audio

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…

HTC 10 – Initial Thoughts

This is my fifth HTC device, although it has been a while since my last. That was an HTC One X, which was pretty decent in its day, although the camera was fairly average. Sometime before that, I also owned an HTC Desire, Orange SPV 500 (aka the HTC Typhoon) and an Orange SPV M500 (HTC Magician) complete with stylus.

More recently I have been using a Nexus 5 (made by LG), which was excellent except that I had serious battery issues with it, and eventually had to abandon it for those reasons. My most recent phone has been a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (Z3C).

In point of fact, I’d remained pretty satisfied with my Sony, until a couple of faults occurred. The first was the failure of the headphone jack. I’d actually already had a warranty replacement of the Z3C over this failure. So it was disappointing when it happened a second time.

Since playing audio is a vital function of a phone for me – perhaps the most vital function – I had to find a workaround. This was a small Sony SBH54 Bluetooth adapter. Essentially this little device allows any headphones to be connected via Bluetooth. It was a workaround, albeit a pricey one. (Incidentally, expect to see more of these if the next generation of iPhones do actually come without a 3.5mm jack socket.)

For the most part audio quality on the Bluetooth accessory was excellent, and connectivity was generally good. Sometimes in built-up areas, you’d struggle for a few seconds to get a solid signal. The only slightly annoying thing is that you’re stuck with the device’s default ringtone, which really isn’t great. And of course, you need to keep the device charged. If it goes flat (and it doesn’t give you much warning that it has low battery), then you’re without audio. All in all, nice to have, but a wired connection is more reliable.

I would have persevered longer with the Z3C had I not dropped the phone and seemingly broken the proximity sensor. This is very annoying. The proximity sensor is the thing that turns off your screen when you put your smartphone to your ear. You don’t want your earlobe dialling other numbers for example.

When my proximity sensor broke, it meant that as soon as a call connected, the screen turned off, and none of the physical buttons would turn it back on. This meant, for example, that you had to wait for a caller to hang up. And if you needed to press the keypad during a call to an automated switchboard or your voicemail? Well good luck.

In fact, searches online showed me that firm pressure in the top right hand corned of the screen where the proximity sensor sits, reactivated the screen. But this was an added issue, and in any case, didn’t always work for me. While 18 months isn’t quite the life expectancy I would want to get out a phone, it was time for a new one. I subsequently learnt that disappointingly, Sony hadn’t included the Z3C on its Android N upgrade path either.

Now I don’t actually look forward to upgrading my phone. It’s a time-consuming process. Really time-consuming.

While Google Play attempts to reload all your regular apps, you have to re-sign into all your services, and I have to work hard to keep all my audio in place. It’s a much simpler process with Apple, and I wish it was easier on Android.

These days I actually end up taking photos of the layout of my phones home-screens – which apps I’ve gathered together, and so on. It’s a hassle.

The good news is that since I now buy phones SIM free, I’m not in a contract, and don’t have to worry about where I am in a contract cycle. And more importantly, many of the major 2016 Android phones have already been launched, so there’s a good selection out there. That said, like buying a PC, there’s always a new model on the horizon.

Nope, I wouldn’t consider an iPhone. I like and understand the Android ecosystem fully, and you tend to get better value with Android hardware. Plus I’ve invested in the ecosystem, paying for apps that still work happily on my new device, and that I’d need to rebuy if I switched to Apple.

You also don’t own the same phone as the rest of the world.

But mainly, I have a general dislike of Apple’s way of locking you into their ecosystem, them deciding what you can and can’t do with your device. They’re also right at the top-end price-wise (all that un-taxed income!), and iTunes is of course, the work of the devil…

So it was always going to be an Android phone, but which one?

Here are my needs:

  • A good camera
  • 32GB minimum on board
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Good battery life
  • Fast processor
  • Not a phablet – I want to put it in a trouser pocket
  • [Later] Headphone socket

A decent camera is vital. Your phone is always the camera you have with you – and I speak as someone who carries a Sony RX100M3 an awful lot. Phones with RAW capability are on the market now, and I’m looking for that flexibility and power.

Seriously, who even makes phone with less than 32GB these days? To be honest 64GB should be standard, but the need for MicroSD storage sort of puts paid to that. I currently use a 128GB card and it’s often close to full. That’s because I store a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and offline Google Play Music audio on it. That’s before you get to the more usual things like photos and video.

Battery life is always essential, and my Z3C really came through here with loads of life. Yes – I’m still putting the phone on charge each night, but for those times when you need that extra power, a bigger battery wins over a thinner phone.

A fast processor is more about making sure that the phone isn’t sluggish. I don’t really play games on my phone, but I do the occasional bit of photo processing on it, and that takes CPU power especially when paired with RAW files.

And the thing needs to be pocketable. Phones are getting larger and larger these days, but I want something that is easy to carry around.

[Later] A headphone socket because guess what, wired headphones – the ones I already have – are great. I’ve been using wireless headphones for a while since my old Xperia’s headphone socket broke (a design flaw of the phone rather than of the jack), and having an extra thing to charge is just maddening.

Narrowing down my options I had the following shortlist:

  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • OnePlus 3
  • HTC 10
  • Sony Xperia X
  • LG G5
  • Wait for a new Nexus device (or whatever it ends up being called)

The Sony Xperia X could quickly be discarded. Originally priced close to the other flagships, it has since been discounted a bit. But it’s just not much of an evolution of recent Xperia devices. In particular, it doesn’t use the top-end Snapdragon 820 processor that most of the others use, instead having a mid-range one. That’s fine in a mid-range phone, but this isn’t priced as such. If I was searching for a £150 phone (e.g. a Moto G4), then this would be fine. But I’m not.

The phone seems generally fine, but it feels like Sony missed a trick. There is an Xperia X Performance which has been released to right some of these wrongs, but it’s also priced high. Plus those Z3C headphone issues have really burnt me. It seems to have been a known issue, and it really damaged my enjoyment of an otherwise excellent phone.

The OnePlus 3 has many things going for it. Even with the recent post-Brexit price increase, it’s still much cheaper than its competitors with a strong package onboard. I even like the fact that it has a dual-SIM which is useful for holidays or trips abroad. But while it comes as standard with 64GB of onboard storage, there’s no microSD slot. That’s a deal breaker for me, as I don’t ever want to be faced with storage issues on my phone. There are 200GB microSD cards on the market now for goodness’ sake.

The LG G5 might be a serious contender. It has come down a bit in price recently, and the Nexus 5 they built for Google remains one of the best phones I’ve ever owned. A good package and worth considering.

The HTC 10 has some excellent specs, and the camera seems like it’s almost best in class. Perhaps the Samsung betters it. It has expandable storage, and HTC has messed around very little with stock Android which is a good thing. The sound capabilities are also said to be very good. Another contender.

Samsung’s Galaxy series are always strong, and the S7 is no slouch. The use their own processors, but the camera is said to be excellent, and they’ve reintroduced microSD storage. The only thing stopping me is the premium price. Samsung doesn’t have to discount this, so they don’t. And Samsung does mess around with stock Android more than most. If I really wanted to be flash, there’s the Edge model, but that’s just ludicrously expensive, for fairly limited practical advantage.

Finally, there’s waiting for a new device, particularly one of the new Nexus devices from Google coming soon (and maybe not called “Nexus”). Waiting can be a fool’s game. Yes, you get Android N, but then some apps will take time to get support and so on. More pertinently, Nexus devices have hitherto come without expandable storage. And for my phone, that’s a deal-breaker. For a tablet mostly used at home, like my Nexus 7, 32GB (or 64GB) will suffice. (Incidentally, I’d really love to see a replacement for the Nexus 7. Superb quality at a great price.)

There are other phones of course, but it was always going to be between these ones. It must be said that some of the price issues diminish if you use an online Hong Kong-based retailer. Many of the shopping ads on Google with the best prices tend to be these guys. The problem is that you may or may not be hit with VAT and import duty when you receive the phone (these guys are definitely trying to avoid it), and your warranty may well not work over here. That could mean shipping your phone back to Hong Kong should you experience any difficulties. Buyer beware.

In the end, I plumped for the HTC 10. Despite HTC going through some tough times with their phones, this seems like a good one. A £100 off summer offer was enough to swing it for me. And theirs seems to be the only phone taking advantage of adoptable storage – in effect making the phone 160GB (32GB + 128GB microSD) in a single storage area.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well the phone is really nice. It’s a large beast, coming after owning a Z3C for so, long, but not overly. I can still put it in either my trouser or shirt pocket. I tend not to wear suit jackets at work, so being pocketable is important.

The camera is really very nice, although I’ve really only experimented with it so far. But I’m impressed. If you do shoot in RAW, the only thing to note is that there is a “processing” delay before you can take another shot. But also note that RAW is actually RAW+JPG since it’s almost certain that none of your phone’s apps can handle the DNG formatted RAW file. Lightroom Mobile is the only app I have that seems to work with the format.

I liked the physical camera button that the Z3C had. You either used it as a shutter button in the camera app, or to quick start the phone from screen off into the camera app. I changed the function of the volume buttons to be the shutter on the HTC 10, but to get into the camera quickly, two swipes on the blank screen are required.

Indeed double tapping the screen when off can turn the phone on, and while this is nice, it can cause problems. I found myself accidentally turning it on from a pocket on more than one occasion. I may disable that function.

The implementation of Android M is fine, with relatively little messing around. I was impressed with the fingerprint reader which does unlock the phone very quickly.

The phone’s sound is excellent. Recent HTC phones have had “Boomsound” speakers front facing. On the HTC 10 they aren’t front-facing, but without headphones, still sound great. If you plug in the headphones that are packaged with the phone, then the sound is simply magnificent.

While I’m not an audiophile, I do care about decent sound, and the HTC 10 has better sound than I’ve ever heard from a mobile. The supplied headphones really are excellent as well. Another “quirk” of my Z3C had been finding any headphone/microphone combos beyond those supplied with the device, that worked properly with the phone. I don’t need to look for third party phones with this device since they’re just so good. A small button on the microphone lets you pause, answer calls and other things. A really nice package.

I must confess that I’m still getting my head around adoptable storage in Android M. As mentioned. this allows you to treat microSD card storage as if it was internal. I thought I’d be presented with a single storage space, but that’s not quite true. For example, I use the BBC Weather widget on my homescreen, but that needs to be stored on the device and not the SD card – even under adoptable storage – for you to be able to display it. So there’s a bit of rummaging around to move apps about. Still, I no longer face the interminable bore of moving apps back to the SD card every time they update, as I did previously.

The phone is mostly devoid of unnecessary and unasked for apps. However Facebook is there, as is its Messenger app – the latter seemingly not uninstallable despite my best efforts! (I refuse to succumb).

Probably the most disruptive thing about the HTC 10 is the use of USB-C charging. While I’m firmly in favour of this new format – assuming that third party manufacturers start building proper cables – this does cause some new short term issues. Nearly all my devices are micro USB charged currently, and that means it’s easy to bring one charger (I tend to use the slimline folding Muo Duo chargers) and a couple of micro USB cables wherever I go. They recharge everything from phone to camera to Garmin to tablet to bike lights. Yes, getting the cable the right way around is fiddly, and yes, I’ve damaged plenty of wires over time. But at home I also have a nice Anker 5 Port charger in my living room to meet all my charging needs.

The phone comes with a quick charger and this is excellent. It has found a place by my bedside table. That said, I miss the cradle I used for my Z3C, and the wireless charging capabilities of my Nexus 5. I may pick up an unofficial device if I can find one that will work with my case. Other 2A chargers such as those mentioned work well, but I did buy a few spare USB C cables to scatter around my home and put in my bag so that I’m never far a charging solution.

Otherwise everything looks good. The phone works fast, and holds charge for a solid day or so. Clearly your usage and experience will differ, but for me it perhaps last a little less than my Z3C, but still satisfactory. The screen is lovely, and call quality is fine. I had no problems with either WiFi or Bluetooth, although NFC isn’t perhaps quite as good as on the Z3C – I use it to pair with Bluetooth headphones and speakers at home. And sadly there’s no FM radio on the phone, but in truth, I now carry a pocket DAB radio for that. I wait in hope that phones aside from a single mid-range LG model, begin to come with this as standard. A good stereo DAB or DAB+ service could sound awesome through this device’s audio circuitry.

But those are small gripes. Overall I’m very pleased with the device. The camera and especially the audio quality are remarkably good and worth it alone for that!

The Political Cycle

It’s my favourite time of year – The Tour de France is well underway. Mark Cavendish is back on form, picking up wins 27, 28 and 29, leaving him second on the all-time wins list, and the fireworks are about to kick off as the race enters the Pyrenees.

Recently I raised my hand to say that I’d help out the chaps at The Cycling Podcast. They produce a gargantuan amount of audio during the Tour, with a post-race episode each evening after the stage, and a daily feature episode — KM0 — each morning, that’s on top of the Friends of the Podcast specials (Only £10!).

A couple of promos aside, this is the first real fruit of my labours, seeing me edit this episode of KM0. Tight turnarounds are the order of the day here, so it’s not perfect, but this was a fun one looking back at the Tour de Trump amongst other things.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased about the way this sounds:

A Sheringham Soundscape

Sheringham Beach-3

Recorded along the coast during a near high-tide this morning. The promenade in Sheringham was quite badly damaged during December 2013 storms, and more than two years later, there is still work being carried out to repair some of that damage.

The audio is a mix of different sounds with some “treatment” particularly to the workmen repairing some of the metalwork.

DAB and DAB+: Some Testing Ahead of SDL/D2 Launch Next Week

125 DAB and DAB+ Services

Rupert Brun, expert on all things audio and late of the BBC, has been testing his radios at ahead of the Sound Digital (SDL) launch in a week’s time. The multiplex is in full test mode at the moment, so if you want to know if you can hear the new services, then a rescan of your radio may be in order.

Rupert first compiled his results on his blog (direct link), and has gone on to produce a Google Doc of the results including those of others.

So I’ve decided to test my own radios allowing Rupert to incorporate them into his results.

First of all I should note, as the photo above shows, that I’m in a rather fortunate location with regard to DAB/DAB+ radio. I live in north London, inside the M25, but close to the green belt. I’m also high up (at least for London) at somewhere around 70m above sea level. What that all means is that my radios will currently tune in 125 different services coming from the following multiplexes

  • BBC National
  • D1 National
  • SDL National
  • London 1
  • London 2
  • London 3
  • London Trial
  • Herts, Beds & Bucks
  • Essex
  • Kent
  • Surrey

I am somewhat surprised that I can get the Surrey multiplex, since it’s geographically the other side of London. And to be honest, reception is poor – but listenable. Kent might seem as far, but historically FM services have always reached this part of north London, and the closest transmitter for that mulitplex is actually in Benfleet in Essex.

Anyway, here are the results of my radios. I’ve included the number of services tuned into to give you an idea of the sensitivity of these sets. I tested them all with their own built in antennae, except the portable models where I used a set of ear-buds extended vertically.

BrandModelResultsRating (Based on Rupert Brun's Rating)Services Tuned
RobertsEco4 BTDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsEcologic 4Displays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsStream 83iDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsGemini 59Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
GrundigOpusShows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
PureMove 1500Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor116
BushCDAB431RDoes not show or play DAB+ servicesAverage*122
GoodmansGHDAB101Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125

*Note that Rupert measures both sets that present DAB+ services that can’t be tuned, and those who can’t tune them, so hide them, as both “Poor.” That’s true, but I think it’s a better user experience to hide services that can’t be tuned. It you see a service and tune to it, it looks like there’s either a problem with your radio, or perhaps the station is off-air.

In summary, the more expensive radios – the first three Roberts models – all did fine. Which is as well, since these are my most used radios, and also deliver by far the best sound. I’m unsurprised that none of the portable models tested works, but I do have a new Pure Move 2500 – untested because I left it at my parents’ house accidentally – which should give me DAB+. And none of my cheap models surprised me by revealing that they were indeed DAB+ compatible.

Two more thoughts on my testing:

– The test audio that SDL is currently broadcasting for Virgin Radio is truly awful in sound quality. While the service will only be 80k mono, it sounds like they’re playing a 32k mp3. Not the best way to show off a new service.

– My radios get a lot of Heart stations. And it’s not always easy to tell them apart. In order I get the following:

Heart – Herts, Beds & Buck
Heart – London 1
Heart Kt – Kent
Heart Su – Surrey
Heart Sx – Essex (esS eX – geddit!)

You’ll note that the first two are indistinguishable from the short version of the DAB label. I have to tune to one of them and then hit “info” a few times to determine which multiplex I’m listening to.

When Heart Extra launches in a few days that’ll be one more! (With the London breakfast show carried on the service competing with all the local Heart breakfast shows.)

I know that DAB labels aren’t easy to manage. I once battled with naming all the Absolute Radio services, trying to get radios to sort them in a logical order. Unfortunately, what’s logical on one radio, isn’t on another – different brands and models use different sorting algorithms! So trying to get Absolute Radio 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, along with the main brand and classic rock, into a sensible order proved impossible.

The Encounter

The Encounter is a tour de force piece from actor, writer and director Simon McBurney and the Complicite theatre company. I confess that I mostly knew McBurney from his acting roles including the excellent Archdeacon Robert in the wonderful Rev with Tom Hollander, but you soon realise how accomplished he is simply from this one production.

It is simply overwhelming, and all the more remarkable for being in essence a one-man show. It makes remarkable use of enveloping the audience in binaural sound, taking us on a journey into the depths of the Amazonian rainforest.

McBurney begins very casually, the houselights are still-up and he notes the latecomers still finding their seats. We are warned once again (we’ve already had many warnings) that we really should turn our phones off or put them in airplane mode. The reason is not just as a courtesy to the actor, but because phones will inevitably cause interference on our headsets if audience members are receiving calls or texts.

And slowly we drift into the story. McBurney is going to tell us about the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 was dropped off deep in the jungle by the side of the river on assignment to photograph the Mayoruna people. Very quickly he found them, or rather they found him, but he foolishly got lost, having left most of his kit by the riverbank. He realised that he was going to have to rely on this tribe that he shared no language skills with in order to survive.

The play is based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which records McIntyre’s story. But we’re also getting McBurney’s own telling of the story including “interruptions” from his daughter as he tries to deliver it.

This is fundamentally a play that uses sound remarkably well. As I mentioned, it uses binaural sound, but it also mixes in elements of pre-recorded music and speech, live sound effects, pre-recorded sound effects, and a whole host of different microphones both worn by McBurney but also placed at a table on the stage in an almost studio setting.

At the start of the show the technology is explained a little to us. The audience is suddenly in awe of the power of binaural audio, the incredible ability it offers via our brains to “place” the audio source around our heads, and the way we can be tricked into experiencing things that aren’t there. Then pre-recorded elements are added. And there are loop machines on the floor to create broader multiplying sound mixes. As well as a theatrical experience this is all a technical accomplishment.

As the story gets deeper so the sound becomes more all-encompassing. It’s clear that Mayoruna people have some very different beliefs, particularly in relation to time. At certain points we’re suddenly brought back to the present with recordings of the familiar sound of Professor Marcus du Sautoy talking about time in relation to physics. At other points, McBurney uses a phone to play back clips of conversations with Petru Popescu relating what McIntyre had told him.

McBurney has also been to Brazil to meet some of the descendants of the people in McIntyre’s book. All of this is infused throughout the piece.

A word on the technology. This does not look to be a simple undertaking. Both the wing’s of the circle at the Barbican Theatre were taken up by massive units that deliver the sound to the audience. The audience itself is some 500-600 and each member has a pair of Sennheiser headphones wired into their seats to listen through. Test audio is played on a loop at the start of the show to ensure that everyone gets their left and right the correct way around, and ensuring that duff headsets can be replaced ahead of the performance.

The headphones are Sennheiser HP 02-100s, and the sound quality is excellent. While wiring is fiddly, you don’t suffer from the hiss that wireless headsets often include. Indeed Sound Designer Gareth Fry explains that he didn’t believe that wireless provided the quality he was after with this production.

Centre stage is a dummy head – made by Sennheiser. It sits on a microphone stand and clearly has some very sensitive microphones places within it, because the effect is superb. More effects are delivered using, for example small speakers playing a mosquito sound and then waved around the head. And when at one point McBurney blows softly into one ear, you “feel” it through your headphones.

Additionally McBurney uses a pair of skin coloured theatrical microphones, and a couple of other microphones used for closer work. One of them has an effect applied to lower his tone and deliver the voice of McIntyre. The technicians and producers who are mixing all of these live microphones along with pre-recorded material that has to be carefully timed to match with McBurney’s live narration are superb. They are rightly recognised at the end of the show.

Entertainingly, the backdrop of the set has the look of an anechoic chamber – a room specially designed to be soundless. It’s used to good effect with light projections, if not to completely dull the sound since theatres are designed to do the opposite, and in any case, the production can solely be experienced through headphones.

I can’t say enough good things about this production. Regardless of your interest in the technical aspects of it, it’s simply a wonderfully powerful piece about a remarkable people, and their beliefs. Sound is used fulsomely to deliver some of their rituals, and as an audience you are simply captivated.

Superb!

The entire run at the Barbican is now sold out but The Encounter is going to be live streamed on Tuesday 1 March on the Complicite YouTube channel at 7.30pm GMT. Don’t forget that it’s essential to listen via headphones! I’d also recommend settling down in a nice quiet room with your other devices turned off and no interruptions. I’ve no idea if it’ll stay there on-demand afterwards, so I’d recommend being there for the performance if you’re going to watch and listen.

Complicite also has an excellent resource section on its website.

The Tow Center Guide to Podcasting

Headphones in Studio 2

There’s a terrific new report that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – an institute within the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It has published called A Guide to Podcasting. It’s an unashemedly US-centric view of the podcasting market in 2015, detailing the history of the medium, and presenting a series of case studies of big US podcasting operators.

It’s well worth a read if you’re curious to see where podcasting stands today.

The report is long, and I’m not going to go into it in full. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few key findings, and add some of my own thoughts to them. Some of them are things I’ve talked about before, but in each instance, I think they’re especially worthy of note.

The massive skew in mobile podcast consumption towards iPhones. The Tow document quotes a LibSync report that shows that there is currently a 5.4 to 1 ratio in favour of iOS devices over Android ones in the mobile market. Whereas the report notes that there something like one billion Android devices set against 470m iPhones.

I’ve stolen this wonderful (US focused) chart which illustrates this perfectly.

PODCAST15_clammrfuture_android

Note that this report seems to have been written before Google announced its entry into the podcasting market. But the report does note that there’d be likely to be developments between the report being completed and it being published. The Gimlet case study also misses out on their recent second round of funding.

67% of US podcaster are aged 18-34. They know how to use the technology. It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to other audiences as my septuagenarian father can attest, once he knew how to use the BBC iPlayer Radio app on his tablet. So it’ll be interesting to see how ages broaden out as podcasting increases. In the meantime, the 18-34 audience is one radio broadcasters are very worried about losing.

Podcasting really needs to broaden its user base. The previous two points are key parts of that – growing users beyond one type of phone, and getting those aged over 35 to listen. And the current audience can only listen to so many podcasts – something my inordinately sized PocketCasts library can attest to. Indeed the report suggests that it’s just six podcasts on average per week.

Slow and steady growth. As the report makes clear, podcasting has been around for a long time, and it’s had its moment in the sun before Serial came along (Season 2 out now!). The report includes a chart that shows podcasting as having had slow and steady growth since its inception.

The report goes on to note that the Serial phenomenom actually happened at time when the iPhone podcast app had just been separated out in iOS as its own app, and as the wider media was covering podcasts more. Both of these will have given it a healthy push.

I’d compare podcasting growth to UK DAB growth which has also been slow and steady rather than explosive as some consumer technologies have been. I wonder if this is a factor of audio? It’s not quite as sexy as video, but we still like it.

Searching for podcasts is an overall bad experience. iTunes is not great at surfacing podcasts beyond ones that are either popular according to its secret algorithm, or the handful that iTunes’ editors choose to feature on their site. Other podcast providers have similar issues.

The popular example of a company who manages this well is Netflix and its ability to aid viewer discovery. I’m not sure that’s the best answer – my experience is that all sorts of rubbish gets thrown at me. But I do hear very positive things about Spotify’s Discover playlist with regard to music listening.

Instead podcasters have to rely on social sharing and working within their own networks. Thus both Serial and Gimlet’s Startup launched by being included in the This American Life podcast feed.

That’s an opportunity only avaialble to a very limited number of podcasts and not at all available to those outside, say, US public radio circles. On the other hand it greatly aids those burgeoning podcast networks like Panoply and Gimlet. They can properly support and promote their own shows. An independent producer is going to struggle unless they have the budget to buy promotional airtime on those same shows – a route to market that others have taken.

One of the most exciting elements of Google enterting the podcasting space is what it can do with search. As well as utilising metadata, it’d be interesting to see if voice-to-text technology as utilised by Google Now, Siri and Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices, could be set to work on podcasts to provide more context for audio files, and enable discovery.

In car listening has its place. Cars are important, but it’s worth noting that while 44% of US radio listening is in car (according to a 2014 Macquarie Capital report), in other markets that aren’t as car-centric, it’s much less. For example it’s only 20% of radio listening that happens in-car in the UK. And in any case, new technology added in the car today doesn’t fully flow through the Car Parq (the industry term for all the cars on the road) for a number of years to come – 11 years on average in the US. In other words, just because a new off the assembly line car today comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s going to take a while before everyone has the ability to seamlessly stream audio in their cars without a combination of 3.5mm jack leads, Bluetooth connectivity or even FM re-transmitters.

Data issues. Not only are mobile podcasts disproportionately listened to by iPhones/iOS devices, but the bulk of traffic is delivered via iTunes – 70% is claimed in the report. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Apple was a very early supporter of podcasting, and therefore everyone should be thankful for them. On the other hand, they have the whip hand when it comes to data. Advertisers would like more data, as would podcast producers. I’m certain Apple could provide additional data were they to choose to, but that would involve changes in user agreements and generally it’d be doing work for little to no reward. (Plus nobody needs and even longer iTunes User Agreement!)

The report notes that Apple’s most recent iOS update actually favours streaming over download, with the latter taking an additional click to play back. Streaming, of course, provides more data than consumption of a “dumb” mp3 file.

Meanwhile, as well as adding dynamic advertising into podcasts at time of delivery, another area that is being developed according to the report, is the use of tracking pixels. Now I must admit that I’m unclear how this will work. Ordinarily such pixels are used to track digital advertising in web environments where there is live data. So a hidden pixel is delivered and the fact that it was shown means that you have some data about where and when it was delivered. But pure podcasts are simply mp3 files. While they might have “album artwork” embedded within them, I’m not aware that this would allow for any tracking. Indeed, when you’re listening to an mp3 offline, there simply isn’t a feedback mechanism.

Within bespoke apps this might be possible, and certainly platforms like Spotify employ it, although the free version of Spotify which displays advertising requires internet access.

Yet both Panoply, who have purchased the Audiometric software platform, and Acast are both talking about this technology. I’m curious to learn more.

Direct and foundation support is more normal in the US. Most US public television and radio is partly funded by viewers and listeners. The audience is regularly asked to dig deep and contribute. If you enjoy these programmes, then you need to pay is the message. That’s why this has been a key way a number of podcasts have supported themselves using a direct funding model.

But this is not something that’s “normal” in Britain and elsewhere. If there’s a pledge drive happening on TV or radio, it’s for charity. For some, it’s actually a bit “embarrassing” and runs against the traditional stiff-upper-lip attitude we have as a nation.

Now it’s certainly true that the landscape is changing, and more people are getting more comfortable asking for monetary support.

There is not really a history of foundations supporting radio and television services. These foundations just don’t exist in the same way in the UK, where spending of that type might instead be focused on visual or performing arts. Instead, across Europe, much public radio is supported by various forms of licence fee. Notably the UK television licence pays for all BBC Radio as well as BBC TV and other services. This is undoubtedly changing as podcast listening is not limited by borders (Hence I hear all sorts of advertising for products that are unavailable to me). And Radiotopia’s fundraising success internationally was such that it saw fit to hold supporters parties in various parts of Europe.

But philanthropy tends to reveal itself in different ways in different countries – so the US model does not necessarily work internationally.

Podcasters need to own their direct relationships with the audience. This is an important one. The case study on the Reveal podcast makes this point well. Obviously podcasts do have a relationship between themselves and their listeners, but they don’t own it. Without direct intervention, a podcast producer does not know who you are. And that places them at something of a disadvantage.

When you hear a podcast urge you to sign up for an email newsletter, like them on Facebook or even follow them on Twitter, that’s because these are they only ways they can form a relationship with you. As it stands, that relationship is actually “owned” by the podcasting platform – so Apple in all likelihood.

The reason that magazine and newspaper publishers have always been so keen on you taking out a subscription is not just that they have a guaranteed form of income, but that they get to add a name to their database. And they can develop a direct relationship from there. That could be selling additional products and services, or learning more about the audience.

Indeed a podcast producer needs to think, “What would happen if for some reason Apple shut down podcasts tomorrow?”

No, they’re not going to do it. But they could. It would be a painful, and very probably expensive business rebuilding that audience.

The only podcast I can think of that I subscribe to that knows who I am is The Cycling Podcast, because I’ve paid to become a premium member. They have my email address.

It’s the same argument some news providers have had with Apple – sometimes falling out with them. Apple owns the relationship (and takes a healthy cut of subscription revenues). The middleman has the keys to the castle.

In subscription television, the same is often true. It’s why BT Sport went around quite a convuluted route to get Sky viewers to register directly with them to enable the BT Sports channel rather than the less painful route of adding the channel via a few clicks of the remote control. Now BT knows who those Sky subscribers are. If they hadn’t taken that route, they’d have just known how many subscribers they had.

And finally, if you know who your customers are, you can also more easily shift platforms should you ever wish or need to in the future.

The ethics of podcast advertising is not straightforward. There was a very good recent episode of Gimlet’s Startup podcast looking at money and in particular what the company would and wouldn’t do. It’s really worth listening to if you’re interested in this area, as it explores many of the issues. Indeed Gimlet has always been very upfront about how they work advertising into their podcasts.

In the US, the most effective type of podcast advertising has proved to be presenter-read adverts. They tend to be delivered in the same tone as the overall podcast rather than from a specific script. The way the advertising is weaved into different podcasts can vary a good deal – the listener sometimes only belatedly realising that they’re actually hearing an ad. Sometimes specific music is used, or words along the lines of, “And now we must thank another sponsor…” But neither of these are always the case.

The presenter-read model can also lead to a lot of implied endorsement of products. Perhaps the presenter has indeed used the product and strongly recommends it. But are we certain? Indeed an earlier season one Startup episode also examined this area.

And what happens if a product maybe isn’t best-in-class? Their money is still good though…

Another “ethical” question is the use of native podcasts, or ad-funded podcasts. This kind of advertising is considered both very effective and profitable. There are clearly lots of companies now interested in having podcasts made for them.

But how do they get promoted? What’s the mechanism for launching them? Do you drop them into your regular programme feed? Or should potential subscribers be pushed in another direction?

If you ask different people these questions, the recent Startup episode suggests you’ll get different answers.

The current case to look at is The Message, which is paid for by GE and produced by Panoply. It’s an SF drama delivered in the guise of a presenter-led podcast. I’m not aware that the full podcast was placed in any other Panoply streams. Instead there were a number of promotional trails (in radio parlance) and ads promoting the series.

But it seems clear that there are no firm rules across the full podcasting environment and what some people will do, others will be uncomfortable doing.

Networks – them and us. The way things are working at the moment, the big networks are best suited to prospering. But what about smaller or independent podcasts? Is there a way through?

The beauty of podcasting originally was that it’s very cheap and easy to do. You can make a professional sounding podcast with an inexpensive microphone, a laptop and free editing software.

But in many ways podcast networks are raising the game. They have more resources, they have sales teams to sell advertising, and they can cross-promote their own new podcasts.

If you’re not part of a big network or broadcaster, you probably are at a disadvantage. You’re not out of the game – but like indie films versus studio blockbusters, or independently published books versus those from major publishers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, there are ways through.

More disruption in types of podcast is needed. It does feel like too many podcasts are just public radio programmes that might have previously existed given a fair wind and a friendly commissioner. There surely needs to be a wider range of podcasts dealing with a broader set of interests? Currently many of the more popular podcasts can feel very middle class. And that’s not surprising because it does seem like every half-decent producer in the US who was working for public radio has been poached by a podcast producer or network!

This isn’t necessarily true of all podcast types, but I tend to think it is true of the bigger shows in terms of listeners and awareness.

Finally the Tow Center report is also accompanied by a very smart interactive timeline telling the podcast story from a US perspective.

Why Doesn’t Audio Go Viral?

Live On Air from the Isle of Wight

I’m a regular reader of Nick Quah’s Hot Pod newsletter on Podcasts. It’s worth subscribing to if you’re interested in the medium, even if there are slightly too many animated GIFs in the emails!

A few weeks ago, Nick addressed something that goes back to a Digg piece from well over a year ago. As he rightly says, it’s still a relevant question.

The Digg piece by Stan Alcorn in essence says that it’s a visual issue. And it’s true that if someone sends you a YouTube link you can quickly see a still frame chosen to whet your appetite and hit play. An animated GIF takes no effort to see. Even a bit of text can be quickly scanned, and accompanying pictures seen.

Audio, on the other hand, takes some effort.

You have to hit play and hope that however it’s titled is an accurate description. You can’t scrub ahead to what you perceive as “the good bit,” as people do with YouTube videos.

There’s a Digg revisit up now, and Quah goes on to make his own points. And the piece was followed up the following week – I suggest going away and reading up on the subject if you’re interested.

But I’d just like to offer a few thoughts of my own on the matter, and they boil down to audio actually being harder “to do” than video.

The Oxford English Dictionary (the online version anyway) defines “viral” in the internet sense thus:

(Of an image, video, piece of information, etc.) circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another:
‘a viral ad campaign’
‘the video went viral and was seen by millions’

The definition doesn’t specify it, but I would suggest also that something that goes viral is also quite short. That’s a relative term of course, but we’re not talking about longform here. Serial might be popular, but would you describe a multi-hour podcast as a “viral hit?” I’m not sure you would. I’d simply describe it as a hit.

Most commonly, when we think about something going viral, we’re thinking of video. And when it comes to a viral clip, it’s either professionally shot, by which I mean the source footage comes from a TV station, a production company or agency, or shot by an amateur – probably on their phone. (There are many other types of video of course, but I think this accounts for a substantial portion of viral videos.)

Yet even clips that are shot professionally are as often as not, spread virally by a viewer. The TV company might work hard to share their own clips and with pre-recorded programmes that’s very possible. Hence Lip Sync Battles and Carpool Karaoke. But if an amazing goal is scored, or a presenter inadvertently tells a reality show contestant that they’re out of the competition before they should have, that probably happened live, and the producers may not want to share the clip or in the case of sport, even have the rights to make it widely available in social media.

But for the viewer, sending that clip to the internet is easy. Somewhere a viewer hits rewind on their PVR. They point their phone at their TV and record the action. Within a couple of clicks, they’ve sent it to Twitter/YouTube/Facebook/wherever and it’s out there. There are better ways to do it, and in higher quality, but this is instant and it works.

Sure, the Premier League/ITV/Sky/HBO/Disney might get the clip taken down in due course, but someone’s put a copy up, or they’ve shot their TV from an odd angle and talked over the audio. The clip gets out there. If it goes viral, it’s watched by millions.

Maybe a couple of days later, the rights owner gets YouTube to replace to the unofficial video with their official one. But it’s probably too late by then.

Meanwhile, if the video is of your mate doing a silly stunt, or you hearing a racist outburst heard on a bus, or seeing a horrific terrorist attack in a city, then a phone is all that’s needed. Again, you get viral success if all the planets are aligned.

Now consider making audio into a viral hit.

Suppose Nick Grimshaw says something funny on his Radio 1 Breakfast Show. It’s really entertaining and you want to share it instantly.

Well Radio 1 might put it up themselves – indeed they might share some video. A producer or someone in charge of station’s social media is probably sharing a few clips, and they might be doing it really well, perhaps with visualisations. There are some excellent examples of this where studio video or even animations have been used. And there are a number of platforms available to radio stations that allow them to share audio clips E.g. Omny.

But the station gets to choose what goes up. And they might not choose to share the clip you’re interested in. Social media managers on radio shows and stations are wary of posting too much in social media over too short a time. They ration what they post so as not to overwhelm their social media followers.

And anyway, a radio clip “going viral” should not solely be in the hands of the show’s production team. As mentioned, that’s not what always happens in video, and indeed it’s a limiting factor on sending audio viral if only the original producer gets to choose.

If a listener wants to share something they heard on the radio with their friends and followers, how do they do that? They can’t just hit rewind on your radio. Yes – a handful of DAB sets do have this function. But most don’t.

For the large part, broadcast radio disappears into the ether.

A listener might be able to get the audio by waiting until the programme has finished and grab either a podcast, or rip the audio from Listen Again if it’s available. The latter in particular is not a straightforward process, with the majority of stations simply not offering it. But if it is available, and the listener has the technical knowhow to rip that audio, then they can pop that audio into an audio editor. Because everyone has access to one of those and knows how to use it don’t they..?

Then they edit their viral clip – now probably at least two hours after it went out – and share it on YouTube accompanied with a still image, since they’ve actually made a “video” because that’s what the most obviously site for sharing clips – YouTube – wants. Otherwise the likely candidates for hosting the clip are perhaps Soundcloud, Audioboom or someone else.

That’s all really quite hard and the spontaneity has gone.

A good piece of audio is still a good piece of audio. But for those, “I don’t believe that just happened moments,” the impetus is gone.

There is a service called Rewind Radio which would seem to create a solution. They’re effectively an online radio clipping service, allowing you to find an audio segment on your chosen service, and clip the audio. The resulting clips can be embedded or posted in social media. E.g.


I’m not sure whether the service is designed for consumers or radio stations themselves. Nonetheless, I was able to make the above clip without registering.

The main problem is that again, it’s down to stations to get themselves listed and therefore recorded into their system. I could find BBC Radio 1 for example, but couldn’t find BBC Radio 2 or BBC Radio 4. And there is also a bit of a time-delay issue. In my test, I couldn’t link to audio newer than that from nine hours earlier.

[And I hate to mention it, but we have to think about copyright. Can I just embed or tweet a single song clip? Music is a big part of most radio after all.]

How about someone wanting to share a podcast?

Well it’s possible. But an iTunes link doesn’t cut it because not everyone has an iPhone (see previous blogs by me ad nauseum). And some podcasts don’t have a site for streaming them. They should. But they don’t.

Even if they do, it’s remarkably rare for those players to have functionality to allow sharing to a specific point in a show – something that’s essential if you’re pointing someone to a moment in a three hour breakfast show.

There are companies like Overcast and Acast who can do the job for you with podcasts, and even let you link to a specific spot in a podcast (e.g. Here are Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in interview on the a recent Kermode and Mayo podcast, with a timestamp to take you directly to the interview). But you have to know about Overcast or Acast to make that work. Acast’s link will also deliver an embedded player in social media which is smart, but at time of writing, Overcast links don’t do that. Overall, YouTube again has an advantage here.

In the end, many more people have YouTube accounts than Soundcloud or Audioboom ones. So sharing audio on YouTube is still the easiest place to go, even though that does mean making a quasi-movie first by adding a still and exporting a movie file to upload to the site.

WNYC in New York has been experimenting with “videos” of audio in Facebook feeds. But long-form podcasts feel wrong in such an environment. There are exceptions, but most shared video is a few minutes at most.

But what about amateur recordings? Those moments you deem interesting or newsworthy enough to share, and which might turn viral depending on what is being captured.

Well the truth probably is that if something amusing or noteworthy is happening around you and you have your smartphone to hand, you’re more likely to start the video camera rolling on it rather than the audio recording function.

Yes, if you’re getting nowhere in attempting to cancel your cable TV subscription and are recording the call, then you might go for the audio recorder functionality on your phone. But otherwise, unless you’re trying not to make it obvious you’re recording something, you’re going to reach for the video camera function.

In summary then, making audio go viral is hard because we are visual creatures, so that’s our first port of call. But audio is enormously powerful, so we need better tools to allow listeners to share audio – from radio, podcasts and life. And importantly, it needs to be shareable on the listener’s terms, not the service provider’s.

[Finally a top-tip: There used to be functionality direct in iPlayer to deeplink to a specific timecode in a given programme when sharing that link. That was taken out at some point, but you can still do it!

All you have to do is append #playt=xxmyys where xx is the number of minutes into the programme and yy is the number of seconds. So I might link to a point in this week’s Infinite Monkey Cage using this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r4wg9#playt=9m07s

So as long as you wait for a BBC programme to finish and be made available on the iPlayer, then that allows you to share a specific point in a programme. That’s not a wider solution by any means.

Thanks to Nommo for details.]