Every Museum Can Create Audio Guides In-house, for Free.

Updated: Mar 25

Here's how to make DIY audio guides.


Part I: Why should I do this?


In this three-part series, we’re going to show you that creating and offering audio guides is not as daunting as it may seem.


One of the biggest challenges with audio guides is the time and resources required to make them, so you thought. We hear you, writing a script and getting approval across different departments within your organization can be quite laborious!


In working with our museum partners, we discovered that there is a much more nimble way to produce audio that may even result in higher engagement from your visitors.


If your team is already giving live tours, a simple solution can be to record one of the tours, with some slight modifications (detailed below) to make the tour available for visitors who couldn’t attend the live tour on a weekday at 11am for example, let’s face it, most of your visitors can’t. The entire process requires minimal planning, execution, and staff time, I promise.


Here's how:

  • Equipment needed: You can accomplish this with just your smartphone, or you can invest in some hardware. Part II of this article focuses on specifics for equipment.

  • Plan the route: The ideal length for this tour will be between 20–60 minutes. The tour should feel brief rather than exhaustive.

  • Recording: This is the easy part. Your tour guide, docent or curator can give a tour as planned, while recording. We’d caution against recording a live tour with a large group of actual visitors though. Any questions that get asked by visitors won’t be picked up very well by the microphone and will be more distracting than helpful for listeners. We do recommend having attendees (e.g. your colleagues) on the tour, as it helps the tour guide give a more natural sounding tour.

  • Post recording: Basic editing is easy to do and can be picked up through a variety of tutorial YouTube videos. GarageBand is a free software that comes with every Mac these days. You can also use Audacity, which is another free audio editor. It sounds complicated, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly!

  • Uploading: Export the audio from GarageBand or Audacity as an mp3 file. Then, if you’re planning to use the free Gesso web app, simply send it over to us.

  • Time required: The time required to do all of this should be equal to the tour recording length + 30 minutes. The first time you do all of this, it will inevitably take longer as you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the steps. Once you’ve done it once, however, you’ll find this to be an incredibly simple process and your visitors will love it.


We’ve recorded a lot of these, and we’ve gathered a significant amount of feedback from visitors that helps us better understand how to make instructions more clear and how to make the audio more engaging. Here’s a few things we’ve figured out along the way.


Navigation: You should plan to start recording and keep recording even while walking between objects, and it is important to provide listeners with very detailed instructions on how to navigate between stops. The best directions help listeners understand how to orient themselves when you give them directions. For example, instead of saying “Turn right”, you could say “with your back to the elevator, head to the right down the hallway”. Even better would be to say “with your back to the elevator, turn right and walk down the hallway towards the large sculpture of a xx”.


Use Gesso: Our web app gives your institution free access to a branded module with all of the highlights content with translations into 18 different languages. Your module on Gesso is customizable to your logo and colors, it’ll look just like you’ve built a custom audio guide app, but in reality you didn’t have to!


Contact us to learn more.


Part II: What equipment do I need to record my podcast or audio guides?


Recording your own podcast or audio guide can feel overwhelming, but it shouldn’t. No matter what your budget is, below are some options that we’d recommend for creating your own podcast or audio guide content. Any questions? Feel free to reach out to us.


NO BUDGET ($0):


Hardware: Assuming you already have a smartphone, the great news is, you already own a good way to record audio. If you’re recording a highlights tour per instructions from Part I, simply start recording while giving a tour around the museum. If you’re recording a podcast or audio guide points of interest and don’t need to be moving around, you can find a quiet, non echo-y room to record in for better audio quality. Your voice will have an echo if you are in a room with a lot of hard surfaces, so it is best to record in a room with carpet or a couch. Use the corded headphones that came with your phone if possible.


Software: Almost all edits to your audio can be made using free software. We know lots of podcasters with thousands of followers that still use one of these tools to edit their audio. On iPhone, you can use the Voice Memos app that came with your phone. On Android, you can use any voice recorder app in the Google Play store. We like the free ASR Voice Recorder app. Begin making your recording by tapping the big red button to start, and just leave the audio recording the entire time. If you make a mistake in the middle of a sentence, pause for a second, and simply start the sentence over again. There is no need to begin a new recording each time as it can easily be edited out later. After you’re done recording, email us the file. Don’t worry about file format. Both of those apps will save in mp3 format by default.


Alternatively, if you’re a Mac user, GarageBand comes with your computer and works great. If you’re on a PC, use Audacity. The interface of both changes from time to time, but luckily YouTube is filled with tutorials that stay up to date. Simply search on YouTube for a tutorial and you’ll be off to the races.


Audacity: https://youtu.be/xl-WDjWrTtk


GarageBand: https://youtu.be/xhesskgmIsQ



LOW BUDGET ($150):


Hardware: You’ll want a lapel mic like this one (~$80) and a simple recording device (also about $80). Lapel mics are incredibly versatile and record great audio. The recording device we like most is this Sony, which allows you to change the sensitivity of the mic (we suggest “Low” if you’re wearing the lapel mic), and comes with plenty of internal memory, which means you won’t even have to buy an SD card.


Software: We’d still recommend using Audacity or GarageBand, both of which are free.



PRO-KIT ($800):


Hardware: Let’s be clear — you do not need this kit to record great audio. For the first two years, Gesso only had the “Cheap” option above and we recorded perfectly good audio quality. However, we’re frequently asked how we record such great audio and wanted to share our exact set up. We spent a lot of time researching all of the options and ended up with an exceptionally good value-for-money professional kit. Here’s our set up (each one is linked to an amazon page):


Shure SM7B ($400)— this is “the” go-to mic for podcasters. This mic is ideally suited to record spoken voices and is built to be used in environments where the acoustics are less-than perfect. We bought this mic because we don’t have a soundproof studio, but we wanted sound-proof studio quality audio. This mic is the shortcut.


Cloudlifter ($150) — Using the above mic, you will definitely need this as it adds gain to the mic needed to work. Gain is a technical term that you really don’t need to know to record audio, but if you’re interested, you can learn about it here. If you’re not interested, that’s ok too. Just know that if you’re buying this mic, you should also buy this.


Boom stand ($100)— This holds your mic steady, and it’s great for positioning the mic in front of your face for recording.


Zoom H5 ($250) — This is a very versatile recording device for capturing audio from the mic. There’s a newer model out, but this one is still the industry standard and is less expensive than the new one.


Software ($100) — Hindenburg.


Any of these options can be used to create great audio. And when you’re done, remember that you can upload to Gesso and tag to location. Reach out for more info.


Part III: The easiest way to translate audio and text.


What’s the most obvious way to make your international visitors feel welcome? Speak their language.


When we surveyed museums, we found that most want to provide translations but find the process to be cumbersome and expensive. Many are faced with such high costs that staff try to decide which languages are most important to prioritize, then worry about offending some visitors by not providing all languages. The result is that many decide it’s better to do nothing rather than make an attempt.


This is a shame, because we’ve also interviewed foreign visitors and found that any translations, even those provided by automated services, would be more appreciated than nothing. It is also true that tour operators call ahead to find out if translations are provided before showing up with large groups of visitors.


We faced this exact situation with one of our client museums. Our client felt it was important to provide translations in 6 specific languages, based on visitor surveys, but had an extremely limited budget. Our research indicated that translation services cost anywhere from $0.10 per word to $0.40 per word (averaging $0.18 per word), depending on the language, for text only. And that’s for one language only — so we’d have to multiply those costs by 6 for the per word price into six languages. This particular client had content of about 10,000 words, so the math goes like this: 10,0000 words x $0.18 x 6 languages = $10,800. And that’s only for text! Clearly we needed another solution.


I realize I might stir a debate here, but I have to say it. Automated translations.


Upon further research, we found that Amazon provides a very inexpensive translation service that offers both audio and text. Furthermore, the service is constantly improving with use. In surveying foreign language speaking visitors, we’ve found that the service is actually quite good in the Western European languages and “better than nothing” for Asian languages. We’ve also found the audio quality to be impressively realistic with the computerized voice even taking breaths. While it is certainly a computerized voice, the service is being built by Amazon with every intent to sound as natural as a human voice for use in Alexa amongst other end uses. The user interface and workflow for Amazon’s tool is a bit complicated, so we do this for our museum partners.


What this ultimately means is that with relatively low expense, your institution can offer completely adequate translations in text and audio in 18 languages. We’ve included it in our basic package for our web app, and you can now upload a transcript in English and provide audio and text in 18 languages. To see it live, follow this link to our web app. In the top left hand corner you can tap to change languages to see it in action. Keep in mind, this took no extra effort for our museum client — they simply provided us with an English transcript.


If your visitors could benefit from translations and you’re on a shoestring budget, contact us to learn more about how we can help.


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