Sunday, October 28, 2007

Snowball Microphone

Let's face it, most webcams produce less than ideal sound. Loic le Meur, who is just setting up a new social software platform with video does a test here of the Snowball Microphone from the US/Latvian company of Blue. Headquartered in Westlake Village, California and with engineering and manufacturing facilities in Latvia, Blue Microphones continues to come up with cutting-edge designs. Blue is also known for its vintage microphone store and restoration services.

The Snowball USB microphone isn't all that new, but it hasn't really been discovered by the podcast community yet and it is probably the wrong shape for reporters in the field!. But it is easy to use. Just plug it in, adjust your input level and you’re up and running.

The Snowball is a condenser microphones but derives its operating voltage from the bus voltage always present on your USB port. As long as the red LED is glowing, the microphone works. The Snowball does not require batteries or phantom power.

To get the most out of the Snowball, you’ll want to have some kind of software that allows for digital signal processing and non-linear editing that will accept audio from the USB port. As long as you are using Windows XP, Vista or Apple OSX, you will not need any drivers. Not sure whether there are any compatability issues with Mac's Leopard.

The Snowball’s digital output is set to 44.1 kHz / 16-bit, just like an audio CD. The sample rate / word length are not user-definable. The mic comes with a sturdy stand and a 2 metre USB cable. The ball itself seems very sturdy. Out of the box the Snowball is set to record at low levels (fine for instrument, less fine purely for speech), but the Blue website has firmware updates that will fix that. But there is no software to control the mic reception pattern settings. This can be done manually though, using Snowball's 3-pattern switch which allows you to choose from cardioid, cardioid with -10dB pad, and omnidirectional. Cost? In the US around US$100, that around 70 Euro. In Europe, there doesn't seem to be a dealer in the Netherlands, but Thomann in Germany will ship. They charge 99 Euro for the microphone and another 8 Euro for shipping. Not often you see "Made in Latvia" on a product.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Media Professional Website Launches

I have been gradually building the website which describes the "making of" a new media lab in Porto Novo, Benin. Located in the western part of the capital city, the new website explains how we managed to build a complete FM radio station in under a day towards the end of July 2007. The idea is that the "lessons learned" will be translated into local languages so that station managers are able to profit from our experiences. It costs around 25,000 Euro to build a community station of this type. If you want more range, then prices quickly climb to 40,000 Euro. The local versions of what we did will be distributed on USB memory sticks which are rapidly replacing CD's for transporting audio files around the country. ADSL is due in Porto Novo in January 2008, but it is still relatively expensive.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

EBU Audio Contributions Document

In the near future, if you're planning to buy some equipment to feed audio back to a radio or TV station, you might want to ask the manufacturer of that equipment if it is ACIP compliant. ISDN lines are disappearing in some countries (as soon as 2010 in some places) and so broadcasters are starting to use IP over broadband technology to get the audio back to the studio. Its obviously important that the equipment at both ends is compatible even if it is of a different make (just as your mobile phone works no matter who made the handset). I note that a group with the EBU Technical department has now published an interesting document in the hope that manufacturers will work on interoperability standards even if they are competitors in the marketplace. There is a publicly accessible website that's gone up as well.

So why is this important? For the punter in the field trying to do a decent reporting job, it's going to vital that this project moves from a well thought-out proposal into practice. Even if you're non-technical, if manufacturers get the message from reporters that compatability is important, that may help the development team squeeze the required cash out of the upper management.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

HD Radio University

HD Radio in trouble? I agree with Lou Josephs in Washington that the take-up of HD Radio hasn't been what observers expected. Now comes news that there are all kinds of skywave inteference problems which have prevented some stations switching it on. The backers of HD Radio have opened a sort of McDonald's Hamburger University, they call it HDRadio University to try and educate sales people. That is increasingly a challenge as discount retailers don't pay that much and staff turnover is huge.

Meanwhile, the trade journal InsideRadio has reported this week that the HD Digital Radio Alliance has set aside $230 million for marketing HD Radio. The biggest change next year will be the introduction of commercials to HD-2 channels. Stations will accept "name-in-title" sponsorships and limited sponsor mentions per hour. Programmers will also get more freedom when picking a HD-2 channel's format. So what will this mean? Great, creative, vibrant programming on a second channel? Probably not - a simulcast from AM is more likely. It is not the technology, it is the programming guys!

Cox Radio has installed HD equipment on a half-dozen AMs, but millions of wideband radios installed in DaimlerChrsyler cars, Jeeps and Mercedes are keeping them from flipping the switch. The wideband radios give better sound quality, but Cox Programme Directors have complained about hearing "a faint buzzing noise" on HD AMs. Cox has installed HD on 70 stations and they'll add another AM to that list by year's end. The engineering forums are full of polarised debate on the future of digital AM, especially as the technical roll-out has started and interference problems are cropping out. How come they didn't surface during the last 10 years of "testing" IBOC on mediumwave (AM).

Remote News Bureau?

At IBC 2007, I bumped into a French company called Alden that were marketing a steerable satellite dish for people in Eastern and Southern Europe who live too far away from an ADSL hub. It is a satellite TV and satellite Internet combination. The initital outlay of around 3500 Euro involves the purchase of a self-aligning dish and 100 days of Internet access (any 100 days within a year, no limit of the day during the day). For people who are never going to get connected to cable and/or ADSL, a rather neat solution.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Vidblaster Pro

Get past the intro of the Kats Cast to see excellent camera work at the Uitmarkt in Amsterdam and what "Mike" (Versteeg) is up to with a Vidblaster Pro. The price of this software is amazingly low - just under 78 Euro. Certainly made for love, not the money. No commercial connection with these guys...just admire what they have done.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

MyDrive Music Disk

Perhaps because my original work was in radio, I tend to pay more attention to music and dialogue in video than most video editors I know. I have collected production music for years. I note that the racks of CDs in many video studios though are disappearing - partly because they are a magnet for dust.

A few weeks back I saw an ad in BBC's Ariel magazine advertising a (free) harddrive full of music. At the moment, in Europe, it only available in the UK. JW Media Music Ltd tell me they have explored various means of getting music to clients. They offer Internet downloads and have released larger itunes based hard drives in the past; both as attempts to cut down the waste produced by sending out so many CD's.

Although these endeavors have both been received well by clients, the MyDrive has been the most universally accessible format to date. The software (originally created by an Australian library we represent in the UK, Beatbox Music) offers a really straight forward search interface. You just plug it into a Mac, PC or Avid using the USB port and there are 10,000 tracks from five top music libraries waiting to be explored.

Having auditioned the tracks you want to use, simply hit export and save the file to your computer as you would a word document. All the music rights (MCPS) registration details are saved on both the track name and the MP3 meta data, so no need for post-it notes all over the place as with CD's.

Also featuring on MyDrive in the UK are Beatbox, Standard Music, Noise Pump, and LA Post. Although some other publishers have experimented with the idea, it is a device which has so far not been matched by any other UK Libraries. JW Media say they have over 500 in circulation at present in the UK alone, with more and more requests from editors, producers and sound engineers coming in everyday. The device is free, as the music contained within it is all set rate, MCPS administered music which the user pays for either directly to the MCPS or through their broadcasters blanket license (such is the case for the BBC).

I believe it is important that if music publishers want to get producers to log the right content details, they provide a device like this to manage the metadata. In the past, I have seen so many producers either get things wrong or make things up because they didn't regard the admin as part of their production task. And since this can be automated, I agree with them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mayah Sporty Codec Update

Saw this new version of Mayah's codec for in the field reporting at IBC 2007. In an earlier post I said I thought the price would be near 4000 Euro including tax. But Uwe Flatter from Mayah Germany reports that it will be 3350, with an introductory price of 2450 Euro for orders before November 15th. 900 Euro is indeed a huge discount.

I am not sure how long ISDN lines will be around in some countries. Some PTT's seem to want to get rid of ISDN as soon as possible - I believe Sweden is talking aboout phasing it out in 2011. Other countries, like Swizterland and Spain for instance - they have discovered quite a few customers using ISDN and have no immediate plans to migrate them. What I am finding in Spain and the US is that local operators are getting reluctant to organise ad-hoc ISDN connections and start charging a lot of money for the service.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Completely Blocked in China

It would seem my comments on this, and other blogs, about firewalls in China and some problems I see ahead for the Olympic Games in 2008 (the really hot weather) have meant that all the websites I operate cannot be accessed from inside China. Firewalled but surviving! At least they are consistent. Look at the stuff 1.2 billion people are missing ;-)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sony PMW-EX1

Interested to see this HD camera at IBC 2007. It records to flash memory rather than tape. The blurb at the stand says...

The PMW-EX1 is the first in a new range of professional HD products - called XDCAM EX - which record onto memory-based SxS ExpressCard media. Designed from the ground up to exploit the ultimate high performance of SxS PRO memory cards, the PMW-EX1 combines a state-of-the-art, non-linear XDCAM workflow with simply the best HD quality yet seen in a compact camcorder. It is also the first handheld camcorder to carry the legendary CineAlta 24P brand with multiple frame rate recording capability such as 59.94i, 50i, and native 23.98P, as well being 1080i/720P switchable.

There is also a choice of a 35Mb/s High Quality mode or a 25Mb/s, HDV 1080i compatible mode. To take advantage of this high performance recording capability, the PMW-EX1 uses an all-new imaging system consisting of three ½-inch type CMOS sensors, each with an effective pixel count of 1920x1080 to produce images in full HD resolution. In addition, there's a purpose-built Fujinon Professional HD ½-inch 14x lens and a unique dual focus ring mechanism.

In fact, there are innovations in every detail of the PMW-EX1, from its IT-friendly MP4 file recording to advanced creative features, such as selectable gamma curves and "Slow & Quick Motion" capability.

To maximise recording time, the PMW-EX1 has two memory card slots which means with a pair of 16 GB SxS PRO memory cards, it can record up to 140 minutes of HD footage.

They claimed the camera would be out in November 2007. Price? a few pennies under 6000 Euro is the rumoured price. I see some UK sites are advertising a delivery date on November 1st. If so, then HDV tape is dead in the water within 2 years don't you think?

Update December 2007- I see my local Sony dealer is now advertising a Sony kit for € 6490,-- including accessories which they claim is worth another Euros 1042.

Sony BP-U60 battery
AKG SE300B Power module
XLR audiokabel
Rycote so ftie
PortaBrace bag
PortaBrace rain protection
Firewire kabel 4-6
Firewire kabel 4-4
1 extra 8GB memory card

Flashman II from Mayah, Germany

German company of Mayah was showing off some new 3G capable recorders for radio journalists at IBC 2007 this year. At 2500 Euro, kinda on the pricey side. But rugged. The new device also has the ability to record locally on the device, while feeding Live – now gives a reporter complete control over their material and the ability to edit it after the transmission, for subsequent re-use. (I should point out that the HHB Flashmic can do this too). And thanks to MAYAH’s unique FlashCast technology, Flashman II is able to automatically recognise, and connect to almost any audio codec & format worldwide. Ideal for on-location situations where the destination codec is not known.

HHB Line-Input Flashmic

HHB in London has made versions of their Flashmics (omni- and undirectional version) which has a line-input jack at the base, so as well as the built-in microphone you can accept a line-in from another source. The price in the Netherlands for the modified version is somewhat expensive (retails at 995 Euro, ex VAT) when compared to the ordinary version. Personally, I wouldn't need it, but can imagine some situations where it could be useful. I'd like a Flashmic with more memory - 1 GB doesn't seem much these days. Seen at IBC 2007 in Amsterdam.

Another important FlashMic development implemented in response to customer feedback is compatibility with mp3 files. FlashMic wavefile or .mp2 recordings can now be converted, whilst being transferred from the FlashMic to a computer, by the supplied FlashMic Manager Mac/PC software application to provide mp3 files – the preferred workflow format for some broadcasters. Existing FlashMic owners can download the updated FlashMic Manager software free of charge at

Handy Power Inverter

Mark Eylers showed me a mini 75 watt power inverter which he bought at a supermarket in France for 17 Euro. Made in China, it converts 12 volts DC into 220 volts AC. Perfect for recharging equipment on the go when you don't have a dedicated 12 volt charger, but do have the mains adaptor. Other inverters are mentioned here in this excellent article, which seem powerful enough to run a small radio station - though considerably larger. Have not seen the Krueger brand in the Netherlands.

Webradio Success

I attended a radio marketing seminar at EBU Geneva last month and was very impressed by a campaign for webradio in Sweden. It basically involves offering listeners the chance to design their own radios and send the result to friends. Christian Rauch (photo below), Deputy Head of Marketing at Swedish Radio shared some fascinating stats...

• During their campaign, four webradios were designed by the public in Sweden every second!

• 30.000 radios designed first day of campaign, 68.000 first week

• Over 160.000 radios designed so far i.e. over 10 % of the target group has made one radio each.

Studio Webcams

Anybody know if someone out there (a radio clubs perhaps) has compiled a global list of studio webcams? There was a time when most music radio stations installed them for a gimmick, but then they went away when their usage dropped off. In those days there wasn't much bandwidth and the audio quality was rubbish. Now things are much better, so I wonder if its time to build a radio matrix of the "World of Radio". It would be a bit like 10x10, but then a compliation of radio webcams, like Radio Donna in Brussels.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

VIZRT Mobile Reporter

Saw an interesting demo of how VIZRT has developed software for the Nokia 95 which allows reporters to send video from a location over the phone. The difference with this application is that is doesn't use MMS and chops up the file if the service provider has put a limit on the size of video files. Currently being rolled out to one of the main newspapers in Bergen, Norway. Disclaimer, VIZRT is one of my clients.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Where others fear to tread.....

Great to meet Mark Eylers again after many years. If you need a radio station built - plus a new management team in place, then Mark just gets on with it. He's one of a handful of people who have built community radio (and TV) stations in difficult places - like Congo, Kenya, Liberia, and Burundi. Based in Soest, to the South East of Amsterdam, Mark is brimming with practical experience about what is right (and sometimes wrong) with community media projects. Its clear that many NGO's underestimate the time needed for a radio station to make an impact. It is more than just dumping equipment and hoping a local engineer will figure it out. Unless the management is in place, and trained, the station is off the air as soon as the foreigners leave. Mark runs a company called Bestworx, still going strong after more than 10 years of travelling across Africa.