When Good Things Fail


(Update at bottom of post)

I’m never quite sure what to do when something I’ve raved about in previous columns fails on me. Do I trumpet its failure to the world immediately? Do I go through the normal customer service channels to get it fixed, or do I raise hell with their PR to ensure it gets sorted out by the best and the brightest techies they’ve got available? Do I keep quiet, assuming it’s a one-off?

Here’s the latest mishap: My Olympus DS-20 digital recorder died. Just like that. No warning, no long walk in the rain, no circumferentially advantaged person sitting on it. One minute it was fine, the next it wasn’t. No power, no sign of a flicker, nothing. And I’d only had it for about 14 months. Barely used it, actually (was supposed to be for my Loose Wireless podcasting project,which, ironically enough, was about to start an hour after I discovered the thing didn’t work.) I had recently installed some rechargable batteries in it, approved by the manual.

The thing, well actually three things, are:

  • I’ve long sung Olympus’ praises in this field. This was the fourth Olympus I’ve had; so what happens if someone reads one of my columns or blogs saying how good they are, when it turns out they aren’t?
  • Now that it’s gone bad on me, it’s not enough for it to be fixed. How can I sing its praises even if it is fixed?
  • More importantly, how can I ever rely on it or anything like it again?
  • Besides, I can’t really afford to go buying digital recorders willynilly. Do I look like the kind of person who can?

So, I’m troubled. I’m doubly troubled that there’s no PR person that I can find online at Olympus who might be able to take a good look at this situation and see whether my problem is an easy one to fix (maybe I’m forgetting to do something like turn it on, or look at it from a certain angle) and whether this is something they’ve noted a lot of (I notice the DS-20 is no longer being sold. Why?)

So, for the moment I’m rescinding all recommendations for Olympus digital recorders until I sort this out. It’s not that I don’t think they’re great; it’s just that I can’t be sure whether what happened to me isn’t going to be happening to other people’s. Given that the recordings are stored in flash memory, this is not the sort of gadget you can afford to have die on you at key moments in your life.

In the meantime I’m going to try to find a PR person to offer some insight on this.

Update Jan 21 2008: Olympus tell me the mainboard has died on the device and it would cost me US$125 to have it replaced. Since it’s possible to buy a new one for less than $100 (here, for example) I’m going to decline the offer. I’m also seeking an investigation from Olympus as to why this might have happened. Things do break, and this sort of thing happens. But I’m concerned that this happened without me actually doing anything the manual said I could do, and before I write glowingly about Olympus digital recorders again or recommend them to friends, I’m hoping to get some insight about what happened and whether it’s likely to happen to other people.

Hit the Road, Hack

Interesting project from Reuters, who have teamed up with Nokia to create a mobile journalism toolkit: 

So what is in the Mobile Journalism Toolkit? First of all the phone. This is a Nokia N95 which now comes in three different versions. The original European version that we used for most of the trial (image on left). Then there is a the US edition which adds more memory and support for US carrier frequencies. Finally there is the news 8GB version which can store much more music and videos, and for our journalists more raw materials.

With due respect, I’d ditch the Nokia keyboard for a more rugged, and better designed one from Mobility Electronics: the iGo Stowaway is a good one. I’m also not convinced the N95 is up to this kind of thing — as Nic Fulton says, the 8GB provides more storage, but I would be looking for something I could compose on, in which case I’d probably opt for the N800 Internet Tablet or its successor, the N810, which has GPS (yes, you need a phone to transmit if you’re not in WiFi range, but that’s what the N95 is for.)

I like the idea of recording direct to the N95 with an external microphone; hopefully Nokia will put the attachment they cooked up for this project on the market. It’s silly phones don’t have input ports.

Anyway, good stuff from Reuters and I look forward to hearing more about it. Yesterday I got myself in a terrible tangle trying to capture some video in an interview on my N95 while trying to record audio on my Olympus DS-20 and typing up the transcript on a Mac. It wasn’t pretty. In the meantime, regular readers will remember my humbling encounter with The Bangkok Post’s Don Sambandaraksa, whose keyboard dexterity put us all in the shade.

(Thanks, Mark)

The Mobile Journalism Toolkit contents – Reuters Mobile Journalism

Journalists’ Phobia of Digital Recorders

The AP picture that accompanies this OPEC story says it all: Journalists still don’t seem to have switched from cassette recorders to digital, even though prices have dropped amazingly in the past five years and features risen impressively. (I’ve just bought an Olympus DS-20 for a quarter of the price I paid for a DM-1 back in 2001.)

OpecThere’s one, possibly four, digital recorders in this picture (the mic dangling on the left might be attached to one, and there’s possibly one over Mr Daukoru’s left shoulder. Another might be below the Sony relic in the bottom right. But they’re definitely outnumbered by the cassette and micro cassette recorders. OPEC meetings are big news for financial news services, so these journalists would be measuring their success or failure in getting the story to screens in seconds.

I think part of the reason is that journalists are crusty types who prefer to stick with what they know. But there are more compelling reasons that may simply make digital recorders less useful than the old cassette, and, given that journalists would seem to be the biggest single market for these devices, I would have thought Olympus, Sony et al would do well to ponder them:

  • cassette tapes are easier to wind forwards and backwards, scanning (or cueing) through the tape as it plays. This is done at a standard speed, with enough of the audio audible, so to speak, for the listener to get a pretty good idea of where they are in the recording. This is vital for the journalist, who may need to find that Edmund Daukoru quote about getting out of autopilot before the other guys do. Digital recorders do offer this feature, but not having a visual clue (the tape spool itself) and the varying speed of the forward/backward wind (my Olympus apparently jumps in three- and then 15- and then minute-long- increments when you hold the FF or REW buttons down) makes it hard to find what you’re looking for quickly;
  • digital recorders let you transfer your recordings to a computer, where it’s easy to store them (and easier to transcribe them.) I suspect few journalists do this because they’re in a hurry, they don’t always work from the same computer, and, probably, their tech staff won’t allow them to install external software on their PC. The other issue is that it may just be easier to keep a pile of cassettes in your drawer in chronological sequence as a record of your work, so if, say, you’re hauled to court you can easily find the interview in question. Journalists are living proof that just because something is made easier, it may not be more convenient.
  • another issue is that news organizations usually provide the recorders that journalists use, and I’m guessing they’re not over-anxious to increase their budget for such a trivial article. On top of that, a tape recorder is often left next to a speaker, or on a podium, and you never know when a light-fingered colleague may take a shine to your svelte device.
  • often the internal speakers on these digital devices are not as powerful as those on their analog forebears. Journalists can’t be bothered with earpieces, so that’s another turnoff.

To me these problems are quite easy to fix. And better positioning of the indexing button on digital devices (which allow the user to mark a certain point on the recording for easy return to later would help. Most often times the button is either too small or not easily distinguishable from other buttons (and so raises the danger of pressing “stop” instead of “index”) for it to be a viable option.)

A better option altogether would be the incorporation of gun microphones into the body of the recorder, so a user could point it across the room and pick up the speaker clearly without having to join the scrum. That’s what I’d call an advance.

Footnote: A much better approach, of course, would be to include a record function into the cellphone (as some do have, and have had for 10 years; my first cellphone, a Panasonic, had quite a generous record time) so that reporters can point their phone at the subject, both recording his words and sending them back to a colleague who could bash out the appropriate quotes directly. In fact, I thought most such doorstops were covered this way nowadays. Apprently not.

Transcription Made Simple

I’m always on the lookout for good transcription software — a program that will take a WAV, MP3 or other sound file and let me stop, start, rewind and speed up the recording using shortcuts as I transcribe it. Olympus do a good one for their digital recorders, but it will only handle its own DSS format, and doesn’t offer any way to convert other files into the DSS format. Today I did another search and found this little gem: f4 from audiotranskription.de. (There’s a sister program for Macs called Listen which costs $15.)


F4 is very straightforward, but does everything you need to transcribe, without any fuss. There’s even a text window you can transcribe into and, at the press of a function key, insert the time from the recording. It imports .wma, .wav, .mp3 and .ogg files and will work with a USB footswitch. It’s put together by two guys called Thorsten, doctoral students at the Philipps University in Marburg. Well done, Thorsten and Thorsten.

Your MP3 Player As Your Phone

I’m not convinced that this gadget is exactly the wonder it claims to be, but it’s an interesting fusion of functions. The soon-to-be-launched Ezmax MP3 Player includes a VoIP feature that, in the words of PC World’s Paul Kallender

when the device is linked to an Internet-connected PC via a USB 2.0 port, people can make local and international calls using a microphone that is included in the device’s earphone cord.

I must confess I share some of the skepticism expressed about whether this is a breakthrough product or a gimmick. But there are some interesting elements here that perhaps merit a closer look:

For one, this represents an interesting variation on the idea of USB application drive, where you keep the programs (and not just the data) that you need on a portable drive. (Here’s a discussion of the issue and some examples.) In this role the EZMP-4200P is simply working as portable application device.

But there’s also the built in microphone, which illustrates how the quality of recording, both in terms of input (the microphone) and storage (compression, sampling) have improved. I’m still using my Olympus DM-1 to record interviews but this is old, expensive and stale technology. It would be much better to have the same capability on a key drive (or, as some people do nowadays, their cellphone. iPods are an option, but an extra load.) The existing EZMP-4000 for example, already lets you record your lectures or conferences for up to a maximum of 18 hours(on a basis of 256MB) through a built-in high efficient mike. The USB drive as a good digital recorder. That’s pretty much all a journalist, writer, academic or whatever needs.

Then there’s the idea of identity on a stick. The EZMP-4200P, according to the article, would contain details of the VoIP accounts held by the user, and, while of course it needn’t serve an actual authentication role, it could. Carry your USB drive around, just plug it in to an Internet-connected PC and all your VoIPs accounts synchronise, just like your email, capturing voicemail, letting you make calls etc. Your USB drive would be like a SIM card: Just yours.

So maybe the EZMP isn’t that great a leap in itself, but it’s a sign of the opportunities that USB drives could provide.

Study At Duke, Get A Free iPod

New students at Duke University will get free iPods, ostensibly to help them with “orientation information, calendars etc. Academic use will include audio recording of lectures, audiobooks and other yet to be determined uses i.e. cheating”, according to Peter Davidson.

Not a bad idea, although as Davidson points out, it’s little more than a gimmick to lure students (there must be better and cheaper gadgets for doing this kind of thing). I certainly like the idea of audio lectures: I record all my interviews onto my trusty Olympus DM-1, and still feel the Olympus transcribing software that accompanies it is the best in the business.

The Audio Wonder Of OneNote

I’ve been playing with OneNote — the Microsoft program that allows you to create and organise notes — quite a bit lately, and I have to say it’s a big leap forward for software.. and Microsoft’s record for innovation.

Here’s an interesting post on a feature I haven’t explored as yet: audio. Wayne reports that OneNote will add timestamps to your text notes as you record audio, so jumping to a particular note will include an icon shortcut to the corresponding part of the audio.

So, say you’re recording a lecture (or an interview, if you can imagine taking your laptop with you): You’re typing (or writing, with a TabletPC) brief notes about what’s being said, but also recording. Hovering your mouse over the notes afterwards will throw up little icons, matching the same point in the recording. Pretty cool.

One comment pointed out that recording audio on a laptop isn’t great. True. You really need an external mike. And while those folk recording lectures, meetings or seminars in civilized environments (quiet, you can get near the subject, power outlets, tables to park your laptop on) should be ok, this is not going to be particularly helpful for us journalists.

For that I’d recommend Olympus digital recorders. Of course there are others but I’ve had one (well three, actually) since 1999 and they’ve been a godsend. The best trick: use an external microphone on a long cable, keep the recorder close to you and use the yellow index button to mark good quotes. When you upload the file to your computer to transcribe, you can quickly jump to the best bits.

Another option if you’re looking to record lectures with your laptop: LectureRecorder.

A Way To Record Lectures, Interviews and Stuff To Your PC

I have long been looking for a way to record interviews and whatnot to my computer. Here’s a program that might help: LectureRecorder, from Cyprus-based XemiComputers


LectureRecorder “allows you to record lectures and write summaries for them. To make a lecture summary the program provides several rich-text fields: course, subject, date, lecturer, digest and notes. There is also an option to print the summary. “

The built-in audio recorder uses real-time OGG audio compression, includes an editor and records in 8-bit, mono, with sampling rates of 44KHz down to 11KHz. The files can be converted to standard sound files.

The program costs $20. They also do some interesting other, but roughly similar software, such as Minutes of Meeting Recorder. What’s not quite clear in either is whether you can alter playback speed — a must for transcribing — and assign function keys for easily pausing the recording (a great feature of the software that comes with Olympus voice recorders.)

Mail: Recording devices

Reader Hans Lee has asked whether I know of a pocket tape recorder whose contents can go directly into a computer within the Linux, or Mac environment?

Good question. I don’t know about Linux, but I’m a big fan of the Olympus range, and spotted these new Voice-Trek models launched in Japan earlier this year. I’ll try to find out whether they’re available elsewhere.