Tutorial: making an MP3 for an online journal, part II

Part I of this tutorial goes over Audacity, open-source, free software that’s available for download. Part II of this tutorial covers your sound studio.

Because you don’t have a sound studio built into your house, do you? And you’ve never missed that feature until now. When you record yourself, even if you’ve gotten the coolest microphone ever, your voice will bounce off the walls and sound hollow or have an echo.

To reduce that hollow sound, choose the smallest, most heavily padded room in your house – maybe a playroom or the nursery if you have kids, or your tiny office that is really a closet. In fact, try the closet. Toss a few extra pillows in with you. Bathrooms won’t work – tile gives a wicked echo.

Or you can choose the space I like best: the interior of my car. I sit in the passenger seat, pop open the laptop, and record away. Post-2000 cars have ridiculously plush interiors, so the usual echo is absorbed.

I stumbled upon car-as-studio in the usual way: the kids were asleep. I had to make an MP3 without waking them, which put the whole upstairs off limits. Mothering and the necessity of invention.

Tutorial: making an MP3 for an online journal, part I

It’s becoming more common for online journals or print journals with a web presence to request that their writers send them MP3 files of the accepted piece being read by the writer. I love this trend – I’m always delighted to hear poems read aloud, the differently nuanced words, the surprise of a writer’s voice.

It was good fortune that PANK Magazine was the first journal to ask me to record an MP3 – they sent me a link to Audacity, a free, open-source software program for Mac, PC, and Linux users. Here’s the link to Audacity:

Most of you will be all set at this point, since all the newer Macs and PCs have built-in microphones. For those of you with older computers, run out to your nearest electronic shop and invest in a $30 webcam with microphone (the one I use is Logitech, though I’m sure there are lots of good brands). Setup takes about 90 seconds. You’ll also be able to Skype with all your faraway friends and family for free, so it really is worth that small investment. 

With Audacity now installed, give the software a test run. The buttons you’ll care most about are the big colored buttons top left, and on my Mac they look grayed out as if they weren’t available. Ignore the grayscale – they’ll work. Hit the red record button and sing a few notes. You can playback by tapping the purple arrows that point left, then tap the green play button. Grimace as you listen to yourself sing. Aren’t you glad you’re a writer? 

Now you can try recording some takes of your poem. I like to print out the poem first rather than fumbling with the down key and the on-screen version, though I sometimes get paper rattle noises if I’m not careful. If I mess up, I ditch that attempt and start over, since it’s harder to smooth out stops and starts in a recording. I’ll give my big tip on (almost) studio-quality recordings in part II of this tutorial. 

Once I have a recording I like, I usually go back and delete the fumbling sounds at the beginning and ending of the recording (from me starting and stopping Audacity). To edit, just click and drag your cursor over the second(s) you don’t like, then hit delete. There’s an undo button (arrow curving left) if you mess up. I’ve never bothered with any of the other buttons, but if you’re an AV-type person, have at it.

I usually save this file (by clicking File > Save Project) in its raw format, .aup. Then I export the file as an MP3 (by clicking File > Export As MP3). That’s the version you’ll send to the journal as an email attachment. 

I love this trend in online publishing, and I hope it’s more widely used as editors and writers become comfortable with the technology.