Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Recording Technology Advice Needed for the Not-Quite-Neophyte


Once upon a time, I could work with all types of technology, both old and new. I had a Sony Walkman, but I also knew how to thread the seemingly ancient reel-to-reel tape player in the college radio studio. In 1986, we did the layout for our college’s literary magazine on an Apple Macintosh, and I knew I had glimpsed the future. I remember the Internet before there was a World Wide Web, back when it was all text.

But somewhere along the way, technology has gotten out ahead of me, and in most cases, I’ve just let most technological developments leave me behind. In many cases, it pays not to be an early adapter. It’s better to let the developers work out all the bugs and kinks before I invest.

However, I often find myself overwhelmed by all the choices once we know that a particular technology is here to stay. Lately, it’s become clear to me that I need to pay more attention to the recent advances in recording technology.

I’ve only recently learned how to make recordings using the microphone and software included with my laptop. It’s easy enough, but I’m not happy with the way that the recordings sound. I wonder if there’s some technique that I’m missing, some way of talking into or at the laptop that would make my voice sound less tinny.

Here’s what I really want to know: at what point do I know for sure that I need to buy better technology?

If I just need to record a poem here and there for online journals that offer readers a chance to hear the poem, then maybe my laptop is fine. But then I wonder if having the better options in technology might open up new doors for me?

For example, would I play more with podcasts if I had better ways to make recordings? I used to work in college radio, and I miss it. I’m an NPR junkie from way back, and I imagine that creating a podcast series would help me feel like I’m working in a meaningful medium, a medium that until recently I thought was lost to me, once I graduated.

If I decide I need to invest in better technology, then I have another set of questions: what do I need to buy? Should I invest in top-of-the-line technology or do I just need whatever would be the cut above the basic equipment that comes with my computer?

And then, there’s a round of software questions. I know that software exists that will let me manipulate the recordings that I make. I can access some versions of this software free, from my school. But the last time I tried to do this, in 2006 or so, I found the software overwhelming. Do I really need to learn a new computer program? Or will most people be listening through inferior devices anyway, so it won’t be worth it to manufacture supreme sound quality?

I know I’m not the first person who has wrestled with these questions, but here, too, technology seems to be an equal mix of blessing and curse. There are lots of answers out there in the Internet realms. Who to trust? Globalization complicates the matter even further, because we now have many more choices than we once did, and many of them are affordable.

So, if you’re a poet who has wandered into the realms of audio production, and if you have some insights, it would be great to hear from you. What technology advice would you give to someone who’s not a complete novice, but nowhere near an expert?

Author: Kristin Berkey-Abbott

A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.

11 thoughts on “Recording Technology Advice Needed for the Not-Quite-Neophyte

  1. These are great questions, Kristin. All too often, conversations about technology are dominated either by the total technophobes or the gadget-happy technophiles, and one rarely hears from people in the middle. When to upgrade, how complicated to get, what’s the best tool for the job at hand — these quandries never go away. Ten years ago, everyone felt frustration about the complexity of programming a VCR, but now the question is whether to stick with DVDs or go to Blu-ray, for example. In the area of web audio, as recently as six years ago you’d have been forgiven for assuming that Real Audio players would remain the standard for years to come, but now almost everyone uses Flash players… but growing resistance to Flash, a proprietary standard, from advocates of open standards such as HTML5 suggest that its days, too, may be numbered. And so it goes.

    Anyway, my short advice for anyone doing spoken word recordings for webcast is to get a reasonably good dictation or podcasting microphone, a nice pair of headphones, and download the freeware Audacity (or, for Mac owners, use Garageband). You can try podcasting with Blog Talk Radio, but the problem with that is you can’t go back and edit. I think editing is key to a good audio recording, just as it’s key to good writing. Most of the basic functions — adjusting amplification, reducing noise, and cutting and pasting — can be learned in a few minutes.

    Despite doing this on a nearly daily basis for the past three years at qarrtsiluni, I don’t consider myself especially tech savvy, and there are vast areas of the audio software I use (Adobe Audition) that I haven’t even bothered to explore. I still don’t really understand the science behind any of this. I’ve learned what works, more or less, and I’m happy to muddle through.

  2. The folks at Linebreak recommended the H2 Zoom mic, and I’ve loved it. It also has storage capacity so I can take it to panels and readings as well.

    I have used Audacity and Garageband and both were easy to use. (I am a Mac person.)

    Here’s the mic: http://www.zoom.co.jp/english/products/h2/

    Good luck!

  3. Yes, the H2 Zoom is a great option for high-quality recordings, especially if you want to record away from your computer — say, at a poetry reading — or record people in the field for a radio-style podcast. I bought one myself a couple months ago and am quite happy with it. I even used it for an ambient-sound podcast (though it’s obviously not as good for that as a dish microphone.) For use with a computer, I recomment the Blue Snowball microphone, the best condensor mike for USB ports in its price range, I think.

  4. Hi Kristin – Just chiming in to echo everything that Dave and Sandy said. There are some useful basic technology tips over at Belly Up that may be helpful. You’ll find over there, once again, that the basic software recommended is Audacity. That’s because it’s a) good and b) free.

    I use it for Whale Sound, and have just upgraded to their (free) latest Beta version, which has some great improvements over the previous version. Audacity has lots of bells and whistles but you’ll hardly need any of them for your basic poetry recording. It’s easy and intuitive to use at the basic level.

    For microphones, you can go from what Karsten uses at Belly Up, at $10 or so, and get ever and ever fancier. What I use for Whale Sound is a Snowball, which I love, and cost me about $80 or so, as I recall.

    And really that’s it! Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

  5. My son helped me record a poem with Audacity, and that worked well. If only I could do it myself! I’m sure I will learn over the summer, or maybe even his spring break, but he took his laptop, microphone, etc. with him when he went.

    Good to see your questions, and good to hear these answers!!

  6. I have a Mac, and Garageband works really well without any sort of external mic – you can play with the setting to eliminate echo and such, and you can even add background music or other layers.

    For my iPod Touch, I use an app called Voxie and a small mic that plugs into the headphone jack. It works surprisingly well, even if public, if you put it on the podium/music stand where you are reading. Once you record onto the iPod, you can sync the recording to your computer wirelessly through a specified URL – then your poems can go into iTunes, etc. It’s fun!

  7. Thank you all so much for these comments. I’m making a list, and I’m going to move (back) into the world of recording. You’ve all saved me several steps, and I imagine, you’ve spared me many missteps. Again, thanks!

  8. This is good stuff! I’m late to the convo, and Nic’s already linked to the advice I posted on my blog, so I’ll just add this:

    There’s no harm at all in keeping things really simple. I put off recording for my students for a long time because I was overwhelmed by all the tools and all their options and possibilities. (That’ll happen at a college that is working hard at online initiatives and keeps sending emails and giving workshops to encourage us to try new things. Ironically.)

    Now that I’ve gone for it, I use about four “technical” skills: I find a quiet place, I adjust where the mic is in front of my mouth, I adjust the input volume, and I use the buttons in Audacity that look/work just like the ones on old fashioned tape recorders. That’s it.

    And I’m satisfied for now. When I’m not satisfied anymore, I’ll experiment with other stuff. :)

    Cheers, Karsten

  9. Pingback: Woodrat Podcast call for submissions: Platonic love

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