There's no tool like an old tool

Sometimes when big things progress, little things get left behind. Take audio editing software for instance. We have some amazingly sophisticated tools at our disposal. Even the low end of that spectrum, like Audacity and GarageBand, offer creative types a plethora of tools that were unheard of just ten years ago.

As wonderful as these tools are, I learned that they sometimes fall short.

Yesterday I was at a marathon rehearsal for Blithe Spirit, for which I am doing sound design (along with appearing as Dr. George Bradman). Throughout the show, there is a recording of "Always" that gets played fairly often. At the end of the show there is chaos on the stage as a particularly cantankerous pair of ghost starts wreaking havoc on the living room set. Books get knocked off the shelves, wall sconces sway, lights go on and off--you get the idea.

Knowing all of that, I decided that the standard playing of "Always" was just not enough. There needed to be something more. After all, a mischevious ghost would likely not be content with simply putting on a record. No. They would probabably mess with the turntable speed, too!

The problem was that none of my usual tools--Audacity and GarageBand--have any features which would allow me to achieve that effect. Each one can affect tempo, but independent of pitch. It's a great thing to be able to do, but I needed both tempo and pitch to change.

By now, Audacity users are probably thinking: "are you forgetting about the Speed filter"? No, I'm not. That Speed filter does affect both tempo and pitch, but it does it at the same level throughout the selected area or file. The change is as great at the beginning as it is at the end. That's not what I needed. I needed the sound to speed up, then slow down. Big, big difference.

That's when I remembered a piece of software I used to use on my Mac Plus: AudioShop. It had a filter that let me select a piece of audio, then adjust a bar that stretched from end to end. Push the entire bar up and the clip would be sped up. Push it down and the clip was slowed down--tempo and pitch.

The magic happened when you pushed one end of that bar or the other and left the other end alone. The example I remembered was when I left the beginning of a clip untouched, then pushed the right side down to the bottom. The clip sounded like a record being slowed down to a stop by someone's thumb. It was perfect.

But that was twenty years ago, right? How could I do that today?

As it turns out, I'm a big Apple geek. I love old Macs. Last summer I hunted down an original tangerine iBook (the same kind I drooled over at MacWorld 1999 when it was introduced) on Ebay and loaded it up with all the good stuff I used to use years ago. Among those wares was AudioShop.

So this morning I grabbed a USB flash drive (in FAT32 format), copied the Always file I used at the theater, then brought it over to the iBook for processing. Within ten minutes I had what I wanted: a copy of the song that speeds up and slows down as it plays. It is exactly how I had envisioned it.

People sometimes laugh and wonder why I keep old Macs lying around. Mostly it's for nostalgia, but every once in a while something like this comes up and gives me something practical to point to. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I couldn't be happier.