How To Remote Record During The COVID-19 Lockdown
In this article, community member David Thomas shares what he has learnt as he gets to grips with recording multiple contributors all working from home to enable him to continue to produce BBC Radio programmes. David shares his experiences from using Source-Connect Now, Cleanfeed Pro and ipDTL.
Last week saw a big change in pretty much everyone’s lives. Most of my work is for BBC Radio in the UK supplying location and post services for drama and comedy shows, and as my job almost always involves being out and about or in theatres with large audiences things started to drop out of the diary very quickly. One of the shows that got hit was Radio 4’s The Now Show, which I’ve worked on for quite a few years now. There were three more shows booked in the series and we needed to find a solution, so this is the story of how we managed to move from a show recorded in the purpose-built BBC Radio Theatre to recording in a garden studio in a Sussex country town.
When we realised the proverbial was about to hit the fan the production team had a virtual meeting to discuss our options for remote recording. The show has two regular hosts, plus at least one person doing additional voices and then there are two more written stand-up pieces. So we needed five audio lines plus one for the producer and then someone to engineer the session who also needed talkback.
We narrowed the field down to three contenders for testing. Source Connect Now, Cleanfeed Pro and ipDTL and here’s what we found.
All three systems work in more or less the same way. The host (usually the engineer) creates an account with the provider and then is given a login and password to the site. They must always be opened with Google Chrome as Safari is not supported as host by any of the systems mentioned here. Once logged in, the host’s webpage has a recording/ monitoring interface and it also contains the ability to send an email link to the guests which, when opened in Chrome their end, adds them to the host’s session. There are limitations with ipDTL which has up to four remote connections (plus the host) in their top of the range Gold package and Source Connect Now, which also allows four plus the host. (spot the immediate bottleneck for our show!)
Everyone on the session had a different mic and interface. I bought and tested the Rode Podcaster microphone extensively in this environment and thought it was fantastic for the job.
Listeners of the Production Expert podcast will be very familiar with Source-Connect Now. I’ve been using it intermittently for a couple of years and have had pretty good results. Source-Connect Now is different from the other two systems in that recording is done within the guest’s browser (rather than the host’s). Once connected to remote guests everyone can automatically hear each other and guests have a mute button and a record button. You can select call quality and audio interface from within the browser window. I think recording locally to the guest guarantees best audio quality but I’d really like to see a feature where the host could press record in the guest’s browser for them, have a “guest is recording” indicator at the host’s end and then be able to click a button to have the remote browsers send their recordings to the host. You’d be surprised how often guests think they’re recording when in fact they’re not.
The best recorded audio quality
Free for up to five people
In-built chat function
Source Elements is a trusted brand
Guest local recording only. No access to multitrack by the host (without building it yourself)
In our tests, any loss of WiFi signal by host or guests will lose the recording
No way to download remotely recorded audio by the host
The interface reminds me of Mac OS9 (maybe this should be in the pro column?)
Cleanfeed has been around for a few years but I heard of them a couple of weeks ago. They have a free tier, which allows you to record at various bitrates and records a mono mix of everyone on the call. If there is a limit to the number of people on a call, I haven’t found it and it has a lovely, clean interface that guests find easy to use. Hosts have the ability to mute and trim the levels of guests but this happens at the host’s end so if the guest is overloading the mic preamp in their interface then the host’s trim controls won’t help. As host, I can also see what kind of interface guests are using, which is useful if they’ve accidentally selected “Internal microphone”.
Cleanfeed also has a “Clips” feature, which allows you to build a virtual cart wall. You can play in jingles or sound effects and that is heard automatically by the guests and goes onto the recording.
If you pay the $34/month for Cleanfeed Pro you also get a multitrack recording. At any point in the session, you can click a download button and you save a full multitrack of your entire recording. This recording is made in the browser at the host’s end so any glitches heard by the host will appear on the multitrack. Ironically, given the name of the product, the Achilles heel of this system is the clean feed itself (or mix-minus if you’re in the US). Although it all sounded pretty good for me as the host the cleanfeed quality reduced very quickly with each additional guest so that by the time we had seven people on the call the guests said they now knew what it would be like if the Daleks had discovered Vocoders!
Having spoken to the very helpful guys at Cleanfeed it seems I was being a bit exuberant with my settings bearing in mind there were seven people on the call. They have a Speech Optimised setting (I was on the 256kbps mono setting), which I’m assured will still sound good and will not exhibit these problems.
There’s also beta support for iOS but in tests the call would often drop if you put the iPhone to your ear.
Clean interface that’s very easy to use
Many people can be on a call
Multitrack “Pro” option is very reliable and easy to use
Quality of the headphone feeds can be shaky if you have several guests and use high bitrate recording.
ipDTL (ip Down the Line)
ipDTL is a British company focussing very much on the broadcast industry and as such the host’s browser interface appears a lot more technical. They give guests in-browser control of their mic monitor and overall headphone levels, giving them the ability to balance themselves against incoming audio. The host can choose which guests route to which tracks of the virtual multitrack but as I said earlier the system is limited to four guests plus the host. If the host also needs to be recorded then (s)he can be added to one of the other guest’s multitrack streams.
In testing, the system was generally good but was a bit prone to randomly dropping guests if other activity happened on their network, but we weren’t able to pin it down to anything specific. It didn’t help that the list of contributors on the call goes from red to green if they disconnect and as this is the only indicator on a busy screen it’s easy to miss the disconnection. The other thing to be careful about is that the “Save Recording” icon is right next to the “Delete Recording” icon which seems like, um, an oversight.
One feature of ipDTL that might be useful for many of you is the option to connect to ISDN lines at an extra monthly cost of £15. I haven’t tested this but I know people who use it occasionally.
A nice feature on the main page is a star rating for connection quality. During the period of testing, this swayed from 1-5 stars spending the majority of the time between 3 and 5 stars. I didn’t notice any audio quality loss when at 1 star though. Again the system records at the host’s end but where Cleanfeed gives you a nice bundled zip of all the tracks in a recording ipDTL gives you individual WAVs. Not a problem per se but when you’re backing up as you record you can build up a large number of individual files which you then have to re-group manually.
The interface provides a lot of flexibility with track routing etc.
Better quality clean feed than Cleanfeed
Ability to dial ISDN lines
Limited to four remote guests
Unexpected call drops
Delete button perilously close to Save button
So, what did we use for the show? Well, this time we chose Cleanfeed because of the number of guests we needed on the call. And that was, of course, when we discovered the problems with the headphone feeds — our tests had been with four people and the quality was much worse with seven on the call. I did make sure though that all the guests were using QuickTime Player Audio Recorder to make a local recording as well, which was very useful when we had bad line compression issues to the host. We also realised that seven people on a call was a bit difficult to manage so we’re restructuring our recording schedule, reducing the number on the call. I think we might give ipDTL or Source-Connect Now a try this week as it’s always good to have a couple of systems on tap wherever possible.
All these systems have issues so I don’t think I could really recommend any of one of them above another, it depends partly on your specific circumstances and level of technical ability but I’m sure given the sudden demand for these systems that they will improve very quickly in the coming months.
Mike came across some excellent free help guides including one entitled Connecting Multiple VOIP (Voice Over IP) Codecs For Interviews from a post-production facility called Final Final V2.
“At the moment most of us are reporting, producing, and mixing from our homes and need ways to connect to interviewees. Some of the popular tools in use right now are Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and others. One thing about all of those services is that you are locked into their individual eco-systems. The services aren’t compatible with each other, so you can’t connect them to each other.
In order to cross the streams like the Ghostbusters you are first going to need an app called Loopback by Rogue Amoeba. Think of it like a virtual patchbay for your Mac apps. You can route audio from one app to pretty much anything else. It does this by creating virtual sound cards.”
You can download this free help guide as a Google document using the link above.
Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael make up creative audio storytelling post-production team known as Final Final V2. They provide training, workflow consultation, mixing, and sound design services and they have worked on some of the top narrative podcasts and radio programs.
By David Thomas is a multi award winning sound designer with over thirty years experience making drama, documentaries and comedy shows for BBC Radio. He runs Sonic Boom Audio from his garden studio in Lewes, East Sussex.