Radio Magazine May 1, 2009
by Mark Nootbaar
For years, the WDUQ news department, with the help of our engineering department, has been looking for something for live field reporting that did not include holding a cell phone up to a speaker. Our stable of Marti units worked well for big events, in fixed locations (that were not too far from our studios or transmitter), but that was very limiting. Web-based products had too much delay for live reports and other mixing units were too cumbersome. Nothing else seemed to fit the bill. Then, just a few days before the 2008 election, our engineer handed me a pair of JK Audio Bluepack wireless cell phone interfaces and his timing could not have been better.
The Bluepack provides an audio input/output interface that connects to a cell phone via a Buletooth connection. To a cell phone, it looks like a wireless headset. To the audio equipment, it is a compact mixer and headphone amplifier that can be worn on a belt. While designed for use with a cell phone, it can be used to connect to any Bluetooth-capable device.
The back of the unit features XLR mic and ⅛" stereo line level inputs (labeled aux send) along with a ¼" headphone jack and a ⅛" stereo line out. The front of the unit has three simple thumbwheel volume controls (mic, aux send, headphones), a power button and a button that couples the device with a cell phone via a Bluetooth connection. There are a few lights on the front as well. One to indicate power on, two to indicate the Bluetooth status, and one to indicate audio clipping. The entire device is powered by a 9V battery and has a handy metal belt clip. It measures just 4.7" × 3.75" × 1.65" and weighs less than a pound. The manufacturer says the device can be used up to 25' from the cell phone. I can't vouch for that but it does work across a crowded room about 18' away.
The device quickly linked to my cell phone with a solid Bluetooth connection, and as soon as I plugged in a mic, a pair of headphones and my Marantz PMD660 field recorder (using the headphone out from the 660 to the line in of the Bluepack) I had a little mobile studio. A few test calls showed me this was going to be a great tool. The device was combining my voice and recorded sound without me having to juggle a bunch of knobs on a pile of equipment. At the same time the cues were coming back to me from the studio all on the same device and without any detectable delay. I could tell that from now on I was going to be able to focus on the reporting aspects of my job rather than the technical duties. The sound back at the studio was clean and the line coming back to me was as crisp as you could expect from a cell phone. And the headphone output was clearly going to be strong enough to hear over the din of a room full of election-night celebrants.
Trial by Fire
A few days later I was bouncing back and forth between two election night headquarters, cell phone clipped to one hip and the Bluepack on the other. I was feeding live reports every half hour despite a 15-minute drive from one location to the other. By using a microphone headset I had full hands-free operation so I could hold notes in one hand and my recorder in the other. A quick phone call back to the station right before my live shot and I was ready to go. By plugging a mic into the recorder, and feeding the recorder's output into the Bluepack, I was able to feed live on-air interviews. The device can also be used to record cell phone interviews simply by running the output from the Bluepack to a field recorder. Battery life has not been a problem. The manufacturer says to expect 10 hours of use.
Give a reporter a piece of equipment and he will figure out a way to screw it up. Every problem encountered so far can be traced back to operator error. First, remember to prepare the cell phone to accept a new Bluetooth device. The Bluepack comes with instructions on what steps need to be taken (a single button) to associate with a new phone, but if you have forgotten how to use your own phone that could be a longer task than you expected. Also, if there are other Bluetooth devices associated with the phone make sure they are not turned on. The two devices will fight for control of the phone. You could also run into a problem if you want to have several reporters using one unit. The Bluepack can only be coupled with one phone at a time. So if a different reporter will use the unit each day he will have to couple the phone and the unit each morning. With those few issues in mind expect a great deal of flexibility and usability from the JK Audio Bluepack.
Nootbaar is the assistant news director at WDUQ-FM, Pittsburgh.
Editor's note: Field Reports are an exclusive Radio magazine feature for radio broadcasters. Each report is prepared by well-qualified staff at a radio station, production facility or consulting company.
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