Podcast Recording Shootout

So many VoIP programs, so little time. What's a podcaster to do?

Do you have a podcast? Okay, dumb question. Of course you do—podcasting is the blogging of tomorrow. It's quick, it's easy, it's not tied to a computer screen, and your audience members can take you with them anywhere on their iPod-ish devices. Best of all, you don't have to worry about actually learning to spell in order to inflict your opinions on others. So long as you can speak clearly and have fun doing it, you too can have a podcast. So who wouldn't want to do it?

I mean, you have an opinion you want to express, right? Or you have a story you want to tell. Or you simply have a desire to see what will happen if you gradually fade the volume out on your podcast until it's near zero, encouraging your listeners to turn their headphones up, before you blast them with a channel-saturating guitar riff to wake them up. The point is, you have a podcast, or you want one.

One thing you begin to notice when you get into podcasting is that listening to your own voice is boring—really boring. It's cathartic to rant into a microphone for half an hour and then put it on iTunes for the world to hear, but after a while, it's really nice to have listeners call in, or have guests, or pick up a cohost in another state.

How can you do it? Telephony, naturally.

Now, I must emphasize that not just any telephony client will work. Ekiga and Skype are not created equal. Neither are Gizmo and Twinkie. That doesn't mean they aren't all good for something, but good for something isn't the issue here. We need good for podcasting, which is a whole other spool of fiber-optic cable.

In my podcasting and production career, I've run into a lot of remote conferencing, and I've found that pretty much any remote conferencing is done for one reason: you can't get the talent into your recording studio (humble as it may be).

Why this can happen is a bit of another matter. For one of my podcasts, The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour (don't ask), my sometime-cohost lives halfway across the country, and to have any kind of intelligible real-time conversation, we needed a good telephony setup. This went double for when we needed to bring in guests for interviews. The basic requirements list is as follows:

  1. Good sound quality: this show is already going to be compressed to MP3; we don't want to start off with crappy sound in the first place.

  2. Ease of installation: most people still are fairly technophobic or tech-ignorant, and most people still run Windows. That means whatever telephony software you're using for your podcast conferencing, it has to be one that you can get guests up on in a few minutes. Longer or more troublesome than that, and you're going to hear the words of death: “Maybe we should do this another time.”

  3. Ease of dial-out/dial-in: sometimes, your guests just aren't going to be able to get on your VoIP network, and when that happens, you have to call them on a phone. In that case, you want the experience to go quickly and smoothly—there's nothing worse for your street cred than making a guest, who has carved out an hour for you, wait by the phone. Chances are you'll need to do this at some point. When you do, will it be quick and painless? Will the price be right?

  4. Ease of recording: of course, the best-sounding protocols on the slickest software in the world aren't going to get you anywhere if you can't record your conversations, and on this score, VoIP software is justly infamous. Because of the way most conference calls grab your sound ins and outs, it often kills the hardware duplexing your otherwise bright-and-shiny ALSA drivers usually support. But, a lot of people podcast over telephony, so there has to be a way.

  5. Carts: this is something from the old days when those of us who took broadcasting training at college radio stations actually had to juggle tapes. A cart was a tape cartridge on a continuous loop that contained station ID, sound effects, music beds or anything else we wanted to punch in to the broadcast. Nowadays with podcasting, most people just lay this stuff down in the final mix, but sometimes it's nice to be able to play things while the show is being recorded—sound effects, quotes from sources upon which you're commenting and so on. This is one of those nice-to-have-but-not-essential features, which does make life a lot easier.

Now, looking back over that list, the vast field of SIP clients narrows substantially. Instead of a couple dozen to pick from, there are only two that will fit the bill, and neither of them are open source.