I have had so many podcasting pros — or at least self-proclaimed pros — swear by Zencastr, a platform that uses VoIP to record individuals. Zencastr saves each participant’s audio file separately on local storage and then uploads these files to either DropBox or Google Drive (but not both). The benefit of VoIP is that the recorded sound is what the internet actually “hears” (Zencastr’s phrasing not mine), and this eliminates the schizophrenic cut-in-and-out behavior of video calls over Skype and Zoom. A-ma-zing. “Michelle,” these podsters tell me, “stop belaboring Zoom, Zencastr is way better. It’s specifically made for podcasters.” And the subtext there is if you were a real podcaster, you’d use Zencastr, too, for all your pod-demic needs. (Eyeroll, please.)
At first, I was intrigued. Zencastr? Sounds like a thing. The website boasts “Hi-Fi Podcasting.” Awesome, right? I’m so there. But then, I thought about it — these pod guys who were raving about the better sound quality due to the use of VoIP, the WAV file output, the live soundboard (actually they said nothing about this part but for me that’s probably the most attractive feature) weren’t really what I would call producers. They were hosts, busy hosts, who wanted an easy pandemic-cast (or pod-demic) option. But it’s not really that convenient for everyone, particularly guests, to tell them “yeah, I don’t use Zoom or Skype, you’ll have to look it up, it’s called Zencastr.” And that’s fine. But if your guest is either not tech-savvy or barely has time for you, then what would motivate this person to learn (and there is a bit of a learning curve) how to use something in advance of a one-time 30-minute interview?
I considered the pros and cons, but in the end, I decided that for $20 per month, it’s not really worth it. If you choose to record in WAV format, the upload process alone will make you rethink your pandemic podcasting. And say you’re a Microsoft Office devotee and would rather use OneDrive instead of DropBox or Google Drive, or maybe want to upload to both DropBox AND Google Drive… tough. You can only do one, and OneDrive is not an option. I understand, but it’s still annoying. Regardless, a WAV file that is even thirty minutes to an hour is going to be a huge file (at 44.1 kHz with a sample depth of 16-bit, only medium quality, you’re looking at 635 MB for an hour), and at 24-bit, nearly 1000 MB for an hour). This is no joke. Upload time on such things is enough to sink the Titanic–if the Titanic were the uploading file and the iceberg the inevitable data cap that your internet provider secretly included in the fine print… I think you can see where this ship’s headed.
But none of the above is why I wouldn’t use Zencastr. Money is my real objection and also the idea that Zencastr is going to magically get around pure internet connectivity issues (as suggested above) or bad computer microphones and cameras. And the fact is that I actually have to have Zoom because as a global society, we’ve adopted it for various reasons since the onset of the pandemic. So, why would I want to pay for a separate program and do I really need to even if I was made of money? Additionally, when I think in terms of value, I have a subscription to Adobe CS (which is an especially great deal for those who qualify for academic pricing) and this gives me access to not just one software but a full library of amazing applications, including Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and Audition (my DAW–digital audio workstation–software of choice). Again, given all that, my money goes so much farther with Adobe CS versus Zencastr (and Zoom too, which I did not want to pay for either but again it’s practically required software). If Zencastr had been say $5 per month, I might not be so vociferously arguing against it. But at this price point, I am opposed. Definitely opposed. Particularly if you’re tech savvy but budget-constrained. Particularly if you’re just starting out. Particularly if you have access to Adobe Audition or Pro Tools or iZotope RX or Logic Pro. Or even any of the free options like Audacity or GarageBand would be a great place to start, especially if you’re not sure you want to sell your soul just yet to podcasting. With Audacity, you do get more than what you pay for, which as free typically goes is zero dollars, but such programs still won’t stand up very well in a capabilities comparison with the aforementioned DAWs).
However, I must be fair to Zencastr, as I now see that fuchsia sticker over the lavender Hobbyist option (above) which indicates a Coronavirus special–just another benefit of the almighty Covid (I’m… being sarcastic, I hope you know). So Hobbyist level during pandemic allows for unlimited guests and recording time. That’s generous, actually. But you still have to pay per use for Postproductions. What does that mean? Well, Zencastr has sound processing tools that will take your raw recorded audio (in WAV or mp3 format) and make it pretty–that’s definitely the technical term. But, here’s the cost for these credits (why are they called credits, I don’t know, but on the plus side, I feel a bit like the Mandolorian).
In general, I would say this price schedule isn’t going to break the bank, but I have a feeling (though I can’t be sure) that this postproduction processing is going to take a while and probably won’t do a whole lot that you couldn’t do yourself in potentially less time. Again, I have no idea how they make their sausage and don’t really want to know because I don’t have the money to buy the credits to do an effectiveness test.
Anyway, how do you approximate the Zencastr experience? Well, there are several ways to do it, including getting that VoIP sound, but if you can live without VoIP (especially if you are aware like me that VoIP still depends on your internet and cannot improve the sound quality of a bad microphone) I’ll show you one method that can set you up with a WAV recording out of Zoom (or Skype) and how in Zoom particularly you can record each participant as a separate mp3 audio file. All the steps will be utilizing Adobe Audition, but you can do this in any DAW software if you know the basics. (WARNING: the following works best if you are NOT speaking on the podcast but hosting the call.)
STEP 1: Check if your computer can “listen” to itself. In your audio settings panel, you should be able to enable Stereo Mix (so-called in Windows) and then record that sound only. Why is this important? When you’re on Zoom or Skype or even Zencaster, you’ll want your computer to listen to itself and record what it “hears.” Bear in mind that in this situation, your computer won’t be able to hear you speaking through the microphone because it’s no longer listening to the built-in or external microphone, but Zoom or Skype or what-have-you will still be able to hear you (and thereby Zoom can record you). If you don’t have Stereo Mix as an option in your Recording panel, then there are plug-ins you can download to get stereo recording capabilities on your computer. The VB-Audio Virtual cable is the best.
STEP 2: Recording as a WAV file (again, this assumes you are the producer/editor perhaps, the silent meeting host who performs the recording but isn’t the program host or interviewer). Step 1 is the most complicated, and if you’re past that, congrats. Now, you need to set your DAW software to record the internal sound. Typically that is found in settings pertaining to audio hardware where you indicate your input and output. Input should be set to Stereo Mix or if you’re using the above-mentioned VB-Audio Virtual Cable, that will be available as an option (see pic below).
Once you’ve made that basic audio change, you’re ready to start recording though you’ll want to do a few other things first. Also, note, that while you’re recording your internal sound the volume buttons still apply and are your most basic version of a live soundboard. Watching the waves during the recording process, making sure they aren’t heading into the yellow or, pod-forbid, dreaded red, is absolutely necessary. Although once you’ve figured out the natural speaking volume of all your participants, you can probably keep it at a certain level and not have to adjust too much–and don’t be afraid if you have a quiet speaker to tell them to turn it up or talk louder because you really, really want to keep things even when you’re recording in stereo otherwise it’s a pain to adjust in post.
STEP 3: Making Zoom record participants as separate tracks. This is the easiest step of all, but is often hard to find if you don’t know where to look. I discovered this on my own, FYI, after asking a Zoom rep at my university if this was possible (and receiving an unsatisfactory response). But it is simply a matter of going to your settings (within the Zoom downloaded app), and under Recording just checking the box (should be 2nd from the top) that says “Record a separate audio file for each participant who speaks.” And voila. That’s it. Now, I would also recommend doing a local recording for this as I have found on more than one occasion, Zoom has kind of messed up in the cloud recording option with the separate audio files. So, to be safe, I just save locally (or better yet to an external hard drive). At the end of the call, Zoom will ask where to save the recording and then will take approximately an undefined number of minutes to process the audio and drop it where you tell it.
Now, you are definitely ready to record and you totally WILL remember that you have to hit record on your DAW software as well to get that WAV file. Yes, you are recording not only the Zoom mp3s (one for each speaker) but you also have your stereo WAV file that you can monitor and live mix (with just your volume buttons on your keyboard) that will enable you to have a high quality recording (even if it’s not VoIP-free of glitches which can be edited out anyway). There are several advantages to having these two formats but the most obvious is that while you should use the WAV purely for better, uncompressed sound, if there are spots where someone’s chicken gets loose or a smoke alarm decides it needs a battery NOW, then you can use the Zoom mp3s as backup for a little audio touch-up.
(Optional: if you think you’ve got the kind of relationship with your guests where you can impose on them to do an extra little thing, then ask them to use their iPhone or Android to record their voice. This provides yet another sound file to fall back on in the even that Zoom is super glitchy. But if their microphone is good enough, then it’s really not necessary. Sometimes, though, you might be glad you asked for that phone recording.)
If all the above seems like too much to you, then go for Zencastr, but I want to stress that once you’re set up to record, it’s really as easy as opening your laptop and launching two programs. If I can get myself ready to go in 30 seconds flat, because I totally ignored the first five times Google told me I had a meeting, you can too. And if I’ve made this recording method work for all the podcasts I produce, with literally no complaints thus far, then you definitely can too. But if you’ve found a different method that works for you, that’s awesome, and I’d love to hear about it! Proper recording is really the most crucial part about podcasting, because if the sound is bad then you have nothing to work with, but post-production matters just as much and how much effort, time, and personality you put in will really make the difference. Happy podcasting!