Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Recording interviews using a smartpen

I’ve used a bunch of technologies to record interviews during my career as a journalist. When I got to thinking about what I’ve tried, six blog posts poured out. This is number five in the series.

To recap:

Here’s perhaps the most esoteric method I’ve ever tried (and really enjoyed… mostly) – a smartpen.

echo_photo3

I first used this non-mainstream technology in 2011 when I wrote an article about digital pen technology for a legal trade magazine. The Echo arrived at my door the evening before I interviewed the CEO of the company. I went through the ½ hour quick start guide and I was hooked right away.

The Echo is two generations behind the latest Livescribe smartpen, but Livescribe still sells it, so I presume people still enjoy it. I have the 8 GB model and it would take a year or two of really intensive use to fill this device. Even if you do fill it, you can synchronize recordings to the desktop using the included USB cable so that you can safely eliminate recordings from the pen when you need to and not worry about losing any.

Recording interviews using a smartpen

You write using this wide yet light pen on ordinary paper covered by a dot pattern that’s barely visible to the naked eye. Before you write, turn on the pen and tap the “record” icon at the bottom of the page. An infrared camera just above the nib tracks what’s being written using those tiny dots. The pen syncs each pen stroke it “sees” to the audio it records using the microphone in the middle of the pen’s body.

FYI: Using the Echo, you aren’t tied to recording audio while you take notes. Similarly, you can record audio without taking notes.

Livescribe’s notebooks are high-quality and prices aren’t out of line with those of similar notebooks. (These hardbound models are my favorites.)

hardbound_journal

If you don’t want to pay for Livescribe paper, the desktop application lets you print your own paper if your colour laser printer meets minimum quality requirements.

Here’s a short demo video that shows the basics of how the pen works.

Playback

You can listen to exact points in the conversation just by tapping the pen’s nib on your notes at that point. Icons at the bottom of the page let you control speed, volume and other elements of the playback.

Echo_Desktop_icon

You can do all this and more using the Echo Desktop application.

Even if you use the pen for playback, synchronize your pen with the desktop app after every use, just in case something happens to the pen and you lose your notes and recordings. Copies then exist in the database that Echo Desktop maintains.

Connecting the pen to the computer also:

  • recharges the pen’s internal battery, which has lasted me over 5 hours on some days. (I’ve drained the battery on my Echo only once, at the end of a long, three-event workday when I was away from the office.)
  • causes the desktop app to check for firmware updates the pen requires.

Livescribe’s products do more than let users synchronize audio to handwritten notes. If you’re curious, check out Livescribe’s website and the videos that show the technology in action.

Issues

Despite its off-the-charts “wow” factor, the Echo has also caused me more headaches than other recording technologies I’ve used. None of them have been absolute showstoppers, but they linger strongly enough in my memory that I want to list them here. (The Livescribe Sky and Livescribe 3 use different desktop technology, so I can’t speak to their reliability.)

Synchronization failures

For somebody who backs up files as consistently as I do, sync failures like the ones I’ve experienced would be enough to make me dissuade people from buying the Echo.

Later in the life of the pen, connecting it to the computer still started the desktop app, but would also frequently crash it. (Sorry, “the app would unexpectedly quit” in more sanitized language.) File transfers also seemed to hang and when I tried to cancel them, the desktop app crashed.

I must say I’ve never lost a recording (though I’ve been nervous about doing so more than a few times). Also, these issues happened when I used the former Livescribe Desktop app, since replaced by the Echo Desktop. I don’t have as much experience with the newer Echo Desktop, which replaced the Livescribe Desktop app, so I can’t comment as to its reliability. That said, the tiring process of waiting for the software to behave has often proven annoying.

I suspect this issue is due in part to…

Synchronization wait times

Synchronization of my recordings starts once I connect the Echo to the computer. When the notebook is new, synchronization happens quickly. The more completely the notebook is filled with notes, the longer synchronization takes, even if you only record a quick interview on two pages. It seems to synchronize every page with a penstroke on it (up to 200 pages in some cases) during every sync, not just the latest notes.

Lack of folders

I have recordings going back to 2011 when I first got the pen. Most of them are in their own “custom notebooks” or collections of recordings. I label them starting with the date: yyyymmdd so that the desktop application orders them automatically according to date.

Unfortunately, the desktop doesn’t give you the ability to create folders for these notebooks. I’d like to do this to better manage the long list of recordings I’ve made over the years.

Proprietary file management

Livescribe stuffs all recordings into a “database” managed by the app. There’s no way to keep the original recordings separate unless you export them from the desktop app (a very handy feature that lets you share your notes and recordings together in a PDF).

I find it tricky to manually back up the database properly, especially given the location of said database, which on the Mac is now in a “hidden” directory (though it’s easy to find if you know how to look). I suspect the same is true of the Windows desktop application.

I’ve recovered from a hard drive crash using Time Machine, which restored the recordings database just fine. I suspect similar full disk “cloning” backups would be just as effective. But it was very difficult – in fact, the only difficult part of the process – to manually restore Livescribe Echo recordings from a backup. I also can’t synchronize them across computers.

Nib noise

The Livescribe’s microphone sits inches away from where the nib scratches its ink across paper. You will pick up that “scratching” sound if you use the internal microphone. It doesn’t make the recording less intelligible, but it can be annoying.

ls_headset

Livescribe sells earbuds you can plug into the pen to listen to playback. At the other end of each bud is a microphone. Before you begin a recording, plug in the buds and put them in your ears, or on a table, or anyplace a couple of feet away from the paper’s surface, and the pen won’t pick up the scratching sound of your writing.

Have you ever used a smartpen to record an interview? What make and model did you use? Would you recommend it? Write your experiences in the comments below.

5 Comments
  1. I have been using my Livescribe pen for several years now and love it. I drape the ear buds over my shoulders for mic pick up.

    • I like my Livescribe too. That said, I also experiment with different methods of note-taking and find each method has its advantages.

  2. I’ve had at least 5 different Livescribe pens. What the author describes is true. It is the most user-unfriendly and unreliable electronic product I have ever owned. In addition to the issues mentioned above, I’ve repeatedly had issues of audio files becoming corrupted and unretrievable from the pen. After a file is corrupted, all subsequent recordings are unretrievable as well. Customer support actually suggested using another audio recorder to record the audio off the tinny speaker of the pen to salvage it. They were absolutely no help. I had an LED screen fail on one, and just missed the warranty period. I had the corruption issue. I started with the Pulse, tried the Wifi (not helpful) and 3 different Echos. There was a period of time where everything was working perfectly and I thought I had a great tool for the business I’m in. See, I’m a market researcher and I spend a lot of time in the field recording interviews. Hundreds of hours. Often the pen is a backup to other systems but sometimes it is the only system. On one project for a fortune 500 company, I had a corrupt audio file that torpedoed the entire audio and I was unable to get the audio off the pen. I ended up having to reimburse the client hundreds of dollars due to the inability to produce the audio files in a expedient fashion.

    • I have to fully underline the comments of JP: I also owned 5 ECHO smart pens and am now facing the 5th to fade: one crashed on batery failure at the age of shortly under two years, another two had displays fading to complete dark, one of those plus another one had the software hang-up issue with unability to connect, update or even download any recordings and finally my last one is in “recovery mode” since weeks and not accessible to any update or other.
      Additionally three of the five developed cracks in the bottom part just where it is connected to the upper part of the pen.
      I can also confirm that the scratching noise of the writing is very loud and makes recording of distant speakers (like 4 seats away in a conference …!) almost impossible.
      As a positive I have to say that the last pen (the one I still have and which is now corrupted and not useable) was one I received as a free replacement for the previous which broke for the same reason (emory corrupted, not accessible any more…)

      • I’m sorry to hear that. I admit I’ve since moved on to other note-taking and recording methods, and I’ll use my remaining Livescribe notebook as a journal – the paper is great quality.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.