Assignment: An Audio Essay (due Feb 4th)
Create an audio essay or podcast in which you review a song, album, or musical artist. (Note if you are not a fan of music, you can review some other form of media that has audio--poetry recordings, audio books, etc.) Use an audio editor to cut samples from songs or other audio files. Use a microphone to record narration offering analysis and explanation of the audio materials. Make decisions about the fair use of audio materials.
Plan It: Practice Invention Strategies
Before going too far, you should familiarize yourself with elements of audio essays. Audio essays can range from the typical radio-news-style reporting piece to a music review containing audio samples to a profile that includes recorded interviews, to name some options. Consider some of these possibilities:
- NPR’s Music Site (http://www.npr.org/music/)
- Music Popcast (http://odeo.com/channels/61944-Music-Popcast)
- Pandora (student podcast)
- Bon Iver (student podcast)
Next, think about what you might develop in an essay that includes audio samples and your recorded voice. Spend some time mulling over what you want to talk about and how you will approach things. Here are some suggestions:
- Find a model that can help you conceptualize your project. Search online for audio essays or podcasts. Consider the kinds of topics they take up. Identify an example that works well and that might be adapted for your own composition.
- Talk with others about your project. Talk with family or friends about your topic. Work with classmates to sharpen one another’s topics. (Consider asking partners if they would be willing to be interviewed later for the essay.)
- Make a list of topic possibilities. Zoom in to identify sub-topics or areas of focus that might be taken up. Could a single song drive an audio exploration? Is there a key concern that might be investigated in detail?
- Zoom out to think about how related people, ideas, or things might extend your topic or add relevance to your project. Are there controversies that might be taken up to explore the subject? What groups are associated with your topic? How might larger contexts be taken up or used to organize the project?
- Conduct research to learn more about the topic and refine your thinking. What have others said already that is related to your subject? What can you learn from books, journals, or online articles on the topic?
- Make an outline or map sketching out directions for the essay. List audio samples that might be taken up? Jot down key points you will make in the audio essay. Think of the project in terms of segments and develop a plan for individual segments and for the project as a whole.
Compose it: Draft an Audio Essay
When you compose your audio essay, you will need to balance the need to learn about the audio composing process with the conceptual demands of your topic. You will need to spend some time getting to know the audio editor you choose to use for the project. (Audacity is a good choice.) Take time to read any overviews, help pages, or tutorials that can get you started with the program. Although your project and your audio editor will influence your composing process, you can follow some general steps.
- Become adept at recording your own voice to narrate the audio essay. Find a quiet environment where you can work. Experiment with your available microphones. (Built in laptop microphones often work fine; affordable USB microphones work well; more advanced microphones might be worth a look.) Try some practice recordings, working with your equipment and software until you get audio that is loud enough to be easily heard and that does not contain undue levels of background sound.
- Get comfortable with your voice. Experiment with cadences, tempo, and pitch as you begin working. Don’t be shy about trying out new tones or giving your voice presence in your recordings. Use the audio essay as an opportunity to think about how you can use your voice as you communicate and about how you can develop a “voice” in both spoken and written contexts.
- Learn the moves needed to import audio files into your editor. You may also need to learn something about converting audio files. Experiment with cutting, copying, and moving segments of the audio that you import. Learn to fade clips in and out and to adjust the volume levels of clips.
- Ensure that you have an outline or plan for developing the essay. Import a clip and begin editing it and adding your narration. Check that you are writing into and out of the clips in ways that clarify and extend your topic.
- Develop a transcript as you move closer to conducting final recordings. You can draft a script ahead of time, and then revise it. Or you can do some free-form recordings, transcribe them, and then edit the transcript into a final script for the production recordings.
- Continue importing materials and adding narration. Add background sounds for ambiance as needed. Adjust and polish the composition.
- Export a draft of the file. Explore your audio editor to learn about file formats for exporting—most likely mp3 format. Post the file to the class Web site or online.
Below find resources to refer to as you work:
You will need to download and install the Audacity audio editor to work with the sounds. (You will also need to downlaod the lame encoder.) I will give you instructions about how to use the program. You will import the songs into the project, and then edit them into the samples you will use.
You may also need to collect interview clips. You can probably use the built in microphone on your laptop, or I have some microphones that you can use with your laptop to record people. Before starting, you will need to think ahead about what you want to ask--if you ask something broad like is Steve Earle literary?, you may get a range of responses. If you say, what do you think about the topics or motifs in Earle's music?, the responses might be easier to plug into your project. In any case, the interview process often involves a good deal of collecting, listening, and then selecting and trimming. For every 10 minutes of interview "tape" you will probably get 20 or 30 seconds that really should end up in the podcast.
You will also need to gather resources from the net. As you do so, you may want to use zamzar.com to get sound out of YouTube clips, and you may need to use a media conversion program (I suggest Mediacoder for Windows, but there are others) to get files into formats that will work with Audacity.
You will also need to record your own voice to stitch everything together. Again, if your laptop microphone delivers good sound, that will work, or you can try borrowing one from me. You need to do everything possible to get good quality audio for the project.
This should be a project that raises some new challenges for you. Some will be technical--be sure to save your files often and give yourself time to learn how to compose with audio. Most of the challenges should be conceptual--you'll need to learn to imagine how you can organize a project based in sound, create transitions, convey information succinctly, create a mood through audio, etc. There will also be content challenges--what are you trying to accomplish in your review? Who will be your audience(s)? What can you say that will be relevant, insightful, and clear? Hopefuly the level of challenges will still allow the project to be creative and fun.
Here are some additional readings and resources:
From Transom, Alex Blumberg's story advice and some short audio profiles
Nancy Updike's writing for audio advice
Sound Portrait's advice on How to Record.