Restless Weekend

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gamesoftheyear2016_partonecombined

This weekend was a bit of an odd one, because at least for me it centered around recording our “Games of the Year” show on AggroChat.  This is generally speaking a huge ordeal given that our show is made up of six very different minded people.  Back during the days when we had four regular hosts it was less of a proceeding but now that we essentially have six people each picking three games a piece… that means we wind up talking about 18 games, which as it turns out divides neatly into two 9 image panels.  The above image is the first of these and serves as the backdrop for our normal show card of sorts, however with the text over it you can’t necessarily make out all of the images involved so I decided to post it here.  You can as always find the show on AggroChat or my method of choice for sheer simplicity of listening…  YouTube.  The reason why this largely dominated my weekend is because we ultimately recorded two podcasts that were both two hours long before I set down to edit them.  Post edits they both clock in around an hour and twenty minutes, which really is shocking given that I did not actually time anything out in an attempt to make them work as relative set pieces.  I guess however if you set out to record nine games per show… the end result comes out fairly evenly.  I did make an attempt to shuffle the deck in such a way as to put the games I thought we would most likely talk the longest about divided evenly among the shows.

So we recorded from 8 pm CST until just after midnight, and then I got up around 7:30 Sunday morning and edited until 12:30…  and as a result every other element of the weekend felt like it was shoved to one side or the other.  Of course all of this madness has a purpose since the double episode is timed perfectly to cover the absence of myself and Ashgar as we go to Pax South.  Now in theory Grace, Kodra, Tam and Thalen could record without me… but that would mean I had the forethought to have the mess that is our show in a state that I could easily hand over the reigns to an understudy.  I have not planned ahead that far, and while I do have a series of Audacity and Photoshop projects to speed up the process…  I am not sure if I could even properly explain what exactly I do each week.  It is my hope however that I managed to not only publish yesterday, but also schedule everything else to publish next Sunday while I am driving home from San Antonio.  Staging a publish to happen without me is always a fraught thing for me… because so rarely does it actually work as intended.  Even if it does… I am literally stressed beyond reason until I see the tweets show up in my timeline from the publish process actually doing its thing appropriately.  In the grand scheme of things however…  it is not the most important thing in the world… but it is important to me.

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As far as gaming went this weekend that was equally scattered.  I patched up Final Fantasy XIV and made it far enough to hit the first instance gate, before ultimately walking away.  Similarly I patched up Wildstar, created a Chua Warrior and played to around level seven before once again walking away like a bored child.  As far as gaming that managed to last for more than an hour…  we had World of Warcraft where I finally hit 35 points on my Protection Artifact and started pushing up Fury instead.  I have gotten back in the habit of logging in each day to do my Emissary quest because now there is also a potential legendary upgrade waiting at the end of the grind.  I started doing my Time Walking dungeons… but only managed to make it through the first one tanking it before once again wandering away.  The game that seemed to stick the hardest was Elder Scrolls Online where I completed a good chunk of Malabal Tor, a zone where I am already completely enthralled by the storyline…  even though it involves largely nothing but elves and their internal politics.  I’ve decided that the Bosmer are what it takes to make me really enjoy Elves.  I am really enjoying the whole lore regarding the Green Lady and the Silvenar, and I guess in truth that was an aspect of the lore that I had either forgotten or ignored in playing other Elder Scrolls games.  I even managed to have a few emotional gut punches last night, when I lost characters that I actually really liked during one quest chain.  In truth all I want to do right now is hide in my blanket cocoon on the couch and play more ESO, but that said I do want to at some point get a Mythic+ in for the week since I have a +5 Maw of Souls key.

Breaking Routine

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This weekend was a bit of an odd one, namely when it came to Sunday morning.  Generally speaking I have the process of finishing up an AggroChat episode down to a fairly regimented process.  Saturday night before I crash I try to do what I call the initial edit, which is most of the actual edit work.  Then Sunday morning I write the small bit of copy, and upload and syndicate the podcast to the various sources where it gets put.  However this week was the first week doing all of this on the new machine… and I was not prepared.  For starters we recorded a really long show mostly about the Final Fantasy XIV 3.4 main story quest.  We did not unfortunately ONLY talk about that, and that meant we had almost three hours of recorded audio to process… and didn’t actually finish things up until around midnight my time.  Instead of staying up further, I decided to crash and deal with it in the morning.  Then Sunday it was a carnival of errors, as the version of audacity on my new machine was apparently slightly newer than the version I had been using which means a lot of the filters had different options… or at least were arranged in different ways.  Additionally there was the process of trying to find all of my source files off of the old machine, which is thankfully still accessible over the network.

The worst part of it however was the changes to the Truncate Silence filter…. which is a crutch we lean on heavily for AggroChat.  We are fairly pensive folk, and as a result there are a lot of lengthy pauses in conversation.  With truncate silence that 3 hours of audio becomes 2 hours…  but on my first attempt it maybe clipped a little more than actual silence.  For whatever reason it was clipping the hell out of anytime Kodra talked, giving his speech a record skipping characteristic.  However this is not something I realized until I was just about to upload the files to our host.  Thankfully I caught it in time and was able to redo that portion, lowering the granularity of the filter.  This mean’t what is normally a couple hour process… ate up I think four hours in total.  Admittedly I was piddling around in Guild Wars 2 during much of it, so there were probably moments when I didn’t notice a filter had finished here or there.  The positive however is that every filter applied went massively faster than on the previous AMD FX-6300 based processor.  That was really my hope with the new i7 based system, is that it would be able to chew through rendering tasks far more successfully.  As with any system there is going to be an adjustment and moving in period, and I am hoping that now that I have finished a single podcast on this machine additional ones will be much quicker.

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As far as the weekend itself went, I was all over the place.  I played a significant amount of Destiny, completing a bunch of bounties and discovering the Archon’s Forge… or more so how easy it was to get a pick up group.  Much the same way as the court of Oryx, you seem to be able to just show up and folks will either be doing it… or quickly swarm when they think anyone else is.  I also played a lot of World of Warcraft, completely a few mythic dungeons as well as successfully completing my first Mythic+ keystone.  I’m looking forward to seeing that upgraded loot in the weekly order hall chest.  In addition to that I completed the five time-walking dungeons on both Belghast and Exeter, and on the later I used it as a way to gear him up.  I am now sitting over the 825 cap needed to get into LFR so my hope is tonight I will be able to run the two parts available and potentially get more upgrades that way.  Generally speaking on Belghast the 835 rewards are not super enticing, but I still ran it this week for the purpose of getting some rune stones.  I also need to do a bunch of fishing, as I now have the pattern to turn the 300 versatility food that I spent a chunk of the weekend crafting… into a 375 version.  I am only using this stuff for raiding and mythic+ attempts, as I keep a bank full of Faronar Fizz for other stuff.

The biggest take away from the weekend is that I am actually finding myself legitimately enjoying Guild Wars 2.  Recently it had been a game that I was dipping my toes into for the sake of my friends that were also playing it.  However before the podcast we ran several of the story mode dungeons and they were pretty enjoyable.  Enough so that when I sat down to decide which game I would play during the podcast, I decided to go ahead and stay with Guild Wars 2.  That means that I spent the next three hours roaming aimlessly completing little objectives here and there, and mostly finding my way to the next story mode dungeon.  The post 80/ Heart of Thorns mastery leveling is pretty slow.  In all of that time I only managed to get about half of a mastery level…  and then I ended up wasting a bunch of experience because I didn’t notice I needed to click through and train it.  I am pretty not sure what my purpose in game is, but I am still fairly dead set on the warrior… and more importantly hammer warrior.  That makes me the make shift tank for the group, and I have been using rifle lately as my dps weapon because it allows me to have something that I can hit things with at range.  At some point I want to pick back up where I left off in attempting to level armor smithing, but right now my craft window looks somewhat like madness to me.  All in all I feel like I have come to terms with the game in accepting what it is… and more importantly what it is not.

The Podcasting Bug – Part 2

Making it Happen

Yesterday I talked at length about the design that goes into a podcast.  While sure some people quite literally just start recording without much forethought, the best and most successful podcasts put quite a bit of effort into figuring out just how they want to go about the process of making their vision come to life.  No matter how much prep work goes into the planning, there comes a point where you have to sit down and functionally record your podcast, and there are all manner of issues that arise.  Most of us that go down this path lack the formal training with audio engineering to fall back on, so there is quite a bit of “sink or swim” that happens.  Having gone through some of these decisions myself I thought I would talk about some of the hurdles that comes from the recording and editing of your podcast.

Recording the Podcast

The hardest part of the equation quite literally is how exactly you are going to record.  If you can get all of the people you are needing to record in the same room it is a relatively easy situation of setting up a bunch of USB microphone inputs and having them all get recorded by a single piece of software.  The problem being most podcasters have no physical contact with their co-hosts meaning that we are somehow going to have to make this whole thing work over the internet.  When dealing with the internet you have all the standard problems of latency and network stability.  Today I am going to cover some of the methods of recording remotely that I have seen or heard working very well.

The Skype Standard Method

Skype has managed become the gold standard as far as internet telecommunications software goes.  While this started off as a relative rogue horse with the acquisition by Microsoft it has become absolutely ubiquitous.  The problem being…  it was not designed to record audio with.  In fact Skype has no default method for recording either side of the conversation, and I would assume this is by design to keep away from any potential legal hurdles.  The other negative is that excellent sound recording software like Audacity was not designed to work with something like Skype.  As such you have to figure out how precisely you are going to make this work.  Essentially the first hurdle you have to decide is if you are going to try and record individual speaker tracks or if you are going to record the resulting mixed audio.

Single Audio Tracks

Recording individual audio tracks is without a doubt the “purest” method of recording a podcast.  This means each person is recorded separately and then can be mixed at a later date to create the final merged product.  This means you can do all manner of post processing on audio levels, clearing up jitter and pops without effecting the integrity of other tracks.  The problem is…  isolating each speaker.  There is software that will supposedly help you with this method but more than likely you are going to need to do a significant amount of research and testing to get it working correctly.  The most tried and true method that I know of for this is the “everyone records themselves” method.  Meaning that essentially each participant launches their audio recorder of choice and at the end of the show passes off their audio track for editing in later.  There are a number of issues with this concept, not the least of which is that uncompressed waveform audio is way the hell too large to email.  Secondly editing in multiple tracks is a mind numbingly boring process.  If you record an hour long show expect to spend one hour per participant plus another hour or two on miscellaneous issues while trying to merge all this audio together by hand.

Merged Audio Tracks

The far more common method is that you simply “get everything right” before you start recording and record one merged audio track that represents the basis of your podcast episode.  Generally speaking this involves getting a test call going first, and then setting up again to record the “real call” that will be the final product.  Of note… my experience with Skype comes from co-hosting on other podcasts, and I chose not to go with this method myself.  Some of my advice may not be absolutely accurate so before you set down this path do some legwork and research it yourself.  The idea is that you start a Skype call and then have a third party software “catch” the audio and record it.  Since this has become the default way of doing podcasts for many people you can imagine there are a lot of options out there for recording.  Here is some of the software I have heard decent things about.

Voice Server Method

The method that I never really hear anyone talking about that has worked very well for me personally is recording off of a voice server.  Both Teamspeak and Mumble offer the ability to record client side audio of what is actually being said on the voice server.  Both servers we have used had their positives and negatives.  The key negative of mumble is that all of the audio is recorded in a mono format, making the sound a bit hollow.  The positive there however is that you could choose to record each participant to their own audio file allowing you to merge them together manual later.  Teamspeak offers stereo output but merges all speakers into the same audio stream.  Ultimately you have some of the same issues that arise with Skype in that you need to make sure that all of your speakers are as “clean” as possible before you actually record.  Since we record on the voice server that we quite literally hang out on every single night, then this portion was pretty simple for us.  There are a few things you really need to think about before going down this path.

Audio Codecs Supported

The server that we happen to record on supports a large number of audio codecs.  This allowed me to set up a custom server channel and tweak the audio settings until I got a product that I was happy with.  Currently the channel we record in uses the Opus Voice codec with a quality rating of 8, and this is something we had to tweak down a bit until we found a happy place.  In order to maintain that quality of stream you need an uninterrupted 7 KB/s transmission but thankfully for the most part all of our participants have really solid internet.

Lock Down Your Channel

If you are going to record on an existing server that is already active, it is important that you have to lock down your channel.  It is extremely easily for some well meaning person to pop into your channel out of curiosity and completely destroy your podcast.  In theory you could get by with just naming your podcast channel something obvious like “Podcast Channel”, but I suggest taking the extra step of password protecting the channel.  This allows me to hand the password out to regular guests and simply drag limited hosts into the channel manually.

Turn Off All Audio Queues

This one is absolutely important.  Sure it is nice to know when someone leaves or joins the server but for the purpose of recording a podcast make sure you turn off all of this stuff.  Someone popping on and off the server will be recorded in your final output stream.

Priority Speaker

This one has bit us in the ass a few times, but if your voice server uses a priority speaker system… make sure that ALL participants in the conversation are artificially elevated to priority speaker status.  How priority speaker works is that it essentially lowers the volume of low priority speakers to make sure that the priority one is heard.  This works great in a raid situation where one person needs to be delivering orders, this does not work well when you are expecting multiple people to be chiming in on a conversation.  I am administrator on our voice server so I cannot turn off priority, so I just elevate everyone else to the same level while in the podcasting channel.

Google Hangouts Method

This is the method I honestly know the least about but I believe this is how Cat Context has been recorded for eons.  You can check out this guide but I will try and cover the basics.  The idea is that you start a Google Hangout On Air inviting all of the members of the show.  This is recorded and afterwards you can export the video in MP4 format.  From there you can take the MP4 and edit in an audio editor like Audacity and extract the audio only portion that then becomes your podcast.  The benefit here is that instead of only having audio you also have video recorded of the hangout that can be uploaded to a service like YouTube allowing you to tap into a completely different audience from the traditional podcaster one.  The negative is that you are putting all of your faith in Google Hangouts and hoping that the service will not have any hitches during the recording.  In my own experience playing games over Hangouts, and having people drop in and out of the call…  this one makes me more than a little edgy.  I just wanted to throw it out there as an option because I know lots of people make this one work, and work extremely well.

Editing The Podcast

No matter how pristine you think your final recording is.. you will ultimately need to edit it somehow.  Ultimately you can easily spend ten times as long editing the podcast as it took to record it.  I personally go for a minimal editing process to safe my own sanity, but I know some folks that can take upwards to a week to get the final edit ready to go.  The more you edit the faster you get, so expect your first few podcasts to take a significant investment of your time as you get used to your tools.  My suggestions will be based on Audacity the extremely flexible open source audio editor.  It works equally well on Windows, Mac and Linux and actually does an amazingly clean job of letting you edit just about anything you could ever want to edit.  To make it even more extensible it supports a number of standard audio plug-in formats.  Like I said above I take a pretty minimalistic approach to editing AggroChat so I am going to focus only on the features that I actually use.

Normalize

image The very first pass I make is to normalize the audio.  This helps to minimize the difference between the loudest volume speakers and the quietest volume speakers.  Now you can completely squash any difference in volume if you really like but you end up with robotic sounding audio.  I have personally found that I like the defaults pretty well.  This is an extremely fast edit so should not take a lot of time, but the final result can be very noticeable.

Noise Reduction

image This pass is primarily for if someone I am recording with has a significant amount of white noise or audio “hum” when they record.  For the majority of the time recording Aggrochat this was actually “me” that I was having to edit.  This pass is a little trickier because of the way this tool works.  Ultimately you need to highlight an area of the recording where the noise you want to extract is evident and use it as a sample using “Get Noise Profile”.  From there you run the complimentary command of “Reduce” to essentially cycle through your audio and filter out that noise.  It does a fairly good job but the more noise you filter, the lower the overall fidelity of your recording gets.  This really needs a fine touch because if you filter too much you end up with washboard sounding audio as a result.

Truncate Silence

image If you have ever edited audio the thing you notice after the fact is just how many awkward pauses we make as human beings.  Going back and finding these and eliminating them is pure tedium.  I spent weeks doing this manually until it finally dawned on me.. that this should be something that is pretty easy to automate.  After a little research I found the “Truncate Silence” tool and it is going to be your new best friend.  What it does is essentially even out the silence in your track truncating any silences over a set amount and padding any that are under a certain amount.  These are the settings that I go with for AggroChat, for Bel Folks Stuff I move it up to 400 and 600 respectively to allow a little more room for contemplative silence.  Ultimately you will have to figure out what setting “feels” best to you.

Limit Your Futzing

You can literally spend hundreds of hours if you really wanted to obsessing over the wave form audio.  I have stared at ours enough that I can literally tell you which person is speaking at any given moment from the shape of their waveform audio.  Basically the end result is going to need to be something that you can live with, but at the same time does not take over your life as you keep editing and re-editing.  To make my life easier I have created these files that I refer to as the “Canon” file that includes everything a show needs minus a given weeks audio track.  I set these up once and then just paste the new audio into them before saving them out.  You too are going to find little tricks that you can do  to speed up your process.  On a good night I will have the MP3 audio of our podcast ready to post within thirty minutes of finishing recording.  The longer the recording the longer the edits will take, especially as you start doing things like noise removal.  Those take a significant amount of processing time.  Now that you have your audio recorded and ready to go, you are going to need a place to put it.  Tomorrow I am going to cover the hosting of your podcast and some other bookkeeping tasks like publicizing.  My hope is that someone will find this whole process useful and maybe it will spur on a few new Newbie Blogger Initiative podcasts as a result.