Editor’s note: “Inside …” is a new series that will offer glimpses into Pitt places that are new, revamped or rarely visited by most people in the University community. If you have an idea for someplace we should look "inside," please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By MARTY LEVINE
In the basement of Alumni Hall, in the quiet of the Media Creation Lab, linguistics faculty member Ece Ulus is adjusting the sound of a podcast recording — silently. All she needs to do is watch the wave forms on the computer screen, using Adobe Audition, to make sure the voices are clear but not loud or distorted.
“I don’t know what any of the technical terms mean, I just know what to do where,” Ulus says when asked about the fineries of decibels and amplitude. And she doesn’t need to know, thanks to the hands-on training that Max Glider and his lab staff gave to Ulus and her podcasting partner, Heather McNaught, both instructors in the English Language Institute.
“Max has been really wonderful,” Ulus says. “The first session he edited our whole podcast.”
“And added the music,” McNaught says.
“And I just took notes,” Ulus says. Several more demonstrations and she was ready to try it on her own. Now, at the end of their first podcast season she is doing all the editing — often at home, where many podcasters use Zencaster when they are not simply continuing with Audition.
Their podcast is called English as a Singing Language, aimed at English language learners and teachers. Each episode they pick a pop song, show listeners how it uses grammar, pronunciation or unique English phrases, and even sing a bit.
“We’re always sending each other songs: ‘This one has so many past-tense verbs!’ ” McNaught says. They’ve covered everyone from BTS and Hailee Steinfeld to Suzanne Vega and the Temptations.
Today, Ulus is editing to delete a false start in their recording, removing a little background noise, adding the theme music (“Optimistic Happy Guitar,” she believes the name is — one of the stock tunes that comes with Audition) and matching the two hosts’ loudness levels. That last operation is particularly important when the two hosts are talking over one another, which happens occasionally, as in their sign-off phrase: “And just keep singing.” Or when they are actually singing together. Ulus turns the sound up and the pair can be heard singing “No no no, noooo” from the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” — which is some really weird English phrasing, if you think about it.
The podcast helps its listeners think about it.
McNaught listens to the results of one sound adjustment: “Oh yeah, that’s the zone.”
“I think that last ‘Nooo’ may be way too high,” Ulus says. “I don’t know — did it sound good to you?
“As good as we ever sound,” McNaught: says. But she believes the singing is “very motivating for the listener” — who can be found in 48 countries.
“We get faculty coming in who have a lot of good stories to tell,” says Media Creation Lab honcho Max Glider — officially manager of classroom services for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Film and Media Studies faculty member who teaches “Elements of Audio Production.” “We like to help everybody with their projects.”
Lately that has included Provost Ann Cudd, who recorded her first podcast episode last month, “From the Office of the Provost.”
Besides podcasting, the lab can help faculty record video lectures for asynchronous presentation (very popular during the earlier part of the COVID pandemic). Lab personnel can teach you how to add videos to a lecture (using Panopto) and how to use their advanced tablet to work on equations or add graphics to a recorded piece.
And all of this can be done live from the lab as well. Lab staff can come to classrooms to record lectures too, he notes, but you’ll get a higher quality production from in-studio work. “So it can look and sound the best it can be,” he says.
Lab staff also visit classes to talk about the lab and its capabilities, on faculty request. Glider and lab staff members are always reviewing the equipment processes to update their documentation and tips, he adds. But “we’re teaching these folks to fish,” he emphasizes, so they can complete projects on their own.
The toughest part of using the lab is not mastering any software — it’s microphone technique, Glider says. “I tell people, imagine you’re talking to a small group.” The lab lets you practice everything from the proper distance from lips to mic to “coming up with your broadcaster voice. It’s the microphone confidence and presence that takes time for people to build.
“We are trying to explore finding larger spaces” to expand the lab in the future, he adds. That will allow the lab’s lightboard to be returned to use. It is a 4-by-8-foot pane of glass that can be filmed through as a presenter writes on it with special markers. “Math and physics professors just love it,” Glider says. “We’re going to be dedicating a room to it” in the future.
He also plans to increase the number of available microphones – currently four – to accommodate, for instance, the debate club or other larger groups. He wants to improve the soundproofing too, since Alumni Hall is an old building and its busy lobby sits right above the lab.
Below that lobby, on another spring morning, part of the Welcomed by Design podcast is being recorded by host Lynn Priestley, who was set to graduate with a degree in Digital Narrative and Interactive Design (DNID) — a joint program of the School of Computing and Information and the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences. On hand today is also executive producer Jessica FitzPatrick, English faculty member and DNID director.
They’ve interviewed guests from all over the country — remotely — about “design that welcomes more than one kind of mind and body,” as Priestley put it in one episode, “welcoming diversity through the front door” rather than via a makeshift ramp into the back door.
Lab software allows them to generate an automatic transcript of each episode, and “having transcripts is one of the big things podcasts can do accessibility-wise,” Priestley says. Of course the transcripts need to be edited by a human. “At one point it had Dr. Fitz meowing,” Priestley recalls of one such transcript. Another misheard a bit of English as Korean, she reports.
The podcast came about when the pair were preparing an inclusive course design proposal and realized all those experts they were interviewing should have their views aired today. They have already seen Pitt faculty using podcast episodes in courses.
“I don’t think either of us knew how much work this was going to be,” Priestley says. But they found Glider’s early lab tutorials tremendously helpful. “It was very personalized,” she says of Glider’s assistance, showing them how to navigate studio features on the fly. “He’s been a really important supporter of the project,” she adds. “And he found us one of our designers.”
In fact, she says, “Max has made me into a bit of an audio snob” about using only dynamic mics, which record sounds only from close up: “It makes the sound designer’s life much easier. It doesn’t pick up background tones.”
Priestley launches into the recording, reading her script and enunciating more than normal as she talks about accessibility for neurodiverse gamers and how to improve graphic icon diversity beyond the wheelchair symbol; “user testing” versus “co-design”; how glasses have moved from medical devices to fashion; that the invention of disability rights can be traced to the Revolutionary War pension requests; and technoableism.
FitzPatrick is recording her part from home and is visible on Priestley’s screen. They pause to plan the next segment and debate name pronunciations. Then Priestley interviews FitzPatrick, but it’s more like an impromptu conversation. They are excited about having interviewed someone who worked with the Muppets on “Sesame Street.”
“One of the best things about working at Pitt: when you realize how many resources are available to support you,” FitzPatrick says. When these podcasters were talking on mic, it was as if they were alone together. Apparently there’s been some mastery of microphone technique over this first season of the podcast.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.