Creating an Audio Ident
This paper discusses some of the design considerations and practicalities when using and/or creating idents for audio resources. The paper is divided into two halves - the first offers an overview of audio idents, discussing areas including when idents can be effective, and the types of sounds that can be used in idents. The second provides a how-to guide on constructing and adding idents to existing spoken word recordings using the software Audacity.
What is an ident?
Ident is an abbreviation of the word ‘identifier'. An audio ident is used to enable listeners to identify your recordings. Practically speaking, it is a specially crafted segment of sound generally placed at the beginning of (and sometimes within) an audio file to allow the listener to instantly identify its origins, i.e. your institution, faculty or department.
Idents are used throughout the broadcasting industry as a highly effective branding tool. For example, in radio, idents are used to inform and remind people which station they are listening to, they are often created to be a familiar, warming piece of sound that is instantly recognised, missed when not heard and as a result becomes ingrained as part of the radio experience.
Why use idents?
Idents can simply be one or two spoken sentences introducing the production or the producer (this could be your institution or department). They are commonly represented in micro-song form known as ‘jingles', which mix spoken word and music (or sound effects), or a memorable sound such as a synthesised tone.
Television commercials use short songs that are intended to be catchy and instantly recognisable to provide a particular memorable identity for the product being advertised. When used in the right way idents can be powerful tools of brand identity, which can be useful for the promotion and reputation of your course, department or institution internally and/or externally.
Idents allow you to:
- Creatively and aurally indicate to your audience the origin of the production (through different mediums such as contextual sounds), and any other relevant information, such as date, title, summary etc, at the beginning of the audio file
- Add a professional production feel to your recordings
- Familiarise your audience with your productions and your department/institution
- Add breaks to recordings to indicate changes in topic or content by using ident sounds as Transitions
- Provide crucial information to listeners with visual impairments
Idents can be visual as well in the audio domain. A video-based ident with sound can have the sound used for audio only productions and both audio and video for visual productions for consistency.
To summarise, some examples of commercial audio idents used in advertising include:
- A favourite radio station's jingle
- The synthesised noise that your computer makes when it boots up or is shut down.
- A tuneful catchphrase to an advert on the television.
In an educational production here is an example of an ident that might precede a recording of a lecture:
Note: This example is deconstructed in the second half of this paper
It is, perhaps, worth noting that designing and creating an ident can be a time consuming affair and may not be appropriate for certain productions where audio quality, branding or high production is not necessarily required. In some instances you may be more concerned with the delivery of the information within the production rather than the quality of the production itself, and both of these approaches have their own merits.
Designing an audio ident
Before you start thinking about actual sounds, it is important to sit back and think of your proposed ident in the context of the content that your are producing.
Is it a one off recording of an event? A student project? A series of lectures? What is length and pace of the content? The subject matter? Who is your target audience? Are your recordings informative? Entertaining? Serious, or informal?
The answers to all of these questions should have a impact on the type of ident that you create. To clearly define some boundaries when using such open ended questions some categories need to be defined in order to give a structure to the design of an ident. Some musical categories are provided in the next section, Conveying the mood.
It is also important to clarify what message you wish your ident to convey. A literal informative tone may contain spoken words to precisely identify the listener with the content, a subtle one may contain a sound relative to the main content of the recording, or perhaps you are trying to convey a mood, one to appropriately introduce the subject matter.
Commonly a non-spoken ident will not necessarily be directly linked in context with the content of an individual audio file (for example, a lecture on social change in the 1970s might not be preceded with 1970s popular music in an ident due to the limitations of this in other productions) but evokes an identity of the wider context of your productions (perhaps the institution, the course, or the department).
Once you have a clear view of the overall production(s), you can then start thinking about how an identifying sound can complement the arrangement.
It can be quite easy to get carried away with adding music or sound effects in a production, but to best convey the opening statement of your productions which one of the following four approaches will help achieve this the most?
- Using a sound effect
- Using a music sample
- Using spoken word
- Combining a sound effect/music sample with spoken word
Conveying the mood
When selecting or creating sound effects or music samples, think about some musical terms to convey your message. These can then be loosely linked to types of music or sounds that might be fitting. A worthwhile tip is to ask others to listen to the sounds you like and would consider using. A second opinion can be helpful to dismiss sounds that might be annoying, out of context or inappropriate to others.
Sounds like - Relaxed, subtle, serious
Music - Classical music, jazz, a small number of instruments
Sounds like - A build up of expectation, uplifting.
Music - Orchestral crescendo, a build up of instrumentation or tempo (speed of the music)
Sounds like - Gradually moving to a slower pace, unwinding, getting down to business
Music - Slowing in tempo (speed), reduction of instrumentation, descending in pitch
Sounds like - Create excitement or enthusiasm, grabbing attention - especially when productions begins at a fast pace.
Music - Dance music, upbeat music
Sounds like - Relaxing, serious. Good for preparing listeners for complex or lengthy information.
Music - Ambient music or jazz
Sounds like - Unobtrusive, subtle, conveying mood. Good for blending with spoken word, can be digital sounds or natural (sounds recorded from the real world, e.g. waves breaking)
The JISC Digital Media audio audio ident - uplifting/sharp/synthetic - digital, ascending
Here are two examples of idents in podcasts that have been produced for online delivery.
1. Alan Hilliard interviews Penny Wiggins (University of Hertfordshire) - Used with permissions
2. Rebecca Reynolds - Pre-visit podcasts - Used with permission
Finding and choosing sounds
Designing ident sounds from scratch is a very complex art form, but thankfully there are plenty of sounds available online which can be used instead of recording or programming your own.
Websites such as CCMixter and Freeloops.com contain music and sound effects that can be used to create idents without copyright restrictions (you may have to check the individual licenses for each file, especially regarding modifying the audio content).
The advice document Finding Video, Audio and Images Online provides further information on where to find sound resources online.
Many music production packages from the free (Garageband - Mac only) to the paid-for (Ableton, Cubase) come bundled with royalty free music loops, virtual ‘instruments', samples and sound effects that are ideal for creating idents. There are also software packages that, although complex and time consuming to master, are available specifically for sound design and modification. Pure Data is an open source graphical environment for sound and comes bundled with extensive and exhaustive tutorials for the beginner.
When sourcing sound files for idents you should always make sure that you have the correct permissions to use the sound files in the ways you wish, whether it be delivery via a VLE, a web page or a subscribed podcast feed. Commercial works, such as songs or videos often have rights where ownership can be very difficult to establish and permissions impossible to obtain. Care should be taken when selecting and including any third party material.
If you would like further information about sourcing specific sounds or music please contact us via our helpdesk.
Using spoken word
A short, spoken introduction can be an ideal solution for an ident where you wish to provide the same, or similar, piece of information at the beginning of every file. This can help listeners audibly navigate through multiple files, familiarise them with the producer (department, lecturer, module etc) or help them make sure they are listening to the correct series of recordings.
For example, the intro may contain a copyright disclaimer, a brief summary of the course, a summary of the previous recording of a series, or perhaps a personal introduction from the presenter of the recording.
Creating and adding an audio ident to a recording in Audacity
This section provides a step-by-step guide on how to build and add an audio ident to a pre-recorded audio file (in this example a lecture) in Audacity software.
Audacity is a free open-source audio editing application for Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix operating systems.
If you need to record a piece of spoken word or a sound effect for your ident, record directly into Audacity, edit the file accordingly (this may just be topping and tailing) and export to a new audio file. The advice document Recording a Podcast gives information on how this is done.
1. Open a new project in Audacity (File > New).
2. Import your recording (e.g. a lecture, or interview file) in the project (Project > Import Audio), and then do the same for your ident file (or files if you plan on using more than one).
Image 1 below shows an Audacity project with 3 imported audio files, a lecture file, a sound effect, and an audio intro, which are on Tracks 1, 2, and 3. It is worth noting that in this example the sound effect on track 2 is a stereo file, and two separate waveforms for the left and right channels can be seen.
Image 1 - Importing audio files into an Audacity project
3. Align the files in the time domain
Using the time shift tool (shown in Image 2), drag the audio files to appropriate positions in time. You will need to listen to the overall effect of the repositioning repeatedly and then make the appropriate adjustments. This is often a trial and error process. Do not worry if the volume of one track masks the content of another at this stage. This will be dealt with further on this guide.
TIP: Try not to make the length of time before the lecture starts. A long ident can be distracting and irritating if it's at the start of all your productions. A maximum five second intro before the content begins is a good rule of thumb.
Image 2 - The Time shift tool
Image 3 - Aligning the audio files to play at the desired times
4. Create Fades for natural blending effects.
Use the envelope tool (shown in Image 4) to create fade-ins and fade-outs of the files where they overlap at the ends. Fading out one file where a second comes in helps to lower the average volume when two audio files are playing at once. By doing this, the second file is heard over the top of the first.
Image 4 - The Envelope tool
Image 5 - Fade-out applied to Track 2 using the Envelope tool
Image 6 - Close up of fade-out in Image 4. The white dots indicate envelope markers, and the blue lines indicate the changes in volume as the audio file is played.
5. Set the volume levels
Adjusting the volume levels of each track is needed to make your overall file sound balanced and well produced. It helps to give clarity when more than one file is audible at the same time and provides a consistency throughout the production, negating the need for the listener to manually adjust their volume control
Use the volume level sliders (show in Image 7) to balance the sounds of the project, so that all of the sections are similar in volume. Again, adjustment and repeated playback will allow you to listen and then make changes based on what you hear.
TIP: When tracks containing spoken word are playing at the same time as sound effects or music, reduce the volume of the sound effect (or music) so that the spoken word track is clearly heard.
In Image 7 below, the lecture and the spoken intro tracks have had their volumes increased. The sound effect track has had its volume decreased to balance the overall production.
Image 7 - Volume level sliders for each audio track
6. Save the Audacity project (File > Save Project As...)
Once you have saved the project, all of the preferences and changes you have made (such as the alignment, any fade-ins or outs, and the volume. adjustments) will be automatically saved. When you wish to add the ident to future productions, Open the project and replace the recorded content file (e.g. the lecture file) with your new production and align in the same way.
7. Export (render) the project as either a WAV or MP3 file
To render the project to a final production file, for storage or delivery, click on File > Export as WAV or Export as MP3, depending on your file preference. For information on choosing audio file types, the document Choosing an Audio File Type contains in-depth information.
Image 8 - Exporting the project to an audio file
8. Export (render) the ident as either a WAV file
To provide a back-up of the ident itself, remove the lecture content file from the Audacity project. This is done by clicking on the X in the top left of the grey box where the volume adjust slider is, to the left of the audio file.
Render the remaining audio (i.e. purely the ident) in the same was as described in step 7.
The rendered audio file from the Audacity project used in this example can be heard here.