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The DigiCam Chronicles: Sound Is Half the Picture

by Derrick Story, author of the Digital Photography Pocket Guide

As digital photographers, we spend lots of time capturing, organizing, and ultimately sharing our images with others. For this installment of the DigiCam Chronicles, it's the sharing I want to focus on -- specifically, enhancing those presentations by adding audio voiceover to them.

You may have heard the old filmmaker's adage, "sound is half the picture." Amen to that! Do a few informal tests with the audio muted and you'll hear what I mean. (More precisely, you won't hear what I mean.)

Of course, it's not like we're totally deaf to this situation. Thanks to iPhoto, most of us are already adding music to our slideshows and that's a tremendous improvement. But sometimes we need to impart more information than the lyrics from a Britney Spears song to get our point across. This is where voiceovers come to play.

Today I'm going to show you three different types of projects where voiceover is a true enhancement to the visuals:

Sound interesting? It does to me. So let's get our equipment together and make some noise.

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Sound Gear for Mac OS X

After much experimentation, I've settled on this set of tools for my voiceover work in Mac OS X. You can use existing tools such as your computer's built-in mic and iMovie for recording sound. But there are some tradeoffs in both quality and efficiency. If you don't want to invest a few extra bucks to upgrade, use what's at hand and have fun -- after all, that's what it's all about, right?

GriffiniMic and Radio
Shack Headphones.
For around $50 you can buy a portable, high quality audio-in system for your Mac OS X computer. Shown here is the Griffin iMic with a Radio Shack multimedia stereo headset.

But I've found that I can work faster, cleaner, and produce better stuff using the items listed below. Pick and choose as you wish.

As I mentioned earlier, you can create workarounds with just about everything in this list except the Pro version of QuickTime. In fact, if you have developed a low-cost audio recording system for Mac OS X, tell us about it in the TalkBacks at the end of the article. I'm sure others would like to read about it.

The Audio Postcard

If you try nothing else from today's article, make one of these. Simply put, you record a friendly message and attach it to a picture, preferably an image of you having fun. When you first read how to do this, it might seem like a lot of work for creating such a simple product. But most of the work is setting up your system the first time. Once your tools are configured, you can make one of these postcards in just a few minutes. To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, here's an example.

This audio postcard includes a 20-second message with two pictures and is less than 250kb -- an easily downloadable attachment even for dial up recipients.

To create the postcard, first export your photo(s) out of iPhoto using the Export command. I recommend you use a 320 x 240 pixel dimension to keep the file size down. Crop your pictures as necessary to give them the strongest impact at those dimensions.

Then open QuickTime Pro. If you're creating a single image postcard, simply open the JPG in QuickTime -- it will create a one-frame movie from your picture. If you want to add two images like my example, use the "Open Image Sequence" command under the File Menu. (If you need more explanation about how to manage image sequences, see my article Soccer Salsa for step by step instructions.)

Screen shot.
Use the Open Image Sequence Command in QuickTime Pro to create multiple image postcards.

For Audio postcards, I like to leave each image on the screen longer than for normal slideshows, so I choose "10 seconds per frame" from the frame rate dropdown window.

Screen shot.
After you choose Open Image Sequence in QuickTime Pro, you'll need to choose the frame rate for you images. For audio postcards I like 10 seconds per frame.

Now that you have your video together, it's time to add the audio. Plug in your iMic and microphone, then open the Sound panel in your System Preferences, click on the Input tab, and choose "iMic USB audio system." I've made a little QuickTime movie to show you this process.

You could use iMovie instead to record your voiceover, but I prefer QuickVoice. Before you record, you have to tell it what type of audio input you want to use. In Quickvoice, open "Sound Preferences" under the Edit menu, and make the following selections:

Now open your QuickTime video sequence and place it along side the QuickVoice controller. Click the record button on QuickVoice (to begin recording), then click the play button on the movie, and start talking while the movie is playing. That way your voiceover will correspond to your pictures.

Remember, you can do as many takes as you want. Speak clearly and with zest. Keep it simple so you're not trying to cram 300 words in a 100 word space. Talk about the kind of things you'd like to hear if you were the viewer.

After making your recording, open the "Message Palette" in QuickVoice (Tools -> Message Palette). Your audio clip will be there in the "Draggable Item" box. Hold down the Option key and drag it to the Desktop or your work folder.

Open the file in QuickTime (just double-click) and trim it to the same length as the video in your audio postcard. Choose "Select All," then "Copy," to add the audio clip to your clipboard. Now click on the video file and make sure the you're at the beginning of the movie. Use the "Add Scaled" command (or Add if your audio clip is shorter than the video). QuickTime will add the soundtrack to your pictures. If you were to use Paste instead of Add, QuickTime would replace the video with the audio, instead of adding to it.

Jackpot! You now have a cool audio postcard. Choose "Save As" and make sure that the "Make movie self-contained" radio button is selected. Give your card a descriptive name, then attach to an email.

The card will play on any Mac or PC that has QuickTime installed. It's a hoot. Send one to a friend tonight.

Digicam Movies

You can make interesting little videos with your digital camera using the QuickTime movie function. The problem is that you're stuck with that lousy audio recorded with the camera's built-in microphone. Yuck!

But there's hope. Capture and stitch together your video clips as normal. But add one more step: the voiceover. If you need a refresher on how to capture and edit movies with your digicam, take a look at "Digital Still Cameras for QuickTime Movies," Part One and Part Two for more information.

Here's an example of a 12-second movie that has camera-recorded audio (as ambient sound), plus an additional voiceover track. To hear what a difference the voiceover makes, play the movie again with the audio turned off.

You can add the voiceover to your mini-movie using the same procedure as you did for the audio postcard. But I have an additional trick for you here. Often the ambient sound your digicam records is too loud and competes with the voiceover. In QuickTime Pro, you can easily adjust the volume for each track until you get just the right blend.

Once you've added your voiceover audio, open "Get Movie Properties" under "Movie." In the dropdown menu on the left, you'll see that you have two soundtracks. The first soundtrack is what your camera recorded, and the second is the voiceover you added.

Choose the first soundtrack and select Volume from the right dropdown menu. Play the movie and adjust the sound for the first track until it is at the level you want. Then repeat this process with the second sound track. Soon you'll have the perfect blend of audio.

Screen shot.
You can turn down the camera's recorded sound as far as you want in Movie Properties.

Screen shot.
And you can make your voiceover track as loud as you want. The trick is to find the perfect balance of ambient and voiceover audio.

Again, use the Save As command and be sure to select the "Make movie self-contained" radio button.

Screenshot Animations

Would you like to create killer online tutorials that are better than all others? By combining what you've learned to this point about audio, with Snapz Pro X video, you can show and tell your audience how to get something done on their Macs.

If you haven't already, you might want to take a look at my sound preferences example that walks you through the process of enabling the iMic USB audio system on your Mac.

Snapz Pro X allows you to record actions on your screen and save them as QuickTime movies. Once you have your silent movie, you can replay it a second time while recording the voiceover with QuickVoice, then combine the tracks just as you have with the other projects.

By doing so, you have a powerful teaching tool at your disposal.

Final Tips

I know by now you have more than enough to keep you busy until the next installment of the DigiCam Chronicles. Here are a few additional tips I learned that might be useful for you too.

Related Articles

The DigiCam Chronicles: Assignment Macworld -- This is the first installment of a series dedicated to taking great digital images in a variety of settings. Today's stop: San Francisco for great architecture and interesting people shots from Macworld Expo. This photo essay includes 10 images with notes on how they were captured, plus a QuickTime movie.

Top Ten Digital Photography Tips -- You have a digital camera and have taken the typical shots of family and friends. Now what? Here are ten tips to make your next batch of digital images so impressive that people will ask: "Hey, what type of camera do you have?" Guess what? It's not the camera.

First, there's no need to go out and spend a bundle on a high-priced microphone. In fact, sometimes they don't work as well as the inexpensive computer mics you can get at any Radio Shack. If you want to learn a bit more about the different types of microphones, take a look at this How Stuff Works article. I used an inexpensive mic for all of the examples in this article.

Another tip is that you can add as many soundtracks as you want to your QuickTime videos and control their respective volumes via Movie Properties. It's really worth the time to learn about QuickTime functionality such as Enable Tracks, Delete Tracks, etc. For simple projects, you can work faster directly in QuickTime itself, rather than other bigger applications such as iMovie. To learn more about mastering QuickTime, check out Apple's QuickTime online tutorials.

Finally, if you feel inspired to try something right now, then do it. Don't wait until you have all the proper tools in place to begin. You can upgrade to QuickTime Pro instantly; everything else you can fake. This article, and others like it, are to help you continually improve your art, not present a barrier to it.

Until next time, keep your batteries charged and your camera ready.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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