Live and light, with new technology for radio

Wednesday 25 May 2011, 13:00

Nick Garnett Nick Garnett is North of England reporter for BBC Radio 5 live. Twitter: @nicholasgarnett

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For a few months, instead of a digital recorder, I've been using an iPhone to record my radio interviews. It saves an incredible amount of time. There's no need to lug a laptop around - you simply record straight into the iPhone 3GS or 4 (both of which have decent microphones) or use an external microphone plugged into a specially made break-out cable.

Here's an example of how it helped:

It was a bright, sunny morning in January. Barnsley was bustling - shops open, streets full. The town was without an MP. Eric 'Fingers in the Tillsley' Illsley (as one wag described him) has, earlier this morning, pleaded guilty to three charges of false accounting. The expenses scandal. Dispatched to South Yorkshire, I arrived shortly after 12pm.

I'm due on air at 1.05pm. My producer wants a mixed montage of people's opinions (aka 'a decent vox pop') with me wrapping around either side of it - the well known and loved 'donut'. But time is tight. Normally I'd use a satellite transmitter to broadcast from. I carry it in my car but it needs an open sky to enable it to latch onto the satellite that's in orbit.

The nearest car park is ten minutes away from where I want to broadcast from. Getting clearance from the police and council will take too long. Traditionally, I'd record my interviews on the digital recorder, transfer the files to a laptop, edit them, file them via satellite or 3G broadband, and then come up to the studio via my satellite dish - but it'd just take too long and I'd be out of position; in a car park in the middle of nowhere. This is a story about the town centre's MP - and that's where I need to be.

So, the iPhone it is. The app I'm using is 1stVideo, made by Vericorder. It's essentially a cut down, multi-track audio recorder and editor - you may have used similar software on a laptop: CoolPro or Adobe Audition.

1stVideo lets you record on three separate tracks and create a mixed package with crossfades and equalised audio levels. You can then mix it down to a new, final version that can be emailed in to base. The editor is non-destructive - that's to say, you don't delete the bits you don't want: you save the bits that you do. You create a package by saving off the good bits of audio, compiling them together, cross-fading them, and finally saving the newly created version. It takes a little while to work out how to work it - there's a fear that fat fingers on an iPhone won't work properly - but with a little zooming in and out you quickly get the hang of it.

Back to Barnsley. Ten minutes of recording vox pops and I've got enough audio for a minute and-a-half of edited material. As I'm recording, I'm making a mental note of which bits are good - if someone says something useful in two sections, I can hear whether or not they'll mix together easily. I'm still waiting for someone to come out with 'le mot juste' - a summary of the feelings of those I've spoken to - and I land on my feet with a woman who says she used to go to a pub quiz with the former MP and saw him, she claims, 'cheating on his Blackberry': "If he was willing to do that for four pints of bitter, I'm not surprised what he'd do for £17,000." I could have kissed her.

Off to a cafe I run - it's now 12.20pm - and I warm my hands up on a cup of coffee. Cold fingers do not make for good audio manipulation. The edit works really well, thanks to the note-taking I've been doing in my head. I save off the good bits of audio as separate 'chunks', feed them into different tracks, slide them back and forth until I'm happy with the positioning and tempo of the piece, put in a few crossfades, mix it down and hit 'send by email'. About eight minutes later, the file lands in my producer's inbox.

 

Luci Live screen grab from mobile

The only downside to the whole process is the limitation that email gives you: the maximum file size you can send is around 7MB before it starts to get stuck. Sometimes I have to send longer files in two parts. The ability to compress the audio to something other than .WAV or .M4A would be good, but I'm constantly playing around with other options and I'll write more about them in the future.

At this point, all I've done is a vox pop. I've still got the 'live' to think about. Usually that involves me running back to my car, rigging a satellite dish on the top of it, running a dozen cables into power sockets, isdn codecs, microphone cables and headphones, and hitting 'CONNECT'. Today, in Barnsley, it's all a bit easier. For years I've broadcast from car parks, from outside buildings, from the physical edges of a thousand different events, because the satellite dish needed to be on my car roof. But today I pull out the iPhone, plug in a standard pair of headphones - without an inline microphone (because the quality of those mics is pretty awful and not broadcast quality) - and load up another app, ready to broadcast.

Luci Live (above), made by Technica Del Arte, has been on laptops for a while now. It's enabled us to be a lot more portable than before, but it's still fallen short of what I've craved: portable live broadcasting. Laptops are, in my experience, prone to running low on memory, and hate rain. They also tend to eat batteries for breakfast. It's been another case of almost but not quite. Until now. The app now runs on an iPhone and it's the easiest programme to use that I've ever come across. It's idiot proof - just as well. The only thing I need to remember is that owning an iPhone 3GS means I need to close any other apps that stream data before broadcasting - this isn't an issue with the iPhone 4 because of the way it handles multi-tasking and the fact it's got double the amount of memory.

It's 1pm. I walk into the middle of Market Hill, the main pedestrianised street in the centre of Barnsley. I check the iPhone for 3G coverage. There's no need to search for an open wifi network so long as there's a decent-strength 3G signal. I make a quick call to News Operations in London, ask them to listen across an incoming line and alert the studio. I close down the phone line, divert all incoming calls to my voicemail (very important, that bit, if you want to avoid someone ringing you while you're on air!), open up Luci Live and press two small on-screen buttons. They turn from amber to red and a voice, in perfect quality - as if we're standing next to each other - says: "Hi, Nick, studio here. I can hear you loud and clear. Coming to you after the news and sport."

Nick Garnett (@bbcnickgarnett) is BBC Radio 5 Live's reporter in Yorkshire. Starting out at BBC Radio Merseyside in 1986, he's worked for 5 Live since 1994. He was one of the first reporters at the BBC to use an iPhone as an audio recorder and is involved in the BBC trial of Luci Live on the iPhone.

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