Hosting and RSS have been a big challenge for us. Our ideal service would support direct-URL file download, a rich iTunes-compatible RSS feed, excellent stats, some social features, and a top-notch cross-platform web audio player.

That platform doesn’t exist, so we’re currently using a half-broken hodgepodge of services to get as close as we can. As you’d imagine, that approach increases our workload and has often challenged our listeners’ patience. As a result, I’m not recommending our current “solution” to anybody until we can find something that’s simple and stable.

I’ll start where most of our new listeners do, and that’s with iTunes. We struggled for nearly two months to get our standards-compliant RSS feed accepted to the iTunes directory and finally gave up, as Apple support, and even the iTunes engineering team had no idea why our feed was constantly being rejected by their system. In the end we pointed iTunes to our Soundcloud beta feed so we would show up in podcast apps without our listeners having to manually add the URL.

Soundcloud is an essential and occasionally frustrating part of our workflow. On the plus side, it has a great embedded web player, a large community of listeners, and excellent sharing options. It also lets us link directly to time stamps in our show notes, a key element of our section headers and fancy pull-quotes.

Once we got into Soundcloud’s podcasting beta program we had access to an iTunes-compatible RSS feed. As a result, we have them to thank for finally getting our show out in front of most audiences.

On the minus side, they don’t offer a copy-paste compatible direct download URL for their tracks. This is pretty much the only thing holding us back from using them exclusively. We have lots of listeners who prefer Huffduffer or just like downloading and listening to podcasts manually, and we’d prefer a non-hacky way of enabling that.

To provide that missing direct-download capability, we use Buzzsprout. They were our file host for Generational, and we’ve been very happy with their price and ease-of-use. We just kept our account going when we transferred to the new show and everything has been working fine.

Until very recently Soundcloud’s podcasting beta didn’t support full HTML (links, lists, etc.) in the show notes field, which meant no links. For a notes-focused podcast that wasn’t going to hack it, so we offered a separate RSS feed just for the notes. That gap in Soundcloud’s capability has now been fixed, but those RSS feeds will have stay up pretty much indefinitely.

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

We start by collaborating on a list of potential topics and guests in Google Drive. We narrow them down and prioritize the list as a team, then try to select the next show with enough lead time that we have an opportunity for research. Recording day usually goes pretty quickly, and we do our best to knock out a couple of episodes at once so we stay ahead of our release calendar. Some weeks that works well, and some weeks it doesn’t.

Gabe usually creates the show outline as an iThoughts mind-map or a markdown document, and we use that to shape our conversation during the recording. As we work through the outline, Gabe and I keep a back-channel open through iMessage. We’ll probably be moving that over to Slack for our next recording session, since we already conduct the vast majority of our other communications there.

Once the show is saved to disk, I start editing in GarageBand. The show uses a Statamic-based CMS we extended ourselves, and all episodes are saved as markdown files with extensive YAML front matter and custom template snippets for the fancier elements. We don’t take a lot of notes during the show (I’m easily distracted) so I create the initial core of our show notes while I edit, roughing in the general structure, key links, pull-quotes, and time stamps. Our header images are taken from the incredibly rich open-access vaults of Flickr Commons.

Once the editing and rough draft of the notes are complete, I upload the audio files to Soundcloud as a private recording (so it doesn’t go out over iTunes) and push the show notes shell via github to our staging server. From there, Potatowire digs in and adds the detail, backstory and helpful asides that make our show notes really shine. Gabe follows up with an editing pass, adding his own flavor as well as any critical elements we may have missed.

On release day I do a final once-over, upload to Buzzsprout, commit the changes to the show notes, and deploy the site to our production server, which hosted on Webfaction. Immediately thereafter I make the Soundcloud file public, which updates iTunes and sends the episode out to our listeners’ podcatchers. Finally, we tell the world it’s live by sending the episode to Huffduffer and posting it to our Twitter account.

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

In general I’m quite happy about how our setup has evolved, but there are a few places we could still improve.

The CMS is growing and changing every episode as we extend it to handle new or troublesome situations. That sort of regular tweaking will probably continue as the show develops, and if it stops then that’s likely because we’re not doing the show anymore.

Our single-machine all-digital workflow means we currently can’t break our guest’s recordings out onto a separate track for editing without the perils of double-ending. While our new show has cut back on guest appearances significantly, that’s still the next major hardware challenge I’d like to overcome.

Unfortunately that will probably be preempted by our next major software challenge. Since our GarageBand ’11-based workflow is already obsolescent and there’s been no indication that the latest iteration of GarageBand will restore the lost podcasting functionality, I’ve been looking at some other, more capable alternatives like Logic Pro X or Adobe Audition CC. This will likely happen sooner rather than later, but first I’ve got to find the time to learn the new software.

The Daily Zen #16 “A Hive Mind of Clichés”

My last Daily Zen of the week. I’ll go back to intermittingly posting these in the future on a decidedly non-daily schedule. Let us begin.


I realized I picked a bad week to decide to write something new everyday. It’s been quite the drain and very tough to balance with a number of other things I have going on. Yet, I did it. I pushed through and here I am, five consecutive posts later. I’d like to write about the power of pushing through, getting work done, and not giving in, but that’s all clichéd self-help bullshit. Anyone reading this has already heard that before.

So I’m not going to give you any advice. You’ve heard all the advice, read all the fun factoids, contemplated all the mind bending ideas. Everything has already been saturated into your mind through the endless torrent of information that the wondrous and magical INTERNET provides. Anything you think is an original thought is just a Google search away from being a blog post some guy wrote in 2011. The trends simply repeat every few years in slightly different ways, the fads simply call back to earlier fads, the stories echo older stories. Everything seems to be swirling in an endless vortex of mass information.

Soon everyone’s minds will simply be copies of copies of copies and eventually we all will merge into a single hive mind of clichés. Maybe that will be the true singularity. The scary part is we won’t even realize what has happened. We’ll all continue posting to each other on the latest social platform an endless loop of recycled ideas, never realizing in the slightest that all our original thoughts have been used up. In many ways this has already begun…


Old Movie of the Day: Star Wars. I love Star Wars, although realize that is a giant cliché. Enjoy.


Instead of following me on Twitter, follow a random person. We’re all talking about the same stuff most of the time anyway.