MP3s: The "Swiss Army Knife of Audio"

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

One of the most interesting e-mails I’ve received lately was from a U.S National Guard solider stationed in Kuwait. His note was short. “Terry, I saw your article at regarding recording digital audio on a computer. I am looking for a simple way to record myself (as a file on the computer) reading stories to my children and attach it to an email to my wife so she can play it to them. I won’t be home for another ten and a half months. Do you have any suggestions how to use this technology?”

Because I have two small kids of my own, who, unlike this warrior, I would be able to see that afternoon, I was extremely touched by his message and felt the urgency to help this dad bridge the gap with his wife and children. It’s easy to sit back and recommend fancy computers, expensive microphones and the latest software, but none of these were options in this case. This man was on a battlefield. He had to use what he had, and the solution had to be simple, fast and most importantly, it had to work.

In ministry, while we may not be dodging literal bullets, we’re in a battle of our own and we’re in the connection-making business. One of the strongest tools in our arsenal is MP3 audio. Whether we use moving music, an inspirational message or interactive media of some sort, an MP3 is a great medium to bridge today’s communications gap. Moreover, using MP3s is simple, fast and the best of all, the player software is free.

In the e-mail to Kuwait, I advised my new military friend that there were only two things, besides his computer, that he needed. First, he would need a microphone; Any mic that would plug into his computer would work, in this case. Secondly, he would need some inexpensive MP3 recording software. I recommended a few web sites for software. He told me he did have access to the Internet for downloading, so this greatly helped matters. I explained the process of creating an MP3. “The software will take the sound input from your Mic and convert it instantly to MP3 (compressed) digital audio. Dig around in the software to find how you can reduce the sampling quality. For your purpose, you’ll want to record in mono at a KBPS (kilobytes per second) rate that’s fairly low. (For reference, 168 is close to CD- like quality).You can piddle around with the setting to test the sound quality. The objective of the game is that the end result is decent-sounding audio at a file size that can be easily e-mailed. In short, basically: a computer, mic, MP3 recording software = mp3 file to e-mail. For your wife, Windows Media Player (comes with Windows OS) back home should play the MP3 file just fine.”

This solider did have one ingredient that I failed to mention that made his effort possible. Imagination! For those of us in ministry, certainly, Sunday’s message can be formatted to an MP3, just as national speakers such as Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans and Dennis Rainey make their messages and shows available on their web sites. But what if we produced a 60 or 30 second “mini-drama” to share the Good News (as creative as the beer company ads)? What if, instead of receiving a letter in the mail, thanking us for visiting the new church last Sunday, we received an e-mail from the pastor with a zany little spot that welcomed us back?

Speaking of great ideas, one of the most valuable things MP3s can bring to the audio booth is a nice way to efficiently archive complete worship service audio. Because the archive is in a digital format, when it comes time to make a copy, the duplicate will be as good as the original.

You should keep your MP3 files as MP3s and not convert them to CD audio until you have the need to produce an audio CD. Depending on your sampling rate, that is, the quality which you’ve made the recording, you can literally archive dozens of messages on a CD and hundreds more on a DVD.

The key for pristine audio is to record digitally by either using your computer, a stand-alone digital audio workstation (DAW), or for small churches with tight budgets, my recommendation is a stand-alone CD recorder like you’d purchase at Best Buy. (Great idea: Press “next track” for every event in your church bulletin.)

Secondly, stay in the digital world throughout any transfer process, meaning that data (not sound) is copied from one place to another. Finally, end digitally. By that I mean the file you hand your audience is on digital media such as CD, DVD or MP3 or made available on-line. (By the way, I hear that automobile manufacturers will begin to eliminate cassette players on the 2005 vehicles, so if you don’t have a digital audio plan at your church, you should be working toward one.) As an important note of interest, most CD players will not play CD-RWs nor will typical CD players play native MP3 files burned to CD. They have to be converted to CD audio which happens transparently when you burn MP3 files to an audio CD.

Ideally, unlike my advice to the solider, because you have better resources at hand, you should use the best microphones and recording gear that you can afford. Without debate, you should capture (sample) the digital audio using as high of a sampling rate as you can. The file should be recorded natively as a .wav file (for Windows) or .aiff (for Mac).

Once this is done, when it comes time, you can then convert the file to an MP3. The thinking here is that you can always reduce the resolution of an audio recording, but once recorded, you can’t improve it. In most professional caliber audio software, converting a .wav to an MP3 is as easy as choosing “SAVE AS MP3” under the FILE menu.

Copying audio from a CD and converting it to a .wav file or MP3 is called “ripping”. Most MP3 software includes that feature. The same software will usually allow you to “burn” MP3 files to create an audio CD. Speaking of MP3 software, if you’re curious about what type of software I recommended for the solider, I gave him a “buyer beware” caveat, but pointed him to these sites for some “comparison shopping” on elementary, native MP3 recording:

However, I would highly recommend instead that you use professional digital audio recording software.

If you’re looking for MP3 player software, I hope you’ll take a look at my three top picks – which are all free!