New Media Scholarship: Regarding Tools

New Media ToolsLet’s say you’re ready to take the plunge and get started incorporating some digital media tools into your scholarship or classroom. First… You. Are. Awesome. … Okay, that said, you gotta have a plan. Hopefully, you’re the sort of person whose plans emerge from what you want to accomplish. So… questions:

What do you want to accomplish?

Do you want to study new media texts as part of your scholarship? Do you want to produce new media texts? Maybe you’re thinking that using audio and/or video in your classroom might get your students engaging with texts in ways they previously didn’t have access to (or maybe even permission to use). Great. It’s probably best to imagine, in the most specific and concrete terms possible, exactly how you’d like your scholarship and/or pedagogy to incorporate new media technologies.

What sort of texts are you after?

As much as possible, keep things simple. Especially the extent to which you’re making significant changes to practices with which you’re (too?) comfortable and familiar. Maybe, to begin with, you’ll want to stick with audio-only texts. Interviews, podcasts, public service announcements, literacy narratives, radio stories similar to those on “This American Life,” or even exploratory/analytical (and incredibly entertaining) texts like those on “Radio Lab.” Or, if audio’s not your thing, you could work on interviews, digital stories in the style of the Center for Digital Storytelling, mini-documentaries, video podcasts, etc.

What gear are you going to need?

You’re going to have to be the one who decides how you spend your available resources. That said I think that if you’re going to take your digital scholarship at all seriously, you’re going to need at least the following equipment: computer, microphone, headphones, and software. Each of those components demands you consider myriad factors. I’m going to try to do more recommending than problematizing in this post, but I hope to wade into these subtleties in later posts.

  • Computer
    • Macbook ProThe most central piece of equipment you’ll need is a computer. You get more for your money if you stick with a desktop workstation, but it’s pretty hard to argue with the advantages of making your work space mobile. Go with a laptop if you can. Personally, I’m a Mac guy (durability, ease of use, software options, etc.), but they’re clearly more expensive than Windows machines. As will all the stuff I’ll be recommending, there’s only so much you can do about your budget. If you’re going to go with Windows, I’d suggest a Lenovo, Asus, or Acer machine. Dell, HP, and lots of others really skimp on quality in order to get to the basement prices. Most often, even if you seem to be getting more computer for your dollar, you’re likely going to regret it when the hard drive, motherboard, or memory fails. And then it’s another $100 just to drop if off with the Geek Squad. Not worth it. Get something that will last. Reliably.
  • Microphone
    • There’s really no way around it. The mic that comes with your laptop or your webcam… well… sucks. (But for good reasons. Trust me.) So you’re going to want to invest in a microphone. The good news is that almost any microphone you buy is going to be exponentially better than your laptop or webcam. Even better news is that microphones (mostly) have really long shelf lives. If you buy something you like now, you could very well be using that mic for the next five to ten years. The bad news is… well… there really isn’t any bad news. Other than that you could end up spending a lot on a mic, if you start to get obsessive about it. When you’re starting out, don’t get obsessed. A mic has to fit into the practices you’re trying to enact. Start with something basic that fits into your existing workflow. The most versatile path you can take is to opt for a portable audio recorder such as the Zoom H1. It’s light, durable, and sounds great. Once you’ve recorded, you just plug it into your computer and transfer the files as though they were on a USB drive. Simple. Another option is to go with a USB microphone like the ATR-2100-USB. It sounds amazing and incorporates very well into any software recording you might be doing. If you’re going to be doing a lot of interviews or on-location projects, go with the Zoom H1. If you’re going to be focusing more on voiceovers, podcasts, screencasts, or Skype interviews, you’ll want to go with something like the ATR-2100.
  • Headphones
    • You need a decent set of headphones. Non-negotiable. Speakers-only setups will work for a few situations, but there are so many instances in which you’ll need a reasonable pair of cans. If you work at home with potential interruptions or distractions. If you’re recording an interview, you’ll need them to monitor your levels (and if you think you can get away without this, you’ll change your mind shortly after you mess up the levels or completely ruin what turns out to have been a great interview. Nothing worse than opening that audio file, looking forward to reviewing a great interaction or commentary, only to realize that it’s gone or the quality is unusable. There’s only so much you can fix in the editor). If you’re putting together an audio text and need to hear the various levels and ambient noise, you’ll need these, too. It’s just that desktop/laptop speakers don’t have anywhere near the fidelity or volume necessary for hearing everything you need to hear in your production process. There are a million things to consider when buying headphones; the only thing I recommend is to stick with an over-the-ear style. Those big, padded ear cups will allow you to work comfortable as long as you need to, and the bigger speaker magnets will produce the best sound. I use the Sony MDR-7506 model ($100 on Amazon; $50 on ebay). Also, don’t get too caught up in super high quality headphones; if your text is going to circulate via the web, there’s only so much quality that’s going to fit through the intertubes. Really, any over-the-ear types should serve you pretty well.
  • Software
    • It’s one thing to capture some excellent material with which you’re going to work, but you’re going to have to put it together with other elements in order to make it a text. That’s where the software comes in. If you’re an Apple person, and you want to stick with those products because of the integration, power, and simplicity, that’s fine. Do your thing. The iLife suite should be enough to help you produce pretty much anything you’d like to produce. However, those products are consumer-focused products which, for the sake of simplicity, greatly reduce the options you have for textual production. On the other hand, “pro-sumer” products like Logic Pro, Lightroom, and Final Cut can get extremely expensive very quickly. You might be better served signing up for a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Suite which give you access to all of Adobe’s products (including Premiere, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Audition, etc) for $20-$30 a month. Not cheap, but worth it, I think. There are also free options, but with the exception of Audacity as an audio editor, most of them aren’t worth what you save.
  • One more thing about software…
    • Software is only worth what you can do with it. If you pay a bunch of money for a powerful program, but you don’t know how to use it, that’s a huge waste of resources. I would also really encourage any scholar/professor working to earn their new media chops to sign up for a subscription to Lynda.com. Their website can teach you almost anything. Almost any software. Apple, Adobe, WordPress, and even a bunch of different web development tools. Super cool. It’s how I’ve learned pretty much all the software packages I can use.