Setting Up a Classroom for Audio Recording

My students and I just finished our first day of audio recording for this semester. I wanted to share with you some of the equipment and logistics we used to organize our activities.

Class Audio Recording Session 10-30-2013 WRII from Trauman on Vimeo.

Tools:

  • Computers: Windows 7.
  • Software: Audacity.
  • Microphones: Audio-Technica 2100
  • Headphones: scramble.
  • Audio-sharing site: Soundcloud.com.
  • File Saving: USB drive or Dropbox.com.

My students and I just finished our first day of audio recording for this semester. I wanted to share with you some of the equipment and logistics we used to organize our activities.

Preparation

Working in groups of three, students developed a set of interview questions specific to each individual student. The interviews are related to the semester’s first major assignment: A description and reflection of the “work” a person “does.” The students wrote questions for themselves, as well as for their group members. Each student selected and ordered questions from those questions directed and him/her, followed by some prewriting in preparation for the questions.

We had also spent two days of class getting familiar with the the basics of Audacity, the microphones, and Soundcloud. Also working in groups, students recorded and edited some small files in Audacity, saved them, and uploaded them to SoundCloud.com.

Recording

Working in groups of two or three, one student would interview another. However, because almost no consumer computer can work with more than one USB microphone, we could only capture one side of the interview. Students had to learn the technique of incorporating a restatement of the question into their response in order for the recording to make sense. Once the interview was over, students saved and exported their unedited interview file. Then they uploaded the file to Soundcloud.com. Then another student in their group took his/her turn interviewing, until everyone had completed an interview. Given the risk that students might run out of time and not be able to upload their file, they were required to bring a USB drive to save their file for later uploading on their own time. As an alternative, some students used their Dropbox.com free account to upload their file for later upload to SoundCloud.

…..

A note about the microphones: Although this is the first time I’ve used these mics for this type of assignment, they seem to work really well. In order to understand why I chose these mics, it’s important to understand the difference between the two most common types of mics: dynamic and condenser. I’m no audiophile, but I’ll tell you that there is an enormous difference between these two types. Condenser mics are generally much more sensitive than dynamic mics. As a result, when recording with a condenser microphone, you get a crisp, strong representation of a speaker’s voice, but you also will end up capturing much more of the ambient noise from the environment (echoes, air vents, refrigerators, computer fans, foot steps, barking dogs, passing cars, people talking in the hallway, etc.) If you can get yourself into a very quiet room with limited ambient noise, you can get an amazing recording with a condenser microphone. As you could probably guess, most classrooms or other generally-accessible campus facilities aren’t very suitable for condenser microphones. At the other end of the sensitivity spectrum are dynamic mics. Compared to condenser mics, they are generally very quiet. It’s usually much easier to get a good quality voice recording in a wider variety of environments with a dynamic microphone. This is because the mic isn’t sensitive enough to pick up most of the background noise. But the downside of these microphones is that it can sometimes be difficult to get a recording that’s loud enough to use. Also, dynamic mics are more rugged and durable than condenser mics. …

For these reasons, among others, I chose a dynamic microphone: the Audio-Technica ATR2100
So far, they are working out great. We can just plug them into the USB port on the front of the computer, which prompts the automatic installation of generic drivers, and the microphones are ready to go. The sound is a bit on the quiet side, so we have to increase the microphone levels in Audacity all the way to maximum. Even then, some of the softer-spoken students had a bit of a had time getting their recording volume up to optimum levels. Not perfect, but the absence of ambient room noise and the isolation from students recording nearby far outweigh the limits of the microphones. Additionally each of these microphones has its own headphone jack on the underside of the microphone. Plugging into this port eliminates most of the confusion related to headphone ports I’ve experienced in the past.

A note about Audacity: It’s free, and it can do everything students will need to be able to do for this type of assignment. At its most basic level, Audacity lets students adjust audio levels, cut-and-past audio from one track to another, edit on multiple tracks for layering effects, and to export as an mp3. More advanced techniques which Audacity offers include slowing/speeding clips, noise reduction, compression, limiting, and other audio effects. Additionally, Audacity’s interface is almost identical between Mac and Windows operating systems. And did I mention that it’s free?

A note about SoundCloud: I love SoundCloud. When students have a finished audio file, they can upload it to SoundCloud and share it in all sorts of ways. It’s a lot like uploading a video to YouTube or attaching a file to an email message. There is a simple uploader at SoundCloud’s site where students can post their file and enter in other information like a title, description, tags, etc. However, I think my favorite aspect of SoundCloud is how easy it is share the audio files. There are sharing buttons built into the interface that link directly to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and WordPress. The WordPress functionality is what I like best. Students can get an embed code which they can then enter into their WordPress.com blogs (which each of them has for this course) and share it with me and their fellow students.

Monoprice 102383 HeadphonesA note about headphones: I highly encourage students to bring their own headphones. For lots of reasons. First, the alternative is to edit without headphones (which I don’t allow), or to use the headphones I provide (which aren’t very good). Last year, I invested in a large lot of inexpensive earbuds. They look a lot like iPhone earbuds, but they are very cheap. They cost me about thirty cents each. But they really don’t sound very good, and they break pretty easily. Not to mention I also had to pick up some disposable foam covers to go over the earbuds so some other student could use them in the future. These cost me $2 for about 200 of them, so it’s not a big deal, but it’s another thing to carry around and to remember. If you do have it in your budget, I would look for something inexpensive, super durable (I mean like a Mack truck) with padded ear cups. Without hesitation, I would snag a half-dozen or more of these: Monoprice 108323 Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphones.

Of course there’s more to say here, but it’ll have to wait for another post. For now, I’d love to hear of your own adventures within audio assignments in composition classrooms.

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