Headset for Mac

I have seen/heard several questions about what type of headset to use for skyping on MacBooks over the last few days. Here are my suggestions:

USB headset: Since MacBooks do not come with a separate microphone input (only line level input), regular PC headsets with two mini-jack cables won’t work. I have good experience using USB headsets from Logitech. I have a couple of 250s, but since one of them broke during travel I also got a more durable H555. The latter is nice, since the actual headset can be physically removed from the USB sound card (a small dongle). This means that the sound card can be used with a different headset (or microphone). As such, it serves the same purpose as a small dedicated sound card like the iMic.

iPhone headset: It was only fairly recently that I discovered that newer MacBooks sport a 4-pin minijack connector. A regular stereo minijack has three pins (2 channels + ground), while the 4-pin connectors can also carry a microphone signal. This is the type of connector that is used in the iPhone headsets, which also means that your favourite iPhone headset can be used for skyping on the MacBook. After I discovered this I have no longer bothered bringing my USB headset around when travelling.

Built-in microphone: My experience is also that the built-in microphone and speakers on the MacBook actually work very well for skyping. I have had remarkably few feedback issues with my latest MacBook, so they have done some smart engineering to remove feedback problems in different parts of the chain. The only problem is that the microphone tends to pick up key strokes etc. very easily, so if you want to use your computer while skyping it is not the best way of doing things.

Conference microphone: When using Skype for more conference type of calls, i.e. where several people are supposed to be picked up, I use a small conference microphone ATR97 from Audio-Technica to get a better result. This I connect to the USB dongle of the Logitech H555 mentioned above, or my iMic. The only negative thing about the ATR97 is that I tend to forget to turn it off after use, so that the battery drains out.

Professional microphones: Of course, for the best sound quality it is possible to use a larger sound card and high quality microphone also for skyping. In my office I currently have a AKG GN 30 swan neck microphone connected to a Alesis MultiMix 4 USB mixer. The mixer plugs directly into the MacBook, and also gives access to simple adjustments of the frequency bands.

All in all, there are a great many different ways of getting sound into your computer, dependent on the situation, the quality needed and how much gear you want to carry around.

Evaluating a semester of podcasting

Earlier this year I wrote a post about how I was going to try out podcasting during the course MUS2006 Musikk og bevegelse this spring semester. As I am preparing for new courses this fall, now is the time to evaluate my podcasting experience, and decide on whether I am going to continue doing this.

 

Why podcasting?

The first question I should ask  myself is why I would be interested in setting up a podcast from my lectures? There are several reasons:

  1. I don’t give away my slides. This is not to be protectionist, but rather because I don’t think that giving away my keynote slides is particularly useful. I have adopted a PZ-style of making slides, which means that the slides are mainly accompanying my speech. There is not much on each slide, and watching them without listening to what I am saying would be like reading a newspaper without text.
  2. I often teach without using slides. In the sound programming courses (1 & 2) I have been teaching, I have spent almost all the teaching time in Max. Here I typically distribute the patches after class, but they probably wouldn’t be very useful to anyone that wasn’t present.
  3. I want to help the students by giving them a chance to see/hear what happened in the class, e.g. in case they were absent.
  4. I want to allow other people interested in the topic to follow the course. At UiO we have two ways of handling course material: closed, in our Fronter-based system, or open, on the course web site. Since the Norwegian State pays for my teaching, and it is free for the students to attend the courses, I also think that everyone else should be able to get access to the content.

So, all in all, I have found it worthwhile to test podcasting for a semester.

Evaluation

When I started the podcasting project, I had a few “unwritten” criteria for what was important for the different hardware/software solutions that I was going to explore. It had to be:

  • easy to set up before the lecture
  • easy to rig down after the lecture
  • easy to handle the files on my computer
  • easy to publish the files online

But what does “easy” mean in this context? I have come to see “easy” as a combination of cognitive load and time. Cognitive load is here used to refer to the complexity of the setup, the amount of hardware and software needed, and how easy they are to setup and work with. More about this in later sections.

Time is another crucial factor. Even though I always try to prepare well in advance of my lectures, quite often I end up sitting into the last couple of minutes fixing slides, examples, etc. This means that I typically don’t have very much time to pack gear before leaving for the auditorium. Also, at UiO we typically only have 15 minutes between lectures. This means that if the previous lecturer ran over with a few minutes, followed by a couple of minutes to pack down, I would have anything between 0-10 minutes to get ready for my lecture. That is not a lot of time for the essentials: getting my computer up of the bag, connect it to a power supply, login, connect the projector, set up the presentation, connect the remote control and check that the sound is working. It is first after this that I have time to start thinking about the extras: setting up for recording the lecture.

During the semester I tried several different types of setups, and I will present and discuss the different solutions below.

 

Audio recording

Podcasting started out as recording audio, and this is probably also the easiest way of getting started. Selecting microphones is a big issue, balancing between recording my own voice but also questions and comments from students. The challenge is also to choosing a setup that is as simple to use as possible. This means that any type of large sound card, mixer, large microphones, etc. could easily be ruled out, since they would require too much time to set up.

My first setup was based on using a small wireless lavaliere microphone for my own voice, combined with a small omnidirectional “conference” microphone to pick up the students. The two microphone signals was “mixed” using a small headphone splitter (which acts as a mixer when running audio the other way). While the solution worked well and gave good audio, it had two major problems:

  • it takes only 2-3 minutes to set up, but even that may be too much when setting up for a lecture.
  • it requires fresh batteries on the wireless microphone, which may be one thing too much to think about.

For these reasons I have found that it is easier to rely on some kind of cabled microphone (or built-in) which can capture both myself and the students. The sound quality may be lower than when using a close-up microphone, but it may still be sufficient for the use.

When it comes to the recording, there are (at least) two solutions:

  • record on the computer
  • record on a separate device

Recording on the computer is probably the easiest solution, since it involves no extra devices. I use QuickTime 7 for quick recordings on the computer (QuickTime X doesn’t allow for recording audio yet). Since most other audio applications rely on QuickTime anyway, you would only get added CPU usage by using any other software for recording. The only annoying thing about QuickTime is that you get a .mov file, which you need to export an AIFF/WAV/MP3/AAC file out of. In terms of CPU usage, I have no problems with recording audio while at the same time presenting my slides (even with video playback).

Recording on a separate device may be beneficial for several reasons. You don’t use any resources on the computer for recording audio, the chance of crashing is close to zero, and you get the benefits of much better microphones than the one built into the computer. I have tested using my Zoom H4, which is almost instant-on and records directly to WAV/MP3 on an SD card. My only concern about this approach is that you need to think about the batteries on the device (or use external power).

The negative side of both of these approaches is that people don’t get to see the visual content of the presentation. For this reason I decided to explore solutions for also recording visuals.

 

Video recording

It is possible to record video on the computer using QuickTime 7, but this draw quite a lot of resources and is not ideal if you also want to have a presentation running at the same time. Then it is better to use a video camera for recording. I have access to many different types of video cameras, also a couple of professional ones, but my favorite camera is the cheapest of them all, a small Sanyo Xacti HD-2000. The nice thing about this camera is that it records directly to MP4-files. Most new video cameras tend to record to AVCHD files, but such files are really cumbersome to work with. This means that very little has to be done with the files after recording.

However, the easiest solution for recording video is just to grab the screen content using the wonderful little application called ProfCast. This application will record audio together with which slides are being presented, and then create the actual video offline after the lecture. This way it saves a lot of CPU during the actual recording, which means that more power is available for running the presentation itself.