I’d like to officially announce my newest podcasting endeavor: The Puzzle Podcast.

I’m co-hosting this short weekly show of brainteasers with David Leschinsky, the owner of Eureka Puzzles, a popular puzzle and game store in Brookline, Massachusetts. The premise is simple: we pick a puzzle type for the week, explain how it works and do an example or two. We finish each episode with a harder one for the listeners to work on until next week’s show (when we’ll give the answer).PuzzlePodcast.com

The motivation for starting this show was actually this episode of This American Life. After listening to that show, I was inspired to do some more puzzles, so I went to my computer to find some puzzle podcasts. I figured there would be dozens of them, so I was shocked to find exactly one: the NPR Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz. Now, I do like this segment, but it focuses on one specific type of word puzzle — and it is really just part of a longer radio program.

So, with the strong feeling that there should be a good puzzle podcast that featured puzzles of all types, I decided to start one. I quickly registered PuzzlePodcast.com, contacted David (who I knew from this interview I did with him for Boston Behind the Scenes), and got recording.

I’ll write a more technical post about setting up the show soon, but for now I’d like to invite you over to PuzzlePodcast.com to try your hand at our puzzles. I’ve attached the first episode to this post, and there are two more already up on the main site. If you hurry over today, you’ll still have a chance to with this week’s prize before the next episode goes out tomorrow.

As David always says, Happy Puzzling!

icon for podpress  Puzzle Podcast #1 [4:06m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

A while ago, I wrote a post where I said that using Skype for interviews was a bad idea. I still stand by the premise of that piece – that Skype-to-Skype connections should not be used in most situations – but a few things have happened in the last few months to change my mind about the blanket statement “Skype is bad for recording interviews.”

The first thing was pretty simple. The telephone hybrid interface I had been using stopped working. This box took the sound from my studio mic (through a mixer) and fed it into the phone line so my interview subject could hear me. At the same time, it fed just the caller’s audio into a different channel of the mixer – allowing it to be recorded independently from my voice. These devices are usually very good at what the do (they are what professional radio producers use to put phone calls on the air), but I was suddenly without mine, and I needed to decide if it was worth it to get another one.Skype Unlimited Icon

At about the same time, Skype announced a new option for their SkypeOut service: Skype Unlimited. For $30 a year, you can get unlimited calling to anyone in the US and Canada. That’s unlimited calling to real phones – in other words, an inexpensive digital connection between your computer and your interviewees’ in-home recording systems (AKA their telephones).

These two developments prodded me to look into Skype as a way to record phone calls, and I was impressed with what I found: with some inexpensive third-party software, I get better sound quality using SkypeOut than I did with expensive dedicated hardware.

Call Recorder WindowRecording Software

Since I use a Macintosh system for my recording and editing, I downloaded a trial copy of Ecamm Network’s Call Recorder ($15, includes lifetime upgrades) to test out. Call recorder adds a small recording window (complete with level meters) to Skype, and is very easy to use. It adds a “Recording” tab to your Skype preferences, giving you full control over recording quality and compression (including an uncompressed option).

In my opinion, Call Recorder’s killer feature is the ability to have each side of the phone call output as an independent AIFF file. If you edit your interviews (or even apply any processing to them after the fact), this is a tremendously useful feature – it’s one of the main reasons people pay hundreds of dollars for a telephone hybrid. Because the whole phone call happens inside your computer, there is complete separation between the two sides of the call, allowing you to edit the interview as two separate recordings that can be spliced together into one smooth final product.

I don’t use Windows very much, but I did find a piece of software that seems to duplicate Call Recorder’s functionality for that platform: it’s called CallBurner ($50, trial version available), and what I have seen written about it so far seems good.

What’s the Catch?

There isn’t much of a catch, as long as you have a moderately fast, reliable internet connection. However, this could be harder to achieve than you think. When I started this experiment, I tried calling over a cable internet connection and (quite surprisingly) the results were terrible! After some research and experimentation on my part, I figured out that the connection was fast, but it was only fast in little spurts. Even though the average throughput was high, the speed dropped almost all of the way to zero many times a second. [I’ve gotten a number of question about this, so I want to emphasize that this was just my specific experience. Most people have no problems whatsoever using Skype with a cable connection.]

When I tried another test on a T3 connection, the results were much better. Don’t let that “T3” speed scare you, though – switching to DSL at home fixed my connection problems even though the speed is lower overall.

So You Want to Do a Phone Interview…

Now that we have this inexpensive tool for recording phone calls, it is far easier for individuals to capture famous or faraway voices for their podcasts or other audio projects. If you want to take advantage of this new access, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t use a cheap mic on your end.
    Use a good USB mic, or plug your mixer into the computer to get your sound as good as possible.
  • Always call a “traditional” landline unless cellular or VOIP is the only option.
    Cell phones are inherently flaky, and while VOIP calls are pretty reliable, there is the potential for some digital weirdness there – it’s better to divide the chance of this by two by only doing the VOIP thing on your side where it is necessary for the recording.
  • Don’t let the guest use a speakerphone or cheap headset.
    You can tell when someone is using one in a normal phone conversation, so your listeners will be able to tell as well.
  • Ask your interviewee to close the door, turn off their cell phone, and give you their undivided attention.
    You’ll be able to hear rustling papers, typing, and office noise in the recording – just like in a regular phone call.
  • Treat it like an interview, not a phone call.
    The phone is your recording system, not an excuse to have a casual chat (unless that’s what you are looking to record). If you need help with interviewing, read my Interview Basics post to get you started.

If you want a sample of what a Skype-to-phone recording sounds like, listen to the segment below.

icon for podpress  SkypeOut Interview Sample [12:00m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

Plenty of podcasters go out and buy fancy microphones, only to use them improperly. This can be discouraging, especailly when they hear good recordings made with the same equipment and wonder what they are doing wrong.

I’ve been told a number of times that the sound quality of my podcasts rivals that of NPR. Yet, for almost all of of my interviews, I use microphones that cost far less than $100, and for Boston Behind the Scenes, I usually use a mic that cost me $15!

What’s the secret? Not fancy post-processing or editing, but simple microphone placement. This isn’t hard, but it ususally needs to be taught.

The simple lesson is this: put the mic to the side of the speaker’s mouth, and as close as possible without picking up unwanted noise. The distance varies from setup to setup, but a good rule of thumb is that a foot is almost always too far away.

Here’s a little demonstration video (I’m not a video guy, so go easy on me!):

icon for podpress  Microphone Placement Demo [2:59m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download
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© 2010 Adam Weiss: Podcast Consultant