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Sunday, August 16, 2009

I've Got Everything I Need... Almost...

(The title is from a Blues Brother's tune, by the way.)

On Friday, I got a cool new package I'm calling my Birthday Present, though I actually bought the silly thing for myself.

It's called a Behringer PodcastStudio Firewire bundle.  It includes an 8-channel mixer, a Firewire interface (stereo in and out to the computer), a decent condenser microphone, a decent headset, and all the cables you need to hook it everything up.

I really, really wanted this, because I figured I'd be able to play my tunes on my own machine via Mediamonkey, out through the firewire thingie to the mixer, then back into the computer to Skype, through Skype to BlogTalk Radio, where I've been doing a live show for a while now.  Normally there, I have to upload any music I want to play to BTR, then play the files via BTR's rather clumbsy Switchboard interface.  That way I can't actually hear what the music sounds like, though.  Hard for me to comment on music I can't hear well.  My worry there, admittedly, was loss of audio quality due to the many stages in the audio path: MediaMonkey to the Firewirebox to the Mixer to the Firewire box to Skype to the Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) to BTR to whatever happens after that.

It's extremely hard to know how "good" the audio is after all those stages.  It might be good for one listener, bad for another.  It might be half-assed for everybody, or worse than that.  All I can judge from is what I'm told by the folks listening way out at the other end of the audio stream.  And there's really very little of that audio path over which I have any control at all -- Skype and The POTS system and BTR are entirely out of my hands.

Add to that, the POTS system, even if it's working well, is a very low bandwidth path.  Voice phonecalls are expected to use no more than 8 Khz or so, the bandwidth the very first phones would use.  The Phone Co doesn't promise to provide any more than that.  The idea there is that (more or less) old POTS hardware is -never- out of date; if it isn't Broken, you can take a really old phone, plug it in (or wire it in with the really old ones), and it'll still work as well as ever.

Skype has, in my experience, had a lot better audio quality than the POTS.  But that doesn't help because POTS is still in the path, possibly the weakest link.  Add to that, though, BlogTalk Radio's equipment actually has -lower- bandwidth than POTS.  I know BTR is monaural, and I've heard it's like 4.x Khz.  That is phenomenally low quality on a good day.

But wait, it gets worse.  BTR has a finite amount of outward streaming bandwidth available.  They have a whole lot more than I do, but it's still finite -- there's just so much and no more.  If they have a lot of shows on, each show gets a smaller slice of that only-so-large pie. 

I actually don't fault them for that.  It's called "BlogTalk Radio," not "BlogMusic Radio."  Most Talk Radio is on AM, not a terribly high-bandwidth broadcast path.  I think what BTR promises to deliver bandwidth-wise, they're delivering.  (They have other tech problems from time to time.  That's why I wanted to play my music locally in the first place.)

Speaking of what I have available...

I'm using Skype.  That's essentially all the streaming bandwidth I've got in the game.  And that seems to be plenty, far as I know.  At the far end of Skype, the audio ought to be just fine.  But streaming bandwidth isn't the only issue.  Processor time is critically important in livestreaming.

While I'm streaming, I'm running: Skype; BlogTalk Radio's Switchboard is open in Firefox; the Chatroom is open in Firefox; MediaMonkey is running to play my tunes.  The drivers for the Firewire interface are working overtime with alla that audio data.  I tend to have Tweetdeck open, so I can tell people what I'm doing on the show.  I tend to have other webpages open with info on the songs I'm playing.  Then there's Callburner which I have been using for recording the shows as I've done them in the past, and Audacity I've been attempting to use for recording with the new hardware.  Any windows I have open and visible are also driving my video displays (I use two); for example, Audacity updates the view of the recorded track as it's being recorded.

This puts an hellaceous load on my processor, on top of the already relatively hellaceous load from the audio stream itself.  And all of it has to run in real time, or the audio stream sounds like crap.

True, if I have the knobs set wrong on the mixer, the stream sounds like crap.  But that's something I can try to control.  All the rest of the stream I don't control at all.

One surprising result.  While attempting today's BTR stream and playing a lot of music, I decided to see how well uStream might work for the show.  I'm told the audio on the far end was actually pretty good.  It may be that the real problem with the audio quality from BTR is inside BTR itself.  I know that their phone-in system, the only way for a producer to connect to their hardware, doesn't work reliably.  It wouldn't surprise me a bit if it also constrained the audio bandwidth too much for my purposes, or just plain passed lousy-sounding audio.  As I said, it's BlogTalk Radio.  With someone calling in over a phone and just talking, many variations in audio quality will be lost in a jungle of varying speech levels and tones and whatnot.

But uStream was built from the ground up not only as a Streaming service, but in fact a Video streaming service.  Video uses vastly more bandwidth than audio on a good day, so they have to have more room anyway, might as well have plenty for audio.  Stop the video stream, you might even be offered more room for audio, not sure about that.  uStream captures their audio and video from a Flash driver right on my machine, with no intervening POTS hardware.  And I've confirmed I -can- stream from the mixer into uStream's audio inputs -- Flash just uses the default recording device, and it's easy enough to tell Vista my Default is my Behringer hardware.

So it appears, if I want to have a decent-quality stream on BTR, I have to go back to the old way.  And if I want a good-quality audio stream using the new hardware and software configuration, I need at least to switch to uStream.

That I'll have to think about.

Thanks for listening to my rant.  See ya around.

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