Monthly Archives: December 2015

Reflections on using Audacity for learning

I’m a bit behind on the excellent University of Leeds’ Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started (BLE) course. Work, illness and family have got in the way.

It’s nice however to ease my way back into week 3 with the case study on open tools such as Prezi, Audacity and WordPress. I’m familiar with each. However, it’s really interesting to hear other people’s uses of such tools; familiarity can breed contempt and it’s important to remember there’s always something else to learn. I’ve been an avid user of Audacity – one of the internet’s best kept secrets – for a couple of years. I produce a podcast about the Welsh national football team as well as using the medium to share learning among a disparate workforce on the Communities First tackling poverty programme in Wales whose learning I support. These podcasts are currently hosted on Soundcloud but will soon migrate to our new moodle.

Here’s an overview of how I use it and some top tips.

Audacity is free to download and can be used on a number of operating systems. As someone familiar with Microsoft (MS) packages and Windows, Audacity’s similarity to these was reassuring at first. The File, Edit, View tabs largely do as you would expect them to in an MS package. There are also lots of the same Ctrl+ shortcuts such as Ctrl+c for Copy and Ctrl+v for Paste. Furthermore, the Play, Record, Pause, etc. buttons resemble an old tape recorder. How simple can it get?!

audacity 1

In order to record there’s very little else you need to know; the entire interface tends to be for navigating your recording during the editing stage.

There are some exceptions to this. When recording it is important to ensure that it recognises your microphone (often this is automatically done; if not, close and re-open Audacity) and you will need to set your recording level (the scale to the right of the mic symbol below).

audacity 2

The microphone is in my opinion your most important consideration, over and above familiarising oneself with the software. If you are starting out in recording and editing lesson content it is worth investing in the microphone. But don’t go crazy. A piece of advice someone gave me was to buy a mid-range mic. Spend hundreds of pounds and you no doubt have a brilliant mic; but it will capture more sound than you know how to edit. A cheap mic won’t capture enough quality sound with which to do anything.

blue yetiFor about £60 I bought a second hand Blue Yeti (right) and have been perfectly happy with it. It is powered by usb, has two simple knobs (for volume and gain), four settings depending on the direction from which people are contributing, and has a long usb cable which is handy for moving the mic around. It also folds down as well which makes it easier to carry round, though it is heavy, but reassuringly so. I also dig its retro look.

The other important consideration is your recording environment. The ideal recording location will depend on what you wish to capture. A monologue précising a lesson or recapping key points will require your voice to be the focus so somewhere quiet and without interruptions will be helpful. If you want to record a lesson in a classroom environment complete with contributions from learners then the background noise will not matter so much; the location of the mic within the recording space will be key though. The Blue Yeti allows for voice (i.e,. yours) from a single direction to be prioritised over those from others but doesn’t exclude them altogether. This might be particularly useful in a classroom setting when recording an actual lesson. That long usb cable may also come in handy here.

Echoey rooms can be difficult to record in and rooms with windows close to main roads will pick up low frequency sounds like roadworks or traffic. The best thing to do is to play around with whichever space you are in beforehand and have a practice with different settings, both on the mic and in Audacity.

My top tips for recording:

  • let learners (and yourself) get familiar with the presence of a microphone. It can be off-putting for some (and brings out the extrovert in others!) and if this inhibits people’s contributions then it undermines the quality of the content.
  • have a dry-run at the start of every session. Record a couple of minutes, and listen back through headphones. You will better judge the audio quality through headphones than through your PC/laptop speakers.
  • consider issuing a briefing sheet to learners/contributors beforehand. I remember recording with someone who was extremely nervous and expected to be sitting by the mic with headphones on, like in a radio studio. This is a quite logical assumption if you don’t know what to expect. For the podcasts I record with workers in Communities First I issue this briefing.
  • place a folded piece of clothing or piece of carpet under the mic to serve as a dampener. A lot of sound can be picked up from underneath.
  • talk naturally. No-one needs to be an orator of Richard Burton standards; similarly some people feel the unnecessary need to shout their contributions or lean in close to the mic. Again, these are reasons to have a practice couple of minutes at the start.
  • don’t panic! If a contributor gets tongue-tied, pauses, forgets something then just pause, wait and resume making the point. The “ums” and “ers” can also be easily edited out.
  • feel free to move the mic around (within the radius allowed by the usb cable obviously), tilt it re-point it.
  • Always, always record a few seconds of ambient sound i.e., the sound of ‘silence’ in the space you’re recording. This ambience can be invaluable for adding in to your final edit. It sounds counter-intuitive but don’t be surprised by the number of times you will want to add some ‘nothing’ to your edited version.

My top tips for editing:

  • don’t edit your original source recording. Rather, open a new Audacity file into which you copy and paste from the original file. It is so much easier and allows you to edit in bitesize chunks. It also makes navigating your edited version easier.
  • in the early days, split your original file into mono (from stereo) and edit in mono. The final recording will still be played back in stereo. Again, it simplifies the task in hand. Once you become more skilled you can edit in stereo.
  • be clear on your file-naming system early on. I used to get into a pickle between using words such as ‘final’, ‘main’, ‘draft’ in filenames. I also used to date the original recording but you might not publish the final mp3 until several days later, or in a different month. Again, I’d get confused.
  • audacity 3fade in and fade out (under the Effects tab, right) the beginning and end of your recordings. They serve to gently lead in to your recording, rather than jump straight into it at excessive volume; and indicate that the recording is drawing to a close. You can aslo use fading to distinguish between distinct elements within a recording.
  • have a play around with a practice recording and try different features to see what they do. I’ve never met anyone who knew what the ‘Nyquist prompt‘ does when they started off using Audacity.
  • But don’t feel obliged or pressured into using them all or even most of them. I use about 20% of Audacity’s functions and am perfectly happy with the content I produce.

Pob lwc/Best of luck!

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