UPDATE: I've now added a follow-up post covering two new apps and a solution to channel routing.


There was a time when I used to record and publish a podcast every Thursday. It only really lasted a few years before I lost the passion, but it does still exist and I release new episodes from time to time when the bug bites me.

I've been skirting around the edges of putting a new episode out for the last couple of weeks but one thing is holding me back – software. The podcast was born on a Windows PC in the wonderfully simple CastBlaster software. After switching to a Mac, I used GarageBand for a time before discovering what would almost be the perfect tool for me – Ubercaster.

Unfortunately, Ubercaster is no more, so this week I set out to see if I could come close to the Ubercaster experience with modern Mac software.

Goals

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Before beginning my search, I stopped to consider what features made Ubercaster the uber solution for The Sitting Duck Podcast. You can get a pretty decent feel for all of the features from this contemporary review over at MyMac.com.

The first key feature was the single workspace. I would spend a bit of time in the Prepare layer, adding the songs I would be playing and perhaps some sound clips, and tweaking titles and layouts so I would have a good visual flow during recording. I could also adjust volumes for consistency and trim out silent starts and ends on clips.

Then came the Record layer. I would generally record an entire episode in one take, effortlessly clicking on songs to 'fire' them, clicking on the microphone mute so I could take a drink, and keeping an eye on time-to-run on the current song plus the total recording length, and checking levels. Importantly, for those odd times when things didn't quite go right, I knew I always had the Edit layer so I would just push through any hiccups.

The killer feature of Ubercaster was the Edit layer. Even though the recording was live, the result was a multi-track layout almost exactly like GarageBand or Logic Pro. I could edit out vocal flubs if I was so inclined, though I rarely did. If a song hadn't fired when I wanted, or there had been a few seconds of silence at the start that I hadn't caught in preparation, I could simply slide things around to make it seem like everything had gone perfectly. Sometimes I even started the wrong song, stopped it, and started the correct one. That was still easy to fix in post even when vocal and music overlapped.

Since the disappearance of Ubercaster, I have gone back to using GarageBand or more recently Logic Pro X. Using these means either 'wiring up' multiple applications like SoundBoard and SoundFlower to input tracks of the recording software and then juggling applications during recording, or non-live production, where I record a vocal part, then stop and insert the song, then record vocal again. The former is a lot more work and easy to get confused with, and the latter doesn't have the same feel to it, although it can save rather handsomely on the total time to record!

So my goals for a new approach would be:

  • Preparing all audio before hitting record, so it will just need to be 'fired' at the right time.
  • Minimising the number of applications I will need to interact with during recording.
  • Recording multi-track*

* When it comes to multi-track recording, there are different levels of 'multi' to consider. It's relatively easy to get vocals on a different track to music, but separating music from jingles or multiple music tracks from each other is ideal. In the latter case, it allows for a cross-fade that can still be edited after recording as with Ubercaster.

The Toolkit

While I would be looking for new software, there are a few applications I already have which could be pressed into service as part of the solution.

  • Logic Pro X, from Apple, is the obvious end point for recording because it has all the multi-track tools I could imagine and then some.
  • Audio Hijack, from Rogue Amoeba, is also another option for recording which technically can record multiple tracks but is not an editor. It can play a role in managing audio channels, however.
  • Loopback, from Rogue Amoeba, is a lower level tool than Audio Hijack which can also assist in routing audio channels.
  • SoundBoard, from Ambrosia Software, is outwardly an obvious choice for firing songs and jingles.
  • I have various others such as SoundSource, Fission, and Piezo, but I see these as unlikely contributors.

The Contenders

I've searched a number of times for an all-in-one solution approaching what Ubercaster had to offer and come up well short, so I have been looking mostly at applications to 'run the show' for recording in Logic Pro. I've owned a copy of SoundBoard for a while and had tried using this for recording, so it became the benchmark from which I would cast a net for alternatives. I visited alternativeto.net and typed in "SoundBoard" to see what it had to offer.

Note that SoundBoard is still a contender, but it lacks the audio routing to be the perfect solution and the interface is not to my liking. Not to mention I have concerns about Ambrosia Software. The SoundBoard Remote application for iOS is on the list of apps that will stop working in iOS 11 because it's still 32bit, and the pain of WireTap Studio still stings.

qwertyGO

This USD$39 application from SIR Audio Tools is clearly aimed at live performance. It appears to have all the controls needed, including channel routing, but the interface is clearly designed around firing sounds by keyboard. While it does support MIDI (see below), the need for a clear interface at record time is not met because each sound clip is represented by a picture of a single keyboard key with limited information visible and no real options for layout. I have not trialled this.

Sound Byte

This USD$39* from Black Cat Systems is an interesting one. It has all the controls needed, including routing and layout (though it would be nice to be able to reduce the grid from 75 cells). If I were to judge it purely from the web site, I might run away (1990 called and wants its design back) but ticking all the boxes put this one on my trial list.

In use, the preparation of clips is cumbersome but relatively easy to understand. It would benefit considerably by allowing the user to set some aspects of multiple clips at once. With some time on setup, the record-time interface (which is the same interface) is functional and has some nice customisations available such as flashing clips nearing their end, disabling played clips, and locking volumes.

* The $39 price point gets the Lite version which would be sufficient for me. More expensive versions increase the number of racks available from the single rack in Lite.

EventSoundControl

This €39.50 application bills itself as "professional audio software" but I think I might need a qualification before I can use it. It has most of the controls necessary, but seems to be missing channel routing. At least, I think it's missing. I couldn't find anywhere to set a per-clip routing and when I did find something to do with output channels, I couldn't figure out what it does. the interface is also confusing and I found it difficult to actually perform the basic actions for record-time. Not to mention adding clips is a nightmare. Drag and drop is not supported! I went looking for the help and it just says "coming soon." Given they're up to version 4, I'm not hopeful for that.

Soundplant

This USD$50 application from Marcel Blum takes the same approach as qwertyGO, using a facsimile of the computer keyboard as its interface. It has all of the control features, but the interface paradigm kept it off my trial list.

BZ Soundboard

This free application looks like a very simple one. A little too simple, however, as it lacks the routing features. Also, it was last updated in 2011. This did not make it to my trial list.

ShowCueWeb

Although intriguing – this is an HTML5 sound cueing application – it will undoubtedly lack the required controls (being confined to a browser) and, well, any application whose homepage is a GitHub page isn't going to be an easy time. Not on my trial list!

QLab

This application from Figure 53 seems to be the bees knees! It can cue audio, video, and lights and has plenty of features and a fantastic interface. It took me a little while to get to grips with the parts of the application, but this really is full featured and well thought out. There's even a free version!

Just one problem. Audio routing is not available in the free version. That requires a license. A USD$399 license!

Outside The Box

After not finding the perfect solution from the above list, I began to wonder if there was a way to use what I already had to bolt something together.

The music I play lives mostly in iTunes. I've 'Hijack'ed iTunes into Logic before as a means of firing the songs, but it's finicky, requiring a double click to launch the song from my playlist, followed by quickly clearing the Up Next list. Forget that second step and you get the next song when you don't want it.

I looked at scripting iTunes to get better control. This is possible, but will take some effort to figure out, and it's simply not possible to route iTunes audio, other than 'Hijack'ing it.

I looked at Audio Hijack to see if it had the ability to play files as sources, but it doesn't.

MIDI

Quite literally outside the (computer) box, adding some form of MIDI controller could make a difference to which software could work. For example, qwertyGO and Soundplant both lost out because of their interfaces, but if I could subjugate that interface with an external control surface, they may work well. I'm not sure how much a control surface might cost and I'm not sure whether dedicated controls will work versus a clearly labelled interface.

Best So Far

I'm still on this journey and as yet I've not outlaid any money, but so far the best option looks like Sound Byte. The interface is good enough and it has the channel routing that, together with Loopback, will allow me to lay down multiple songs into multiple tracks along with vocals and jingles each in theirs.

My next best options are to use SoundBoard or QLab (free) and deal with the fact that all the songs will lay down on the same track. An acceptable trade-off if I can commit to getting the cross-fades just right first time! 

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