Multipart multimedia lesson: Sound advice

I opened the federal Webmasters conference--"FedWeb in September"--with a multimedia presentation on federal Web sites. The experience has inspired me to share what I learned in a three-part series on incorporating multimedia features into presentations.

In the first part I addressed the issues involved in using digital photography to create the visual aspect of a videotape for the conference. In this installment I will deal with adding sound. In the third part I will summarize the features supporting multimedia capability to include in your next computer purchase--advice based on my initial and painful learning experiences.

Adding sound turned out to be the hardest aspect of creating the videotape. The sound files came from a variety of sources: a CD player, MIDI files played through a keyboard synthesizer, music I created and played on a keyboard synthesizer, and voice from a microphone.

The easy way to add sound files is to plug your sound device (CD player, keyboard synthesizer, microphone, stereo, and so forth) into your PC's microphone and line-in plug. I was troubled, however, by the low quality of the sound recording when done on the PC. I wanted to do something that was of higher quality.

After working through various options and sound-quality issues, I found the easiest solution was to purchase a standalone unit that produces high-quality audio recordings on CD-ROM. The standalone unit is merely a CD player with a separate slot for making recordings onto CD-RW disks or CD-R disks. These units can be purchased at stores such as Best Buy and are basically part of a suite of home stereo components.

Because of the large sizes of image and sound files, I also purchased an Iomega Corp. Zip CD 650 drive, which also supports creating CDs. However, I used the standalone audio CD player/burner to create CD-R copies from the original audio "master" CD-RW disk because using a single device is easier and cleaner. Sometimes the PC "hiccups" when recording while other programs are running in the background. Having a standalone unit eliminates the hiccups, and I can use my PC for other work.

Because the sound files are so large, I primarily store them off-line on CD-RW disks. For example, a 2-minute, 32-second sound file (a small piece by Bach) was 1.8M in MP3 format, 2.4M in Windows Media Audio format, and a whopping 26M in WAV format (whew). This is one song only!

The MP3 and WMA formats are attached so you can listen and see the file size (the WAV version is too large to provide):

The Bach piece is titled "The Well Tempered Clavier, Praeludium I," and I used a Casio Inc. synthesizer to arrangement the music.

I also purchased a MIDI interface from my keyboard synthesizer to generate and store MIDI files played on the synthesizer. Most electronic musical instruments have a MIDI-out port that will generate a MIDI file that can be stored, edited, or played on your personal computer. This requires a hardware interface sometimes referred to as a "MIDI box." The MIDI interface was about $50, and for another $50 I bought a software package to communicate to and from the keyboard synthesizer, to automatically generate the sheet music, and to drive the synthesizer by running the MIDI files on my computer.

Because my keyboard synthesizer accommodates a standard diskette, I downloaded some MIDI files from the Web, and I sometimes play directly from diskette on my synthesizer. Most PCs and electronic musical instruments come with MIDI compatibility.

The quality of the sound produced by the PC MIDI driver is so-so. Of course, MIDI files run on a keyboard synthesizer are stunning.

To find MIDI files, enter into a search engine the words "free," "MIDI," and your musical preference - jazz, for example. In an hour I downloaded some 500 MIDI files of my favorite jazz music. Unfortunately, my keyboard synthesizer only supports Standard MIDI Format 0, and the software for the sheet music exports only to Standard MIDI Format 1. This does not present a problem until I export software. Some SMF 1 files will and some will not play on my synthesizer. There are still many SMF 0 files available on the Web.

Another problem was that my computer has only two USB ports, and I needed three for this project. The Zip CD650 occupied one port and the digital camera for loading pictures occupied the other port. The MIDI box also needs a USB port. The serial port would be too slow for large data transfers. I finally used a second computer to support the MIDI box.

The Zip CD650 drive came with software called MusicMatch Jukebox, for playing, recording, and mixing music. I used this package to create MP3, WMA, and WAV files on my computer from my audio CD-R. The audio CD-R was played from my D drive when recording the MP3, WMA, and WAV files on the personal computer. The D drive on my computer is a CD-ROM reader.

I used the MusicMatch Jukebox to record the music in different formats, although there is a translation feature between formats. I mixed and matched the files I needed for my presentation. I recorded this to another CD using the Zip CD650 drive attached to my personal computer.

I placed the final audio CD-R in a standard CD player and connected this to the sound-in port of my VCR. I then started and stopped the VCR during recording as appropriate to add sound to the videotape.

The digital camera was playing in "screenshow" mode through the video-in line of the VCR, while I added the sound through the sound-in port of the VCR. Software is available for PCs that will combine digital photography, digital video, graphics files, and sound to create a single presentation. I recommend this software, but doing it in this "manual" way proved an interesting learning experience.

Below is a preview of my recommendations for your next PC or laptop purchase in order to support sound. I will detail buying recommendations further in the next installment of this series.

There is a maddening array of connectors required to link your music instruments, CD players, personal computer, MIDI box, and other components. You most likely will make several trips to the local electronics store. But it's worth the trouble.

Music Devices and Sheet Music Software

Be sure that the music device (keyboards, guitars, and so on) and the software for creating sheet music are both Standard MIDI Format 1.

PC Software

Purchase or make sure software provided with CD-RW devices include a sound program that will allow playing MP3, WAV, or WMA files. The software should have a mixer feature to add sound from various PC ports and files.

Quality Sound Generation

Purchase a standalone unit for playing and recording audio CD-RW and CD-R devices. Be sure the device supports CD-RW so you can add, delete, and edit files on your master disk while creating CD-R copies to share.

Kellett is founder of the federal Web Business Council, co-chairman of the federal WebMasters Forum, and director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.


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