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SenCbuds

New Zealand-designed SenCbuds are smart earphones that detect when you stop listening. They know when you pull the earphones from your ear and pause whatever is playing. Put them back in and the audio starts again.

While this feels like magic, the trick lies in smart engineering, not hocus-pocus.

I tested a SenCbuds prototype with music on an iPhone, an Android phone and my laptop. Then I tried watching a movie, listening to a podcast and an audio book.

Testing 1-2-3

In each case they worked as promised. the music would stop if I pulled the buds from my ears. If I put the earbuds back in, the audio would start playing from where it left off.

At first I had to remind myself not to hunt for a pause button when this happened.

It’s a simple idea, that makes sense if you have to live with constant interruption.

Audiobooks and podcasts

In practice I found it more useful with audiobooks and podcasts than with music. Missing your place with music is annoying, but I can live with that. It’s easy to find where you stopped viewing a movie. Navigating back to the right spot on an audiobook or podcast is often difficult.

The SenCbuds earpieces are a fraction larger than those that came packaged with phones. That means they are tight-fitting in the ear, but this tightness acts to block external sound.

Although I found the sound quality better than on most of the earbuds I have to hand, the difference is hard to quantify. Perhaps I need better ears.

Departure

Because of the automatic stopping and starting, SenCbuds design departs from everyday earphones. There’s a reel for managing the cables — you can wind the wires around it so they don’t get tangled.

The reel has four buttons. Two advance and rewind music. The third allows you to take incoming calls on a phone. There’s also a USB port for charging the battery.

While the SenCbuds are good at handling disruption, the plus version helps stop disruptions happening in the first place. There are LEDs set into the outside of the earpiece that glow red to tell others you don’t want them to disturb you.

At the time of writing SenCbuds are an Indigogo project. You can order a set for US$50 ahead of production. When they go on the market the price will be US$70. The Plus version is US$70 compared with an expected retail price of $100.

Headphones music sound audioPodcasting arrived on the scene more than a decade ago. The name tells you that. It comes from the words iPod and broadcasting. Ten years ago iPod was a name to conjure with.

Every so often podcasting goes through an up cycle. One is on now. It started last year when US President Barack Obama appeared on a podcast and there was a surge of interest in the digital audio format.

Podcasting is personal and public at once. For the last two years I’ve been a regular guest on the New Zealand Technology Podcast with Paul Spain.

This is a popular weekly show with a strong and loyal audience. At least as many people tell me they know my voice from the podcast as tell me they have read my writing.

When I’m on the podcast I speak personally with my voice, expressing my own ideas. My journalism training tells me to stay objective and stay in the background. Podcasting isn’t like that. Not at all.

Spain is the organiser of last week’s Asia-Pacific Podcast Conference in Auckland.

Although the event was on for two days, I only made it to the Saturday session. As a journalist I often go to conferences as an observer, reporting on what takes place. I still did that — my instinct it to watch, not take part directly. Yet I’m also intimate with the subject, so, just as when I’m on a podcast, it was hard to keep up professional distance.

What I saw was a mix of inspiration, business advice, advocacy, thinking about the mechanics of podcasting and some peeks behind the veil with the occasional what-does-it-all-mean questioning.

Usually I’d write a report of the conference, picking out highlights and newsy ideas. This time you get a handful of impressions and ideas I came away with:

The podcast conference vibe is collegial like, say, WordCamp. It’s friendly and co-operative. Even people who might compete collaborate and share. There are people who are interested in the mechanics of making podcasts and others who focus on their messages more than how they get out. I noticed a lot of one-on-one help and support taking place in the background throughout the day. The overseas keynote speaker, Cliff Ravenscraft, was approachable and took time out to speak to anyone who approached him.

One panel session looked at collaboration between podcasters. The simple lesson: “Take time to refer to other podcasters when appropriate, they are not your rivals”.

Twice on Saturday speakers mentioned the idea that podcasting was not just about old, white men. Women were well represented on Saturday: two out of the three main speakers were female and the panel sessions were mixed.

There are many types of professional podcasts and some are damn good. Kaitlyn Sawrey from the ABC talked about professional quality podcasts she produces for the Australian broadcaster. Her production values are as high as broadcast radio. I was so keen to listen to these I downloaded examples while Sawrey was speaking.

On a side note. Sawrey’s ABC podcasts are often shorter than many others. Some of the ABC science podcasts only ran to 17 fact-packed minutes. This discipline pays off: less is more.

The attrition rate is horrible. Overseas keynote speaker Cliff Ravenscraft says: 80 percent of podcasters don’t get past their seventh episode.

Also from Ravenscraft: Quality is a key focus. He says: “No-one wants to listen to bad audio”. Podcasters invest in software, tools and equipment to get a good sound. The last session of the conference was a quick masterclass running through the tools and technique. Almost all the material here was new to me.

Good advice from Natalie Cutler-Welsh: “Extract quotes, the gems, from your podcast to share on social media.”

Lastly, this observation:

ipod touch

Apple refreshed iPod Touch overnight. There are new colours and updated features. A new 16GB model brings the starting prices for the classy solid-state music players down to NZ$279. Although 16GB seems tiny compared with the storage on iPod Classic models.

iPod Touch now includes a five megapixel rear camera as well as front-facing camera for online chatting. The colour range is now pink, yellow, blue, silver, space gray and (PRODUCT) RED.

iPod Touch like a tiny iPad

In some ways the Touch is like a nano-iPad, it runs iOS 7 can handle many apps and has a Retina display.

I’m interested to see Apple is sticking with the iPod. The devices get little attention from the media and yet they remain one of the company’s greatest successes — Apple has sold more than 100 million iPods.

Now that smartphones are everywhere, the market for stand-alone music players is falling. However, I like to keep a copy of my music collection separate from my phone, partly for convenience and partly because I’m running up against the 64GB limit on the iPhone 5S.

Going straight with my digital music collection is anything but trivial.

The first problem is dealing with the sheer number of tracks stored on my computer and iPod. At the start of the project there were more than 15,000 songs on my computer. According to iTunes that’s 38 days of continuous music.

Many tracks are rubbish. Some are poorly recorded. Some are filler songs found at the end of CDs. There are live tracks, bootlegs and duplicates. Oh so many duplicates.

Apple’s iTunes is not the greatest music software application – especially on Windows – but it does have a useful tool for finding duplicates.

itunes duplicate

To find the tool you need to open iTunes, then make sure you can see the menu bar. Show Duplicate Items is under the View menu. Finding duplicates works best when you select songs from the main bar across the top of the screen.

If your menu bar is hidden, go to the icon in the top left corner, pull down its menu and select Show Menu Bar.

You can return to the normal view by going back to the view menu, the item that was Show Duplicate Items is now Show All Items. 

Take care with those duplicates

ITunes’ show duplicates feature is fairly crude. It shows everything that might be a duplicate: songs with similar names or different versions of the same song will show up. If you have a song on a normal album and on a compilation, the software treats them as potential duplicates.

If you have a big library, there will still be a huge number of items to wade through. When I first tried this on my 15,000 song collection, show duplicates found almost 9000 items.

Help comes in the shape of a hidden command: Show Exact Duplicate Items. This gives a shorter list of identical songs. In my case this reduced the list to around 3000 songs.

To get Show Exact Duplicate Items on a Windows PC, use the Shift key before opening the View menu. On a Mac you need to use the Option key.

 

musicians-with-masks-1921There was a time when my digital music collection was mainly pirated.

Today there’s little illegal material. I’d like to say there’s none, but I know that’s still not true.

At least not yet. Soon it will be.

I aim to be squeaky clean by the end of 2013. It’s a daunting task. When I started the project in January there were more than 15,000 items in my iTunes collection. At a guess 40 percent was illegal or dubious.

Music wants to be straight

This isn’t about morality. I’m not going to preach or take the moral high ground – make your own choices.

Nor do I fear prosecution – it would be hard to successfully prosecute me because there’s hardly anything on my iPod that shouldn’t be there today. And anyway, I have a plausible defence.

While I do think someone, like me, who makes a living from creating intellectual property shouldn’t steal other people’s, I’m going straight because It’s now the smartest practical option.

Ah-ha me hearties

In the past music lovers had little choice but to pirate. It wasn’t possible to buy legal downloads. Sure you could legally rip your own CDs to listen on an iPod, but not always. Some discs were copy protected.

When you could first buy legal downloads, it was difficult and confusing. The music was often expensive. Online retailers charged more for a low-quality download than a CD. So you paid more for an inferior product.

That’s no longer true.

Digital music is still overpriced – it is an outrage New Zealanders pay more than Americans for the same tracks – but it is now easy to get. At least most of the time.

Stealing music online is no walk in the park. You have to walk through the online equivalent of the red light district with pornographic or fraudulent images jumping out at you. Sometimes pirate sites load nasty cookies or even malware as you walk past.

It’s worth paying $1.80 a song just to avoid that.

Today there are few excuses to pirate music. I was going to say no excuses – but that’s not true as we shall see.

Moral, not legal

My music collection has four categories. Yours is probably similar:

  • Music I’ve purchased online.
  • Music ripped from my own CDs.
  • Free music downloads I’ve picked up from band site or similar.
  • Pirated music.

Not all that pirated music is outright theft. In most cases the songs are downloaded copies of my vinyl records and cassette tapes. That doesn’t make them legal, although like most people I resent paying twice for the same thing.

There are some items where I genuinely don’t know how they got there.

Overall illegal music was about 5 percent of my collection in January, today it is probably less than 0.1 percent. Finding those songs among the good stuff is difficult.

A lot of pirate music is low-quality. It may be recorded at a low-bit rate, recorded badly or stop and start at the wrong places.

Now is the time

First was the realisation that most of the pirated material I had wasn’t worth listening to. It was simply sitting unheard on my iPod and PC.

Getting rid of live recordings of songs I don’t like is no loss. Hoarding stuff you don’t want or need is mentally unhealthy. It’s like a modern version of the King Midas story. The cull got me halfway to my target.

Second, buying legitimate music online is now simple. For the past two or three years if I wanted anything new it is easier to buy it than to jump through the hoops needed to steal it.

Paying for the songs I want to keep – where I don’t own the CD – is a lot less than paying for everything. I estimate I’ll have spent around $1000 with iTunes by the time I’ve finished.

I’ll write more in future posts about the practicalities of going legit – it’s not as straightforward as you might think.