Podcasting Toolkit – Jing

Up to this point my reviews have focused on the hardware I use for podcasting or audio recording. This review takes a look at a software utility from Techsmith called Jing. Many PC (and Mac) users know Techsmith for their excellent products Camtasia Studio and Snagit; two of the best media products available for screencasting and screen capture, and available with special pricing for educators.

Jing is something of an experimental product for Techsmith, and the admit as much by inviting the online community at large to use and evaluate Jing. Techsmith also gives you a free account on Screencast.com as an option for sharing your screencasts.

Jing is available as a free download for both PCs and Macs. It’s drop dead easy to use, and it saves all screencasts as .swf files – very compact. Is it better than Snapz Pro X? or Screenflow? Maybe, maybe not. On the other hand, it does allow one to quickly capture a screen recording with little or no planning, and produces small file sizes that are easily shared or transmitted.

The 2 minute video below provides a cursory look at the screen recording capability of Jing.

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Podcasting Tools – Alesis iMultiMix 8 USB

Recently I posted a review of the M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and thought it would make sense to follow up with a review of the Alesis iMultiMix 8 USB.

We purchased the iMultiMix 8 (MM8) late last summer as a key component of our faculty video recording studio. Once cannot but be impressed by the appearance of the MM8. Not only does it contain 100 studio grade 28–bit digital effects, a built–in limiter, it also sports an integrated iPod dock with control wheel transport controls for recording directly to an iPod.

As you can see from the photos below, the unit provides 4 XLR mic inputs and 4 1/4 inch mic inputs, as well as 2 guitar/line inputs, and Aux send/returns. Phantom power is available if needed, and the 3 band per channel EQ is a very nice touch.

I would love to give this unit a wonderfully glowing recommendation, but to date my experience with the unit has not been all hearts and flowers. First off, the USB connector on the MM8 feels soft and fragile, as if sliding the USB cable in will break something. Given that USB connectivity is one of the main features of this unit one would expect solid USB connectors, but not in this case. Worse however, is the inconsistent performance of the unit. In my review of the Blue Snowball microphone I described a problem experienced with the Snowball during some recordings. With the Alesis MM8 I have experienced a similar recording problem numerous times. In fact, we recently switched to using the M-Audio MobilePre USB for audio recording until we can sort out the cause of the randomly distorted audio recordings. I trolled the Alesis support site and discovered I was not the only one having this problem with the MM8. Alesis suggests the real problem is with some changes Apple has made to their core audio system, and suggest changing the sample rate from 44,000 Hz to 48,000 Hz will solve the distortion problem. I made the change Alesis suggested and was able to make several good recordings. Unfortunately, one rather long faculty lecture recording ended up with several sections badly distorted in spite of the change. Needless to say, the inconsistent audio quality has lead us to take it out of production until we can find a permanent, consistently reliable solution. Let me be clear however, I do not believe the entire problem lies with the MM8. I think Apple’s changes to their core audio system are part of the problem, especially since my Blue Snowball exhibits some of the same problems from time to time regardless of the sampling rate.

All the bad news aside, we have made a number of very good recordings of faculty and guest interviews, as well as video recordings using the MM8. For the time being however, it’s on the sidelines.

Alesis iMultiMix 8 USB Power & Phantom Power conx and switches on iMultiMix 8 USB

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Love of the Craft

Recently Alan Levine commented on his blog,

“…but [I] am honestly losing a bit of excitement every over every shiny new marble that comes rolling down the chute. It’s something about moving beyond tool lust to a love of the craft”.

Alan’s comment really resonates with me. As an academic technologist and faculty member, I have the responsibility for exploring emerging technologies for teaching and learning, and frankly, it is hard for me to keep up. And the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is the challenge not only of emerging technologies, but developing new and effective pedagogical habits and practices that embrace the cultural shifts exemplified by non-existence of class walls in our student’s worldview (see previous post). How can we help faculty take the risk of stepping outside the boundaries of comfortable teaching practices and integrate a technology that may enhance learning? I think the technologist runs the risk of being perceived as a “gadget guy” even though his passion is good teaching.
It seems to me we have to be very thoughtful in our recommendations to faculty regarding emerging technologies. Eric Kunnen’s comment on my last post regarding the importance of knowing your target audience (a core instructional design principle) applies to our work with faculty as well. Should all faculty use Twitter? Google Docs? Del.icio.us? Well, maybe they should be using a social bookmarking tool. But, what I’m am getting at is the potential benefit of matching (as much as possible) the recommended technology to the faculty member’s “personality” or style. (I am sure this idea could spawn a host of humorous matches [faculty personalities + real/fictional technology]. My point is not that faculty have peculiar personalities (in general), but some technologies simply do not match how they think and work. In my own case, I choose not to use Twitter, but I don’t mind using IM. My preference is to employ technologies that permit me to focus when I need to focus. I know some faculty deprecate IM for similar reasons – to them IM is too disruptive.
Bottom line – I am constantly reminding faculty that tech tools are not the main point. Good teaching is, and that requires stretching ourselves on a regular basis.
What strategies have you employed to convince your faculty you’re all about excellence in teaching and learning, without ignoring the potential benefits of emerging technologies?
ADDENDUM: D’Arcy Norman’s post on addiction to Twitter provides additional insight to this topic.

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Breaking down classroom walls

I recently stumbled across Gary Brand’s blog and watched a short video from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Teaching with Twitter”. Personally, I am not that excited about Twitter, but one of the comments made in the video really sparked some thoughts:

“We have to think about the ways the walls of the classroom no longer apply. The institution as a whole is really conservative, and keeps trying to maintain those walls…and for our students those wall don’t exist.” (Dave Parry, U. of Texas @ Dallas).

Even though Prof. Parry’s comments were in the context of using Twitter and other messaging tools in teaching, they raise additional important questions about the integration of technology and teaching, and existing pedagogical cultures. One question that comes to mind for me is how to assess the pedagogical value of integrating a specific technology into my class?
Many of the faculty I work with feel so buried with a heavy teaching load that integrating an emerging technology like Twitter doesn’t even get on their radar. Obviously, teaching load is an issues that needs addressing by faculty and administration. But, my question is this: What strategies have you employed to encourage faculty to take the risk of using a technology that takes them outside their boundaries of pedagogical comfort?

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Podcasting Tools – M-Audio MobilePre USB

You have probably experienced the same frustration: I have this great microphone I want to use to record a podcast, but it requires an XLR connection. How can I connect great mics to my PC?
One solution is the MobilePre USB audio interface from M-Audio. I was fortunate to purchase an academic audio recording package from M-Audio a couple of years ago that included the MobilePre and 2 Nova microphones. These products have been star performers ever since.
The MobilePre USB connects to your PC’s USB port, and enables you to connect mics with XLR, 1/4 inch, and 1/8 inch connectors. You can connect a total of 2 mics simultaneously, and the simple controls let you manage mic levels with ease. The MobilePre USB also provides phantom power for your mics if needed. The Channel 2 connector will also accommodate an electric guitar or bass.
The unit is drop-dead easy to use, and I use it often when working in our podcasting studio. Recordings I’ve made using the MobilePre and the Nova mics have resulted in some of the highest quality audio I have ever produced. Unfortunately, no piece of equipment can make me engaging if I am naturally boring
List price for the MobilePre USB is around $150, but you can find it as low as $120 at places like Amazon.
Unlike much of the equipment I have, I can recommend the MobilePre USB without reservation as an excellent solution for connecting great mics to PC audio recording software.
MobilePre USB front view
MobilePre USB 3/4 front viewMobilePre USB rear view

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Podcasting Tools – Blue Snowball Microphone

I just purchased the Blue Microphones Snowball mic last month (for myself), and find it to be a remarkable value for the price ($99 street price). The Snowball is a dual capsule design with 3 available patterns (switchable from the back of the mic) cardioid, cardioid with -10dB pad and omnidirectional. The Snowball is a USB mic that requires no additional software to run on the Mac, although I’ve read of some Windows Vista users having to wait for a Vista compatible driver.

The mic comes with its own hefty little chrome tripod stand and a shielded USB cable. Once attached to the stand, the mic head can be tilted up or down. I really like the mike stand, it is solid and heavy, which is important as the Snowball itself is almost the size of a softball! Even so, on the stand the mic is wonderfully stable, and the stand itself contains an extension that will allow you to increase the height of the stand about 4 inches. The mic looks very cool and generates a lot of interest from those who see it.

I have recorded a number of projects using the Snowball, and I think I am still learning about the mic. The 3-position switch on the back of the microphone allows you to select 1 of 3 patterns. In position 1, the mic has a standard cardiod pattern (more unidirectional), in position 2 a pad is activated that provides a -10dB reduction (for recording very loud instruments or sounds), and in position 3 both capsules are activated making the Snowball omnidirectional.

While recording my latest project I experienced some anomalies that are puzzling. I was recording a number of short clips to be used in an Articulate flash-based learning object. I used Audio Hijack Pro (Rogue Amoeba) route the mic input through a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-in called monomizer (to improve overall sound), and the actual recording was made using QuickTime Pro 7.4.5. The first few clips recorded with no problem. On or about clip 5 I noticed the recording was badly distorted and contained other weird artifacts. I trashed the clip, re-recorded it with no problem. However, a couple of clips later I experienced the same problem. By the end of the recording session I had to re-record 4 or 5 of the clips due to the weird distortion problem.

I have had the same problem using the Alesis iMultiMix8 USB mix with M-Audio Nova mics, and after a lot of trolling of the Alesis support forums found numerous indicators that some esoteric changes made to Apple’s core audio system can result in sampling rate problems that produce the problem I experienced. According to the majority wisdom on the support forums, the sampling rate for the device needs to be increased from 44,100 Hz to 48,000 Hz. While this seems to have helped the Alesis mixer (so far), I had already raised the sampling rate for the Snowball, so I’m still stumped. I honestly don’t believe the problem is with the mic (yet), as I’ve had the same problem with other mics connected via USB devices. So, the mystery continues – I’ll continue to investigate this problem, and I will continue to use the Snowball.

The link below will connect you to the Articulate learning-object I created using the Snowball. I think you will find the audio is quite good. 5 Minutes About Podcasting
Blue Snowball Mic with stand Blue Snowball rear view showing USB and capsule switch

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Podcasting Tools – Microtrack 24/96 Digital Recorder

My use of the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96 actually pre-dates my use of the Zoom H2 I reviewed earlier. We purchased the Microtrack 2 years ago as part of our gearing up for some podcasting projects on campus. I immediately fell in love with the Microtrack because of its simplicity and dependability. As of this writing the Microtrack 24/96 has been superceded by the Microtrack II. However, this review will focus only on the Microtrack 24/96, as I have not had opportunity to work with the newer version.

The Microtrack 24/96 is obviously portable, and records to compact flash media. The new version can also record to microdrives as well. It records in either WAV or MP3 format, and unlike the Zoom H2 it has no built in microphones. The Microtrack 24/96 came with a tee-shaped stereo microphone that plugs directly into the 1/8” input. It also sports separate left and right inputs for ¼” connectors. To listen to your recordings you must either plug headphones in the 1/8” headphone jack, or connect the Microtrack to your PC using the supplied USB cable, and drag-and-drop the files from the Microtrack on your PC for playback.

The supplied microphone is omnidirectional, which for our purposes, has worked out very well. The unit is small enough to be unobtrusive, yet sensitive enough to pick up all conversations in a medium sized class room. Of course, you can adjust input levels if needed.

We have elected to have the Microtrack record directly to MP3 format, and are delighted with the audio quality. By using the MP3 encoder we never run into storage capacity problems with the 2GB compact flash card installed in the unit. As a matter of fact, just before setting down to write this entry I cleared all the recordings from last semester of the unit, and it wasn’t close to being full. That’s a wonderful thing when you are moving from one class to the next with no time to download previous recordings.

Using an XLR to 1/8” adapter, I’ve connected a Shure SM93 lavalier mic to the Microtrack, and received excellent results.

In comparison to the Zoom H2, the Microtrack recordings are just as good. The small things about the H2 give it a bit of a usability advantage (e.g. the small detachable stand). The Microtrack must be laid flat on a supporting surface, or kept in the speaker’s pocked (if using a lavalier). I typically use the Microtrack with the tee-shaped mic, which means I start the recording, and lay the unit on the console near the instructor for the duration of the class.

Even though the Microtrack lacks some of the sophisticated mic switching available in the H2, it is still a very solid, dependable unit. Note however, the Microtrack II street price is around $299, while the H2 street price is around the $199 mark.

Next up, the Blue Snowball microphone.

Microtrack with compact flash card Microtrack with accessories

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My Digital Media Toolbox

As a young boy I was always fascinated with my dad’s tool boxes. He was a highly trained airplane mechanic for TWA (remember them?). I loved looking through some of his airframe & powerplant manuals, and trying to puzzle out the principles that made such complex engines work. Many decades later I find that aircraft mechanics are not the only ones with specialized tool kits.

My work has enabled me to develop a pretty nice “kit” of digital media tools summarized in the table below:

Hardware
Software
Zoom H2 Audio Hijack Pro (Rogue Amoeba)
M-Audio Microtrack 24/96 Articulate Suite 5.0 (Articulate)
Blue Snowball Microphone Quicktime Pro (Apple)
M-Audio Nova microphones Garageband (Apple)
Logitech Headset Snapz Pro X (Ambrosial Software)
Griffin Technologies iMic Camtasia Studio (Tech Smith)
Shure SM93 XLR lapel mics Soundsoap 2 (Bias)
M-Audio Mobil Pre Finalcut Express (Apple)
Micromemo for iPod Video Audacity (Audacity)
Alesis iMultiMix 8 USB iMovie (Apple)
M-Audio iControl for GarageBand iPhoto (Apple)
Apple Macbook Image Well (XtraLean Software)
Apple iMac Call Recorder (Ecamm)
Canon ZR 800 DV Cam Skype (Skype)
Panasonic Wireless mic & xmitter Jing (Tech Smith)
Keynote (Apple)
  Presenter’s Toolkit (Digital Juice)

I am blessed to have such a rich collection of resources at my disposal, and the excellent support I continue to receive from my boss – Thanks Reed.

In my last update I provided a brief review of the Zoom H2, and I will proceed to review the majority of the items the toolbox. However, I will not spend any time reviewing Apple’s products as numerous reviews are available on other sites. So, next item up for review – the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96.

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