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Voiceover: From Wellington, New Zealand, to the world, it’s the Living Blindfully podcast – living your best life with blindness or low vision. Here is your host, Jonathan Mosen.
This week: more bouquets and brick bats on iOS 17, should eloquence come to the HIMS SensePlayer, and PortCaster is a premium portable podcast recording powerhouse, I’ll describe and demonstrate the product, then we’ll hear from the founder and CEO of Centrance –the company that makes it.
Lovely to have you with us for episode 253, which is being published for plus subscribers on the morning after the New Zealand election.
And I am tempted to say something about the result. But really, it would be guesswork because I’m producing this before the results are in. And the media has been burnt that way before.
I remember doing school certificate history way back in the 1980s, and they told us this famous story about how everybody was sure that Harry S. Truman…
And by the way, do you know what the S stands for in Harry S. Truman? It stands for S. That’s all it is. S was his middle name, just the letter S.
Anyway, they were all sure that Dewey was going to defeat Harry S. Truman, to the extent that a newspaper put out a big headline, “Dewey defeats Truman.” And that was their first edition, I understand. That was quite a collector’s item because they were wrong.
It was the big banner headline on the Chicago Daily Tribune (which later just became the Chicago Tribune), on the 3rd of November, 1948.
So I may well offer some conjecture about what I expect (and I think what most New Zealanders) expect to happen. But you just never know until the votes are in, so I shall leave it alone.
Instead, I’ll tell you about Area Code 253 in the United States, which belongs to the great state of Washington. it covers such famous places as Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.
So if you are in Washington, (I have no doubt at all that we’ve got quite a lot of Living Blindfully listeners in the state of Washington), welcome to you.
I always remember when I went to ACB conventions. When I was running ACB radio, the Washington state affiliate was incredibly vociferous, incredibly vociferous. They make lots of noise, and that kind of stuff. I don’t know whether that’s still the case, but welcome to our listeners in the great state of Washington.
Meanwhile, country code 253 belongs to Djibouti. That is such a cool name, Djibouti, isn’t it? [laughs] And they’ve got about 950,000 people living there, according to their last census which only took place in 2022 so it’s pretty up to date. If you’re listening from there, well, that is remarkable. Welcome to you.
Now, I’m going to revisit, yet again, the area code 250. Because in episode 250, I mentioned that it was in Alaska. And then, I got castigated in the nicest possible way and corrected by another listener who said, “Oh no, it’s not. It’s in British Columbia.”
So I made that correction in episode 252.
Simon is in touch on Mastodon. He says:
“I’m reliably informed that you corrected the area code 250 thing in this week’s episode, but wanted to explain how it probably happened, in case you were curious.”
I mean, I’m a super curious person, that I am. In more ways than one, people might suggest.
He says, “The following is not well-researched, but I know it’s pretty accurate.
Area code 250 split from 604, the primary area code for BC, in 1996.”
Now, this is British Columbia, not the whole before Christ thing. I just want to emphasize this.
“My grandmother”, says Simon, “lives in northern BC, and her number actually switched area codes to 250 at this point.”
I can just imagine right now the conversation that must have gone on between Simon and his grandmother at the time.
[Jonathan on a young person’s voice] “Why have we switched area codes, Granny?”
[Jonathan in an old person’s voice] “All the better to call you with, my dear.”
“Meanwhile, the tiny bordering town of Hyder, Alaska (population 48 according to Wikipedia) has always been serviced by City West, formerly City Tel, which happens to be the phone carrier that services my grandmother’s house as well.
Her town, lots of other towns, Vancouver Island, and that tiny piece of Alaska all switched over to 250, while most of the southern BC mainland stayed on 604.
I live in one of the original 250 areas right now, and most phone numbers–especially landlines–are still 250. I only found out about the Alaska thing very recently.
This also marks one of those times when ChatGPT confidently lied about things it should know, which is an unfortunate and timely reminder as I’ve been using it a lot lately.
Anyway, in short, you weren’t completely wrong. If you stay on schedule for the next 12+ years, you’ll get to episode 907 in March of 2036 and can give Alaska a proper greeting at that point.”
Well, I look forward to doing exactly that, Simon, so thank you very much.
This whole thing is fascinating. I’ve always found the telephone fascinating. It’s good to know that even now, in this era of so many other things, the telephone remains fascinating.
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John Dowling writes:
I just wanted to make you aware. For everyone who has, or is looking into purchasing a SensePlayer from HIMS, I created an email list where we can talk about this wonderful player.
If anyone would like to subscribe, send an email to <SensePlayer +email@example.com>.”
That email address again, <SensePlayer +firstname.lastname@example.org>.
And while we’re talking things SensePlayer, do you want eloquence on your SensePlayer? It seems that a good number of people do.
And Jay Pellis has produced a very respectfully worded, well-crafted open letter asking the people who make SensePlayer – HIMS Incorporated, and the people who currently look after eloquence, to get together and make eloquence happen on the SensePlayer.
If this is something that you would like to support, then you can go to bit.ly/SensePlayerLetter. That’s B-I-T.L-Y/SensePlayerLetter. BitLy URLs are case sensitive, so it’s capital S for sense, capital P for player, capital L for letter, all one word, bitly/SensePlayerLetter.
Jay would appreciate it, I’m sure, if you were to support this if this is something that’s important to you, and also that you spread the word so as many people as possible know that this letter exists.
Voice message: Hello all Living Blindfully. This is Mara Kelland, host of Irish Musical Tapestry on Mushroom FM on Sundays at 8 o’clock in the morning.
But anyway, I’m not here to talk about that. Today, I’m here to talk about 3 things – the elections, Mac versus Windows, and something else. Well, you have to listen to the whole thing anyway to find out what I’m talking about.
Anyway, re the elections in New Zealand, I voted via telephone dictation voting for the first time this year because I figured taking someone to the polling booth was less secret than doing it on the telephone. So I did it that way, and it was very easy.
And yes, I have voted. And I’m looking forward to October 14th, to Saturday, when the results start rolling in that night. It’ll be a very interesting one.
And the second thing – Mac versus Windows. Windows is just getting too bloated.
I’ve been using both of them sort of simultaneously at the moment, and I can use both of them.
Not much has changed in Windows, because the last Windows I used very extensively was XP. And it was really good to note that all the commands are more or less the same. But it’s just so bloated.
I do love my Mac. I’m an Apple fan girl. I have the whole set.
The other thing I want to talk about was about MuseScore. And I want to talk about it because we are so close, but so far with this thing.
MuseScore is a music notation editor. It is cross-platform.
And in the latest version for Windows, Braille notation comes up. But it doesn’t come up on Mac OS.
So I was a little bit PO’d about this, and I went to MuseScore and I joined GitHub, just to file the issue, basically.
And they’re working on it, essentially. They’re trying to make it work. I reported everything I could to them. And so I hope, we get some outcome soon.
But we are so close, yet so far, with this MuseScore thing, to have a fully accessible cross-platform editor, which will be really awesome.
I think Mac has logic. But I can’t figure out logic because I’m stupid.
Anyways, catch you guys when I catch you guys. Have a good day.
Jonathan: Thanks, Mara.
Glad you voted.
There has been some discussion in New Zealand in the last week or so about the telephone dictation voting system, and how it is a very big improvement over what we had, but not the final destination.
And one thing I’d like to see is a bit more innovation in local government elections which the Electoral Commission, which is the national body that oversees our national elections, does not administer at the moment.
And that means that you’ve got a bunch of councils, territorial authorities around the country, managing these local elections, and that is a horribly inaccessible process because you get these postal ballots that go out. You have to have somebody assist you to complete those, so your right to a secret ballot is very much compromised in that process.
So it would be good if we could get back to the discussion about electronic voting. Various things have scared people in the IT industry in this country about electronic voting.
But it is done in other places. I mean, Estonia, for example, has some really innovative e-democracy things going on, and they have had for some time. So we can probably learn from Estonia.
And I know that we do have some blind people listening from that part of the world. It would be good to know about the way that you vote.
They’ve really embraced e-democracy and taking a lot of governmental services online. So we can learn a lot from Estonia, I would suggest.
But something’s got to be done about the local elections, and that seems to me to be an appropriate test bed.
I would very much like to be able to log in and cast my ballot completely myself, and feel like I’m ticking the boxes. I want that very much.
I think in some of the media that I’ve read recently, the telephone voting system has been a bit misrepresented. Because as far as I’m concerned, it still is a secret process. It’s not an independent process. But if you’ve got an electoral official who doesn’t know your name, and they’re marking the ballot paper with you, and then it’s handed over to a second person who also doesn’t know your name and is reading it back to you, that seems to me reasonable.
And the other thing, too is that the barrier to entry is pretty low. Most people can call a phone number and provide their access code, whereas some may struggle with an electronic voting system, or even a telephone-based voting system that’s based on IVR.
This is something that the Blind Foundation uses when they’re voting for elections for their board. And it would be interesting to know how much response they get from people who find that a difficult process. I think it’s a great process myself.
But the thing about democracy is that it does have to be inclusive. And in that regard, the current process with telephone dictation voting does, of course, fail deaf-blind people who are unable to use the telephone and therefore, can’t cast a secret ballot this way. And they mustn’t be forgotten. They too often are.
So whatever the future holds, I suspect there’s probably a place ongoing for telephone dictation voting.
Regarding Windows being bloated, I think in a way this is symptomatic of what happens if you step away from an operating system. You have memories of how you used something. And if you’ve stepped away for years and years, and then you come back and the software has evolved, then a lot will have changed, a lot will have been added, and it doesn’t feel as familiar as you thought it might.
I think that’s the case with screen readers, with audio editing, any software you haven’t used for a while. Things change. And one might consider it bloatware, but it’s just evolution.
The Mac’s the same, by the way. When we got our MacBook Air with the M1 chip (which we don’t use an awful lot, but it’s kind of good to be able to dabble in the ecosystem), I hadn’t used Mac for probably 5 or 6 years at that stage. A few things had changed with VoiceOver, and there was that awful dinging sound that you keep getting because there’s a notification you had to take care of. And initially, I didn’t know how, and it was frustrating.
So I think this is what happens if you walk away from some technology, and then you come back to it.
Always plenty of Apple talk around new releases of iOS, and that continues this week.
Alco Canfield is writing in and says:
“After updating to the iOS 17 series, I have been unable to use the find command using my Braille displays.
When I did a screen share with Apple, the representative could not see what I was writing on my display.
I do not know if this is an Apple or a Google issue. Since it used to work before the software update, I believe it is an Apple issue.
Any suggestions would be welcome.”
And Alco also wrote in to say this issue has now been logged with Apple, and the person Alco spoke with promised to escalate it to an engineer.
Let’s hope that something does come of it, because sometimes there does seem to be a bit of a disconnect between Apple accessibility and those who can actually get the code fixed.
Voice message: Jonathan, this is Roy from Little Rock, debuting my new clone voice from ElevenLabs.
I look forward to the Living Blindfully podcast and have gained much from listening to the various opinions, demos, and interviews. As I have stated before, I consider the podcast a bargain, and will continue to be an avid advocate and supporter.
I have been somewhat surprised by negative reactions to some of the new iOS 17 sounds, especially the new notification sound.
Though I wear hearing aids, I have no trouble hearing the sound and actually prefer it. Of course, I don’t claim to speak for all people with impairments, so if it is a problem for some, maybe an option would be a viable solution.
I sometimes wonder if perceptions occur as a result of a reluctance to change. I mention this because of a reluctance on my part to accept change.
I also would advise people to pick your battles, and to air opinions to a group before commencing a battle.
I just purchased a Hable device, which should increase my editing ability as soon as I improve my proficiency in its use. I find it to be a great little product at a reasonable price.
Jonathan: Okay, Roy, we’re getting there. That one does sound much more like you.
Just to reciprocate, I thought I’d respond using my Eleven Labs Professional Voice Clone, which does sound a lot like me, but with more of a British accent. But I mean, whatcha gonna do?
I agree with all your comments. I also wear hearing aids and don’t have any difficulty at all with the new notification sound.
But as I said last week, I don’t want to minimize this if it’s a problem for others who use hearing aids.
I think you’re right. A lot of this may come down to the fact that it’s new and different. And change can be unsettling, but we’ll see.
If Apple gets enough complaints, they may respond. And I think the best way for them to respond is to give us choice. Choice is good.
Just let us pick the default notification sound, so people can switch back to the old one if they want. Problem solved. Peace and love.
Thanks for writing in, and I hope you like this new pro-cloned voice thing.
And Brandt is writing in from South Africa about a few things. He says:
“First, I noticed a nasty bug which impacts accessibility directly, at least for me.
On iOS 17.0.3, my hearing aids disconnect from Bluetooth regularly without rhyme or reason that I can discover.
I have not connected my Braille display to the phone since I discovered this problem. I’m too scared to try.”
I have seen some issues with MFI hearing aids, or mine specifically, Brandt.
I haven’t seen too much disconnection, although it has happened to me once or twice.
But the static bug is back, which came into iOS some versions ago, and it was absolutely chronic. Now, I get it in one ear every so often, so it definitely feels like something’s going on with hearing aids at the moment.
“Second,” says Brandt, “I found that Siri often chooses the option of which app to use when I try to call a person. For example, my wife.
My problem with this is when I say, ‘Call my wife,’ I expect it to make a phone call.
The same is true when I say, ‘Send a message to my wife,’ I expect to use iMessage.
Often, the assistant will use WhatsApp, or even FaceTime audio.
This is a bug, in my opinion anyway. Often, you are not in a position to make a VOIP call, for the signal might be bad. A phone call or text message might be more appropriate.
I actually do understand the thought process behind this.
Unfortunately, there is no way to turn it off. It is an unwanted, unneeded, and often problem-causing feature.”
Yes, this is new in iOS 17. It’s very similar to Siri trying to be more agnostic about what you listen with.
So if it can tell that you use Spotify a lot to listen to music, it will try and default to Spotify.
And as I understand the feature, if you call someone or communicate with someone using a particular app, then Siri is trying to remember that so that Apple’s own offerings are not too dominant.
It may need a bit of tweaking.
“I also found,” he says, “that the Soup Drinker devices are quite childish and inappropriate at times.
An example of this inappropriateness is, when you say thank you after it gave you a relevant response (which doesn’t happen often anymore, anyway), it would start singing “you’re very very very welcome”. It is cute the first time, not the 52nd.”
Well, I do wonder why you’re saying thank you to your echo devices, Brandt. I mean, it’s a machine. Why do you need to thank a machine for giving an answer?
But anyway, I’m sorry. I think this is a bit self-inflicted, to be honest.
But here you go. He continues:
“And yes, I understand some people ask, ‘Why are you saying thank you to your echo devices?’”
Oh, you’re a mind reader, a mind reader, Brandt.
“Simple,” he says. “If you don’t, you might one day forget to say thank you to a human, and that is a major no-no.”
I personally think that’s highly unlikely. But whatever works for you, you know.
“I happen to have 3 of the things in the house – a dot in the bedroom, an echo in the lounge, and another dot in the kitchen.
I am seriously considering getting rid of at least 2 of them. I unfortunately need the one in the kitchen, for my air fryer only works with the soup drinker devices.”
Voiceover: On Living Blindfully, we hear the opinions of blind people from all over the world.
So why not share yours?
Or if the phone is more your thing, phone our listener line in the United States: 864-60-Mosen. That’s 864-606-6736.
I set up another little podcast where a number of people in the blind podcasting or audio creation community contribute things, and this is called The Blind Podmaker. We also have an accompanying email list for that podcast.
Recently, I was sent a Centrance PortCaster, and this is a very cool gadget. It’s not the ultimate audio gadget for everybody. But if you understand what it does and who it’s good for, it really is quite exceptional.
So I thought I’d include this demonstration here as well on Living Blindfully, and I hope that you enjoy it.
And then, we’ll speak with the chief executive of the company that makes the PortCaster.
Hi! It’s Jonathan Mosen, and I’m beginning this episode of the show recording on my iPhone, using the device that we’re going to be discussing today.
And today, we’re revisiting in depth a field recorder and audio interface product that we’ve covered in a previous episode of the podcast when David Edick introduced it to us. It’s the PortCaster from Centrance.
Now, full disclosure. Centrance has sent me this unit for review because as you’ll hear, it has some features that make it particularly attractive to blind people. But they haven’t, in any way, sought to influence nor set expectations around what this review will say.
I’ve made comments when we’ve looked at some of the other field recording options that we’ve explored about how cheap, plasticky and fragile some of these devices can feel, you wonder how long they’re going to last.
But when I got the PortCaster out of its box, my initial reaction was the complete polar opposite.
These devices are built in small batches in Chicago in the USA. They’re made of aluminum, they’re built like a tank, and they feel great to the touch. I have no doubt at all that they’re going to last for years. These are a premium product in every respect, and we’ll talk more about that a bit later, when we look at the preamps.
I’ve saved the best for last.
Blind people who are serious about using today’s field recorders often spend time putting together a cheat sheet, so we can refer to it when we’re navigating the elaborate menu structures that are common to these devices.
When I was in the USA recently for the National Federation of the Blinds convention, for example, I was using 2 field recorders daily, and I prepared for that trip by familiarizing myself with the functions on these menu-driven recorders I knew I’d use.
But since I’m now back home and I’m not using them very often because most of my podcast work is done here in my studio, I know that the next time I need to use these recorders, I’m going to have to consult my cheat sheet again and get familiar all over again. It is time consuming, and it puts us as blind content creators at a disadvantage.
But as we so often find, when a product is designed in a way that maximizes accessibility for us, everyone benefits.
In fact, in this case, it all seems to have happened the other way around. Centrance produces products that have a distinctly analog feel in a digital world. They spend money ensuring that their products are constructed well, and exhibit exemplary audio characteristics. And they believe that screen-driven interfaces are an unnecessary barrier between a content creator and their art.
The PortCaster, therefore, has no screen. It has no menus, just physical knobs and switches. And that is music to the ears of many blind content creators.
I’m recording this introduction, as I say, on my iPhone 15 Pro Max, with a cable going from the USB-C audio port to the USB-C port of the phone. With iPhone 15 now offering USB-C, PortCaster easily turns your iPhone into a powerful on-the-go streaming solution.
I’ve got a Heil PR40 dynamic microphone connected to one of the portcaster’s channels. Now the PR40, while not being quite as gain-hungry as the venerable Shure SM7B, requires a lot more gain than many mics. The Jasmin preamps in the PortCaster are beautifully quiet, and there’s 65dB of gain. It’s handling the PR40 without breaking a sweat. I’ve got a little bit of gain to go, we’re not maxed out by any means. And I’ve heard recordings of this device making easy work of the SM7B.
The device can also supply 48V phantom power for condenser microphones.
Richard Mosen, (yes, he is a relation, he’s my son and a qualified audio engineer), is going to join me in a moment, and we’ll give a detailed description of the layout of the PortCaster, which should serve as an accessible guide, if you choose to buy one.
But before Richard joins me, let’s talk about who might buy one by being crystal clear about what this device actually does.
Before we get started, PortCaster is both a stand-alone field recorder and a 2-in 2-out audio interface.
It’s incredibly compact, so you can clip it to your belt or perhaps even fit it in some pockets so you have pro-grade recording wherever and whenever you need it.
Plug it into your laptop or your smartphone, and you can live stream with it, or make recordings with your digital audio workstation of choice. It offers features geared specifically at streaming live events.
Now, as I record this episode, we’re in the middle of a general election campaign in New Zealand.
Journalists now have the ability to stream content from wherever they are, bringing great joy to political junkies like me who want to hear as many press conferences and campaign events as possible.
The joy I get from this abundance of material, though, is offset by the appalling audio quality of a lot of it. Often, I hear audio where a journalist has put a microphone by the politician hosting the event, while keeping another microphone close to them so we can hear their questions. The problem is, one mic is panned hard left and the other is panned hard right because they’re in 2 separate channels, and the audio is being sent out in stereo.
Some streaming services will only take the left channel of a stereo feed and send that out as mono, meaning listeners can miss out on some of the content.
PortCaster has been built to solve those problems by offering the ability to mix the 2 channels out to a mono signal. It’s a brilliant companion for live streaming events.
I wish I could give PortCaster to every political journalist in New Zealand who is going live on social media and YouTube.
So it’s a very capable audio interface for streaming the spoken word.
If you want to go completely computer-free to make recordings, you can pop a microSD card into the PortCaster and record right on the device. The maximum capacity it will accommodate is a 256GB SD card. That’s an awful lot of recording.
You can use it as a recorder and an audio interface at the same time, so you can be recording on your computer and the PortCaster’s SD card to give you extra peace of mind.
It records 2 tracks. That means you can bring the stereo file into your DAW, and if you prefer, convert the file to 2 separate mono tracks and do intensive post-production work.
It’ll record in 24-bit, 48kHz.
It has a built-in battery which recharges from the USB-C port dedicated to power tasks.
It’s important to note that even if you connect this device via an audio cable to a laptop or a desktop, it is not going to get charged from this connection. Like a lot of audio interfaces these days, it requires a separate power source, and you would use a separate USB cable for that, plugged into another jack, and that can lead to a battery pack if you’re recording on the go, or to a charging brick plugged into a wall outlet.
Channel 2 can either be another microphone connected via an XLR input, or your smartphone, which is connected via a TRRS cable.
In these unfortunate days of headphone jacks having become an endangered species on smartphones, you’ll need an adapter at one end of that TRRS cable, which one depends on the phone you have, but it’ll either be USB-C or Lightning.
The TRRS cable sends to your smartphone a mix-minus feed from the PortCaster. This means that when a guest appears in your recording via FaceTime, or phone, or WhatsApp, or some other voice-over IP solution on your phone, they won’t hear themselves echoing back, but they’ll hear you very clearly.
You will need to make a choice in each recording between 2 local guests, or you and an in-person guest.
If you want to record you and a local guest and a remote guest, then the two of you who are local will need to share a microphone.
The TRRS connection to a phone makes Podcaster a contender for recording technology demos, since VoiceOver or talkback can be heard via this connection.
There’s also a 3.5mm input jack to connect an auxiliary device so you can play elements like jingles or other recordings in the recording that you’re making.
Now we’re going to switch to recording locally on the Portcaster and introduce another product that they’ve supplied us to review.
Jonathan: Does it look like it’s recording?
Richard: It does, yeah.
Jonathan: [laughs] Okay. Because when you press record, one of the things that you don’t get is any kind of beep or indicator that you’re recording.
What happens if I just keep pressing record?
Richard: Let’s see.
Jonathan: I wonder if it makes another file, or… It just looks like it’s recording, right?
Richard: Yeah, it does.
Jonathan: Okay, so that’s good. So if you’re not sure if you’ve started recording, you can just repeatedly press record and presumably, that’s working.
So in fact, why don’t I just stop this and play it back before we get too much further?
Jonathan: So that worked as expected. So no beep or any indication that you’re recording, but you can press record as many times as you need to assure yourself that you are recording.
What we’re doing now is we are in the dining room, and we’re recording using another product that Centrance sent me to evaluate. This is a compliment to the PortCaster. This is the Centrance PM1 Pivot Microphones.
Welcome, Richard Mosen. Do you want to describe these pivot mics and how they work?
Richard: It’s quite interesting because they’re about as small as you could probably get an XLR mic. It’s just the XLR jack there, with a little microphone just right on the end of it coming off at a 45 degree angle, and each one is coming off at opposite angles.
So how we’ve currently got it set up is there’s one microphone pointed at myself, and then I’m at one side of the table. And then, on the side of the table just to my left is Dad, and he’s also got a microphone pointed directly at him.
I think that you could also arrange the microphone so if you’re sitting across the table from someone, you could have the microphone each pointed at one person, which is quite good.
But what you can also do with these mics is you can swap which XLR port they are in, which gets you an XY pattern with the mics, which is really good for getting an accurate sort of stereo sound, say if you’re at a concert or something like that.
Jonathan: They remind me of the microphones from a company I haven’t thought about for a long time which was called Giant Squid, and I don’t know if they’re still around. But back about 20 years ago, they used to be quite popular because you could get these tiny microphones. We used to plug them into the BrailleNote, and that kind of thing.
These are condensers, so we switched phantom power on.
Can we talk about the SD card? Because I got a new 256 gig SD card for the PortCaster. It arrived today. And I put it in my little SD card reader and checked that as far as Windows was concerned, it was formatted.
But I’ll see if I can find out more information about the formatting that was required because when I popped the SD card into the PortCaster, it didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t happy. Richard was saying it flashed up an orange light which is obviously some sort of error, and we couldn’t record onto it.
Jonathan: There is a process for formatting the SD card. Can you describe what you have to do to format the card in the recorder?
Richard: Yes. So first of all, you’ve got to make sure the device is turned off. The easiest indicator is this 3 LEDs on the bottom which indicate the battery level. And if those are off, your device is off.
So you’ve got to turn the device off, and then hold down the record button, and then turn it on by pressing the power button for a couple of seconds.
At that point, the light will light up. I believe, orange or red. I guess it doesn’t really matter. You can’t see the lights.
Jonathan: Yeah. [laughs]
Richard: And at that point, you’ve got to press the play/stop button.
And then, it actually took a little while to format, maybe like 30 seconds, in which point the light was orange. And at the end, it turned green. And that was the only indication that it was done formatting, the change of the color.
So if you just leave it there for 5 minutes, like, it will be long done by that point. Just if you want to be sure and you don’t have a sighted person around.
And then at that point, it’s turned off, so you’ll have to turn it back on again to use it.
Jonathan: Well, I’ll see if I can find that. It might just be that you could format the card in Windows or a Mac with the right version of FAT or something like that, so I’ll check that out.
These microphones are sounding very nice. And they’re so small. I mean, there’s no cable or anything. They just connect to the back of the unit.
So you could leave these connected. If you were a field reporter and you just wanted a really good quality recorder ready to go, ready to record in the field, you could just leave this like it is. And you could chuck it in a backpack.
These are additional accessories, by the way. It’s another couple of hundred bucks to get the PM1 pivot microphones for this. But of course, you can plug any microphone into the PortCaster that you like.
Shall we go through a rundown of what everything does? It’s really straightforward. I mean, it’s not going to take too long.
My understanding is that the PortCaster likes to think of the bit where the microphones plug in as the top. But I think most blind people would lie it down on a table, and they would consider the dials, the top interface to be the top bit and have the microphone bit pointing away from you. In which case you’ve got your left channel and your right channel. These are XLR connectors.
And then, you’ve got a TRRS jack that we talked about, so you can cable your iPhone.
So then you’ve got a row of switches, right? And these switches are very difficult to switch, I guess, deliberately. You’ve got to get a pen, or I’m using a SIM ejector tool from an iPhone to switch them. What do they do?
Richard: There’s 4 across the top. And from left to right, the first is the high-pass filter. There’s only one switch for that, so I guess it affects both channels.
Jonathan: We have it off right now.
Richard: We’ve got it off, yeah.
The next one along is the limiter for input 1, which is the one on the left.
And then similarly, the third one is the limiter for input 2 on the right.
Jonathan: It seems to be off by default ’cause when we got the recorder, it was off.
Jonathan: And we’ve now enabled the limiter. So when I was recording on my iPhone before, the limiter was not on. And now, it is.
And the final one along is to switch between, if you’re using the XLR or the TRRS on the bottom of the device. By default, it’s on the XLR. XLR is on the left, and TRRS is on the right for that one.
Jonathan: Which is why we’re able to use these pivot mics. ’Cause obviously, if we had it on TRRS, we would only be using one. [laughs]
Okay. And then, we’ve got some dials. And I guess it makes sense to cover them in pairs, because the top dials are for the left channel and the right channel input.
What would you say the gain is set at right now for these condensers?
Richard: I’d say it’s set at like 95%.
Jonathan: Oh. It’s quite high, isn’t it?
Richard: Yeah. I’m not quite sure how far around they go. But based on the markings, it looks like it’s very nearly maxed out.
Jonathan: You’d be able to see visually if we were triggering the limiter, wouldn’t you?
Richard: Yeah. It doesn’t have a very comprehensive level display. We’ve just got one light for signal, one light for peak, and one light for limiter.
And as I’m speaking here, it looks like it’s triggering both the peak and the limiter.
Jonathan: Oh, so we’re a bit hot?
Richard: I’d say so.
Jonathan: Do you want to turn them down so that we’re within range?
Jonathan: And I guess people can hear what the difference is between when we’re driving the limiter, ’cause that is very high for a condenser mic to be way up there.
Richard: Okay. I’ll just bring mine down now as I’m talking until it stops peaking out. So that looks about right.
And then, I’ll just move yours down to match it.
Jonathan: I’ll say something, shall I?
I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes.
Richard: Right, it looks like we’re not peaking anymore, but we’re just below the point where we were.
Jonathan: Okay, yeah, and I think I do hear a difference. So I mean, the limiter’s really nice because it’s not punchy, it’s not really breathy, and some limiters you can really hear them at work.
But no, this definitely sounds different. A lot less kind of acoustical bounce now, ’cause we are in a dining room with acoustical bounce.
What have we got the input set to?
Richard: I’d say that they are set to maybe 80%.
Richard: They’re at about three o’clock, if viewed with the microphones at the top.
There’s a tiny little nib on the dial, isn’t there? It’s not hugely tactile, but it is a bit tactile.
Jonathan: So the next row, what have we got in the next row of those dials left to right?
Richard: So the next row, the first one is labeled mono/stereo, so I guess it’s your separation there.
Jonathan: What this does is it is designed for streaming live audio, and the fact that sometimes, you wanna send a mono signal out to a live stream. It controls, I think, the stereo width, all the way up to mono.
Richard: Hmm. Yep.
Jonathan: What’s on the right of that one?
Richard: To the right of that is input/USB, and I’m not actually sure about what that would do.
Jonathan: I know what that does. What it does is when you are connected to a USB source like your smartphone or your computer, that control determines how much USB you hear, and how much of the direct monitoring from the device you hear.
So if you have it all the way turned to the left, you’ll only hear your device. If you have it all the way to the right, you’ll only hear the USB source which might be helpful if you’re using a DAW like Reaper, for example, which offers monitoring. So you can turn the zero latency direct monitoring completely off, if you want to.
But I think for a lot of people, you want it somewhere in the middle, where you can hear the direct monitoring.
And also, particularly as a blind person, you want to be able to hear what your screen reader is doing.
Then we’ve got one more pair of knobs, right?
Richard: One more pair.
So the one on the bottom left, it says AUX 3/4.
Jonathan: Yeah. And that one controls the input where you can actually plug in, via a line in, some sort of other source so that you can play music. Or maybe if you’re a journalist, you might want to play some actualities down a call or something like that. So you can connect whatever you like to the auxiliary, and that controls the volume for that.
Richard: And the final one is monitor. So I guess that would be your headphones out there.
So that’s all there is on the top, as it were, as we have it positioned.
But then on the front, there are more sockets, and dials, and cool things. Well, not dials. Buttons.
So on the top row of the front, the bottom, whatever you’d prefer to call it, we’ve got 4 buttons.
Richard: The first one is previous, and then following that is next, followed by play/pause. So those would be for playing back your recordings.
Richard: There’s no speaker on this, as far as I know.
Richard: So you need to use your headphones if you want to hear something back.
Richard: After that is the record button.
Jonathan: Yes. And if you’ve got headphones plugged in, the headphone jack is right below the record button. So that’s an orientation point.
Richard: Next along from that is the SD card slot. There isn’t a cover or anything for the SD card slot.
Richard: So if you’re pressing buttons back there, you have to be a bit careful not to accidentally eject your SD card.
Jonathan: But I really like this because it is spring loaded so it’s pretty safe and secure, and it’s so easy to get the card out.
I understand that the best way to transfer content is to actually put it in an SD card reader of some kind. I’ve got this really cool little gadget that has USB-C at one end, USB-A at the other, and a tiny little micro SD card slot, and I use that to get things off the PortCaster onto my computer.
But it’s so easy ’cause some of these Zoom recorders, it really is a mission to get the card out. [laughs] So this is much much better. It’s just on the front. You push it and it pops out really easily.
On the next row below that, you’ve got your USB-C port.
Jonathan: So there are 2 USB-C ports. The left-hand one is the one for data. So you connect that one to your smartphone or your PC to use it as an audio interface. You will not get power from that USB port.
There is a second one, which we’ll get to. And that second one, the one on the right of the unit is exclusively for power. It’s not uncommon for audio interfaces to have a separate power source these days. So if you want to power the unit, you know, it has got a rechargeable battery in it. But if you want to power the unit, you will need to connect it to a charging brick of some kind.
Centrance does not recommend that you plug it into another USB port of your computer to get power because it’ll take a long time to recharge that way.
So next along from that USB-C port, it looks like a line-in jack. And after that, you’ve got a line-out.
Jonathan: Yes, and you can control the level of that line-out. But that’s, I think, designed primarily for cameras, that kind of thing.
Richard: And following off of that is the headphone monitor out.
After that, there’s some indicator LEDs, which there’s just three of them, which indicate what level the battery is at. So it doesn’t have very high fidelity in telling you what level the battery’s at, but it’s fine.
And then after that is your second USB-C port that we talked about earlier.
Jonathan: Right. So the right-hand one is for power, the left-hand one is for data.
Richard: We’ve got 3 switches at the very bottom row.
The first one is the phantom power, which you need on if you’re using these little, what were these microphones called?
Jonathan: The pivot mics, the PM1 from Centrance.
Jonathan: We plugged them in, we didn’t have phantom power. Then I switched the phantom power on, and man, they were working.
Richard: Yeah, so phantom power is off by default. Off is on the left.
Jonathan: And when you switch phantom power on, you’re supplying phantom power to both channels?
Richard: Yeah, you can’t do it to just one.
Richard: After that is the monitor stereo/mono switch, so stereo by default.
Jonathan: Yeah, and that’s quite nice because if you’re connecting one microphone as I was, to do the introduction to this review, then it’s only gonna come in one ear unless you switch it to mono. But for something like this, I’m really enjoying the stereo imagery. [laughs]
Richard: That’s good.
And then finally is the level of the line out. So it’s just a binary low or high. It looks like it’s set to high by default.
Jonathan: So it’s a very straightforward device.
The preamps on this thing are just absolutely gorgeous. It exudes quality, doesn’t it? I mean, when you pick it up, you just think, “Wow! This is a premium thing.”
Richard: It does, yeah. I think that having no screens, just entirely hardware switches, does make something feel just a lot more premium. It feels like it’s gonna last a long time.
Jonathan: Which is the exact opposite … Do you remember the last time you and I did a review like this was for the Zoom micTrak?
Richard: Oh, yeah.
Jonathan: And we were talking about how sort of Fisher-Price and rinky-dink it was. [laughs]
Richard: Yeah, that’s right.
Jonathan: When I got this, when Centrance sent it to me, I immediately thought of giving you a call to come and be a part of this review ’cause you’re an audio guy, you’re an audio engineer, and you like the whole kind of analog experience as well.
Richard: Yeah, I do.
Richard: This is quite good. But also, it’s held together entirely by visible screws, which is a really good thing in this day and age with the right to repair, because I feel like if, say, the internal battery on this died, you could theoretically open it up quite easily and, assuming they sell replacement batteries, put a new one in, which is not very common with a lot of things these days.
Jonathan: One thing you’d also appreciate is we are recording in 48kHz 24-bit.
Richard: That is good.
Jonathan: So a bit of a cut above some of the podcast recorders in this space.
Richard: Is that the only option?
Jonathan: It is, yeah. That’s what it records in.
Jonathan: So there is a postscript to this, and that is that the knob for the mono/stereo blend. When it’s all the way to the left, it’s on full mono. And that’s the recording that we just made.
So for those who were confused when I was going on about how I liked the stereo image, you weren’t getting that because if you want full stereo, you’ve got to have that knob, which is the second from the top left, all the way over to the right to get stereo.
So you can say something now, Richard.
Richard: Yeah, I’ll say something now.
I think that maybe it would be better if the monitoring reflected that, but it’s fine.
Jonathan: Yeah, I guess so. I guess they’re making a distinction between what’s going out to the world and what you are hearing. But I guess what you want to hear is what’s going out to the world, right?
Richard: Yeah, exactly.
And I have seen other reviewers who’ve said, “Well, yeah, this is kind of interesting. You’ve got to get your head around it.”
So that’s why you didn’t get the beautiful stereo image. And we’re not going to sit here and do all that again, just for the stereo image [laughs], but you can hear what it’s like now.
All right. Well, we’ve done that, and we’ll go back into the studio.
And actually, before we go back into the studio, I am still upstairs. And this time, I’m using a Samson Q2U. So this is a very gainful mic. I’ve got the pots way down here because you don’t need too much to drive the Samson Q2U.
I want to just clarify one thing that we missed out, and it’s a pretty critical thing when we were going through the layout. And that is right below the headphone jack, on a kind of a slight angle to the right, at the bottom front right of the unit, there is a really important button we left out, and that is the power button. [laughs]
So plug your headphones in. Right below and slightly to the right, you will find the power button. Press that for a couple of seconds to turn it on. if you’ve got headphones connected, you’ll hear a click.
Press it again for roughly the same amount of time to switch it off.
So that’s a pretty critical thing to know where it is and how to power it on.
Jonathan: Now, I have a TRRS cable connected to the iPhone and the PortCaster, and I have switched over the little tiny micro switch so that channel 2 is now acting as the TRRS channel connected to my iPhone.
And on a FaceTime audio call, I have none other than Bonnie Mosen.
Welcome to you, Bonnie.
Jonathan: You’re able to hear me okay?
Bonnie: I can. I can hear you perfectly.
Jonathan: Right. And we are recording, and you kind of got a portable studio here so if you want to record interviews in the field, then you can do this just by recording either into your digital audio workstation, or like we’re doing recording onto the SD card using the little PortCaster.
What do you think of this? Because you’ve held it, haven’t you had it in your hand?
Bonnie: It’s very cute. Yeah it’s very cute.
Jonathan: Very small and light.
Bonnie: Very small and light.
Jonathan: Yep. And you’re talking on your iPhone 15 Pro Max.
Bonnie: I am, Pro Max, for live from the couch.
Jonathan: [laughs] Are you enjoying that?
Bonnie: Yeah, yeah. It’s much faster. I got a screen protector for it today.
Jonathan: So you actually do notice the difference between the 13 Pro Max and the 15 Pro Max in terms of performance?
Bonnie: Yeah, yeah. Seems like it’s faster.
Jonathan: Yeah. Very good.
Well, this is working well. And we’re just recording onto the SD card, all cabled up to the iPhone and it’s working absolutely flawlessly. And Bonnie’s getting a mix minus signal from the device.
So thank you for helping us test this.
Bonnie: Oh, thank you.
Jonathan: Good bye!
Bonnie: Go out and buy it, everyone.
Jonathan: Yeah. Bye bye!
Jonathan: And you can hear that VoiceOver is working here as well. And that means that if you want to, you could record a screen reader demo with this.
And if you’ve got the stereo mono blend all the way to the right, it means that the iPhone track will be completely separate, and you’ll be able to split the stereo file that the PortCaster is creating. And then, you can do EQ and balancing of levels and everything in a tool like Reaper.
And now, we really are going to take the PortCaster back into the studio for some final thoughts.
And whoosh! We are indeed in the studio.
Just to mix it up a bit, I am concluding this review in Reaper, and I’m connected to Windows.
To do this, to record in Windows, you will have to go to the Centrance website and install their driver. If you don’t do this, you won’t find any recording options available for PortCaster and other Centrance devices. You will be able to plug and play for playback, but you won’t be able to do any recording or streaming, unless you install the drivers. When you do, it’s visible to the system in Windows.
And also, there is ASIO compatibility for apps that support that.
I was unable to get Reaper to talk to the ASIO driver. It kept coming back with an error opening device. If I play with it a bit more, I may be able to get it to work. But for now, I’m just using the built-in Windows support, and the latency is still pretty good.
First, some updates from Centrance whose chief executive has been very responsive and patient as I’ve been putting this review together.
I am correct that PortCaster does use FAT32. They highly recommend formatting the SD card in the unit itself. If you follow the steps that we outlined earlier in this review when Richard was explaining that, you really should have no problem. It’s reasonably straightforward, and it’s not something that you have to do often.
While PortCaster should come with the date and time pre-programmed, there is a cool trick that allows you to program it, and these are the steps that you follow:
First, on your computer, you create a blank file called R4TIME.txt. That’s a capital R, the number 4, and then time, all in uppercase, .txt, and you put that in the root of your SD card. Don’t put it in the R4 folder that’s created, just in the root of the SD card.
Then you put the card into your PortCaster, and then you turn the unit on.
That’s all you have to do. At this point, the unit should have the correct time and date for recording.
When you contrast that with the hoops we have to go through that are not accessible to set the date and time on some recorders, that’s pretty cool.
You can even verify that it has worked because if it has taken the date and time from this blank file, then the file will disappear, and that’s a sign that the PortCaster has programmed itself correctly.
To conclude, I’ll offer you some pros and cons and a few comparisons.
The closest thing to PortCaster that we’ve covered on this podcast would be the Zoom PodTrak P4, since it’s designed for recording the spoken word, and particularly for podcasting. Unlike PortCaster, the Zoom PodTrak P4 can be used as an audio interface and a stand-alone recorder.
I won’t make many comparisons with audio interfaces in a similar space that don’t offer independent recording like the Focusrite VoCaster or the Audient Evo 4, other than to say that if you don’t do any recording in the field, there are other options around that cost less and might meet your needs better. For example, neither the PodTrak nor the PortCaster offers loopback, which for recording screen reader demos on Windows or Mac may be very useful.
So consider your requirements carefully, because we now have a range of choices that we can work with, and that is a great place to be.
So, some pros and cons.
PortCaster is a rugged, small unit, and it feels like it’ll withstand heavy-duty recording in the field for years. That’s important because if you’re going to throw this in a backpack or even a suitcase, you need something that’s going to withstand the rigors of being mobile.
Just the other day, I was talking to a blind podcaster who said that their PodTrak P4 was suffering from wear and tear.
So PortCaster is a bit more of an initial outlay, that’s for sure. But if it does enough to meet your requirements, you might consider it an investment, and you’ll probably come out on the right side of the equation in the long term.
The P4 only records in CD quality, so 44 kHz, 16-bit. PortCaster records in 48 kHz, 24-bit, giving you some more headroom.
The P4 offers 4 tracks, while the PortCaster only offers 2.
So when you make a purchase, you’ll have to think carefully about how much capacity you really need. If you’d only ever record one-on-one interviews, be it an in-person guest or with a remote caller, then the PortCaster will meet your needs.
There are also other ways to get 2 local guests and many remote guests.
For my podcasting work, I use CleanFeed, which we’ve covered on this podcast before. It’s a broadcast quality service designed for audio professionals to make great recordings.
If you connect PortCaster to a Windows or Mac computer, you can use both channels to record in person, while using CleanFeed’s own built-in multi-track recorder to bring in as many remote guests as you need, each on their own track. And indeed, I’ve tried this with PortCaster. It works a treat.
While the Podcaster has one mix minus via a TRRS cable, the Podtrak P4 actually has two mix minuses. There’s one available to the TRRS cable, but there’s also one for USB as well. The Podtrack is, therefore, going to allow you to record guests from different sources – one from the phone, another, say, from Zoom or some PC or Mac-based option, plus a couple of local guests, and mix minus is applied appropriately in all cases. That is a pretty compelling use case.
The whole thing can be recorded onto the SD card in separate tracks as well, so that makes the Podtrak very powerful and versatile.
With more features, of course, comes more complexity, so you need to give careful thought to whether this scenario is one you really need to accommodate. Some people will, but many people will not.
If you find yourself regularly making recordings with 3 or 4 people in them, then PortCaster may not meet your use case.
In terms of accessibility, well, the lack of menus to navigate is a big win for PortCaster.
As we all know, when we take many Zoom recorders out of the box, we can’t get anything done at all until we’ve set the date and time via a process that is not accessible. There are occasions when that date and time, for various reasons, might reset.
The P4 offers a series of buttons that allow you to play sound effects and other elements in your podcast. These can be convenient, but programming them is a bit fiddly for a blind person. You can do it, though.
PortCaster allows you to connect an auxiliary device for inclusion of elements on your show. As I said earlier, this could even be something like a SensePlayer or a Victor Reader Stream.
So it could be a bit more accessible, while not being nearly as simple as pressing a button with a pre-programmed file.
PortCaster has only one headphone output, despite the fact that you might be interviewing a second local guest.
The PodTrak P4 has 4 headphone outputs, Each with its own independent volume control. So if you’re going to be recording regularly with someone who wants to hear the audio as it’s being recorded, then this could be a very strong case for the PodTrak.
You can use a splitter, of course, with the PortCaster, but that generally won’t give you independent control of the volume for each pair of headphones.
If you’re going to be sending out a live stream of your audio, PortCaster’s ability to blend both channels to a mono signal is a very nice feature.
PortCaster is so small and simple to use, that I see it being a great companion for, say, consumer organizations who want to give their affiliates a simple tool to stream local conferences and conventions.
You could easily mix an audio of a commentator or a compere on the stream with the house audio, and send it out as a mono source to the stream. In an environment like that where there can be wild volume fluctuations, the high quality limiter in PortCaster can really help.
PortCaster’s built-in battery is both a pro and a con, in my view. It’s nice not to have to carry sets of batteries around with you, and you should be able to get around 6 to 8 hours of recording. But if there’s a need to just keep on going, being able to insert a fresh set of batteries is a plus for the PodTrak P4.
You can, of course, take a portable battery pack with you, and it’s no problem to connect it to the USB-C port designed specifically for powering PortCaster. What’s nice is that when you use an external power bank like that, you are charging the unit’s battery.
The limiter in PortCaster is beautiful. And that’s not a word that I would use very often in an audio review, but it really is.
First, while the little recessed switches are a bit of a nuisance to change, as a blind person, you can tell easily whether the limiter is on or whether it’s off for each channel. When it’s on, it’s not too aggressive, or punchy, or breathy.
I’ve seen several complaints on forums around the internet about noise from the PodTrak P4 when the limiter is on.
The limiter in PortCaster is superb. And perhaps it compensates to some degree, particularly in the spoken word context, for the fact that this is not a 32-bit float recorder.
Nor, to be clear, is the P4.
Now, there are some Zoom recorders that offer 32-bit float such as the F3, the F6, and the MicTrak M1, all of which we reviewed on this podcast. But they’re not really geared squarely at the podcasting market, so you lose some of the podcasting features like TRRS and the buttons to play files.
If you want to change the limiter on the PodTrak P4, you have to go into the P4’s menu system to toggle its limiter. It can be done, but you’ve got to do a bit more memorizing. Your ears will help you out here, of course. You’ll be able to tell when the limiter is on.
The same is true of what PortCaster calls the High Pass Filter and what the PodTrak P4 calls the Low Cut Filter. It’s handled with a switch on the PortCaster via the menu in the P4.
Also, once you start recording on the P4, even if you can see the menu system, you can’t change the status of the High Pass Filter or the limiter, but you can do that with the PortCaster due to the physical switches.
The P4 boasts 70dB of gain, while the PortCaster has 65. I’m not really sure that the additional 5dB is that important and the preamps on the PortCaster are again, beautiful. I’ve got lots of gain to spare, again, recording into Reaper with the Heil PR40 now plugged directly into the PortCaster, which is how we’re recording this now.
Now, tragic that I am, I enjoy reading user guides. And there’s not too much of a user guide to speak of with PortCaster. It does have a quick start guide which pretty much tells you all you need to know if you’re comfortable with audio gear.
Unfortunately, it is in an inaccessible JPEG format at the moment. But I feel sure that’s easily remedied, and that if enough blind people flock to Centrance buying PortCasters and you want the quick start guide, then that can be made available in some sort of textual format.
In short, I would say that the PortCaster does fewer things if you were to write down a list of things that each device does. But the things that PortCaster chooses to do, it does better and more accessibly. It’s also a much higher quality product in terms of its build and its components.
There are a few things that might be done in a future iteration that would make the hardware even more accessible.
Just a power button that pressed in so you could tell tactually whether it’s powered on or not would be super.
There’s no audible or tactile indication that you’re recording either. But if you’re in doubt, you can repeatedly press record and once you’re recording, repeatedly pressing it will have no effect. It’s always a good idea to make a quick test recording before you get into the real thing.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a fan of the recessed switches, particularly for a function so important as switching the function of channel 2. Many blind people don’t bother carrying pens around with them, so you have to go searching for something that will allow you to change them.
All that said, I have become a fan of this little powerhouse. It knows what market segment it’s going after, and it does it well with top-notch components and robust construction.
If you understand its benefits and its limitations (because every product has them) and you understand whether it will meet your needs, I think you’ll be happy with your purchase.
It is a pricey purchase, though. It comes in at $549. You may be able to find it a little cheaper elsewhere.
If you’d like to know more information about the PortCaster, you can visit centrance.com. That’s C-E-N-T-R-A-N-C-E.com.
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Jonathan: Having heard about PortCaster, let’s talk to the person who created it.
And we’re talking with Michael Goodman. He’s from Centrance.
Michael, it’s great to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being here.
Michael: Thank you so much, Jonathan. It’s a pleasure.
Jonathan: You have been around in this business a long time. I’m interested to learn what inspired you to start your own audio business, what, a couple of decades ago now?
Michael: That’s correct. Thank you for that.
I always wanted to be a recording engineer, ever since I was a kid. Actually, I fell in love with radio when I was about 11 years old.
I lived in Russia, of all places. And during some of the cold winter mornings, I had to come to school through the snow. It was uncomfortable, and freezing and all that.
And I’d made a tiny little transistor radio with an earpiece in my ear. And then the sound of a voice coming in from a warm studio kind of made my life better. It improved my well-being, emotionally. And then since then, I just fell in love with radio.
There’s a particular connection that a radio has with a person. It informs, it educates, it entertains.
And then after that, I wanted to become a recording engineer. So I came to the States and I studied to be a recording engineer.
For a while, I worked in studios around town.
And when I realized that I should also think about making money, [laughs] I went and I got a job at Shure, a big microphone company here in Chicago. That was a great educational experience. Wonderful company. A lot of very smart people that I got to learn from.
And then I left them after about 10 years, and wanted to start something of my own.
And these days, we focus primarily on, centrance, that is, we focus on the tools for a traveling creator, traveling content creator. So that would be musicians, podcasters, broadcasters, journalists, people like that.
So we work with the BBC, we work with CNN, a lot of stations here in America where we supply small but virtually indestructible recording devices to people who travel. And that allows them to create content on the fly – in a hotel room, in a car, anywhere they are, and then essentially be completely independent of a large recording studio. I feel that there’s a need for that out there.
Jonathan: You’ve carved out a niche for yourself, and you’ve described that niche.
And that’s taken a while, hasn’t it? Because I understand initially, Centrance was consulting to a range of companies, including some of the players who’ve become quite large in the space like Zoom.
And now, you’re really focusing on manufacturing your own products, and you understand very clearly the market segment that you’re serving.
Michael: That’s correct, actually. Thank you for doing the research.
We are a 23-year-old company. And for the first 10 years of our existence, we were a consulting firm.
So as I started my own company, I started with $500.
And what I did (this was back in 2000, 2001), I went out and I bought a fax machine because back then, that was supposed to be the thing to do. You know, you start a business when you have a fax machine. Remember those?
Jonathan: Oh yeah, not fondly.
Michael: And that was the major investment. And I already had a laptop, so that was taken care of.
And then, so as the first phase of the company was progressing, we’re essentially, you know, making an income here and there from consulting jobs. And also, you know, learning the best implementation practices from around the world.
We ended up gathering an impressive list of consulting clients, over 150 pro audio companies, pro and consumer audio companies around the world on 4 continents. And that list was essentially the A to Z of pro audio companies, literally from Alesis to Zoom.
So I was very proud. It was a dream, initially, to have worked for, you know, as many audio companies as I could.
And at, you know, about 7 years into it, I realized, “Okay, the dream has been achieved. Now what?”
And I realized that the next phase really would be, would have to be our own product line. So in other words, becoming a brand, rather than a consulting company when we, you know, designed for others.
And we designed audio interfaces, we designed guitar pedals, we designed microphone preamplifiers and a lot of other circuitry mixers as well for a lot of companies; some of them we can name, some of them we cannot name due to, you know, NDAs still in place.
But it was a fun ride, and it did give us an opportunity to learn, as I said, best practices of manufacturing, product design, product development, marketing, customer interaction.
Not that we’ve used, you know, any one company’s technology or know-how and then resold it to another company. That definitely would not be a good idea. But I think that we’ve been able to take a composite picture, a bird’s eye view of here are all the things that are being done right.
So in a way, we positioned ourselves to these consulting clients as a purveyor of a bird’s eye view on the industry, a company who knew how to do things the best possible way, sort of world class engineering practices.
And then when we became a brand, we had to be really careful to not step on the toes of our partners, of our consulting clients.
So our first product, the MicPort Pro – essentially a cigar-shaped single-channel audio interface. We still make a version of that product. It’s gotten better. It’s on 3rd generation, I want to say, right now.
But essentially, it was something very unique that didn’t exist because we couldn’t do another audio interface because that would be not prudent based on some of the existing agreements with our consulting clients. So we made something that was completely out of this world, didn’t exist, was different.
And then we started hearing from voice actors – these people who narrate the promos for commercials and television shows, etc.
“Tonight, on Channel 5 News.”
Jonathan: Yeah, right right. [laughs]
Michael: They picked up on that, and they loved it because it turns out that that’s a very lonely profession, as we’ve learned.
A voiceover actor can make a significant amount of money without leaving their house because they have their home studio, and they created a little nook that they’ve soundproofed. And there’s isolation, a little sound booth and all that.
They get their script by email, they narrate it, and they send it off.
And unfortunately, they can’t leave the house after that because what if another email comes in, right?
So the moment they realized that they could work remotely, essentially, …
I mean, I have pictures of some of these voiceover actors, pretty prominent ones like Bo Weaver, Harlan Hogan, and others here in America, narrating from a car.
You know, some of those guys are wealthy. So they, you know, the saying is, you know, Mercedes actually makes a pretty good recording studio.
Michael: Because, you know, they do take good care of soundproofing in the car.
Fast forward into modern times. They would be driving along, they would get a text message, they would pull over to the side of the road and do the, you know, do the narration. Should take like a minute, whatever, right? Or do a pickup, a little change to whatever they’ve done before.
And the best compliment that we’ve heard is that they were saying the client couldn’t tell that they were not recording in a real studio.
Jonathan: That’s a great story.
Now, by accident, really, because of the philosophy that you’ve adopted, these things are super accessible because, as I mentioned in the review, you don’t have a series of menus that aren’t accessible because a blind person can’t see the screen.
What is it that inspires you to develop that sort of product?
Michael: To be honest with you, we have happened upon the blind community by accident. We didn’t plan to meet the needs of blind podcasters.
[laughs] But it’s kind of funny that as a musician, myself a bass player, and I’ve played many clubs here in Chicago and in other cities as well, I don’t have a music career anymore because making electronics products is enough. Thank you very much.
But as a musician, however, having played on stages and having performed in front of people, I had consistently noticed that I can’t successfully split my brain into two parts. one of which parts is being the technician, and the other one is being the talent. So it can’t be the tech and the talent at the same time.
Some people are lucky in that way, that they can actually switch back and forth. I guess it’s the right brain and the left brain or whatever.
I can’t. It’s either one or the other. I get focused on the art. And then, I am creative but I am completely illogical at that moment. Or I can focus and I can do my screens and my menus and my clicking and the settings and all that, but at that point, I am worthless as a creator which is very strange.
And I’m trained as a software engineer as well. I have a masters degree in computer science majoring in artificial intelligence, by the way, which makes it fun these days. But I can live in both worlds, but not at the same time. That would be the right way of saying it.
And then, I designed this thing for me, because I want something that’s very simple to operate, very easy where I don’t want to squint over menus.
I’m getting older. My vision is not what it used to be. So now, I have to put on the glasses and then look at these menus.
When we were running this design firm, I got the opportunity to travel around the world and meet with a lot of engineers around the world. At various companies in Germany, in France, in Japan, in America, obviously, in Australia. And engineers, they all have similar traits – they’re all trained to essentially love complexity. And they’re programmed to think in complex thought patterns.
So when you see a modern product, the audio enthusiast, audio professional, you essentially see an example of a computer scientist at work – something that is complicated unnecessarily.
But because it is cool, it is pleasurable for the computer engineer to make that complication, it makes them happy. It creates a world.
Now what became very clear to me later on (not right away, unfortunately, but better late than never) is that as a musician, I totally could not go along with that. I could not use a complicated product on a busy stage, right? I just simply didn’t have the time.
And for a long time, during the consulting years, etc., you don’t usually talk back when a client gives you a job. You just do the job, right?
And then for a long time, I didn’t have a chance to rebel against the standard philosophy, right? – that equipment should be complicated. That’s how it is.
And these days, I’m sort of done being complacent, and compliant, or whatever. [laughs] I feel that the musician, content creator, needs to have an opportunity to create without having to jump through hoops.
And that’s what we’re really focusing on. I’m sort of on a mission now.
I really want to make equipment that is one-touch recording capable, where I want to take all of the settings, and the sampling rates, and the bit resolutions, and the type of processor that’s inside. I want to take all of that and put it way behind the curtain.
Jonathan: You have two closely-related products. You’ve got MixerFace which came first, and then PortCaster which was kind of a derivative.
What’s the difference between those two? Who should use which?
Michael: Great question.
MixerFace came out first. It was a product of about 3 or 4 years of intense research. Again, nothing like that exists.
It’s a battery-powered audio interface that is also field recorder. It has a USB audio out and an SD card slot.
So you can be recording to a connected computer, like you would with a normal audio interface, but you could also record that same program material to the SD card inside.
And the way we did it is those two systems are completely separate and essentially redundant.
So if the computer fails, for example, right? The SD card recorder will continue to operate like nothing happened. And then, vice versa, right?
If the card gets full in the SD card recorder, the computer will continue to operate. Those are completely different systems.
So internally, it’s built like a tank. It’s completely redundant. It’s like that.
We were working with the BBC and Swedish radio, which is also known for very sort of forward technological thinking.
And then, we were kind of informed by those mission critical operational standards.
MixerFace came out, and we found a lot of support from the musician community. It does have two combo XLR jacks.
Jonathan: Ah, okay, right.
Michael: which will give you an opportunity to connect a guitar or bass.
But then, we got requests from radio people for, you know, the opportunity to have a call-in guest, right? And the mix minus and MixerFace didn’t have any of that. And trying to do that was difficult because you had to take a cable and route the cable around and then plug it from the back to the front. It was not convenient.
So we decided that there had to be a version of MixerFace made specifically for the needs of spoken word, you know, – artists, specifically podcasters and journalists.
And that’s how PortCaster came about. It’s basically the same platform. It still has the USB interface, and it still has the SD card recorder because that technology seems to be very well received, and it’s proven that it works well. It still has the same great preamps.
But it, PortCaster loses the guitar inputs because that community typically doesn’t have, maybe it does play guitar, but it doesn’t have the time. [laughs]
So the way we say it in short is MixerFace for music, and PortCaster is for voice.
Jonathan: Do you foresee a time when there might be a new generation of PortCaster that adds a couple more inputs and a couple more tracks for those situations where you might be sitting around a table with a bunch of guests? Is that on the roadmap, potentially?
Michael: Interesting question because our position in the industry, the way I see it is we make things that surround the person.
Funny though, the name Centrance, the company name that came to me in my sleep, is a made up term. But to me, it sort of represented something that’s at the center, at the core.
Jonathan: Okay, so if Paul McCartney can dream yesterday, you can dream the name Sentrence. That sounds fair.
Michael: I hope so.
Michael: I aspire to be at that level.
Michael: Yeah. I always wanted to make sure that the artist can be self-sufficient, you know, without having to hire a large recording studio.
And again, you know, as somebody who’s trained to be a recording engineer and to work in the recording studio, I was sort of shooting myself in the foot that way.
But I realized that the artist does need that opportunity to be sort of self-sufficient, especially on tour, on the road, right?
With regards to these multiple-person podcasts, now, we’re talking about a serious production. Do they exist? Of course. Do I want to enable them? Yes. I think that it’s very valid to allow people to co-create, you know, essentially, create together.
And also, now that COVID is hopefully gone, co-create in co-located environments. There’s a whole bunch of corporate words for you.
Jonathan: Yeah. [laughs]
Michael: I think that if we do that, and when we do that, it would be done in a way that I think would have to complement our existing products. So in other words, all of the existing solutions for multitrack recording are using the user interface metaphor from bygone days, essentially, where you have to have an engineer running the equipment.
And with all the brotherly love to my fellow recording engineers, and without, you know, trying to get them out of the job (which I’m sure there’s other jobs for them available), I would like for the creator to have the opportunity to not think a lot about the engineering, but be able to run the show on their own.
So this is the paradigm of your radio DJ, who essentially is also running the studio. Late at night, the guy in a jazz station.
There’s not a lot of money left there for an engineer to be also present there. So a lot of these guys are operating that whole show on their own. They’re taking call-in guests, they’re operating the board.
I used to do that myself at some point. And yeah, you could be very stressed out after a long night of being a talent and an engineer at the same time. Man, I would hit the pillow and I’d be out.
So how can we make the life of the content producer, content creator easier? That would be the question that we would have to be asking ourselves.
Jonathan: The quality of this product is outstanding, and I did mention that in the review.
And I guess what you are showing is that people are willing to pay for quality. So you can get cheaper products that are very plasticky, not particularly durable, and they may have a few more features. But there are people who are choosing Centrance because of the quality of the material that they’re able to produce with it.
And I suppose that’s a matter of pride, for those of us who care about our audio and the podcast space, even when you’re volunteering.
But for the people that you were originally targeting, those voiceover artists who make a living out of this, that’s absolutely critical, isn’t it? To have as little hiss as possible, ensuring that the quality is as good as it can be. That if you are recording in one of those environments that’s a bit suboptimal in theory, that you’ve got a limiter there if you need that, just to make sure you get the perfect take. People are willing to pay a premium for that sort of quality.
Michael: Well, it actually really becomes a financial choice, when you think about it. With a plastic product, if it breaks, you have to buy another one, which is great for the manufacturer, but essentially just costs you twice.
With a metal product, which you can literally run a car over and continues to work, (We actually have a video on our website where, you know, I actually drove over one of those myself with trepidation, but it continued to work.).
Michael: That will provide years of uninterrupted, reliable service, and you won’t have to buy another one.
And so at the end of the day, the cost of ownership of our gear is actually lower than the cost of ownership of something that’s plastic and appears to be cheaper at the outset. So it’s just a very frugal decision.
But also, the decision to go with a rugged metal case that’s still lightweight (because we’re using aircraft aluminum), the decision came, again, from working with a whole bunch of broadcasters.
And any day it seems like there’s some sort of conflict going on in the world, and broadcasters are dispatched to the hot zone to interview and to essentially inform about what’s going on, that’s a military-like environment. I mean, sorry to say, but the broadcasters are oftentimes living the lives of the soldiers that they’re accompanying, right? Talking about embedded journalists and stuff like that. So they don’t have any time to baby their equipment.
Now, you could make a parallel to the music world, and we obviously work with artists who tour. And not everybody, again, has a crew. Sometimes, you just throw the equipment at the back of the truck at the end of the gig, and you drive off, and it’s really late, and you don’t have a lot of time to think about things, so you literally throw things into the truck. Again, a plastic product will not survive that kind of treatment.
Being able to meet the needs of the actual customers, thinking about them, and just trying to make their life easier is what’s driving these decisions.
Jonathan: You’ve got a number of other products And just in the time remaining, can we just canvas what some of those are?
You have something called the English Channel, which really interested me when I read about it. [laughs]
Can you explain what that is, what that bundle comprises?
Michael: There’s a particular fascination with the vintage British EQ sound, which was popularized on the recordings from the late ’70s and early ’80s, which you could argue modern music really got a boost during that time.
Because in the ’60s, when the Beatles obviously were recording a lot of stuff, there was a tremendous amount of innovation happening in the studio, and they were breaking new ground with all kinds of recording techniques.
But in the ’70s, when a lot of rock music was produced in America, and correspondingly, a ton of great music was produced in UK, (those are the 2 well-known examples. Obviously, there was ABBA in Sweden, etc., and a lot of other stuff).
But the music industry experienced some kind of a renaissance at that point, specifically, I think, driven and augmented by the modern recording technology that was just becoming mainstream.
So we’re talking about high-quality analog consoles. Rupert Neve lent his hand to a lot of that, obviously, as a brilliant console designer.
And then, multi-track recording and all that.
So when digital came around, I would say in the early ’90s, and then it kept getting better and better.
And now, with essentially everything transitioning to plugins, and a lot of people working entirely in the box, which refers to in the computer, where all of the production is happening in the computer, rather than in a tactile world, in “real world”, I think something is getting lost.
First of all, the computer is definitely a different way of operating. It forces you into a logical thinking pattern, rather than a more of an analog thinking pattern.
And then, there’s a significant amount of debate in the industry about whether digital still sounds as good as analog does.
It’s getting better and better and better. But we also have products for the audiophile customer. We make headphone amplifiers and D to A converter stacks with pristine high end sound.
And so we talk to customers at trade shows and online. Those guys are a special bunch. They prefer tube amps because tube amps have a particular analog sound, warm analog sound that to this day has not fully been mirrored by digital technology, which is strange in a way because digital can do a lot these days.
I find, and this is personal opinion, but you know, informed by a whole bunch of conversations on both sides – pro audio and hi-fi, I find that analog still holds a very particular place in the soul of a music enthusiast and musician. Guitar amplifiers still have tubes, right? Despite all of the digital effects that are built into them, etc.
There’s something about analog which mirrors us. I mean, we are analog at the end of the day, right? [laughs]
So digital can do a lot of things, and you can extend that into AI. AI can also do a lot of things, and will be able to do a lot of things.
But will humanity exist after we transition into a new world where we have AI assistance everywhere? I think so. I think humanity is us. It’s the fundamental fabric from which we’re built.
I would like to not lose touch with our humanity. I would like to not lose touch with our analog patterns. And to the extent that we can control our own, not lose touch with the sound of analog gear that I believe is still quite pleasant, warm, and comforting in a way.
So as a trained computer scientist who understands how to make digital products, I am almost stepping back into a technology that is at this point, 50, 70 years old.
We’re about to release a tube amplifier for audiophiles. It will have tubes. It will also have a microprocessor-controlled circuit that will extend the life of the tubes because what happens with the tubes is after a while, they’ll lose emission, which is essentially the end of the tube. So they become quieter. An old tube radio would get quieter after several years of extensive use.
So what we’re doing is we’re now taking digital technology to essentially measure the tube in real time as it’s operating, and then compensate for its loss of level by essentially overdriving it very slightly, very carefully over the years. So the system is designed to essentially continue to complement tubes’ aging process over the years.
So we’re making … The product is called Amp Mini because it actually sits on top of a Mac Mini computer.
If you can imagine a Mac Mini computer, it’s a small brick-like thing that a lot of people love to put into their home stereo setups. It’s small, it’s quiet, and it can store your entire music collection.
So what it doesn’t have is a high-quality headphone amplifier, especially to drive bigger overhead planar magnetic headphones, which sound better and require a lot of power to drive.
So Amp Mini would stack with the Mac Mini computer. It’s made out of the same aluminum, same colors and everything. Same dimensions. And it would connect to the Amp Mini, and also a little DAC that we make that is also called DAC Mini. So you can make it like a stereo stack in the old sort of stereo system metaphor, right? But your Mac Mini becomes the centerpiece of that.
And then, the tubes are adding the analog warmth into the Amp Mini. And then, the modern touch is the microprocessor system that keeps those tubes alive for a very long period of time.
There’s also a lot of other innovations, which I won’t go into here.
But yeah, so we’re making products on the hi-fi side for the music enthusiast. And then, also products on the content creation side for the musician, journalist, podcaster, etc.
The English Channel, just to finish that thought, is a collection of 3 devices that are housed in a special protective console. And these devices are a mic pre-compressor. That’s one device. Another one is a 3-band parametric EQ. And a third device is a streaming interface. It’s actually a PortCaster, but without the battery.
So all 3 devices, they’re the same size. They’re the size of the PortCaster, which you have in your possession. So they’re just located side by side. And then, they all are powered from the same USB jack.
So basically, your USB charger, right? Anywhere in the world you have USB power available to you. They just daisy-chain the power from one to the other.
The reason it’s called the English Channel is it’s the channel strip from an expensive vintage British console, where you have all of the necessary controls for the sonic shaping for your sound. You have EQ, you have compression, you have noise gate, you have a de-esser, and then a USB out and an SD card recorder. So you can immediately start streaming or recording yourself.
If you want to sound your best, and if you have a really good microphone, and you want to just make slight corrections to the EQ, or like maybe bring up the bass, or maybe just control the top end a little bit, or there’s maybe something correct in the midrange etc. The parametric EQ can do all that.
And if you also want to have some compression built in so that your sound is steady and radio-like, right? That thing is the size of the book, and it allows you to create a radio station on your lap anywhere in the world. A professional highest quality broadcast station anywhere in the world.
Jonathan: And the really cool thing about that is that it’s accessible, because it’s all involving physical controls, so that’s pretty exciting.
I have to say. When I go to the Centrance site, it’s like this glorious little boutique of shiny things. It’s really interesting to just browse and take a look at what you’re doing.
And also, there’s the YouTube channel as well that people should check out.
There’s just so much going on. And I think that it’s quite a discovery for those blind people who’ve already found Centrance because as I mentioned in the review, there were just so many obstacles to first of all, learning the layout of some of these products that have layers upon layers of menus. And then, committing that to memory or some sort of cheat sheet.
So it’s glorious, and I congratulate you on all you’re doing.
And people can go to centrance.com for more information.
It’s been great to get to know you via the interview. I appreciate you coming on the podcast.
Michael: Jonathan, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
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Let’s talk about streaming web radio links on Chromecast.
Christopher Wright says:
I’ve been trying to figure this out for a very long time. And perhaps, there isn’t a way after all.
I have a link to an internet radio station that’s basically a standard Icecast MP3 stream.
This isn’t listed in any of the major databases like TuneIn or iHeart, so I can’t use the Google Assistant to play it.
My Chromecast audio can play content directly, just like any other Chromecast device, and I want it to independently handle the web radio stream. I can cast it from my web browser or via VLC, but this means my computer or phone has to remain active to act as a transmitter, similar to Bluetooth or Airplay.
Do you or any of your listeners know if there’s an app or some other way to give a Chromecast device a direct link to content?
This seems really simple. But apparently, this isn’t what the device was meant to do, which is a shame.”
I agree. I would never have thought that it would be capable of doing this because essentially, it’s just a hardware version of Airplay, isn’t it? You send from one device to another device, rather than make it do independent things. I don’t know if it has the intelligence to do that.
But if anyone knows differently, do of course get in touch and clue us in. opinion@LivingBlindfully.com on the email. Attach an audio clip if you like, or write the email down.
You can also give us a call on 864-60-Mosen in the US. 864-606-6736.
Voice message: Good afternoon, Jonathan. This is in regards to Carolyn’s difficulties with the changing of the voice on the Google Home app.
Now, what I have always done is to change it in the Assistant app, not the Home app, which is where you would expect it to be.
But as long as your Google Home speaker and your phone are signed into the same Google account, changing that setting on the phone will also change it for the Google Assistant.
So I will quickly demonstrate that.
First, let me show you the voice that I’m currently using now.
“Ogle, show me an interesting fact about New Zealand.”
Google – male voice: “According to USA Today, the heaviest squid was discovered in New Zealand in 2007. It was a colossal squid, and weighed over 1,000 pounds.”
Shawn: That’s pretty nuts. [laughs]
Okay. So now, I’m going to open the Assistant app. And what I’ve discovered is that when you open the Assistant app, the microphone automatically keys up. I did not find any way to change that. I did look a fair bit.
So what we’re going to do is we’re going to … I’m doing that because the hourly chime is going to go in a minute. So I’m going to go Open Assistant.
VoiceOver: Assistant. Speak now.
And notice it’s not even very clear. It doesn’t give you an acknowledgement, so it’s hard to tell whether…
[Google mic on sound]
Shawn: Yeah. So she was listening.
But anyway, what I’m going to do is touch near the top of the screen.
VoiceOver: Assistant. Hi! Settings button. Assistant logo.
Shawn: So usually, you start with that Assistant logo. And then, you find Settings.
VoiceOver: Settings button. Back button. Menu. Shawn Phiel. Manage popular settings.
Shawn: I had to skip past because I didn’t want it to give my email address.
VoiceOver: Languages. Assistant voice and sounds. Back button. Assistant voice, heading Menu button. Back button.
Shawn: And you notice that just flicking won’t get you to where you need to be. So what I’m going to do is touch the middle of the screen.
VoiceOver: Available voices.
Shawn: Okay. Now, we’re in the right place.
Shawn: And one that you’ve currently selected is the one at the top.
Now, these are all using different colors. I think it’s Google’s attempt to be less gender biased.
So right now, we have the Lime one. I’m going to switch to the Red one because that is the one that I’m used to that first came with it.
Google assistant: Lime. Indigo. Red. Red.
Google assistant: Here are the voices you can pick for your Google Assistant. If you like this voice and want me to keep using it, just stop here.
Shawn: And that’s all you have to do.
So now, if I say, “Ogle, tell me an interesting fact about Australia.”
Google – female voice: According to Wikipedia, the city of Melbourne, Australia used to be called Batmania.
Shawn: Wow! Okay.
Now, I will go further down because the Australian voice that Carolyn might have been looking for is also here.
VoiceOver: Orange, amber, green, cyan, blue, purple, pink, British racing green, Sydney Harbor blue.
Google assistant: Here are the voices you can pick for your Google Assistant. If you like this voice and want me to keep using it, just stop here.
Shawn: And now, the Google Assistant in the Google Home speaker will also use that voice.
I know that’s not where it seems like it should be done, but this has worked for quite a while doing it this way.
Jonathan: Understandably, quite a bit of interest in the HeardThat app.
Imke is writing in about this and says:
After hearing about the HeardThat app on this podcast, I tried it a few weeks ago at a restaurant during a social outing from my work.
I was using an iPhone SE 3rd generation, and was running iOS 16.6.
I was sitting at a long table with about 10 people around the table, some to my left, some to my right, and some across from me.
Conversation was happening in several small groups, as is often the case in such gatherings, and I participated in different conversations over the evening.
I definitely found that the app amplified the speech towards which I was pointing the phone in directional mode, though the latency was a bit bothersome in my MFI hearing aids.
I also misinterpreted the slider and thought that lower would filter out more noise, which, not surprisingly, based on what I now learned from episode 249, of course was incorrect.
I am wondering though how well this app works in these kinds of situations, in which one wants to listen to voices and one group of people, for example, everyone sitting to one’s left, but not just one person.
In all voices mode, I was hearing voices to my left and right, and directional mode seemed to be too limiting to one person.
Any suggestions from anyone out there would be welcome.
The fact that we are discussing this app is a great example of the benefits of the Living Blindfully community.”
It certainly is, Imke. I am so pleased that Robin mentioned this, and that we’ve all been able to have a play with it.
And I think you’re right. It’s not a panacea. It does have limitations.
I find that when you’re in a group like that, it is more difficult.
I went out with my kids for a Father’s Day dinner (We have Father’s Day in New Zealand in September), and that was a large group with the kids and their significant others. And I did struggle in some situations there because as you say, there’s not really one mode that can help there.
However, as Bruce said in our interview, they are apparently going to be introducing some microphones that you can plug into your phone. And that may help, say, where there are a couple of people that you really want to talk to, but it won’t help in those very large group situations.
And I’m not really sure what will, other than hoping that hearing aids themselves get better. Because then, you can try and face the person you’re talking to and hope that the algorithms in these hearing aids can assist.
So what HeardThat has done for me personally is I am now totally fearless of going to a restaurant meeting, a business meeting where I might be across the table from a business associate. I do sometimes have to explain that I’m not recording them when I put my phone on the table. But that is a scenario I no longer worry about, no matter how noisy the environment is.
I would still rather avoid those larger group situations, to be honest, because I do find it harder to carry out conversations in a group setting like that, where you might have a good number of people around the table.
But I think, as we’ve discussed when we’ve covered this topic, many blind people, hearing impaired or not, struggle in that environment as well.
Fanny is writing in with comments on episode 249. She says:
First, I want to thank you for your great work for the international blind community. Your efforts bring people from all around the world together, and we get to know about the common and the different issues moving us.
Although, I hear your show only occasionally. When I do, I find something interesting for myself.
So once again, thanks a lot.”
Thank you, Fanny. That’s very generous of you. I appreciate that.
“I want to comment on 2 issues you talked about in episode 249, I guess.
One thing is Be My AI. I’m really impressed about the detailed descriptions, and it helped me already a lot at my work.
But it also means lots and lots of fun.
Want to hear an example?
As I write this message, I’m holidaying with my sighted partner and I infected him with my curiosity on the descriptions.
So he took a picture of our hotel bar, just to hear what Be My AI would say.
The app described the room in a very detailed and lively way, and it also mentioned that there’s a sign that indicates a toilet.
My partner read that, and looked around in disbelief. What’s that damn sign?
It’s really incredible what this service can do for us and how much more access it brings to visual information.
It’s just amazing, and I’m really happy that Be My Eyes seems to have solved that face and person problem.
The second issue I’d like to comment on is the question about when to disclose the blindness to a potential employer.
I was really surprised about what I heard, and I had to find out in shock how far we are behind in Germany. Here, it would never be possible to disclose, for example, blindness only after the paperwork has been done.
One thing is that we still hardly have remote interviews here. And the second thing is that if you want to apply for state support for the employers as well as for the employees, this has to happen before the employment begins. After that, it’s not possible to get any support. For example, integration grant for employers, or technical equipment for the employees. And it needs a whole lot of time to get all the bureaucracy of applying done. A potential employer would be very angry to miss the chance of extra money. And as employees, we would have to finance necessary software or hardware by ourselves. That’s practically simply impossible.
Besides, as so-called severely disabled people, we legally have to get 5 more days off per year, and that has to be fixed in the contract.
We really still have a lot of work to do in order to implement real inclusion.
Now I heard a little bit about how it works in New Zealand and in the United States, I’d be very interested to learn more about procedures for employing people with disabilities, especially if they need special equipment, like for example, technical aids or job assistance in different countries in the world.
What are the experiences of convincing employers of the advantages? It would be really great to have some exchange about that.
Okay. I guess that’s all I can say for now.
Thanks again for the podcast, and let’s go on living blindfully.
usually from Germany, at the moment from the Czech Republic. From Fanny.”
Thank you very much, Fanny. Great email.
I’ve never been to the Czech Republic. But come to think of it, I’ve never been to the credit card republic. Hang on, that’s spelled differently. Sorry. What a nit.
I find this whole topic of disclosure and accommodation very interesting, obviously, particularly because of my day job.
My understanding is that where European countries get it very right is the availability of assistive technology. And I’ve heard some wonderful stories about how easy it is for Europeans to get access to Braille displays, and that many have a Braille display at work and a Braille display at home.
That’s really quite impressive stuff, and it helps to keep the Braille market alive. Europe is a very vibrant market for Braille.
So it would be cool to kind of consolidate, wouldn’t it? Look at all of the different practices surrounding employment and accommodation, and write some sort of best practice manual based on all the countries that we can find how it’s done, take the best bits of all of them and say, in an ideal world, this is how it would work. That’d be a fun, maybe PhD or masters project for someone.
In the meantime, it would be good to hear people’s experiences around the world of getting equipment, how that works, where they are, and also whether there are any incentives to employ disabled people or blind people, specifically.
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More on the BrailleNote Touch Plus.
Daniel Semro says:
“If you are wanting to use the BARD mobile app on your Touch Plus, you are out of luck.
I spoke with Humanware a couple of months ago, after several attempts at using it online.
If you do try this, a message will appear stating, ‘This app won’t work for your device.’
The reason for the app no longer working is due to the Android version currently running on the Touch Plus. At this time, you are stuck with version 8.0.1.
BARD mobile will only work with version 9.0 or higher.”
“According to the gentleman I spoke with at Humanware, it is unknown as to whether Humanware will release an update to go to a higher version of Android. Therefore, allowing BARD mobile to run.
Something tells me that Google would have to work with Humanware so they can port the Keysoft app interface to the newer version of Android. Although, only time will tell.
In the meantime, if you want to use BARD on the Touch Plus, there’s always the website.”
Luis Peña is writing in. He says:
First of all, I want to thank you for the excellent review of iOS 17. It has been very helpful.
Each time I listen to a new episode of your podcast, I think how generous you are in sharing your knowledge with the blind community worldwide.
Jonathan, I have a problem with Voice Dream Reader that nobody has been able to solve, including Winston and Apple Accessibility Support. Let me describe it as clearly as I can.
- Add a new book from Dropbox.
- When the list of files appears to select a book, I cannot go back to a previous level in Dropbox. The back button appears disabled.
I have reinstalled both Dropbox and Voice Dream, but the problem persists.
The only option that I have is to reset my iPhone, something that is time consuming.
But if this is the only option, can you please tell me how should I do it so the problem is not reproduced again when I sign into iCloud?”
That is very unusual, Luis.
I just checked here, and I have no problem finding the back button at the top. I double tap it, and I return to the previous level in Dropbox. It all seems to work fine for me.
I guess you gotta think about whether the cure is worse than the disease, you know.
If this was affecting me, I think I’d just use another service like OneDrive or iCloud where I might have some storage available, or Google Drive for that matter. I mean, there are heaps of other services.
If it’s affecting them all, then I can understand that that’s not an option, and it probably is very frustrating.
The only thing I can suggest is that if you really do want to reset your iPhone over this, you reset it, set it up as new as much as you need to, in order to go in and see if the problem persists when you install Voice Dream Reader and Dropbox, and get all that configured. Because if it does still exist, who knows what’s going on?
But you may as well just restore from your full backup at that point and get everything back to the way it was, knowing that that hasn’t solved the problem.
But if it does solve the problem, well, some more forensics would be in order and there will be a danger that restoring from an iCloud backup brings the problem back. It sounds like it will, unfortunately.
Let’s talk more about Be My AI.
Haya Simkin starts us off and says:
Just 2 days ago, I had my first success with Be My AI.
I had to help a friend of mine with some bureaucracy. She can’t read Hebrew because she hasn’t been here for that long, and so she sent me a picture of a governmental notice of the website that she needed.
I put it through Envision.
Most of the page was in Hebrew, with only the website URL in English.
Usually, Envision is fine with Hebrew. But this time, it just read a lot of English gibberish. I think that for whatever reason, it interpreted the Hebrew text as English letters. I have never seen it do this.
I had downloaded the Be My Eyes app the day before, and couldn’t see any way to upload pictures from my phone, and still can’t.
However, after Envision had failed, I saw there was a button in the share sheet, and so I tried it.
I can read Hebrew. But instead of showing me the original text, it told me in English what the text said, including the URL.
I then told it to give me a direct translation rather than a summary, and it did just that.
I should have asked it perhaps to just show me the URL so that I could maybe copy and paste it. But I didn’t want it to hallucinate the URL.
I haven’t played with it since. I will, though, and I must say I am truly impressed. Now, I can drool over other people’s vacation photos, and maybe take too many of them myself.
I wish to end with a short notice saying that as I am writing this, things are very bad in Israel, especially in the south.
However, my loved ones are all safe, and I wish to send my best wishes to all of the listeners and their loved ones, and especially those here, most especially those down south, if there are any.”
Thank you, Haya.
I certainly extend my best wishes as well to all those who’ve been affected by recent developments there.
It’s interesting that you don’t seem to have the Be My AI tab on your device, but it’s good that you were able to use the share sheet. I do this quite a bit with social media because when you see a picture, it hasn’t been captioned.
The description that you get and the way you can ask questions about the picture truly is quite remarkable stuff.
Pam MacNeill continues this discussion. She says:
“Hi, Jonathan and listeners,
I am chiming into the Be My AI discussion to say how grateful I am to the designers of this part of the Be My Eyes app.
I found out about Be My AI from a friend in the UK, and was so blown away by its functionality that I honestly felt that all my Christmases had come at once, and all my birthdays, too.
I believe this technology will soon enable blind people to wear a device like Georgie LaForge on Star Trek, The Next Generation, which will tell us about our environment in real time. How fantastic will that be?”
Oh. We’re going to live long and prosper, I tell you, Pam.
“Another device I have recently purchased and begun to use is the Shox OpenMove bone conduction headphones.
I have very small ear canals, which don’t allow me to wear headphones which need to be inserted. Unfortunately, I only realized these wouldn’t work after purchasing some.
I love the Shox. They have a full 6-hour battery life between charges, and they don’t lose charge between uses.
I have to go to hospital tomorrow for cataract surgery because of severe glaucoma pain, and you can be sure I will have my Shox with me, and Be My AI ready to use on anything I want to get information about.
Great show, Jonathan. It is very much appreciated.”
Well, all the very best to you, Pam, with that surgery. I hope by the time this podcast is out, you’re well on the road to recovery.
And since PortCaster has been such a big feature of this show, it’s only fitting that we should finish with it because just as I was guessing the final stages of the podcast together, we had a power outage. So I’m sitting here in our living room, with the PortCaster plugged into my ThinkPad, and I’ve got the microphones that came with it connected, and I’m just going to finish off the show that way. What a handy little device the PortCaster is.
So that’s it for this week. Thank you very much for your contributions, and for listening.
Remember that when you’re out there with your guide dog, you’ve harnessed success. And with your cane, you’re able.
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