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By Andrew Holmes at 2007-05-07 11:59
As related in a previous blog of mine at the Mandriva web site (see: http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/view/chromium/OSSlavesinKorea), we used to have terrible trouble preparing for the annual speech competitions here in Changwon: each time, speeches would be written for the kids and originally, I was required to record each of them in the presence of the Boss, which was not actually unpleasant, but could be awkward. Here is a story of a technology-enabled workaround which takes us into a quite different realm (and lets us do it all in the peace and quiet of home!).

Picture the scene: there was Yours Truly, seated at the best PC on the whole sixth floor, whiling away a few casual moments checking e-mail. On the other side of the big, glass-topped table, Scott ( . . . not his real name . . . he's Korean . . .) was listening to a tape of Meself and practising what I had recorded for him previously, repeating sentence by sentence to memorise the thing for a forthcoming speech contest. Suddenly, there was a strange grinding sound . . . the capstan had slipped, and the tape had been minced; the whole machine had in fact just died, right before my eyes. Was it the Curse of Scott?

As it happened, this was not the first time that such a destructive expiration of more primitive technology had taken place at such an inopportune time; in East Asia, as in many other places, it is easy these days to pick up a cheap tape/radio player, but they are cheap for a reason - to sell quickly and not bother people too much either emotionally or financially when they pass on to the Great Tape Machine Graveyard in the Sky. Neither the tapes nor the machines upon which they are run are sufficiently robust to have any great longevity, especially in an environment such as a private school full of tearaways (not all of whom are students, let it be said) with ever-limited room for movement. Korean hagwons are not generally noted for their generous leg room!

But it was still a business, and being myself a fairly "business-minded" sort of person, I began to see in my mind's eye a mounting cost as the Boss would be forever popping down to the store at the bottom of the building for more cheap and nasty tape recorders . . . this at a time when it had been mentioned (in the online computing media) that tapes would be phased out in the future, apparently due to lack of demand because of the rise of PCs and mp3 players. Filling the pockets of the store proprietor on its own would not destroy his business but there were a number of concerns which were visible to me, of which this was one, which required attention.

Clearly, a different solution was required. I had already been thinking about the idea of podcasts and how to perpetrate them on my main PC when all of this happened, and of course the great mind of a technologically-enabled Foreign Teacher* quickly put two and two together. The answer was a piece of (very good) free software which runs under both Windows and Linux: [b]Audacity[b]. I had been able to go through the old version of Mandriva's package manager and installed it across a number of successive distros, but this was really the first time I used it in anger, so to speak.

The process of installing Audacity on Mandriva was simple - all I had to do was go to MCC and select Audacity, install the rpm package and then updatedb and makewhatis as root in a console window. But Audacity needs one other thing to record audio conveniently - the free LAME codec. An rpm-ed copy of this can be downloaded from the Easy URPMI web site and it is worth mentioning that it is a VERY GOOD IDEA to set the Penguin Liberation Front's (PLF's) free and non-free rpm repositories up so that you can inspect them regularly and be notified automatically of any updates. For Windows, however, a link is given for downloading the codec at the Audacity web site, http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

The other (unexpected) problem with installing Audacity under Windows was that it couldn't find the location of the LAME codec file easily, and this actually had to be done by hand; the simplest solution there was to unzip and install it in the same folder as Audacity. In contrast, under Mandriva, it was able to find the LAME codec automatically despite some filesystem "remoteness" between the two.

What was the Konundrum behind all of this? Well, it turned out to have a few more strands than I had envisaged when the sudden flash of inspiration hit me like a large, fast-moving object with a broken brake cable . . .

Firstly, the Sound Recorder under Windows XP Pro was incapable of recording more than 60 seconds of continuous sound, useless when the speech has to be a minimum of two and a half minutes long! In fairness to Windows, anyone with professional requirements should be thinking seriously about a third-party app in any case, but I note that both KDE and GNOME have usable sound recorders which do not seem to have this type of restriction, although presumably they cannot themselves record to mp3 format. This seems quite in line with the tendency at Microsoft for removing interesting and potentially useful free apps which used to be part of the whole, like Write, which used to be so good that you could produce really good documents with full justification, and only go for something more heavyweight if you were really forced to.

Secondly, it is very common these days for the kids to have their own mp3 players as well as their own PCs at home with high-speed domestic Internet access - South Korea is a very technologically-enabled and "wired" country nowadays. And as it turned out, having ET record sound files for them like this meant that they would justify their parents buying a player if they didn't have one already - something which always seems to go down well . . . the secondary consequence of supplying the recordings as mp3s is that more kids now have players . . . *^_^* . . . however, this meant that not only could the model speech files be recorded, they could also be sent directly to the recipients along with written text (produced using Abiword, and MS compatible! ^_^) as e-mail attachments because most e-mail accounts have maximum attachment sizes of the order of ten or twenty megabytes these days, so a two-and-a-half-minute voice recording would equate to slightly over three megabytes, meaning that this was not a problem.

Thirdly, and completely unexpectedly, installing the corresponding port of Audacity to Windows showed that what was apparently an early DRM fault could make life much more difficult in the future. When I plugged my own Korean Mobiblu mp3 player into the USB socket to load files onto it, it repeatedly created new logical drive names, eventually gettng as far as j:\ or even m:\ before I could load anything new onto the player!

As you might expect, I was more than a bit riled by this. I was already in a hurry to go to work and as usual, Windoze was slowing me down! It might have been forgivable (well, almost) in the context of copyrighted media, but copyrighted media were not the issue - the recordings had no relevance to anything outside of my hagwon, and were therefore completely disposable. Copyright is irrelevant in such cases. But the DRM cack still applied. Another nail in the coffin of Windows! :-(



Audacity is able to save recordings in a number of formats, the default actually being Windows *.wma. The LAME codec is required when you select saving as an *.mp3 instead. Since the default save format is *.wav, transcoding to *.mp3 is an export function ("Export to mp3"), ditto with Ogg Vorbis. On the technical side, Audacity has the following useful features:



* Variable sample rates selectable by the user;
* a wide range of sound effects which can be applied (the "Effect" drop-down menu);
* sound spectrum analysis (the "Analyze" drop-down menu);
* editing and file/display alignment facilities;
* functions as a sound file player in its own right;
* zoomable displays;
* play time metering to enable easier location of a sound segment.
* input and output levels (microphone input and sound output) have their own separate controls;



In recording mode, operation of the program is very simple: start, stop and pause are standard controls as well as "Skip to Start" and "Skip to End", needing only the mouse for control - ironically, perhaps, just like using a cassette recorder! Most (if not all) questions for the basic usage of Audacity are covered in a very good set of help files accessible from the menu bar.



Some care needs to be exercised in the choice of a suitable headset or microphone for use with this, because I found that my original mic was not recording at a high enough volume, and had to be replaced with one which would. In stereo mode the display shows the VU levels in real time as well as providing a graphical time-based display showing the voice pattern as sound is recorded. Both volume output and recording level (from the microphone) can be set from Audacity's own interface. If the headset itself has separate controls, care should be taken that they are adjusted properly beforehand.

An additional note of caution regards the enabling of microphones under KDE, which is a function of a number of different bits of software. You should find that this is easy using the Kmix interface but be warned: other doodads like Aumix, QAMix and maybe even Volume Control may have an oar in there somewhere and should be checked if for any reason your voice appears to have no effect. Microphone enablement is a simple click of the mouse on the green "LED" on the basic Kmix menu:





Perhaps I could end this tale of mp3s in Korea with a slightly bizarre twist . . . for various reasons, the ISPs decided - apparently, I'm not too sure about this - to prevent the transit of mp3 files across the Korean Internet, with the result that I was forced temporarily to use my (Windows-based) mp3 player to store and download the speech and text files. In the end, it seemed that though the kids had trouble downloading the files for no good reason, this was eventually resolved.

I have no doubt that a great deal of work has gone into the development of Audacity, the reason for this being that the mark of a great product is that the user interface is simple but still communicates all of the information that the user requires; menus offer many functions and settings but are not complicated; and sound files can be saved or exported to different formats simply and quickly. Anyone wishing to record voice files like myself, possibly for podcasting purposes, or who simply wishes to have a back-up sound file player, will find Audacity a very useful addition to the Main Menu.

Let me finish this diatribe with a bit of computing philosophy. Audacity can be used not only under Windows but also under Mac and Linux; this is sensible because the types of sound files which it can record and play are also common to many OSes and Linux distros (because the codec itself is also free). It also means that I can have a Linux box (now two, as I have a Mandriva laptop as well) at home and record these files, and because the sound codec itself is OS-independent, they can be transferred by physical media (memory storage devices such as USB sticks) or even by e-mail with no difficulty.

We should look forward to a time when everything is like this. The software apps used may differ across platforms, but file formats should not. So you should be able to (say) write an article in a simple text editor (I'm using Leafpad on my systems), transfer the text to the desired app and render it into the desired file format, and that file format should be readable with the corresponding app on another user's machine, irrespective of whether it runs Linux, BSD, Mac or Minix . . . oh yes, and Windows, of course. Any business person who desires <em>not</em> to use a particular OS should not be inconvenienced in any way by that decision. Communication should be free and not encumbered by commercial or industrial interests.



* The Korean kids usually refer to the foreigners as ET ("English Teacher"). Need I say more?


  



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