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07 July 2006

I Can't Hear You

Is it my ears or podcasts in general?

The last week or so I have been playing around with podcasts. Or rather, I'd say "recorded radio shows", because I got those podcasts from NPR. My idea is that my eyes work way too much. All day in front of a computer screen, all work passes through my eyes. Then I go home and to relax I either read a book or do some of my own hacking with the computer. (Lucky me, at least I've cut the TV.)

It's all through the eyes, and the eyes sometimes get terribly tired. Using the ears for a while would be great. I listen to music (mostly from emusic, thanks to saadz0r's recommendation), but sometimes actual information coming in is desired. I have time to listen in the bus every day, so podcasts fit my need just right, except I have a little complaint...

Insert in case you don't know: Podcasts are something like radioshows, in mp3 format (or similar), so you can download them on the Internet and play them on your mp3 player. They seem to be a big phenomenon lately, really.

I'm a really late comer to this podcast thingy, so what right do I have to complain? Any I like it seems, because I have a little problem with those podcasts. As I mentioned, I listen to these podcasts on the bus. Busses in Athens are loud (actually traffic in Athens per se is loud). Most podcasts work fine while the bus waits at a traffic light or when it zips along down Syggrou Avenue. But once it accelerates on the green light the engine noise just drowns out the speaker.

That would be almost acceptable, it happens with music too, but with music you don't miss the "sense" of the current half sentence so much. And there isn't much the podcasters could do about it, except recommend noise reducing (or canceling) headphones to me.

The worse part is though, that these podcasts seem to be recorded with wildly differing sound levels. Remember these are even professional made podcasts from radio stations. The effect is about like this:

Now I have some choices. I could pump up the volume on the iPod, till I understand the eye witness. Then my ears would pop out once the studio speaker comes back up. I could search a middle ground, then I would alternate between pain (studio) and grasping for content (local interview). Or I could try to keep the finger on the volume at all times and jog up and down, trying to follow the speakers as fast as I can.

I understand that podcasting is mainly a phenomenon that gives publishing back to the masses, this time with audio. My conclusion is that as we've seen with desktop publishing and home video before, you can't just do with the equipment. Quality needs learning, willingness to work and experience too. Wonder why the NPR pros don't get it. I'll try the podcasts at home now, they haven't passed the "bus" acid test yet.

Posted by betabug at 10:36 | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)
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Re: I Can't Hear You

Since you have an iPod, you can try to use the SoundCheck functionality. This would get your iPod to make its best to have (almost) the same sound level all the time. The downside is that the algorithm to do so is quite heavy on the battery life side.

Another solution would be to get noise-cancelling headphones. I've been using Shure E3c headphones for more than a year and I am extremely happy with them. I've never heard anything so good. The downside is that they are expensive (170+ USD). You could get the Shure E2c which costs about 70 USD less but then, you won't have such a good isolation given that the E2c doesn't offer foam-based earplugs. If you are on a budget, you may want to give a try to closed and semi-closed headsets such as the Sennheiser PX category (PX100, PX200 ...). They do a descent job on the isolation side and have more than average sound quality.

Finally, if you have time you can preprocess the podcasts using Audacity or a similar tool to raise or lower gain in this or that part of the file. But it takes patience and time.

Posted by: Saad at July 07,2006 22:09
Re: I Can't Hear You

Thanx for your honored comment, MuzakMeister saadz0r!

As far as I have read, SoundCheck adjusts only the level between different tracks. That won't help with a podcast, which is in itself just one big track.

Noise cancelling headphones would indeed solve part of the problem, but the difference between the parts of the podcast remain. I don't think I want to re-mix every podcast :-) especially since it would involve listening to said podcast a couple of times. That's what the stations audio engineers should have done.

Posted by: betabug at July 07,2006 22:22
Re: I Can't Hear You

What other podcasts do you hear?
I listen mostly to tech podcasts although I track, and steve gillmor's shows.

Posted by: Rodolfo Gouveia at July 07,2006 23:16
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