Breaking The Sound Barrier

Try multimedia to add more life to your images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Huli warriors, Mt. Hagen Culture Show, Tari, Papua New Guinea.

Among the great leaps and advances with which digital photography has provided us is a whole new way of sharing our work with others. In the past, you could make prints, or if you were a professional, maybe illustrate a magazine article or a book project—pretty slim pickings. But combine the power of the Internet with the advances in digital imaging, and now you have a myriad of other ways to get your images out to the world. Whether using a web gallery or a photo-sharing site, you now can broadcast your vision worldwide with the click of your mouse.

With a medium as dynamic as digital photography and the Internet, it figures that nothing will stay still for long, of course. And one of the strongest new trends for us visual storytellers has nothing to do with visuals at all. We’re talking “multimedia” here—in short, the added dimension of sound.

Our video and film brethren have been collecting, editing and integrating sound with their presentations since the advent of the “talkies” nearly 100 years ago, but for us still shooters, it’s a brave new world. Like any new world, it’s full of wonderful possibilities and fraught with potential hassles.

In this column and a few upcoming columns, I’ll discuss the basics of gathering and using sound in your slideshow presentations. I’m not just talking about grabbing your favorite songs from iTunes and dropping them into a slideshow, hitting “Fit Slides to Music” and being done with it. That’s the first and most elemental type of multimedia slideshow most of us do, and even at this elementary level, it’s immediately apparent how much a good soundtrack can enhance and complement the beauty of your visuals.

But dropping music in a slideshow is only the beginning. Gathering ambient sound for your slideshows—whether it’s the crashing of ocean waves, the roaring of lions, the hubbub of an outdoor market or the musings of a portrait subject—and tastefully integrating them with some music and maybe even your own narration, can carry your visual storytelling to new levels of engagement and interest for your viewers.

As with digital photography itself, it’s the nation’s newspapers that are pioneering the multimedia slideshow on their websites, and that’s where some of the strongest examples of the new storytelling medium can be found. At the end of this column, I’ll list some sources for cutting-edge multimedia.

Gear. To jump into multimedia, you need three items: a device to record sound, a software program to edit that sound and create a soundtrack, and a slideshow program to integrate that soundtrack with your visuals. This is far too much territory to cover in one column, so in this first installment, let’s take a brief look at sound-recording devices. In subsequent columns, I’ll talk about sound-editing and slideshow programs.

The first thing you need is a digital recorder. You can get by with those little voice recorders that are primarily designed for transcription, but the good news is that, recently, all kinds of compact, high-quality digital recorders have appeared on the market in the sub-$500, sub-one-pound category, which are capable of extremely high-quality, better-than-CD sound.

Small, light and easy to use, these machines were developed largely for musicians who wanted a quick way to get high-quality recordings of their gigs and rehearsals, and for the ever-growing cadre of “stealth tapists” who make surreptitious recordings of live concerts.

Fortunately, the stealth taper’s recorder requirements—something that’s small, light and easy to use, with high-quality output—are exactly what most photographers need to break into multimedia as well. Nobody wants to carry large studio-recording equipment, mics and mixers, plus a camera bag, into the field.

Just as digital photography has JPEGs, TIFFs and RAW files as choices for recording your images, sound recording offers a variety of formats at different levels of quality and compression. The most familiar of those formats to the iPod nation would be MP3, but an MP3 is like a highly compressed JPEG in our world—yes, you can record this way, but you’re throwing out huge chunks of information to save on file size.


Most sound hounds prefer to use the WMA or WAV formats; these are higher-quality formats that don’t throw away the information. But there are varieties of quality even within those formats. The different qualities are expressed in numbers describing the kilohertz and bit depth—the higher the kilohertz and the deeper the bit depth, the better the sound quality. So, a recorder that can capture at 96 KHz and 24 bit depth is better than one that can record only MP3s or 44 GHz (gigahertz), 16-bit.

Video, for example, captures sound at 48 KHz, 24-bit. If you’re integrating video and stills into your presentations, you may want to record sound at the same quality level as your video clips. I haven’t graduated into adding video to my shows, and I’m only using stills. The program I use most, Soundslides Plus (www.soundslides.com), handles sound at 44 GHz at 16-bit, so that’s the level I’ve been recording at; it’s generally considered to be “CD-quality” sound and that’s fine for me.

Besides quality, there are other considerations when choosing a sound recorder, such as battery type and how good it is at conserving them. I always prefer to use standard-size batteries, like AA or AAA, to a proprietary rechargeable. What does it record on? Many of these recorders have built-in flash memory; some have both built-in and other flash memory capabilities, such as recording to CF or SD cards. Again, I look for one that records onto a medium I already use, like CF or SD, and not some name-brand proprietary type like a Sony Memory Stick.

For me, size is a major consideration. I spend an inordinate amount of time schlepping gear in and out of airplanes and living out of suitcases on the road, and I’ve done a lot of research to find the smallest, most capable photo gear to do the job I need done. So it only follows that I’d also look for the smallest possible recording gear that still gives me the needed quality.

There are recording forums and websites to help you with buying and using gear, but be warned that these sound aficionados are as opinionated about their gear as photographers are about cameras. You’ll read debates on these forums about pre-amp noise, the qualities of the built-in mics, etc., that make the great Canon-Nikon flame wars on photo sites look like sandbox squabbles. These guys are serious gear heads, and it can get confusing for us “newbs” who just want to know the simplest, easiest way to get clean sound. Check the Resources for a listing of a few of these forums.

No matter which recorder you choose, you’ll find that one of the most important things you can do is to set a recording level that’s loud enough to record the sounds you want, but without sending them “off the scale,” resulting in clipping.

Yes, just as in digital photography, digital sound recording has a range of tones it can record as well, and if you exceed that range (with sounds too low or too loud), you can “clip” those extremes, resulting in no data (akin to clipping highlights and shadows in digital photo speak). You use the recorder’s graph display to test the volume of the sound you’re trying to capture and set a level that allows for good levels without any clipping, as you do with a histogram in digital photography.

I’ve tried a few of these recorders in the last year or so and settled on the Olympus LS-10 as my first choice. It’s extremely compact (one of the smallest, it’s the size of a cell phone or one of the larger iPods) and well made, with a pair of excellent built-in mics and a menu system that’s completely intuitive for most digital camera users. (It’s one of the only recorders made by a company that also makes cameras, which may explain why its menu is so easy for a photographer to grasp!)

It runs for ages on a pair of AAs, has 2 GB of built-in flash memory and takes SD cards as well. In addition, it has two little speakers so you can at least confirm that you’re actually recording (although once you get serious about sound gathering, you’ll be wearing earphones, or at least good earbuds, to monitor your recording). All this in a compact package that weighs about six ounces and easily slips into the most overstuffed of camera bags.

In upcoming columns, I’ll talk about gathering and editing sound, and different slideshow programs to present your work. In the meantime, check out these sources to take your first step into sound gathering and the wonderful world of multimedia!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.

Resources
Multimedia
masteringmultimedia.wordpress.com—A resource for multimedia shooters, mainly from the newspaper world.

www.mediastorm.org—Brian Storm is a pioneer of the art form, and you’ll find inspirational examples of great, mostly news-oriented examples.

Sound Forums

http://blogs.oreilly.com/digitalmedia/
2008/05/portable-audio-recorder-chart.
html
—A great chart comparing the strengths and weaknesses of a wide array of portable recorders. Each recorder is hot-linked to a complete review.

www.taperssection.com—This is where the sound cognoscenti meet to discuss the latest in portable and stealth recording gear and techniques. It can get pretty “techy,” but there’s a lot of good info for us “newbs.”

www.transom.org—This site is for radio reporters and others interested in producing sound stories. It provides great resources and tutorials.

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