Retargeting – Mostly a Waste of Money

Even though I live and breathe the internet, I only recently learnt what “retargeter” or “retargeting” companies are, and what it actually is that they do.

You’ll know it even if you hadn’t heard the term either.

You know that thing you were thinking of buying? Well perhaps you looked at on Amazon/John Lewis/Asos/wherever. But you didn’t complete a purchase. You looked at the specifications, perhaps read a few customer reviews. But for whatever reason, you failed to buy it.

Well retargeting companies use the fact that you nearly bought something, or at least had a look at it, to sell display ads that appear on other pages of the internet that you subsequently visit. So when it appears that you’re being trailed around the internet by a camera or duvet you browsed for earlier? Well you are. They know you were interested, and you’re theoretically the easiest conversion to make. You just need to be pushed over the line, complete the purchase and everyone’s a winner.

In case you didn’t know, when you visit the average ad-funded page, a real-time auction is taking place based upon what the ad networks know about you, to deliver appropriate advertising. This all happens in milli-seconds as the page loads, and it explains why you seem to be followed around the web so much.

So much for the theory. In practice, it seems broken in many ways. In a world of big data, it’s remarkable how many companies don’t do it right.

On many occasions, something in the system completely and utterly breaks, and I’ll find a company with who I completed an actual purchase, still retargeting me with the same item that they’ve already shipped to me. This isn’t a one-off occurrence, it happens multiple times.

Waste of money.

Not only that, of all things in the world that you can sell me, very probably the last thing I want to buy right now, is the very thing I’ve just bought. Even amongst FMCG brands that I regularly purchase, an immediate need for additional items is unlikely. Seriously, you’re better off trying to flog me a Ferrari that I will never ever buy, than the door-hooks I actually just bought.

Then there is the fact that retargeting seems to take surprisingly little account of price. I was recently shopping for a £2.99 bike-light mount. This is a low value item, and basically I just wanted a retailer who stocked it. I didn’t really care where it came from. I find it amazing that it’s worth even a fraction of a penny to advertise that item to me. This isn’t a considered purchase – a laptop or a television, for example. This is a no questions asked item that I just need.

Waste of money.

Much worse than any of this is the fact that the retargeting companies don’t take account of the fact that most of us do our own price comparisons if the item is of any significant value. I research the model blender I want. I search a few retailers and check the prices. Then I buy from one of them. Except, the other retailers don’t know that I bought it from a competitor. So I’m followed around by blender ads for days afterwards.

Waste of money.

It gets really odd when a big company should know better. Real case in point. I searched YouTube for a new song by an artist I liked. The song appears on a new album, and I get a pre-roll for that album. Fine. That makes sense.

Then I go to Google Play and buy that very album. Back on YouTube, any video I watch is now deluged with pre-rolls for that very same album. Google knows I own it.

It’s a complete waste of money for the client. They should be trying to sell me anything else in the world apart from the album I just bought.

Perhaps in that instance there is some kind of Chinese wall between Google Play transactions and YouTube, but I’d bet that some kind of terms and conditions that I’ve accepted – without reading – allows that data to be shared.

Personally I think while I get a bit annoyed about it, and it feels a bit creepy that companies and ad networks know so much about me, it’s actually the client companies that are losing out. They are flushing their marketing budgets down the toilet in the belief that this is some of the best marketing cash they could spend.

No wonder Dominic Mills in an opinion piece at Mediatel earlier this week described retargeting as “a grubby business.”

I wrote this piece because I was seeing adverts for something that is currently in my Amazon basket on other websites.

I will be buying it.

I just wanted to get something else at the same time, and I don’t need either item for a couple of days. No rush.

In the meantime, some agency somewhere is wasting a client’s money spending cash advertising something directly to me that I’m in the process of buying. Brilliant.

Radio Update

There are various bits of radio news over the last few days that are worthy of note:

Capital has a new advert – Using all those artists who showed up for the Summertime Ball and did bits in front of a green screen. It’s a neat trick that they’ve been doing for a while – and very effective.

Radio 3 has a new controller – Radio Today was so excited, it Tweeted the news about 100 times (a server crashed or something). And why is that Radio 3 can stir up the most vitriolic things I’ll read anywhere on the internet with regards to radio? Passion for a music or a station is a wonderful thing, but…

BBC World Service English has a new Controller – Probably not at the top of anyone’s radio news digest, but World Service output has an audience that dwarfs all the other stations I’m mentioning here.

Sky Sports News Radio is closing down as a live service – I think this is a little sad, and I’m surprised that Sky never tried to make more of this service. It would have been great to see a Sky service on an application for the upcoming “D2″ second commercial national multiplex. If nothing else, a broadcast radio service might have acted as full-time marketing for their paid services, constantly advertising the breadth of coverage that they offer.

And Bauer Radio has made some significant changes – Gone is the Passion and Place portfolio, and we now get the more defined National and Place separation of stations.

Let’s get into that Bauer news a little more since:

1. I used to work there, and

2. This is the biggest change Bauer has made in recent years, and they’re the second largest commercial radio group in the UK.

The three national brands make sense. This January, Absolute Radio 90s will give way to the London version of Magic on Digital One, while at the same time the “northern” Magic brands that weren’t actually the same as the London Magic FM will rebrand. That makes things cleaner. The local brands will become adjuncts of their FM siblings, Key 2, Metro 2 etc. And we’ve known Magic was coming to national DAB at some point, ever since Neil Fox told Media Guardian sometime around last year’s Radio Festival.

Perhaps the “bravest” part of this move is giving up The Hits brand and making that a younger focused sibling of their local FM brands – Key 3, Metro 3 etc. The Hits is a much unloved brand in many ways. It’s sat there through thick and thin with barely any promotion. Of course it was once the only free to air music TV brand on Freeview, and it gained a lot of traction there. Bauer was an early advocate of Freeview and locked up a good amount of spectrum, at what one would imagine was an attractive price. The Hits TV channel morphed into 4Music back in 2008, but the radio station continued. And despite a relative paucity of carriage, it had some excellent RAJAR figures. Too good to be true even! But Bauer was smart in utilising its brands cross-platform.

I think Bauer is just going to have to bite the bullet with The Hits and it’ll lose audience before the “3s” regain it. What will be interesting is how the 3 stations are presented and marketed to the audience. There won’t be a great deal (any?) local programming on these services, but while the talk is about DAB, the actual driver will surely be internet listening which is very strong amongst the 15-25s that these stations are targeting.

In some ways this is sensible then – killing a generally unloved brand even though it has some significant listening. Let’s not forget that Bauer already has a very strong Kiss brand to compete with Capital, complete with sister brands Kisstory and Kiss Fresh both of which are getting expanded DAB coverage.

The short term loser is Absolute Radio 90s. But with D2 on the horizon, it’d be hoped that some existing as well as new services will make it onto that platform. We’re a month away from applications needing to be in for D2. I expect many in commercial radio to be very busy over the next few weeks!

Incidentally, aren’t we still awaiting Global adding a Heart sub-brand to the D1 mulitplex to replace Smooth? They got permission a while back.

Matt and James have both opined on the Bauer subject, and I’ve tried not to duplicate what they’ve already said. Note that, as always, these are my opinions, and don’t represent those of my employer – or my previous employer come to that.

Finally, I’ve carefully avoided getting into Radiocentre’s new piece of research on audience impressions of Radio 1 and Radio 2, upon which I believe that they are basing their response to the BBC Trust review of service licences. It’d be a bit of tightrope to walk. Read the summary at Media.info.

I am looking forward to seeing details of their other new research though, which is being released today at a big event in London.

Douglas Adams

12 May 2001 was a big day for me. It was the FA Cup Final, with Arsenal playing Liverpool in Cardiff. And it was also a good friend’s wedding in London. The match didn’t go so well for an Arsenal fan like me (forced to sneak off during the reception to watch the match on a 3″ Casio TV), but the wedding was excellent, and celebrating it ran long into the night.

Sometime around 5.00am, with plans to head home, and possibly having imbibed a little, I found myself in the lobby of the Charlotte Street Hotel (this was a very nice wedding), where they had complimentary copies of the Sunday Times. I picked one up and was completely knocked off my feet to read on their front page that Douglas Adams had died.

This was a massive body blow to me. I couldn’t stop thinking it about it all the way home, and for many days afterwards. When someone notable or famous that I’ve admired usually dies, I tend to feel glad that we have their work to look back at. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or watch a film of theirs. (It is true that I was similarly knocked for six by Iain Banks’ death too).

I loved Douglas Adams’ books, his writing in general, his computer games – I had Starship Titanic, even if I never finished it, and just the man in general. He seemed like someone to aspire to be, even if it felt like a long time between his books. He loved technology (Why can’t I find Adams’ interview on The Kit anywhere online?)

At an event earlier this week in Foyles, discussing Adams and his life, the panel asked the room how they first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many in the room, I can’t quite remember. I may have caught an episode or two on the radio, but those would have been repeats and on the radio in the kitchen that was solidly tuned to Radio 4. It’s also possible that I’d read the first book. Anything that suggested Science Fiction in a bookshop or library tended to get my vote, and I’d read it.

But I know for certain that I watched the 1981 TV series. What I remember, now I think about it, was that in 1981 I was in my final year of primary school, and one of the end of year traditions was that there was a fancy dress parade.

Age 11, I went as Arthur Dent. For one thing, it was easy – I already owned the pyjamas and a dressing gown which formed the major part of my outfit. The more complicated bit was making a copy of “The Book”.

I’d been given a Texas Instruments calculator by my uncle at Christmas. It was one of those models that had a red LED display. I’d taken it apart on several occasions to see how it worked.

As a result, it no longer worked.

But with use of a tissue box, paint, and the remnants of a non-working calculator, I now had an excellent “book” to go with my costume. I forget whether I took a towel.

What I do know is that few, if any, of my classmates or teachers knew who Arthur Dent was, and someone who’s mum had obviously worked very hard, won the prize for going as Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsort fame. I felt robbed as I’d “made” my own costume and not relied on my mum.

On Tuesday’s panel were Jem Roberts who has a new authorised biography of Adams out, The Frood, and author Marie Philips who has recently had the very excellent The Table of Less Valued Knights published – a somewhat different take on Camelot – and has a blog about Adams on the Foyles website.

There was also a chap from Foyles, who’s name I missed [Update - thanks Marie] Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, chairing the event. Given his viciously hard Hitchhiker’s themed quiz – the lack of a follow-up email suggests that I got fewer marks than the guys in the front row wearing “Don’t Panic” T-shirts – and his line of questioning, he is clearly an Adam’s aficionado.

The event started promptly at 6.42pm, and the talk was of Adams as a writer, his influences, his lackadaisical attitude to work, his failure to write female characters (“Write a character, then make them a woman,” said Marie), his agnosticism, his love of technology, and whether he’d have been good on Twitter. On the latter, the feeling of the panel was “probably”, but there was also a fear that we’d have never had another work from him again. Sadly, we’ll never know.

The panel got a little sidetracked on the film version, and all the things that were wrong with. Marie especially hated it. I’ve just re-read my “review” from 2005, and see that I was relatively kind, if not exactly bowled over. I think the fact that they gave me a towel at the screening I attended may have swayed my opinion. I still have the towel. That said, I’ve only ever seen the film that one time. I’ve never felt the need to revisit it when it’s on TV. But I think I’ve taken a more benevolent view of remakes as I’ve got older, if only because the well of original thought seems to keep drying up, and more and more classics are being remade. So yes, it may be true that someone discovers, or is put off from discovering, a fantastic book from a poor film version, but then the first version of Hamlet you see might be poor. Should that detract from Shakespeare’s play? And I can just avoid something if I like. I know that there is a monstrous Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man in existence. But I’ve never seen it, and my memories are not spoiled by that knowledge. I just have to be a little careful flicking around late night TV when looking for something to watch. See also The Ladykillers (love the Coens, but sorry), Edge of Darkness, State of Play, etc.

The new Foyles is rather magnificent incidentally. They’ve moved into premises vacated by Central St Martins when they moved out to their new King’s Cross home. Although I do somehow miss having to go to three tills to make a book purchase. I remember first going to their Charing Cross Road bookshop with a friend and his mother. I’d chosen a book, and the process was then:

– Queue at a teller who would take the book from you and hand you a chit with the price on it.
– Queue at a cashier and pay the value of the chit and get your receipt.
– Queue back at the first teller with your validated receipt and collect your book.

Also, fiction titles were organised by publisher rather than just author, and we all know who publishes what title don’t we? On the other hand, you could find some seriously obscure books and books that wouldn’t be available anywhere else in a pre-internet age.

Once Charing Cross Road was the home of bookshops in London. Sadly the way things are going, Foyles is going to be just about the only bookshop left on the street.

But back to Tuesday night.

It’s traditional at these things that afterwards the writers on stage will sign copies of their books. I already had a copy of Marie’s latest book which I’d read and brought along, but I picked up a copy of Jem’s book and went over to the table to get them signed.

Now here’s the thing, I can never think of anything particularly sensible to say to an author in that situation. Call it social ineptness. I want to make some kind of small-talk. It always feels like everyone else at these events is already a best buddy: Friends coming along because the author is in town; bookshop staff keeping their author happy topping up the wine and rushing to get fresh nibbles. But as I wait in the queue thinking of something sage and witty to say, it can get a little garbled in my head. A few instances:

– Years ago at a signing with John Simpson, I’d just got a job in the marketing department of a small local newspaper. When I said I told him I was interested in journalism and this was the new job I had, he looked at me with a little pity as if to say, “Then why are you working in marketing?”

– At an Iain Banks signing, I was so in awe of the man, it was just, “Make it out to Adam – the usual spelling.” Fortunately Margaret Atwood hadn’t yet published “MaddAddam” – the only way I can think you could misspell my name.

– At a Neil Gaiman signing, the queue was so long behind me that I was scared to engage in any kind of conversation in case he was still signing in the venue post-midnight.

– At a Dave Gorman book-signing, I didn’t mention that we had a mutual friend, and had met in the pub at least twice. That made it all the more awkward the next time we met in the pub with our mutual friend, when he remembered me being (silent) at his last book signing. I picked up Dave’s new book on the way out of Foyles incidentally.

– At a recent very popular signing by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, she first of all asked, “Would you like a date?” Huh? Ah. She actually had a plate of dates. I politely declined. Then I explained that my father was a massive fan (he is) and that’s why I wanted one book made out to him. It still made me sound like I was just a bit “meh” over her books though. I’m not.

Anyway, this is all by way of a bit of an apology to Marie, of who’s new book I said I’d “quite liked” – which sounds simply awful. Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, and laughed out loud. To compund things, I then brusquely told her that she had to “Listen to the CDs,” having told us earlier that her experience of Hitchhiker’s had mostly been the books (and the film). Sorry about that. The CDs (or downloads) are worth getting though!

Polling and the Scottish Referendum

Fort William-73

What an interesting few weeks it has been for poll-watching. I say that from my London perspective. Obviously north of the border, this is a debate that has been running for years now, and us southerners have only really woken up to it recently.

In particular, we woke up to it following a Sunday Times poll a few weeks ago that suggested that the Yes camp might actually win – and Scotland leave the Union.

However, in terms of the science of polling, there are some fascinating pieces being written about the difficulties faced by polling companies in this referendum. They would seem to boil down to the following:

– Nobody has polled a referendum like this before, making it really hard
– The potential “shy Noes”
– An actual result ~50% has the biggest margin of error possible

Let’s go through those one by one.

Polling companies tend to rely very heavily on previous voter behaviour to predict what is going to happen. They can try to weight for actual behaviour last time when trying to predict what will happen this time. They know which groups are likely to vote (the elderly) and which aren’t (the young). And they’ve got solutions in place for issues that they’ve encountered before.

For example on last week’s More or Less on Radio 4, the example was given of Conservative voters in the 90s. People were a bit nervous about admitting that they would vote Conservative – even to pollsters. Polling organisations have to take account of that.

But when you have no historical data to work from, and when so many new registrations have been made, leading to what will surely be a record turnout, you really don’t know for certain what’s going to happen.

The “shy Noes” are a good example of this. There’s a view that the noisy and vociferous “Yes” campaign has caused those who are voting “No” to keep shut up – some even claim to be scared of admitting in public that they’re a “No.” Not living in Scotland (although I did for year in the early 90s), it’s hard to know what the truth is. I do know that when I watched the BBC debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, it felt like Salmond won as much for the much louder cheering he got from the audience. It’s not at all surprising that “Yes” can be made to feel much more positive than “No.”

Statistically, if the true result is somewhere in the region of 50% behaving one way, the margin of error is worse than if the results was say 10% or 90%. With a result down the middle, you get a bigger margin of error, or you need a significantly bigger sample to mitigate against this. Even if polling organisations do the latter, there’s no guarantee that they’ll not end up wrong though because of the first two issues I’ve raised.

There are some worthwhile pieces of reading from Anthony Wells of YouGov and Ben Page of Ipsos MORI that get into this in a bit more detail.

Also of interest is the fact that Betfair is paying out for “No” ahead of the vote. Bookies are rarely wrong.

My own personal belief is that, despite that polling scares, the “No” vote will get it. I think the margin will be bigger than the currently reported 4% in the polls, as I think the “shy Noes” are a real thing. Added to which older “No” voters are more likely to get to Polling Stations that younger “Yes” voters and actually cast their votes. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if the margin was as big as 8-10%.

You can give me a large slice of humble pie to eat on Friday morning if I’m wrong.

As for which way Scots should vote? Well my grandfather was Scottish, and thus I could represent Scotland in many sports (were I good enough); I’ve been on holiday there many times; I’ve lived there for a time; and my name is Scottish – affiliated with the McDonald Clan, you can find a Ben Bowie near the southern edge of Loch Lomond. I love Scotland. But for the life of me, I can’t see that a “Yes” vote would be anything other than disastrous for the people. The oil reserves are a big unknown – improved extraction techniques not withstanding. Salmond still hasn’t given a satisfactory answer as to how he could use the pound (and he won’t be using the Euro). Prices will have to rise – it’s the cost of doing cross-border business. And I can’t see any way now that Scotland won’t get devomax. So in many respects it’s a win for Scotland anyway. The complaints of about lack of representation in Westminster are no worse than much of northern England. Getting into the EU isn’t a given (Spain won’t be in a rush to let Scotland in for example).

Oddly enough I find Alex Salmond the weakest part of the “Yes” campaign. Beyond his lack of a cogently-argued economic policies, his brown-nosing of Rupert Murdoch is worse than anything Tony Blair did. And his obsequiousness towards Donald Trump, as highlighted in Anthony Baxter’s excellent You’ve Been Trumped (and apparently, in his follow up that I’ve yet to see – A Dangerous Game) did not endear me to the man. I’m told that in Scotland, the “Yes” campaign is more than just about Salmond. But you wouldn’t know that from afar.

Interestingly, the Scottish Sun has failed to come out for the “Yes” camp as many had been suspecting. But as much as anything, this will be a commercial decision made by Murdoch, much as he’d like to give Westminster a bloody nose after the whole phone hacking fallout. It’s never so much “The Sun Wot Won It” as “The Sun backs the winner.” This time around they don’t know who the winner will be. And backing the wrong horse could endanger sales.

I think one of the toughest things after this campaign, is the Scottish people reconciling their futures with one another. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow, half the people are going to be disappointed – bitterly disappointed in many cases. That’s going to take more getting over than a general election, where you always know that within 4-5 years, you’ll get another chance.

Finally, if you’ve not seen John Oliver on this, then he’s very much worth a watch. And they’ve un-geoblocked this segment for us Brits especially!

(Just nobody point this out to them. I can trust you on that can’t I? Mum’s the word.)

Tour of Britain 2014 – Stage 8 (London)

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-56

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-23

A good day yesterday at the Tour of Britain watching first the time trial, and later a 10 lap circuit race around town. Lots of opportunities for photos, and I took them!

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-28

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-40

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-43

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-45

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-52

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-60

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-75

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-92

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Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 8 - London-106

For all my photos, head over to Flickr.

And for something a little different, here are some of my photos along with some audio from the race. I’d recommend listening either with really good speakers, or via headphones.

Tour of Britain photos and sound from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Desire
The corner of Royal and Desire in New Orleans. There really was a streetcar that ran along Desire…

It seems that this has been one of the hot tickets of the season, which just makes it bit odd that I managed to buy a pair of tickets for a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, purely by logging onto the Young Vic’s website after the reviews came out when I idly though I might go. I guess that other people cancel going to even the most popular shows, so it’s always worth checking (Yes – this is how I got to Kate Bush too – try checking around 11am if you’re after tickets for that). Anyway, enough of the smugness, what about the play?

Well it was fantastic.

I first saw A Streetcard Named Desire years ago – sometime in the eighties or nineties. Try as I might, I can’t remember who played Blanche, although I’m sure it was a starry West End cast. (Where’s the equivalent of IMDB for plays?)

This time around we have Gillian Anderson as a terrific Blanche Dubois, arriving to stay at her younger sister’s home in New Orleans. She totter slowly onto the stage trailing her baggage and wearing large sunglasses. This can’t be the right place.

Her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) isn’t home at first, and she hasn’t mentioned to Stanley (Ben Foster) that her older sister was coming to stay.

The heat of the summer is making people angsty. Blanche expects more than she’s getting. Stanley doesn’t trust her.

The play is given a contemporary setting – a cordless phone, and cans rather than bottles of beer and (Diet) Coke. But it doesn’t really matter. It all still holds true nearly 70 years after Tennessee Williams wrote it. And the design is fascinating, with a stage that is in constant motion, slowly revolving while the audience watches in the round. For the most part this works, with the direction meaning that you naturally flick around to different parts of the set for different scenes. But occassionally your vision is blocked at a crucial scene by a door. Or you can’t fail to notice that they’ve had to speed it up so that actors can enter and leave on cue.

But it’s all about the performances really. Anderson is superb, not overdoing the alcoholism, although you can see it in her eyes, and her manner. She gets the laughs, and the sadness. Life has not gone as she’d planned. But she knows how to work men, or at least she thinks she does. Her seduction of a paperboy, from a 21st century perspective, is quite shocking.

Foster’s Stanley is still macho, but somehow not quite as much of a bruiser as I’ve seen him before. I’m pretty certain he must have bulked up though, since he played Lance Armstrong in the forthcoming Stephen Frears film about the man. The lines about him not being a “Polack” seems very relevant in today’s society too.

Stella just can’t help herself, and forgives the violence that sometimes erupts – seemingly across the whole neighbourhood. There is definitely pent up sexual tension here. And you can see why the 1951 film was so heavily censored.

Overall the performances are exceptional, and I loved it.

This is the last week to try to catch it in person, or go see the NT Live showing tomorrow!

Wildlife Sound Recording Course

I spent last weekend near Reepham in Norfolk learning some of the basics of sound recording.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I’ve tinkered loosely with audio in the past. I’ve owned a Zoom H2 for a number of years, and in particular I’ve tinkered around with some binaural recordings.

But while the H2 is a fun device, it has its difficulties. Because the microphone is built into it, you get a lot of handling noise. And I now know that the pre-amps aren’t great on it. I did recently upgrade to the new Zoom H5, but I now know that this perhaps wasn’t my best buy, and I should have waited until after this course to look at something different.

The Zoom H5 comes with an X/Y stereo microhpone, and crucially also has a couple of XLR inputs. This latter is particularly important having come away from the weekend.

The course is run by a company called Wildeye, and I first stumbled across it some years ago. Every year, I’d promise myself that I’d sign up, and every year, as the dates got closer, the course would have filled anyway. So finally this year, I signed up a few months ahead of time.

The really great thing about the course is that you have some of the best in the business teaching it. It’s led by Chris Watson and Jez riley French. Chris Watson has recorded everything – working on television, radio, and feature films. He’s released audio on CD, and he’s produced installation pieces. Jez riley French is essentially a sound artist, using field recordings as his compositions. He also builds and sells his own contact microphones and hydrophones.

On the first evening of the course, everyone in the room went around talking about what they did and how they used sound. Some were at the very creative end – sometimes working in other mediums and looking to improve their sound skills. Others worked in different facets of audio. Some had a bit of experience, others didn’t. It was a really interesting mix of people.

Chris had set up a great four speaker surround system in the room where we heard most of our talks. Multi-channel audio is obviously a really interesting area, and something he’s working in more and more. The difficulty right now is distributing that audio. While the BBC has carried out experiments with multi-channel audio, regular broadcast radio is not capable of broadcasting in more than stereo, and sadly cost constraints mean that most broadcasters are counting their bits – bits cost money – and looking to drop rates rather than increase them. Experiments with things like DAB+ might be interesting.

[Multi-Channel Note: I was particularly thinking of a Radio 4 broadcast of Pinocchio from Christmas 2012, when I referred to the BBC's multi-channel experiment, but I've just seen that Radio 3 has been broadcasting this year's Proms in 4 channel surround! I feel that I should have known this. And interestingly, while none of my computers have more than stereo soundcards, using Google's Chromecast might theoretically be a workaround - however since I was "casting" my laptop to the TV, it was my laptop's stereo-only soundcard that the TV used. Incidentally, although Pinocchio was offered in 5.1 as a download as well as stereo via broadcast, it was actually made in 22.1 sound. I know because last year I stood in a room with that many speakers listening to an excerpt! The 5.1 version was actually a downmix.]

We began with a talk from Chris about what he tries to achieve with sound. He breaks audio into three types:

– Atmosphere (in film, the Wild Track) – used to convey general background. It forms the basic function of allow you to edit other sound over the top of it without the listener noticing the edits. There should be a minimal dynamic range in the audio.

– Habitat – this has a broader dynamic range with some very loud and quiet bits. It engages the listener.

– Species – this needn’t be an animal, but it’s a featured sound. More often than not with animal sounds, it’ll be mono. It could also be elemental effects like thunder or rain.

Jez talked about some of things he did. He had some amazing contact microphone audio that he’d recorded in Italy on teleferica wires. These are the wires that villagers used to use to send firewood down from the mountain forests to the village (He has a double album of this coming).

Then we got into some of the technical specifics of different kinds of microphones, their directions, and even looking at specialist kit like parabolic reflectors which can isolate single sounds from a distance by being accurately pointed.

We got into some specifics about different makes and models of microphones to get. And we also got into recorders. On Sunday I realised how true this all was when I used the same set-up and compared Jez’s recorder with his microphones, and mine with the same kind of mics. Chalk and cheese.

We did field trips to nearby woodlands – although we had to skirt one place where they were holding a Viking re-enactment. And I made lots of not-especially-good recordings.

I did find myself with Chris’s awesome DPA 4060 omni-directional mics (~£650) attached to a coathanger. These are really designed as lavelier mics – you see them on newsreaders. But they’re fantastic at recording soundscapes. Chris mentioned that he has a soundscape of Newcastle coming up on the radio soon, and he was able to wear these unobtrusively to capture the sound.

We also played with bat detectors, as the hall we were staying in was surrounded by bats. These are incredible and you could hear their sonar as they flew across above us in the twilight. The location was great for wildlife – even though a nearby campsite did spill sound over. Chris put out his gorgeous multi-channel microphone overnight in a nearby copse, hoping to capture owls and the dawn chorus. Running a long cable back to the hall meant that those who got up at 5am could listen to the sounds without disturbing the wildlife (I confess I didn’t get up).

A nearby disused station has steam trains running on a couple of hundred metres of track. On the Sunday morning we were able to do things like put contact microphones on the track and record the train passing by.

There was also a steam traction engine that made a very rhythmic sound. I have to do something interesting with those sounds.

The final afternoon was spent reviewing some of the audio, hearing about more kit recommendations and suggestions (I have a long Christmas list), and answering other questions we might have.

I came away with another of Chris’s CDs (I already own one), a pair of Jez’s contact microphones, and a lot of exciting ideas of things to do. I’d like to come up with some interesting pairings of audio and photography.

I heard some amazing audio while I was there including the teleferica sounds as well as some incredible Yoik singing – the traditional song of the Sami people who live in the far north of places like Norway and Finland.

And I’m going to take a day-trip to Kielder Forest to hear Hrafn: Conversations with Odin a sound installation within the darkened forest itself taking place in late October.

It really was a quite inspiring weekend.

The [Insert Your Name Here] Arena

Earlier today I got an email advertising an upcoming gig with Sting and Paul Simon. Tickets are going on sale soon for the event taking place at the Phones 4U Arena.

Phones 4U Arena? That’s a new one to me. I realised pretty quickly that it probably wasn’t new, and was just a recent sponsorship deal. But as much as I scanned the email, there was no mention of a city.

It turns out it’s in Manchester. But then the arena in Manchester has been through a few names. It was called the NYNEX Arena for a while, then for quite a long time it was the Manchester Evening News, or MEN Arena. After that longterm deal expired, seemingly a sponsor couldn’t be found. So it became the Manchester Arena. And then last year, it became the Phones 4U Arena.

Just trips off the tongue.

The problem is that since every arena in the country is sponsored in some capacity and marketing folk just have to bite the bullet and work in the location as well as the sponsor. So how about “The Phones 4U Manchester Arena”? That’d be fine wouldn’t it? We’d all know where it was.

And this isn’t just some kind of southern bias. In London we have Wembley Arena. Originally it was actually a swimming pool for the 1934 Empire Games. But from 1978 until earlier this year it was Wembley Arena. Given that it sits right outside Wembley Stadium, that was fine. But now it has a sponsor and is known as the SSE Arena. It really needs to be called the SSE Wembley Arena, but some marketing person won’t do that because the know the average visitor will just drop the “SSE” and carry on calling it “Wembley Arena”. Well I have news. They’re going to call it Wembley Arena anyway, because it’s the arena right outside Wembley Stadium.

I was confused by SSE because I was sure that was the name of something in Glasgow.

It is. There they have the SSE Hydro, which although sounding like a strangely sponsored spa to this Sassanach, is actually a brand new arena. It just shares sponsorship because SSE no doubt wants to “own” music venues (that’s the sort of language marketing people use about these sorts of things).

In the meantime, you might go to a gig at the O2. You probably mean the dome. The millennium place. The North Greenwich Arena as it was known during the Olympics (and which rival telecoms outfit EE still sometimes calls it). But not to be confused with the O2 Academy Brixton (aka Brixton Academy), the O2 Academy Islington (Wasn’t that the Carling Academy?) or the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (aka the Shepherd’s Bush Empire), or one of a dozen or so other Academies or ABCs up and down the country also called the O2.

Perhaps your gig of choice is in Hammersmith. Originally the Gaumont Palace, it became the Hammersmith Odeon, then Labbatt’s Apollo, the Carling Apollo Hammersmith, the HMV Apollo Hammersmith, the Eventim Apollo, and for quite a lot of time the Hammersmith Apollo. Eventim Apollo is the current name, because Eventim means such a lot to UK consumers (they’re a German ticketing company).

Anyway, however much I may dislike naming rights, I understand it’s part of the venue industry. But please try to include the location of the venue in your fancy new name. Because otherwise I may dismiss your gig as being irrelevant to me because it’s in a distant city when in fact it’s just up the road (although in Wembley’s case, it can be both in the same city and distant).

When Are Casio, Timex or Rolex Making a Smartwatch?

Not a smartwatch

Another day, another over-excited consumer goods release. Most others use trade shows. Apple does its own thing. It works for them. Fine.

I can’t comment on the phone updates as I’ve not really seen anything that interesting or novel in any phone I’ve seen announced recently. Certainly nothing to make me think that my Nexus 5 is dated (it’s only a year old, so it shouldn’t be).

But watches are an interesting area, and so far, nobody seems to have done it right.

First of all, it needs to be acknowledged that most watches are worn as jewellery of some description. Otherwise everyone would be owning cheap and functional Casios. And jewellery is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Do I prefer digital numbers of analogue hands? The Swiss or Japanese movement of a well engineered piece of marvellousness? What kind of watch looks good on my wrist? For some, it’s a chunky diver’s watch; for others the slim minimalism of small ladies’ watch.

And all of these devices do one thing really well.

They tell the time.

We need to know the time because we live our lives by it. We start work, school or college at set times; have appointments to meet at set times; films to see at set times; matches to watch or play in at set times; TV shows to catch at set times (OK – we have PVRs and OTT too).

A personal timepiece isn’t just useful – it’s essential.

Now it’s true, I’m amazed at the dominance of the “slab” in phones. We used to have a phone market where some preferred the dinky minimalism of Motorola Razr, while others preferred the functionality of keyboard-touting Blackberry. Now most phones look the same – between 4 and 5 inches of flatness – and getting bigger. The last set of gloves I bought were size Large, so I can handle one of them. But a 5 inch screen can’t be right for everyone can it? We just have to “personalise” them by choosing different cases. All smartphones are basically the same.

In the world of watches though – a single device, or even two, isn’t enough.

Have you seen how many models Casio, Timex, Rolex, Omega et al offer? Hundreds! We’re not back in the Ford Model-T era when you could have any colour as long as it was black.

So there is no right answer as to which watch looks right to any individual. And it’d take a massive cultural shift to get us to all adopt a watch from just a small number of devices. It may have happened with phones, but I can’t see it with watches.

If I was Google or Apple, I’d be working with watch manufacturers – both high-end and mass-market – and getting them to embed the appropriate technology into their devices. Why on earth should a computer manufacturer be remotely good at producing jewelry? I don’t want an Apple or LG watch any more than I want Apple or LG trainers, or shirts, or jeans.

So here is what I want from a smartwatch:

– It has to be able to tell the time. At all times. Without me having to do anything to see the time.
– The date would be nice too.
– The battery needs to last at least a week, not “nearly a day”. My current Casio battery lasts about three years. That’s 26,000 hours – not just short of 24. The charging mechanism needs to be painless.
– If it has health applications like step counters and heart rate monitors, then they need to work when I’m actually exercising.
– Accelerometers and barometers are lovely.
– It must have decent battery life.
– Most of the watches I’ve seen so far seem to be doing the connectivity, and notifications, so that’s fine.
– It needs to be available in a wide range of styles. I mean really wide. Not just size A or B, with a choice of straps, but hundreds of models to suit me, my lifestyle and my personal choices.
– Did I mention the battery? That’s really important.

By the way, in case all this seems unduly negative, it shouldn’t be. I really do want a smartwatch. I think the functionality is very exciting. A watch is a convenient form factor to glance at for information. I’m not so convinced I need to interact greatly via a watch, but to read a text, get an email subject header or similar seems fine. And for monitoring health, fitness tracking and the like, a watch is essential.

But engineering the watch isn’t the hard part. Well, aside from battery life anyway.

It’s the design. And to be honest, I’d leave that to the professionals. I want to be able to walk up to a Swatch counter (no doubt in an airport), choose a watch and be offered either the iOS or Android Wear version. That should be that.

[An aside: I note that nobody expects Google or Apple to actually build consumer cars for their in-car entertainment systems Android Auto and CarPlay. You're going to get them offered in Fords or Toyotas - ideally as an option like choosing alloy wheels or metallic paint. Even Google's self-driving cars are retrofitted cars made by actual car manufacturers. Just because watches seem easy compared with cars, they're not.]

House Style

I had to laugh at the weekend when Danny Baker pulled apart a trailer that adopted that most over-used radio production style of having alternate lines with some kind of digital/distanced effect. You know what I mean. And if you listen to this short clip, you’ll know what Baker is getting at.