Here are several ways to accomplish the flexibility of multitrack recording with different podcasting hardware and software.
Before you go down this path of learning how to record podcasts in multitrack, check out my previous episode about why and why not to record podcasts in multitrack.
To produce your podcast in multitrack, you three things:
- Separated audio channels (voices, sounds, etc.)
- Multitrack interface/recorder
- Multitrack editing software (also known as “digital audio workstation” or “DAW”)
1. Separated audio channels
Multitrack recording is pointless if all your audio is mixing together into the same track.
Every participant in your podcast should have their own microphone. This is not only necessary for separating the audio channels, but it's also necessary for clear listening. There are some exceptions, such as in-person newscaster-style interviews or high-end video with specialized equipment and techniques.
Podcasting with remote participants can make separating audio channels more complicated. For example, if you have multiple participants connected through the same method (such as Skype, Hangouts, telephone, and such), their voices are mixed into a single channel. You'll run into a similar complication if you use the same device for both remote participants and your soundtrack (music, segues, sound clips, etc.). I'll explain possible solutions further down.
Depending on your podcasting hardware and software workflow, you may have to make choices about how you separate audio channels. For example, you may be limited to only two channels, but you have three voices. In such a scenario, you must choose which channels to combine into the same track, such as in-studio cohosts on one track and remote participants on the other track.
2. Multitrack interface/recorder
When you have separated audio channels, you need a way to capture that audio without mixing everything together.
Most of the mixers within podcaster budgets may have multiple input channels, but only two output tracks. So even if you have a 6-track recorder, you'll be limited to the number of tracks your interface can support.
The inverse could also be a problem. You could have a multitrack mixer, but your recorder may be limited to only two tracks (stereo).
The ideal multitrack recorder will let you capture each audio channel into its own track, instead of combining channels into separate sides of a stereo track.
3. Multitrack editing software
Most audio- and video-editing software supports multitrack editing on PCs. But multitrack editing is not as common with mobile apps.
Workflow will vary with each app. Generally, you need the ability to edit or process one track without affecting the other, as well as the ability to edit or process multiple tracks.
For example, can you delete a cough from one track without deleting the words from another? Or can you delete something and have it shift all the tracks together and maintaining alignment?
Multitrack editing requires a little more knowledge of the tools, especially understanding things link synchronization, target tracks, cross-track edits, split-edits, and more. The most popular multitrack editors (including Audacity and Adobe Audition) already support these features.
With understanding these three basics, you can work with your particular tools or upgrade to the right tools to accomplish your needs.
How to separate tracks through PCs and mobile
If you host your podcast with remote participants, there are two ways to separate each voice (or soundtrack) into separate channels.
Record each participant independently at the source
This is usually called “double-ender” or “multi-ender.” It's the easiest way to get every participant on their own audio track and get the highest audio quality from each of them!
When you record the mix you receive, it can be susceptible to quality-limitations set by the software (maybe the app won't stream the audio any higher than 16 kbps) and also a victim of available bandwidth (due to Internet connectivity or the device's own processing power). The result could then be much lower quality than what was sent.
Thus, the core idea for multi-ender recording is to have each participant record the audio from their side. This means the recording comes directly from their equipment and is thus more likely immune to software and connectivity limitations (as long as they're using the right tools). Always test before you rely on this.
One way to accomplish this is by having each participant record their own side, such as through their own tools or software.This is a more complicated approach, and I would never recommend this for a guest who isn't already familiar with such tools. Always ensure the recording settings (especially the KHz rate and bit-depth) are the same for each participant and this will minimize the chance of audio that doesn't stay synchronized (also known as “drift”).
The other way to accomplish this is with specialized tools that handle the recording and synchronization. Such tools come and go, but here are the top three I recommend (as of October, 2016):
The multi-ender technique will give you multiple audio files, each with only one voice in them. If you don't use a tool that synchronizes these for you, I recommend you use something to capture a reference mix of everything. Then, have each participant take turns with a loud clap that will give you a spike for easily aligning your multiple tracks. (This same technique works for recording separate audio with video projects.)
Separate each participant into different different devices and channels
If you have more than one remote participant, the most effective way to record them in multitrack is to completely separate their audio. This gets complicated and expensive, because it means you need multiple audio interfaces and call “lines.”
For example, you could run multiple instances of Skype on a single PC and add multiple audio interfaces to that PC. This would allow each instance of Skype to send its audio to a specific audio interface, which then connects to different inputs and outputs on your mixer.
Alternatively, you could use completely separate devices for each participant. You can use separate PCs, smartphones, tablets, or even iPod Touches for each incoming participant. Again, this would require multiple inputs and outputs from your mixer.
What makes this even more complicated is that each input needs its own targetable output so that you can send that participant the mix of all the other tracks minus their own voice. That's why we call it “mix minus.” So if your mixer has only one auxiliary or effect output, then you're most likely limited to only a single mix minus.
You may be able to work around this if you have a fancy multitrack interface with your PC. But that may still require software to combine the separate tracks into virtual mix minuses for each participant.
See how complicated this can get? The more participants you want on their own tracks, the more expensive this gets. That's why many podcasters are turning to more modern, more intelligent multi-ender methods.
How to record multitrack with most devices (2-track stereo)
Nearly all audio mixers, interfaces, and recorders support stereo. Stereo can be considered a single track with both left and right tracks when you need audio-positioning effects (such as in music reviews, dramas, and other experiential effects). Otherwise, consider any stereo device to be a two-track device.
Capturing two separate tracks with a stereo device is probably the easiest method. Simply use the pan/balance controls to move one channel fully left and move the other channel fully right. This control is usually built into every channel on nearly all mixers.
This will sound a little weird while you're recording, because you'll hear yourself in one ear and the other audio (whether a person or your soundtrack) in another ear.
If your audio gear doesn't allow you to adjust the pan or balance of the audio, you could consider upgrading, or buying a simply splitter for your audio recording. But you must pay attention to what the splitter can actually do. Most “splitters” you see are really only cloning the same audio into two separate destinations instead of splitting one channel from the other.
When you use “stereo” for multitrack recording, you'll end up with completely different audio in the left side from the right side. For the love of audio, please don't publish your episodes sounding that way! It's not only a horrible listening experience (even if you reduce the stereo separation), but it could be impossible for some people to listen when they can use only a single earbud or headphone.
Fixing this separation is really easy. You could mixdown to mono when you create your MP3. But most editing software (even Audacity) will have a way to split a stereo track into separate mono tracks. I have a tutorial showing how to do that inside Podcasters' Society.
I have two cautions with this workflow.
- VOIP/live-streaming software—Depending on the program and interface, you may be sending stereo-separated audio to your audience (such as with “Studio Mode” in Hangouts on Air). But if the program uses mono (such as Skype or “Voice Mode” in Hangouts on Air), it may select only the left channel. Thus, put your voice—or whatever is supposed to go back out to your participants or live audio—in the left channel.
- Headphone leak and mic placement—If you follow my frequent recommendations to avoid plosives by pivoting your microphone around your mouth 45º to the right or left (so that it points at your mouth from a slight side), this places your microphone closer to one particular ear. Thus, it's easier for the microphone to capture audio leaking from your headphones. Since I recommend putting your voice in the left channel (in accordance with my previous caution), I also recommend putting your microphone on that same side. That would keep other audio from leaking into your microphone and causing a slight echo. Alternatively, you can reverse the orientation of your headphones or earbuds so that your audio is still in the left channel, but you put your left earbud or headphone in your right ear.
How to record multitrack with a recorder
Perhaps, instead of an app or an interface, you have a multitrack recorder. For example, the Zoom H6 records up to six tracks.
You could use such a device in the place of a mixer, audio interface, and PC and connect multiple audio sources directly to it. That works fine for in-person multitrack. Because the H6 isn't a mixer, you won't be able to do mix-minus to easy account for remote participants.
However, you could allow one remote participant to hear your local voices through the device's built-in microphone but route their own voice into the recorder (where your headphones are also connected).
Another way to handle the multitrack with a recorder is to use a mixer that has multiple separate outputs. For example, the Behringer 1204 line offers two main outputs and two alternate outputs (other mixers may offer “subgroup” outputs). This gives up to four separate output channels.
If you're not doing mix minus with your mixer, you could even use your auxiliary and effects outputs as two separate outputs.
Then, you may need some cables and adapters in order to send these to the right inputs on your recorder.
How to record multitrack with a multitrack mixer or interface
If your budget allows, you may consider a high-end digital mixer or audio interface that connects via USB 2.0 (or higher), Firewire, or Thunderbolt. These usually send each channel as a separate track, and then you simply need to set your recording software to record all the tracks (and perhaps map them appropriately). Even Audacity can record as many tracks as the single device supports!
Make sure you research the multitrack device carefully. Many of these will record all tracks “prefader,” which means that any muting or fader adjustments on the device won't be reflected in the recording. That's not a huge inconvenience, but it could affect your workflow since it means each mic is effectively always unmuted.
It's complicated and expensive; do you really need it?
As you can tell, multitrack recording can be very complicated and get really expensive. Thus, I think you should consider whether you truly need all the flexibility you get with multitrack recording. Listen to my previous episode to further explore why or why not to record in multitrack. Consider what else you could do with the time and money it would cost for an ideal multitrack setup.
If you truly need the flexibility of multitrack, and you have regular cohosts, consider simple tools like Cast, Ringr, or Zencastr; or consider teaching your cohosts how to record and send you their own audio.
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