Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3 ... Is this thing on?

Have you ever considered recording an audio podcast for your course, but left the idea on the back burner because you can't find the time to overcome the technology hurdles? Well, this blog post should help in getting the ball rolling. You may be wondering, why just audio and why not a video podcast or a screencast?

I'll write some helpful ideas about video-podcasts/screencasts in a future post, but audio-only podcasts have their own place in content delivery. If the content calls for an audio podcast, then go for it! Audio podcasts are easier to record and edit, and easier for students to consume. Please keep in mind that my goal was to find the shortest path from starting to publishing, so this is just one suggestion.

I use Audacity, the free and open-source software for my recordings. It is available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and has a very intuitive interface. The installation on Mac OS is straight forward, however, on Windows be sure to also install Lame. This addition component is required for creating MP3 files.

If your computer doesn't have a built-in microphone, then I would suggest getting a headset (headphones and microphone, both in one). You can find something inexpensive, or fancy-shmancy. In my case, I use a MacBook, so it has a built-in mic and it seems to do the job well.

A few things to observe about your recording environment:
  • Find a spot away from the air handling intakes or vents. These can add unwanted noise.
  • If there are kids around while you're recording, post a sign outside your door as a reminder.
  • Remember to turn off the ringers on your phones.
Next, it is time for a sound-check. Record a few short clips while fine-tuning your audio settings and listen to find the best settings (or at least the one that you are happy with). It is also a good idea to record a few seconds of silence and then listen to it to make sure it isn't picking up any annoying hums/static. Cleaner recordings will make it easier for the students to focus on the content.

A few suggestions about the podcast structure:
  • Add a short music clip at the beginning and the end of your podcast episode.
  • Use the same clip for the beginning of each episode, as it becomes an "identifying clip".
  • If the recording is more then 10 minutes long, I would also suggest adding one or more brief breaks (no more than 10 - 15 seconds each) in the presentation by adding another music clip.
  • It is helpful to have a collection of music clips saved on your computer. You can find some free ones here.
Now, as for the actual recording process, you could take one of two approaches. You could record the whole podcast, and then listen to it and edit portions of the audio, as needed, or you could take my approach - record short clips at a time and assemble these as you go. My approach cuts down on the preparation time.

I start by opening the starting Music clip, and then I save the Audacity project immediately with the appropriate episode name. This Audacity window is the place where I assemble the complete episode, and I will refer to it as the "main window." Next, I open a second window for the actual recording process. I record 2-3 minutes of audio, verify it, and if I'm happy with it, I copy it and paste it to the end of the main window. This means that if I have to re-record, I'll repeat only the 2-3 minute segment, while all the work up to this point is safe. Speaking of safe, make sure you save the main window often.

Another advantage of using this piecemeal approach is that identifying the areas that need editing becomes easier. I can zoom into a section (ctrl-1 on Windows, command-1 on Mac), delete/reduce unwanted pauses, carry out other editing functions, and then zoom back out (ctrl-3 on Windows, command-3 on Mac).

When I need to add a music clip for the end or a break, I open it in another window and then copy-and-paste it into the main window.

Once the recording is complete, I use the "Export as MP3" option to create the final copy. At this point, I am done with the Audacity project and can archive it and move it to an external hard-drive.

If additional changes are needed, after the file has been exported, it is better to open the Audacity project than opening the MP3. Each time you open an MP3 and then export it again, there is some loss of quality.

Additional thought: In some of my podcast episodes, I add in an eight-digit code to help verify that the students have listened to the episodes. I give the code two digits at a time at various locations in the recording. Here is an example of an episode with a code. Granted that there is potential for the students to share the code, but that is just like any other challenge the educators face in regard to academic honesty.

If this post has helped you move your podcasting project from the back-burner to the dining table, I would be interested in learning about your experiences.

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