Wednesday, June 20, 2007

TSI: iPods

The iPod class was an optional afternoon class, and 4 faculty signed up. This was promoted as a beginner's class. Some faculty already had iPods, and justifiably did not attend. I wanted complete kits for all 4 participants, but only had two, so I borrowed from my team members and from our "new pool". To the left, below, is our complete "iPod Kit".

It includes: 30 GB iPod, iPod case, iPod-to-USB cable, earbuds, AC adapter, Belkin TuneTalk mic, Belkin mic-to-USB cable, written list of kit contents (to help ensure everything is returned), and printed instructions from our wiki, on Recording Voice Memos and Audio

I had prepared the one-hour program beforehand and outlined it in our team wiki. This was displayed on the classroom's LCD projector, alternating between it and iTunes, when appropriate. I had distributed a set of full headphones with each iPod Kit, I prefer them to earbuds for the purpose of instruction. Each faculty member had an iPod Kit, the headphones, and a computer with the latest copy of iTunes.

Unfortunately, my time management again suffered a bit. I had alloted an hour for instruction, and we had to leave the classroom for another use after the hour. I had placed an audio CD at each computer, and wanted to put the faculty through the process of importing a track in iTunes, and then moving it to their iPod. We ran out of time for this, so I just spoke about how it is done. We did have time to record a voice memo with the Belkin mic, and move it from the iPod to iTunes, which is probably more important.

I also did not have time to explain the differences between Mac and PC formatting, how to use the iPod hard drive as a storage device (though this is fairly self-explanatory), and explain a bit better what I consider to be the "heart" of iTunes, its compression engine controlled in the Preferences.

However, the faculty felt the class was very useful. None had any experience with iPods before, we covered most of the important features and procedures, and 95% of the program. The podcasting aspects were to be covered at a later class, attended by all faculty, so they were not addressed.


We had previously tested three iPod mics: the Belkin, the MicroMemo, and the Griffin iTalk, and found the Belkin to provide the best quality. This was determined not only by listening tests, but also by comparing the recorded audio waveforms. The Belkin recorded at a slightly higher volume than the MicroMemo, this is important as often the speaker is further from the mic than the optimal 1-3 feet. The Griffin recorded at the same sensitivity as the Belkin, but had a higher internal noise level, see below (click to enlarge).

These tests were conducted when each model first came out. They probably need to be conducted again, as manufacturers often tweak their products over time. Any of the three models will provide adequate quality for plain voice recording if you are a few feet from the mic.

The Belkin has a useful additional feature: a built-in USB port and included USB cable. This can provide power to the mic and iPod, to extend the recording time beyone the usual 3 hours or so, and can be connected to either a computer or AC adapter. This cable can also be used to synchronize the iPod to a computer.

I found some nice plastic boxes at AC Moore, seen in the first image. You get two, a larger one and a smaller one, for $2.99. The larger one is just the right size for our iPod Kit, and the smaller one is a good size for our Samson AL1/AM1 Wireless Mic Kit. This is shown at the right in the above image. The wireless receiver connects to the Belkin Tune-Talk, which is connected to the iPod, and the mic/transmitter can be clipped to the speaker. Then, no matter where in the room the speaker is, a good signal is recorded to the iPod.

We usually set up the levels in the wireless transmiter/receiver beforehand for faculty, with a small included plastic screwdriver. We do need to write up and include some simple usage instructions in our kits.

Often faculty come in and ask for a portable speaker to use with their iPods, to play back audio selections to their class. We were very happy with the JBL On Stage, which has a nifty remote that controls the iPod as an optional accessory. However, the JBL needs to be plugged into an AC outlet, and we wanted a truly portable but inexpensive system. After much research, we settled on the $100 Altec Lansing inMotion, shown below. It is battery powered, and comes with all the different iPod adapters, but we usually just stick our iPods in it without one. The volume is only moderately loud, but is adequate for a class of 30 or 40 students. I don't think any of the small portable systems provide actual "hi-fi" quality, but they are fine for non-critical audio and music sharing.

There must be 70 different protective cases available for the iPod, we like the Marware and Body Glove products in the $20-30 range, but there are other good manufacturers. These models are changing all the time. For those on a tight budget, there are several $10 "soft sleeve" products available.

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