How I Built My Podcasting System: Nick Batt of Sonic TALK
Making a podcast can be as simple as setting up a USB microphone, or putting your DSLR into video mode and pressing Record. But there's something to be said about a show that harnesses audio, video, graphics, remote guests, live streaming and more. Sonic TALK is a weekly, UK-based audio/video podcast about music technology, and its host, Nick Batt, has incorporated a variety of technologies in order to make the show more dynamic.
How did Sonic TALK start out?
Sonic TALK started as an audio-only podcast, using Skype. The show was recorded as an MP3 stereo file, which we edited and uploaded. We still do this. I record to a Zoom H4N, and use an audio program called Reaper to edit the MP3 file. I play the file back at 1.5 speed, to hasten the edit!
Over time, the show evolved into video, too. When we first started doing that, I was using multiple FireWire inputs into a Mac Pro desktop computer from DV cameras. I added a USB webcam, and moved to Skype video conferencing for the remote guests. Most of our guests are remote—from the UK, Germany and the US. They join the conference call, and I record portions of the screen for individual shots. Occasionally we have guests in the studio, too.
In regard to video switching and streaming, what equipment do you use?
All the switching is done in software. We use an excellent free app called CamTwist. It allows multiple cameras, screen grab areas, web browsers, Skype windows and the like, to be defined as shots and routed and layered to program output.
For streaming, I use Flash Media Live Encoder. I take the virtual output of CamTwist (it shows up as a USB camera input to Flash Media Live Encoder) plus an audio input from our mixer, a Yamaha DM1000.
The Yamaha is required to do a number of things. Firstly, when processing video in software, a delay is introduced, and I can compensate for this with the built-in channel and bus delays. The mixer also allows me to set up complex routing, mix minus back to Skype etc. This can be one of the hardest parts of setting up a live podcast. My mic is a Rode Procaster. I find it rejects more of the fan noise from all of the CPUs we have running!
If you had to replace your DM1000 with a current mixer, do you know what you would get (assuming budget is a factor)?
If I had to replace the DM1000, I'd get a Behringer x32—I think perhaps the 16-channel version. Very impressed with that from our review, actually—apart from the digital input and clocking options. Editor's note: here's a link to Nick's review of the x32
I'm a sucker for figuring out how to do things alternatively—at least as an alternative to throwing money at a problem to solve. Sonic TALK is at around its 336th episode as I write this, so I've had plenty of time to tinker, which I guess I like to do.
Primarily, the show is run from a Mac Pro. We use that to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this production. Though it does have its limits, I think we are pretty much at the edge of what it can do—but it's a 2009 8-Core 2.4GHz. With a Blackmagic DecLink Studio card in it.
I produce the show as well as host it, so it is essential that it can be operated by a single person. I have tried to simplify this so others can switch, which does take the load off. It's quite tricky to be able to hold a show together, verbally and technically, but you get used to it.
Do you use more than one computer in your studio to produce the show?
Yes, we use several. It's a complex production, so one machine cannot handle it all. The main Mac Pro does the Skype conference call, encoding, chatroom monitor and video playback for flying in clips.
A MacBook Pro has my notes, plus a second screen for web pages, which is captured via remote desktop into CamTwist. Finally, a MacMini captures the H264 720 output as HDMI via a Blackmagic H264 recorder, which is then uploaded to YouTube.
More computers would make it less of a strain on our existing ones, but would add to the complexity of operation. I have had a couple of times when I was recovering from a cold and I wasn't on my game, where I have literally been unable to fathom how to get something working. I would like to simplify it so others could easily step in. But having said that, when hosting and producing, you know what shot to go to more instinctively.
Do you use any hardware controllers?
I use a Korg nanoKONTROL MIDI controller. I'm on my second one now (I wore out the first one). It's perfect, as it has so many buttons and faders, so that I can assign plenty of actions.
The nano sends MIDI to an application called MidiPipe. One of its features is that it lets you interpret MIDI events and execute AppleScript events. I then use this to trigger CamTwist, to make a shot live, play a movie, etc. It also passes MIDI on to other devices, as it can address other MIDI ports on the system, such as the Yamaha DM1000, to route movie audio to Skype, etc. It's very powerful, but rather dense to use.
In addition to the podcast, Sonicstate.com features news and reviews about music technology. How big of a role does podcasting play in the overall effort, and do you see this growing in the future?
The podcast is a constant, reviews are dynamic. You don't always know when something is going to arrive, or how long it will take to get a handle on it. Working to a deadline on reviews is not ideal, as you may miss something that takes time to uncover. The Sonic TALK weekly schedule can be difficult to fit in when time is tight, but I know I can always rely on our guests to keep it interesting, even if there are not so many good topics in a given week. We are very fortunate to have them—not everyone is comfortable in a live situation when speaking.
I would like to do more of this real-time content. It's advantageous that we can create over an hour of video content. With traditional multi-shot productions, you often have to create a narrative afterwards in post, which eats up resources, and these days, cost of production is a major factor.
Want to see this tech in action? Tune into Sonic TALK live every Wednesday at 10 a.m. (4 p.m. in the UK).