Tag Archives: Audio

How to add Bluetooth audio to your car for under $20

bluetooth-logoIf you are like me, you like listening to content from your phone or MP3 player in your car while traveling. If you don’t have built-in Bluetooth in your car, there are several options for adding it. You can use a cassette adapter (if your car has a cassette deck), an 8mm audio cable (basically a headphone jack, if your car supports it), you can listen through an FM transmitter, or you can listen straight through the device if your device has decent speakers.

In my car I have an audio jack. This method works great, but I hate have to use the cable to go from my phone to the jack. It just gets in the way of everything.

I am happy to report there is another solution for those of us with an audio jack in the car that can be purchased for under $20: the Zehui Wireless Car Bluetooth Music Receiver. It’s a small Bluetooth receiver that plugs into the audio jack (yes, your device has to have Bluetooth for this to work). These devices play the audio from your phone or music player through your car speakers without being hindered by a cable!

I am guessing this is a generic product because Amazon carries several items under different brand names with identical pictures, so I just settled on the cheapest one. There are other name brands that are more money and look different, but I figured I’d try the cheaper route first.

Image screenshot from Amazon.com product listing
Image screenshot from Amazon.com product listing

Surprisingly, this little device works great! It is a little tricky to figure out how it works, especially since the instructions were awful, but once I got it going it is a great addition to my car. Best of all it has a very small footprint. It is about 1″ x 2″ and just sticks right out of the jack in my car. I turn it on when I want to use it and it connects right to my iPhone. The sound quality is great and I can control the volume through the phone or the car. The battery life is at least eight hours.

My family recently took a vacation which involved three hours in the car each direction. My son sat in the back watching the iPad and listening through the car speakers. No more annoying cable from the iPad to the front of the car.

Like I said earlier, there are other brands for more money, but why spend it if you don’t have to? This little device is a great addition to any car with an audio jack. If you have an audio jack in your car and a bluetooth capable device I highly recommend checking out a Bluetooth audio receiver for your vehicle. You’ll be happy you did.

The unfortunate downsides of streaming music services

playIf you haven’t heard, Google recently announced a streaming music service. For $9.99/month you can stream all the music you want to your compatible device.

This is not the first streaming music service, and it probably won’t be the last. In principle, an all you get stream music service sounds good, but in reality it has a few problems which keep me from signing up for one and sticking with purchasing music.

Problem 1: Mobile data limits

The biggest problem with streaming music services is data limits enforced by wireless carriers. Unless you are on a WiFi network all of the time, you are going to need to use a data plan, which for most people is limited to 2GB or less.

You might argue the 2GB is plenty of data, and it is if you are just surfing the Internet and checking emails and maybe downloading apps every now and then. However, that data goes faster than you think, and streaming only makes it go faster. Yes, audio uses a lot less data than video, but it is still using that data and I would venture to say you will use up that data before your month is up.

I can see many people who unknowingly sign up for a streaming service without even knowing they are eating up their data plan until they get a nice present tacked onto their next bill for data overage. Of course, the data providers would love it if you purchased an upgrade for your mobile data plan. Now you get to pay for more data and the monthly streaming fee.

Problem 2: WiFi isn’t perfect

Let’s say you are one of those people I mentioned above who have constant access to WiFi. You have WiFi at home, WiFi at work, and you frequent enough places that have WiFi access that you don’t really care about streaming in your car or other places.

Just because you have WiFi access doesn’t mean you can stream your music. Your employer might limit streaming or even block it. If you are on public WiFi at a cafe it could also be limited by the establishment or just extremely slow from a large amount of people using it. WiFi is great, but only if it is completely usable.

Problem 3: Owning the music and making an audio CD

Contrary to what some might think, the physical CD is not dead yet. I, for one, still make audio CDs of my music. If you have a streaming service you can’t import music into iTunes and burn a CD. You have to buy those tracks. Yes, you can do both but this can get costly if you are always doing it. Plus, call it old school, but many people prefer to own their music. I like being able to load my iPhone with what I want and be able to listen to it whenever and where ever I am without having to worry about using data or being on WiFi.

Conclusion

For many people a streaming music service is great. They have a limited data plan, have WiFi access, and or don’t care about owning music. For others, like myself, it is the wrong way to go.

Holiday Gift Guide 2012: Home Theater Edition

Every household needs decent home theater accessories to go with their TV. This holiday season, get your loved ones the right gifts with these bestselling home theater items. We’ve made it easy for you to find out this year’s must-haves in consumer electronics so you’ll know you’re giving the best.

Apple TV

Average Price: $99

Category: Streaming media player

Apple TV lets you stream all of the movies and TV shows available in the iTunes Store to your HDTV on a rental or purchase basis, with purchases stored in the cloud. Netflix, MLB.TV, Hulu Plus, and a handful of other online media services are available, plus music, videos, and photos can be streamed from iPads, iPods and iPhones using AirPlay. AirPlay Mirroring lets you stream any Web video to the Apple TV, if you have a newer Mac running Mountain Lion.

Those who’ve already invested in iTunes content and Apple hardware will love Apple TV.

Roku 2 XD

Average Price: $65-$79

Category: Streaming media player

This digital media player supports signals up to 1080p and features built-in wireless networking that allows you to stream media to your TV, so you can enjoy your favorite TV shows, movies and more in stunning high-definition. Roku 2 XD offers hundreds of streaming-video and -audio services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Vudu, Pandora, Mog, Rdio, and MLB.TV. Roku also offers cross-platform search, capable of finding content across major streaming services.

For people who are not Apple fans and want to access Amazon Instant Video this device will suit your needs.

LG BP620 Blu-Ray Player

Average Price: $99

Category: Blu-Ray Player

If you want the best movie content and picture quality on your HDTV, you need a Blu-ray player. LG’s new Blu-ray player, the BP620, is an impressive device for its price. It features built-in Wi-Fi, plenty of online options, and 3D support.The BP620 offers a wide selection of streaming media services and both free and pay apps, accessible through the player’s built-in Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection. The Premium services are the most useful, and include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and several other streamed offerings. The LG apps are much less worthwhile, and include a middling selection of downloadable games and e-books.

The LG BP620 is an excellent budget Blu-ray player. It supports 3D, has built-in Wi-Fi, and its price makes it very friendly to budget-minded home theater owners. There are certainly more expensive options out there such as Sony Playstation 3 and Oppo BDP-93.

Logitech Harmony 650

Average Price: $59-79

Category: Universal Remote

The Harmony 650 is a powerful universal remote with easy set up, color LCD screen, surrounded by five contextual buttons; Web programmable via Windows or Mac PCs; excellent button layout and overall design; supports custom sequences/macros. It does only control 5 devices, so if you have more than that you may want to consider a different remote. Eliminate multiple remotes and get this very reasonable universal remote.

Sony HT-CT150 Soundbar

Average Price: $188-200

Category: Home Theater / Soundbar

The sound bar has become an extremely popular add-on purchase when shopping for a TV, especially if you don’t want a space-hogging multi-channel surround system. You shouldn’t have to deal with sound so bad it sours your experience with your gorgeous new display.

This 3D sound bar delivers immersive audio without running wires across the room or setting up extra speakers, so you can complete your 3D home entertainment experience with simple, yet powerful surround sound. The  32″ 3D sound bar home theater system features 3D compatibility and can also be turned into your entertainment hub by utilizing its 3 HDMI video outputs. The downfall is the wired subwoofer limits how far you can place it from the sound bar.

With easy setup and great sound, this is an excellent gift for under $200.

Energy Take Classic 5.1

Average Price: $299

Category: Home Theater / Surround Sound

If you are looking for home theater speakers, the Energy Take Classic 5.1 will leave you pleased with your listening experience.  The collection of high-tech components: satellites, subwoofer, and a center channel. Displayed in high-gloss black cabinets, this system looks as good as it sounds. The 200-watt, 8″ subwoofer provides pounding bass while four satellites and a center channel bring an expansive sound stage to the comfort of your home.

Altogether, the system is one of the best home theater values available.

Sony STR-DN1030 Receiver

Average Price: $449-498

Category: Home Theater / AV Receiver

Sony may not be the first brand you think of in connection with audio/video receivers, but that may be about to change with the STR-DN1030. This receiver is a wireless triple threat with Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connectivity. And all of that is dongle-free.

Wired connectivity includes five HDMI inputs and one output, all on the back panel. There’s also an HD-capable component video output along with two component ins. Composite video switching is limited to two ins and two outs, and there are no S-video jacks. This should be enough to support an average system unless you’re loaded with legacy components. There is a wired Ethernet connection in addition to the built-in Wi-Fi antenna. And if you prefer to connect your iPhone or iPod to the front-panel USB jack.

The STR-DN1030 shows that the company can still make a great AV receiver. It may be slightly behind the Onkyo TX-NR616 in overall value, but it’s a better choice if you want more features built-in.

Review: RHA MA-350 aluminum noise isolating in-ear earphones

I was recently offered a pair of RHA MA-350 in-ear headphones for review. I brought them with me on a business trip to China, so I had plenty of time on the long flight to try them out and see how they felt after extended wear.

Before I get started, I should mention a few things about myself: I enjoy listening to music, but I’m definitely not an audio expert. When I’m planning on purchasing headphones, my main concerns are comfort, general sound quality, and durability.

Product Details

Average Price: $39.95 USD (via Amazon)
Available Colors: Black with silver accents

Technical Details:

  • Drivers – 10mm mylar
  • Frequency range – 16-22,000Hz
  • Impedance – 16ohms
  • Rated/max power – 3010mW
  • Sensitivity – 103dB
  • Cable – 1.2m Fabric Braided
  • Connections – 3.5mm Gold Plated

Materials, construction, and durability

The first thing that grabbed my attention about these earphones was that they were made from solid aluminum. My previous name-brand $40 pair of in-ear headphones were made of plastic coated in a thin rubber sheath, so I was impressed right away with RHA’s use of a durable material.

Aside from being more durable than plastic (and having a satisfying “click!” when knocked together), the extra weight wasn’t really noticeable when listening to music. The aluminum construction increased my perceived value of the product, and when I showed the MA-350’s to others, it was the first thing they noticed.

These earphones also feature a braided fabric cord which helps reduce cord tangling. The downside is that the braided cord is thicker and a little less flexible than the normal plastic/rubbery stuff, but that did not affect my usage of the earphones. Again, I appreciated the use of higher quality material in these earphones.

The cord is a standard “Y” format, where both earpieces have equal lengths of cord which forks from the main connector. My previous pair of headphones featured a behind-the-ear style cord which I preferred, but mainly for the fact that the cords were easier to keep out of my way while working.

The only strange decision regarding the construction of these earphones was the way they differentiate between the right and left earphones. A tiny letter is extruded on the rubberized part of the earphones which is pretty hard to see without looking closely.

The MA-350 earphones included three sets of interchangeable earpieces: small, medium, and large.

Audio Quality

I’ve listened to music for many hours using the RHA MA-350 earphones, and I’ve found that the sound they produce is extremely clear, crisp, and accurate. I had previously grown accustomed to the bland, muffled sound of typical lower-end headphones, so the MA-350’s presented a stark contrast which, at first, sounded almost unnatural because of its clarity.

The MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

For most of my testing, I listened to music that presented a wide variety of audio conditions, such as Deadmau5, Regina Spektor, and the wonderfully eclectic Bastion soundtrack (side note: Bastion is a fantastic game). With these samples, the MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

One of the best features of these earphones is that they provide solid noise isolation. The earphones fit snugly in my ear using the default size earpiece, and I could keep my music at a much lower volume than with my previous pair of earphones because of the improved isolation. This might not be a big deal when sitting in a quiet office listening to music, but it’s a lifesaver when sitting on a long international flight.

Extended Wear

The MA-350’s came with a nice carrying pouch.

I wore these earphones in bursts of about 1-2 hours at a time during my flight, mainly listening to music and playing Bastion for iPad. Overall, they were very comfortable, although for long sessions I’d usually prefer to wear over-ear headphones (which RHA also makes).

The MA-350’s in-ear earpieces are very solid, and compared to my previous pair (which were nearly gelatinous), the RHA earphones caused a little more “ear fatigue” than I was used to.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the RHA MA-350 earphones. I carry them with me at all times in my laptop bag, and I keep them within reach whenever I’m working on my laptop. My expectations for in-ear headphones are typically lower because of the limitations of the form factor, but the MA-350’s definitely stand above earphones I’ve previously used for the same price.

In addition to the black earphones I sampled, you can also upgrade to the MA-450i series which include an inline volume control and microphone (and are also available in white). The MA-450i includes 7 different earpieces, offering much more customization than the MA-350’s.

You can buy RHA earphones directly from Amazon, and you can now purchase them from Apple either online or in their retail stores.

Review: Sonos Play:3, the Wireless Hi-Fi Stereo System

The term high fidelity (or hi-fi) can be traced back to the dawn of music recording, and in general defined a system that could reproduce music with the sharpest and most fulfilling audio quality.  And as the generations moved from turntables to boomboxes to walkmans to portable music players, so too did the continual desire to purchase high-end, hi-fi systems to blast the tunes.  Although today one can still get bulky hi-fi stereo systems with 400W of power, a CD tray, an iPod dock, and a remote control, it just doesn’t seem to be as trendy and up-to-date as it did in 1996.  Fortunately, that’s where Sonos comes in.

Sonos is taking back the term “hi-fi” and giving it some flair.  It is a compact, modular, wireless stereo system that can be set up in any (or every) room in the house with just two components:  A speaker and a local area network with internet connectivity.  And because it is wireless, it can stream just about everything you can think of.

The Sonos Hi-Fi Stereo System

For this article, two Play:3 network speakers (the smaller of the two speaker offerings at $299 each) and a Sonos network bridge ($49) were used.  The Bridge is the extra add-on that makes the Sonos system go wireless, and if one is going to deck their rooms with speakers it is a must.

Besides speakers and network hubs, a Sonos stereo system can also be paired with an amplifier ($499), an iPod docking station ($119), or a connection hub ($349) that converts an existing home stereo system for music streaming (all of which are available on the Sonos website or Amazon).  As one can deduce by the prices, though, these components can add up quickly so be mindful that one does not need absolutely everything to get a Sonos stereo system set up in their home.

Included in each box with the speakers/Bridge is a power cable, a network cable, an install CD, and a manual.  Once all the packaging has been set aside, it is time to set the system up.

Physical Setup

If the Bridge wireless gateway was purchased, that should be set up first.

The Bridge (which is the box that makes the whole system wireless) plugs directly into your router/wireless modem via Ethernet and automatically connects to your local network.  Because it is a wired connection, no passwords or other setup configurations are necessary.

Once the Bridge is in place, one can set the Play Speakers in any room of the house (within wireless distance) and supply them power.  If the Bridge was not purchased, then simply add an Ethernet cable to the Play speakers and connect them to your router to get them integrated into your network.

Controller Software Setup

The Sonos Controller Software (Personal Computer Edition)

The software comes included in the box as an install CD, but it also can be found here if needed. The controller software is available for Windows (XPSP3 and up), Mac OS X (10.6 or 10.7), Android (which is evaluated in the next section) and iPhone/iPad.  For this installation, a networked Windows 7 machine was used.  The first step is to run through the Sonos Controller installer on the machine and grant it firewall access.

Once installed, the “Sonos Setup Assistant” kicks in so that all the speakers can be networked and connected to the controller software.

When connecting, the software will ask you to physically push a few buttons on the Bridge or Play speaker to get it to sync with your local network.  If communication goes well, the software will give you a confirmation and ask if you want to connect other Sonos devices.  This is the time to add the speakers as well.

What the heck is a Foyer?

When the Play speakers are connected, the Assistant software prompts for a location so that if more than one exists on the network, they can be differentiated by the room they are in.  The drop down menu is filled with various homely (and unique) options to segregate which speakers are where and should be used appropriately if one wants the full Sonos experience in their house (which will be explained later).

Finally, after all the Sonos components have been linked the main Controller program opens and asks for you to register and update your new stereo system.

As long as the speakers and Bridge have been configured to the network properly, they will update automatically.

The Sonos Controller Software (Mobile Platform Edition)

If your networked computer is not portable enough, than maybe the mobile software is the right option instead.  As mentioned before, it is available for Android, iPhone, and iPad from their respective app marketplaces (or again at the Sonos website).  Note that the phone/pad/mobile device must be connected to the same wireless local area network or else the Bridge and Play:3 speakers will not be controllable.  For this article, a standard Android phone was used to demonstrate the mobile controller interface.

Mobile setup, mobile Bridge connect, mobile Play speakers

Like the Windows PC setup, the Android app asks for you to manually push the button on the Bridge wi-fi controller to connect to your sound system.  If the Play speakers have been set up already with the Bridge, no further connections are necessary and the mobile app is ready to be in control.

The Controller Interface

After all the installing, connecting, and updating has been successfully maneuvered, your Sonos system should look like the picture above.  On the left should be every Play speaker that has been connected (grouped by their room), on the far right is all the options Sonos has for streaming and music listening (and it is a lot of options).  For now, let’s focus on the right side and all the streaming options Sonos has to offer.

Playing Radio

If one is interested in listening to a radio station, all Sonos needs is a ZIP code or a major city and it automatically finds a plethora of channels for one to select and play.  As one can see, once a radio station is selected, the highlighted Play speaker on the left will automatically start playing and the “Now Playing” section in the middle will be updated to show artist/song title and radio show information.

Playing from a Streaming Site

If one wants to enable some tunes from their own personal online streaming account (or create a new one), Sonos is more than ready for the task.  As seen in the picture above, Sonos allows for numerous popular streaming options and services that can be accessed and played on the system.  Just log in or register, pick a playlist or song, and Sonos does the rest.

Playing from your Music Library

Besides channeling other sources and streams, Sonos also allows one to channel personal music libraries as well.  To get music onto Sonos, one must first allow the folder to be shared on the network (For Windows 7, this is done by right clicking on the folder and selecting “Share With” and then a “Homegroup” option).  If this step is not done, much confusion can arise as the music will not be available for Sonos to access.

Once the sharing is enabled, return to Sonos and go to “Manage” -> “Music Library Settings” -> “Add” to browse for the folder in question.  [Note: Besides adding media, this settings menu also serves to update the media library, add/remove speakers, manage the streaming accounts that were added, and mess with music equalizers for each speaker.]

The system will then add all the music in the library and display them on the right side.  From there one can create playlists, add songs to the queue in the middle, and push music to any speaker on the left

Again, it is important to note that for this music to be accessed, the location of the files needs to be active and on the network (i.e. the device in question storing the music files must be on and networked).

Playing from the Mobile App

Mobile main options, mobile radio, mobile playing radio
Mobile streaming, mobile media, mobile playing music library

Like the other sections mentioned above, the mobile controller also allows for streaming, radio, and access to your local media library as well.  As long as the bridge is connected to the same network as the mobile app, the devices will talk to each other and push changes in music selections.

Having Fun with your Play Speakers

Now that a majority of the streaming or listening options have been surveyed, let’s return to the far left of the Controller interface and display the full potential of the Sonos wireless hi-fi system.  Up until now, the music options presented have been shown playing on just one speaker.

But in reality, one can play something different on each speaker, hence why it was important to label the Play speakers based on where they are going to be situated.  So essentially, every room with a Sonos speaker in it could be playing something different, meaning that there should be no contention between siblings/roommates/significant others as to what the audio system should be set to.

Mobile grouping is just as easy

Furthermore, not only can one use the speakers individually for music but as a group as well.  Just click the “Group” button, select the speakers to group, and listen for the sound of acoustic harmony.  Now the beauty of Sonos has been revealed: because it is wireless and easy to manipulate in the Controller interface, it is completely and utterly configurable to suit any room, event, personality, or venue.  Just pick a tune, pick a speaker configuration, and let the jams flow.

Conclusion

Sonos is definitely not your stereotypical hi-fi stereo system.  It is modular, fully networked, completely configurable, and open enough to access just about every genre, single, album, or artist that exists out there to stream. After a solid month of usage, even the two Play:3 speaker with a wireless Bridge system used for this article proved its usefulness in every situation it was presented: house parties with a dozen conversations filling the air, quiet nights on the couch with a book, and even those underwear air guitar jam sessions at 3:00 in the morning.

To be honest, the main limiting factor to the full Sonos experience is the prices on the components themselves; the system is worth the cost, but if those prices were reduced a bit or tiered it is certain that Sonos would be in every household in no time at all.  For now, though, the system should have no problem satisfying audio enthusiasts and home theater experts alike.

The age-old glory of hi-fi stereo has returned, and Sonos is leading the charge.

Set up your own professional podcast studio for less than $175

Whether you run a blog and want to add a podcast or just want to start up a podcast from scratch, it’s very possible to set up your own podcast studio for a relatively low budget while still making it sound and look professional. Obviously, you can simply connect a headset to your computer, fire up Audacity and away you go, but if you’re willing to spend just a little more money to get a better-quality podcast, this is for you.

Before we begin, be sure to think about what room you want your podcast studio in. Think about room acoustics, as well as ancillary noise — try not to be close to anything that will be relatively loud (such as the laundry room), and if your room is particularly “echo-y,” hang up some blankets on the walls to dampen the noise and make it more soundproof. Other than that, feel free to do what you see fit to the room, just as long as you have the essentials — a desk and a couple non-swiveling chairs that aren’t squeaky.

Microphones

This is obviously the most crucial piece of equipment that you need, and there are literally hundreds of mic options ranging from low-end models at discount retail stores all the way up to really-expensive models from Shure, AKG, and Neumann. Ideally, you’ll want to look for a large-diaphragm condenser mic, since those are the best for voice recording. They give you a deep, rich sound that will be great for your podcast.

MXL 990 Condenser Microphone – $59.99
Audio-Technica AT2020 Condenser Microphone – $99.99

Pop Filter/Screen

Since condenser mics are very sensitive to mouth noises like “P” and “Sh,” it’s important to get some kind of pop filter or screen. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this — you can find decent ones for under $20.

Musician’s Gear 6″ Pop Filter – $14.99

Mixer

The mixer is what will allow us to fine tune the volume, bass, treble, etc. of each mic. It will also act as a device to connect your XLR microphones to your computer. You don’t need anything too outrageous here — a 4-channel mixer will do just fine for your podcasting needs. Just make sure whatever you pick has the same number of XLR connectors as the number of microphones (or more). It should also have phantom power to power your condenser mics.

Behringer XENYX 802 Mixer – $64.99
Behringer XENYX 1202FX Mixer – $108.99

Stands

You’ll obviously need microphone stands to hold up the mics. If you have enough room on your desk, you can get shorter stands that sit on your desk. This is a cheaper option, but if you don’t want to sacrifice desk space, you can get regular boom mic stands.

Musician’s Gear Low Profile Die-Cast Mic Stand – $10.99
Hercules Stands EZ Clutch Mic Stand – $49.99

Cables

You’ll need XLR cables to connect the microphones to your mixer and you’ll also need a cable to connect the mixer to your computer. This type of cable tends to be a 1/4″ cable with male connectors on both ends with a 1/4″ to 3.5mm adapter to plug into your computer’s sound input. However, some mixers can connect to computers via USB, so be sure to check the outputs of your specific mixer.

Musician’s Gear Lo-Z Microphone Cable – $4.99
Live Wire Advantage Series 1/4″ Straight Instrument Cable – $4.99

Software

The software that you use to record your podcast with is completely up to you. Budget-minded podcasters would most likely go for the free open-source audio program Audacity, but others may choose a paid program like Adobe Audition or Apple’s Logic Pro.

Accessories

The only accessory that you’ll really need is a pair of headphones so that you can monitor the audio. They also come in handy if you’re podcasting with someone over Skype — you don’t want sound coming out of your speakers to be picked up by the mic. It doesn’t really matter what headphones you use, just as long as you have something over your ears.

Conclusion

This article is meant to get you headed in the right direction and get started setting up your podcasting studio. Don’t feel that you must take my recommendations whole-heartedly. It’s just what worked for me and it may be different for someone else. Also, keep in mind that the more people you want on your podcast, the more money you’ll have to pay for microphones and such. In any case, good luck and have fun!

Image Credit: Christine Young

How to Remove Noise from Your Podcasts with Audacity

Easily the most important aspect of your podcast, aside from its content, is audio quality. Poorly recorded or edited podcasts are impossible to listen to for any length of time, and bad sound quality will drive away your listeners no matter the value of the content you’re delivering. One of the most common problems for podcasters is ‘hissing’ or noise caused by equipment or problematic recording practices. Audacity is a free, cross-platform sound editor that will help you clean up your audio and maintain the sanity of your audience.

Generally, recording hiss is the result of overlapping cords, cheap sound cards, or some sort of environmental interference. Searching for the source of this noise can drive you absolutely crazy, and sometimes you simply won’t find it. Not to worry, here are steps to clean up low-level hissing and surrounding noise (like a blowing fan) quickly and easily.

Step 1. Import your audio

Obviously you’ll need to have Audacity installed to make use of this tutorial. At the time of this writing, I am using Audacity 1.3 (beta). Go to File and then Import to select your recorded material — it doesn’t matter if your file is stereo or mono, this tutorial will work either way.

Noise/hiss highlighted in red

Navigate your way to a particularly noise-heavy part of the recording where there isn’t a lot of other sound. For example, a few-second pause between words where this is silence plus some evil hiss. If you have chronic problems with hiss, leave a few seconds of baseline silence at the beginning of your recordings in the future.

Step 2. Noise removal

When you’ve found a representative span of noise, zoom in (press Ctrl+2) on the recording to get a clearer view of your stream. Select 1-2 seconds of noise with your cursor.

Selection of 1-2 seconds of noise

Now that you’ve selected a decidedly “noisy” portion of your recording, navigate to Effect and then Noise Removal, where you will be presented with a dialog to tweak your filter settings. With your noisy selection made, click Get Noise Profile. This establishes the noise baseline.

Noise Removal dialog

Now, use your cursor and select your entire recording. This can be easily done by pressing Ctrl+A.  Finally, return to the Noise Removal Dialog and this time click OK. If you feel ambitious, mess around with the parameters for the noise filtering. I suggest just leaving them as the default values because they work quite well in every case I’ve encountered so far. After clicking OK, you may have to sit for a while, depending on the size of your recording.

Noise removal in progress

Step 3. Export your finished file

Your processed file should look considerably “cleaner” after the noise removal process is complete. Fewer oscillations and less hissing will be readily apparent if you give your recording a test run.

Recording after noise removal

Never underestimate the value of post-processing and sound quality in your podcast. Keep your audience coming back and focusing on your content rather than low-level background noise. With Audacity, you have 99 problems but hiss ain’t one. [JayZ achievement unlocked]

How to Create an Audio Podcast with Professional-Quality Sound

Podcasting is a fun and increasingly popular form of online entertainment that has seen steady gains in the number of viewers in recent years. Companies like TWiT and Revision 3, homes of Leo LaPorte and Kevin Rose of Tech TV fame, have shown that fully web-hosted television is a viable business model. Interestingly, many of the most popular podcasts are nothing more than a few people at a desk, a microphone, and an engaging topic of conversation. The simplicity and low start-up costs are intriguing, aren’t they?

After a few beers, a lot of people think to themselves “I have things to say! I should start a podcast!” OK, so maybe that isn’t the typical point of entry for most podcasters, but that’s exactly how it went for me as my friend Devon and I decided to start a beer-centric audio podcast a couple months ago. We wanted to start something long-lasting and of sufficient quality that we’d be able to keep the poor listeners that became ensnared in our drunken diatribes.

We decided that quality sound requires quality equipment — we were right! Fortunately, quality equipment for an audio podcast won’t knock you back more than a few hundred bucks if you’re smart about it. Here’s what you’ll need:

1. Computer

It doesn’t need to be special, but the better your soundcard, the better off you’ll be. I use an old, beat up Lenovo Thinkpad that I’ve used for years. I am assuming that you already have a desktop or notebook PC, so I’m not including this in our equipment costs. No need for something special, but if you need to replace that haggard and terrible soundcard in your e-Machine, no worries. Even a high-end audio card (SoundBlaster for instance) won’t run more than $30 or so.

2. Microphone(s)

This is probably your most important decision and deserves careful consideration. If your podcast is audio-only, you can use a high-quality USB gaming headset (~$100) though I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re serious about your audio, invest in a real microphone, either USB or analog.

If your podcast includes multiple hosts, it’s wise to have a microphone for each person. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Computers typically can only support a single USB microphone at a time. I say typically, but I’ve never heard evidence to the contrary. If the podcast is just you speaking, no problem, pick up a Blue Yeti USB condensor microphone (~$100 used). The Blue Yeti USB is rugged, picks up great sound, and easily plugs into any USB port.

If your podcast will have multiple hosts, your best bet is to get an analog microphone like the Rode Procaster (~$150 used). These microphones are often used by professional podcasters and have a 10-year warranty. I own two, and the sound is impressive, especially with the built-in pop filter. Definitely a good investment. Now, you may be wondering how two or more analog mics can interface with your computer — read on.

3. USB Mixer (optional)

Mixers are a good idea if you want to keep a close eye on your sound levels or if you want to use multiple microphones in your podcast. A good mixer will allow you to plug-in 2-4 (or more) microphones and adjust the gain for each, as well as accommodate an array of post effects (such as a delay) if you decide to go that route. You can do a lot with a good USB mixer, which will compile your microphone inputs to a single stream for delivery to your computer, so hold onto that manual! A good used USB mixer, such as the PV6 USB, will run about $80 used.

4. Software

You can do raw, unedited recordings of your podcast, but I reeeeally hope you consider some mild post-recording edits. Basic audio editors will let you clean up noise, add transitions to your show, and even a bit of cut/paste if necessary. There are a lot of options out there, but you probably won’t need anything more sophisticated than Audacity, a free and open-source editor that is pleasantly easy to use. Don’t worry, no PhD in audio manipulation required.

Bear in mind that most good audio equipment is durable, so don’t be afraid to head to Ebay and get something used. In fact, buy it all used if you can, because you won’t notice a difference. Just make sure the equipment is still covered by the warranty and you’ll be golden. For less than $300 you should be ready to record with the same quality as the big shot professionals.

Remember that good equipment will only take you so far — you still need to have an interesting show. But hey, solid audio is the cherry on top of a good production. Good luck, future podcaster.

How to Enable Crossfading and Auto Volume Leveling in Windows Media Player 12

One thing I noticed while using the new Windows Media Player 12 (which comes pre-installed with Windows 7) was that the options to enable crossfading and auto volume leveling appeared to be missing.

After doing a little searching, I found that the options were still available but they were now hidden in an unusual location.

Enabling Crossfading and Auto Volume Leveling

To gain access to the audio enhancements that were available in previous versions of Windows Media Player, you need to change Windows Media Player 12 to Now Playing mode or Skin View.  The easiest way to do this is to click the Switch to Now Playing button shown below.

While in Now Playing mode, press the Alt key on your keyboard to display the menu, then select View –> Enhancements.  You will now have access to crossfading and auto volume leveling, as well as play speed, quiet mode, SRS WOW effects, Dolby Digital settings, and video settings.

Update 12/29/10: If you can’t find the Enhancements menu mentioned in the previous paragraph, try right-clicking the Now Playing window and look for the Enhancements menu there.

Review: Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset

head_review2Logitech is a big name when it comes to PC accessories, so looking for a headset with their name on it was what introduced me to the Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset.  I read through dozens of reviews for this headset, and collected the same basic good and bad points from each website.  Now that I’ve had the chance to use the headset personally, I will provide you with a thorough and unbiased review.

Comfort

The first thing I noticed about the headset was that it seemed quite comfortable to wear, even for extended periods of time.  The ear padding swivels and turns slightly on the center point and is made of a soft leather material.  The band connecting the headphone speakers is also covered by a leather material, so it’s not just hard plastic pushing against your head all the time.

Comfort is significant because I consider this product to be a mid- to high-range gaming headset.  In fact, I bought the Pro USB headset specifically for the purpose of being able to use it while I play multiplayer PC games online.  After gaming for 2 hours or more, I did notice that my ears eventually felt a little sore from the pressure of the headset, but I think this goes for anything strapped to your head for a long period of time.

Style & Strength

Looks were not important to me when choosing this headset, but I was pleasantly suprised that it has a sleek, dark appearance.  The leather not only makes the headband more comfortable, but also improves the overall aesthetics.  At first glance, you can tell the ClearChat Pro headset is made of quality materials that won’t fall apart easily.  The microphone boom appears to be strong and doesn’t dangle like so many other headsets do.  The boom is made of the same quality plastic as the rest of the headset’s frame without any edges that lead into the receiver itself, furthering the cool look of the headset.

From what I can tell, there are three slightly different models of this same headset.  The one I have is the style in the picture below.  It’s volume controls are located on the cord of the headset, which gives you your increase/decrease and mute microphone options.  On the other models, the volume and mute controls are on the outside of the earpiece itself, which retains the modern look of the headset.

head_review5

Features

The features of this headset are what set it apart from others in the same price range.  The ClearChat Pro USB couldn’t be easier to install; the USB plug-in is all you need to begin using the device.  It supports plug-and-play for Windows, so you don’t need to install any additional software or drivers to begin using it.  Your USB port serves as the typical microphone/audio inputs for the headset, and Logitech’s laser-tuned audio drivers run the audio through that one USB port, freeing those mic/audio inputs for other devices.

When you’re using the headset for purely audio (like listening to music), you can swing the boom up so that it is parallel with the headband.  This keeps the mic out of the way if you just want to listen without disturbing other people nearby.  The ClearChat Pro USB also features an equalizer for optimizing sound quality to fit your preference.  This is located next to the volume controls on the right side of the headset.

One feature that is in the newer wired and wireless headsets is the way in which the microphone mutes.  You are able to mute the microphone simply by swinging the boom up and out of the way, whereas you must press a button next to the volume controls on the older model.  In all three models, a red light indicates whether or not mute is enabled.

Obviously, if you buy the wireless headset, you’re getting exactly that.  It features the same USB plug-in but with a built in 2.4ghz wireless receiver and slightly different looks.  Overall, the audio quality should match (or come very close to) it’s wired counterparts because it uses the same laser-tuned audio technology.

Quality

Finally, here’s the most important aspect to consider when buying a headset.  While the ClearChat Pro isn’t the cheapest headset, it certainly doesn’t boast the audio quality of something Bose brand headphones would produce.  In most reviews, the main complaint people had was that the audio quality wasn’t as good as they had hoped.  My opinion is that those reviewer’s expectations were set too high.

The audio quality for gaming was surprisingly good.  In games such as Left 4 Dead and Crysis, I heard things that my standard computer speakers wouldn’t allow me to.  This headset reproduced a 3D environment that the game intended (i.e. zombies running in front and behind me matched with the actions on screen, as well as explosions and bullet ricochets).

Listening to music was mentioned as a weak point for the ClearChat Pro.  In my opinion, the audio quality beat anything I’ve owned previously, given that I have never spent more than $50 on headphones.  Bass and mid-range were excellent for rock and jazz in particular.  I could tell that things in the high-range like repeated cymbal crashes or guitar solos sounded a little “airy”,  especially if I had the volume cranked up.  But overall, songs sounded pure and bold, with emphasis on the low-range bass tones.

In the product description, the ClearChat Pro says it features a noise-canceling microphone.  I went out of my way to test the mic by putting a full-sized fan on high as I recorded myself reading.  I was surprised at how well the mic filtered out the wind and picked out my voice.  By adding a small sponge material I found on an old headset, I almost completely eliminated the noise of the air rushing past as I spoke.  I thought the microphone performed quite well, and projected my voice clearly without any crackles or pops.

Conclusion

Recommended Use:

  • Budget gaming mic/headphones and PC calls such as Yahoo!, Skype, AIM, Windows Live Messenger, etc.

Pros:

  • Clean, modern, sleek design
  • Easy to install and use – takes only 1 USB port
  • Audio/microphone quality is quite good
  • Constructed of quality material – won’t break with normal falls
  • Comfortable
  • Priced right; better-than-expected performance for it’s price

Cons:

  • Potential soreness after extended use
  • Isn’t top-of-the-line for music listening

Final Score (out of 10):

8.5