Free software for media-savvy researchers

Posted by a.hay on 2 July 2013 - 12:16pm

RecordingStudio.jpgBy Alexander Hay.

Software can be pretty expensive. You won't get much change from £1000 if you want to invest in Photoshop, Final Cut Studio or Pro Tools. But being able to create and edit images, record media and - rather obviously - load it up and play it, are increasingly important in academia. In this post, I'll look at three software packages that give you this functionality - for free!

There are a lot of free software packages - so how do you know which ones are any good? For the most part, the answer is word of mouth, trial and error and knowing where open-source packages are reviewed and tried out by reliable reviewers. Rather than give you a crash course on how to do this via Google, this article will cover three great open-source packages.

Bring out the GIMP

GIMP is an unfortunately named but excellent image-editing package that challenges Photoshop head on. Purists will no doubt argue that Photoshop is still the superior package, being as it is more powerful and versatile. A more nuanced argument, however, is that GIMP lets you do all the things you previously used Photoshop for, but for free.

GIMP's interface is quite different from Photoshop's (no doubt so Adobe didn’t sue), so you can’t move between packages without some practice. This minor criticism aside, GIMP is more than suitable for most image editing work and could easily become your default image editor.

Oh the Audacity!

Sound recording is increasingly important: recording audio from meetings, presentations and lectures is incredibly useful and, as research organisations get more media savvy, academic podcasts are on the rise. Laptops are now supplied with excellent in-built microphones as standard, so all you need for your own portable recording studio is some suitable software. For this, look no further than Audacity.

Not only does Audacity let you record at varying levels of quality, from 8-bit right up to professional standard, it also provides interfaces and editing functions that are versatile and easy to use. There are many advanced functions that will probably not be used by the casual user, but these don't get in the way of the core functionality. Audacity is a sturdy, well-supported audio edit suite.

Veni, Vici, VLC

Finally, you will need something on which to play your media. The case for open source may seem more limited here, because there are plenty of free media players out there, such as Real Player, iTunes and, of course, good ‘ol Windows Media Player. However, many people complain that the free media players suffer from feature bloat, can be slow and are picky over their chosen codecs (and, for the uninitiated, this means they can be very fussy about which videos they will play).

VLC (or VideoLAN Client) is quick to install and very easy to use, with a simple interface that allows you to record, equalise, stream and even edit (to a limited degree) video. It doesn’t crash or get corrupted, stuff your computer with intrusive cookies or keep demanding updates. Instead, it does its job, low key and uncontroversial, and runs smoothly and quickly.