Wednesday 24 December 2014

How not to start your podcast

I’ve mentioned podcasting before, haven’t I? You see, I enjoy podcasting. And I enjoy podcasts. Some I listen to for entertainment. Some I listen to in the hope they’ll improve my own podcasting by offering tips and techniques I can borrow.

Some – like the ExtraShot podcast for video professionals – are very listenable even when you only have a very basic understanding of the subject. It offers an impressive combination of personalities and production values that kept me listening even when I had no idea what the two presenters were talking about.

And some demonstrate rather spectacularly how things shouldn’t be done.

I won’t name-and-shame the company whose podcast I’ve just heard, so let’s just say they have hundreds of employees and millions of customers. They provide a product and service that’s all about helping you store, organise and present information.

Now let’s jump straight into their latest podcast:

[theme tune, followed by brief introductions of the three presenters]

Voice 1: Those that are paying attention may notice that the last podcast was number 40.

Voice 2: No-one’s paying attention.

Voice 1: No-one’s paying attention. Someone’s paying attention. Who’s that one person, mom?

Voice 2: Not my mom. My mom gave up. She stopped listening to this. It’s true.

Voice 1: Erm. We’re now at 42 because we did record a 41…

Voice 2: …but it was lost forever.

Voice 1: It’s just on my computer…

Voice 2: Oh, it’s not lost.

Voice 1: …and all I need to do is listen to it.

Voice 3: So you will release these out of order on purpose?

Voice 1: I think that is about to happen. Although who knows when this will get released. So…

Voice 2: When did we record 41? It was like a year…

Voice 1: Six months ago.

Voice 2: Six months ago.

Voice 3: Do you have to explain the cliff-hanger then, like…?

Voice 1: You know what’s funny, though? Number 40 – because we haven’t done this in a year – number 40 was about the previous conference.

Voice 2: No way.

Voice 1: And there was a cliff-hanger at the end where we said “We just have too much stuff. We’re gonna do part 2 in the next podcast.” Then when we recorded the next podcast we didn’t.

Voice 2: We forgot.

Voice 1: Because we forgot. [Laughter] And now we’re gonna talk about this year’s conference.

I didn’t make it beyond the first couple of minutes, so the company’s 2014 conference (which took place two months earlier) remains a mystery.

Look, I understand that podcasts need personality. Yes, some of this is ‘banter’ – so let’s not take it too seriously – but it’s also being broadcast in the company’s name on the company’s web site, so I’m not going to dismiss it completely.

Ultimately, I’m left in no doubt that this particular company doesn’t have much commitment to its podcasts. And that doesn’t reflect well on its products, either.

Friday 24 October 2014

Philips Voice Tracer DVT6000 review

Mark Bridge writes:

If I'm interviewing someone for a podcast, I'll generally use my Zoom H4N recorder and a separate microphone or two. But I don't need the same level of high-quality kit if I'm interviewing someone for a written interview.

Of course, the H4N will do a perfectly good job with its built-in microphones. But why carry an expensive recording device when your mobile phone can do the same job? That's tended to be my perspective.

I've had the HiFiCorder Android app for a couple of years. It's a straightforward recording application that can produce a digital file for playback on my phone or PC. At least, it was, until the battery on my smartphone started to show its age. Recording an interview might mean no more phone calls for the rest of the day. Which left me wondering whether a separate digital recorder might actually be better.

With nigh-on perfect timing, I'm contacted by Philips. Would I like to review one of their new Voice Tracers?

A few days later, the Philips Voice Tracer DVT6000 arrives. It's described as the model 'for lectures and interviews', thanks in part to a three-microphone system that combines a directional central mic with omni-directional microphones on each side. Promisingly, it claims to offer up to 50 hours of battery life. I've not had that from a mobile phone since I upgraded from my Nokia 2110.
Incidentally, on the subject of historic technology, Philips founded its Speech Processing business sixty years ago and created its first digital recorder back in 1996. But I digress.

Inside the box is the DVT6000 recorder, a USB-to-microUSB lead and a pair of earphones. There's also a guarantee booklet and a quick-start guide with diagrams. The DVT6000 charges via the USB lead, so I plug it into my laptop for a couple of hours and we're good to go.

Switch on and the colour display screen springs into life. Recording and playback is very straightforward, as you'd expect from a dedicated device. You can even switch on and start recording straight away by pressing the 'record' button rather than using the lockable on/off slider on the side. Other notable physical features include a flip-out desktop stand on the underneath, sockets for headphones and external microphone, a microSD memory slot for extra storage and a 'delete' button. That's a welcome alternative to delving into a menu system when you need to remove unwanted recordings. In a remarkably simple yet clever move, the company has stored a pdf copy of the full user manual on the device; you can view it on a PC by connecting the DVT6000 via that USB cable.

Hit the record button and the device displays 'analysing distance' for a second or two. Thanks to a motion sensor and those three microphones, the DVT6000 can automatically work out how best to record your chosen sound source. A lecture may require the tutor's voice to be recorded from several metres away, so it'll focus on the central mic and ignore ambient noise from the sides, while a conventional face-to-face interview will use all three microphones. When recording starts, there's a display of recording levels, an elapsed time counter and a smaller counter to remind you how much memory space remains.

The 'AutoZoom' feature for conversation/distance recording can be switched on or off depending on your preference. Other options include the ability to filter out wind noise - useful if you're making a recording outside - and cutting down constant background noise. Both can be useful if there's nowhere quiet to chat. It's possible to start recording via a built-in timer or whenever someone starts speaking... and you can activate a pre-recording mode to ensure you never miss the beginning of a sentence.

When it's time for playback, you can transfer the audio files to your PC - but there's generally no need to do this. A built-in loudspeaker (or those supplied earphones) lets you listen to your recordings. A 'ClearVoice' function can boost quiet voices to make it easier for you to understand what they were saying. And if you do want to listen via PC, the files are recorded in mp3 format and are named with the date/time of recording, so it's easy to find the one you're looking for.

If you're serious about dictation and indexing, the DVT6000 has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Playback can be slowed down or sped up, while parts of a recording can be 'marked' with easy-to-find indicators.

It's even possible to use the device as an FM radio or a music player, with an extra option of recording from the radio if you want.

Finally, to the all-important question of recording quality. Well, the Philips Voice Tracer was significantly better than using my smartphone. I'll admit to being slightly surprised by this; I'd expected them to be evenly matched. However, the DVT6000 reproduced my interview more accurately while the phone recordings sounded more 'tinny' with noticeably less bass. And on one test, a brief hiccup in the smartphone recording - probably due to an app updating in the background - meant I lost a couple of words. Would the results from the Philips DVT6000 be good enough for a podcast interview? Under the right circumstances and in high-quality recording mode, yes.

Of course, the best audio recorder - much like the best camera - is always the one you have with you. But based on my experience, I'll be keeping the Philips DVT6000 and packing it whenever I have an interview lined up. I know I can always use my smartphone in an emergency. But I've been impressed at how well the Philips recorder does its job... and how much better it does its job than the jack-of-all-trades I usually rely on.

This article was first published on, October 2014.

Friday 19 September 2014

Childhood dreams

Barry Manilow being interviewed by Kirsty Young on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in September 2009.
"My theory is that we all wind up doing what we were safest with when we were about thirteen to fifteen. I was comfortable making music and I felt safe then."

Thursday 18 September 2014

The reluctant interviewee

Artist Edward Burra is being interviewed by Carole Smith for an Arts Council film that was released in 1973:
"Do you think you're clever at fending questions off?"
"Hmm. Seem to be fairly, one way and another, don't you think? You do? Mmm."
"Would you say you were a difficult person to interview?"
"I should say so. I'm not very forthcoming, I don't think."
An audio clip can be found on BBC Radio 4's Great Lives programme from September 2014.

Monday 4 August 2014

What do you know about the subject?

Jasper Milvain - in 'New Grub Street' by George Gissing - is an optimistically enterprising writer:

"There's an idea, by-the-bye. I'll write a paper on the characteristics of that new generation; it may bring me a few guineas, and it would be a help to you."

"But what do you know about the subject?" asked Dora doubtfully.

"What a comical question!  It is my business to know something about every subject — or to know where to get the knowledge."

Saturday 19 July 2014

William T Vollmann talks about writing

"When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density."

William T Vollmann, interviewed for The Paris Review in 1993.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Rick Stein's cafe

I don't blame restaurateur Rick Stein for the 'touristification' of Padstow. If I wanted to blame anyone, I might choose Sir Wyndham Portal. He chaired the London and South Western Railway company when it decided to extend its network into Padstow in 1899. As well as taking fish from the port and providing supplies to ships, it also made it much easier for visitors to arrive. Actually, it's been reported that local people cheered as the first train arrived, while a brass band played 'See The Conquering Hero Comes', so it seems many residents were pretty happy with the result.

Okay, so how about blaming John and James Herbert Cory? Their company started building Padstow's South Western Hotel (now the Metropole) just a year after the railway line was completed. Definitely an incitement to tourists. Or the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), whose golfing breaks at the Metropole undoubtedly added to the popular appeal of Padstow?

Or us, for coming here on holiday? On a previous visit we'd chatted to a life-long Padstow resident living opposite the cottage we'd rented. "Rick Stein is a very nice man and he's brought lots of jobs to the town", she told us. That's good enough for me. Besides, tonight we're booked into Rick's cafe for dinner.

The cafe is third in the list of restaurants on the Rick Stein website. First is The Seafood Restaurant, where it all began. Then there's St Petroc's Bistro, which isn't as fish-focussed. And after the cafe is Stein's Fish & Chip shop, which offers takeaway and sit-down food. (Pricing is similar to the chippy in the village where I live - and to local rival 'Chip Ahoy' - so no complaints from me.

It's fairly noisy as we enter the cafe at 8pm. The cafe makes a point of describing itself as 'family friendly' so it's hardly a surprise to see families with excited children. We're pretty excited ourselves, having eaten here before. A member of staff checks our reservation, seats us at our table and whispers "the crèche empties soon!" with a conspiratorial smile. Very nicely done.

Sure enough, the families with the youngest children are leaving before long. We order crusty bread with olive oil & balsamic vinegar and some garlic-stuffed olives from the 'appetisers' part of the menu, along with a bottle of wine. My only worry is that the olives might be served straight from the fridge. They're not. All's well.

There's a special three-course price of £23.50 each (starter, main and dessert) and we're planning to take advantage of it. My glamorous dining companion - to whom I'm married - starts with salt & pepper prawns; a dish she's chosen whenever we've been here previously. I'm told they're wonderful if you like that kind of thing. I prefer less disassembling with my dining, so pick the Pondicherry mackerel fish fry from the 'specials' board. It's also from Rick's Indian recipe book; no coincidence, I'm sure. A mackerel fillet is marinated in yoghurt, garlic and chilli before cooking. The result is less spicy than I'd anticipated, which is probably a good thing under the circumstances.

You see, we've both ordered cod curry as our main course. We were warned it was an "eight out of ten" for heat when we placed our order, although we trust there'll be more to it than temperature. And indeed there is. Served with rice and a poppadom (or 'papadum' if you prefer) plus an optional side dish of split-pea tarka dal, this is another dish inspired by Rick's trip to India. In fact, it's another from the southern Indian region of Pondicherry. The sauce is light and fresh - tomato, garlic and chilli - with decent-sized chunks of fish. Every last mouthful disappears, helped by a jug of water and a shared bottle of wine.

The cafe staff are perfectly happy for us not to rush straight into desserts. Once I start thinking about food again, a creamy pudding strikes me as an ideal follow-up to a spicy meal. I pick the gooseberry pavlova, which arrives as an individual portion: crispy like a meringue on the outside, moist and slightly sticky inside, topped with cream and gooseberry compote.

After an enjoyable couple of hours it's time to head back to our rented home for the week. As we leave, chef Paul Ainsworth emerges from his restaurant in the same road and walks off into the night. It's something of a foodie haven round here. Would we have come to Padstow if it didn't have Mr Stein's assortment of restaurants, Mr Ainsworth's Michelin Star and the Chough Bakery's pasties? Well, we didn't bother with any of these when we first visited. So... what keeps us coming back? Many different things. But it's fair to say the local food is an important part. As are the people. Although some of those tourists can be a little annoying.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

We resolve to... learn a language

The January 2014 edition of Viva Lewes sees a number of contributors each trying something different as a New Year's resolution. I fancied learning Spanish.

Do you remember watching John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda?  He seduced Jamie Lee Curtis with an unlikely combination of Russian and Italian. I reckon the Spanish language would be even more effective. That's my plan for 2014, anyway. You see, every so often I travel to Spain for work. It's only for a few days every year and rarely requires me to say much more than 'gracias' in the local language because I'm heading to an English-speaking trade show. However, in a few weeks I'll probably be ordering tapas, chatting confidently with taxi drivers and maybe I'll find an opportunity to use a few words at home, too. Well, if it worked for John Cleese...

Monday 6 January 2014

Ganges Indian Cuisine

Sometimes work doesn't feel like work at all. In this month's Viva Lewes magazine I'm reviewing Ringmer's Indian restaurant.

There's only one sure-fire way to deal with a cold winter's evening. "I'm wearing my curry dress tonight", says my wife. "It's stretchy". And I'm wearing my curry shirt, which contains an explosion of colours guaranteed to hide any spilled sauce. Suitably attired, we're going out for a meal in Ringmer.