HHB FlashMic Field Test

This is an aside from everything else I’m considering at the moment but I feel compelled to write up a brief review of the FlashMic as there is not much information on it published and I’ve just worked with it in the field for a few weeks. Plus I’m processing all this deep personal and emotional stuff and need to geek out for a bit.
Prior to purchasing the FlashMic, I had HHB’s MiniDisc recorder; this served me well in all kinds of situations worldwide for several years. However, it is an over the shoulder recorder and basically requires a separate kit case for itself and its components. I’m travelling as light as possible now so a recorder built into the microphone is ideal (most of what I do is interview to mic anyway so the over the shoulder set-up is often overkill). Also, the MiniDisc recorder was damaged in flight on a prior assignment and was going to cost as much to repair as to replace so it was time to look for a new solution.

I have the DRM85, which is the omnidirectional model; most of my interviews are in somewhat controlled situations but it can be run and gun as well so I wanted the versatility of an omni and also hoped for less handling noise as well (more on that in a bit).

Handling and Design
The recorder has a ‘confidently solid’ feel but is not especially heavy (that said, if you are holding it at arm’s length for a 20 minute interview, the weight will be noticed; but that is the case with almost any microphone). It looks quite bulky in comparison to a standard interview microphone but I think most people would assume (if indeed they would assume anything) that it is a wireless mic. It does however, apparently raise an eyebrow at the airport security check; I was pulled aside at every point and hand searched with an explosives swab for it. It’s just out of their ordinary scope enough that they want to check it (and there was a moment in Frankfurt with security singing into it as if they were on a certain kind of television talent show…wish I would have had it recording).

I have only a couple concerns about the design; the USB and headphone ports are on the bottom end of the unit along with a rocker switch that controls most of the functions. I have a feeling that, of this were used in a ‘full-on’ news-gathering situation, that this area would be susceptible to damage or intrusion by soil or moisture. It would be good if there were some manner of rubber caps for the ports as there are on most professional cameras. The rocker switch, though I’ve no problems with it as yet, seems especially delicate. As it is necessary for all operation (it turns the unit on and off), any damage to it would be an end to the day. It is recessed, so they have physically protected it, but still I think it could do with a bit more robust design. I’ve no qualms about the membrane buttons on the side; they seem ready for anything (however, I do notice that the colour applied to each button is already beginning to wear off).

As this is a somewhat pricey bit of kit, it’s not something one wants to toss about or accidently drop. I’d like it if there were some provision for a wrist strap; I realise it would be difficult to isolate the strap connexion from the microphone to keep it from inducing handling noise. But I think I’m going to find myself fretting over the safety of the recorder where I should be focusing on an interview. I also find myself recording in dodgy situations sometimes on the street; as the recorder is just in one’s hand, it would make a perfect ‘grab and go’ item for an opportunistic thief (no doubt recording my protestations fading into the background as the thief runs off into a back alley).

As it’s an omni, I don’t think it’s especially susceptible to wind noise; nonetheless, I did purchase a dead kitty for it (it’s the Remote Audio Fat Cat; which fits, but it just fits with a bit of argument). It does have more handling noise than I had expected; one must be careful during recording not to futz about with it too much (it seems to have more handling noise than most dynamic cardioids; even the Sennheiser cardioid which I’m assuming the design is based on). This is just something to be aware of but I wish the capsule had slightly more isolation from the body. That said, there is good rejection of ambient noise; I recorded a couple very usable clips in the back of a cab in Mumbai and in a Land Rover out in the country. Also, as an omni, if one places it on a table, it becomes a quasi-PZM mic; I recorded a couple meetings that I knew would not be used for later podcasts but wanted for my records. I picked up acceptable audio by just sitting the microphone on a table in the midst.

The operation is fairly straightforward; once one figures out how to turn it on (which is not self-evident; it’s by a press and hold of the rocker switch on the bottom). There is a slight delay between a press for on and the recorder booting up and becoming ready for use (again, wish that could be a little less as I found myself wanting to catch a quick bit of conversation and waiting for the recorder to ready itself; that is going to be the case with most digital recorders now anyway. I think it’s just that I learned to do sound recording on a NAGRA which was going at the flip of a switch). As an aside, the manual that comes with the unit is beautifully done; whereas many manuals are either perfunctory or overly cluttered with jargon, HHB seem to have actual humans somewhere who are able to write lucidly.

They’ve managed to devise a fairly intuitive menu system with just a couple buttons and a one line display (this is supplemented with additional set-up software on one’s computer). One can define a number of pre-set recording scenarios; as I always record at the highest bit rate and etc., I didn’t use this much but see how it could be useful for working journalists. One minor niggle which I would imagine will change in the next model is that the display is sort of 1980’s vintage. It can be slightly difficult to read on the go; would be great if they could replace it with an OLED screen with sharp text (though, I would imagine that might be more of a power drain; I’m sure there was some discussion about this in design).

The overall operation could not be simpler; I was quite pleased to finally have something I could toss in a bag and then pull out at a moment’s notice for high-quality interviews. In the field, it’s often those impromptu moments that best capture the heart of the story and it’s a recorder like this that encourages that kind of work.

Sound Quality
In a word, excellent; it’s up with the best digital field recorders. Obviously there are recorders with super high bit rates and so on but a higher bit rate on this unit would be redundant. If anything it’s a bit too clear. The sound is, to my ear, bright; that can be brought back in post, but it would be nice if they could tweak the A/D converter slightly to encourage a warmer ‘NPR sound’. Clarity is good, but you’ll hear every lip parting and the hairs moving in your interviewee’s nose. I realise they are probably aiming for the most detail possible as the general use for this will be broadcast and the sound will probably suffer through several generations of compression.

Wish List
I like what HHB have done with the software interface but hope they take it a step further in future revisions. First, I wish the naming scheme for files was akin to that of digital cameras or that the software recognised the difference between already existing files and new ones. As it is, the naming structure is a straight _001, _002, _003, etc. If one erases files from the mic it begins again at _001; when one then attempts to upload new files into an already existing folder on the computer, there is a risk of over-writing the first set of files. Instead, one needs to organise each new set of files in a different folder and re-name them something sensible along the way. This doesn’t always work well in practice when one is rushing at the end of the day; it would be good if the software worked something like Apple’s iPhoto or the like and recognised the new and old, sorting them accordingly.

Next, I wonder if it might be possible to have the same features of the software for the computer in an iPhone app? This would be very useful for field use (and could even eliminate the need for a laptop on short trips). If a someone could upload, review, and send his or her clips via the iPhone, this would make a perfect field kit for a journalist (or podcaster or what have you). Also, taking it a couple steps further, might it be possible to connect the mic for live use via USB? This would add another level of functionality either on a laptop or phone for live to air spots.

There is a bit of handling noise if one marks a track during recording; could the recorder be equipped with Bluetooth for remote control of functions? For headphone monitors? I know Bluetooth only works within a few feet; but even headphone cables are a bit unwieldy coming out the bottom of the unit; might it be possible to go wireless with this? Or, could there be a complete WiFi interface between an iPhone of laptop to control, monitor, and upload the audio? I can imagine this would be useful for journalists at a press conference (and I know, for the seminar work I do, it would be great, as I’m often sitting in the audience and not able to access the recorder at the podium). That’s probably wishing for a lot, but still possible I think.

One thing that would be relatively easy to do is allow charging via USB; as I was wanting to pack very light for this trip, I opted to use lithium cells rather than bring along a charger (by the way, I used only two pair of lithiums on the whole trip; they seem to work a lot longer than noted in the manual!). It would be one less thing to pack if the rechargeable cells could be topped up via USB.

Also, I think this would be a great recorder for sight impaired people to use. The controls are straightforward; all that would be needed is some audio feedback via the monitors concerning what the mic is doing. This could be in the form of a quiet series of beeps or something like what Apple has done with their new Shuffle; a voice could say what track one is on, time remaining, etc.

Very pleased; I’m finally able to pack almost all my gear in a small backpack and go work without a load of cases or concern over technical issues. The FlashMic is going to be a constant companion on assignments now and, I think, will change the way I work and approach interviews (from the ease of use aspect as well as the fact that this is a non-imposing device I can pull out when someone might otherwise be intimidated by a big kit). I feel comfortable using it without headphones even (the AGC is excellent) so it is rather like a point and shoot camera except the results are always top notch. I’ll keep updating on its use here as I get out into different situations that test its abilities and limitations.

The interview below was recorded entirely with the FlashMic (as were most of the interviews on my Soundcloud account).

Bose Cold Comfort

About six years ago, I purchased a $300 pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 2 noise-cancelling headphones. I can never sleep on long flights and thought they would help (I’m not keen on noise in general). I’ve been pleased with them; they are not the best headphones ever but they perform as advertised (they allow one to listen to the often lame in-flight movie without cranking the volume up so far that deafness ensues).
Last week, I picked them up (literally, just lifted them off the table) and a small plastic piece that holds the headband split in half. These have been all over the world, but I take good care of things and they’re not abused. The broken piece is put together with screws and looked like it should be a fairly simple repair; so I contacted Bose customer service:

I have a QC2 headset; the plastic piece above the left ear-cup (the piece with the patent information) has just suddenly split in two. Is there a way I can order this as a part or would the whole thing need to be sent in for repair? It looks like it could be user-replaced (however, I suppose the cabling would have to be disconnected somehow in the process).

They replied:

We are sorry to hear about the issue you are experiencing with your Bose® QuietComfort® 2 headphones.

The headphones carry a one-year Limited Warranty when purchased from Bose or an authorized Bose reseller and are not factory or user-serviceable. We would like to assist in providing a solution for you…

I was confused by their response and assumed this was a typo:

...How do you mean that they are neither factory or user serviceable?

So they clarified:

...Thank you for responding with the requested information. As previously mentioned, the headphones carry a one-year Limited Warranty when purchased from Bose or an authorized Bose reseller and are not factory or user-serviceable.

You may trade your QC™2 headphones for a brand new set of QuietComfort 2 headphones for $100 (US dollars) or a brand new set of QuietComfort 3 headphones for $150 (US dollars); state and local taxes may apply. Replacement headphones come with a new one-year warranty.

Yes, according to Bose, there is no way to repair these headphones even though they work as they did when purchased. The only problem is that they won’t stay on my head with the small plastic piece broken. The only option I would have is to bin these and purchase a new pair:

So, thanks for the offer, but I can’t see the sense in tossing out a perfectly functional set of headphones because a small plastic piece failed on them (something seems quite amiss when a product can be repaired but is instead just sent to the rubbish). I will just try to superglue it back together instead. I have a pair of pro Sony headphones with fully replaceable components; why can you not say the same for a pair of headphones that cost three times as much?

I see now, from a quick internet search that this is a common problem with the QC2 (I had assumed this was just a freak failure) and that you have intermittently replaced the faulty product with a new one. I have been very pleased with these headphones and have disputed with several people the stereotype that Bose makes ‘overpriced boutique crap’ as my experience, to this moment, was positive.

They assumed that I was asking for a new pair of headphones to replace my broken pair:

...Now, I understand that $100 is a lot of money for a product that should not have broke. I do feel bad about the situation and want to see if we can keep you as a Bose customer. You have owned them for about 5-6 years according to one of your earlier responses. Is this correct? If so, I would like to pose a question to you. What do you feel would be a fair price to receive a brand new pair of headphones that broke after 5-6 years? Please keep in mind that I can’t give away brand new product for free and we certainly don’t want to devalue the product in any way. After all, we presume that the headphones have given you many years of enjoyment aside from the issue with them at this time. Please let me know what you fee would be a fair price to receive a brand new pair of headphones that broke after 5-6 years if you do not feel that $100 is an acceptable cost to pay for headphones which cost $299.99 and have functioned properly for most of the time you have owned them.

To which I replied:

My point is not that I would expect to receive a new pair of headphones; it is that, having spent $300 on a pair of headphones, I would think it reasonable that minor damage to them would be reparable. You tout your products as premium Hi-Fi gear and should back them as such. The clientele that your marketing targets are a step above the ‘disposable consumer goods’ demographic and expect a bit more return here. We have mechanical cameras that can stay in service beyond our lifetimes and 30 year old stereo gear in good repair. We aren’t expecting a pair of headphones to last forever; but, barring some catastrophic damage, they should last more than five. It’s not a matter of the money per se, it’s just a waste and the whole concept that things are apparently designed without the option of repair (you are, in effect, saying these are $300 dollar disposable headphones; I would challenge you to note this in the marketing that, after the warranty expires, should anything happen to the product, it must be replaced…as a consumer, what would be your response to this?)

So I glued and gaffer taped them back together; we shall see how that holds. We must get beyond this ‘disposable everything’ culture; we can’t afford it (at any level) anymore. This is a shame as I really don’t think that Bose makes ‘overpriced boutique crap’; but, as I said in the e-mail, they have to take this one step further and actually back their products with service.

As a postscript on this, I purchased a pair of Etymotic Research in-ear monitors last year and find they provide better isolation from noise than the Bose (plus they wrap up into the palm, have no batteries, and can be worn on the street).

Choices Choices

I’m looking for a new camera; it’s not for myself but for a new job I’m starting next month (will give more details on that when I sign on the dotted line). Despite the fact that I’ve worked professionally as a photographer and know the ins and outs of most of the different camera systems, I’m finding this a very difficult endeavour.
Photographers are notorious for “equipment obsession”; until the advent of digital cameras the discussions centred around lens specifications, film emulsions, and all the little bits and bobs that made up the chain from subject to print. Now we have the added complexity of digital; I spent a good amount of time yesterday in the camera store looking at various cameras (I’ve been given a bit of free reign on which system I choose since we are starting from a blank slate…which makes it even more difficult because that multiplies the choices exponentially). The good news is that most of the cameras on offer have higher specifications than the $30,000 digital cameras I was working with 10 years ago for 1/20 the price; the bad news is that those will be obsolete in a year. (Of course the thing with digital, with any volume of shooting, the camera quickly pays for itself…that’s why purchasing a $30,000 camera back makes perfect business sense if one is using $20,000 of film and processing a year anyway.)

I’ve not been equipment shopping for some time; my initial thought upon picking up most of the cameras yesterday was wunderplastik. Most of my professional work with with Hasselblad and Leica systems (imagine a group of Swiss watchmakers decided to build a precision brick oven and you’ll get something of the design ethos); everything else now seems rather flimsy. When one has a camera that’s been out in the pouring sea salt rain, freezing cold, blazing heat, dropped on the pavement, and still kept happily clicking away, it gives a bit of pause when handling what is basically a complex computer crammed into a plastic body. One camera I’m particularly keen on is brimming over with controls and has a huge screen that displays every conceivable bit of information concerning its status and exposure information. This is useful, as is the ability to immediately view the image one has just captured; however, how many times on my little digital camera have I stopped to look at the image I’ve just shot and missed the next one because I was gazing at the screen? The temptation is too great.

My Leica has exactly three controls: aperture, shutter speed and shutter release; there are two red arrows in the viewfinder that say give a bit more exposure or give a bit less exposure. Some of the greatest photos of the 20th century were made with a camera just like this (most of which did not have the helpful little arrows). For the majority of my work (on any system), I use only one or two focal lengths. The camera is way way over-engineered and, provided there is still film then, will outlast me. It is a very simple, well built instrument—which I have not yet learned to use.

Obviously, I know what it does; I spent several years in film school studying all the mechanics of photography (I was probably in the last generation of students that went through the laborious study of all the film and chemistry; it was just on the cusp of the digital era). I understand implicitly what the camera’s function is and how to operate it. But, as an instrument in the sense that a violin is an instrument, I’m still a novice at its operation. So I feel torn standing there in the camera store looking at all the new electronic instruments; it’s as if I’m starting up the oboe before really grasping the bassoon.

Cameras have become another mass-produced digital item that are obsolete as soon as they leave the store—and something galls me about that. Maybe it’s that I spent all this time learning about film and how it works and that’s no longer necessary. Or maybe it’s just the sense that I’m not really into disposable equipment (when one goes out to photograph with a solid block of metal, there is a certain mindset that comes into play). Mainly I’m thinking that, if Henri Carter Bresson could go his entire career with basically just one camera and a lens, why the heck do I need all this complexity?

I’m tempted to ask for a light kit and just use my camera for the time being; there is a digital Leica (though I don’t think they’ll drop £3000 to purchase one for me right at the start). But that’s probably not what I’ll do; I’ll put together a solid and flexible kit to cover the stuff I’ll need to cover. Of course, that will be thousands of pounds anyway…

I am aiming for simplicity and economy in everything; how can I bring that into this situation?

Solution for JVC Everio

The kind folks at Apple pointed me to a program that re-encodes video into other formats. It’s called VisualHub and it seems to have mostly solved my issue with the funky JVC file format. I thought it was going to take days to re-encode the video into something that Final Cut would recognise; however, after just a few hours of work this morning, all the video is sitting on my external hard drive. I ended up, for simplicity’s sake, saving it all as PAL DV; at this setting, the files were processed faster than real time (on my MacBook Pro).

JVC GZ-HD7 Field Report

For the past several weeks, I’ve used the JVC HD Everio (GZ-HD7) to record the experiences of the Xtreme Team in the Czech Republic. On previous teams, I had used either the Canon GL-1 or a Panasonic DVX-100A to cover the team. Here are some brief thoughts on my experience with this camera.

On paper, this looks like a keen little unit. It packs a lot of technology into a small package (this is important for something that one has to carry continuously for weeks at a time and was a primary consideration when I chose a camera). However, in practice (for what I was using it for) there were many shortcomings. First, this was a decisive moment sort of trip; unfortunately the camera is basically a little computer with a lens and, like a computer, it takes some time to boot up prior to operation. There were many instances where the shot was gone by the time the camera was operational. (I could not just leave the camera on all the time either, it seemed to eat batteries as well.) Secondly, it’s basically an auto-everything unit; however, the auto-exposure wasn’t very intelligent. There were a lot of associated ills to this. The auto white balance was confused by mixed lighting and the WB presets never seemed to quite be on target. Also, the dynamic range was atrocious; highlights were consistently blown out and shadow detail was almost non-existent. It also has very poor low-light performance. So, it’s no good in daylight because of the dynamic range issues and it’s no good in low indoor light (worse than most “consumer” DV cameras made in recent years). Again, in the particular situation I was using it for (which was fast changing documentary style shooting), it was poorly suited.

Basically, it needs controlled lighting or overcast days for good imagery. In some situations it would have been helpful to use manual exposure; I can tell where the exposure should be set for a scene. However, telling the camera where that exposure should be is another matter. To change either the shutter speed or aperture requires a couple presses of awkwardly placed buttons and a dial on the back of the camera (one has to take the camera away from one’s eye or make a separate motion that moves the camera away from a position of filming to make changes). Again, there were many times when I was trying to adjust exposure and the shot was lost.

Another feature that looks good on paper is the ability to shoot stills. This would be a great boon if it were not for the fact that the exposure is almost always wrong and the pictures look worse than images from a mobile phone (I honestly don’t think there was one image from the camera that I would consider usable). After a few days of trying this, I went home and picked up my five year old Sony camera (far far superior images and control over the process of making them).

There is no headphone output which…is somewhat inexplicable.

The optical image stabilisation seems to have no effect whatsoever; this is very important on a camera with almost no mass (it’s physically impossible to hold the camera steady). I did have a camera bracket that helped somewhat. But, still, there are many shots that are unusable because of shake. I’m not sure how critical I can really be here. We keep asking for smaller and lighter. However, the trade-of there is shaky images. I have used other small cameras though that have rather good stabilisation.

Then we come to the big issue that I should have anticipated from the start. I used the external DVD burner to backup files from the camera. This, on the surface, looks like a tidy little system for archiving footage in the field for later editing. No more tedious capturing of footage in post. Everything is already stored as distinct data files for the computer to access. However, my computer can’t access them; or, rather, I can open the files in QuickTime, but Final Cut doesn’t know what to do with them. For some reason, JVC decided to use some proprietary file format rather than a standardised one. So, in order to edit them, I have to re-encode them into another video format. This takes about five minutes for every one minute of video, which, of course, rather negates the time I would have saved capturing footage. There is also some related issue with the interlaced video; it seems especially interlaced. It’s as if someone thought that interlacing might be a really artistic way of interpreting motion and cranked the thing up a couple notches.

A word of advice: Do things simply and well. I should have chosen a not really the coolest latest thing on the scene camera that would have fit the task without fuss. (In that respect, I think the Panasonic DVX cameras are just about the best DV cameras ever made; yes, they are bigger and heavier. However, the image quality is actually better and they get the shot. The most important thing is actually getting the image onto tape. I’d rather have the shot on tape with a few less pixels to count that miss it with the coolest camera around.)

This points to a larger concern with how devoted we are to the latest and greatest gadget (photographers are especially prone to this malady). My film camera that was designed 50 years ago may not have all the neat features of something just off the shelf, but I know how to use it intuitively and can make pictures with it. Features and pixels are irrelevant if the photo is missed or poorly made because the “interface” gets in the way.

Waste II

Though I worked for a company that sold large-format inkjet printers, I really never considered the (somewhat taboo) subject of inkjet cartridge refills. Have you ever wondered why printers are so inexpensive? It’s because the money is not made on the printer itself; it’s all in the subsequent purchase of ink!

I have an oddball Lexmark printer left behind by the previous tenants; as I was unable to find a replacement cartridge in town, I wound up in a shop that refills old ones. Somehow, and I can’t really place why, this sort of thing always seemed rather shady to me. It was like trading in your pillows when you tire of them or filling up nearly empty toothpaste tubes (wouldn’t that be a cottage industry). This is partially because I once spent a great deal of time explaining to clients how they must replace the inks in their large format printers with cartridges from the manufacturer (and this does have some merit when one is printing display art for archival purposes as some inks and papers are specifically matched; off-brand ink could also flummox up the print heads). However, I’m printing drafts of text from a clunky old printer. I’m not going to need any sort of super quality or archival stability.

Consequently, I got the cartridge refilled, popped it back in, and it prints like new. This can be done several times at a significant cost savings (less than half the price of a new cartridge; though, even at that price, the people doing this are making a significant profit. These little canisters only hold one or two-hundred ml. of ink. If I were doing a whole lot of printing, I would probably buy the ink in bulk and inject it myself). Not to mention it’s one less thing in the trash (note that most office supply stores have drop-boxes for recycling ink and toner cartridges, some even offer a credit toward purchase).

The most sensible thing, though people have a hard time thinking through this, is to spend a little more for a well-built printer with large ink capacity at the outset (that is, if you are doing a significant amount of printing). Epson’s mid-priced pro level printers will last for years (they sold the 3000 for something like a decade and it just sat there sipping ink; there are, no doubt, thousands of them sitting around still sipping ink). The $100 ink-jet on special might look tempting at first; but you will eventually end up spending far more in consumables.

New old way of shaving

As I mentioned recently I’ve been looking into ways to economise and reduce waste. Consequently, I’ve purchased a double-edged Merkur Futur razor set (razor, brush, shaving bowl, etc.). I’ve used the setup now for a couple weeks and I must say that the shave quality far exceeds my prior experience with Gillette products. Previously, I would either have to settle for a somewhat close shave with skin irritation or, to avoid irritation, I would have to leave off shaving before all the little hairs were removed. The DE razor allows me to carefully (and one does have to be careful; though I’ve only nicked myself once) get an excellent shave with very little irritation. Part of this may be the use of a brush with the shaving soap; but I think the main thing is the use of a very sharp blade (I’m using the Merkur blades so far, but also have some Japanese blades that are supposed to be as sharp as precision medical instruments). The disposable blades I was using previously seemed to dull quickly and “catch” the skin, thus causing a cut.

Also, though I’m using the shave soap, when I was travelling last week, I used the King of Shaves shaving gel. Despite the rather silly macho name, it really is a great product (though it’s a bit odd at first to shave with slime rather than lather). The soap I am using is made by Classic Shaving (where I ordered the set). It’s their sandalwood scent; it has a vaguely “pottery” smell to is (which is not unpleasant…however, it reminds me of unfired ceramics). The soap end of things will, I’m sure, be a continuing experiment as there are many brands and types available.

If you go to the Classic Shaving website, you’ll see a whole array of razors and accessories. (By the way, I’ll put in a little plug for them here; they were quick to respond to some initial questions and just seem like generally nice people.) The Merkur Futur razor I picked is highly regarded as are also their other offerings (not that they have a lot of competition).

This may become a closet obsession (finding the right blades and soap); so you may have to bear with the occasional rambling concerning the state of my face.