How about Soundtrack Express?

 open public Beta of Adobe Audition for Mac. While Audition for Mac remains in Beta, anyone can download it for free to take it for a spin. It’s worth a look if you’re interested in advanced audio editing.

I’m planning to use it to produce the next episode of my podcast to see how it stacks up to Apple’s Soundtrack Pro. In preliminary tests editing some audio files and piecing together a multitrack project, it seems to offer all of the tools and capabilities of the Apple audio editing program (at least for my needs).

I’m interested in Audition as an eventual replacement for Soundtrack Pro. As much as I like Soundtrack Pro, I don’t like the fact that I can only get it as part of the Final Cut Studio suite. I don’t really use the other Final Cut tools*, so I’m loathe to upgrade to the most-recent version of the Apple suite just to use the audio editing application. A bit of backstory: I own the first version of Final Cut Studio, which I purchased at a steep discount thanks to an Apple promotion for people who previously owned one of the stand-alone apps that make up the Suite.

This is not to say that I want to purchase the stand-alone version of Adobe Audition. That would likely cost more than the upgrade price for Final Cut Studio. Rather, I’m anticipating that I might pick it up as part of a suite when Adobe comes out with CS6, as I’m still using CS3. 

Here’s the thing, though. Both Audition and Soundtrack Pro offer much more power than I really need.

However, these pro-level tools allow me to do things with audio that I just can’t do with other tools. I’ve tried to make GarageBand work, but it’s just too limited. I’ve tried Audacity, too, but it’s just too hard to use when juggling six or seven tracks and scores of clips.  I keep going back to Soundtrack Pro. 

What I’d really love to see is an audio application from Apple that’s akin to Final Cut Express. I want Soundtrack Express. It would offer less than Soundtrack Pro, but more than GarageBand. What do you say, Apple?

* I would gladly upgrade my copy of Final Cut Studio if the next version rolls in new capabilities to publish content for iOS devices.

Huffduffer

Huffduffer. It’s a creation of web developer Jeremy Keith, who says he originally invented this tool for himself to fill a simple need.

Like many online tools with staying power, ‘filling a simple need’ is often the first litmus test for success. The second is filling a simple need well. And this site does the job very well. Huffduffer is an easy-to-use, elegant, friendly way to create your own personal podcast stream from found audio on the web. The part that makes Huffduffer so useful is RSS feed creation. It’s easy to bookmark audio, but not so easy to create an iTunes-compatible RSS feed. I think of it this way: Huffduffer is to audio what Instapaper is to text.

I must admit, though, that I have only just started using this tool as intended. So far, I’ve primarily been using it as a discovery tool to find audio content I otherwise would not have known existed by subscribing to Huffduffer’s ‘Popular’ feed. As you may surmise, this feed delivers a steady stream of what other people are ‘Huffduffing.’ The downside to this stream is that there are often many duplicate posts, so you’ll find yourself often deleting entries that you’ve seen before. The upside is that the content is usually interesting and there’s plenty of new content every day. For my long daily train commute, this feed is most welcome.

You’ll find that much of the ‘popular content’ tends to be in the vein of tech, design, web design/development, science fiction, speculative science, and hard science. This surely says a lot about the core users of the site. And this makes sense given who created it: I surmise that site usage has spread mainly by word-of-mouth and via conferences. I, for instance, discovered it a web design conference where Jeremy Keith was speaking. So if you are particularly interested in this type of content, you’ll get a lot out of this feed. As a secondary benefit, the popular feed has helped me find many a new podcast to subscribe to via iTunes. Now I need to start huffduffing some of my own ‘found audio.’ 

Here are a few recent items from the ‘popular’ feed that I really enjoyed:

Conversation with William Gibson — A discussion with William Gibson about where we are headed in the post-internet age.

Arthur C. Clarke, Alvin Toffler, Margaret Mead —  A talk recorded in 1970 about the future. From the show notes on Huffduffer: “At the time of this recording Arthur C. Clarke had recently collaborated on the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick. Alvin Toffler’s mega-influential book, Future Shock, is about to be published. And Margaret Mead is the world’s foremost cultural anthropologist.”

Kevin Kelly interview — An interview with Kelly about his new book, “What Technology Wants.” Fascinating stuff.

The Value of Ruins — James Bridle from dConstruct 2010 (a design & creativity conference) asks “as we design our future, should we be concerned with the value of our ruins?” 

If you’d like some more background, check out this interview with Jeremy Keith on Huffduffer. And if you’re curious about the meaning behind the word ‘Huffduffer,’ here’s an explanation.

Podcast Production Video

Podcast Production Process from Troy Kitch on Vimeo.

As I mentioned in a previous post, part of my job is to produce a bi-weekly audio podcast (for the National Ocean Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Recently, I was asked to put together a presentation about what it takes to produce it. To that end, I made the following video at home on my Mac using a product called ScreenFlow from Telestream.

This screencast provides an overview of the workflow involved in the podcast production process, with a few tips specifically relevant to those who work in the Federal government. However, it’s aimed at a general audience. If you’re interested in making a podcast with interviews, it’ll give you a good sense of the time and resources involved.

It’s also a demonstration of ScreenFlow, an outstanding screencasting application. I purchased ScreenFlow a few months ago, and intend to use it for some future projects on this site. It’s a bit pricey at $99, but well worth it if you have the need. It’s as easy to use as iMovie, and I think the results are stunning. Enjoy.

in tip | 189 Words

Audio editors for podcasting

In my work life, one of my tasks is to produce an audio podcast. I use Soundtrack Pro and GarageBand to do the job. However, I recently tried out a few audio editing alternatives. I evaluated Adobe Soundbooth, Adobe Audition, and Audacity. I thought I’d share my conclusions:

Adobe Soundbooth CS4 ($200). I found Soundbooth was a bit hard to use (read: non-intuitive) and had limited features. You can only split stereo tracks to mono by exporting them, which is silly. Even the free Audacity can split stereo tracks and convert to mono on the fly. You also can’t divide clips (at least, I couldn’t find how to do it after a reasonable period of time spent searching around). I was also unable to locate a scrubber, mixer, amplitude filter, and several other key features. They may be there somewhere, but I lost patience.

Audacity (free). I found this to be an excellent open-source, free editor. Available filter and effect extensions (add-ons) give this editor most of the features available in pro-level applications. For a simple audio project, this would be sufficient. However, I discovered several limitations which render the current iteration of the app ineffective for large, complex multitrack projects: (1) for me at least, the app starts to crash periodically when I have more than 15 or so tracks, (2) When you split a file, it creates a new track (instead of leaving it in the same track as Soundtrack Pro and Audition do). This is a problem when you are editing an hour-long recording and need to pull out only about 10 minutes of clips. You soon end up with tons of separate tracks and it’s a pain to manage them; (3) You cannot drag and drop tracks around. You must manually select ‘move up’ or ‘move down’ from a drop-down list. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal when you have many tracks and need to order them. (4) While you can mute select tracks (so you can edit one or two clips at a time) and shrink the size of each track to save screen real-estate (necessary when you have many tracks), these settings aren’t saved. The next time you open up the app, all the tracks are ‘unmuted’ and expanded to the full size. The good news about Audacity is that the development community is active, there’s lots of online documentation and support, and the app continues to get better and better.

Adobe Audition 3 ($350). Clearly, this is intended to be the main competitor for Soundtrack Pro. It does everything that Soundtrack Pro does, but several aspects of the design and layout of the application make it hard to use (at least from the perspective of someone very used to Soundtrack Pro). Overall, this is a very competent and powerful editor. However, I could do the same job in Soundtrack in about half the time. Again, I stress that this is coming from someone who knows Soundtrack Pro very well. I would recommend this to someone who has intensive audio editing needs, but does not wish to purchase or need the full Final Cut Studio.

My conclusion: I’m ready to head back to Soundtrack Pro. Maybe it’s because I’m most-familiar with it, but it’s the easiest tool I’ve found to put together podcasts. Another benefit of Soundtrack is that it seamlessly meshes with the other Final Cut tools for creating more complex multimedia and video projects (or for, say, pulling an audio track from a video interview to use in an audio podcast).

It’s not my preferred tool for creating enhanced podcasts or exporting AAC/MP3 files, though. I use GarageBand for this. GarageBand exports MP3s and AACs faster than Soundtrack Pro and produces smaller files. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering it’s tailored to podcasting. Soundtrack Pro does podcasting as well, but I’ve found that the best way to use it is to export an uncompressed AIF file, and then work with that in GarageBand. It’s also the easiest tool to use for creating enhanced podcasts (adding chapters, pictures, and links to the audio podcast). And, it’s worth noting, it’s the only tool to use other than Soundtrack Pro that I’m aware of that allows one to create an enhanced file. GarageBand is, of course, also an all-in-one solution to create a podcast. You don’t need Soundtrack Pro. What you get with Soundtrack Pro is much greater control in terms of editing, filtering, and mixing. For many people, though, GarageBand will do the job nicely. And it’s cheap. Conversely, Soundtrack Pro only comes as part of the Final Cut Studio, which is quite expensive. I really wish Apple would offer the choice to by the apps in the Studio a la carte (an option they discontinued). If you’re on a Mac and wish to try your hand at podcasting, definitely start with GarageBand.

Audacity is a good general-purpose editor that does the job for simple podcasts (no interviews, or simple Q/A interviews that do not require a lot of nonlinear editing, and those podcasts that are 10 or less tracks). It is a good ‘starter’ solution for those who wish to try their hand at creating a podcast, and it runs on PC, Mac, or Linux. Audacity projects created on one platform open on any platform, which is nice. For more complex audio editing on a PC, Adobe Audition is a solid next step up. And if you want to go the Adobe route, you can always try out Audition and Soundbooth first with Adobe’s free 30 day trial and see which works best for you.

In a few weeks, I’ll have a completed screencast demonstrating how I put together a podcast, which I’ll share in this space.

Radiolab: top iTunes Podcast

Here’s one more audio-related post. I suppose it’s now officially ‘audio week’ on this site (this wasn’t planned, but I’m on a roll).

I just listened to the latest episode of a my favorite radio show. The topic: an exploration of the relationship between biology and human engineering. Sound boring? Not interested in science? Listen to this show before you make up your mind. This just might be the best radio program in America. It’s Radiolab from WNYC in New York.

Of the many things that make this show special, the most apparent to me is the production quality. It’s not over-produced. It’s more about how cohesive and engaging the stories are in each episode. You know when you see a really great documentary or movie that just grabs you? The kind of show that draws you in? When you lose track of time? Radiolab is like that — for your ears.

What makes the show stand out? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has an experimental edge to it. They do things that I’ve never heard before on other ‘educational’ shows. They interview people (just like any other radio show), but the way they integrate the interview can be quite jarring and unexpected. Example: they often let the interviewee introduce him or herself — interviewers for radio/video usually ask the subject to ‘state your name and title.’ This typically never airs. It’s a method to ensure that the hosts get the name and title correct. On Radiolab, they often use this pre-interview audio to introduce the subject expert. This wouldn’t work if they did it every time, but my point is that they are willing to present a story in very untraditional ways.

Moreover, the storyline is sometimes nonlinear, which is relatively rare in audio stories. Interview sound clips can show up again later for effect (for humor, for emphasis). They also create and embed really interesting sound effects to illustrate visual elements. Some work, some don’t. It’s always entertaining and usually pretty funny, though. They also frequently use ambient sound to create tension, suspense and mood better than any show I’ve heard. In short, few shows know how to use sound as well as Radiolab. Few shows are as willing to push traditional boundaries to tell a story.

This experimental edge combines with the best part of the show: top-notch story telling. I don’t have much to say about this other than this: they spin a good tale. They take a potentially dry ‘science’ topic and bring it to life. They do this by finding amazingly interesting story segments.

I also think a part of what makes it work is that the co-hosts seem to genuinely like each other. They sound like they’re having a chat. It comes across so naturally, you might be fooled into thinking the show is effortless and spontaneous. That’s the kind of flow I’m talking about here — the kind you might expect in great video, but rarely find in an audio production.

I’m a big radio fan (the geeky ‘public radio’ sort of fan) and I’ve been listening to radio stories for a few decades now. I think what I’m trying to say is this: Radiolab is breaking new ground and raising the bar. It’s tossing aside traditional rules of documentary audio and opening up the medium. It’s 21st century radio. While This American Life (another amazing show) perhaps led the wave of alternative story telling and has done wonders to push the radio documentary envelope, Radiolab builds upon this. It takes it to a new creative level.

It’s worth going back in the archives to hear past shows. If you don’t, you won’t hear about fighter pilots with out of body experiences, the sound of a sleeping cat brain, the man who takes two hours to wipe his nose and thinks it only took him a moment, the guy who has had the same sound stuck in his head for over a decade, the woman who is really two women in one. In short, there are some great (and fascinating) stories to be found here.

Also check out The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania — it’s not a Radiolab program, but it was produced and hosted by Jad Abumrad (Radiolab co-host, co-creator). Abumrad is an outstanding storyteller — and this is one of the best audio programs I’ve ever heard. If nothing else, this show will surely answer all of those enduring questions I know you’ve had about Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

If you’re looking for a Mac connection here: Radiolab is available as a free podcast on iTunes. And the show is produced on a Mac.

Mac Hearing Aids

I decided to stick with the audio theme today because there’s a new Mac sound enhancement app on the streets. It’s called Hear, it’s from a company called JoeSoft and it’s now available for $49.95.

Here’s the hype about Hear (from the developer’s site): “Hear greatly improves audio quality in movies and music throughout all of your Mac OS X applications. With Hear, music is richer, movie sound and dialog is clearer and games will blow you out of your chair!”

Here’s what you need to know: Hear appears to be a repackaged, more polished and (according to forum reports) less buggy version of a Mac app called OSS 3D. OSS 3D is the creation of Dmitry Boldyrev, the developer of MacAmp (now defunct) and WinAmp (still a popular Windows media player, now a Time Warner AOL subsidiary). As I understand it, OSS 3D development has now ended with the release of Hear.

I tried the OSS 3D demo last Fall (which, incidentally, costs $20 less than Hear; you can still buy it, but there is not and never will be a Leopard version). I also downloaded the new Hear demo today.

What do they have in common? A scary number of users options that may intimidate you. I tweaked some of the various and plentiful manual controls for a while — long enough to convince me I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I headed for the presets. I tested Hear with a range of music and a video using built-in settings optimized for various types of musics, scenarios, 3D, etc. I listened to some sound with my built-in iMac speakers. I listened with my headphones. I listened with my plug-in JBL desktop speakers.

My preliminary conclusion is that this product has potential, but I’m not convinced many people will dish out $50 for the potential of enhanced sound. I say ‘potential’ because my results were mixed — I achieved some pleasant results, some painful results. I was surprised that some of the presets just didn’t sound very good to me. I had some distortion issues. When I chose a ‘rock’ genre song from my collection and then chose the ‘rock’ preset in Hear… I have to say it sounded better without it.

If you are a serious audiophile, an audio professional, and/or more knowledgeable about audio settings than me, you may love this. Reading through the OSS 3D forums, it appears that there are (were) many passionate OSS 3D users who swear by this digital enhancement package, and Hear appears to be the new face of OSS 3D.

It would be unfair of me to say this isn’t a good product after such a short trial. More likely, it’s user ignorance. Still, what I look for in a good Mac app is usability right from the install. I didn’t get that sense here. I also didn’t get adequate user documentation. But I’ll end on a positive note: it did sound good when I ran it straight through my iMac speakers. It produced a solid subwoofer sound and made my built-in speakers sound better (wider, deeper, more robust). It also produced some noticeable and nice 3D enhancement with the video I tested out.

If sound is important to you, why not give Hear a try. They offer a 30-day trial. You may have a better experience than I.

I’ll close by noting that I currently use SRS iWow ($19.99), a plug-in for iTunes. It improves the sound of iTunes music quite significantly — especially for laptop speakers. It also simulates 360 degree sound for headphones. I use it with my iMac and it makes a noticeable difference. I like it. Mostly because it’s very easy to use and the results sound quite good to my ears (I immediately know when it’s not turned on when listening to my music). The one thing it doesn’t do, though, is work outside of iTunes. That’s a big shortcoming. I’d like to see this tool integrated into all of my Mac’s audio output.

Until that day, it appears that Hear is the main game in town for system-wide audio enhancement. If anyone knows of any other similar app, please let me know.

You won’t find this on iTunes

I like the iTunes music store as much as the next person, but the selection is poor when it comes to the ‘world music‘ category.

For music that is other-than-English-language-pop (also known as ‘world,’ ‘global, or ‘international’ music — in other words, the vast majority of the music produced on this planet), you might want to try Calabashmusic.com.

The selection is outstanding, it’s DRM-free, tunes are cheap and it’s based on fair trade (50 percent of each sale goes back to the artist). For audiophiles, the sound quality is pretty good — downloads range from 160-192kbps. The files are in MP3 format so you can play them on any player. You can also return to Calabash at anytime and re-download your purchased music.

Did I mention the selection is outstanding? Calabash organizes their large music collection in two ways: browse by regions of the world or sift through scores of musical genres (Portuguese Fado, anyone? How about Afro-Peruvian?). Once you find something that interests you, try out a 60-second preview. They also offer 10 free downloads a week, which is a great way to start exploring new music.

I bring this up now because the folks over at Calabash are trying to launch a peer-to-peer microcredit program for international artists. Their goal is to raise $100,000 by May 31 so they can get it off the ground. You may have heard of Kiva.org. This is the same idea, but for struggling artists around the globe. I think it’s a great idea. Peer-to-peer microfinancing is one of the more interesting, innovative and positive things made possible by the social web.

If you love music from around the globe, also check out National Geographic’s online music section. The music content for this site is provided by Calabash, but it’s packaged a bit differently here. They strive for a more contextual, cultural focus as you might expect. Some of the content also comes from PRI (producer’s of The World, a great news program that daily highlights the global music scene, often in a political context) and Afropop Worldwide (the show that started me on my international music path back in the 1990s). One more: check out the BBC’s world music offerings.

Footnote: I love world music, but why do we have to call it ‘world music?’ Isn’t all music from this world? It makes no sense. David Byrne wrote a really good editorial way back in 1999 for the New York Times that gets to the root of the issue. It’s called ‘I Hate World Music.