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Building your basic digital audio workstation (Part 1)

The biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with throughout my time handling MMS 172 was getting students to learn how to use audio software. Most students would come into the program with some experience editing photos and graphics. A handful would be familiar with a bit of video editing. But very few would have had used much beyond audio players. Audio editing is largely alien. Worse, sometimes, the world of audio is taken for granted by students prior to taking the course. That makes going from practically tone deaf to a competent audio creator in a span of ten weeks a daunting task.

Luckily, an application such as Audacity is relatively easy to use for basic tasks which are enough to meet the requirements of MMS 172. However, it’s shortcomings become apparent as students become more ambitious and attempt to start more complex projects. In such cases, it would be more appropriate to employ full digital audio workstation (DAW) software. And that can be a whole new level of possibilities and difficulties. Majority of students would opt to not go for it and stick with simpler tools. And I can’t blame them.

This isn’t just about MMS 172, though. This is more about working with The Digital Collective. Or maybe you just want to go that extra mile for the quality of your work as a BAMS student. Either way, if you’re here and reading this, it’s likely that you want to up your audio game.

Before considering your options with software, it might be a good idea to deal with your hardware needs first. I would always say to my students that an audio interface, a pair of decent headphones and a microphone would be an ideal basic setup. A field recorder such as a Zoom H1 has been a fair alternative. However, while they slightly overlap in terms of coverage of applications, there will be instances where either of them are inappropriate or inconvenient.

Now, aside from being relatively simpler to use and less taxing on computer system resources, editors like Audacity or Audition can work with the mentioned hardware and it would be possible to record cleanly and clearly with them. So why bother with more complicated software?

  • Multitracking – DAWs handle multiple tracks better. Hands down.
  • Real-time and non-destructive editing – effects are added like layers that don’t actually alter the dry audio signal until finally rendering them. While some destructive audio editors such as Audacity are able to do this to a limited degree by having the Undo and Redo functions available, effects are typically applied and rendered one at a time, which is not just time consuming, but it forces you to be careful about irreparably altering your audio files.
  • Third party plugins – DAWs are highly extensible. If there’s an effect or functionality not available in its core toolset, you can find third party software that will work perfectly with it.
  • Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) –  If you’re going to work with MIDI and virtual instruments, or music production in general, DAWs are essential.

I’m sure an engineer can provide more detailed pros and cons from a more technical standpoint, but in my experience, these are what drove me to go ahead and learn to use DAWs. If you have found yourself coming to the same conclusion, then please proceed with the rest of this article to start building your own little personal studio.

Hardware

I am going to assume that you already own, or have access to a decent desktop or laptop computer. By decent, I mean a rig with at least an Intel Core i3/i5 processor (or AMD equivalent) with 4GB of RAM with at least a few hundred gigabytes of free disk space (the higher the specs, the better, of course). Up until my upgrade last year, I had, for several years, been more than fine with a second generation Intel Core i5 based system with 8GB of RAM.

If you already have that in place, then you’re going to need audio hardware. I already have a slightly expanded rig, but the heart of it is the same as would you should have — an audio interface, a good set of speakers or headphones and a microphone. Yes, it’s going to be unavoidable to spend some money, but it is very much possible to cut down on the costs. You’re going to see a lot of tutorials that will tell you the same thing. Below is one of the videos that I intently watched before I set out to build my rig.

Take note that the video is more than three years old at the time of this writing. You can go even lower than US$300 these days. But sadly, these things are significantly more expensive here in the Philippines than say, the US or Japan. You’re also going to be hard-pressed to get a comparable audio interface for around 5-6k. So, let’s localize the options and accounting and see the local cost of what I think is a good basic setup.

  1. Audio interface (~PHP8,000-10,000) – I would go for at least a 2-input interface that would allow the simultaneous recording of two mono inputs. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 would be my first option in this price range, because of the company’s track record. But the Behringer U-Phoria 202HD might be a viable option. Both of these have 1-input versions which are significantly cheaper and still usable. But I wouldn’t go for those personally. I’d rather get a field recorder.
  2. Headphones (~PHP1,500-3,000) – Getting a pair of good desktop monitors would probably double your budget, so that’s a no go for most of you. On ther other hand, using those flimsy earbuds that came with your phone is a bad idea for many reasons. So, headphones are a good option. The Samson SR850 has gotten more expensive since I bought one for myself. But it remains one of the best values out there. However, if you can find the Sennheiser HD201 at a low price, then I trust in Graham Cochrane and his recommendation.
  3. Condenser microphone (~PHP4,000-5,000) – Either the Behringer C-1 or the Samson CO1 would be fine starters.
  4. Cables (~PHP500) – You’re going to need at least one microphone cable and one USB cable.
  5. Mic stand (~PHP500-1,000) – I’d probably go for a desktop stand, as it ends up seeing more use in my office. But a full boom stand would also be nice.
  6. Pop filter (~PHP250) – Prices of these things really vary, but they can be had for cheap. You can even build your own makeshift filter with a piece of wire and stockings. It’s essential if you’re going to do voice work with a condenser microphone.

The above will set you back within the 15-18K range. I wish I could be more exact, but prices really vary. You could go cheaper by buying used gear. But I wouldn’t recommend going for lower specs. You’ll only end up spending more later on once you realize it’s a mistake in the long term. Interestingly enough, there  are bundles available out there. JB Music sells the Scarlett 2i2 bundle which might save you some money, depending on price and prevailing bargains.

Now, maybe that’s a lot. That’s why I don’t force students to buy these things. Something like a Zoom H1n costs around 6-7K which makes it the most cost effective solution for MMS 172. The problem is it has limitations which will prevent you from getting into more serious production work.

Admittedly, despite having the benefit of being able to buy my gear when they’re on sale or even outside the country, I still built my setup incrementally. I wanted to start with something slightly better, but it wouldn’t have been wise for me to plop down so much money at once. I myself have been slowly trying to figure out my needs and wants and I am thankful that the process was relatively efficient. Then again, I see students willing to spend so much more for their cameras.

 

This is how my workstation ended up looking like.

 

It’s all about the goals you set for yourself. And again, if you are reading this, that means you have already taken those first steps in being more serious about working with audio. So, it’s certainly a good idea to start investing.

 

To be continued.

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On Open Distance eLearning (ODeL)

Let me tell you about a quote from the letter of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. This is a question that has never left my mind, most especially when I have an important decision to make. The question was “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” We are now in one of those moments— a moment right before a life-altering decision where we ask ourselves questions that are supposed to help us decide even if, most of the time, we do not have the answers.

UPOU, distance eLearning, multimedia studies— honestly, these terms were unfamiliar to me until I heard about them from my previous adviser in UP Los Baños. I was wondering why I had not encountered anything about UP Open University before, even though it was near UPLB. I was a lost and an unhappy Forestry student at that time. It was during those times that I was indecisive and afraid of making a choice, yet it was also the time when I had to get a grip. On top of it all, I was frightened of making the wrong choice because I know it would change my life. Eventually, I realized I was wrong. There are no right or wrong choices. What I needed was courage to make one. If that goes well, good for me. If not, I would learn from the experience, get back up and move forward. UP taught me that being passionate about something is not enough. You must work hard to succeed in what you are passionate about. Nothing comes easy. And so I decided to transfer to UPOU to follow my passion and do just that — work for it.

Explaining what UPOU is and how it works to other people is not an easy task. My relatives and friends have asked me tons of questions about the university and I gladly answered all of them every time because I am proud that a university is offering a diverse group of people a chance to study full-time or part-time, regardless of their current situation in life. After all, education is, according to American politician and lawyer Christine Gregoire, “the foundation upon which we build our future.” Of course, there is that one question we all dread to hear in family gatherings— kailan ka gagraduate?

Before I get too sidetracked, let us now talk about the theme for this year’s commencement exercises which is “Leading in Open Distance eLearning (ODeL): Towards Education 4.0” We are now in the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. It means that from production of goods and services using water and steam engines to mass production using electrical power to the automation of production through combined IT and electronics to the fourth industrial revolution where man and the internet (a network of computers) are used. Communicating across borders is now possible. Society has already adapted by being more social, knowledgeable, and innovating ways that are fit to the world we currently live in. Industry 4.0 has made local businesses become global enterprises. It has made talking to friends and relatives across the world easier, and of course, people can now earn degrees online. The response of education to the needs of the Industry 4.0 is that education is now flexible, accessible, has personalized teaching and it also establishes a blueprint for a lifelong learning. After all, we do not stop learning new things every day.

I can attest to the fact that UPOU is the leading institution in Open Distance eLearning. UPOU has a new vision for learning. UPOU has taught us to know why we need a skill or knowledge, where to find it and play our strengths instead of feeding our brains with every information we could find. The learning designs are open, inclusive, universal and people-centered. There is also a convergence of virtual and physical learning spaces in the form of Learning Commons which also fosters peer-to-peer learning. Through all these factors, we can enable new possibilities that will help us, our country, and its people.

Let me enumerate some lessons I learned while studying in UPOU. It has taught me to manage my time wisely, self-discipline, cooperation in group projects and to double check instructions and deadlines. The flexible schedule has given us—students—the opportunity to dive into other activities while studying. We were also able to study anywhere which is an advantage for students who are in the workforce, students who are unable to go to a regular school and for stay-at-home moms as well. Furthermore, I have been able to converse with people from different walks of life. I have met working moms who juggle caring for their children and studying four subjects, working students, and people who are ill but has been given the chance to go back to school to earn a degree because of UPOU. Upon entering UP, I was amazed at how students and teachers can talk about anything and everything. We have become exposed to the harsh realities of life. I can tell you about some of it, but I am afraid that it will take us more than a day to cover it. Kidding aside, having an open mind is important nowadays. The willingness to understand another’s point of view even if it is against yours is important. UP has taught us lessons that cannot be found in books but only in experiences in real life.

UP has given us a lot more than what we deserve. Our UP education entails us to stand for our country. Iskolar ng Bayan para sa Bayan, hindi ba? From here on out, it is up to us to live up to that title. We are among the few chosen ones who were lucky enough to study in this prestigious university. Therefore, we should not waste this opportunity given to us for what good is a UP diploma if we are afraid to attempt anything, question everything, build rock-solid foundations, adapt to changes brought about by society and technology.

Life is too short for all the things we need and want to do. My fellow graduates of UPOU Class of 2018, we are at a crossroads. A decision must be made. Are we going to turn a blind eye on what is happening to our country today or are we going to fight for our country and its people for what good is a UP diploma if we become the generation of scholars who are ignorant of the social injustices that are screaming at our faces?

To my fellow graduates, congratulations to us, and may we all keep fighting for our country.

 

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Digital Collective Workshop in a Nutshell

By: Pamela Gallardo and Monika Borjal

 

Last October 19-20, 2018, UPOU Digital Collective held a two-day workshop in Parque España Alabang. There were a total of seventeen participants, including the former BAMS program chair, Sir Al Librero and the present program chair, Sir Diego Maranan; while the rest, consists of alumni and ongoing students of BAMS. We were provided with all-expense paid accommodation and full-board meals. This blog is basically a rundown of our workshop experience which consists of discussions to podcast sessions, blogs, soundtrack project, book project, the DC website, to MMS 200 projects.

Day 1:
We started the workshop by introducing ourselves in order to get to know each other. Being in an Open University, it is not expected for everyone to know every participant which is why this part is really important. Sir Al then discussed what Digital Collective is all about, its purpose and future plans.


Digital Collective aims to produce open educational resources or OERs to be utilized by the UPOU community. In so far as the community is concerned, DC is also the closest we have to a student organization in UPOU as its members are composed of students, alumni and UPOU staff and faculty. Future plans on making a new set of course manuals for production courses, such as MMS 172 (Audio in Multimedia) and MMS 173 (Photography in Multimedia) to be created by the members of DC also became a topic of discussion.

After the first part of the discussion, we were given a chance to share the reason why we decided to join Digital Collective and to share our goals and initiatives for the betterment of the BAMS community. Below are the common reasons the participants shared:

  • To collaborate with fellow BAMS students
  • To showcase talent and skills in multimedia
  • To contribute and share knowledge
  • To gain additional multimedia practice/experience for the improvement of one’s skills
  • To build sense of community in UPOU
  • To give back to the university through OER contents
  • To share guides and tips for the present students
  • To motivate other students by sharing experiences and success stories
  • To create a legacy to leave in the next batches to come

It was truly inspiring to hear our co-participants share different motivations in joining the Digital Collective. No matter how different it was though, the bottom line is just as common for everyone; they, we, all want to be there and practice what we learned in BAMS through DC.

Not long after, Sir Diego started discussing the background of BAMS—on how it started and how it was built, who created it, and the development of the courses. Such information is not discussed in a normal academic activity, so it was enlightening to learn how BAMS came about. This is when Sir Al revealed that a book project is in the works to share this particular journey of BAMS and UPOU with the community and even those outside of the academe. It was an exciting news to hear especially after learning that students will have a part in the making of this book.

After lunch, Sir Al discussed multimedia production courses particularly photography and audio which will be useful for creating contents to be placed in the Digital Collective's OER site. He also pointed out general tips for production courses such as time management, specifically, he reiterated that taking two production courses at a time is not advisable. The different stages in production were also discussed: pre-production, production, and post-production. Of course, the right equipment, software, and techniques were also discussed, he even showed us how lighting works in photography. This was really helpful for those who are yet to take the production courses.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in doing a group activity. We were divided into three groups—writers, photos and videos, and audio. Each group had a brainstorming activity by answering different questions about BAMS and how we can solve it through Digital Collective. Each group shared their opinions and every concern was addressed by both the current and former BAMS Program Chair. It was an informative afternoon as this was the first time that we did such an activity where problems and solutions were raised by students and alumni themselves. This activity served as a venue for the members of Digital Collective to formulate plans and discover project opportunities for the students. We hope to have more of this in the future.

The discussion ended, and we took a break for dinner before we started shooting for the podcast sessions. The setting up of the equipment took some time as well as the preparation for the interviews which is why  the recording lasted until almost midnight. We had two podcast sessions recorded. The first one was supposedly a laid-back interview, a more student-centric style. Pam and Candice did this episode by sitting with the current and former BAMS program chair for an interview about BAMS. But considering the unpreparedness for this episode, some said the outcome was a little too stiff compare to the usual "podcasts" we hear/see. Such observation was understandable as none of us had an actual experience in video/film production as big as this one. Also, it's not everyday that we get to interview two intelligent people at the same time, it was really nerve-wracking as Pam describe it. We can't describe the relief we all felt when the podcast session ended successfully.

" I was surprised that I would be doing an interview with the BAMS' former program chair, Sir Al Librero, and current program chair, Sir Diego Maranan. Joining the workshop, I kind of expected that I could be chosen to do a podcast session--but, it never entered my mind that I would interview Sir Al and Sir Diego; not to mention the fact that everything was just unplanned, it's close to impromptu--the questions we asked, we just thought of those questions minutes before we started shooting. So to sum it up, it was really nerve-wracking because I wasn't prepared, we weren't prepared. Luckily though, we got to survive the whole thing. Well of course, I know that we can do better--we just need to plan things ahead of time to avoid such stressful situation", Pam on her podcast experience.

For another couple of hours more, we enjoyed each other’s company (by "we" we mean, those who were able to stay up longer) over light booze, chit chat and laughter. It was a fun but long and tiring first day.

 

Day 2:

On the second day of the workshop, everybody woke up late as expected. We started the discussion late, but Sir Al said that it was fine as we were able to cover the important matters on Day 1. Come to think of it, our first day was unexpectedly productive and fruitful. It almost covered one and a half days considering the time we finished the podcast sessions and we had two podcast sessions recorded.

Day 2’s discussion started with the Digital Collective’s book project. Winter David, one of the members working on this project discussed with us the status of this project – including the book cover, the content layout, and the funding of this project. We were particularly interested in the cover for the book as there were lots of great choices that we found it hard to choose. The topics for the content of the book was also discussed.

While having lunch, we had the opportunity to discuss MMS 200 projects with Sir Diego. He is the current faculty-in-charge for this course. MMS 200 serves us our culminating project as a BAMS student. He explained what MMS 200 is all about and how we should go about our projects if we our plans are to relate it to Digital Collective. He added that it is very important that our project is question-based. This is so because MMS 200 projects should still be based on the problem question regardless if your project is empirical research or practice-based research. On the other hand, we were advised to keep in mind that a multimedia project is supposed to be interactive. This is because a multimedia product or service is supposed to initialize interactivity – accessing it should utilize or make two or more senses of a human being respond. He made it clear to us that it is okay to collaborate such as with Digital Collective as long as it will be clear in the student’s proposal and report what his/her contributions are. Other MMS-200 related questions were raised and addressed during the discussion coming from those who are currently taking MMS 200.

After the MMS 200 discussion, the participants then discussed future plans for BAMS Tambayan and how we should go about the DC's project management. It was decided that both Slack and Trello mobile applications will be utilized to keep track of the projects and other features and contents required in building the Digital Collective website. Right then and there, Slack account for DC was made and participants were added. Towards the end of the discussion, participants drafted a plan to hold a photography contest to encourage UPOU students in producing photos to be used as contents in the DC website.

The workshop ended at around 3:00 in the afternoon and although it was a brief workshop, it was nothing short of fun, memorable and productive two days. Fun because in the short two days we got the chance to get to know each and every one, face to face. It was a refreshing experience to finally be able to put a face in every person’s name and sit with them physically in the same room. Because at one point or another, we have encountered these people – students, faculty - in UPOU’s digital platform; in some occasions, we heard their audio projects, saw their photos, read their blog posts, etc. but never met them formally, face to face. Well, at least for most of them, as there were some of us who we were able to meet personally in some occasions.

The experience was definitely one for the books as it is not everyday that we get to experience such an opportunity. We bid our goodbyes that afternoon, took a couple more group shots to add to the hundreds more we already had, said our Thank You’s, and left the venue with new lessons and experiences. We don’t know when the next chance like this will be, but we are already looking forward to it.

Thank you to Sir Al Librero and to the Digital Collective community for this opportunity.

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Tools of the Trade for BAMS Students

One of the most frequently asked, if not obvious questions which students have is what equipment do they need when taking BAMS courses. I had always been hesitant to address such questions head on, as UP had always espoused a certain neutrality when it comes to employing any sort of tools in teaching.

I get it. UP students shouldn’t be expected to spend huge amounts of money on equipment in order to pass all their courses. It’s great if it would be possible to graduate with minimal expenses beyond tuition.

Unfortunately, this often makes matters more difficult at a later point. Students are expected to produce artifacts that meets certain standards which can be challenging, perhaps at times, more challenging than it’s supposed to be. Some make do with subpar output, hoping it will be enough to pass. Some end up buying what they need, anyway. It’s just too bad that there are instances where the acquisition of gear happens too late and ends up not being of much help, anyway. Lucky are those who are able to afford their decision to invest in their equipment early on, despite my hesitation to give them proper guidance.

I’d like to change my approach now. Instead of sidestepping the issue, maybe taking a definite stance regarding equipment will be of more benefit.

 

The Essentials

Being in an online campus, it goes without saying that a computer and an Internet connection are the two things that a student cannot do without. Now, while it is possible to get through most courses being dependent on computer shops and net cafés, that is far from ideal. It is highly likely for students to find themselves in situations where accessibility at any given time is necessary.

 

Workstation

A desktop or laptop with ample processing power and storage to meet system requirements of your applications will be necessary. Now, just how much ample really is depends on the software and other peripherals that you might be using. Check their respective product information to find out. Some of the teachers may also prescribe specific requirements, as dictated by the needs of the courses they handle. Make sure to keep an eye for those.

 

Internet Connection

As with workstations, ample bandwidth is required. But there is no definite consensus on how much that exactly is. It really depends on what you’re doing. But if your connection allows you to stream high definition video flawlessly, or if you can join a video chat session with high audio and video quality, chances are, you are going to be fine.

 

Studying at your Workplace

For working students, there is the appeal of being able to study from the office. Now, without even discussing the ethics, not to mention company policies pertinent to the practice, this poses additional issues. Depending on your company, there may be restrictions regarding what applications you are able to use with your office computer. It is also likely that your IT department has measures in place that will restrict access to anything your company deems inappropriate in the work place. And yes, that can include anything from the UPOU domain. Before using office facilities for the purpose of studying, please make sure that your management is ok with it first.

 

Using Mobile Devices

Over the years, mobile devices have become more and more ubiquitous. Students have started to rely heavily on tablets and even smart phones for their schoolwork. And why not? The modern mobile device has proven to be powerful multi-purpose tools, useful for a wide array of tasks. While UPOU has already taken steps in supporting mobile devices, appropriate learning experience is still far from guaranteed. Desktop and laptop computers remain as the recommended primary platform for your learning needs.

Going the Extra Mile

Again, it is true that it’s possible to get through just about anything with a computer and your mobile phone. But as you may already be aware of, there’s getting by to survive, and then there’s excellence. Yes, excellence is something that comes from within. But at the same time, achieving excellence usually require an additional set of tools. This hold particularly true in the field of multimedia.

These are some of what can be considered as equipment needed to go the extra mile:

  1. A big computer screen – one of the limitations of laptops (even more so with mobile devices), is the size of their LCD screens. There is something to be said about the user experience when working with one or more monitors with screen sizes of 24 inches or higher. It allows for a more immersive experience and greater attention to detail than with a 13 inch screen (let alone those 4-5 inch touchscreens on your phones).
  2. Camera – A discrete camera is necessary in learning how to consistently shoot high quality photos and videos as prescribed by some of the courses in the BAMS program. The DSLR has been the symbol of good photography work for many students. It certainly helps. But that is not your only option. Smaller mirrorless cameras can now allow you to do as good a job as the DSLR.
  3. Microphone or field recorder – As observed in past student output, sometimes, a decent microphone would have been the biggest difference maker in building audio and video projects.
  4. Audio interface and monitor speakers – audio may as well be the final frontier or the unknown for many BAMS students. It is typically the least appreciated modality in media, which the BAMS program intends to rectify among students. However, good audio cannot be created or even appreciated with flimsy earphones and your computer’s cheap sound card.
  5. Pen tablet – it definitely poses a learning curve, but it is all but necessary if you require a high level of precision for your image editing work.

 

One can certainly opt to go for more specialized equipment. But all of the above, in my honest opinion, will be more than enough to allow for a higher ceiling in terms of work quality. In the end, it is the student’s decision to go with whatever he or she wants.

Upcoming Events

  1. DC Photography Contest 2018

    December 28

Copyright 2018 UPOU Digital Collective
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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