Look out Backstreet Boys

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, March 2000

If you?re the parent of a child in elementary school, you?ve probably attended your share of Winter Concerts?events where the school choir and band and the various classes of young ones proudly perform songs or skits on a seasonal theme.

This year, I offered to record my school?s 1999 extravaganza. Audio only, please?there are enough parents with camcorders. I?ve done this a few times in the past, and have some familiarity with microphones and sound mixing boards. This year, though, I tried something new to me.

Rather than connect a tape recorder to the mixing board, I thought I?d try plugging in my notebook computer and recording straight to my hard drive, making a big WAV file. How big? Well, consider?an audio CD holds about an hour?s music. In the same amount of space, a CD-ROM disk can hold up to about 650 MB of data. So CD-quality stereo recording requires about 10 MB for each minute recorded. . I had about a gigabyte free on the drive?more than enough for the promised hour?s concert.

Being a conservative kind of guy, I also recorded the traditional way?to a cassette tape deck. But I never even listened to that version. The notebook was a year-old, Pentium 300 model. Running Windows 2000, if that matters

Of course you need software. I used Sonic Foundary?s Sound Forge XP (www.soundforge.com). Sound Forge is a full-featured, US$499 program, but the US$49 XP version did all I needed, and then some.

Despite having never done any digital recording before, it proved easy to use?rather like a tape recorder, in fact. Set recording levels, then click on the Record button. 600+ megs later, click on the Stop button, and save the file. That simple.

The next day, I loaded the saved file back into Sound Forge XP, and located the parts that actually had performances, rather than the sounds of children moving on or off stage. This was easy to do, visually scanning the peaks and valleys of the displayed graph. It was equally easy to copy the songs to the Clipboard, pasting each into a separate file, and then saving it with the song?s name. The program?s special effects let me fade into the beginning and fade out the applause at the end of each song, for a more professional sound. Other than that, I ignored the collection of digital special effects.

Once I had my dozen individual tracks, it was only natural to think of what to do with them.

Since I have a CD burner, it was easy to think of making an audio CD. My HP deck, like many models, ships with a limited version of Adaptec?s EZ CD-Creator software, which can be used to convert WAV-format songs to CD-Audio, and burn to disk. But I?d invested in the full version?the US$99 EZ CD-Creator Pro. This includes a CD Spin Doctor utility that can be used, for example, to remove clicks, scratches, and hiss if you?re making a CD from an old record. I used it, in this case, to equalize the volume between all my songs?so the little class of Grade 1s sounded as loud as the big Grade 7 choir.

Then, back to the main EZ CD-Creator program to burn a test CD and create a cover for it, using scanned student art. It sounded good enough that the school decided to try to sell it as a fundraiser. Scanning the back pages of this publication got the names of a couple of companies who will press CDs and print the accompanying covers and such.

At the same time, since the school has a web server, it seemed a natural to put the concert online. That meant converting the songs to a more Internet-friendly format?in this case MP3, since that format is supported by most computers, Windows or Mac or what-have-you. There are lots of programs that can do that?I used NexEncode, both because it worked, and because it?s free (www.team-nexgen.com/main).

While the actual music is probably most interesting to the children involved and their parents, if you want, you can find it at http://maquinna.vsb.bc.ca/xmas99. An interesting discovery- what happens when you double-click on the songs depends what software you?re using to play them. If your system is setup to use popular programs like WinAmp, Real JukeBox, or QuickTime, you?ll need to download the files (typically about 4 megs each), and then play them. But combine a fast Internet connection and the latest version of Microsoft?s MediaPlayer and they actually act like streaming media?playing in real time.

The moral?everything worked. Simply and easily. And with the help of relatively standard computer hardware and relatively inexpensive software, Vancouver?s Chief Maquinna Elementary School kids are now on the Internet and on CD, just like some pop powerhouse.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan