So. . .
I am the producer and host of a podcast called Hungry- about food and the stories behind it. I love live storytelling, and I’m good at it. Which led me to perform the first ever live show for my podcast this past week in Brooklyn. Well- after weeks of intense preparation, writing, promotion, practice, and sound tests- I was very confident and excited going in.
I used some bad tech. Long story short- things went south halfway through the show and I never finished the actual story I was telling. While the audience was incredibly supportive and said they learned a lot- as a producer I am super pissed and determined to make sure it never happens to me- or you- again. Here are some mistakes with the tech I used so you won’t have to suffer the same fate.
I’ve chosen to have a highly curated podcast style- music, narration, history, compelling quotes, and sound effects all intertwined to tell a moving story. Most producers reading this will know that it takes a lot of coordination and tweaks to make sure that all comes together. My plan was to do this all live. So here is what the setup looked like-
Dell Projector — Great quality projector with simple slide show operated by wonderful girlfriend. Images to accompany the storytelling.
Older iPad — Used the iPad and apps (mostly failed apps, see below) to trigger sounds, voices, ambience, music- all sounds curated in Hindenburg Journalist
Script- Written script with narration and sound cues
Sonos sound system- surround sound attached to iPad via Line-In connection. . the final downfall.
Beyerdynamic Mic and standing speakers- Mic hooked up to simple speakers through a mixer for narration.
WHAT WENT DOWN
I was narrating, cueing in voices and music as if it were a live podcast, not unlike the style of RadioLab’s live shows (but way less amazing). The iPad and the apps I was using on it were less than ideal. In the middle of the show, the Sonos system stopped working. It just stopped reading the line-in connection from the iPad.
I fixed it onstage in front of a patient audience, but after it happened for a third time, I stopped the show and went to a live Skype Q&A with one of the characters. After sinking countless hours into preparing for this show, I was. . . unhappy. So here is what I learned from my first live performance. If you are considering doing a live show as a rookie audio producer on a budget, here’s a couple things I’d recommend from this maiden voyage:
- DO NOT USE SONOS
Sonos has goosebump-inducing quality sound. It’s so nice. I was lucky enough to have the option to use it through a deal my collaborative work space made with Sonos. Works brilliantly with Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, and select apps. However- SONOS IS NOT BUILT FOR LINE-IN CONNECTION. When you download the Sonos controller app, it does give you this option- meaning whatever you play from that device should play over the speakers. However, it really isn’t built for reliable connection.
After connecting to the Sonos to the iPad with an aux cable, I would play sounds successfully, only to return 5 minutes later and have the connection timed-out and gone. Unreliable. Additionally- Sonos is insanely expensive. There are modifications and equipment you can buy to make this actually work- but it is honestly a struggle and it will burn a hole in your pocket.
I practiced with this Sonos system for a straight 2 weeks before the show to learn its quirks and bugs and how it interacted with the iPad. I thought I knew it’s temperamental nature well enough, but during the show- the sound completely cut out midway through a soundbyte. This was a problem I had not encountered in those two previous weeks. It could have been because there were more people on the WiFi network than when I was practicing, it could have been that Sonos recognized the devices of other people at the event who had used it before. Couldn’t tell you. Regardless, it was a brand-spanking new bug.
So if you are doing a live show- only only only trust a speaker system that is 100% hardwired and has no potential for accidentally connecting to other devices through Bluetooth or WiFi. At. All. This will probably seem very obvious to weathered producers reading this, but I’ve seen other systems that are built for line-in and then pickup familiar phones through Bluetooth simultaneously.
2. SOUNDBOARD APPS. . .
Unfortunately, for what I wanted to do, there is not an affordable, reliable soundboard app on the market. My show was about 35 minutes long, so i had a good amount of sounds to cue in- I was looking for a seamless soundboard app where I could customize buttons to play MP3 tracks I created, allow tracks to play over each other, and allow for easy manual fading. Whoever develops that app is gonna make some $ with all the emerging podcasters who will want to do live work. Here are the different apps I went through.
This was about $10 on the app store. Nice fading tech, simple design, and lots of functionality when a lot of tracks were uploaded. However, the app DOES NOT have the ability to play two tracks at a time over each other. Why this is not an option is insanely confusing to me. When you play one track- the other stops. For me, this was an absolute deal-breaker that I found out about after I bought it. So tread with caution.
This is the app that treats you to a nice first date at a tasteful restaurant, sends you a hand-written letter a week later, gets invited to family dinner and bonds with your mom- then stops calling you one day with no explanation. . .
Sorry, but I was 100% betrayed by this shit. Beautiful design. More than enough empty spots for tracks, customized fading per track, and lets you know what tracks you’ve already played (insanely useful when performing live). After using the lite app with much success, I bought the full app (made by JoeAllenLimited (fuck you JoeAllen)) for $38. That’s a pretty penny. But I was happy. Used it for a week and a half before the show, went great.
About 30 tracks in, It 100% crashed. Every time I started playing a track, it quit and went to the iPad home screen. Thought it was the iPad, tried it on my other devices- it was the app. It can’t handle a multitude of tracks. Which sucks because it is marketed as the “bulletproof” app for podcasters doing live performances. I bought in hook, line, and sinker, and was betrayed three days before showtime. Contacted JoeAllen to tell them they broke my heart and that I am doing fine without them, but turns out their customer support is literally nonexistent. Do. Not. Buy. In process of getting refund now.
Bossjock. . you are super cool and really well-designed. Great fading, Easy to use. But you max out at like 35 tracks??? I ended up using over 50 separate sound bytes for my show in the end. I really wanted to use BossJock but it just wasn’t gonna work. If you can condense your show to fit their track limit, definitely use BossJock, it really is a great app.
I just wish you were the right one for me, Boss.
If it looks oldschool, ugly, clumsy and janky- that’s because it totally is.
This is what I ended up using for the show. Costs $8, has a ton of very weird quirks, and is genuinely displeasing to look at. However- it does work.
Unlimited tracks, doesn’t crash, able to play tracks over eachother, manual crossfade, and very difficult manual audio control per track. This is a cool app to mess around with but it feels like it was made in 2004 and then abandoned in 2005.
I only like this app because I got used to it and it ended up being the only one to fit my needs without dying on me. For the cost, it’s really not bad. However, there is a looooot of room for improvement.
The good stuff:
From my research and the help of audio wizard Jeff Towne, it looks like the only truly reliable and excellent choice is an Ableton Live setup. Which is very expenisve and requires a couple compenents that I was not able to splurge on for this show. That is what Ira uses for TAL Live shows. It’s professional and reliable.
Takeway on apps:
If BossJock works for your project (with limited tracks), use it.
If you’re desperate and willing to learn faulty software, use AudioBoard.
If you want to do it the right way, use Ableton.
If you want to make a bunch of money- please, please, please develop an app for an iPad that is simple to use, simple to fade, will harbor unlimited tracks that the device memory will allow, and isn’t horrible to look at.
3. PRACTICE. A LOT.
That might seem like dumb advice, but once you find your equipment, get in the space you will be using, and sound check with exactly the conditions that will be there for the live show, and then sound check again. And Again.
Audio producers know how many hours go into solving tech issues and making everything sound right. But as the medium moves more and more to the live arena- just remember that those issues are even more unforgiving onstage. Y’all probably know that, but just had to say it.
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For now, we live to fight another day. I did all the marketing for the show, made my own merchandise (tee-shirts, stickers, hoodies, tote bags etc.), learned a lot about social media advertising, etc. A lot went right. But in the end, the story was not told the way it should have been because of the tech I used. And messing up live is no fun. So if this article can nip a similar situation in the bud, it’ll have done its job.
If anyone wants to know anything else about the prep, writing, marketing, or anything else I did for this show, feel free to reach out.
Godpeed and good sound.
Producer of Hungry.