A logistical report from the midst of a podcasting project - mostly about mics, some thoughts on punk

We're approaching the final week of the Mad Props Project, students have recorded a lot of tape and are starting to record narration, and today most (but not all) of the computers stopped recognizing one of the yetis (those are mics, for the uninitiated) and at least one computer appeared to have stopped recognizing all of the yetis. 

So I have some observations and thoughts about the technical aspects of recording with students.

1. The existential nightmare of the unrecognized device

Two different yetis are now in some state of non-functionality. One (donated, which means trying to claim warranty will be complicated) just stopped responding entirely. The light on the mute button that indicates that the Yeti is alive and communicating just doesn't come on. I've tried different cords, different USB ports, different laptops, and both mac and PC and I'm getting nothing. No idea what to do about that (and the internet hasn't been forthcoming either). 

The second problem yeti plugs in, lights up, and then doesn't register with the computer, which (I eventually realized) acknowledges its existence on a not-immediately-obvious window as an "unrecognized USB device" (or something like that), but refuses to go any further. A former student checked it with all the PC laptops and found that it worked with exactly two laptops.

I'm hoping our IT guy will be able to solve this, but I sure can't, and it raises an interesting issue: updates get pushed out to our laptops from IT central, and even our IT guy doesn't know when they'll come or what exactly they'll do, so it's possible that an update led these laptops to lose whatever driver they need in order to recognize the Yeti (I don't really understand PCs). So what this means, I now realize, is that any hardware that plugs directly into a school laptop is at the mercy of whatever changes in the world of school IT. Now, I suspect that if, say, a new Mac operating system rendered the yeti non-functional, it would be the first thing you read about when you googled "Blue Yeti", and Yeti would be scrambling to tell us all how to fix it. But HTHCV upgrades don't get the same kind of press, so I'm adrift. 

2. The delicate flower that is the mini-usb cable

The yeti is a USB mic. It has a mini-USB port in its base, and then plugs into the USB port on a computer. The mic itself is attached to the base in such a way that you can rock it back and forth - and, without much difficulty, guillotine the mini-USB cable, bending or even shearing off its head so it ends up looking like this:

This has happened A LOT to our students. To be honest, I've nearly done it myself. I'm going to go out on a limb and call it a design flaw.

3. Punk Rock PBL vs. Equipment

I want to share my favorite quote about education, which comes from the song "Try this at Home" by Frank Turner:

The only thing that punk rock should ever really mean

is not sitting 'round and waiting for the lights to go green.

What I love most about being a project-based teacher is when kids make a project their own, and start figuring out their own solutions and workarounds. So, for example, since this project started students have asked if they can go find a quiet room to record, left with a mic, got permission from another teacher to use an empty room, and recorded. Last week, two students who'd secured an interview with someone on the east coast interviewed her by huddling together outside the door of the school, using a telephone mic. The audio from that won't be pristine, but they looked around, decided outside was better for background noise than in, and got it done. I don't think there's any better sign that a project is "working" than students DIYing solutions like this. 

The downside is that stuff gets broken. Now, had I declared that my makeshift office studio, with its one mic and "studio-in-a-box" sound insulator, was the only place anyone could do interviews or record narration, I could probably safeguard my equipment better. I also would have lost a huge amount of time, because only one group would ever have been recording at a time. 

I was thinking about this a lot today, because throughout this project my feeling has been "students just need to treat the yetis really carefully, and every busted usb cable is a sign of their shortcomings (and therefore of mine, as a teacher, for failing to make them conscientious). But take a moment to consider the following: which do I want to cultivate more in my students - a punk-rock 'I can figure this out for myself' attitude, or a careful and tentative approach to using equipment? Obviously, I want them to be punk rock about this.* 

4. Let's hear it for XLR

And once I realized this, something else occurred to me: I'd been laboring under the assumption that USBs were the default connector of microphones. This is insane. XLR is the default connector of microphones. And how many XLR mics have I seen get knocked over onstage? How many times have I dropped my sax mic? Sooooooooooo many. And they tend to do great. So there is a durable audio technology - the industry standard. Another great thing about XLR? It doesn't require any software for a mixing board to recognize that a mic has been plugged into it. 

So next year I'm planning to get a couple of XLR mics, run them to a mixer and thence into a digital recorder, and then (I think - stop me if this seems dumb) transfer files from the recorder to the squad's laptop via SD card. I'm thinking that an mp3 on a SD card is more likely to be reliably recognized by computers than a yeti is. 


*Just to be clear, I think there's a separate issue about using tools properly and treating them with respect - for example, practices like holding laptops by the monitor, or absent-mindedly whipping laptops up and down in your hands while conversing with a friend so the monitor swings open and shut, are to be discouraged.