Cutting Edge Podcasting System …

It’s been a while since I’ve been called upon to design an audio system suitable for Podcasting. In 2004 I built a site that focused on all aspects of Podcast Production. I will (reluctantly) disclose that I am the person who coined the term “Podcast Rig.”

Besides a prolific user forum and gear reviews, the site included systems that I designed at various levels of price and complexity. They are still viable some 10 years later. I eventually sold the rights to the property and content, and the site was unfortunately buried beneath The Podcast Academy, a site that published audio recorded at various conferences and events. These days I’m still actively involved in the space, handling audio post for a select group of clients.

I continue to get a good amount of use out of the gear that I bought to record my own podcast (2004-2006). For instance I still have my Electrovoice RE-20 mic on my boom, with a Shure SM7B and a Heil PR-40 stored in my closet. I’m still using a Mackie Mixer (Onyx 1220i), and my rack is full of analog processors including an Aphex Compellor, a dbx mono compressor, a dbx voice processor, and a Telos One Digital Phone Hybrid. Up top in the rack I have a Marantz Solid State Compact Flash Recorder. At the very bottom I’ve integrated an NAD Power Amplifier that drives my near field monitors.

And I continue to keep a very close eye on on what’s out there with regards to suitable gear for Podcasting Systems. In fact I have a clear idea of what I would buy TODAY if I decided to replace the components in my current system. And it’s not a cheap solution intended for novices. In fact this new system is quite expensive. Relatively speaking, for the approximate cost of a custom 6-Core MacPro Tube – this is my vision for a cutting edge professional Podcasting System that I am convinced would supply a ton of flexibility and output reference quality audio.

The Console

Notice I make reference to Console instead of Mixer? This is by design. For the brain of my system I’ve decided on the Air-1 USB Radio Console by Audioarts Engineering.

air_1-NEW

The Air-1 features two XLR Mic Inputs, six Balanced Stereo Input channels, USB I/O, two Program Buses, and a Cue Output. The active state of the input channels can be controlled by channel dependent On/Off push button switches. Routing to the Program Buses as well as the Cue Bus is also controlled by the use of push button switches that illuminate when active. The level of the Cue Bus is independently controlled by a dedicated pot. The console uses long-throw faders that are common on broadcast consoles, with independent faders for Monitor and Headphone outputs. By the way the Cue is a prefader Bus on the inputs that allows the operator to monitor off-air channels. It’s entirely separate from the main mix, or in this case – the Program Bus.

The USB I/O is bidirectional. It can be used to send and receive audio from a computer workstation for easy recording, playout, and automation system integration. There’s ample flexibility for Skype and easy setup for a telephone hybrid mix-minus. The device uses an external power supply that is included.

Note that many output options and routing configurations are customizable by way of Dipswitches located on the bottom of the chassis. Currently the AIR-1 retails for $1,789.00 at BSW.

The Processor

Since 2004 there have been a few audio processors that have been widely used by Podcast Producers. At first I recall the popularity of the affordable dbx 266XL (now discontinued) 2-channel Compressor Expander/Gate. Then there was the Aphex 230 Vocal Processor (also discontinued) that achieved early acceptance due to excellent marketing by Aphex and their recognition of Podcasting as a viable option for broadcasters to widen their reach. The device eventually attracted the interest of Podcast Producers who were willing to shell out upwards of $700 for this great sounding piece of gear.

These days (and much to my surprise) there is a fairly inexpensive Compressor/Limiter/Gate by Behringer that has steadily gained popularity in the space. From what I can tell this is due to a few prolific “Podcast Consultants” using the processor and recommending/selling it for whatever reason. Personally I was never a fan of the brand. But that’s just me.

For this new high end system I am selecting the Wheatstone/Vorsis M-1 Digital Mic Processor.

m-1

The processor uses sophisticated digital audio processing algorithms throughout it’s internal chain. On the back of the unit there is one AES digital output, one Mic input, and a single analog (XLR) output that can be set to pass Mic or Line Level signal. This is important in the design of this Podcasting System due to the way in which it would connect to the Air-1 Console. In essence the Mic would get connected to the processor input and the analog output switched to Mic Level would feed one of the dedicated Mic channels on the Console. There is also a Dipswitch matrix located on the back of the device that allows the operator to customize a few options and functions.

The M-1 supports variable Sample Rates, has switchable Phantom Power, Hi-Pass/Low-Pass filters, a De-Esser, Compressor, and Expander. There are independent Input and Output Gain pots and a Level Meter that can be switched to monitor Input or Output. There is also a De-Correlator function, also referred to as a Phase Rotator that will tweak waveform symmetry.

Also included is dual Parametric EQ with user defined frequencies, cut/boost control, and variable Q. In addition there are two independent Shelving filters that can be used to shape the overall frequency response of the signal. The EQ stage can be placed before or after the Compressor in the processing chain.

But that’s not all. The M-1 can be controlled and customized locally or remotely via Windows GUI software running on a PC. Note that although this feature is intriguing, it would be of no use to me based on my dependency to the Mac platform. In fact from what I can tell there may be some Windows operating system incompatibilities with the bundled software. This may very well cause difficulties running the Windows software on a Mac in an emulated environment. I’ll need to check into it. But like I said, with no native support for the Mac I would probably need to pass. Currently the M-1 Processor retails for $799.00 at BSW.

The Mic

At this point it would make very little sense to even consider purchasing yet another microphone based on my current lot (EV RE-20, Shure SM7B, and Heil PR-40). But I figured what the heck – why not explore and try something new? Note that I’ve never tested the following mic. So I’m shamelessly speculating that I would even like it!. What drew me to this mic was the reputation of the manufacturer and the stellar package deal that is currently available. The mic is the Telefunken M82 Broadcast.

mic

The M82 is an end-address, large diaphragm (35mm capsule) cardioid dynamic mic (Frequency Range 25Hz – 18kHz). What’s interesting is this mic is designed to be used as a kick-drum mic, yet it is well suited for broadcast voice applications. In fact if I recall the timeless EV-RE20 was also originally designed to be used as a kick-drum mic before it was widely embraced by radio and voice professionals.

Anyway the Telefunken supplies two separate EQ Switches:Kick EQ and High Boost. The Kick EQ engages a lower mid-range cut at around 350Hz. The High Boost shifts upper mid-range and high frequencies starting around 2kHz with a 6dB boost by 10kHz. Any combination of the two switches can be used to tailor the response of the mic.

Here is what really caught my attention – the mic is available in a Broadcast Package that includes the M786 Broadcast Boom with built in XLR cable, the M700 Shock Mount, and a protective case. Currently the M82 Broadcast Package retails for $499.00 at BSW.

The Hybrid

As far as I’m concerned any serious Podcast Producer who intends to incorporate remote guests needs to implement an easy alternative to the now ubiquitous Skype. A Digital Telephone Hybrid is the obvious choice, allowing program guests to call into the host system using a standard telephone line. With proper configuration of a mix-minus by the host, seamless communication can be achieved.

Sometime around 2010-2011, Telos Systems replaced the ubiquitous Telos One with the brand new Hx1 Hybrid. I’ve chosen this device for my system.

hybrid

The Hx1 receives an analog “POTS” (Plain Old Telephone Service) line signal and implements digital conversion resulting in excellent audio quality. This Hybrid features automatic gain control in both directions, a ducking system, feedback reduction, and a digital dynamic EQ. The device is also capable of Auto-Answer functions for unattended operation.

Using the Program 2 Bus on the Air-1 Console to feed the Hx1 input, setting up a broadcast mix-minus would be a snap. In my current system I’ve placed a single channel dbx dynamics compressor between the output of my Telos One and the input used on my Mackie Board. This works pretty well. I’d need to test this setup with the Hx1 to determine whether the compressor would even be necessary. Currently the Telos Hx1 Digital Hybrid retails for $695.00 at BSW.

The Recorder

I’ll be frank:In a studio environment I’m not a fan of using a small, handheld digital recorder. I’m aware of what’s being recommended by the experts, mainly models by Edirol and Roland. Of course these devices are perfectly capable and well suited for remote recording, ENG, and video production. I prefer a dedicated rack mounted component, just like the Marantz PMD-570 currently living in my rack.

The Marantz piece that I own has an interesting feature: Besides PCM and MP3 recording, the unit can record directly to MP2 (MPEG-1, Layer II) on the fly. This is the file format that I use to exchange large files with clients. Basically the clients will convert lossless files (WAV, AIFF) to MP2 prior to uploading to my FTP server. In doing so the file is reduced in size by approximately 70%. The key is when I take delivery and decode … most, if not all of the audible fidelity is retained. Needless to say MP2 is a viable intermediate file format and it is still used today in professional broadcast workflows.

Again it’s time for something new. For this Podcasting System I’m going with the Tascam SS-R200 Solid State Recorder.

recorder

The SS-R200 will accept Compact Flash and SD/SDHC Memory cards as well as USB Flash Drives. The device will also accept a USB keyboard that can be used for metadata editing. Supported file formats are WAV and MP3 @ 44.1/48kHz. I/O is flexible and includes XLR balanced input/output, RCA unbalanced, and coaxial S/PDIF digital. There are additional I/O support options for RS-232C and Parallel Control for external device interfacing. The display is clear, and the transport buttons are large and easily accessible.

One slight issue with the recorder – I don’t believe you can connect it directly to a computer via USB (My Marantz supports this). Of course the work around is to use USB Flash drives for recording. Compact Flash and SD/SDHC recording will require an additional device for computer interfacing. Currently the Tascam SS-R200 recorder retails for $549.00 at BSW.

The Cost

Time to tally up:

Audioarts Air-1 Console: $1,789.00
Wheatstone M-1 Processor: $799.00
Telefunken M82 Mic Kit: $499.00
Telos Hx1 Hybrid: $695.00
Tascam CF Recorder: $549.00

Total: $4,331.00 (not including applicable tax and shipping)

There you have it. Like I said this is far from a budget solution. And surely I’m not suggesting that you need to spend this kind of cash to record Podcasts. However for the serious producer with appropriate technical skills and a revenue stream, this is not unattainable. As far as me personally – at this time this system is not in my immediate plans. But you never know. I’ve always wanted to replace my mixer with a Broadcast Console, so contemplation will continue …

Notes

I’ve purposely refrained from recommending accessories including cables and headphones. And regarding headphones, after years of wearing them for hours upon hours, I’ve moved over to a moderately priced set of Shure SE215 Earphones.

Full sized headphones can be very uncomfortable when worn for extended periods of time, hence my decision. Believe me it was a major adjustment. These Shure’s are not considered a high-end option. However they do serve the purpose. Isolation is good and sound quality is perfectly suitable for dialogue editing. And I’m much more comfortable wearing them. I still use my Beyer Dynamics, AKG’s, and Sony’s for critical monitoring when necessary.

And I’ve also refrained from recommending software solutions like DAWS and plugins. This would be the source of yet another installment. However I will make one recommendation. If you are serious about high quality sound and often deal with problematic audio, you need to seriously consider RX3 Advanced by iZotope.

rx3

In my work this package is simply indispensable. I’m not going to get into the specifics. I will say that the Broadband DeNoiser, the Dialog Denoise Module, and the Dereverb features are simply spectacular. Indeed it’s an expensive package. I’m grateful that I have it, and it’s highly recommended.

And lastly, storage. Since all components are rack-mountable, the obvious solution would be a 4U enclosure by Middle Atlantic or Raxxess. I would also suggest a 1 Space Vent Panel installed between the Processor and the Hybrid. And if it’s convenient the Console can be placed on top of the enclosure due to it’s relatively small footprint.

One final note:I have no formal affiliation with BSW. I simply pointed to their listings due to price and availability.

-paul.

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