How To: Build A Podcast PC And Studio

Several benefits are available from podcasting. Companies can use podcasts to speak directly to clients, effectively extending the reach of the system builder's Web site. Because clients must register to receive podcasts, they are more likely to take the time to listen to them. While busy clients may not visit your Web site daily, listening to a podcast is easy and convenient. Today, quality audio podcasts are easy to produce and great advertising. And best of all, podcasting is free.

System builders can create their own podcasting setups, too. It's a great way to send clients the latest PC-technology updates. Tell them about upgrades to new technologies. Provide special offers, rebates and recalls. And send out security alerts.

In short, podcasting can offer a unique and powerful form of information delivery and advertising for you and your clients.

In this recipe, I will explore what podcasts are, how they work, and how to make them available from a Web site. I will also show how to build an efficient, affordable PC that can be used to produce high-quality audio content for podcasts. I will also recommend hardware and software that can improve podcast quality, and I'll let share my favorite podcasting tips and tricks.

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So What is a Podcast, Anyway?

A podcast is a media file that is distributed by subscription, whether paid or unpaid, over the Internet using a method called syndication feeds for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. The word "podcast" can refer to either the content or the method of syndication. What separates a podcast from other digital-audio formats is its ability to be downloaded automatically.

Despite the name, you don't need an Apple iPod to receive a podcast. In fact, any network-attachable device with the right software will do. This means that your message can reach customers an partners on all sorts of mobile devices, as well as desktop PCs and notebooks.

The two most common formats for syndication—that is, for distributing your podcast—are RSS (short for Really Simple Syndication) and Atom. Actually, they are two flavors of what is more or less the same thing: a "feed" or wrapper for pieces of regularly and sequentially-updated content, be they news articles, blog posts, photographs, or podcasts. Unless you're building a browser or newsreader from scratch, you won't need to know about the differences between Atom and RSS. But you will need an RSS-compatible browser or "feed reader" to start receiving podcasts on your PC.

There are many RSS/Atom-capable browsers available, including IE 7, now available as a release candidate for Windows XP users and Windows Vista beta testers. If you'd prefer to use a standalone RSS feed reader/aggregator, here are three, with links, that Microsoft has successfully tested with Windows XP:

Also, the latest versions of the alternative browsers—including Opera and Firefox—have built-in RSS readers. These let you register for a podcast just as easily and quickly as you would set a bookmark. So getting podcasts on a PC is now easier than ever.

How RSS/Atom Syndication Works

Here's an example of how syndication using RSS/Atom is used to automatically gather information. You no doubt have a list of Web sites you browse daily for updates, whether they're stored in your bookmarks or your head. If you find yourself loading 20 or 30 sites a day, as many of us do, you've probably noticed a few that don't update as frequently. Eventually, you're likely to stop checking them or just forget about them—not good.

But what if there were a way to have your bookmarks notify you when a site has been updated? That way, you wouldn't waste time checking sites that hadn't been updated.

Syndication provides the tools to do this. A feed reader, or aggregator (as they're also known to Web professionals), is a program that automatically checks your list of bookmarks and lets you know what's new on each site.

The feed reader goes beyond simple updates, though. It works by pulling in the feeds of your various bookmarks using the magic of RSS/Atom. As noted earlier, a feed is a wrapper for content items. So, in addition to notification, a feed can also deliver content that has been updated. This could be news flash from the home office in a text file or some media material, like an audio or video podcast.

Beyond using syndication to save time at your desk, a particularly nice feature is that you're able to take your news with you on the go. This is where the term "pod" comes in. Both Apple's iPod and MP3 devices work with their compatible software to upload content for people on-the-move. With RSS/Atom syndication on a portable device, you can have your feed reader grab the latest feeds before you rush to the airport. Then you can read or listen to the latest news of your choosing if the in-flight movie gets dull. In this way, RSS/Atom allow Web sites to "syndicate" their content, turning a PC, iPod or other Web-compatible device into a customizable multimedia news service.

Signing Up for an RSS Feed

Once you have a feed reader that you're comfortable with, it's easy to use RSS to sign-up for syndicated podcasts.

On Web pages, Web feeds handled by RSS and Atom are typically linked with the word Subscribe, an orange square, or a rectangle with the letters RSS or XML. Many news aggregators, such as My Yahoo, publish subscription buttons for use on Web pages to simplify the process of adding news feeds. You'll need a similar image on your Web site to let clients know you have podcast of your own waiting for them. While the exact steps will depend on your particular feed reader, below are some generic steps to show you how to sign-up for a feed.

Here are the three steps for signing up for an RSS feed:

Once you've signed up, you'll likely see a list of "unread" podcasts waiting for you. Just as you do with e-mail, you can mark them as "read" or catch up on previous communications. From here on, you'll only see new podcasts as they're posted, but you won't have to visit the site. Instead, RSS will do that for you. Ingredients for the Podcast Studio

To be effective, podcasts need to be of the best possible quality. Like it or not, the audio podcasts you make available to your clients will be compared with professionally-produced radio advertising and other voice recordings done in expensive studios.

Early podcasters built their own small studios, which included audio equipment such as microphones, pre-amps, mixers, analog-to-digital converters, equalizers and compressors. Fortunately, many of those devices are now built directly into PCs. Similarly, great advances have been made in recording software and with now-affordable microphone technology. These give even the home recordist the tools to create professional-sounding recordings. While you may not be able to produce a hit record or award-winning documentary soundtrack with the tools I'm about to show you, you can certainly produce a professional MP3 that's more than suitable for distribution on the Web.

What's more, you need only three main ingredients to build a modern podcast studio that's capable of producing professional podcasts: A high-quality microphone in a suitable studio environment, quality recording software, and a PC to act as a hard disk recorder. Let's take a closer look at each component in detail:

A Quality Microphone: Arguably, this is the most important component in the making of any recording. Professional studio engineers generally prefer "large diaphragm" microphones for the most realistic voice recordings. There are many quality microphones of this type to choose from. But by far the easiest to use for our purpose is the new breed of professional USB microphones designed for use with PCs.

Some of the first professional USB microphones were Samson's C01U USB Studio Condenser and the C03U Multi-Pattern USB Studio Condenser microphones. Both are excellent mics for recording voice, and both are much better than the inexpensive USB mics used by gamers. Here's a shot of the Samson C03U mic:

At less than $200, the C01U offers good quality with a USB interface that will plug into any desktop or laptop with a USB interface. The C03U costs a few extra dollars, but offers more features, such as selectable pick-up patterns: cardioid (for superior vocal reproduction), and a choice of either omni-directional (to pick-up sound in a room) or figure-eight (ideal for face-to-face interviews). Both mics use WinXP's standard audio drivers and work with all popular recording software. Recently, Samson has also created a Podcasting Pak by bundling their microphones with Cakewalk LE, a popular audio recording software title.

Another fine choice for a high-quality microphone is Blue Microphone's Snowball, which retails for about $100. Named for its snowball-like appearance (it's round, white and about the size of your average snowball), this microphone's versatility is achieved by a unique dual-capsule design. A three-position switch lets the user change between capsules. The first position activates the cardioid capsule, which enables a robust vocal sound. The second position engages a -10dB pad that's good for recording instruments. The third position activates both capsules to create an omnidirectional pattern, best for choirs, a boardroom of executives, or other widely dispersed sources.

The Blue and Samson USB microphones are also great alternatives to a high-quality PCI audio card and all the necessary outboard audio gear. In terms of quality, they're even better than recording into motherboard audio ports. While a good mic will cost a bit more, I believe the investment is worthwhile.

A final word on microphone selection: Don't confuse Blue and Samson high-quality mics with the popular USB Webcam or gamer mics that sell for much less. Podcasts made with these cheap microphones will sound thin and distorted. To create a professional-sounding podcasts, you simply must have a high-quality microphone that has been designed to record voices.

Recording Software: You have several good choices for audio-recording software. Price tags range from free to astronomical. The following table details my three favorite budget-saving titles. All three will meet the challenges of professional-quality recording, and all three have also been proven to work well with Windows XP. Because no software is perfect, I've also included some pros and cons for each:

Free download.
Low price, high availability.
No upgrade path, weak support.
$54 (download), $79 (24-bit version).
Well designed. Built-in MP3 encoder. Active user community.
Full feature set might challenge those new to recording.
Cakewalk/Music Creator
$39 (CD version), $29 (download).
Upgradeable to professional audio products. User groups and official support channels.
MP3 encoding with plug-in required, but must be purchased separately.

Audacity is a full-featured, high-quality audio recording program that is ideal for podcasters on a budget. It has most of the features of expensive recording software, plus it's easy to use. Here's what Audacity looks like when you start recording:

Whichever software you choose, ultimately you will need to get your recorded podcast into a media file type that is suitable for syndication. That means a file type with quality compression and one that devices and software can handle. Today, that means MP3. Recording software, however, will generally use its own file types for its internal use and provide a method to export audio files to a standard format like .WAV. Because of the extra cost and licensing issues, most recording software will not include a direct export to MP3. Audacity does provide a path to free conversion using another program called LAME, and Cakewalk provides a plug-in at an extra cost. Make sure you know your software's method of producing an MP3, because that is the file type in which you will want to publish your podcast.

PC: Having a great USB microphone like the ones mentioned above will go a long way toward improving the audio quality of anything recorded on a PC or notebook. In fact, until the recent arrival of USB mics, audiophiles would sneer at the mention of using a PC motherboard, due to the hardware's notoriously noisy audio inputs. But now that USB microphones do the sampling, the major concern about our motherboard is its ability to run software without audio "drop-outs" or hanging. So your motherboard should have a CPU and architecture that's fast enough to process wide audio samples for CD-quality audio. Most recording software require at least a 1.4 GHz CPU. Even better, choose a Pentium or Athlon processor for guaranteed compatibility with speeds of at least 2.6 GHz.

While you always want your PC to run cool, a PC for podcast recording will need to run both coolly and quietly. Extraneous noise from fans and disks will be picked up by a good microphone, and it will be audible (and annoying) in your podcasts. A quiet case, like the Antec Sonata pictured below, will keep the ambient noise low, keep the system cool, and provide a rock-solid frame for component installation:

You also want disks that are fast enough to keep up with today's audio-sampling rates. The conventional wisdom about recording audio and video is to separate the OS and recording files onto different disk partitions. Another method: Use two disks, partitioning one for the OS and the other for audio-recording files. This will yield the best results, especially if you ever need fast access to do multi-track recording with more than one microphone or other additional inputs.

Let's take a look at some of the best choices for podcast PC components. In the following table, I recommend various components for this system, and tell you why I like them:

Intel 865PERL
Mature; affordable; rock-solid with Firewire, SATA and RAID.
Intel P4 (2.6 MHz)
Hyperthreading; 800 MHz front-side bus. Plenty of horsepower for simple audio recording. Plus overhead for more sophisticated effects and production techniques.
CPU Cooling
ThermalTake P4SPARK7PLUS
Super-quiet fan with adjustable speed: Just 17 dBA at 20 C/10.42 CFM/1300 RPM. Vital if PC is anywhere near microphone.
Adequate for simple audio recording. But for more sophisticated productions, consider dual-head card to support a second monitor like the GeForce 5200Dual-head AGP (accelerated graphics port). Using the AGP slot improves the overall performance of the box.
1 GB
Two 512-MB DDR 400 (512 MB minimum).
Hard Disk Drive
Maxtor Ultra Series SATA
80 GB for the OS, 200 GB SATA for recording audio data.
Case (with fan)
Antec Sonata
High quality; quiet, 380-watt power supply; two 120-mm. controlled fans; airflow design; drive bays with rubber grommets to reduce noise from disk vibration.
Plextor PlexWriter 48/24/48A
Good speed; reliable supplier.
Windows XP Home or Professional (both SP2)
Most-current library of drivers, highest stability.

While there is nothing extravagant or cutting-edge about these podcast studio parts, you may have noticed some unusual choices. For example, I haven't opted for the fastest motherboard or processor, simply because it's not needed to record one track of audio at a time. Similarly, the choice of a mature rather than cutting-edge motherboard provides a rock-solid, proven platform, one that has firmware updates that fully address any issues the motherboard may have.

This parts list also offers a variable-speed fan. Just as a case or power supply can produce noise that will end up on our podcasts, the sound of rushing air from the CPU fan can also be a menace. All things being equal, the higher the fan's speed (as measured in rpm's), the more noise it will generate.

When we put all the pieces together in the next section, our high-quality, adjustable CPU fan will be much quieter than a standard CPU fan at high speeds. And it can be manually adjusted to an even slower (and quieter) speed during actual recording. 17 Steps for Assembling the Podcast PC

Here are the steps you'll need to take for assembling a PC designed for simple audio recording. Follow normal assembly procedures, but pay special attention to any detail that could become the source of extraneous noise. For example, tighten and check all screws. Where metal meets metal, consider adding a vinyl washer or a thin layer or cork or rubber. Keep cabling neat, and don't let it block the paths of airflow inside the case.

Tweaking Windows XP for Podcast Audio

Now that you have your podcast PC together, you'll want to spend some time exploring the recording software and creating some test recordings. Before you get started creating your first podcast, however, consider some these ideas to tweak your PC for better recording. I recommend that you try some or all of these before you get into production.

Windows XP contains many features and functions that you don't need to record a podcast. These features can rob precious CPU cycles and generate interrupts that can cause trouble for audio recording software. For this reason, you'll want to turn off XP's excessive graphic activity, system-maintenance functions, background tasks, and automated hardware-management for better recording.

Here are a few more of my favorite audio tweaks for Windows XP:

If you're not sure exactly how to do these tweaks, or would like other ways to improve Windows XP for digital audio, view this article: Tuning Tips. Tips and Tricks for Quality Podcast Recording

Here are a few tips, taken from professional recording engineers, to help make your podcast sound its best.

Avoid Ambient Noise: Any noise that is not related to your presentation will take away from your message. Radio and TV programs running in the background are obvious mistakes, but listen carefully to your recordings for background noise such as air conditioners and PC fans. Find a quiet location for your recording, and consider adding some cloth or other sound-absorbing material to any hard surfaces that might reflect unwanted sounds in the direction of an open mic.

Improper Recording Levels: Nothing shouts "amateur recording" like a voice that is so low, you can't hear it. Or one that is so loud, it's distorting. Or, worse of all, a recording level that fluctuates. Follow your recording software's recommendations for recording levels, and learn about good microphone technique.

Bad Microphone Technique: Professional voice artists and vocalists like to get one to four inches away from a good microphone. Then they stay in that position to achieve optimal recording levels and a natural-sounding recording. You should do the same.

Four Steps Toward Publishing a Podcast

OK, you've got a PC, a quality microphone, and the software needed to do your podcasting. What's next? Well, you do what all good radio and television producers do: plan your production. Then you'll do your recording, set up an RSS feed, and publish it. Once you've gone through the cycle once, it will be set up. So all you'll need to do is update your podcast with new recordings. Here are the steps:

Once everything is set up, updating your Web site with regular quality podcasts is straightforward. With regular podcasts, you will reach your customers directly with the latest news and offerings from your business. Whether you use your podcast studio to reach out to your clients or helping them reach out to theirs, podcasting is an effective and inexpensive way to use PC and Web technology to keep in touch with customers on the go. Now, that's great advertising!

ANDY MCDONOUGH is a professional musician, composer, voice actor, engineer, and educator happily freelancing in New Jersey.