Amazon Echo (and why I like it alongside HomeKit)

Amazon Alex (Black)

Whilst I don’t class myself as an Apple fan-boy I do buy into their platform heavily, mainly due to the fact that I have been burned so many times as an early adopter that I just wanted a phone that not only worked, but that did what it said on the packet, but was reliable. Apple’s products work flawlessly (although not always cutting edge).  I decided late last year that I would buy into the Apple HomeKit eco-system mainly due to having iPads, iPhones, Apple Watch and a 4th Gen Apple TV (that acts as a hub and bridge to the control devices external to the house). Just as Santa was delivering my first shiny and pristine HomeKit compartmental smart socket and a Philips Hue Starter Kit a relative purchased the Amazon Echo. I am not ashamed to say it laid in it’s box for a week whilst I was playing with the HomeKit compatible devices. Then I finally got round to tinkering with the Echo…. what fun!

Calling out “Alexa”….  (you can change  this to Echo or Amazon) enables you to do many things with an Echo that are, in the part are trivial, such as:

  • “Alexa, Tell me a joke”
  • “Alexa, volume 11.” (caution: very loud)
  • “Alexa, beam me up.”
  • “Alexa, sing me a song.”
  • “Alexa, random number between “x” and “y.”
  • “Alexa, heads or tails.”
  • “Alexa, roll a die.”

to the more useful:

  • “Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?”
  • “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”
  • “Alexa, play music” (from your Amazon Music Library)
  • “Alexa, play Radio 4 on TuneIn
  • “Alexa, How is traffic?”
  • “Alexa, What’s in the news?”
  • “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen lights”
  • “Alexa, Spotlights colour blue”
  • “Alexa, Dining Room 50%”
  • “Alexa, Connect my Phone”
  • “Alexa, add coffee to my shopping list”

The playing of music (never got round to having a sound system in the kitchen) and controlling of lights is by far the most used features of the Echo and I am surprised at how capable it is at hearing and understanding commands from over 30ft away whilst the TV is on and the kids and making a noise. We can easily control lighting from the lounge even though their is the dining room between us and the Echo. The Echo is constantly having small upgrades, early on in the year you had to use the IFTTT service to turn on a predetermined colour for Hue lamps, now Alexa can do it seamlessly on her own and you can request colours without presetting. Addition of “Skills” (think of as an app for your Echo) allows for integration with other devices such as Plex Media Server where I can ask “Alexa, Ask Plex to play Spongebob the Movie”, a go-to-kid-pleaser!

Now admittedly we lag behind the US for features (but as ever they work extremely well when they come over to this side of the pond). But such features as being able to play the same music multi room synchronicity, texting of voice calling your Echo for reminders and  two way comms between internal and external devices are sure to keep the platform fresh and innovative, as well as giving the rival a real run for their money. I am not afraid to say that it is favoured over using the Siri button on the TV remote or lifting my apple watch for a Siri command – it’s already listening for me and is quicker to react – just as long as I am in ‘ear-shot’ and other family members are not being disruptive (my eldest loves to either beat me to a request, confuse Alexa or countermand me – much to his own amusement).

In relation to learning they show a level of interaction that can be a real advantage to learners (although I don’t fancy taking mine into work just yet!), an always attentive support assistant that can help with definitions of terms, perform calculations, set timers for activities, set reminders, read audiobooks, play music (or audio files), request spelling of word, synonyms and even translate phrases into other languages. These are available right now so who knows what the future might bring?

For a device that’s been available in the UK since the 28th of September 2016 that was fun from the start and has constantly evolved I would recommend a purchase, definitely as a solid entry in home automation and the fact they are heavily discounted on occasion and can be over 30% off. Would I buy another? I can’t see why not, I am just holding out for the expected V2 rumoured to launched later in the year to compete with the impending Apple HomeHub. With improved Audio and styling.

Do you have an Echo or Dot? What do you use your for?

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Shock Mount (Black Aluminum) for the Blue Yeti Microphone by Auphonix

Shock Mount by Auphonix

With the ‘fixed mount cradle’ for the Blue Yeti microphone having its limitations such as being bulky and often requiring to be propped up to get the positioning right (well mostly) I have been on the lookout for a decent shock mount for the Blue Yeti, but it has been a long time come and after many months finally a decent (£25) and affordable shock mount for the Blue Yeti found at http://amzn.eu/6bd69jp .

Many issues exist for a decent shockmount purchase:

  1. Blue’s own offering is costly (and reportedly fraught with issues if loose clamps – especially for the price)
  2. The Yeti does have a standard fixing, so there are not many offerings (some bespoke offerings that have been flash in the pan’s)
  3. The Yeti is one heavy beast and there are numerous reports of any point that require tightening not holding out (see point 1)
  4. There are a reported batch of Blue Yeti’s that do have the 3/8″thread overcut by a 1/16″ (causing poor fitting to any mount, and not any issue with mounts themselves)

Now I purchased my Blue Yeti for a very handsome price of approx. £65 and there was no way I was ever going to purchase a mount in excess of that so point 1 is out of the question. I toyed with the idea of creating my own (point 2) and even drew up plans but never got round to it! Something specific needed for the yeti due to its non-standard fitting and needing to carry it’s weight (point 3) was also a concern for any attached boom (see later). The only solutions for an overcut fixing was either and new Yeti or as I have read on the web to use plumbing tape (PTFE) to ‘take up the slack’ and not have the Yeti drop off, thankfully I did not need this solutions.

The Auphonix offering was getting great reviews (a cheaper plastic and a reasonable priced aluminium offering were available) but I hesitated and lucked out on the silver aluminium @ £30, then a rather elegant black version showed up for £5 less! a result – and most Booms are black anyway. So now an accompanying boom was required to be purchased – I was conscious of the weight of the Yeti but on Amazon was the recommendation for under £12 the Tencro Professional Microphone Boom for Blue Yeti ( http://amzn.eu/g4CTVSO ), specifically having the key point of being heavy duty designed for supporting almost all microphones up to 4.4 pounds / 2KG.

Both are now fitted and I found that mounting my Yeti above the mount, rather than below, suited my rig better as I will be swinging my mic up and out the way often – kids can be too inquisitive! The difference between the original fixed stand against the dampening properties of the boom & shock-mount are excellent and given my setup prior to this purchase noticeably picked-up ‘shocks & knocks’ and caused me to be extra careful when recording to minimise disruption the cost @ less than £40 is a great solution and one that I cannot recommend myself if you want the best from your original audio recording with your Blue Yeti.

 

Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter (for podcasting)

Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter

Although Apple have had a Camera Connection Kit in the past they have not had one included pass-though power that allows for more power hungry devices to work. In the past devices have either not worked or have required all equipment to be all but plugged together with the final connection being the lightning connector to the iPad, often still displaying a warning message.

The USB speed is only supported on the bigger brother iPad Pro and the adapter does not allow pass-through syncing but not only can you use connected cameras to import photos and videos but you can use it with the iPhone 6 as well, allowing you to plug in…

  • USB microphones, such as the Blue Yeti and the Samson Go Mic
  • Midi Interface
  • USB Ethernet adapter
  • Memory Sticks

For me this adapter is great, I can now throw my Samson Go Mic, stand and pop filter in a bag along with a powerpack (Anker are my choice) and I can pretty much record anywhere with my iPhone 6 Plus!

 

Mini Pop Filter

mini pop filter

 

However good the Samson Go Mic is it still picks up ‘aspirated plosives’ such as the ‘P’ when you say ‘pop’. However due to the microphones size it does not need a large pop filter, such as a standard 13.5cm internal diameter pop filter, instead a smaller 8.cm internal diameter pop filter can be used. I elected to purchase a fixed stem rather than a flexible goose neck which again minimises the overall size of the filter. My only frustration is that the first silver piece connected to the black clamp is via a countersunk threaded bolt that has a cross-head rather than a knurled or wing nut, this reduced the flexibility of adjusting the filter on-the-go but is fine if you are only ever clamping it to the same base or point.

Note: Pop filters are not to be confused with windshields that reduce hiss from being captured and that are mainly for when you are outdoors.

 

Andoer MS-12 Mini Foldable Mic Desk Stand

Andoer MS-12 Mini Foldable Mic Desk Stand

Having bought the Samson Go Mic I realised that I had nowhere to position in on my desk, especially with the monitors being wider than the in-built clamp, soolution found was rthe Andoer MS-12 Mini Foldable Mic Desk Stand. There is not a lot to say about it other than it does what it is supposed to do, comes in at under £6 with Amazon ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B013U48ZZ4 ) although you can find it a little cheaper elsewhere (and I got mine with a Mic Clip as well still for less) and if nothing else makes a great fixing for a pop filter!

  • Foldable design for ease of carrying and storing.
  • Tripod design to give it exceptional strength.
  • Non-slip rubber feet to protect your desk from scratches.
  • Equipped with a 5/8″ male to 3/8″ female metal threaded screw, fits for most standard mic clip.(Mic clip is not included.)
  • With a clutch to help you lock the stand, more stable.
  • Made of high quality iron, durable and sturdy. Suitable for meetings, lectures, speaking and ect.

 

Samson Go Mic

The Samson Go Mic is an amazing bit of kit, you would be forgiven for thinking that its cost (you can find it sub £40) would indicate that it would be a low end bit of kit, not the case, and whilst I would still favour the quality of the Blue Yeti Microphone (see earlier posts) this tiny microphone has a lot going for it and especially for its price and feature set.

  • Portable USB condenser microphone
  • Mac and PC compatible, no drivers required
  • Custom, compact design that clips to a laptop or sits on a desk
  • Perfect for recording music, podcasting and field recording, voice recognition software, iChat, VoIP and web casting
  • Switchable cardiod or omnidirectional pickup patterns
  • 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution
  • Smooth, flat frequency response of 20Hz–18kHz
  • Stereo 1/8″ headphone output for no latency monitoring
  • Includes USB cable, cable clip and carry case
  • Samson Sound Deck Noise Cancellation Software (Mac OS X/Windows) available for purchase
  •  Mic Stand Mount – A standard Euro-mount mic stand mounting hole and included adapters allow you to attach the Go Mic to a standard microphone stand
  • Weight 0.23 lbs. (.105 kg)
  • Dimensions 70.5 mm x 43.5mm x 23mm

What I particularly love about this mic beyond it’s obvious portability (and coping equally well on a stand with a pop filter) is the quality of not only build but the richness, I would even go as far to say that if portability is a key factor this mic is the all-round choice. The inclusion of a greed ‘powered up’ LED that turns red when the audio is going to be clipped by the mic is a great touch (and independent of any hardware it is connected to). It definitely puts high quality audio in the affordable bracket and other than trying to cram in a gain and volume control into an already small form factor its a firm favourite on my travels.

Note: Incidentally Blue have released a new updated ‘Radius II’ shock mount for the Yeti that has firmer fixing.

Ringr Mobile

Recently I was starting to look into recording a long distance conversation, Skype was the most common medium with various recording options but no clear winner. Enter Ringr Mobile for iOS, a free high quality call recording app, where the only effort is to sign up. Once signed up and logged in you can start a new conversation by entering the email of the person you wish to speak to, set a date & time and a message.

Update: Having talked with the developers I have now tried it on a iPhone 5C and the date & time are editable, it is an iPhone 6 Plus (iPhone 6 untested) issue. It is strongly advised to put in the details of the date, time and focus of your recording if using an iPhone 6 Plus as this is the only way your collaborator will know! I am informed an update is on its way, hopefully this will be fixed. 

Once you have sent the invite out you will see a list of initiated requests containing the email address and the time you requested. So to the developers I ask that the initiate screen asks for…

  • Name (emails can be obscure or not well known)
  • Email address
  • Date and time of suggested call (to be set by user iPhone 6 Plus issues to be corrected)
  • Message (topic)

A future feature would be to enable suggested date and time changes from the invitee if suggested timings are not convenient. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic app, the pay-off comes with the fact that you then have your conversation (the invitee receives a code to put into their iOS device) and on termination have the ability to download the audio that comes in four MP3 128kbps flavours…

  1. Mixed (mono)
  2. Mixed (stereo) with one participant on the left channel and the other participant on the right
  3. Interviewer (mono)
  4. interviewee (mono)

The grief that you can save, particularly if you are looking to have captured evidence of a phone conversation for assessment. I hope the developers keep up the great start they have done with this app. Definitely one with huge potential for evidencing and it claims to be is coming to android. Keep an eye out here – http://www.ringr.us/

Update: The Developers recommend keeping app open whilst audio uploads

Andy

Skullcandy Hesh 2.0 Headphones

2

The headphones are great, mind you I’m not an audio expert, but they sound excellent, they are certainly comfy and won’t break the bank when you can pick certain designs up for around £30 (RRP £50). I was surprised that they come with a detachable cable that includes an in-line mic/controller, whilst this is great from my iPhone it can play a little havoc with some systems such as my PC or Blue Yeti whereby I have to just retract the plug ever so slightly to hear the audio fully.

Certainly a worthy investment for the podcasts.

 

Andy

Blue Yeti Microphone

I am loving the Blue Yeti. Not only a great sounding Mic but one that has far more features than anything in the same price range and below. Hear a quick comparison between the Samson C01U and the Blue Yeti here – http://vocaroo.com – it does not do the microphone justice, I certainly don’t regret the purchase.

So what features does it come with? Well a good length of USB cable and one hell of a funky stand with rubberised base to support what is one chunky mic! (and great to attach a pop filter to)

  • On the front
    • Volume
    • Mute button – so useful!
  • On the rear
    • Adjustable gain
    • 4 pattern setting
      1. Stereo – main pick up from front and sides, vocals and instruments
      2. Cardioid – main pick up from front, singular speaker for podcasts
      3. Omnidirectional – all around, focus groups
      4. Bidirectional – front and rear, interviews across the table
  • Underneath
    • micro USB connection (no drivers required!)
    • headphone 3.5mm jack – zero latency audio monitoring
    • 5/8 inch threaded hole for microphone stand

What don’t I like? well not a lot to be honest…

  • Its a bit of a beast – it appeals to me but don’t think it will be a joy to carry around
  • The microphone has a tendency to either damage its own paintwork or that of the stand – if you look at second hand ones they mostly mention slight “mic vs stand” knocks (mine does but it on the stand.
  • Volume and gain controls feel a little loose
  • No ideal shock mount – Blue’s own Radius shock mount is expensive (at £44) and does not support its own mic (Search YouTube) and there is little alternatives out there due to the unusual base layout. (see unavailable custom mount at Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00HL5WWHQ )

Full specs can be found here http://www.bluemic.com/yeti/#specs

I think maybe a project for the summer would be to make a shock mount and publish the designs as a blog?

Andy

Make Your Own Pop Filter

Untitled

Last week was one of those of coincidence. I came across the following instructional video on YouTube http://youtu.be/WcB3s8KOk4w last Wednesday and the use of a embroidery/punch needle/cross-stitch hoop – I have never seen one of this these anywhere. On Thursday I found myself travelling from Essex to Barnsley for an elearning meeting and lo-and-behold next to me was a young lady with one of the same hoops. Mind Blown!

Andy