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Meet the Method: Audacity

This image is of the Audacity logo.

This NULab blog series serves to showcase some of the DITI’s publicly available learning resources. This installment focuses on Audacity. 

Written by Emily Sullivan

The air is growing steadily colder and cozier; holiday music permeates the city; department stores are trading in wicker cornucopia baskets and red-orange-and-yellow leaved wreaths for plastic pine trees, dazzling menorahs, and holly centerpieces; and I am thinking about family. The holiday season is a unique time of year in which family units and networks of care gather, celebrate, exchange kindnesses, and tell stories. When reflecting upon the goal of engaging more in our communities, our families and networks of care seem to be key pieces of the puzzle. Thus, I arrived at the question: how could I record a snapshot of this historical moment—in time, place, or culture—the way it exists for my family?

Given the specificity of capturing my own family’s memories, I determined that an oral history approach would be best. Oral histories have the unique power to communicate formal and “informal” histories, from myths, to folklore, to interviews, to stories that span individuals, groups, cultures, and nations. Through this method, those experiences that have been overlooked by the canonical pen of historical record-making are granted entry into our archive and sealed into collective memory. Oral histories can be collected for many publication mediums, but I am drawing inspiration from the specific format of a podcast in structuring this exploration. As my scope was limited to one family unit, I decided to narrow my investigative approach down to two key questions related to this season: What is your favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Why has that tradition meant something to you? Through these simple questions, so much interesting information can be excavated—individual memories, family cultures, patterns of sentiment across each member’s selected tradition—and transformed into a final product that serves as an archival ode to this group of people whom I love. 

 Once my overall goals were set, I decided to take advantage of the DITI’s archive of slides and handouts to determine which digital method might best accommodate this oral portrait of my family. Under the “Audio Editing and Podcasting” tab, I discovered a slideset introducing Audacity as well as a helpful handout. If you’re a Northeastern faculty member or graduate student, you can also obtain access to the full archive of DITI teaching materials via Canvas Commons; contact the DITI Team if you need assistance navigating the Canvas page.

 After doing a little self-instruction, I realized that Audacity could be an ideal platform for my goal of recording oral histories. After reviewing the slides on podcast anatomy and the principles of recording interviews, I drafted up an interview guide, which you can read here. Even though I was only interviewing my family, and I had gained their consent informally beforehand, I included a formal disclaimer at the beginning in which I detailed the purpose of this project and how their data would contribute to it. I also made it extremely clear that they did not have to answer any questions they did not feel comfortable answering and that they could retract their consent and request redactions at any time. 

I encountered a couple of hurdles during the actual interviewing and podcast editing steps of this project. First, I don’t have professional recording equipment or a studio; I recorded the interviews through the voice memos app on my iPhone, and had to seek the quietest room possible within a bustling and noisy house. The DITI’s slides on Audacity have a section on “best practices” when recording audio that were helpful to consult in troubleshooting this issue. Second, I realized that voice memos from your phone don’t upload to Audacity, and had to convert them to mp3 files online. I originally intended to edit this oral history podcast as a traditional back-and-forth interview format; instead, after reflecting on my particular goal of capturing an oral portrait, I placed each audio clip back-to-back, separated by short, instrumental lofi clips. I found my music clip from the Free Music Archive, and chose to repeat the same clip to emphasize the music’s role as an auditory frame for the interviewees’ voices rather than receiving any special focus itself. I also recorded an introduction describing what the podcast episode is and what it’s for, my own answer concerning holiday traditions, and a brief outro. You can listen to the final product here

Through this process, I realized that recording history is for everyone; your audience, the people you interview, and the subjects you discuss are entirely up to you. Each oral history is immensely valuable, and these histories are richly present all around us. Where in your life do you see the opportunity to document a story, a perspective, or a reality of the past or present using the digital medium of a podcast?

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