Thursday, July 28, 2011

Simple Tweaks and Game Changers

This morning, I had the chance to sit down and play with my "new toy". As many of you know, one of the things I do each week is that I produce and edit the "This Week in Software Testing" podcast for Software Test Professionals. What you may not know is that I've worked with a portable and, for the most part, shoe-string environment, consisting of a simple USB microphone and a PC, using Audacity as the editing and production environment. This has been partly for necessity (I want to keep the environment portable) but also with the goal of keeping costs down (after all, when I started, I didn't know how long this would last or how many total episodes we would do). To this end, I've used a simple USB Logitech desktop microphone for the past year. For the record, it worked very well for very little money. I wouldn't call it a "studio grade" microphone by any means, but for what we've been doing, it got the job done :).

After producing a year's worth of shows, I decided it was time to make a jump up in microphone standards... actually, a slight mishap with the Logitech microphone necessitated the change.  By slight mishap, I mean I tipped over the mic stand I was using to hold it at a more natural level for me, and it sheared the plastic capsule. It still works, but the base now just dangles by the wire that leads to the microphone element. Could I fix it with some glue and some electrical tape? Sure, but with this happening, and looking at the future landscape for podcast recording and the time I invest in the process, I figured "oh what the heck, why not upgrade the microphone?!"

Sidereel does a fair amount of video production and also does some audio work that requires some "after the fact" voice over work. Since they are in the practice of doing daily recording and editing, I decided to ask what they use. It turns out they use a Blue Microphones Snowball, which is a mid priced USB microphone that plugs straight into a Mac or PC (or with an adapter can plug straight into a mixing board). It has three separate pickup patterns that can be selected and, in their estimation, is well suited for doing voice over work.

Due to the fact that I do a lot of keyboard checking and hand-level checking on my PC (i.e. my PC is my recording environment and my mixer, and I don't have the luxury of an isolated or quiet control room), I also decided to invest in a shock mount, which isolates the microphone from bounces and picking up transient noises or vibrations. Combined, this makes for a formidable tabletop microphone, stand and shock ring, with very near professional broadcast quality sound, and the whole rig cost less that $100.

It took me a little while to sit down with it and get its quirks worked out. It gives a much better sound pickup, which means my normal seating, projection, and delivery also had to be changed (lower quality mics have a certain charm in that they don't pick up all of the ambient noise or the little clicks and ticks of the movement of a speaker's mouth like this microphone does).

This reminded me that, often, when we add a new tool or a new piece of knowledge to our arsenal, we have the ability of really changing our game and doing things differently, and by necessity, we need do things differently. When I started using Cucumber to automate tests a couple of months ago, it by necessity required that I change my way of thinking about how to automate tests. The very nature of the tests I was responsible for (being able to make sure that our development environment and development changes capably made the transition from development machines out to the production environment, with two intermediate steps in between) also required that I look at my testing differently, and to realize that methods and approaches that worked for one group of developers and testers would, by necessity, require a different approach and level of thinking in this case. All it takes is one element, one change in our environment, and our adjustment to work with it can radically alter our approach and our every day efforts.

For the podcast recordings, I hope this will give me the opportunity to tackle more voice over options with better quality. In my day to day testing, it's my hope that I'll get to play with more that Cucumber, RSpec and Ruby can offer so I can be more effective in my active testing. New toys make for new ways of thinking. While the toy may be the catalyst, ultimately it's our brains and our reactions that make them work effectively... so go and do likewise :).


Rebecca Fiedler said...

"While the toy may be the catalyst, ultimately it's our brains and our reactions that make them work effectively... "

A well-known educational psychologist uses the phrase "mind tools" to talk/write about tools that specifically prop up our thinking. And, there is a fascinating theoretical framework that helps look at how tools impact the way humans work. It's called Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). Cem and I talked about it at CAST 2009(I think it was 2009). (Proceedings seem not to be posted at the AST website for that year).

Unknown said...

Because the microphone looks more professional, do you feel more professional when talking into it?
Does that raise the quality of the podcasts regardless if the mic actually "is" better?

I'm sure there's some placebo effect working here as well and for the better. I experienced this myself at least.

Michael Larsen said...

@Rebecca, I'd be interested in seeing that article :).

Michael Larsen said...

@Thomas, it's entirely possible. Ican say one thing for sure, it's a *lot* more fun to talk into it... I feel like a professional broadcaster when I do :).