RGMP 4: Start editing audio

This is the fourth post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the third post, I explained how you can get started with gathering audio for use online. Today you’ll learn how to put that audio on a computer, edit it, and export an MP3 file.

Uploading the file

First you’ll need to connect your audio recorder to the computer. This should be via USB. If there’s no way to connect the recorder (some dictation recorders have no connector), your recorder is useless, and you need to buy a different one.

  1. Windows: A bunch of messages will pop up in the lower right corner of the computer screen until the device connects. At that point, you should see a window that asks you want to do. Scroll to the bottom and choose to view the files and folders on the device.
  2. Mac: Most recorders will mount as a drive on your desktop. Double-click the drive icon, and you’ll see the contents of the recorder.

If one of the two things above does not happen, your recorder is probably no good for this work. Read this earlier post — A few words about digital audio recorders — and buy one that works. Some recorders try to download some crap software when you connect them. I do not recommend those recorders.

Most recorders have several folders in which they stash your audio files. If a folder name ends in the letter A or the number 1, that is probably where your files are (unless you changed it; read the manual!).

Find your audio files. If the filename ends with the file extension .mp3 or .wma, you will need to convert that file to .wav. If the file is already .wav, you can skip the conversion stage. If you are on Windows and you do not see the file extension at the end of the filename, follow these instructions.

Converting the file

For converting one audio file type to another, I strongly recommend the FREE VERSION of Switch. Make sure you download the FREE version. Download it here. It works on Windows and Mac. After you download it, you will need to install it. Say no to all the options during the install.

After Switch is installed, launch it. Then drag and drop the audio file into the big window. There are three steps:

  1. Check and make sure you know where the new, converted file is going to be saved. There is a menu labeled “Output Folder”: Use this to select a folder on your hard drive.
  2. Change the “Output Format” to .wav.
  3. Select the file in the big window (click it once), and then click the big Convert button.

Getting your files and folders in order

It will be important, always, to keep all your files for one audio project in ONE folder. This should NOT be a folder with other stuff in it. So create a new folder, name it something like “My First Audio Project,” and then copy and paste your new .wav file into that folder.

I advise you to keep the original audio file safe in some other location.

A few words about your computer

Editing is, in fact, the easiest part of this entire process. I have found that a large number of print journalists are very unfamiliar with their computers. They are not comfortable downloading files, installing software, converting file formats, copying and moving files, etc. This creates a huge problem — some journalists are stymied in their efforts to learn multimedia skills because they lack basic, fundamental computer literacy.

If this describes YOU, then you might need to get extra help. You need to be able to perform these basic file management tasks without screwing things up. You might need to take a community college course or buy a “Dummies” book. This is quite important — you can’t continue saying you’re not very good with computers in 2009. Get some help. The computer is your primary tool.

Installing the editing software

I recommend that you use Audacity for editing audio, because it’s completely free and open source, and you can use it on any computer (Windows, Mac, or Linux). I have written two different Audacity tutorials. You can download the PDFs from this page — Audio: Journalists’ Toolkit — under the subheading “Editing.”

Please read the installing instructions on page 1 of the first tutorial, “Super-Fast Guide to Audio Editing.” (I’m giving you the instructions this way because I can update that tutorial, but I will not come back and update this blog post.) It is very IMPORTANT that you read and follow the steps, because there are two parts to installing Audacity. The second part concerns something called the LAME encoder, and I can assure you, about 25 percent of journalists and journalism students mess this up because they do not follow the frigging instructions!

So please, just follow the instructions. And if you have a computer literacy problem, then please get someone to help you. Don’t give yourself an excuse to fail by saying, “I’m not very good with computers.” That simply is not acceptable.

Editing the file

Once Audacity is installed, you can begin editing your little .wav file. (At last!) But hey, you only have to do all that stuff above ONCE.

Starting on page 3 of the first tutorial, “Super-Fast Guide to Audio Editing,” you will see step-by-step exactly how to DELETE something out of an audio file — such as your interview subject saying, “Um … um …” It is as easy as using MS Word to delete a sentence.

On page 4 of the tutorial, you will see how to CUT and MOVE some of the audio to a different part of the file — such as your interview subject identifying herself. Maybe that’s at the end, and you would like to move it to the beginning. This is as easy as using MS Word to cut and move a sentence.

While you are working on the audio file, you will repeatedly save a “project file.” Recall how I told you to keep all files for one audio project inside one folder (perhaps you named it “My First Audio Project”)? The first time you save this Audacity project file, MAKE SURE that you save it into THAT folder. The same one that already contains your .wav file.

If you keep that folder intact, and save all parts of this project into it, then it will be portable. You can copy the entire folder (not its contents — the folder itself) and carry it to a different computer, if need be — and it will still work. But if you save things all over the damn place, your audio file project will not be portable.

Some tips for editing:

  1. Use your headphones! Never edit audio using the computer’s speaker(s).
  2. Cut out all “ums” and “ers.”
  3. Cut out your own voice in all cases.
  4. Rearrange the subject’s sentences to make a coherent story or anecdote.
  5. Take care not to change or dilute what the subject meant. (This is the same as writing print journalism, of course.) Preserve the subject’s intended meaning in all cases.
  6. Don’t cut too much “dead air” out from between two statements. That will sound unnatural.
  7. Don’t cut the ending too abruptly. Leave a smidgen of dead air at the end.

Exporting the MP3 file

To export the MP3 file, the LAME encoder must be installed. There are instructions about this above, under the subheading “Installing the editing software.”

The following instructions assume that LAME has already been (a) installed, and (b) located for Audacity on the computer being used.

  1. Save the Audacity Project file (.aup) one last time.
  2. Check all the Audacity settings for export (see the tutorial). If the proper settings are not used, the MP3 file will not work in Flash or in Soundslides.
  3. File menu > Export for MP3. Please PAY ATTENTION to WHERE you are saving the file and what you have NAMED it. (Inside that folder with all your other files for this audio project would be a very smart place to save it.)

If you have followed this plan, you now have a fine MP3 file that can be uploaded to the Web or played in QuickTime, iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.

Previous posts in this series:

16 Comments on “RGMP 4: Start editing audio

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  7. Another great post.
    I just bought the Zoom H2, and on your advice installed Audacity. When I tried downloading the LAME encoder (following the links you provided, and left-clicking on the file), I got a 403-Forbidden error. Has something changed since you posted this? (I was careful about following the instructions, so I don’t think I’m one of the friggin’ 25%…)
    Thanks for the great work you’re doing.

  8. I tried again, using Safari instead of my usual web browser (Firefox 3), and it worked. Odd, because on their page they recommend using Firefox 3.
    Thanks again for the great advice.

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  10. I’ve used two apps on the iPhone for audio recording: The new (free) Voice Memos is good for just that – memos to yourself. The commercial Voice Record ($1.99 at the App Store) seems to produce better quality audio. The interface is cryptic on both of these, but eventually you will figure it out.

    With Voice Record you use wifi to easily transfer audio files from the iPhone to your computer.

    I do not know if these apps work on the iPod Touch or not.

    There are microphone attachments for various iPods. I have not tried these myself because my pre-iPhone iPod is the 2005-06 model (pre-video), and it does not have the capacity for CD-quality audio, no matter what type of mic you attach to it.

    I also think that holding up an iPod with a mic attachment during a journalistic interview makes you look like a rank amateur. Most journalists have an Olympus model, at the very least.

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