This could be the most boring blog post I’ve ever written. I thought I’d get that out of the way first thing. I’m not going to shy away from the boredom: I’m going to enjoy it. Nay, I’m going to revel in it. Bask in the banality, magnify the mundane. Strap yourselves in, dear readers, it’s going to be one hell of a dull ride.
There’s a reason for all this (thank Christ for that, I hear you sigh). You know that thing, when you’re using a certain program or website, and something odd happens? Something goes wrong. You hit a brick wall, and suddenly don’t know how to proceed. What do you do? Google search, of course. 99% of the time, you find a multitude of posts from other users, detailing the exact same problem, hopefully also illustrating a handy solution. Sometimes the solution comes from the program or site developer themselves, sometimes from a handy boffin. You rarely care. You just want your problem fixed. Nine times out of ten, it’s a bingo. One time out of ten: it’s a fail. But at the very least, you realise there are others out there who feel your pain and share your new belief that the program or site has a glaring error or limitation that – with any luck – the developer might fix, one day.
HOWEVER. A few weeks ago I discovered a problem that has seemingly gone unnoticed. Or maybe, as was suggested by my friend (let’s call him Mike – that is, after all, his name), it has been noticed, but I’m the only person who gives a fuck. Either way, there exists no helpful post on my subject anywhere on the interweb, much less a helpful solution. So I’m writing, I’m pretty certain, on virgin territory here. Not that I’m going to offer much of a fix. Pointless, you might think, and you’d have a point. If you want to stop reading now, I totally get it. You’ll certainly have much better things to do. But if you haven’t, read on.
You see, a month or so ago I transferred one of the podcasts I edit onto the American host Buzzsprout. Mike had recommended Buzzsprout to me, and to be completely fair, all the good things he’d told me about turned out to be (and continue to be) true: it’s user friendly, it makes it easy to plop your podcast on all the various listening platforms, it’s reliable, it’s got a decent social media player, the customer service is quick and friendly and there’s certainly no shortage of helpful FAQs and support posts on their site, not to mention newsletters and much informed, jolly communication. Indeed, helped by my general busy-ness and the fact that I’d just started using a new and unfamiliar model of headphones, I didn’t notice anything was amiss for around three weeks, instead basking in a general Buzzsprout honeymoon, oblivious to the strange thing that had been happening to all my precious, hard-worked-on audio.
At first I just thought my mixes were a bit whack. For various lockdown-related reasons I’m putting this show together largely from a bunch of iPhone recordings, so I’ve had to dive into the EQ pretty hard, and I’m quite used to episodes sounding a little different on the web to how they do playing straight from Logic. But this was something else. It sounded narrow, dull, flat. Not a crapness you’d necessarily notice playing out of laptop speakers or a little Bluetooth job, but on headphones it sounded boxy and, quite literally, monotonous. When I reached a section of the programme where I’d panned the two interlocutors quite nicely to left and right so the conversation would sound like, y’know, a real conversation, it finally hit me: is this sucker in mono?
A few quick tests proved that this was definitely the case. Swiftly I searched the Buzzsprout backend looking for a little box I’d forgotten to tick (“Is this 1965? No? Click here for stereo”), but to no avail. At this point, I performed the Google search I alluded to way back in paragraph two. (“Why is my Buzzsprout podcast in mono”, “Buzzsprout not in stereo”, “Buzzsprout, Mono, WTF” etc.) I did not find what I was expecting. What was I expecting? Forums, baby, forums. Some irate tech-head in Nottingham or Portland saying “Why the hell does Buzzsprout convert your files to mono?” along with either a quick fix (“Go to options/audio/mono and make sure the ‘convert my files to mono and make my episode sound like shit’ box is unchecked”) or a volley of sympathetic replies (“I know, right? It’s totally stupid”). All I found was a few links to the Buzzsprout techie pages, of which more below, and a few calm reviews, in which the file conversion was discussed only in the most general terms. Nowhere did I find anyone getting to the very crux of what I thought (and still think) is the most insane of actions: that the Buzzsprout processor is taking a stereo audio file and changing it to mono without telling anyone?
Because yes, Buzzsprout are not telling anyone. Which brings me to their techie pages. The top hit on my Google search was this page, which concerns an additional feature that I’d bumped into on the Buzzsprout backend but had happily dismissed as of no use to me: “Magic Mastering”, with which, for an admittedly not bank-breaking sum of $6 per month, a podcaster may have one’s episodes put through what Buzzsprout describe as an “Instagram filter for your audio”. Fair enough, I’d thought, but I don’t really need that. Anyway, now it popped up on my “Mono WTF?” search, I dutifully read the piece.
Let’s cut to the chase. Nowhere on this page is there a nice, clear statement like “All podcasts will be uploaded in mono. For stereo, use Magic Mastering.” The closest we get is: “Your episode will sound crisp, clear, well balanced” (italics mine) and some other rather oblique discussions of the benefits of mono or stereo encoding with Magic Mastering enabled, but nothing that clearly states your podcast will definitely be in mono if Magic Mastering is not enabled.
Consequently, I was still confused. I figured must be missing something. Surely? Why on earth would a podcast host in 2020 choose mono as a default? What is this, AM radio? So I returned to the Buzzsprout page with all the pricing plans. Much discussion of storage, permitted numbers of team members, uploading additional content and so forth, with each plan sporting the option of adding Magic Mastering. Needless to say, no little red flag saying, “p.s. everything is in mono”. So I messaged customer support.
Quickly (their customer support really is very responsive), I received this reply:
But, I replied. But But But. That effectively means I’d be uploading a stereo file, and paying $6 per month for it to remain in stereo. Nothing more. That doesn’t make any sense. Does it?
My correspondent admitted that this was indeed so, adding that:
Really? We don’t need stereo? Sorry, but I listen to podcasts all the time. I have about four regular shows that I follow religiously, along with plenty of occasionals. All are in stereo. You can tell. Podcast editors love to pan sounds around, piss about, have some fun. Often it’s the time we get to be creative. Only very rarely do I hear a (usually current affairs) programme during which it strikes me that, oh yeah, this one’s kinda lo-fi. Nor am I aware of any other podcast host that offers mono as a default. My previous host – indeed, it’s still my current host for a different podcast that I run – certainly uploads in stereo. It’s never been an issue. Whether it’s in stereo or not simply hasn’t occurred to me in years. That’s partly why I was so flabbergasted.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with offering mono as an entry-level default – nothing much, anyway. I guess it’s a space-saving thing. Maybe the world is finally running out of servers. But what I object to is Buzzsprout being so underhand about it. If they said on their information page “all pricing plans offer mono uploading; for stereo, use Magic Mastering” – I would still have gone for Buzzsprout, as everything else about them is very good. I would have shrugged and thought, “Hey, $6 per month is a little silly, but whatever.” What I wouldn’t have done is wasted an entire evening wondering firstly what the fuck was wrong with my mix, then pissing around trying to find forums, decipher the Buzzsprout FAQs, emailing the customer support and so forth, then finally calling my producer and asking if we could spare another seventy bucks per year as, duh, I hadn’t yet noticed everything was in bloody mono.
I said all this, very politely, to the nice chatty customer service person. I asked them to forward my message to whoever wrote their blurb, urging them to come clean. At the very least, I said, it would waste a little less of people’s time. “Hey Tim!” came the endlessly sunny reply. “No problem! I will definitely pass that information along to the team!”
Call me a weary old cynic, but my very next thought was “yeah. RIGHT.”