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Alesis Podcasting Kit

October 9, 2006
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At this point, some manufacturers who claim to make something “anyone” can use start backtracking, and throw around phrases like “well, maybe someone who’s more familiar,” “the review should be, ahem, fair,” “uh, we don’t have the quickstart manual done yet,” and the one that makes me really suspicious: “Hey, we know someone who would be an excellent reviewer!”

But he turns to me and says, “Sure, where should we send it?”

So could I really go from 0 to 60 in one day as a neophyte podcaster? Let’s find out.

WHAT’S INCLUDED

The podcasting kit is cross-platform, and comes with an Alesis AM1 dynamic mic, Alesis MultiMix 8 FireWire or USB (your choice) 8-input mixer with effects, desktop mic stand, mic cable, FireWire or USB cable, Alesis AHP1 headphones, carrying bag, the more-powerful-than-most-people-realize Cubase LE, demo software from NI, Arturia, and AAS, and drivers for the mixer. Bottom line: It’s a small recording studio; you supply the computer.

There are some differences between the USB and FireWire versions, aside from price. The USB mixer buses all the channels down to two stereo tracks, with 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution. The FireWire mixer records all eight channels discretely to the computer at 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rates, with 24-bit resolution. However, note that while Cubase LE can take advantage of the increased resolution, it accepts no more than four inputs simultaneously.

But that’s just the hardware/software. What makes the “kit” really interesting is that you also get free 30-day hosting of your podcast, along with complete instructions on how to make it happen. Alesis has partnered with Cyberears.com, and you can simply upload your audio to the site. All the RSS voodoo is handled for you, which I find immensely appealing. And there’s more . . . but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so back to the hardware.

WHO NEEDS ANOTHER STUDIO?

I already have a very nice studio quite capable of generating podcast-friendly files, thank you, so I thought the FireWire mixer and such would be redundant. But as I was editing Gus Lozada’s column on portable podcast setups, I started thinking of the possibilities of doing something like live podcasts from trade shows. So I set up the Alesis podcast studio with my Windows laptop (Figure 1) to get a feel for what’s involved. The carrying case is pretty small, and I could easily see tossing this “studio” into a corner of a suitcase.

After the MultiMix was installed, I installed Cubase LE. Short form: 24 bits, 8 virtual instrument slots, 48 audio tracks, 64 MIDI tracks, comes with a bunch o’ plug-ins. It won’t replace your big desktop sequencer, but it’s way more than what you need to bop out a quick podcast.

Incidentally, the manual and installation procedure for the drivers and software seem pretty close to idiot-proof. Everything is spelled out in detail, and nothing is left to chance. The only issue I had was that the FireWire cable is 6-pin to 6-pin, but my laptop has a 4-pin FireWire port. Luckily I had 6-to-4 adapter, so I could keep going.

What’s more, there were full instructions for selecting the MultiMix within Windows and Cubase, and instructions on creating a project in Cubase — none of this “refer to the manufacturer’s manual” stuff. Kudos. About the only negative I found is that the FireWire mixer runs pretty hot, so whatever you do, don’t throw your jacket over it.

OH RIGHT, THE PODCAST ITSELF . . .

Well if I was going to upload a podcast, I needed a podcast. I checked what I had that might be suitable, and found a live recording from the Winter 2005 NAMM show. So I added a few seconds of narration at the head explaining the techniques and gear used in my performance, added some compression and EQ to the voice, did a little limiting to the overall track, and exported it as an MP3 file (160kbps stereo).

Cubase LE said I had only 20 MP3 conversions before I had to buy the MP3 upgrade; I clicked on the “Buy now” option, but it took me to a dead end, and I didn’t find any opportunity to upgrade on the Steinberg site. No big deal; I have plenty of ways to encode files. But hopefully, there will be a fix for this soon, so Podcasting kit owners aren’t left without an export option with Cubase LE.

So there I was with the raw materials for a podcast, a couple hours after opening the box and using only the gear supplied by Alesis. Impressive, but now came the scary part: Uploading.

RELEASE TIME

The uploading procedure is described in the manual, so I went to www.alesispodcast.com and registered. This took me to Cyberears.com, who do the actual hosting. You get 30 days free to have your podcast hosted (only one podcast, but you can have multiple episodes and use up to 512MB), and then you’re asked if you want to sign up. At that point, it behooves you to check out the various options; I’m no expert on hosting services, but presumably Alesis did some vetting before making their choice, and Cyberears was very quick and helpful about answering questions.

The terms of service seemed straightforward, except a red flag went up with a mention that all content on the site is copyrighted by Cyberears’ parent company. No worries, though; this does not refer to the content you upload, where you retain copyright (and you better make sure that you indeed have the rights to post your content, or you’ll be in trouble). It simply refers to the material Cyberears generates, and their technology.

Creating the podcast was so step-by-step I think anyone capable of reading this magazine could do it. First, you create the podcast itself. It’s all form-driven, so if you can type, you can create a podcast. You can also upload an image to accompany your podcast (Figure 2).

However, note that a podcast is not the same as an episode in a podcast, so you need to create that as well. As one more example of Cyberears’ hand-holding, once you create the podcast, you’re sent an email reminding you that you need to upload audio to it. The process really is about as error-proof as you can get when dealing with something involving computers and the Internet.

So I created an episode, uploaded the audio (Figure 3), and . . . done! The total elapsed time from knowing nothing about podcasting, to opening up the box and setting up the studio, to installing the software, creating the podcast, and making it live, was under three hours — and no glitches. Under three hours! That’s pretty amazing.

After the podcast was released to cyberspace, Cyberears displayed the URL so I could link to it from my site; and if you click the Promote tab, you’re walked through the process of how to make sure the rest of the world has a chance to hear your podcast. You can also check on statistics, to see how many people have actually checked out your work.


CONCLUSIONS

I can’t say enough about how this product and process have blown me away. I’m now a podcaster, but a word of warning: addiction. I had planned to upload a podcast to make sure the system worked for the purposes of this review, let it sit up there for 30 days, quietly let my free trial period lapse, and move on. Wrong. I’m already thinking about what to do for the next episode . . . and I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep going when the 30 days expire. (Incidentally, you don’t have to buy an Alesis podcasting kit to check out Cyberears; you can do a 7-day trial, without even having to submit a credit card.)

Alesis set out to do “podcasting for dummies,” and they have pulled it off 100%. This is one cool concept, implemented as one cool product.

Product type: Podcasting studio with software for Windows XP/Mac OS X.

Target market: Those just getting started with podcasting, as well as veterans who want a low-cost, portable podcasting/recording studio.

Strengths: The kit also provides free hosting for 30 days for your podcasts so you can get started. Mixer, headphones, and mic are of better-than-expected quality. Exceptionally user-friendly. You really can go from opening the box to uploading your first podcast within hours.

Limitations: USB mixer not as capable as FireWire mixer. Adapter or other cable required to mate with 4-pin FireWire port (6-pin ports are okay). Mixer runs hot.

Price: USB Podcasting Kit $399 list, FireWire Podcasting Kit $599 list.

Contact: www.alesis.com

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