June 5, 2009

The Wonderful, although sometimes confusing, world of Software-Based, Multi-Channel, Audio / Video Players

Written by: Brandon Townsend

June 5, 2009

This article focuses on the advantages and disadvantages of the different software-based, multi-channel, A/V (audio / video) players available on the market today and commonly used for transcribing legal proceedings. All of these players are available free online (links are listed where available), and manufacturer support may or may not be available at additional cost.  In most cases, transcribers access the recording through a download process or from physical media such as a CD, DVD or travel-drive

I have included four different A/V players from four different vendors, all of which have completely different views on how to manage A/V content. My experience with these Players comes from several years supporting transcribers, proofreaders and reporters.

Players Discussed:

JAVS Caseviewer:

JAVS (Jefferson Audio Video Systems) was founded in Kentucky in 1981 as an A/V presentation company. They currently have JAVS based equipment installed in 2,500 courtrooms in 35 states as well as internationally (www.javs.com/about_us.html). The current version of the JAVS player, Caseviewer (CV), is CV 3.3, although I will also discuss version, CV 2.8.

JAVS recording systems create video files with .asf extensions, which is a Microsoft video file type, specifically designed for streaming content. The recorder creates a single, large video file for each recording session. These video files contain 5 channels of audio, which can be individually isolated with Caseviewer. A new file is created only when the recorder is stopped and restarted. The file names are based on the specific time the recording was started. The date of the recording is not included in the filename, but it is displayed in the JAVS video.

For example:

Recording Start time = 10 : 05 : 15

Corresponding Filename = 10h05m15s.asf (10h – hour, 05m – minutes, 15s – seconds)

JAVS can also create and play Windows Media Video (.wmv) files. Both the .asf and the .wmv files can be played in Microsoft Windows Media player, but the Windows Player requires a plug-in to allow access to all 5 channels of the recording.

Case Log, which is available from JAVS, displays the notes taken by the electronic reporter in the courtroom. These logs contain hyperlinks allowing the user to jump to specific points in the audio. Unfortunately, in most cases, the logs we receive do not connect with the asf files. This is due to the JAVS folder structure and how that is ex

***At the time of this article, JAVS had just released Caseviewer 3.3.2.

***I will have more information on both the new Caseviewer Player and the log notes links in an upcoming article.

Compatible foot pedals available for the JAVS Players:

CV 2.8 – JAVS foot pedal, X-Keys foot pedal

CV 3.3 – JAVS foot pedal

Review

The primary advantage we have seen with JAVS is the ability to use five-channel audio isolation. Most other recording systems only offer up to 4 channel recording and isolation. However, the five-channel isolation is based on the recording setup, so in some cases, the recording system is only configured for 4 channels or less.

From a content management perspective, the biggest problem is the file naming convention JAVS has adopted. The date of the recording is not included in the file name, which makes management cumbersome if you are trying to move multiple days’ worth of recording. To find the date of the file, you have to load the individual files and check the dates in the videos. Most of the time I end up writing down the filenames with the dates and usually am fairly confused at some point during the process. This seems like a fairly simple problem to fix, but so far, no luck in convincing JAVS it’s a problem.

From a transcript production perspective, the primary issue we have seen with JAVS recordings is the size of their files and how that affects the different players. (Remember, JAVS produces single A/V files which can be very large, sometimes upwards of 300-400 Megs). This means that when a file is loaded into a player, the entire file must be loaded into the computer RAM (random access memory). Just playing these large files may not be a problem; however, issues arise when you start using the foot control (fast-forwarding, rewinding, stopping, starting, etc). As this occurs, more and more RAM is consumed. The processor and memory usage on the computer will continue to rise, eventually causing skipping or freezing of the player. Generally, like most computer woes, this problem can be resolved by rebooting the machine. However, rebooting every fifteen minutes can understandably become a little much. The issue seems much more prevalent on the CV3 application compared to CV2.

***Note – When playing JAVS content, the FTR player also suffers from the same problem, but it does not seem to be as severe as with the CV3 application. Also, the FTR player was not originally designed to handle extremely large A/V files as you’ll see later in this article.

Overall, I have been pleased with the quality of the content produced by the JAVS Recording systems.

Courtsmart CPlayer

The Courtsmart Digital Recording System was designed and developed by Courtsmart Digital Systems, Inc. in Massachusetts. Like the other players in this article, Courtsmart systems have been installed in Courtrooms all over the US.

Courtsmart’s file structure is proprietary and can be VERY confusing. The Player for Courtsmart files, CPlayer, can be included with the audio when the court burns a CD or uploads the content. Playing the actual audio files requires the player to access two different file types at the same time, DAT and TPD. To locate the audio files, the CPlayer looks at a specific directory structure copied, or exported; from the Courtsmart recording system when the Court delivers the content.  This proprietary file structure is required for the CPlayer application to work correctly.  In other words, if you move these folders or put the audio in another location, the player will not be able to locate audio. I’ve listed a quick summary of the file structure below for clarification:

Top Folder Subfolders Data

Smith v. Smith 00000000 Audio Content

00000001 Audio Content

00000002 Audio Content

Bin CPlayer Application

To access the content, you have to open the “bin” folder and double click the CPlayer application. This will open a management interface listing the dates and times of the recordings.

As you can probably guess, due to this proprietary file structure, Courtsmart audio files are not compatible with any other players.

Compatible foot pedals:

Infinity USB foot pedal

X-Keys foot pedal

Review

The overall operation of the Courtsmart player is satisfactory. The player is very stable and handles the heavy usage associated with transcription very well. In addition, when using the Courtsmart management interface, you are shown the dates and times of the recordings, which is very helpful. However, when managing large amounts of audio, Courtsmart’s file structure can become confusing for the average user.

For example, imagine I have 5 days of Courtsmart content I need to distribute to different Transcribers. Because of the Courtsmart file structure, it is nearly impossible for me to differentiate between the 5 different days of recordings in order to separate the content. I have to send out ALL of the audio to every user and then notify them individually on their specific portions / assignments. This is not only time consuming, but wastes loads of bandwidth as users are downloading large amounts of content they do not need.

VOICE IQ Player

The VOICE IQ Player was developed by VIQ Solutions, which has been in the computer-based digital / audio capture and management industry for 20 years. The VIQ player application is the RC Player.

While this player is easy to use, the file structure, like Courtsmart, can be confusing. When the RC player is first opened, it asks the user to browse to the folder containing the VIQ audio files. However, unlike Courtsmart, when you receive exported recordings from the court, the Voice IQ Player does not display the date and time information for the recordings loaded.

I’ve listed a couple files below:

2008044438.a01

2008044438.a02

2008044438.a03

This file structure inevitably creates the same problem we have with Courtsmart audio files. There is no simple way to break up the audio for efficient distribution. Also, like Courtsmart, the proprietary format of VOICE IQ files prevents them from being played in any other player.

Compatible foot pedals:

VOICEIQ Foot Pedal

Infinity FTR-USB Foot Pedal

Review

Although VIQ and Courtsmart are from completely different developers, they have the same underlying problem; they rely on their database system installed with the recorder for content management. Once the content is separated from the database, it loses important information such as hearing date, time, location, etc.

In simpler terms, think of the database as a decoder ring; when using the decoder ring to access the audio, all the information is clearly visible, dates, times, etc. However, if you take away the decoder ring and try to look at the audio, the information has no meaning. The data is still there, but without your decoder ring, it’s impossible to decipher.

When compared to Courtsmart, VoiceIQ has a major flaw related to its player management interface design; there is no way to see the dates of the recordings. Courtsmart, at least shows the dates of the recordings in the “Session Manager”, but VIQ will group all the audio files together, regardless of how many days are included. This can cause major problems if you’re working with multiple recording dates as you have to manually listen to the content to differentiate between hearing dates. The Player works fine, the file structure is a mess…that pretty much sums it up.

Overall, the VoiceIQ Player is solid, but it’s a nightmare trying to manage the content in any sort of a structured manner.

FTR Player

The FTR Player application is designed and distributed by FTR Ltd. This player is available as a free download from the FTR website, although, technical support requires a paid support contract with FTR (roughly $100 per year).

FTR recording equipment is installed in courtrooms all over the world and from a transcript production perspective, this is the most commonly used player available right now.

The FTR recording file system is based around the concept of small, manageable files. These media files are created in maximum 5 minute increments, whether audio or video files. At the end of the first 5-minute file, the recorder automatically creates another file, and so on. The file name convention used by FTR is easy to view and understand and therefore makes content management easier when compared to the other players.

Naming Convention:

Recording Location –> Date of Recording –> Time of Recording –> HEX Key

Courtroom A_5-18-07 9-04_01c7992b9ac69ee0

Courtroom A_5-18-07 9-09_01c7992c4db84080

Notice in the above example, the recording location is “Courtroom A”, the date of the recording is “5-18-07″, and the time of the first file is “9-04″ or 9:04 AM. The final sequence of characters is the date and time information in a HEX format. The FTR system uses this structured format to manage the files. As you can see, when working with many different dates and times, this naming format makes content management pretty straight forward.

FTR also provides a management tool called FTR Navigator. When using Navigator, the user sets up “search folders” for the Player to access, and all content should be stored into these corresponding folders. While this system works as it was designed, we have found that it is still confusing for some users. The other option is to manage your content separate from the FTR Player and then load audio manually when needed. Again, this is still an easy process due to FTR’s naming conventions.

There are 2 types of files created by the FTR Recording systems, .trm files (either audio only or audio and video), and .wav (audio only), which are produced by FTR Gold recorders.

The FTR Player is not limited to playing FTR native file types though, which is why this player is one of the most versatile. The FTR player will also play MP3 files, non-native .wav files (meaning .wav files not created by the FTR Recording system), Windows Media audio files (.wma), Windows Media video files (.wmv), as well as JAVS video files (.asf).

Review

We have been experiencing some problems with the newer versions of the FTR Player. These problems include Player lock ups, system lock ups, and skipping audio/video. In our experience, the 3.x and 4.x versions of the FTR Player tend to be the most stable. The most recent version is 5.3 (released in April 2009) and works with both Windows XP and Windows Vista. I am currently running Player 5.3 on a Windows Vista laptop and haven’t had any major problems but I have been hearing complaints about this new version as well, so upgrade with caution.

Compatible Foot Pedal:

Infinity USB-FTR Foot Pedal

After a review of these different players, I hope you have a much better understanding of the different applications, and their underlying file structures. Due to my experiences with these players, I have come to favor some more than others. I’ve listed my rankings below along with notes and my recommendations for improvement – if any of the vendors choose to listen:

1.            FTR

Although the FTR Player is not the most stable in this list, the file structure makes content management much easier than the others. I am ranking FTR number one, but only because of the problems JAVS has with its naming conventions. In addition, the quality of the recent FTR player releases, are threatening its first place position.

2.            JAVS

The JAVS system is a fantastic system with one fatal flaw, the file names. They need to start including the dates of the recording in the name of the files, this would alleviate all of the content management issues we’ve had with JAVS in the past. If it weren’t for this one issue, JAVS would be the number one ranked player instead of FTR.

3.            Courtsmart

Although the Courtsmart player is more stable than either FTR or JAVS, the database design of the system places it 3rd in this ranking. Courtsmart really needs to find a better way to export its audio content. The content needs to be organized more clearly for content distribution and the requirement for transporting a fixed file structure and the database reliance removed.

4.            VoiceIQ

Like Courtsmart, the VoiceIQ player is stable, it is just very confusing to work with large amounts of content. Once content has left the VoiceIQ recording system, the Courtsmart Player is unable to display the recording times and dates of the recordings in any meaningful or straight forward manner, which is why is comes last in this ranking list.

Please direct all comments and questions to brandon.townsend@avtranz.com

www.avtranz.com

 
 
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