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Chapter 4. Formats > Build a Great Music Podcast

Hack 26. Build a Great Music Podcast

Create a music show that exposes your listeners' minds to new music.

So, you've decided that you want to create a music-based podcast. Excellent. Music is the common denominator that joins all of us, and it's a way of sharing memories or introducing us to new artists, songs, and even styles. In this hack, I'll take you through the process of developing a great music-based podcast, from determining the type of show you'll produce, to getting your music together, and finally, to producing your show.

4.8.1. Choose a Show Theme

The first step is to determine what kind of music show you want to produce. Chances are you already have an idea for this, but if you don't, take a moment to think about whom your audience will be. Adults? Kids? Everybody? Also, think about the theme of your show. My show, Coverville (http://coverville.com/), features the best in musical cover versions. Your show could showcase a specific style of music, such as Latin music or heavy metal. It could be a regional show that features artists from a specific geographic area. Or you could develop a show that focuses on a certain time period, such as the 60s or the 70s.

The show Radio Clash (http://www.mutantpop.net/radioclash/), out of London, focuses on mash-ups [Hack #66], which is when DJs extract the vocals from one song and place them over another song that has had its vocals stripped.

Once you've determined your show's theme, you need to come up with an estimated length. One of the benefits of podcasting is that you're not limited to a specific time slot. Your show doesn't always have to be 30 minutes long, for example. But you want to give your listeners an idea of what to expect. The average pop song is 3 minutes and 20 seconds long. A show that includes six average songs, including talking and an intro, will take about 30 minutes. Keep in mind that more-successful podcasts are less than an hour in length. This is, in part, because of the trade-off between file size and show length. A longer show can take more time to download, which can become a deterrent for listeners.

4.8.2. Licensing: Not a Minor Detail

A major factor that you shouldn't overlook is licensing [Hack #68]. This is a huge topic among music-based podcasters right now. A copyrighted piece of music has two licenses: a composition license and a mechanical license. A composition license is the license that the musical piece's writer or composer holds. In the U.S., three agencies hold these licenses: ASCAP (http://www.ascap.com/), BMI (http://bmi.com/), and SESAC (http://sesac.com/). A copyrighted piece of music will be registered with one of these three agencies, which will distribute royalties to the writer of the piece of music whenever it is performed. A mechanical license is based on that performance of the song. The mechanical license for a song is owned by any combination of the artist, the recording company, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA; http://riaa.com/). To play a piece of music in your podcast, you must meet the requirements for both the composition license and the mechanical license.

Usually you can acquire the composition license by paying royalties to ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. Look in the liner notes of the CDs containing the music you'll be playing to see which of those three agencies the music is licensed to. If you won't be playing any music licensed to SESAC, for example, you won't need to pay them royalties. As of this writing, the annual royalty costs for each of these three agencies are roughly $288 for ASCAP, $275 for BMI, and $170 for SESAC. These figures are based on the assumption that you are making less that $12,000 per year on your podcast. For specifics, please consult the web sites of each agency.

Acquiring the mechanical license is a bit more difficult, as no license models are available through the RIAA or the Harry Fox Agency (http://harryfox.com/) that address the technical issues associated with podcasting. Both of these hold the mechanical licensing keys to a large number of popular artists. In these cases, your best bet is to get permission from either the artist that performed the song, or the recording company that the song is licensed to. Again, you can find this information in the CD liner notes, or on the artist's web site. With an eloquent letter of introduction, in many cases the artist or recording company will be happy to grant permission to play their music in your podcast.

Here is the letter I use:

My name is Brian Ibbott, and I host and produce an Internet radio program called Coverville that showcases the best in cover versions of songs. I have about 11,000 subscribers, and I've been featured recently in BusinessWeek, the New York Times, USAToday, and Time magazine. I invite you to listen to my archives at www.coverville.com.

I'm writing because I was hoping to be able to acquire permission to play your music on my show. Of course, I would also include links to your site as well as to locations where your music can be purchased.

I appreciate your time! I look forward to hearing from you.


Brian Ibbott



Celebrating the best in cover songs since…well… last year.

A simple way of avoiding the licensing problem altogether is to focus on independent artists. An immeasurable amount of excellent music is available in all styles, released by independent artists. Several good resources for independent music are available on the Web, including GarageBand (http://www.garageband.com/). Keep in mind that it's still essential to ask for permission to play independent artists' music in your podcast, and permission will likely be granted more freely.

The Insomnia Radio podcast features independent artists only—and those who have given their permission to Jason, the host, for inclusion in his podcast. This subverts the licensing issues completely, with no concerns for the RIAA.

4.8.3. Assemble the Pieces

Once you've determined your show's style and content, you can begin the fun process of gathering your music. For the most part, it's a good idea to be consistent with the file format of the tracks you'll be playing. For compatibility across the board, I recommend that you keep your music in MP3 format, encoded at a bit rate that balances good quality with small file size: 128 kbps to 192 kbps. Gather your music in a folder or playlist in your music program where you can see track length and artist information. Group your songs into playlists based on individual shows, so you can see which songs sound good together, and so you can make sure the total time will be close to the show length you decided on earlier. Having a few shows' worth of music prepared ahead of time will allow you to ensure that you have plenty of content for future shows, and will shorten the amount of time it takes to cement your podcast's style or "feel."

For consistency, you might want to have a theme song at the beginning of your show. Many podcasters begin their shows with a piece of music [Hack #63], or music with spoken information about what their show is about. Whether you are planning on using a copyrighted piece of music or something you've composed yourself, you'll want to make a special version of the track that automatically fades out at the point at which you'll start talking in your show. On the Mac, I use Soundstudio [Hack #50] to open the track, go about 30 seconds in (when the first verse or chorus has ended), and fade the track out to about 10% of its original volume. This way, I don't have to quiet the track manually as I'm recording the show.

4.8.4. Speak Up!

And now we move on to your voice. Narrate your show. Here's your chance to release your inner DJ! A music podcast without any sort of dialog about the music or the artists you're playing is unfair to your listeners and to the performers whose music you're playing. Your listeners might want to know why you picked the track you're playing, or if it's not a well-known song, the artist's name and where they can find the song. If you've gone through the trouble to get permission from an artist to play her song in your podcast, the least you can do is give her credit, and let people know where they can find out more about that artist! Not to mention the fact that ASCAP and BMI require that you don't provide a list of the songs in your podcast on your web site. So, the only way for your listeners to know what they're hearing is for you to tell them.

You'll need some software to amplify your voice and provide other necessary (and unnecessary) effects. On the Macintosh I recommend Audio Hijack Pro [Hack #50] (http://rogueamoeba.com/audiohijackpro/), as it's a Swiss army knife of audio tools and plug-ins. Experiment with different effects to see how your voice sounds, but at a minimum, consider using a compressor filter to bring your highs down and your lows up. As you talk, you might get really excited and start talking louder, forcing your listeners to adjust their volume knobs on the fly. Or you might start talking quietly at points, again forcing your listeners to compensate. With a compressor [Hack #56], consistency in volume is mostly taken care of for you.

Plug a pair of headphones into your computer so that you can hear your voice as you speak. This is a great tool to use when you're experimenting with different filters and plug-ins, since you can hear the results immediately. You'll use the headphones when you're recording the show, so you can monitor the sounds that your listeners will hear.

Dan Klass demonstrates a very clear microphone and effect setup for his podcast, Old Wave Radio (http://new80s.blogspot.com/), which features new artists performing tracks that easily could have come from the New Wave sound of the 1980s.

4.8.5. Know What You're Playing

Ready to record your first podcast? Keep in mind that you won't be playing your music directly from your playlist organizer, for two good reasons. First, it is difficult to end the playing of one track before the playing of the following track begins. It can be downright impossible if you have built-in segueing turned on in your playlist organizer, as the second track might start playing as early as 10 seconds into the end of the previous track. The second, and more important reason, is to allow you to set the volume of each track individually. All CDs are not recorded at the same volume level, and you don't want to irritate your listeners by playing two consecutive tracks in your podcast that force them to reach for the volume knob on their MP3 player while they're listening! I can't stress this point enough: get your track volume levels as close as you can to each other.

In your playlist, locate the individual song file for each track. In Apple's iTunes, you can Ctrl-click the track and choose "Show song file" from the pull-down menu that is displayed. The song's file is shown in its location on your hard drive. Then, open the file in an individual track player. I recommend using QuickTime, which is available for both Macintosh and Windows. QuickTime allows you to set each track's volume, as well as identify sections of the track to play, if there is additional audio in the beginning or end of the track that you don't want to include. I organize all the QuickTime windows along the right side of my screen (as seen in Figure 4-2), in the order that I'll play them. Make sure also to open a QuickTime window containing your theme song, as well as anything that you'll play at the end of your show.

Do your research! Get information about the tracks you'll be playing, from the artist and title of the song to additional information that your listeners might find useful: the album that the track is available on, where the band is from, maybe some trivia about a member of the band, and a more popular band that she came from. Anything you find interesting about the track, your listeners might find interesting as well. A good source for music and artist information is All Music (http://www.allmusic.com/). You'll find a very detailed background for many bands, with discography and Billboard charting information.

Figure 4-2. Brian Ibbot's desktop during the recording of Coverville

Also, listen to the beginning and end of each track. Roughly figure out how much time passes in the song before the singer starts singing, and whether the song has an abrupt ending—with or without singing—or a fade out. You'll use this information to keep from talking over the singing, or from starting a new track before the singing has stopped on the old one. As you do more and more of these, you'll get better at anticipating how much you can say before the singer starts. Also, if the song fades out with a repeating chorus, you can start your back-announcing (telling people about the song you just played), after the first fully repeated chorus or when the track fades out to about 50% of its normal volume.

This is a good opportunity to make sure the tracks you'll be playing sequentially sound good together. Playing two acoustic tracks, or two concert tracks together, eliminates the abrupt sound-quality changes that occur if you follow either with a studio track, for example. Try to match the styles and tempos of the songs you put together. For example, don't follow a trash-metal track with a sappy 70s love ballad. Also, and here's a trick that's not well known, try to pair "major chord" and "minor chord" songs together. For those of you who are not familiar with the major and minor terms, certain musical chords evoke a happy sound (major), and certain musical chords evoke a sad sound (minor). Try to keep the majors and minors together. This keeps the "mood" consistent between tracks.

4.8.6. Choosing the Recording Software

Several pieces of software are available for recording your show. I use and recommend WireTap [Hack #50] (http://ambrosiasw.com/utilities/wiretap/). Basically, WireTap has one job: to record all the sounds that come out of your computer. If you've set your "voice" program to play through (in other words, as you talk into your microphone, you can hear your voice through your headphones), WireTap will be able to record your voice as well as the music.

Another popular option is to combine the free Audacity program (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) with an audio direction tool called Soundflower (http://www.cycling74.com/products/soundflower.html). On its own, Audacity will record a single audio channel, whether it's your music or your voice—so on its own, it's not a great recommendation for podcasters. Soundflower is a tool that lets you direct audio from one application to another. So, you can use Soundflower to route the music from QuickTime and your voice from Audio Hijack Pro to Audacity. More tools are being introduced every day, so check podcasting forums such as Podcast Alley and the Yahoo! Podcasters Group to learn about new tools that might be even easier to use than the ones I describe here.

4.8.7. Recording Your First Podcast

Finally, you're ready to record your show. There are two steps:

  1. Press Record.

  2. Have fun.

Part of the charm of podcasting is its informality. Address your listeners as you would speak to your friends, and don't get too hung up in preventing "ums" and "ers." A lot of tools will allow you to edit your podcast after you've recorded it, so if it really worries you, or if you make a major mistake, you can go back and edit it later.

For my show, I start recording, and I give a little introduction about what the listener can expect on the show. I do this for two reasons. One is that I use this as a simple tag to get my listeners excited about what's coming up. I also do it to provide a favor to those listening on an iPod Shuffle or other flash-based MP3 player without a display. Without a display, listeners on these devices will not know if the track they're listening to is one they've heard until they reach the introduction.

After my introduction, I play the intro music track, and right before the song starts to fade, I start talking. I introduce myself, give a really quick description of the show (for new listeners), talk about my sponsor, and introduce the first song. As I'm introducing the song, I start playing the song as a music bed (if there is an intro), and I stop talking before the singer begins. Then, I turn off my mic and fade out the introduction music if it's still playing.

4.8.8. Promoting Your Podcast

Get a few shows under your belt before you do too much self-promotion. Many shows don't get their rhythm until the third or fourth show, and you might find that tweaking your show's theme appeals to you. Don't lose heart if your show doesn't sound like you expected. As you get your theme and your technical issues cemented, your show will sound more like the show you intended to produce. Once you've gotten the hang of doing your show, after the second or third podcast, start mentioning it on relevant forums [Hack #48] and submitting announcements to other podcasts that play recorded announcement files [Hack #46]. Word will spread about your show, and your audience will find you. Most importantly, make sure you're having fun producing your podcast. It absolutely comes through in the sound of your show if you enjoy doing what you're doing.

4.8.9. Great Music Podcasts

I had the opportunity to talk with a few music podcasters about what makes their podcasts great. Caribbean Free Radio.

Georgia Popplewell uses her skills as a video producer and music magazine editor to create her fantastic Caribbean Free Radio (http://caribbeanfreeradio.com/). If you haven't listened to it, give it a try. It can turn your cold winter train ride into work into a breezy walk on a sunny island beach in her home in the Antilles.

She structures the show as a set of three or four songs, sourced primarily from local artists she knows. The order of the songs is random, but the final track is usually down-tempo. In between the songs she adds some talking segments that are either interviews or her own commentary. The shows run around 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes take about two to three hours to produce, which includes scripting, recording, editing, a mix-down, and encoding.

She scripts her own talking segments first, but then ad-libs during recording. She's still not happy with her how her voice sounds and feels that sometimes she talks too quickly.

She produces the podcast using video tools. She records at home with a camcorder with XLR inputs and an Electro-Voice RE50 [Hack #13]. After that she uses a combination of Final Cut Pro, QuickTime Pro, and Soundtrack [Hack #50] on a Macintosh to record the show and put it together.

She's shocked at how the show has taken off. She originally intended it to be a small show for promoting the new music of the Antilles. But great music has built her a large following. Recently she has been trading links with other shows, as well as experimenting with new format ideas such as sound-seeing tours [Hack #72] and story segments [Hack #22] such as those in Tony Kahn's Morning Stories. Lime.

Lime (http://lime-radio.com/) is hard to describe. In its first season it was a set of eight podcasts that had a mix of music with a few vocal stingers between songs. Its second season was more scripted, with characters and plot arcs, but still with a lot of great music. Its third season, which is in production now, relies more on the spoken segments, while still having the music mix. Mike Jewell's ever-changing format seems to be working, as Lime is one of today's most popular music podcasts.

The production of a season starts by scripting out the plot arcs. Each show is written, then vocal actors are brought in to record the spoken segments. Those are mixed with a variety of different songs to create the finished episodes. Mike uses two Rode NT5 microphones [Hack #13] and an M-Audio FireWire 410 [Hack #12] connected to his Macintosh to do the recordings. The mix-down is in Logic Pro. He also uses Audio Hijack Pro [Hack #50] for sampling, and he uses speech synthesis software [Hack #65].

He organizes the music to fit the scene he wants to create. Most of the songs he picks are comparatively gentle because he expects the show to be "background music." He recommends leading into a slow track with something that ends with an echo or a slow-down. For something more assertive he recommends leading in with a song that comes to a sudden finish or sting. Most of all, he likes to keep listeners guessing and never gives them what he thinks they expect.

4.8.10. See Also

Brian Ibbot

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