Podcasting hardware

After the Auctioneer Crosswalk video call last month, I received a question about the hardware I use to record podcasts. I spend a fair amount of time each month recording commercials, as well as Purple Wave’s Auction Podcast, so I’ve done a fair amount of research, mostly through trial and error, about the best way to setup a home studio without breaking the bank. While I’m always looking for ways to improve, here’s a look at the hardware I’m currently using and why.

Battlestation - my podcasting workstation

Battlestation – my podcasting workstation

The goal of any audio recording is low noise and high control. The software is outside the scope of this article, but the requirements of the hardware are to record separate sources at the highest quality and lowest noise possible. When recording a commercial or a podcast without a guest, one computer is sufficient. I’ve found, however, that when recording a call, making the call and recording the call from the same computer is tricky. For that reason, I always use a laptop to run Skype or, now that Skype no longer works well, Google Hangouts, and I connect it to the desktop computer that will be recording the caller and my voice separately.

The first thing every auctioneer is going to ask about is the microphone. When I first started recording the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast in 2008, I used an ART USB Dual Pre and a Shure SM57 microphone. The SM57 has a much more favorable frequency response than the more popular SM58, and the Dual Pre let me record two sources separately.

The Dual Pre worked great under Linux, which is what I used to record at the time, but as I moved away from Linux I found that using the Dual Pre under Windows introduced a significant amount of noise. I decided to try to simplify my setup, so I ordered a Samson G-Track, which has a built-in USB interface. It worked well under Windows, and I used it for several years. It had a line-in that let me record and monitor the sources separately from the mic itself, which made it a better choice for recording calls than other USB mics. It’s still the USB mic I’d recommend to anyone looking to find a decent quality and simple podcast recording setup as cheap as possible.

While the G-Track worked, it was still a consumer USB mic. The noise floor was better than the Dual Pre, but it still wasn’t as low as I wanted. I wanted a professional, large diaphragm dynamic microphone. I found the Heil PR40 and I love it. There are definitely better microphones, but the PR40 strikes a balance of extreme quality, great sound and a still somewhat reasonable price. If you’re lucky enough to have your own desk, splurge for a swing arm – you won’t regret it.

Heil PR 40 microphone with optional pop guard

Heil PR 40 microphone with optional pop guard

The PR40 is not a USB mic. It has an XLR output, which means I need a recording interface. I’ve always used a console to control the sound around my desk, and I decided it was time to ditch my rickety old board and get a new one that had a USB interface built in. I initially tried a Behringer XENYX X1204USB. It simply didn’t work the way I wanted it to work. It would record just fine, but there wasn’t an easy way to use headphones and my speakers simultaneously. After being frustrated with the Behringer for months, I broke down and traded for a Mackie ProFX8. It’s the perfect console. The USB interface works great and features a ridiculously low noise floor. The inputs and outputs make sense, and I can use headphones, speakers or both and effortlessly switch between the two.

Mackie ProFX8 has the right amount of inputs and a USB interface

Mackie ProFX8 has the right amount of inputs and a USB interface

While the PR40 works fine running directly into the ProFX8, the output of the PR40 is low enough to justify a preamp. I found a budget preamp, that also has a compressor, in the ART TubeMP/C. A compressor is an audio circuit that reduces the dynamic range of a signal. It’s used, for example, to prevent equipment or hearing damage caused by auctioneers who yell into the microphone by automatically reducing the volume of loud sources while not reducing the volume of normal sources. I don’t use the compressor when I’m recording podcasts, as I prefer to apply compression with software, but it’s going to be very valuable when I stream auctioneer contests at state association conventions.


Headphones are crucial to any recording, and even just for a computer call or conference. I’ve sat through a hundred calls that are ruined by the echo caused by someone who doesn’t know better or who thinks he’s to cool to need headphones. For normal commercials and podcasts, I like the Sony MDR-7506 reference cans that I’ve had since college. They’re comfortable and easy to take on and off. When video is involved, however, you don’t want to be the dork that looks like he’s in a sound booth at a radio station. Any set of noise-cancelling in-ear monitors will work, but I like the Westone UM Pro10 for their balance of comfort, sound quality and price. I’ve tried both Shure in-ears and generics on stage in the Aaron Traffas Band, and the Westone are definitely my favorite. However, if the $150 price tag isn’t in the budget, the MEElectronics M6 are an attractive alternative that’s nearly as comfortable.

Any off-the-shelf USB webcam will work for podcasting and video calls. Look for anything that’s widescreen 1080p for the best quality. I have the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920. More important than the choice of webcam is the placement of lights. It’s crucial to light yourself well from the direction of the camera. As you can see in the picture below, the camera is above the monitor on the left. I have two lights on swing arms that can be easily positioned between the camera and me whenever I turn on my webcam.

Lights on swing arms allow easy positioning for optimum video podcast lighting.

Lights on swing arms allow easy positioning for optimum video podcast lighting.

I’m not going to get too deep in software, as there are a ton of different options. I like Cakewalk Sonar X3, as that’s what I’m used to using to record music. Audacity is a free and open source tool that I’ve also used in the past. The point isn’t that a specific software is better, but that whatever software you use, make sure to record each source separately. Separate tracks allow compression and equalization and other effects to be applied appropriately.

There is no right way, but this is my way. Do you have a better way or a suggestion for improving my setup? Please let me know in the comments.

Posted in hardware, gadgets | Tagged , , , , , |

Auctioneer Crosswalk for December 30

Thanks to Carl Carter, we had a nice conversation about Internet auctions, Bitcoin and other payments, and specialization within auction firms. Sorry about the video quality issues – we’ll do better next time. Enjoy!

Posted in Podcasts, theory

Sony Xperia Z3v is stylish with a great camera

I’ve never owned a Sony phone. I’ve honestly never considered purchasing another Sony device after their long track record of horrible products in the early 2000s – remember the MiniDisc, Mavica and Memory Stick? However, I figure I’ve held that grudge long enough, so when Verizon offered to let me spend a few weeks with the new Sony Xperia Z3v, I jumped at the chance.

Sony Xperia Z3v

Sony Xperia Z3v

The Xperia Z3v is a Verizon exclusive version of the popular Xperia Z3 that Sony released to other carriers. The Z3v is slightly larger than Sony’s Z3, though the screen is the same 5.2 inches on both versions. The shape of the phone feels great. It feels longer and narrower than most phones I’ve used recently, which is a welcome change. It’s got glass on both the front and the back, which is also a design approach I haven’t felt before. While the dual glass construction makes the phone harder to hold, it does convey an impression of solid build quality. If I owned the phone, I’d have it in a case anyway, so the back glass isn’t a problem for me.

The phone features a micro-SD slot, which is great, but the battery isn’t upgradeable, which isn’t so great. Flaps cover all the ports, providing water and dust resistance, and Qi charging is built in so it’s possible to never need to open a flap during normal usage. It has a volume rocker next to the power button in the middle of the right side, right next to your thumb or index finger as you would hold the phone, so there isn’t any awkward reaching for volume while you’re on a call. It also has a dedicated camera button which can launch the camera app and then functions like the button on a point-and-shoot camera – hold it halfway down to focus, completely down to take a picture.

Side view shows the buttons

Side view shows the buttons

The camera is probably the most attractive feature of the Z3v. It’s a 20.7MP sensor that takes very, very good pictures, even though it lacks optical image stabilization. I’ll show a few unedited pictures in the gallery at the end of this post, but here are a couple side-by-side comparisons against the camera on the Nexus 6. The Z3v is on the left in each of these shots while the Nexus 6 is on the right. I left everything on auto and tried to take pictures like most general consumers would. You can zoom in if you like by viewing the original from the link on the attachment page.

The Z3V seems to capture colors much better here.

The Z3v seems to capture colors much better here.

The Nexus 6 seems too dark, though the colors on the Z3V don't seem as rich.

The Nexus 6 seems too dark, though the colors on the Z3v don’t seem as rich.

The colors are more rich on the Nexus 6, and the background is more focused, but the Z3V seems more accurate here.

The colors are more rich on the Nexus 6, and the background is more focused, but the Z3v seems more accurate here.

The Z3V seems to handle the contrast between sunlight and shadows better than the Nexus 6.

The Z3v seems to handle the contrast between sunlight and shadows better than the Nexus 6.

I do like Sony’s camera app. Not only does it make it easy to take great automatic pictures, it offers manual controls for exposure and white balance. It also features myriad effects – not filters – that can allow you to stream video to YouTube, take time-lapse video, shoot panoramas, use augmented reality and much more. They even offer the ability to download additional camera apps. Next to Motorola’s smart apps, the Sony camera ecosystem is probably the best example of a positive manufacturer enhancement to an Android device.

Glass back of the Z3v

Glass back of the Z3v

As good as the camera app is, the rest of the software experience on the Z3v isn’t great. It’s not as bad as TouchWiz, but it’s still an unnecessary layer on top of Android. The phone is fast, but there’s definitely some lag when moving home screens in the Xperia Launcher that comes installed on the phone. Most of the software issues can be fixed by installing the Google Now Launcher and SwiftKey, but you’re still left with Sony’s notification shade customizations as well as unnecessary apps for Sony-specific music and media.

Overall, I had a good time with the Sony Xperia Z3v. I’m not wild about Sony’s software customizations or the lack of an upgradeable battery, but I’d recommend it for anyone who wants a fast, uniquely stylish phone with an amazing camera.

The pictures below are unedited.

Posted in reviews, Android, gadgets, hardware | Tagged , , , , |

The professional email signature

There was a discussion on Facebook a while back about what is and what isn’t appropriate to include in an email signature. It’s so easy, yet many auctioneers fail at creating a signature that is simple and professional. Let’s take a look at what we should include, what we should omit and how we should present our email signatures.

Your email signature should be used sparingly to brand yourself and your company. Make it easy for someone to, at a glance, know who you are, what you do and how to contact you. The first line should always be your name and professional designations. You paid money for these designations, and your email signature is a perfect opportunity to leverage them to potential customers – everyone you communicate with should be considered a potential customer.

Email signature should be short and simple

Email signature should be short and simple

Directly below your name and designations should be your email address. That’s the most relevant contact method, since we’re talking about email to begin with, so that’s what the person you’re corresponding with should see first. Some people might argue that it’s not necessary, but if you’ve branded yourself properly, your email address should include your website and it’s a great opportunity for a branding impression. If you have a mobile phone number that you want to include, it should tag along with your name and email address here.

Company information comes next. I like to separate the company block from the personal block with a blank line. Include your firm’s name and, if you need your mailing address, you can include it, too. I think the physical address adds extra weight to the signature and is rarely needed, so I omit it, but I can’t fault someone for including a company address. Your company’s public phone number and website address go next.

You can include social media links, but only include links – never icons – and make sure to include only links to profiles that are active. Don’t include a link to your YouTube page unless you offer value there and post frequent videos. Just because you have a social media presence somewhere doesn’t give you license to include it in your email signature.

Never include images in your email signature. Don’t do it. Ever. I don’t want to have to click the extra button in my email client to display images that I think might be relevant to the conversation, only to find out that it’s your company logo or, worse, social media icons. Also don’t include a vCard. It causes the same problem as images, but is even more arduous to deal with.

It’s not necessary to include patronizing labels for the components of your signature. We know what a website looks like; we know what a phone number looks like. You don’t need to label what they are in your signature. The possible exception is disambiguating a fax number from a phone number, but if you’re including a fax number in your signature you need to have a long conversation with yourself about what decade you’re living in.

Don’t include a quote. You might have a saying that feels good to you, but its rare that an inspirational quote won’t offend someone somewhere. It’s usually me, so leave it out. It’s unnecessary and unprofessional.

Leave out the confidentiality notice. Every article I’ve ever read about confidentiality notices in email signatures says that they’re not enforceable. Why add all the extra garbage that nobody reads or cares about?

Lastly, leave out the stock closing message. Including “Thanks,” or “Cheers,” or “Respects,” as the first line of the signature to make it look like you typed it works only the first time. The second email in an exchange will out you as simply lazy.

Professional presentation
Stay away from HTML. I’ve railed for years on the benefit of plain text email for bulk email newsletters, and we can argue about the benefits of pictures and fonts for advertising and marketing purposes, but when it comes to correspondence between two people, there’s absolutely no call for HTML email. It’s simply unprofessional and adds junk that can only take focus away from the conversation. Fonts and colors have no place in email.

Use plain text to arrange your signature in such a way that it’s easy to read and takes up as few lines of vertical space as possible. I like to use the pipe as a way to include more than one piece of information on the same line, but make sure to keep the number of characters per line under 72 so it doesn’t break in weird places. As an example of pipe usage, here’s my personal three-line signature, which includes my name, email address, two social media accounts and three websites. Remember that pretty much all email clients will turn the plain-text links into the active, clickable links.

Aaron | twitter.com/Traffas
[email protected] | facebook.com/traffas
aarontraffas.com | aarontraffasband.com | auctioneertech.com

Here’s my professional signature which includes my name, designations, company name, website, profile page and two social media accounts. We have many more social media presences, but someone interested in me or the company can learn everything possible from the few links I’ve included in my signature.

Aaron Traffas, CAI, ATS, CES
[email protected]
Purple Wave, Inc. | purplewave.com | purplewave.com/aarontraffas
twitter.com/purplewave | facebook.com/purplewaveinc

In summary, a professional email signature is simple and short, doesn’t include images or formatting, and contains just the right amount of appropriate information.

Posted in advertising, theory | Tagged , , , |

Motorola Droid Turbo from Verizon

Verizon's Droid Turbo

Verizon’s Droid Turbo

Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat. Not all Android phones are Droids, but all Droids run Android. A Droid is one of a line of phones exclusively from Verizon, but not all Android phones from Verizon are Droids. I just wanted to get that out of the way, as it greatly frustrates me to hear many in my social circles using Droid to refer generically to any Android phone from any carrier.

I haven’t owned a Droid since the original Motorola Droid. It was a great phone which, especially after my brief stint with the Palm Pre, solidified Android as the mobile operating system for me. It had a very clean Android experience, but future Droids from Motorola came with Motoblur, an overlay on top of Android which soured me on the entire Droid line. Until now.

Verizon’s latest addition to its Droid line is the Droid Turbo from Motorola. Verizon let me spend the last few weeks with one, and it became immediately clear that this is Verizon’s best phone to date.

In a nutshell, the Droid Turbo has the interface of the Moto X, the bleeding edge specs of the Nexus 6, a 21 MP camera and a battery that’s bigger than anything we’ve seen so far.

The screen is a QHD behemoth packed in to a 5.2″ size. Quad HD is 2560 x 1440, so the number of pixels per inch is 565. By comparison, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have 326 and 401 pixels per inch, respectively. I do wish they’d have made the screen a little bigger and used standard on-screen buttons rather than putting a row of three capacitive buttons at the bottom of the device. Google has been trying to move away from hardware buttons for a few years now, and the reason Motorola went with permanent buttons on the Turbo is honestly a head-scratcher.

The Turbo is fast. As I write this review, phoneArena.com lists the Droid Turbo as one of the fastest phones on the market. It’s by far the fastest of the major brands’ flagship devices, easily besting the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, HTC One M8, LG G3 and, of course, the Moto X 2014. With one of the fastest mobile processors I’ve seen yet in a phone, combined with 3 GB of RAM, the Turbo never lags or slows down, even while driving that massive screen.

The 21 MP camera is supported by a dual-LED flash. Even though it lacks optical image stabilization, it’s a very good camera, especially in daylight. The full 21 MP resolution is only available in a 4×3 aspect ratio, but that’s what I prefer anyway. I found the flash really helps low light performance. I’m not a fan of the camera app that ships with the Turbo, as the slide-out settings wheel is frustrating and confusing. I want buttons on the camera screen for settings and shutter, but the great thing about Android is that I can install a third-party picture app that will add those features. The Turbo does seem a little slow to take pictures when you have it on the highest of the automatic settings, but I’m hoping the upgrade to the newest version of Android called Lollipop will help the speed issue dramatically. I’ll post some example pictures at the end of this review.

The software on the Droid Turbo at launch is nearly identical to that of the Moto X. Motorola included Assist, Actions, Display and Voice that were found in the Moto X, as well as the Droid Zap app from Verizon that lets Droid users share files with one another in proximity. The relatively clean version of Android that’s on the Turbo is a joy to use, and the few additions from Motorola contribute in a good way to the user experience.

Reception with the Turbo was very good. I’d say it might be just a touch better than the G3 in areas of weak coverage. Motorola is my favorite manufacturer with regards to antenna performance, and the Turbo doesn’t let me down.

The Turbo is the first phone with a stock battery big enough to get me through the day. The second day I used it, I had 15 hours and 32 minutes off the battery with 8 hours 37 minutes of screen on time. For a stock battery, those are some amazing numbers. The shortest time I had from fully charged to dead was just over 9 hours, which means my phone was dead at 5 p.m., but it’s still drastically better than the battery life of any other stock phone I’ve tested. I still wish they’d have built the Droid Turbo with a removable back so that I could put a bigger battery in it and truly get the two-day battery life they’re advertising.

Charging the Turbo during the day is not something an average user is likely to have to do, but it does feature Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, which boasts 8 hours of battery life from only 15 minutes of charge time.

All in all, the Droid Turbo is the best phone Verizon has ever launched. I’m honestly going to miss it when I send it back to Verizon, and I’m sure I’ll feel silly waving my hand over other phones in hopes it will wake them up or twisting them with my wrist to launch the camera. My only complaints with the Turbo are the lack of an upgradable battery and SD card slot, the capacitive buttons on the screen, the lack of optical image stabilization in the camera. It’s super fast and has a gorgeous display, smart software additions, a solid camera and a big battery. Once it gets the Lollipop upgrade, it’ll be even better. If you’ve been looking for a phone with amazing specs that doesn’t have a huge screen, the Droid Turbo is absolutely the phone for you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Droid Turbo, I spent an hour talking in-depth with Joe Maring and Tony McAfee as a video podcast for their Mobile Cup of Joe show. Here’s the full video.

Finally, here are some sample pictures taken with the camera on the Droid Turbo. They’re unedited, and you can view the original by clicking the full size download link from the attachment page. Enjoy!

Posted in hardware, reviews, Android | Tagged , , , , |