February 26, 2017

Lessons learned from editing my first podcast

If you've been following my blog or Twitter account, you probably saw this appear a couple of weeks back:

During the European Testing Conference, Dan Billing and I were inspired by a great opening talk from Rosie Sherry, entitled Why and How Testers Should Act Like Marketeers. Rosie challenged us to find inspiration, share stories, get people excited and to "infiltrate the web with goodness".

At that exact same time, I was drafting the blog post which would become Screen Testing: Deepwater Horizon, and mulling over an idea that this could make quite an interesting podcast series. I'd also been looking for an excuse to record with Dan, after we had to abandon our previous plans for a Father Ted podcast when I discovered there's already a really popular one.

So, spurred on by Rosie's message, and after replacing the rubbish placeholder "Testing In The Movies" name with a much better one, Screen Testing was born!

And Episode 0 (our introductory episode) is out now.

We went from initial concept, to first episode launched, in two weeks. That might make it seem as if it was plain sailing. It wasn't, but we at least had the good sense to plan for problems. Here are a few lessons that I learned on the road to Episode 0, together with some audio outtakes that we might have preferred had stayed buried!

Always ALWAYS test your audio!

We took the common-sense step of recording an episode which we knew that we never intended to air, purely so that we could iron-out any major problems before we were recording content that mattered. And, oh my, am I glad we took this decision. Our demo episode (AKA "Episode -1") had some really good material, but I would have been heartbroken if I'd been intending to release it, because there were some massive audio problems (read on to discover/hear more).

The demo episode certainly served its purpose, but we haven't stopped testing our audio. As it can often be a couple of weeks between episodes, during which we might have reconfigured any number of our audio devices (I use three separate microphones and two separate cameras through the course of my day-to-day work!) we still did a full end-to-end demo (recording, editing, exporting) immediately before we present record on Episode 0, to make sure the sound was up to standard. We'll do this before every episode, as it's one less thing to worry about once recording starts.

Don't skimp on microphone quality.

As a remote worker, I spend a lot of time on video calls with colleagues. So I've got a couple of semi-decent headsets, and I thought that I could probably get away with using one of these for the podcast.

As soon as I joined the call with Dan to start our first episode, he commented that he could hear a weird hiss from my audio. I told him not to worry about it, but it turns out that I should have listened to him.

Here's a brief clip from our demo recording, where you'll hear how hissy my audio was, particularly in comparison to Dan's crystal-clear vocals:

The hiss (whatever it was) actually cleared up after a few minutes, but it didn't solve all of my audio problems. My posable headset mic also had issues with registering that I'd started talking, and as a result it kept crushing or dropping syllables when I spoke; here's a non-hissy section which is still not up to standard -

The chaos with my microphone is the main reason that we could never release Episode -1, because although the content was top-notch, so much of it (my audio in particular) was incomprehensible.

Not wanting to mess around or take chances, and through the power of Amazon Prime, I had a production-quality microphone at my fingertips the very next day - and I have to say, it was love at first listen.

Don't take too many steps at once

One of our other reasons for recording a demo episode was to check that we could play audio clips throughout the episode, and still have them sound okay. And again, it's a good job that we practiced this!

I got cocky and assumed I could solve the problem by setting my Audio Input to my PC's "Stereo Mix" (i.e. the main mixed sound source on the machine). This way, both my microphone and our YouTube clips would get routed through the same channel, and I wouldn't have to worry about a third input source.

This worked okay for the first clip that I played, as I'd tested its levels in advance to make sure it would be the correct volume for us to talk over. However, Dan provided me with his YouTube link quite late, so I didn't have time to balance the levels. And because my microphone was on the same channel as the YouTube clip, it was impossible to reduce the sound of the clip without also making it impossible to hear my voice.

WARNING: This gets VERY. LOUD.

For Episode 0, we took the decision to do any audio inserts (such as the opening/closing theme, and spoiler alarms) in post-production, to reduce the number of moving parts. I'm intending to do the same for Episode 1 too, which might be a hassle when we're recording ("this is the bit where I'll insert a clip") but it severely reduces the editing headache.

Pick a tool, learn it, embrace it

I opted to use Audacity for editing our episodes, as it has quite a powerful toolset (and it's free). However, it was rather overwhelming at first, and I was quite worried that the editing process was going to become time-consuming.

However, with practice I've learned that there are only a few important buttons. There's an option for silencing part of one track (useful if you start talking over each other), there's one for cutting out sections (if bits go wrong), and a "time shift" tool which lets you drag gaps into the middle of your recording (to make room for a clip). With just these tools, I was able to edit Episode 0 in one single session from start to finish, making subtle cuts/mutes where needed.

There are plenty of similar tools to Audacity, and you may find a different one that you prefer. The key thing is to experiment with what it can do, and learn which options will benefit you most - you'll thank yourself when you're editing.

My current setup

Here's a list of all the tools which are involved in bring an episode of Screen Testing to your ears. Aside from the initial (and, IMO, necessary) outlay for the microphone, I was surprised how many excellent tools are available for free:

So, ignoring the initial outlay for my microphone, we're hosting our podcast for only $15 per month! Those costs might increase if we release longer, more frequent episodes, or if I decide to take on a second podcast (which I might do - I've certainly caught the bug).

This all meant that we were able to publish Episode 0 only two weeks after having the initial idea for the podcast - including the time to record the unreleased episode, and to learn from those mistakes. It just goes to show, time and money needn't be an issue if you have a great idea that you want to share with the world!

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