05 February 2010

Gearing up for Audacity trainining

A little while ago, I received an email from someone inquiring about my interest in presenting on Audacity, a free open-source audio editor I've been using for a number of years to produce Women In Music. As the executive producer, each week for the past 13 years, I've been ensuring that Women In Music gets where it needs to go, to get up on the Public Radio Satellite System, so it can go out to over 100 affiliates each week. And Brainshark -- a company that lets you create online presentations on demand -- was looking for someone to help their user community better create and edit their audio.

Now, anybody who knows me, knows that -- given the chance -- I can speak at length and in detail about things I love. And Audacity is one of them.

My "personal journey" with Audacity has been a truly happy one. I genuinely enjoy using the program, and it has seriously saved my neck a bunch of times, when producing Women In Music.

Once upon a time, "getting the show up" to the Public Radio Satellite meant that I made sure we had a constant supply of DAT tapes, and I made the weekly trip to FedEx to drop of the DAT (digital audio tape, for those who are feeling nostalgic) in time for it to get to Ames, Iowa, where they would encode it and forward it on to the folks in Washington, DC.

But when PRSS went digital, several years back, and they started charging extra for encoding, we ended up deciding to do the encoding ourselves. It was a big change in how we did things. Once upon a time, Laney would record the show in the usual way onto tape -- through the board, and into the DAT machine. It was the same concept she'd been following since she started doing radio and recording segments in the mid-1980s. Now, back in the early days, she recorded on reel-to-reel (we still have some reels of her work in boxes in the basement), and manually sliced and spliced tape together. But the concept of recording to tape was the same, whether it was on reel-to-reel or onto a DAT.

Granted, recording to a DAT is less manual, and you're going to a tape that can't be edited by hand (which, for someone who is accustomed to more hands-on work, can be a bit nerve-wracking, since you don't have a direct way to edit the recording). But it was still recording to tape.

That changed, when PRSS went all-digital with their new Content Depot catalog. All of a sudden, it was no more DAT tapes, no more connecting with the Ames Uplink folks, no more runs to FedEx. It wasn't all bad, as there was no more rushing to get everything done by Thursday night -- or else. But having to go out and buy a new recording system (i.e., a 17-inch Mac Powerbook with an iMic, a big external hard drive and a spool of CD-Rs for storage) and transition to recording straight to digital, was a bit of a firedrill.

I have to say, the sound you get from analog -- even onto DAT tape, which is technically digital, but is still tape, and thus a "softer" media -- is second-to-none. This might be why Ani DiFranco has done a fair bit of recording onto reel-to-reel. You just get a truly great feel from it.

Now, one of the things we did in between DAT and pure digital was, Laney would record the show onto DAT, make sure her levels were all good, and then I would master it into the final digital format on the Powerbook. If you've got plenty of time and you're heavily invested in a rich, full sound, I can't recommend this approach enough. It's the best of both worlds. You pay for it, of course, in terms of time and money spent, but if you're a highly religious audiophilic recording artist, you have tons of time on your hands, and you want to get the best sound possibly available, you may want to try this, in your next recording session. We got such great sound off that approach -- and if we had the time and the equipment to continue to do it, we would.

Sadly, the DAT player died, and between the money for the new machine and the DAT tapes, as well as the extra hours it took to produce the show each week, we opted to go all-digital and just record straight into the Powerbook.

That's what we've been doing for a number of years, now. At first, it was an adjustment, getting used to the crisper digital sound. One benefit I noticed with digital, however, was that the editing process was actually easier. The highs were more clearly high -- as in, you could see distinct spikes on the track in Audacity -- and cleaning up the highs and the lows and normalizing all the levels was a lot more straightforward.

If you're an experienced Audacity (or any other software, for that matter) audio editor, you know what I mean -- when you're editing with digital tools, you can see right in front of you where your levels are, and you can click and drag over the sections to adjust them. When I was editing digital versions of an analog recording of Women In Music, the distinctions between sections were a lot less clear-cut. So, I had to work harder to clean up the spikes and bump up the low areas. It took more time -- a lot more time. Between transferring the DAT to digital and then editing the whole show, it took several hours longer than just doing straight digital does.

I can't say I miss the hours and the money it took to make the show happen in the old way. But I must admit, I still miss that analog feel.

Well, nostalgia aside, the latest news is that I'm going to be doing training on Audacity with Brainshark, next Wednesday at 2p.m. And I'm looking forward to finding out how folks there use it.

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