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Sound check: Audio offers simpler alternative to video
Whether podcasting, making music or preserving a personal life experience, audio recording has gotten easier and cheaper in recent years. As an alternative to video, audio has the benefit of simplicity.
Special to The Seattle Times
The Macintosh has long had simple ways to record audio, whether using built-in microphones, external analog ones or USB-connected sound devices. I’ve been creating podcasts and participating in them for several years; the cost and complexity of getting high-quality audio have decreased
But you don’t have to be a podcaster to want to record audio. You may want to preserve a relative telling stories of his or her youth, capture the first words of a child, or have a recording of an epic jam session among friends.
Video is wonderful for capturing the full richness of a life experience, but it can be a pain to manage and actually do something with, rather than stick in a folder forever. Audio has the benefit of simplicity, and it’s easier to edit, store, transmit and play back.
Start with a mike. The nice part about living in the future is the cost of electronics. Many Macs, as well as Apple displays, include built-in microphones. These are useful for audio and video chats, but because of the distance to the mike and its lower-fidelity intent, the sound captured is adequate but echoey.
Apple’s various models of ear buds that ship with the iPhone and that are available for separate purchase include a tiny microphone built in the cable that feeds to one ear. This produces far better sound when recording yourself (although it’s tricky when recording other people).
Not all Mac models work with the audio input. The “tech specs” page of each current Mac model notes “support for Apple iPhone headset with microphone.” (You can look up old specs at to determine compatibility.)
A step up in quality (and price) leads one to USB mics. While one can use analog mics, these require USB adapters or a mixing board, which is beyond the scope of casual use.
But USB mics plug right into a Mac. The consensus for the best inexpensive mike is the Blue Snowball, which is about $60 online. It’s a larger-than-a-grapefruit mike with a tripod stand that can be set to be sensitive to sound all around it or mostly in a single direction.
I opted on the recommendation of colleagues well over a year ago for a Blue Yeti, an old-fashioned-looking mike with greater versatility that comes with a pivoting stand, and runs about $100. It delivers a rich sound, but has a fragile USB port: In packing it for an on-site interview one night, I bent the USB cable, destroyed the port and had to replace it.
Podcasters more serious than myself seem to pick the Rode Podcaster ($229) with a “swivel mount boom arm” ($100). This takes recordings to radio-station-studio levels of quality.
For mobile recording, those with an iPhone or a later-generation iPod touch or iPad can record using the built-in Voice Memos app or any of a host of free and for-fee recording apps. Recorded audio can be edited on an iOS device or transferred to a Mac for greater ease in making changes.
Get the right software. Software for recording and editing abounds, as the Mac has always been a platform for managing media.
The simple QuickTime Player includes an option I use regularly, even with more-powerful tools at my disposal. Launch the player from the Applications folder, choose New, then New Audio Recording, and you may select an input device and click the record button to capture audio.
GarageBand, found on your Mac, is a tool for mixing multiple tracks of audio, including virtual instruments, but also lets you record audio from mics and other input sources quite easily, although there’s a bit of a learning curve.
Audio Hijack Pro ($32) from Rogue Amoeba is a bit more sophisticated, allowing you to record audio from any source on your Mac. For simple editing, Rogue Amoeba also makes Fission ($32 or $50 for both Hijack and Fission). The free, open-source Audacity software bumps up a notch to allow multitrack editing, to mix together different sound sources. That’s true, too, with Amadeus Pro ($60), which has a nicer interface than Audacity for editing.
Set the right conditions. Even the best mike and best editor in the world can only mitigate noisy backgrounds and hums, and I always try to minimize the sound around me. I pause automated backups and even sometimes unmount hard drives. I turn off the space heater or fans, and I remove anything around me that might make noise.
But there’s still one variable I can’t control. When my children come home and thunder around the house, no amount of software or directional sound recording can eliminate that.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/practicalmac