Wired for sound by the miracle of Wikiphonics

Lots of buzz lately on audioblogging and podcasting… Bryan Alexander and DJ Alchemi have posted a number of groovy links that suggest great potential for personal audio and education, and recently D’Arcy has jumped right in with a fine series of podcasts. The D-Man is starting to sound pretty smooth.

I’ve been wanting to play around with audio tools for some time, but had been daunted by the learning curve… I was jolted out of my trepidation by the impending NMC Online Conference on Social Computing. My presentation on wikis required me to deploy Macromedia Breeze, a prospect that filled me with anxiety. I had used Breeze for an NMC event once before, and it was a traumatic experience… When I recorded my bits, I found I was constantly tripping over my words and I was very unhappy with my contribution. (You may notice that my co-presenters did quite a bit more talking than I did — that was no accident.)

I dreaded fighting with technology and my own thick tongue. I found the prospect of simply speaking over a series of PowerPoint slides equally unappealing. So I came up with a cheesy gimmick — instead of a presentation, I decided to invent a talk radio station with the call letters WIKI. As much as anything, the trope was intended to facilitate the insertion of voices other than my own.

As a kid, I was an avid creator of crude SCTV-inspired comedy tapes — so there was an element of reliving my adolescence that was motivating me as well.

D’Arcy’s posts were a good start for finding simple Mac apps that could capture audio, but the tools he recommended had one huge defect (as Breeze itself did): they were good recording devices, but had few features for tweaking, editing and mixing. I wanted to be able to massage the audio for two reasons. First, I knew that my shoddy performance skills would make it very hard to lay down good takes in their entirety, so I would need to be able to splice takes and delete egregious errors. Second, though I like a lot of the podcasts I hear, I was more excited by the prospect of imitating the work of cut-up artists such as Negativland, People Like Us, and the whole Detritus scene, among others…

It added up to a good excuse to learn Audacity, which turned out to be a powerful piece of multi-track editing software. Once I perused the Manual, and walked through a nifty hands-on tutorial, I was pleasantly surprised by how flexible and easy Audacity was to use. There were some quirks, but for the most part the functions work well and I was quickly assembling multi-track sonic messes.

I don’t want to pre-empt the NMC Conference next week (the program looks great, I recommend you check it out — their virtual events are a blast), so I’ll refrain from posting my atrocity in its entirety. To give some sense of what I came up with, I will post a preview of one segment (BTW, I adjusted my Feedburner feed — http://feeds.feedburner.com/AbjectLearning — to be Podcast-friendly, maybe it works):

* WikiAuthority (1 MB)

The PowerPoint slide for this clip is a screen capture of this wiki page. When the conference rolls around, I hope to have the corresponding wiki pages enhanced with a few more contextual links, so people aren’t wholly dependent on my demented ravings for information.

I had fun creating a few radio station call clips for WIKI:

* Promo1
* Promo2

Capturing audio from multiple sources (online, phone, microphone) meant I ended up using a whole lotta apps besides Audacity. A quick rundown:

* Ambrosia’s WireTap captures any sound playing through your computer. It exports .aiff files. It works great, but does not pick up your microphone, which means you need…
* Rogue Amoeba’s LineIn, which adds your microphone to your system playthru… so you can record system sound and your voice at the same time through WireTap. For whatever reason, the .aiff files that WireTap puts out are not imported by Audacity, so I needed…
* iTunes to convert the files to MP3.
* iChat works well if you want to record interviews with other Mac users, but you need…
* Skype or some other VoIP tool to record people over the telephone.

Some lessons learned:

* I tried to record my first couple interviews with a speakerphone and mic — I wouldn’t recommend it, I had to do a lot of tweaking to get the levels right, and results were still subpar.
* Save all your audio files in one location. If you’re recording multitrack audio, the files propogate like pandemic pathogens. I didn’t do this, and now I have hundreds of files (some them quite large) scattered all over my hard drive.
* If you want to use Audacity, read through the manual in its entirety and walk through the tutorial I link to above… it took about an hour to do so, but it saved me countless hours of frustration.
* D’Arcy is an advocate of the “go live” approach — apparently Adam Curry is as well. That is, even if you want to incorporate music and sound clips you can simply cue them up using an audio player and deploy them live as needed. I personally doubt this style would work for me, but it’s a viable approach for people who don’t want to spend time fiddling with a multitrack editing interface after every take.
* The microphone embedded in my laptop actually captured my voice better than my iSight mic. Hmmm.
* I say “um” and “uh” A LOT.

All in all, some big time fun was had. We’ll see what people think of the full-on broadcast of WIKI Radio next week.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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