Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Mandarin Audiocassettes for an iPod

By Dennis D. McDonald

When we took Number One Daughter to Freshmen Orientation at Virginia Tech, we stopped by the bookstore to pick up some of her books.

One of her courses is introductory Mandarin; she had been unable to get into the intermediate Spanish class she qualified for, and we have been encouraging her interest in Mandarin Chinese, so this was an opportunity.

There were three items for the Mandarin course on the shelf: the textbook, an audio CD, and a set of 4 two-sided audiocassette tapes.

We asked about the audiocassette. "We know that's strange but that's what they sent us."

I figured we could dig up an audiocassette player, but I said, "Hey, we'll ask the media production firm her older brother is working for this summer to convert them to CD's so we can put them on her iPod."

Easier said than done. Bottom line, I ended up doing the job myself. It turned out to be easier than I had thought, but a lot more tedious given my "amateur" status with digital conversion.

The first thing I tried was feeding a line from the phone jack to the microphone input on my Windows laptop (I figured this would be easier with a Mac but sometimes you have to play the hand you're dealt.)

That didn't work. The built in Windows XP audio capture wouldn't run the length of the recording. But then I remembered that last year I had purchased Roxio's Digital Media Suite 7, which is sort of a "swiss army knife" program suite that contains a variety of capture utilities.

I had bought it in anticipation of converting a stack of old LP's to CD but had never gotten around to the task. In the meantime I had replaced my old computer and the software was nowhere to be found. Luckily I had saved Roxio's purchase acknowledgement email so I went to the Roxio website, typed in the purchase codes, and waited while I downloaded a 960MB (!) software install file. (Thank you, Roxio, for saving my registration inofrmation!)

After dinner the software had completed downloading. I ran the installer. That went pretty smoothly although I could find out no way not to install the Napster program that is now a part of the Roxio suite. But no matter; the tools for capturing externally sourced audio are self explanatory and I got to work with the four Mandarin audio tapes.

The process was tedious. There was no way to autodetect the beginning of separate lessons; autodetecting silences produced breaks every minute or so and there were, it turned out, only 14 lessons spaced over the 4 tapes. The audiocassette packages contained no English descriptions of each tape's contents, so listening was the only option. Fortunately, each lesson was introduced in English with a brief statement like "Lesson One" with the rest in Mandarin Chinese.

So the trick was to listen for the statements "Lesson One," "Lesson Two," and so on. Sigh. This is where the waveform display came in handy. While there was no way to tell from the waveform display which of several male and female speakers were active, I could tell a slight visual difference when, for example, a brief set of chimes would signal the end of a lesson and, by pointing and clicking, could locate the lesson divisions, duplicate the file using a standard "save as" command, and delete a segment as necessary in order to create one file per lesson.

The whole process took, I'd say, about 12 hours to complete. I'm sure professionals with professional equipment could have done this much faster, but hey, we do what we need to do for our kids, right?

Anyway, once I had a nice set of .wav files, I imported them to iTunes, converted them to MP3 files, and burned them all to a CD. I'll let my daughter figure out how to get them onto her iPod from there.

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