Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Using low-cost ultraportable computers for audio editing on the go

A colleague wrote me the other day to ask for advice on setting up a portable audio recording/editing kit. Most radio journalists are used to carrying around a recorder, recording media (flash cards, minidiscs, digital audio tape, etc), a microphone, assorted cables, and a good set of headphones. Typically, you can run out to conduct an interview, record a press conference, or otherwise gather sound, and then run back to your office or studio to load the audio onto a computer for editing. But if you're on deadline and need to file your audio as quickly as possible, you might want to carry a laptop so you can edit your sound in the field and then upload it over a wireless internet connection.

All of which is to say that low-cost, tiny computers like the Asus Eee PC look like a godsend for professional radio journalists who spend a lot of time away from their desks. What my colleague wanted to know was whether the $400 Eee PC 701 would be up to the task. Here was my reply:

As for Audacity, it runs pretty well on the Eee PC 701. Keep in mind, while the Eee PC offers extreme portability, there are a few downsides for digital audio editing:
  1. It has a very small amount of storage space. If you expect to be editing more than 1 or 2 GB worth of audio files at a time, you might want to invest in a 4GB or large SDHC card for the memory slot.
  2. It has a pretty slow processor. That said, we were all using computers that were slower than the Eee PC just a few years ago, so it can certainly handle Audacity and several other audio packages. I haven't tried installing my old copy of Cool Edit, but it runs Reaper (www.reaper.fm) quite well. It just takes longer to import/export/render long files than it would on a faster laptop.
  3. The 800 x 480 pixel display is less than ideal for mixing long pieces, since you just can't fit that much on the screen at once. But for simple cut and paste editing, it will do.
I've never tried mixing a full story on my Eee PC. But I have used it to trim long files, convert them from stereo to mono, and upload them to FTP sites. I frequently wind up doing tape syncs and other audio engineering gigs in Manhattan, and rather than come all the way back to my studio in Brooklyn I just find the nearest public library or coffee shop with WiFi and upload the audio from there.
be up to the task.

I've been playing with the HP Mini-Note for the past week, and while its processor is as slow, if not slower than the Eee PC 701, the Mini-Note is much more comfortable to use. It has a larger keyboard, which HP describes as being 92% full size. And it has a larger, higher resolution screen, cramming 1280 x 768 pixels onto an 8.9 inch display. That's just a few pixels shy of the resolution on the 15.4 inch laptop I use for most of my day to day computing. In other words, you should have no problem viewing multitrack project files using the audio editing software of your choice on a Mini-Note.

The Mini-Note is also a bit pricier than the Eee PC. The cheapest model is $499, and prices go all the way up to $750. That makes it cheap by ultraportable standards, but not necessarily cheaper than any other discount computer you can pick up at most big box electronics/computer retail stores. But at just 2.6 pounds, the Mini-Note probably fits in your bag easier than the big ole Dell/HP/Acer computer you'd find at Best Buy. The interesting thing is that Dell, Acer, and at least a dozen other companies, some of which you've heard of, plan to release low-cost tiny computers to compete with the Eee PC within the next few months.

You can read much more about this low-cost ultraportable revolution at my other blog, Liliputing.

6 comments:

Norman said...

I recently took the eeePC and a Zoom H2 to Vietnam. Produced a couple finished pieces on the eee. Audacity was a bit slow - also had to set the "temp files" directory to the SD card to make it work with long files. Otherwise great. And another nice feature was using Skype with a good USB headset to do live shows (including an hour-long call-in show with another remote guest and listener questions). Used a wired rather than wireless connection at the hotel for more dependability. Also, btw, I use VLC for playback of audio and video on the eee, works great.

Love your work Brad - and love the eee & the Zoom as a great toolkit for reporters.

Joshua Gordon said...

Hi Brad,

My string quartet has the Zoom H2 which is ok, but how well would a better quality usb mic work with an eee pc and Linux, like an MXL large diaphragm stereo usb mic? For simple remote stereo recording on Audacity that could be a nice combo.

Joshua Gordon
Brandeis University

Brad Linder said...

That's an excellent question. I haven't tried a USB mic per se, bu I have plugged in a USB mixer with a condenser mic and the quality was pretty good.

The biggest problems you'll have with the H2 are that it's got relatively noisy preamps and the mics are omnidirectional, which means they could be picking up more background noise than you'd like. So your suggested setup could work.

You'll want to make sure you've got a relatively large SD card for recording, since the Eee PC doesn't have a ton of onboard storage.

If you decide to try this, let us know how it works!

Joshua Gordon said...

Here is a dream setup but with the pricier Samsung Q1U as a professional sound recording studio.

http://www.gottabemobile.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=4440&PID=28639#28639

I'm not sure if it's running windows or linux. I read that Trinity audio has a modified Samsung unit available, called Indamixx.

Brad Linder said...

That's an excellent question. I haven't tried a USB mic per se, bu I have plugged in a USB mixer with a condenser mic and the quality was pretty good.

The biggest problems you'll have with the H2 are that it's got relatively noisy preamps and the mics are omnidirectional, which means they could be picking up more background noise than you'd like. So your suggested setup could work.

You'll want to make sure you've got a relatively large SD card for recording, since the Eee PC doesn't have a ton of onboard storage.

If you decide to try this, let us know how it works!

Norman said...

I recently took the eeePC and a Zoom H2 to Vietnam. Produced a couple finished pieces on the eee. Audacity was a bit slow - also had to set the "temp files" directory to the SD card to make it work with long files. Otherwise great. And another nice feature was using Skype with a good USB headset to do live shows (including an hour-long call-in show with another remote guest and listener questions). Used a wired rather than wireless connection at the hotel for more dependability. Also, btw, I use VLC for playback of audio and video on the eee, works great.

Love your work Brad - and love the eee & the Zoom as a great toolkit for reporters.

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