The New York Film Festival begins on Friday, September 30. I didn’t buy any tickets, although it’s not because there aren’t any good films playing. There are some great films scheduled, as there always is. But the late Annette Michelson gave me a pro tip: these films will all come out sooner or later in wide release, and if wait a few weeks, and you can see them at a discount.
In 2002, I had bought tickets for a lot of films, including the Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002). At the time, I had two friends from California in town on a production tour for Simple Shoes. I also didn’t have many friends in New York those days. I gave the tickets to a fellow graduate student at NYU to spend time with these friends. He saw the movie in my stead.
Infernal Affairs became a commercial and critical hit. It represented a milestone in Hong Kong cinema, and it even was remade into different films, including Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning, star-studded film, The Departed (2006).
For the twenieth anniversary of the film, Film at Lincoln Center is screening the three films of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, through Thursday, September 29, on the eve of the 60th New York Film Festival. (Note: Film at Lincoln Center stages the annual New York Film Festival so it’s very closely connected.)
I went last week to see the three films over a five-day period to atone for missing it the first time around. I especially liked that I saw the first Infernal Affairs at the very same place where it was screening in 2002. Technically, Infernal Affairs screened at Alice Tully Hall in 2002, and I saw it at the Walter Reade theater, but both these theaters are on the Lincoln Center campus.
Here’s my spoiler-free hot takes on the three films:
Infernal Affairs1 is the best of the lot. The stories of the two infiltrators are really deep and complex, and the layers of deceit make this a nerve-wracking experience.
Infernal Affairs 2 gives the background of the two infiltrators and how each came to be. I didn’t find the stories to be as interesting as they were in the story events of IA1, but there were some great revelations throughout.
Infernal Affairs 3 is the most restrictive in terms of character’s point of view. Unlike IA1 and IA2, it focuses more on the story of one of the infiltrators and the trauma he’s living after the killing of the other infiltrator. It also wraps up the trilogy and it’s theme of living in an eternal hell—hence the infernal in the trilogy’s name.
In college, if you have an unpaid balance on your account, the bursar and registrar offices collaborate to block from you from registering for the next semester, you get dropped from your classes, or you won’t be awarded your degree.
This past year has been very difficult for a lot of people because of the pandemic, including some of my students. Some have been infected with COVID-19, some have lost family members, some have lost a job or two (as I did), and others have suffered in other ways that I can’t even imagine. It stands to reason that some students would have fallen behind in paying their college bills.
As part of the last spring’s CARES relief packages, the federal government dispersed funds for colleges and universities, including providing aid for students who might need support.
While CUNY did offer students some support, including providing them with iPads so they could do remote learning, the university has implemented two austerity measures that hurt students:
Students with balances due were purged from their Spring 2021 classes.
CUNY has raised the minimum number of students needed for a class to run, meaning it has reduced the number of classes available for students to take.
The first action causes all kinds of troubles. One Media Studies professor in shared the story of a student who was dropped from their classes and might have their student visa cancelled, which would put the student at risk for deportation. CUNY is cheap so it’s unlikely that the student owes tens of thousands of dollars.
The second action makes it harder for students to graduate in four years. The university has touted its Finish in Four program that largely depends on students taking classes during winter and spring semesters. At Queens College, the college cancelled all of the Media Studies classes this winter semester classes, setting back many students’ progress for finishing their degrees.
The administration just sent around an email proclaiming that CUNY fights for its students. Given how it has shut out students from registering for classes and cutting the number of classes available for them to take, the words ring hollow.
Back in September, a reporter at Cheddar named Antonella Crescimbeni emailed me to ask about the reasons why the movie industry had moved from New Jersey to California. She wanted to interview me for a video—part of the Cheddar Explains series of explainer videos—to learn why the American film industry had migrated from New Jersey to Los Angeles.
We talked over Skype in mid September, and the video was finished and posted to YouTube some time in October. I’m finally getting around to writing about this video.
One of the things Ms. Crescimbeni asked me was whether it was true that US filmmakers moved to Hollywood to escape Edison’s patents and to escape to Mexico if Edison’s lawyers sued filmmakers who might be infringing on his motion picture patents. This has been a widely circulated myth about the move to Hollywood that is almost as old as the movie colony itself. Lewis Jacobs wrote in his 1939 book, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History that “the safest refuge [from Edison’s trust] was in Los Angeles, from which it was only a hop skip and a jump to the Mexican border and escape from injunctions and subpoenas” (85).
It’s funny how those two parts of the story have persisted, although there’s little truth to that. There are two main reasons why filmmaking moved to Southern California. The first was because of the dry and mild climate that allowed for year-round production. The second reason is because there exists a lot of different terrains close together: a filmmaker could shoot films set in a desert, in the mountains, on a beach, in a city, and at sea. In fact, the other members of Edison’s cartel had filmed in Southern California; it wasn’t just the scofflaws that didn’t license Edison motion picture equipment.
For those wondering how Ms. Crescimbeni found me, she said that she found a lesson plan on my website about the Motion Picture Patents Company (sometimes referred to as “The Trust” or “Edison’s Cartel”) and the Independents who defied this patent pool, making films and then ultimately taking over the whole industry once feature films came to be.
With age comes a lot of things, most of which are deemed negative by our culture. There comes slower metabolism, a changing hairline, and diminished opportunities to accomplish any meaningful goals. But with age also comes a few gifts, specifically wisdom and perspective.
I won’t pretend that I have acquired much wisdom at this age, but I do think that I tend to make fewer impulsive decisions of consequence at this age than I did when I was younger. But having lived many years, I do feel like I can relate a lot of new things to past experiences. This growing sense of perspective allows me to take things in stride more and not react to everything.
As I write this post on Thursday morning, Vice President Biden needs only six more projected Electoral College votes to clinch the presidency and defeat Trump. A lot of people seem are understandably anxious about the result, but as we’ve been hearing since the summer, there’s going to be a lot of mail-in ballots and it’s going to take time to count them. Officials are calling for patience. We likely won’t have a projected winner until later today or even tomorrow, which is three days after Election Day.
While I am also anxious about getting a result quickly, I am drawing on my memory of the 2000 Election to shepherd me through this time of uncertainty.
The 2000 US Presidential Election was one for the ages. As you know (or at least should know), it was an extraordinarily close race: one decided by the state of Florida, 537 votes, and its 25 electors, who put George W. Bush in the White House. We’ve been living with many of the consequences of that election to this day.
I was in 24 years old at the time, living in Santa Barbara1, and remember that I was applying for graduate school. I remember having a small TV set perched on a table next to my desk, where I was typing up a statement of purpose as part of my application package. Because I lived on the west coast, I was able to catch more of the Election Night drama than most people on the east coast were willing to tolerate. I watched as the networks called Florida for Gore, saw then-Governor Bush dispute that, and then witnessed the network anchors eat their words and claw back Florida as undecided.
Not having a presidential election called by bedtime on Election Day was unusual. I have a fuzzy memory of my dad coming back from voting one year. He was frustrated that the broadcast networks had called the winner of the race when he was in line waiting to vote. The broadcast networks could easily project a winner at the time because those races were not that close.
But that’s not the case in 2000. The uncertainty dragged on for weeks. Part of me felt exhilarated because I was living through a historic moment. I only really became aware of history in the 1990s, and let’s face it, that was a particularly stable, secure, and uneventful decade for Americans on a macro level. But the last couple of months of 2000 were dominated by counting the ballots in Florida.
We all know how things turned out. The counting and recounting in Florida went on. We learned the terms “hanging chads” and “dimpled chads” as ways to divine voter intent. Think about how much history hangs in the balance because some people can’t follow directions. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court stepped in to stop the recount so that Florida could send a slate of electors by the date proscribed in the Constitution.
As they say, you know how the rest of the story turns out…
None of this is to say that history will repeat itself. This appears to be a very different situation. It does not appear as if this race will come down to one state. Also, I’m heartened at the moment to know that Biden has multiple paths to victory—he only needs one of four states to win, three of which are quite likely. Trump, on the other hand, needs all four of them, and that doesn’t appear likely given the projected totals. In 2000, Bush and Gore each had only one path, and it was through Florida.
However, in the back of mind, I do worry that something unprecedented could happen. That is, after all, the precedent of the Trump presidency: it’s all unprecedented because no one has had the poor judgement to do this shit before.
We could see many lengthy court battles, several instances of intransigence among Trump and key members of his cabinet to ignore the results of the election, we could see state legislatures send competing set of electors precipitating a constitutional crisis. And if Biden only has 270 electoral votes secured, could there be a faithless elector or two? Some of these things have happened before, but a lot of is… say it with me… unprecedented.
In the meantime, we all anxiously wait. And for me, my hair will get only more gray as we grind through each day towards December 14 (the date the Electoral College votes) and noon on January 20 (Inauguration Day).
I was living in Goleta, which at the time wasn’t even in its own city. ↩
The publishers at Take Control Books have just published a free ebook, Take Control of Zoom Essentials by Glenn Fleishman. You can register to download a free copy as a PDF, EPUB, or version for Kindle. Registering gives you access to updated content as it is released.
This books follows the release of another ebook, Working from Home Temporarily, released for free earlier this spring just as millions of us were dispatched to establish our homes as our workplaces.
The new academic year is upon us, and I suspect that many of us are using Zoom a lot more than we were a year ago: for courses, for meetings, and for webinars. One thing I don’t think we’re using it anymore for is those bothersome “Zoom Happy Hours.” I think that trend died off about a month after the pandemic, or as soon as it was deemed safe for us to gather outside to engage in moderately low-risk distance socializing. It got old really fast.
If you’re new to Zoom or, if you’re like me, and took the summer off from any and all videoconferencing software, this seems like a good introduction or refresher.
Here’s a few “tidbits” of trivia related to the book. Take Control Books was started by the folks who founded and have been publishing the Apple news website and newsletter TidBITs for over thirty years. However, they have since sold the imprint to another company since then. And although I don’t know Glenn Fleishman personally, he’s a respected figure in tech and nerdy circles for, among other things, winning on Jeopardy!… twice.
Over the summer, I swapped my subscription to The New York Times from a digital-only to an old-fashioned home-delivery print subscription. One day, my neighbor picked up a copy and was amazed that the TV listings were still printed every day.
In yesterday’s print edition, the Times announced that it would stop printing TV listings, something the paper has printed since 1939. The reasons for discontinuing the listings are obvious to anyone today: most everyone I know watches TV asynchronously. We don’t need to know what’s on TV tonight any more than we need the paper to find a job, a used car, or a secondhand couch. Also, this gives the Times more space to write about—not simply list—television programming, of which there is more than ever.
Today, in the Sunday, August 30, edition of the Times, we see the final run for tonight’s TV listings. Curiously, today’s listings were printed in the Metropolitan section, which home subscribers like me received yesterday, as part of the Saturday delivery. It is perhaps one of the most succinct—albeit unintentional—messages that speaks to the anachronous nature of timely news still being delivered in print in 2020.
Earlier this month, I did something rather unusual for 2020: I switched my subscription to the New York Times from a digital subscription to an old-fashioned home-delivery print edition.
I have had a subscription to the New York Times, in some one form or another, for as long as I can remember, even before I moved to city in 2001. While still living in Santa Barbara in the late 1990s and at the urging of one of my college professors, I subscribed to the New York Times at the same time I was receiving home delivery of the Los Angeles Times. Let’s just say that my recycling bins were never so full as they were during that era. I continued the subscription when I moved to New York, and it followed me from one apartment to another. Finally, in 2010, while living in Long Island City, I frustratingly gazed at my overflowing paper-recycling bin and decided that my print-news era was over. I switched to a digital subscription.
Yet in 2020, when almost every aspect of my life exists in “cyberspace,” I decided to restart home delivery of the print edition. Let this sink in: I am now paying someone to bring over many sheets of paper to my home just so I can get the news, as if there was no other way to get it.
Here are some reasons why I switched to home delivery of the print edition:
Over the summer, I often go to the beach and prefer to read the news in print. I can’t read my phone or tablet under the bright, hot sun.
No stores in my East Williamsburg–Bushwick neighborhood carry the New York Times anymore. Only a handful of bodegas even sell newspapers, but those few only carry the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and/or a Spanish-language daily.
It comes with two bonus digital subscriptions. I gave one to my dad and another to a bartender in the neighborhood who used to do the crossword everyday until “all this happened.”
It’s a much more pleasant and focused experience to read the news in print than it is to drink from the proverbial firehose that is getting news online, especially on social media and especially in “these times.”
I had money in my Subscriptions budget after cancelling my AT&T TV Now “skinny bundle.” I soured on the package once it had swelled from an affordable $10/month package in 2016 to a bloated $35/month, including subsidies for the right-wing news outlets as One American News Network and Fox News.
Earlier today, after a month of receiving the paper on Saturdays and Sundays, I upgraded the subscription from weekends-only to seven-day delivery because I have enjoyed reading news in print so much. Also, in the age of the virus, where I don’t have to leave my apartment for work anymore, going downstairs to fetch the paper every morning seems like a nice healthy ritual.
My friends and readers of this site know that playing softball each summer has been a big part of my life for almost as long as I have lived in New York. This summer, however, I haven’t played a single game—partly due to the pandemic cancelling my leagues, but also mostly due to other emotional traumas that I’d rather not discuss here. Not playing softball feels weird, but only in moments like this when I reflect on how it is gone.
Starting in 2005, I started playing on Sunday afternoons in Central Park with The Bandits. We had moved to a Central Park league after playing a year in a league run by EMTs that played weeknights in Harlem. The league was a terrible experience, not least of which because of the sound of gun fire that I would occasionally hear during our games.
Playing in Central Park each Sunday in the summer was a singular experience. I loved having throngs of tourists watching us play, especially Europeans who posed many questions about our peculiar game. However, being on the Bandits was a tough experience. We were not a very good team, consistently finishing at the bottom of the standings. The only exception was in 2009, when we recruited a few players from my Brooklyn league and finished in second place and lost in the finals to the top-ranked team in a three-game series.
Despite the great finish, I was disappointed that we lost in the finals to a team I felt we could have beaten so I bailed on the Bandits. I switched to a different team—the Ball Busters—run by my friend Johnny in the offseason. The Ball Busters finished 7th on 2009, but, as I looked at their schedule, I saw that they had lost a lot of one-run games. Three factors aided my decision: I had been pitching in McCarren Park for a couple of years and wanted to pitch more, the Bandits didn’t let me pitch, and the Ball Busters didn’t have a full-time pitcher. I figured that if I could pitch, I could help turn a few of those loses into wins. Indeed we did. In 2010, we finished in first place but lost in the first-round to the Bandits partly because I missed the game to attend my friend’s wedding in Connecticut.
The Ball Busters posted a winning record for several years, never finished lower than the second seed. We even won two titles: once in 2012 and again in 2013. I pitched almost all of our games, including the playoffs. I loved the pressure of pitching in big games, especially when I had pitched every inning of a triple-header. It took a while to learn to pace myself, but once I did, I relished the exhilarating combination of exhaustion and pressure: why can’t I do this in the parts of my life where it matters.
After the 2015 season, my friend Johnny announced that he was moving to Florida and that the team would be run by Hermes, an affable teammate who quickly passed on the management to someone else, a guy everyone calls Cano.
The 2016 season was very different than the others for the Ball Busters. First, many of our teammates left for various reasons. Some went on extended vacations, some moved away, and others cut down to playing on Saturdays only in a different league. Second, we had many new players that the new manager brought to the team. The biggest difference for me was that, after pitching in nearly every Ball Busters game since 2010, I didn’t pitch a single inning in 2016. I played a bit in the outfield and was the “extra hitter,” a unique softball position created to allow someone to play but not really play.
The 2016 Ball Busters were a force. We lost only three games in a twenty-four game season, but I didn’t factor in many of those wins (or those losses). We swept our opponents in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals, and if I played in those games, I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t pitch a single inning of these postseason games.
The finals were scheduled for August 21. The day before I had bought some oysters from the fishmonger at the local farmers’ market. In those days, I ate raw oysters all the time, and I even fancied myself a capable shucker. But this weekend, I think I failed to keep the oysters sufficiently cold. The next morning on the day of the 2016 finals, I woke up feeling sick, lying next to a puddle of vomit on my pillow. At first I thought I was hungover. I did drink quite a bit the night before, but after a while, it was clear that the oysters made me sick.
I told Megan that I was going to skip the finals games in Central Park that morning. I felt sick and didn’t have the energy to leave bed, much less take a five-mile bike ride to a game in Central Park. She tried to coax me to the game by noting the magnitude of the game: “but it’s the finals!” But more important, as I remember telling her, it’s not as if I would play anyway. After a while I mustered enough energy to get out of bed and bike to Central Park. This was I could at least cheer on my teammates and sneak in to the team photo if we won.
The finals were to start at 10:00 am that morning, and I arrived on the field at about 11:15 or so. I figured that I had missed the first game and arrived in time for the second. I asked someone on my team for the score. “We’re up by a couple,” he responded. When I asked for the inning, he informed me that it was fifth inning of the first game.
“Wait, didn’t we start at 10 o’clock?”
“No, the fields were closed because it rained [overnight]. We started really late. This is the first game”
The Ball Busters held on to win the first game. We lost the second game, meaning we were tied in the series and had to play a third game. Hermes pitched the first two games. He was drenched in sweat and looked wiped out, and hde told our manager, Cano, that he was “done.” Cano looked around to see who could pitch the third and deciding game. He asked his wife, who is a really solid pitcher. “Nope,” she declined. Again, our manager continued to scan our bench and looked at me. Holding the ball, he twists his wrist, now palm-side up, and shows me the ball. “You ready?,” he asks me. Without saying anything, I take the ball and walk to the field to begin warming up.
As I watched the first two games, a guy named Tommy came to watch our games. He said hi to me, and asked if I wanted a steak taco. He had cooked the steak at home, packed hot tortillas into a styrofoam warmer, and even made a “cilantro pesto” for the tacos. The tacos settled my stomach, which had been wrenched since the day before by spoiled oysters and too many whiskey shots. Tommy was like the mythical Saint Bernard that nurses lost explorers in the unforgiving arctic conditions. Except here, he nursed me back into playing shape in a late-August summer day in Manhattan.
As I walked to the pitching plate, I realized that this was the first time I had pitched all year in Central Park. The Central Park fields are a bit different than others in the city. They are in much better shape, and they also have a real pitching rubber that’s dug into the ground. But also, the infield dimensions are different than the infield at, say, McCarren Park: I think the distance from the pitching plate to home plate is about fifty feet, about five feet further than it is at McCarren Park and most other NYC softball fields.
It took me about a dozen warmup pitches to get the ball to reach the plate, and then several more to find my location. This league is a modified, fast-pitch league, meaning I can throw the ball hard, as long as my hand doesn’t go above my shoulder in the wind-up: no slinging or side-winding is allowed. As the game started, I was still struggling to throw strikes and to locate the ball. But I knew that this was a big game and that the batters would be as nervous to face me as I was to face them. I decided that instead of throwing hard, I would throw the ball as slow as I could.
Except for a sneaking in a few fastballs, I pitched as slowly as I could, and it worked. The batters all seemed very anxious and for the most part, didn’t hit the ball square. There was however one home run. Our team managed to scratch across three runs, but our batters didn’t produce much. The previous two games apparently wiped them out, too.
The game ended with a weak flyout to the outfield. As the ball was caught, I pounded my fist against my mitt and met all my teammates in the middle of infield for the obligatory celebration on the infield. We had just won the league championship.
We celebrated for a bit on the field, drank a few beers and, yes, I ate another steak taco or two. Afterward, I biked Williamsburg to meet Megan and share my news with my Brooklyn softball friends. I remembering getting stares from everyone, as I appeared soaking wet from sweat, drizzle, and who knows how many beers.
As I told the story, I began to realize that this might be the best softball outcome I could imagine. I had spent over a decade playing in Central Park—underneath the magnificent Manhattan skyline—and capped it off with pitching my team to a 3-1 title-clinching game. It was my third title with the Ball Busters, and I had pitched in each of those deciding games.
In the offseason, I told Hermes and Cano that I was not returning. I mumbled something about not wanting to play games so close to Trump Tower, but actually it was because I didn’t want to start all over—at square one—to recreate this feeling of joy and accomplishment. Experiencing that was truly special, and it would be foolish to attempt to find it again.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is to appreciate those special experiences—be it a warm summer day, a well-made meal, a firm hug from a friend or relative, a smile from your true love—because just as sure as you found it, it will be gone. And you’ll be wasting your time trying to find it again.
Pardon the dust around here… it’s been a very busy time for me as the COVID-19 pandemic put a whole lot of extra work on me in terms of class preparation. It robbed me of any desire to sit in front of a computer to post to this site.
I’m sorry. I hope you’ll take me back,
When we went to remote instruction, the administration at Pratt and at CUNY recommended that we turn our courses from live, in-person classes to asynchronous, remote classes—with a short, synchronous weekly session via Zoom or Google Meet.
The spring semester ended about two months ago, but since then I have been teaching two online classes for Queens College in their two summer sessions—Summer 1 in June, and Summer 2 in July.
This is not my first time teaching online, remote classes. Indeed, I have been teaching online sections of Media Technologies and Contemporary Media for a few years now, both in summer and winter sessions. But given what I learned over the last few months, during our emergency switch to remote learning, I thought it best to revise my courses given what I learned in the spring term.
My goals for the summer courses were basically to…
revise the structure of my syllabi to make it easier to find information
break up the recorded video lectures into shorter segments,
in the case of Contemporary Media, assign an open educational resource textbook to save my students—some of whom are food insecure—some money.
For these courses, I have spent an average of six to eight hours working on each module. Since each course has twelve modules, I spent the equivalent of a full-time job working on these courses since early June.
Revising the syllabus was pretty easy. I moved away from the traditional calendar-based schedule to one structured along learning modules. Each module had the same three elements as my previous courses: a textbook reading, a narrated-slideshow lecture recording, and a quiz. But this time I listed each task under each module as “assignments.” You can see an example of this on my Media Technologies syllabus. I hope it was easier for students to figure out their assignments.
The one textbook that seemed useful for either of this summer’s courses was Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. You can get a copy from the Open Textbook Library. I really liked that it was available in many different formats, including PDF and EPUB, and that you could read it on the web using nothing more than a browser. However, what really made this textbook difficult to use was that it was last updated in 2009.
Since the textbook was woefully out of date, I had to use the lectures to update the outdated information from the book. For example, there are no longer is a Big Four recording music conglomerates nor is there a Big Six movie conglomerates. In the case of music, EMI was absorbed by Universal Music Group and Warner Music with Sony Music as the third conglomerate standing. And in the case of the movie industry, Disney acquired Fox in 2019 for $71 billion, leaving only five major conglomerates.
Because I was using a textbook I hadn’t used before, I had write new reading quizzes from scratch. This took about an hour per module, but outlining each lecture, preparing each slideshow, and then recording each module’s screencast took an additional six to seven hours a day.
Today, I posted the videos for the last module of the two summer sessions. As a “victory lap” of sorts, I compiled a few numbers from the two classes I taught this summer.
6h 31m 46s
6h 35m 15s
13h 7m 1s
Average Slides per Module
Average Slides per Video
Average TRT per Module
Average TRT Per Video
The biggest reason I wanted to break up the lecture into shorter segments was to make the videos about six minutes each. Previously, each module’s lecture was about 20 minutes long. Based on the numbers, it looks like I failed. Each video for Media Technologies averaged about 8 ½ minutes, and each video for Contemporary Media averaged about 7 ¾ minutes.
However, I have to give myself credit for consistency. The total running time of all the recorded videos for each class were surprising close: 6 hours 31 minutes for Media Technologies versus 6 hours 35 minutes and Contemporary Media. And I also used a very similar number of slides: 608 in the case of Media Technologies and 593 in the case of Contemporary Media.
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In the Age of the Virus, I’ve been teaching remotely. This has given me two new tasks that require decent audio: video conferencing and recording classes at home. I would never call myself an audiophile, but for whatever reason, bad low-fidelity audio bothers me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I want to do better.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of different ways of recording sound on my computer, and I thought it would be fun to test each of them to see how they preformed.
I used the following six microphones for this test:
The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
the very popular Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone with an attached pop filter.
I couldn’t try one of my oldest microphones—a Blue Snowball. I left that at my office at NYU, inside Bobst Library, and the entire building is inaccessible to non-essential employees like myself.
For each recording, I used Sound Studio for Mac and recording using an early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, the one that many considered to be the last great MacBook Pro until Apple came out with last year’s 16-inch model.) I did some slight editing on each recording: I trimmed my reading of each sentence, inserted a half-second of silence between each sentence, and normalized the sound. I did the latter to control for loudness; most of us are biased to think that louder sound is a better sound.
I read aloud the following ten Harvard Sentences into each microphone. I used “List 5” from this list of Harvard Sentences for those who want to reproduce this test at home. For the most part, I read the phrases as written, although I did flub a couple of them. The sentences are…
A king ruled the state in the early days.
The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
Sickness kept him home the third week.
The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
Lift the square stone over the fence.
The rope will bind the seven books at once.
Hop over the fence and plunge in.
The friendly gang left the drug store.
Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.
Here are the results of testing each microphone.
MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone
This is the most convenient way of recording sound on a Mac. It requires nothing more than the Mac itself. The result is pretty solid.
One thing to consider is that I wasn’t using my speaker. I always find it annoying to hear feedback on conference calls that noticeably degrade the sound quality.
AirPods, Handsfree via Bluetooth
Apple’s AirPods is one of my favorite devices. Before All This Happened, I used my AirPods on a daily basis, listening to music and podcasts as I walked around town. But as we are all staying home as much as possible, I’ve been using them a lot less.
Using AirPods for phone calls—over the cellular network or VOIP—is unmatched in terms of its convenience. It doesn’t require your hands and don’t have a wire to get in the way. You don’t even have to have your device on your person—as long as it’s not too far for the Bluetooth radio. This is probably why you see late night TV hosts and some newscasters use AirPods to record themselves.
However, in terms of sound fidelity, they fared the worst.
It sounds like I’m talking through a machine—as it doesn’t sample enough of my sound—or if it used a lossy compression algorithm at a very low bitrate.
I was surprised that it was actually worse than recording through using the MacBook Pro’s internal microphone. I learned back in college that even the worst external microphone was still better than using the on-board microphone in my field recorder because the recorder makes some noise that will be on the recording.
To be fair, I think the poor sound has to do with my Mac. Listening to music on my AirPods doesn’t sound as good playing from my Mac as it does playing from an iOS device, such as an iPhone or a iPad.
Wired EarPods with a Mini-Plug
I actually have a couple of pairs of these EarPods lying around. They might be from my iPhone 6 (2014) and maybe even my iPhone 5 (2012). I used these instead of the newer ones that came with my iPhone 11 Pro because I can connect these to my MacBook Pro.
The sounds was also pretty solid—good depth and warmth—and it didn’t sound compressed like the AirPods. It also sounds marginally better than “going bareback” on my MacBook Pro.
AKG K545 Headphones, Handsfree Wired
In late-2014, I was engaging in some retail therapy and listening to a lot of sad music, and these headphones were the result of that.
I expected these would fare better than the EarPods simply because they’re more expensive than EarPods. But they capture more of the room echo than the EarPods.
Again, to be fair, these are primarily headphones for listening—not microphones for recording. As far as headphones sound, they’re pretty good, but are heavy. And because they have a closed-back design, they isolate ambient noise. A lot of people prefer these kinds of headphones, but I don’t. I get fatigued wearing them for any substantial period of time.
Blue Snowflake on My Desk
The Blue Snowflake is a portable USB microphone. Despite its small size, it’s a great little microphone that I picked up at the end of 2009. It is meant to sit on a desk or clipped to a computer monitor to provide better sound during voice conference calls and for field recording. It is an omnidirectional microphone so it captures a lot of other sounds. This is good if you are in the audience and want to record a lecture or a band playing live.
I really like how it sounds. It doesn’t seem to get too much of the room echo while still clearly recording my voice.
Again, recording voice from a person speaking nearby is exactly what the Snowflake was designed to do. It performed great.
Blue Yeti with Pop Filter
I expected this to make the best recording, and it did. The Blue Yeti is a very popular USB microphone. It is marketed to podcasters who don’t want to mess around with a XLR cables and a USB preamp. It’s been a while since I bought this microphone, but I think I bought the Yeti because I like the design of Blue microphones. They just look cool.
I also added a basic pop filter to this microphone to cut down on the popping Ps and other noises when you make when speaking close to the microphone.
The sound here is terrific. There is no room echo, largely because I’m speaking into the microphone. The recording has high fidelity: my voice sounds like it should if I were in the room with you.
Of course, the Blue Yeti performed best of all the microphones I have on hand. It is meant to record podcasters and other spoken word, and it does this really well.
The other microphones were more interesting. Honestly, I was surprised how well the built-in microphone in my MacBook Pro worked. For this you don’t need anything, and it records quite well. I think that if I were using the built-in MacBook Pro microphone for videoconferencing or VOIP, I would I use a set of headphones to prevent the feedback.
In fact, I think it would be useful to use the configure AirPods for sound output but use the internal microphone for sounds recording. This way you can have the convenience of wireless earphones and a decent microphone.
But, of course, in the Age of the Virus, no one expect studio-quality sound.