Saturday, January 10, 2015

Teacher Creativity Skill: Record and Edit Audio

An often overlooked skill when it comes to creating with multimedia is that of recording and editing audio. Yet, this was one of my first learning curves when I started bringing more technology into my classroom. I had the opportunity, thanks to a great group of folks in my district (the EVSC ICATS), to participate in a project called the Pod Academy. We were provided with an iPod, access to and training on GarageBand (an Apple iLife recording studio), and the challenge to create educational podcasts. We hosted the podcasts on our district website, and as I recall, the process of getting the finalized projects online was quite an ordeal.

I had students create podcasts of essays they wrote titled "Something Worth Saying." The students wrote and edited the essays, then recorded themselves reading the essays, edited the recordings, mixed them with background music, and published them to the website. It seemed simple enough, but the first time I tried it, the week-long project took a couple of months (on and off) to complete.

You might think that I would have given up, but the project itself had some amazing rewards. I can say hands-down that I had a better completion-rate, engagement level, and effort-level from my students. The essays were truly amazing, and the best part is that for the first time in 10 years as an English teacher, I had a student ask me, "Can you help me with this sentence?" We were definitely going to do this again.

And we did the next semester. And then for each semester after that. And over time, of course, I learned a thing or two about how to edit audio and how to pass that on to my kids. The technology improved as well, so that sharing with the world became easier. As a result, the podcasting project that took several months the first time, returned to the week-long project I had originally imagined, and new projects became possible once I had learned the skills.

Since then, I've become one of the ICATS, and I return over and over to the lessons I learned as I explore more ways to use technology in the service of learning.

What Does This Have to Do with Creativity?

Our creativity is best harnessed when we engage all of our senses. Focusing on and developing our skills with a single sense can often inspire us with new ideas. Additionally, increasing our ability to control the individual pieces of our projects makes new and more complex projects possible.

A Few Reasons to Learn to Record and Edit Audio

  1. Audio has a profound ability to enhance a project and to set tone and mood.  There's a reason that television and movies and video games rely so heavily on sound. There's also a reason why we still listen to the radio and download podcasts. Great audio can paint a picture that doesn't require visual input. 
  2. Bad audio can ruin a project. A great video with terrible audio is unwatchable. Learning to capture good audio can be the difference between a professional and an amateurish product. 
  3. There are a lot of projects that can benefit from a basic understanding of audio editing, including: Videos, Podcasts, Enhanced Podcasts, Music Composition, Audio Interviews, Radio Shows, Lip-Sync Projects, and Book Trailers,
  4. The use of all media is governed by copyright law. While it is often possible to find audio that is licensed under Creative Commons, creating your own audio guarantees that the audio in your projects will be unique and won't require giving credit. 
  5. When you create your own audio, you can often get exactly what you want instead of searching for something that kind-of fits your needs. 

Where to Start

Much like learning video or photo skills, learning to record and edit audio is a pretty big ocean. It's best to start out with some basics and then learn more as you go. There are many programs from simple recording tools to high-end studio mixing tools that you can learn, but I would start with a tool that lets you capture live audio (through a microphone), upload audio, split and trim audio tracks, control the levels of individual tracks, and layer tracks together and publish them as a file (.mp3, .wav, etc.).

For Apple-users (including iDevices), I don't think you can have a better starting place than GarageBand. It comes free with OSX and iOS, it naturally works with iTunes and iMovie, it has all of the basic features listed above, and it comes with some useful (and legal to use) files. You can also create instrumental tracks using loops or create your own. Honestly, GarageBand is still my go-to editor, even though I have access to higher-end programs like Adobe Audition.

For PC users, a great place to start is Audacity. Audacity has all of the basic features listed above, and it is relatively easy to learn. It is also free which is definitely a plus. There are other free editor downloads as well, and there are a host of good audio-editing web tools and broadcasting web tools to explore.

For Android devices, take a look at Audio Editor for Android as a starting point. 

If you are looking to create music, there are thousands of good apps for both Android and iOS that can create particular sounds. Look for apps that allow you to record your sounds and share them as .mp3's. Two of my favorites are ThumbJam for iOS and PocketBand for Android.

What Equipment Do I Need

Again, there is a wide range of equipment from inexpensive and simple to expensive and complicated. Generally, I encourage folks to start simple, but to still pay for as much quality as you can. Obviously, if you are working with students and need multiple pieces of equipment, then economy can be a factor. Here are some basics:
  • A quiet space to record.  This is free but can be hard to find, especially in a school and with a large class. Still, if you can find a large and quiet space where kids can spread out, like a media center, that will help.
  • A recording device (computer or mobile device). Obviously you need the tool that will capture the sound. If you are using computers, make sure they have sound cards.
  • A microphone. While the internal mics in computers and mobile devices are getting better and better, a good microphone can really improve the quality of a recorded voice. If you are recording a single voice, a decent USB or Bluetooth microphone headset is a good investment. I tend to like Logitech's offerings in this area, but there are others that are good as well. If you are recording groups of people, then consider the ATR 2100 USB mic. If you want to add a mic to a tablet, I'd consider the iRig mic.
  • Headphones for Editing. Okay, if you get a USB microphone headset, you are set. And, of course, earbuds are a fine solution. However, the deeper you get into this, the more a good (and comfortable) set of headphones will matter to you. Regardless, if you are going to have many people editing at the same time, have them BYO-Headphones.

What Do I Need to Know to Start?

Here are a few general thoughts as you begin:
  • Pay attention to your space. Often there are noises that you don't hear until you hear them in the recording. Give a listen ahead of time, and see if you can eliminate some of these.
  • Anticipate possible audio interruptions. I always had to remind my kids to stop recording as the time for daily announcements came near. Schools are filled with interruptions from bells to alarms, to calls from the office. They won't all be avoidable, but some can be anticipated.
  • Test your audio before you begin EVERY TIME. Audio is a funny thing, and something as simple as long hair rubbing against a lapel mic can ruin an entire interview. Better to do a minute long test to eliminate problems, rather than scrap 5 minutes worth of audio.
  • When recording voice, have students slow down and speak at a normal level, just as they would if giving a speech. Kids tend to speed up and quiet down when recording.
  • You don't have to be perfect. A lot can be done in editing. If you mess up. Simply stop, pause, and begin where you left off. Also, understand that some mess-ups are part of natural speaking and don't need to be edited out at all.
  • When recording multiple instruments and/or voices, a little bit of distance can be a good thing. Look for the sweet-spot in the room, to get the best blend before beginning.
  • Pay attention to your levels. Most programs show you in real time how loud the input audio is as you record. Ideally, your levels will all spike before they get into the red zone. 
  • Be aware that the project is not the product. The file you are working in as you edit is changeable at any time. However, in order to share the final product (which isn't going to change) you need to export the file into a new file format.
Beyond that, learning to record and edit takes practice and as-needed advice. Here are a few places to get some support:

Learning GarageBand:

Learning Audacity:

Recording Tips

Editing Tips

Our Task

By working to develop our own skills in capturing, editing, and utilizing audio, we become more familiar with this medium of expression and can better use it to tell our stories and affect our world through creative expression. When we learn these skills, we become comfortable sharing them with our students, and our students are entering a world where effective creative expression is in more and more demand.


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