MPs’ Guide to the NHS 2019

The NHS in England is made up of, and supported by, a number of different kinds of organisations at local and national level.  They have produced a very useful guide to who does what and how NHS services are funded, delivered and regulated for your constituents.

If you are an MP or a member of an MP’s staff and would like a copy of the guide, please let us know by emailing editor@w4mp.org

Please note that this guide is not available to members of the public.

Register of Interests

We have updated our guide to when you need to register an interest. Holders of photo-identity passes as Members’ secretaries or research assistants are required to complete a Registration Form on which they are asked to list certain financial interests they may have.

The updated information is on the  Register of Interests page.

Video Recording Meetings, Events and Lectures

This is a follow on to our previous guide exploring ways in which audio recording may help with parliamentary work, and explaining how to do it on a modest budget.

I don’t consider myself a video professional, but I’ve made a several budget educational videos, and recorded meetings and conferences. I participated in two working groups of the British Computer Society, looking at how BCS branches and groups might video meetings, primarily for the benefit of those who can’t attend events in person.

So, you might expect me to be an enthusiast for video technology. In fact, I often urge caution, because making good video takes more skill and time and planning than audio. Good video kit is expensive, and often difficult to transport. Storing digital video can consume huge amounts of memory, and costs bandwidth to transmit; with both image and sound to kick into shape, the editing process is more complicated; and video technology and technical standards have been changing very fast. It’s been hard to keep up.

If video from an event will be no more than a speaker’s ‘talking head’ and some Powerpoint slides, I tend to suggest concentrating on a good quality audio recording. It’s cheaper, easier, and in the edit it’s so easy to improve a presentation by snipping out the ‘Ums’ and ‘Ers’… and you can’t do that as seamlessly in a video edit.

However, it’s not my job to put you off! Visual content can be very informative. I’ve filmed at graphic design conferences, where slides and other images were an essential to understanding the subject, and audio-only would be quite mystifying.

Anecdotally, video is said to appeal better to a younger audience than audio alone. It used to be said that quality expectations of video production have been driven high by television and movies, something we’s be hard put to match; but in the era of YouTube and Facebook amateur video, maybe that is less true?

A technical revolution: video everywhere

Sensor chips for image capture came to consumer digital cameras and camcorders about 25 years ago. Since then, they have been attaining higher resolutions, better sensitivity to lower light levels, and have become cheap. What was once an exotic technology found only in space satellites is now in everybody’s smartphone! This revolution is boosted by ever more powerful video-signal processing chips, and the capacity and speed of solid-state memory, such as the near-ubiquitous SD memory card.

In preparation for this article, I compiled a list of devices that now ‘do video’. Within minutes, I had listed well over a dozen. There are smartphones and tablets; bodycams worn by police, cyclists and daredevil skateboarders; dashcams and baby monitors; cameras for home security or watching wildlife; cameras on drones. There are digital stills cameras, from amateur to professional grade, which now also function as video cameras; and at the high end, specialist video cameras with which you could even shoot a feature film.

Ask: why are you doing this?

As in my audio-recording article, let’s start by examining possible purposesfor making video. I divide these into three rough categories:

Evidencing’ – when the main point is to have a visual record. Dashcams, bodycams and security cameras are designed expressly for this purpose, but there are many examples of people pulling out a smartphone to bear witness – from a mate’s skateboarding prowess or a spat between cat and dog, to a terrorist or criminal attack. Look at how much smartphone footage makes it onto the TV news (and Facebook) these days!

Presencing’ – Here, I mean when you bring someone’s eyes to watch something beyond their immediate view (usually in real time, without making a permanent recording). An example is using webcams for a teleconference or Skype chat; another is streaming live video from a public meeting to reach a wider audience. Eliza, a friend in Ghana, runs a restaurant and music spot. Every Friday (reggae night) she puts an iPhone on a tripod stand, points it at the bandstand and part of the dance floor, and streams live video to Facebook. It’s making her establishment famous, at low cost. ‘I have next to no PR budget,’ she says. ‘Social media exposure is worth those 4G data fees!’

Presentation’ – By this I mean when you want the final product to look really The purpose of the video may be to explain, persuade, demonstrate or make a case in a convincing and professional manner. The filming should be well-lit, the camera handled smoothly, the audio capture crisp – and the format in which it is recorded should make it easy to edit afterwards, cutting together scenes and making use of graphics and text overlays. Maybe you can aspire to this quality of production yourself, with access to suitable equipment and software; or you may decide it’s more sensible to bring in professional outside help (paid or volunteer).

A few simple, low-cost solutions

Smartphone videography. I’ve already mentioned the smartphone as a video camera, and it has the unique advantage of Internet connectivity – as used in Eliza’s video-streaming escapades. But your smartphone can make better video with a couple of modest additions:

A smartphone tripod. Tripods for smartphones are not designed for dynamic panning shots – they are too flimsy – but they will hold a phone steady, and are easy to carry and set up. For example, the Paladinz Phone Tripod (£15) weighs just 360g and expands to a height of a metre. It even comes with a Bluetooth pause-record controller for the phone.

A compatible external microphone. For smartphones, the commonest type is the sort you clip on a subjects’s clothing, with a thin lead connected to the phone. Many cost less than £20. They are useful for interviews or ‘video selfies’, but they won’t help you get good audio at a meeting, or from a speaker on a platform. Try a directional mic: a well-reputed one for phones is the Røde VideoMic Me at about £60. Like a small torch in appearance, it is clamped to one side of the smartphone. (http://www.rode.com/microphones/videomicme)

Super webcam. Here I’m using ‘webcam’ to mean a camera attached to a PC or laptop, as used with Skype and video conferencing applications. Many laptops have a webcam built in, but an external, USB-connected webcam is easier to point where you choose, and usually works better in dimmer light. For under £100 you can get webcams that work at high resolutions such as 1080p or HD, and have stereo mics built in. An example is the Logitech C920 HD Pro, at £70.

I accidentally took a step in this direction when I bought an IPEVO V4K camera for £99. This works like an overhead projector: you point it down at a document to project the image onto a screen. It turns out that it also does ‘super webcam’ stuff, with an 8k imaging chip, and I’ve been testing it for medium-quality video streaming too.

To use a webcam and record the video for later editing, you’ll need software that captures video and audio from devices attached to your computer, and saves the combination to your hard disk. I did this recently, recording the whole of a two-day training workshop. I linked an old camcorder to my laptop with a FireWire cable, and my audio mixer desk via USB, and captured the mix with QuickTime Pro 7 software for Mac. The accumulated raw ‘product’ came to about 70 GB, but… I had plenty of space on the hard disk.

This IPEVO camera is based on high-definition webcam technology. Its primary function, when the computer is attached to a data projector, is to show documents and other objects live to an audience, but it can also take still images and record video to disk, through various software packages. Other ‘super-webcams’ are available from different makers, with Logitech a prominent brand.

The ‘fancy camera’ route. Here I mean serious digital stills cameras which also record digital video. Canon and Nikon have been leading rivals in this market, bringing video capabilities to their digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs). A major advantage of these cameras is that you can change lenses to customise for different situations, such as extreme telephoto or wide-angle coverage. (When filming meetings, I prefer to do so from the back of the room, for which you need some telephoto capability.)

Sony Alpha on Tripod
The Sony Alpha 6000 is an example of a mirrorless DSLR, small enough to be carried in a jacket pocket, but delivering excellent still image quality from low light levels, for less than £500 with the short zoom lens shown here (other lenses available). In addition, it has fairly respectable functionality as a video camera, saving either AVCHD or MPEG-4 movies files at a variety of resolutions. It could certainly handle an interview, but a file-size limit of 2 GB means it can’t record continuously for more than about 20 minutes.
If you’re not happy with the quality of audio picked up by the tiny embedded microphones, the smart hot-shoe can mount a dedicated stereo microphone with two swivelling heads.
Note that in this picture, the camera is supported by a stout tripod with a ‘fluid-effect’ video head, for smooth panning to track a mobile subject.

DSLR videography seems particularly popular in the music video world, where clips and shots tend to be very short. A couple of years ago, a music promoter friend bought a second-hand EOS 5D Mark II: Canon’s first digital SLR camera to support full HD recording (1920 x 1080 pixels). He’s hoping to make his own music videos. Certainly the image quality is superb – one would hope so from a camera costing a few thousand pounds with lenses! After spending that tidy sum, he turned to me for help in buying a stable professional video tripod, extra batteries, battery chargers and memory cards.

Memory card capacity can be an issue with these cameras. If you shoot high-resolution, minimally compressed digital video (best for editing and professional production), you will see memory gobbled up at amazing speed: when filming with 4K resolution, 4 GB will be gone in just under 40 seconds! You should seriously ask yourself whether you can’t serve your purposes by filming at a lower resolution.

When standards for SD and Compact Flash memory cards were first devised, they adhered to a media formatting standard called FAT32, which doesn’t allow digital files bigger than 4 GB. Recording a full public lecture will need serious amounts of memory for storage. Some cameras will truncate your recording; in the better ones, the recording gets sliced into sequential 4GB chunks, and you have to glue them together again in editing. The very fanciest cameras now use advanced memory cards with formats such as CFast, which can store enormous files.

Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds. Other kinds of digital stills camera have dipped their toes into digital video-taking, such as the new ‘mirrorless Micro Four Thirds’ (MFT) machines. They are like DSLRs, but built around a smaller albeit high-resolution imaging chip, and they dispense with the pentaprism viewfinder and mirror of the classic SLR camera in favour of a purely electronic viewfinder. These design decisions have made them quite affordable.

Some years ago with regret and resignation I decided that video technology was changing so fast that I could no longer afford to keep up wityh the latest gear – plus, I’m getting a bit old for dragging tripods and video cameras around. But now I am thinking, a small MFT camera would let me carry a compact stills camera in my pocket, with reasonable-quality video recording capability too. The Sony Alpha 6000 camera is on my wish list (£500 with a standard zoom lens).

Professional video cameras. In the interests of completeness I should mention these, though I suspect none of my readers would spend £5,000 on a video camera body (without any lenses, mind you.) However, in a photo caption below I briefly describe one such camera from Blackmagic Design, so you can understand why these machines help the pros to do their job more reliably. And if you do hire a pro, they might bring one with them!

Professional video cameras are used in television studios, outside broadcast and these days even for making feature films. The URSA range of cameras from Blackmagic Design are representative of this class, with prices (for the body alone) between £3,000 and £6,000. This Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6k G2 is currently top of the range. Note the many surface-mounted controls and lens focus and zoom rings which give the operator instant access to the camera’s features.
With its large sensor array generating feature-film quality footage at up to 300 frames a second, 4608 x 2592 pixels, this camera generates huge amounts of data, and takes two CFast memory cards, and can even plug into a USB-C external hard disk for extended shooting. To handle difficult lighting conditions, a special 15-stop High Dynamic Range file format can be selected, rather like the RAW format on the better digital stills cameras, so the studio can afterwards grade, process and edit the footage to best effect in DaVinci Resolve Studio software.
Photo: Blackmagic promotional material.

Sound investments

I cannot over-emphasise how important good sound capture is to video production, especially in the political sphere where the spoken word is our currency. Even pricey DSLRs have ridiculously inadequate onboard microphones, but at least they have audio inputports. You can mount a broadcast quality directional mic to the flash-mounting shoe, such as the Røde VideoMic with its integral shockmount (mono), or the Sennheiser MKE 440 (stereo). There are also adapters such as those from Beachtek (discussed later) which let you tap into just about any sound source.

Then there is camera support. I’ve already mentioned video tripods, which come at a range of price points. If you are wanting to actively manage the ‘pan’ and ‘tilt’ of the camera, for example to swing the camera between speakers, you’ll want a robust and heavy tripod with a ‘fluid effect’ video head and a steering handle. These dampen camera movements, making them less jerky.

Tripods can tie you to one spot, but a ‘spider dolly’ is a device that sits under a tripod and gives it wheels so it can be moved across a smooth floor to a new location. ‘Steadicam’-style devices let you walk freely with the camera while smoothing its movements. One very useful yet under-rated accessory is the monopod, with some of the stability of a tripod, but far more portable and easy to reposition, and usable in a small space.

Many digital cameras and camcorders now have ‘optical stabilisation’. Movement sensors inside the lens detect any shaking, and the mechanism moves prisms around in the light-path to steady the shot. If your camera has got this feature, turn it on.

Lighting, and other environmental matters

Light within the filming environment can make a tremendous difference, including in ways you might not expect. Adequate and even lighting, without strong highlights or shadows, is easiest to cope with, especially for lower-cost video cameras and devices which cannot cope with ‘high dynamic range’ situations.

But we don’t always have much choice. Suppose you’re filming a speaker on a stage, picked out with a spotlight. Automatic exposure may sense the overall darkness of the scene, think the lighting is inadequate, increase the lens aperture or alter the ‘gain’ on the sensor, and as a result the exposure burns out the features of the speaker’s face. An experienced videographer with better equipment should be able to override this auto-exposure to compensate.

Low light levels also make focusing more difficult. Autofocus mechanisms rely on having enough light to do ‘feature detection’. Cameras which manage exposure by adjusting the width of the aperture gateway in the lens (e.g. DSLRs) can compensate for low light levels by opening the aperture wider: but this results in shallow ‘depth of field’ – that means, it reduces the extent to which things are in focus in front of and behindthe actual focus point, and the subject is more likely to fall out of focus. These auto-gremlins can be kept under control if your machine lets you switch focus control to manual.

When making close-up video indoors, a portable light mounted on or near the camera can help. White-light LED arrays are popular for this purpose these days, because they provide a decent amount of light without quickly draining their battery. (I have a cheapskate version of this – a couple of rechargeable LED car inspection lights from Lidl, of all places!)

On a sunny day outside, contrast between highlights and shadows e.g. across a person’s face can make satisfactory exposure difficult. Fill-in lighting to soften the shadows will help, and could be provided simply by someone holding up a white-painted sheet of hardboard as a reflector.

Sound. If ambient noise interferes with recording, solutions include getting a mic as close as possible to the speaker, like a news reporter on location; the mic could be linked by cable, or by radio. If you can’t get a mic to the speaker, a highly directional mic helps by rejecting off-axis noises.

Beachtek (https://beachtek.com/) makes audio adapters for camcorders and DSLRs. With these and similar, you can feed in audio from almost any microphone or sound mixer, and volume control knobs give the camera operator the power to adjust the audio level. When I filmed the Information Design Association conference some years ago, we had several microphones feeding into my mixer desk, operated by a student volunteer. The combined audio was fed from the desk through 30 metres of shielded XLR cabling, to my camcorder at the very back of the hall, with a Beachtek unit between it and the tripod.

Video editing and conversion for distribution

When I started making video in the early 1990s, editing was a cumbersome process using three videotape recorders and a video switcher, and the product was assembled step by step – a ‘linear A/B roll edit’. Nowadays we dump all the digital source material – video clips, audio clips, graphics – onto the hard drive of a standard computer, and assemble the bits along a Timeline using a video edit application. If changes to the edit are required, you don’t have to start again from scratch – just move stuff around on the timeline.

As for video editing software, I’ve mostly used Apple’s Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere. They are rather expensive, and with my current constrained budget I am moving to NCH VideoPad. Camtasia is another popular editor. A friend who owns a serious DJI Mavic 2 video drone makes lovely compilations of her coastal flights, to background music, and so far is doing a nice job with iMovie software for Mac (it’s free!).

Video editing is too complicated a process for me to deal with in this article, but let me leave you with a few points:

  • All video source clips should be the same resolution: plan ahead for that. You might however export finished work at a lower resolution.
  • The software will enable all kinds of ‘transitions’ between clips, many quite wacky and distracting. But unless you are shooting a music video, I suggest straight cuts and crossfades.
  • Avoid ‘jump cuts’! This is when you slice a bit of time from the middle of a scene (maybe a speaker made an off-colour joke and you want to lose it). But the result will be a jerk (in this case, I don’t mean the speaker). You can cover the gap by making a ‘L-shaped cut’ (where audio from the first clip touches the audio from the second, but the video component is ‘peeled back’ on either side), then drop in video from a cutaway shot – perhaps a view of the audience. With planning, you don’t need a second camera to do this, just remember to collect a few neutral-looking cutaway shots in case you need them later.
  • Odd as it may seem, you can use video editing software to make a show with no video clips at all! I have made several ‘fade-dissolve slide shows’ with narrative, for educational purposes.
  • You can layer several video layers (e.g. subtitles over video) and several audio layers too (e.g. fade down actual speech of the subject and fade up an English translation).
  • At the end of the process, there are various formats to which you can convert for distribution. For use on the Internet, the usual choice is some flavour of MPEG-4 (.mp4), compressed to work satisfactorily even where the viewer’s bandwidth isn’t that great. Again please excuse me, but it’s a matter too complex in detail for this overview article.

Video planning and editing

Any video production with ambitions to some quality should be planned. A promotional video is to a large extent a staged production, and can benefit from a script, even a rough storyboard to plan shots and angles. In other situations, such as events or interviews, you have to work with anything that happens in front of the camera, but you might also write and record a narrative voiceover, and create graphics to cut away to – depending on the subject, this could include graphs and charts, bullet points that build on screen, or data maps.

It used to be easy deciding on a video format, when choice was dictated by the long-standing norms for terrestrial television (in Britain, the PAL format, 720 x 576 pixels, 25 frames a second and interlaced). These days we have at least four more different digital camera formats in fairly common use (720p, 1024p, HD and 4K). What’s more, these can be captured with different degrees of data compression – some of which will entangle the data from adjacent video frames and make satisfactory editing difficult. As for how video is to be delivered, the television screen no longer sets the rules, and Internet delivery – now the norm – supports just about any resolution, frame rate or even orientation (horizontal or vertical).

These planning decisions will affect things like what video equipment you use, what extra skills need to be roped in, how you will produce overlay graphics, and what your budget will be. If you feel you may be floundering in some of the technicalities, one remedy might be…

Seeking professional help

I hope this overview of the range of genre and technology choices helps you to think through what video can do for you – and, what you personally can do to make video yourself. If you don’t feel emboldened enough to ‘DIY’, you might engage outside help.

A professional videographer brings three sorts of assets. Firstly, they have knowledge and skills and experience; they can foresee where problems may arise, and how to to plan a way around them. Secondly, they will have their own videography kit, access to an editing workstation, and probably they have accounts with companies who rent out any specialist items required. Thirdly, many videography projects involve assembling a small team, and your professional will have the contacts to recruit an interviewer, voiceover talent, sound specialist or whoever else is needed.

How do you find a suitable video professional? As with other media production contractors such as graphic designers or website designers, the more established ones will have web sites with showreels of previous work, though this won’t tell you what they are like to work with as people – how diligent at meeting deadlines, for example! Students of film-making may be able to help within a team, though they may need direction from a more experienced practitioner – something which the student may well appreciate.

Appendix: some features of a professional video camera

One of the most visible features of any video camera oriented towards the professional video worker – whatever the age of the technology – has long been that the body of the machine is covered with myriad knobs, switches, other control surfaces, and meters. To some people that might make the machine offputtingly scary, but it’s appreciated by people who like fast feedback and control – we want the capability at our fingertips to make instant adjustments, rather than having to burrow through nested arrays of stupid menu screens. In particular, we want rings and knobs that give us manual focus, manual zoom control, and adjustments to exposure and audio recording volume. We also want to plug in monitoring headphones, and audio sources, and when working on a tripod, many people like to use a flip-out LCD monitor – maybe adding a larger one than that which is built in.

As an example of a high-class video camera, consider the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2. I’m not expecting any of our readers to rush out at buy one of these at over £5,000 for the camera body alone, but I’m highlighting some of the leading technical features so you can understand what professional users look to such cameras to do for them:

  • The image sensor chip is about the size of a 35mm film frame. It has a high resolution suitable for documentary and feature film-making, and fifteen stops of dynamic range (HDR) to render both highlight and shadow details better in the same shot.
  • The sensitivity in low light levels is pretty good, and for when the light is excessive, there are dial-in neutral density (ND) filters – like a set of internal sunglasses for the chip.
  • You can choose to fit to the camera body a wide range of lenses to suit your job and budget; and choose between a comfortable high-resolution eye-level viewfinder or a seven-inch studio viewfinder. Other bolt-ons can turn the camera into a tripod-dweller or a shoulder-mounted walkabout machine.
  • Just like some better stills cameras can be set to shoot ‘RAW’ image files that have more light levels stored in them (and which you afterwards process), this G2 offers ‘Blackmagic RAW’ format, and software to ‘develop’ the data afterwards.
  • To cope with the huge data storage requirements of high-resolution digital video, this camera takes two high-capacity CFast recorder cards at the same time, or you can plug in a USB-C external hard disk. This latter option makes it easy to plug the camera footage straight into to the editing computer.
  • The interfaces available on the camera include SDI (serial digital interface). These could be used by a team running several cameras to cover an event live, where a director sits at a video mixer/switcher panel and chooses which camera’s point of view to use at each stage of the activity.

Conrad Taylor is an independent writer, teacher and media worker.

Workplace Adjustments

Do you work for a Member and require a workplace adjustment?

If so, Workplace Adjustments Case Manager Emma Fyles can help.

You can request a workplace adjustment if you have a disability or suffer from a difficulty or disadvantage in your workplace.

Common adjustments include:

  • assistive technology – such as software or hardware (for example, speech recognition software or large computer screens)
  • ergonomics – such as chairs and desks

For Members’ staff based on the Parliamentary Estate, we also offer a ‘self-service’ catalogue of basic adjustment equipment of basic adjustment equipment, such as wrist rests, back rests, ergonomic mice and laptop stands.

Guidance on the workplace adjustments process for Members and their staff can be found on the Parliamentary intranet: https://intranet.parliament.uk/people-offices/offices-departments/commons-departments/corporate-services/workplace-adjustments/

Contact WPA@parliament.uk or call x2580 for further information

Audio Recording Meetings, Events, and Lectures

In ‘Virtual Light’, William Gibson’s novel of the near future, social science researcher Yamazaki carries a small notebook device. When he talks to Skinner-san, one of the squatters who turned the earthquake-wrecked Oakland Bridge into a home, he flips on the notebook’s Record function. Not only does it cope passably well with Skinner’s idiomatic and fractured English, it near-simultaneously turns it into Japanese text!

The ‘future year’ of Gibson’s story was 2005. Nearly fifteen years later, we don’t yet have a device that can do this, though Alexa and Siri are getting quite good at listening. Meanwhile, when we sit in a meeting or listen to a lecture and want to capture the memory for posterity, audio is always our main starting point. Therefore, audio recording can help make memories.

In this article, I’ll share from 40± years of using audio recording as a memory supplement, and sometimes as direct evidence. I shall focus on the kinds of recording, and uses of recording, most pertinent to the work of a parliamentary assistant or researcher. I am not going to deal with clandestine sound-thievery; I’ll leave that to Le Carré (especially his recent fine novel ‘The Mission Song’). I’m also only obliquely mentioning video recording.

Why would you?

I’m going to start, not with technology, but with a few use-case scenarios I have experienced.

1. An aide-memoire, to capture what was said. A small company with three partners recently held its first Board Meeting. The Directors had a lot to tell each other in 90 minutes, and no-one wanted to be distracted from participating by having to take notes. They got me in to audio record and take notes, and allowed me to interrupt and ask for clarifications of technical abbreviations, etc. Afterwards, I prepared draft minutes under a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

2. Similar aide-memoire, but to produce a more literal account. I was brought in to record a five day training course. The course leader, a guru in knowledge management circles, speaks without notes and uses much anecdote. He needed to capture this, to help prepare materials for other trainers. The room was moderately large, with 20 participants and trickier acoustics. Afterwards, when making a near-literal transcription with added commentary, I had access to his teaching slides, and patched images of them into the written account. Five days generated a document an inch thick! – and took about three weeks to prepare.

3. To share an account of a public meeting. I am ‘Rapporteur’ for the Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange (NetIKX). After each seminar, I produce a detailed report in the form of a public Web article. My audio recordings help me to report accurately, even though the recording quality is a bit ropey. Sometimes the job involves supplementary research, so I can add background information which the speakers didn’t cover. You can find several such reports  at http://www.conradiator.com/kidmm/and a similar example is my write-up of a 2005 lecture by Prof. Ian Horrocks, at http://www.conradiator.com/resources/pdf/Horrocks_needham2005.pdf

4. To prepare a podcast from a public meeting. Over ten years, I have recorded 300+ lectures at conferences of the International Society for Knowledge Organization (UK). This is a demanding task, because the remote audience needs good quality sound in a fairly compact, downloadable package. I deploy several microphones and a mixer desk to catch the audio; then audio-edit to remove hesitations, mistakes and ‘dead air’, and convert to a podcastable MP3 format. (Recording an interview for podcast is similar, but easier acoustically and organisationally.)

I also get asked to video meetings, which I won’t describe here, but I must say that the need for a high quality audio component is something amateur videographers often forget about.

5. Rehearsed audio capture for a ‘broadcast-style’ podcast. Here the aspiration is for the best quality audio practically attainable. Preparing narrative voice-over for a video programme is very similar. A redeeming feature of this scenario is that if the speaker fluffs his or her lines (which are usually scripted), you can do a re-take, and it all comes together in the edit.

Recording to a phone or tablet

You will notice that in the first three of these scenarios, the desired output is in text form. The recording doesn’t have to be that great, and you can put up with some background noise, so long as you can make out what is being said. Indeed in the first case, a smartphone plonked on the table might be all the recorder you need.

Laptop computers and tablets also have inbuilt microphones, but you can improve sound quality greatly by adding an external microphone. Many desktop microphones are now available to plug into a USB port. If you use an iPad or iPhone, Apple’s ‘Lightning to USB Camera Connector’ will provide a suitable interface. (Check that the power draw of the microphone doesn’t exceed what your iOS device can provide.)

A recent article in TurboFuture by teacher Jonathan Wylie gives helpful purchasing tips for suitable external microphones, and also explains alternative ways of connecting mics to iOS, such as via the headphone port or even wirelessly (by BlueTooth). (https://turbofuture.com/consumer-electronics/External-Microphones-for-iPads-Better-Mics-for-iOS-Audio).

There are several apps for recording on an iOS device, such as the freeware Recorder Plus or inexpensive HT Professional Recorder. Seven such apps are reviewed at SysTweak: https://blogs.systweak.com/2018/02/record-your-voice-now-with-these-7-best-iphone-apps/ A similar advisory for Android is at https://www.scriptosphere.com/5-best-audio-recording-apps-android/.

From speech to text

If text is what you are ultimately after, what’s your alternative to Yamazaki’s magic notebook? Speech-to-text systems are improving: my friend Yuri wrote his entire PhD thesis using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, while unable to type because of carpal tunnel injury. But, he had to train the software to recognise his voice, and he dictated clearly and in a quiet home office space.

But think about it, outside of a courtroom, do you really want a literal transcription of conversation, like, in a meeting, um, where, you know, … ah… That is to say…

Fear not, your jobs are not at risk from the robots. Here are some of the human skills I routinely deploy when writing up accounts of meetings:

  • Précis. Saying the same stuff, but in shorter and more direct language.
  • Cutting out irrelevance– which can include asides, false starts, lame jokes.
  • Boosting comprehensibility– expanding abbreviations, disentangling excessively obscure jargon, adding references to documents and Web sites.
  • Adding graphics and tables that explain matters better than words can (my Horrocks lecture example illustrates this).

Until recently, doing transcription could be quite literally a pain. The Museum of Childhood ran an oral history project years ago, in which half a dozen volunteers conducted interviews with local elders using small MiniDisc audio recorders. Strangely enough, none of the volunteers fancied doing the verbatim transcriptions! – it fell to me. It was interesting work, but took a long time, and constantly reaching out to my MiniDisc machine to press the pause, play and scan-back buttons wrecked my shoulder.

Software can help. Without reservation I recommend the free version of Express Scribe software from NCH, a media software company with its roots in courtroom recording and corporate dictation systems. Once the recording is a digital audio file on your hard disk, Scribe acts as a background media player, controlled by ‘hot key’ combinations, while in the foreground you use the word processor of your choice. When you pause playback, it will resume one second back to keep you on track, and there’s an incredibly useful ‘back five seconds’ function. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux at https://www.nch.com.au/scribe/index.html

Semi-pro ‘system’ recorders

Notice that in my scenarios 4 and 5, the ‘deliverable’ will be audio itself, so sound quality matters. If you will do a lot of this, you might want to get a professional digital audio recorder for a few hundred quid, and a selection of microphones. A reasonable analogy here is with buying a digital SLR camera with interchangeable lenses fit for various purposes (wide-angle, telephoto etc).

My own digital recorder is a Marantz PMD-660, which finds favour with BBC radio journalists. Similarly specified machines are available from Zoom, Tascam etc. ‘Studiospares’ in North London is a good supplier. Three essential features of such machines:

  • they have XLR-style three-pin connectors for attaching at least two professional microphones and other sound sources (more about XLR and mics below), but usually have built-in mics for convenience too;
  • they record to a memory chip, typically a standard SD card which can be transferred to a computer;
  • they offer a range of recording quality settings, including industry-standard audio file formats such as .WAV and .AIF, which are oriented towards editing.

Microphones and acoustics

Professional-quality microphones divide into Dynamic and Condenser types. In a dynamic mic, sound vibrates a magnet inside a coil of wire and the mic generates its own electricity. Dynamic mics are robust, therefore favoured by performing artists, but let’s ignore them because you generally get better sensitivity out of the other sort.

Condenser mics require electricity, often supplied by a simple battery. But many must be powered through a shielded three-wire XLR microphone cable; this is called ‘phantom power’, and the serious recorders I have just outlined will provide that. So do mixer desks, which I’ll introduce in a moment.

Directionality is another key variable. To record a lecture, I deploy one or more mics of the type called ‘cardioid’, which means their pick-up sensitivity is heart-shaped – strong at the front, less so at the sides, and deaf to what is behind (e.g. the audience). For face-to-face interviews, I use a matched pair of small cardioid mics, plugged into the Left and Right inputs of the recorder.

I also pack a second-hand ‘short shotgun’ mic. This is less menacing than it sounds, though it does have a gun-like appearance. Such a mic is highly directional and just the thing for video work – or for keeping track of speakers who go walkabout from the podium. In addition I have an ‘omnidirectional’ mic, the wide-angle lens of the audio world, popular for news-style interviews. There are lapel mics, radio mics – the list goes on.

There’s a lot to be written about proper microphone placement, but I’m running out of space here, so here are a few quick bulleted observations:

  •  ‘Avoid distracting background noise if possible’ is the obvious tip, but not always easy to attain.
  • You get less background noise by placing the mic close to the speaker’s mouth, and trimming back the recording level to match – but I don’t generally recommend it, because people without microphone discipline can’t keep a constant distance from the mic. ‘In the wild’, better keep the mic at arm’s length and increase the recording level a bit.
  • Some mics are very sensitive to external vibration e.g. from people tapping on the table, walking across the floor etc. If possible, get an elasticated ‘shockmount’ for the mic (see photo).

Mini mixer

To cover larger events (scenario 4) I need to blend inputs from several microphones, and sometimes line-level output from the venue’s PA system – and I want instant finger-tip control to balance these inputs. A portable mixer desk can be a godsend. My battered old Alesis fits in a rucksack, feeds mics with phantom power, and doubles as a computer audio interface (USB), which means I can record straight to my laptop hard disk without needing the Marantz recorder.

Audio edit and conversion

For scenarios 4 and 5, the captured audio benefits greatly from various kinds of editing: snipping out unwanted and embarrassing bits, boosting volume on quiet bits, squashing the background hum of air conditioning, and so on. Whether on Mac or Windows, you can do all this with Audacity software, which is free and Open Source. Here, the basic rules are to work with the best quality input you can capture, edit and save in uncompressed audio formats such as .WAV – and then use a compression utility to make much smaller MP3 files for posting on the Web. Now you’re a radio star!

Many digital audio recorders costing a few hundred pounds, like the Marantz PMD-661 shown on the right, can be fed audio signals from a variety of sources. Here it is set up to record from a small sensitive directional microphone, getting its power from the recorder through the thick shielded XLR cable. The microphone is held between rubber bands in a shockmount housing atop a desk-top mic stand, so that knocks against the table won’t travel up into the body of the mic (sitting the whole thing on a mouse-mat also helps!) The mic is further protected against the speaker’s breath by a foam cap and metal mesh ‘pop screen’.
The microphone at the bottom of the picture is designed for rougher handling and a different kind of recording context: its recording capsule, powered by an internal battery, is cradled in an internal shockmount. This microphone is omnidirectional, and has an extra long handle to reach out to an interviewee in the street.

Conrad Taylor is an independent writer, teacher and media worker.

Archive

This portion of the site contains archived versions of the many guides to good practice published by w4mp. None of the material here should be regarded as current or relied upon: it is here as a resource for historians and researchers.

The full collection of archived material can be found on http://archive.w4mp.org/ for reference purposes.

Bullying and Harassment and Sexual Harassment support services

The Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy (ICGP) Programme was established to help ensure that Westminster, constituency offices and related locations are safe environments in which everyone can feel valued and respected.

Following the 19 July Commons vote on the proposals outlined in the ICGP delivery report, two new independent helpline services are now live. These services offer support and advice those who have experienced bullying and harassment and sexual harassment whilst on the Parliamentary Estate, in constituency offices or whilst undertaking parliamentary work.

These services are available to MPs and MPs’ staff and interns, as well as staff employed by or working for the House of Commons, Parliamentary Digital Service,  and other paid or unpaid staff, including those employed by external organisations who hold a parliamentary pass.

Independent Bullying and Harassment Reporting Helpline

The Independent Bullying and Harassment Reporting Helpline gives support and advice to those who have experienced or have concerns about bullying and harassment. Calls are answered by trained advisers.

The helpline is open 9am to 9pm, Monday to Friday. Outside of these hours you can call the number and speak to a counsellor.

Call the helpline on 0800 028 2439 or email on disclosure@healthassured.co.uk.

See the Independent Bullying and Harassment Reporting Helpline page on the intranet for more information.

Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service (ISMA Service) 

The Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service (ISMA Service) provides advice, support and signposting to those who have experienced sexual misconduct/harassment. The ISMA Service is run by trained Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisors (ISVAs).

The service is open 7.30am to 9pm, Monday to Friday. Outside of these hours you can leave a message and an advice worker will return your call the following day.

There will also be an ISVA on the Parliamentary Estate in Westminster, Monday to Friday, who you can arrange to speak to face-to-face, via the helpline.

From September, the option of seeking appropriate face to face support will also be made available to those working in constituency offices. This can be arranged via the helpline.

Call the helpline on 0800 1124 318 or via email on isma@solacewomensaid.org

See the Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service page on the intranet for more information.