Category Archives: equipment

Vaio Review

I’ve had a bit of a computer saga over the last year or two. If someone wrote a play about it (and what a boring play it would be) they might call it “Death of a motherboard”. But it was also not powerful enough for decently running sound files, it took ages to load stuff, and it had a small hard drive which I was always running out of space on. I bought a Vaio SZ360 with grant money, so I thought I’d review it here.

It’s light. It’s a good size too; the screen is large enough to be workable onable but the machine as a whole is small enough to be portable.

The screen resolution is fantastic. Battery life is not quite as stellar as I’d hoped, but not bad. I got 4-5 hours on both flights. The keyboard is slightly angled so it’s comfortable to type on (I haven’t had much wrist soreness since I started working on it) and it has a very light touch.

The processer is extremely fast and I’ve had no trouble running any of the programs I usually run. For example I batch downsampled about 45gb of field recordings shortly after I got the computer and it was very speedy.

It feels a bit flimsy, though. I’m not sure how it’ll go on fieldwork (although people do take these comptuers to the field, to much rougher places than I go, so I assume it’ll be ok). The power adapter is annoyingly large. Accesories are incredibly expensive. $300 for a backup high capacity battery, for example. $90 for a second power adapter. And it’s not compatible with a lot of the generic ones. There was also a heap of junk software on it (although I think I’ve got rid of it all now). It’s got a fingerprint reader. Great.


XO notebooks

Here’s a PC World article on the “one laptop per child” program (a program which is manufacturing extremely cheap laptops (c $100)  which they will provide free for kids in Third World countries. As you can imagine, the responses to this program break down along all the usual lines: the idealists, the pessimists, the people who argue that they’ll put the kids at risk because they don’t have the education to deal with all the possible threats on the internet, and so on. I was impressed with the sorts of things that the designers thought about – they seem to have considerably more awareness for the potential conditions these computers would be used in than the pessimists give them credit for. There seemed to be a worry in the article that the laptops wouldn’t just be used by the kids who they were given to. That’s right – in societies with community ownership of property it’s weird to expect that the youngest and least powerful members of society would get to “keep” a “gift” like this. However, that’s potentially a good thing! It’s a way of getting more community members involved and making sure a) that the kids are supervised and b) that the parents aren’t isolated and made to feel that their kids are being turned against them by outsiders.

It’s a program that could have fantastic potential for endangered languages. It would be possible to provide all members of a team with their own laptops on even small infrastructure grants.


Convince me in favour or against a new Intel Mac with dual boot. This is currently a hypothetical purchase, but I am starting to evaluate options for a new laptop. I need to do all the average things that field linguists do, plus voice recognition (ideally under windows so I don’t have to retrain the software).

Comparison of Noise Reduction Features

I’ve been playing around with noise reduction features of different software programs, to remove hiss, fans, air conditioners and wind noise. Here’s a very impressionistic report on the programs I tried.

I should mention first off that I won’t be doing any acoustic analysis on the doctored files, at least at this stage. I was doing this in order to make transcription easier. Most of the tapes probably aren’t clean enough to do most types of analysis, even if the noise removal didn’t remove other vital information.

I’ve tried four pieces of software:

  • Praat (free from
  • CoolEdit 2000 (registered in 2002; no longer available)
  • SoundForge 8.0 with noise reduction plug-in ($125 or so, academic license)
  • Audacity (free from

Nothing was a magic fix, of course. There’s no substitute for making good quality recordings in the first place. But hindsight is wonderful, and it’s often not possible to record in idea circumstances.

The recordings are all digitizations of analogue (cassette) tapes made at 44.1kHz or 48KHz between 2004 and 2006. The 2004 ones were made in Audacity and the 2006 ones were done with SoundForge (but this didn’t seem to make a difference).

My Praat method was brute force – identify the frequency band where most of the background noise occurs and fading that area of the spectrum by 24dB. It works, sort of. But it’s not very good.

SoundForge has noise reduction and anti-clip algorithms, but I found that they performed very badly on my recordings. They either made no difference or introduced more distortion than they removed.

Audacity and CoolEdit both have a multistage process where a profile of the noise is analysed and those frequencies are dimmed. CoolEdit’s clipping reduction feature produced clearer audio than Audacity’s, but it also introduces tones at random points in the recording – it’s a test feature and you have to pay extra for a version which doesn’t introduce random tones. CoolEdit is no longer supported, though, and its replacement (now maintained by Adobe) is quite expensive. Cooledit’s noise reduction is about equal to Audacity’s. On the settings I used, CoolEdit seemed to produce a little less distortion in the signal.

Here are some comparison clips.

  • input file.
  • Audacity – noise reduction
  • SoundForge – audio restoration
  • CoolEdit – noise reduction (no clips in this sample)
  • (No Praat sample – there was no consistent noise at a specific frequency in the sample)

The recording was made in the 1960s and I digitised a cassette copy – I don’t have any more information than that.

(I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but Tom’s post reminded me. I used the same method that they recommend, although I didn’t spend much time playing with different settings to get an optimal output.)

PS: bonus points for identifying the language.

Digital mayhem

I am putting together my final report for my ELDP grant, which is a bit of a hair-raising experience. I have a 55 gig harddrive on my Rice-issued laptop (1.6 Khz processor, 1gig RAM). I have 25 gig of audio files and another 4 gig or so of other files, pictures, transcripts, etc etc. Therefore I cannot have the whole project on my hard disk at once. This makes burning DVDs rather involved, especially when I have a device conflict between my 270gig external harddrive and my DVD burner.

This is why I argued on funknet recently that “putting stuff on the web” is a) not the same as archiving; b) not a trivial matter; and c) a project quite independent on whether fieldwork involves scientific method or not.

I’ll leave you to ponder these intangibles while I go back to burning DVDs and documenting metadata while my equipment is behaving

Fully digital

I was all ready to write an indignant post about the FDA banning vegemite before discovering that no one seems to know if it’s true, so we’ll postpone that for now.

In the meantime, since I’m rather busy at the moment (just finished an article on Bardi verbs, but there’s more urgent things in the wings), let me leave you with a picture of a piece of junk mail I got this afternoon. I can wait to get my hands on some analogue CDs…

Using video

Tom Honeyman at Transcient languages and cultures has an interesting post on digital video and alternatives, and asks for other people’s opinions. I meant to write about this some time ago so apologise Tom for the delay in a reply!

While most people I’ve talked to have been pretty positive about using video in the field, I’ve had mixed successes with it. It was really useful for some things – weaving stories, for example, where the text crucially depended on gesture and visual illustration. And spatial deixis. And the music/dancing (bunggul) recordings were considerably better for the visuals!

For regular texts, though, I think it didn’t really add anything. People were more stilted in front of the camera, so while I was using video to capture gesture and other non-verbal aspects of storytelling, the actual stories didn’t contain very much of it, because people were very conscious of the videos. It was also a magnet for the kids and so the humbug factor increased a lot when the video was on.

Then, there was all of the editing issues. My laptop isn’t powerful enough for me to transfer video recordings directly to it, so I couldn’t edit them in the field. I had to wait until I got back to Houston so that I could make a backup, transfer them to computer, and do the editing. Doing the editing involved booking a time in the computer lab, which was difficult to get, transferring the videos in real time, which also took a huge amount of time, then burning things to DVD. The software that my University has allows me to copy DVDs that I have made myself, but the format of that it lets me save them in does not allow direct editing. If I want to do that, I have to make another time to sit at another machine, copy the videos again from the original digital video, edit them on their machine, and then find a program that I can export them to which will allow me to look at the videos on my PC (they only have Macintosh software for video editing). In the time I had before classes started, I couldn’t all this to work. I’m sure it’s possible, but it involves more time than I have at present.

There seems to be a problem on some of the videos with the time stamps and the audio, so that when I play back videos through Windows media player, half the video is without sound. Apparently this is something to do with the quality of the audio versus the quality of the picture and the sampling rate of both when redigitised. Again, a problem for the future when I have time to deal with it.

So, my experience with video wasn’t great, although there were a number of things that I could have done better that would have improved it. And, it would also be much better if I had had a compact flash digital video (although that would have broken my budget!) Which would have made transferable to computer much easier. It would also be better if I had got the computer I had asked for when I moved to Rice, rather than the computer that the Dean’s office assumes will be fine for everyone in humanities.

I don’t want to turn people off using video in their recordings, and I know that others have had a lot more success than I did. David Harrison and Gregory Anderson have used a lot of video in their work on central Asian and Siberian languages, and the results they produce are absolutely fantastic! Then again, there are two of them in the field — 1 to work the video and equipment and one to ask questions, and I am sure that makes a big difference.