VLC for the Language Classroom

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Last week, I did a technology workshop for a group of language teachers and one of the things we covered was the free open source software, VLC. For those who are not familiar with this program, it is a multimedia player for most computers that recognizes almost every type of audio and video file you throw at it. It has saved me a number of times in the language classroom and has become my go-to application for media files. Here are some of the things it can do:

Installing:


Question: I have my computer and speakers set at the loudest setting, but it is still too quiet. How can I make it louder?

Answer: Open the file in VLC and then adjust the volume in the bottom-right corner of the window. You can only increase the volume by an additional 25% this way, but you can increase it even more by using the hotkeys.

  • Windows and Linux: Ctrl key and the up or down arrow keys
  • Mac: Command key and the up or down arrow keys

VLC Increase Audio

Question: The speaking in the video/audio file I am using is a little too fast for my lower level students. How do I slow down the audio without changing pitch?

Answer: VLC has this feature built into the player. The speed adjustment only affects the playback and will not change the original file.

  • Windows or Linux: Open the file in VLC and turn on the Status Bar (click on View -> Status Bar). Click on the ‘1.00x’ at the bottom of the screen and then move the slider back and forth to increase or decrease the speed.

VLC Status Bar

VLC Slow Down Audio

  • Mac: Open the file in VLC and click on Playback in the menu bar and then use the slider under Playback Speed.

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Question: The video is too long and I only want a section of it. How can I create a small clip from a section of my video?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC. There is a work around for Mac, but it isn’t very easy.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to record, simply click on the record button once to start and again to stop recording. The new video file will appear in the Videos Library folder.

VLC Advanced Menu

VLC Recorder

Question: I want to keep repeating a section of my audio/video file so my students can hear/watch it over and over again. How can I do that?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to repeat, simply click on the A-B Loop button once to set the start point and when you get to the end, simply press it again. This will keep repeating this section until you press the A-B Loop button one more time. You can set this up ahead of time and simply pause the video or audio file until you are ready to play it.

VLC Loop Button

Question: I want to skip to different sections of my media file. How can I set this up?

Answer: VLC makes use of bookmarks which can be saved for later use.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Playback -> Custom Bookmarks -> Manage). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Create button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on Media -> Save Playlist to File

VLC Using bookmarks

  • Mac: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Windows -> Bookmarks). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Add button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on File -> Save Playlist

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Let me know if there are any other tips you would like to add to this list.

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Audacity vs. Ocenaudio – Comparing Free Audio Editor Programs

Image courtesy of Kris S.

Image courtesy of Kris S.

If you have been involved in language teaching for any length of time, you have probably had some experience in using the free, open-source audio program, Audacity. In fact, for some schools, this is installed on all of the lab computers and is the primary audio recorder for both students and teachers. It comes in various versions, such as a portable version you can take with you on your USB drive, and for multiple platforms, such as Mac and Windows.

Recently, I have come across the free, but not open-source, audio editor Ocenaudio that is also cross-platform, but for myself is a much more user-friendly offering for those wishing to record and edit audio on their computer. Because of this, I have decided to do my first head-to-head software comparison by looking at the installation, features, and usability of these two apps.

Audacity

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Cost: Completely free. Audacity is open source which means that it can be adapted by anyone who wants to tweak or change the source code. In other words, it has been created over time by a whole lot of people working apart, yet together on the same project. The advantage to this is that if anything goes wrong, anyone can fix it. Also, since there is no company involved, there is no fear that the support will dry up.

Installation:

  • Windows (Option 1): Download the main installer (23MB) and run the installer. You will need administration rights to do this.
  • Windows (Option 2): Download the ZIP file of the installer (9MB) and uncompress the file and then run the installer. You will need administration rights to run the installer.
  • Windows (Option 3): Download the portable version from PortableApps (21MB) and run the installer to uncompress and copy to a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. You can get around the administration rights problem doing it this way, but it takes longer to boot up each time (minimal) and you can’t associate file types with it (ie. you can’t make Windows always open certain file types with it simply by double-clicking on the file. You will need to start Audacity and then open the file that way).
  • Mac (Option 1): Download the DMG file (33MB) and open the DMG file (click or double-click depending on where you do this) and copy (ie. drag-and-drop) the Audacity folder to the Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense).
  • Mac (Option 2): Download the ZIP file (15MB) and open the file (click or double-click depending on where you do this) and then move the folder to the Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense). Note that this option does not have the help files with it.
  • Additional installation: For either the Mac or Windows version, you will need to install the LAME plug in if you want to export (ie. save) your work as an MP3 file. Since most devices (computers, portable audio players, phones, and so on) can play MP3 files, this is highly recommended. In order to do that, you will need to download the LAME plugin and run the installer (Mac or Windows). Once that is done, you will be able to export any file as an MP3 file.
Basic Features:
  • Recording: Once you open Audacity, you will be presented with the main window with buttons, drop-down menus, and the main audio channels. It can be very overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to audio editing or the options that you are presented with. To do a simple audio recording, you need to choose the audio host, the output and input devices, and the input channels. Once that is okay, you can simply press the Record button to start and the Stop button to stop.
  • Cutting: If you have just recorded something, you will see the waveform of the file in the central window. To edit, simply click-and-drag over the area you would like to delete and press play to hear if that is okay. If you need to adjust, simply move either end of the selection and play to check again. Once you are satisfied that you would like to remove that section, simply hit the delete key and that section will be discarded and the remaining two sections will merge. If you are editing an imported file (ex. MP3) file, Audacity has to encode it as a lossless file before editing and then re-encodes the file, losing quality along the way.
  • Adding: Select the area you would like to copy from by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Copy or cut that section (I use hotkeys, but you can also use the Edit menu or right-click on the mouse and select copy or cut) and then click in the area you would like to insert the new section and paste your selection.
  • Adjusting the audio for a section: Select the area you would like to adjust the volume by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Along the top menu, choose Effect and then Amplify. Adjust the slider up or down and click on OK to apply the changes. If the OK button greys out (ie. you can’t click on it), either adjust your slider since you have put it up too much and part of the audio wave will be cut off (ie. clipped), or select the ‘Allow Clipping’ option and then OK.
  • Saving: You can save an recording or editing project as an Audacity file, allowing you to continue working on it at a later time. Once you are finished, you can export the product in various formats including MP3 if you have the LAME plugin installed (see above).

Usability / Design: Audacity is an older program (started in 1999) and the design has basically remained unchanged over that time. It was designed to be a full-featured audio editor for those who were familiar with all of the terms and features of a full blown audio editor. As a result, the design is a bit overwhelming for the average user and also a bit clunky to operate. To be perfectly honest, it is ugly. I don’t expect it to be super stylish, but the design often works against the usage and makes it more difficult to use than necessary. After saying that, at least it is consistent. Once a person learns how to use it, future updates should remain familiar if the past is any indication. There is something to be said about not having to re-learn everything with a new update (I’m looking at you Microsoft!).

Ocenaudio

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Cost: Completely free. Ocenaudio is not open source, but did start off with a research group in a Brazilian university needed an app for a specific project. Therefore, it can not be adapted or changed by anyone outside of that group. If the group wants to kill the project or start charging for it or any part of it, they can. The likelihood of this is remote, but something to consider.

Installation:

  • Windows: Download the installer (16-18MB) and run it. You will need administration rights to run the installer.
  • Mac: Download the DMG file (22MB) and copy the app to your Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense).
Basic Features:
  • Recording: Upon opening Ocenaudio, you are presented with a very clean, minimalistic main window with a few buttons, a file window on the left, and a audio window in the centre. It looks very easy to use, even for those who are not accustomed to audio editing. To do a simple audio recording, simply press the Record button to start and a menu for the sample rate, channels, and resolution options drops down. Click on ‘OK’ to start recording, and then click on the Record button to stop recording.
  • Cutting: If you have just recorded something, you will see the waveform of the file in the central window. To edit, simply click-and-drag over the area you would like to delete and press play to hear if that is okay. If you need to adjust, simply move either end of the selection and play to check again. Once you are satisfied that you would like to remove that section, simply hit the delete key and that section will be discarded and the remaining two sections will merge. If you are editing an imported file (ex. MP3) file, Ocenaudio doesn’t require re-encoding, making it faster and simpler as well as cleaner since the audio is compressed multiple times.
  • Adding: Select the area you would like to copy from by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Copy or cut that section (I use hotkeys, but you can also use the Edit menu or right-click on the mouse and select copy or cut) and then click in the area you would like to insert the new section and paste your selection.
  • Adjusting the audio for a section: Select the area you would like to adjust the volume by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Along the top menu, choose Effects and then Amplitude and Gain. Adjust the slider left or right and click on OK to apply the changes.
  • Saving: You can save an recording or editing project in various formats including MP3 (no plug in required).

Usability / Design: Ocenaudio is a new program and the design certainly shows that. The interface is welcoming, clean, and easy to use. It feels familiar for those who are used to using similar programs. Instead of opening multiple windows, each file is listed along the left-hand side, making it easier to toggle between them. Also, the lack of buttons makes it simpler for those who just want to record, edit, and save.

Conclusion

After using Audacity for many years, I am aware of the quirks and benefits of this fairly well known program. Ocenaudio is a newcomer to this market, but a welcome one. From what I can see, Ocenaudio is more than capable of handling what language learners and instructors need in an audio recorder / editor, making it more user friendly to install and use. Where Audacity still has an edge is in the area of portability. If you have to switch computers all of the time and don’t have the recorder installed on all of those machines, the portable version of Audacity is a handy friend to have in your bag. After saying that, it isn’t very often that I have this problem and I suspect that is the same for most instructors. If that is the case, I would lean towards Ocenaudio as my main audio editor.

The Incredible Shrinking Video!: Resize Videos Using Miro VideoConverter

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Whenever I have students create a video either through screencasting or on their mobile device, I end up with the problem of someone trying to send or upload a massive file that gets rejected by the server, not to mention the amount of time and bandwidth taken up in the process. Thankfully, there is a simple, free solution that works on almost any computer: Miro VideoConverter. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to shrink the size of the videos while still maintaining decent quality and also making it accessible my as many devices and possible.

Downloading and installing Miro Video Converter:

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  • Go to the Miro VideoConverter website and click on the ‘Download Miro VideoConverter’ button and allow the file to be downloaded to your computer.
  • Run the installer. This will be different for the various versions of Windows or Mac. For Mac, it comes as a disc image (.dmg). Just open the image and copy the application to the Applications folder. For Windows, run the executable file (.exe) to install.

Converting videos:

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  • Run the Miro Video Converter program and you will see a grey box like the one above.

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  • Drag a video file into the box or click on ‘Choose Files…’ and select a file to convert.  Your video should appear in the box like the image above. You can add more than one video.

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  • Select the video output you would like by clicking on a button at the bottom. I choose Apple and then iPod Touch 4+ since this is the most compatible with smartphones, tablets, and computers. I want my students to be able to view the video on whatever device they would like.

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  • Click on the ‘Convert Now’ button to start the process. You will see an indicator showing how much has been done.

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  • Once it has finished, you can click on ‘Show File’ to see the video on your computer. You can watch it to make sure it plays properly before posting it for your students.

Notes:

  • You will lose some quality and your video may be cropped slightly. If this happens, choose a different format and do it again.
  • You can extract the audio as an MP3 if you click on ‘Format’ and then ‘Audio’.

I hope that helps! Feel free to post a comment below or send me a message through the contact page on this site or tweet me at @nathanghall. Thank you!