Earlier this year I received an email from one of my voiceover agents in the UK asking me to run a test with them on a new internet based ISDN replacement technology called ipDTL. All I needed was a good microphone, a decent internet connection and a chrome browser. The session went smoothly and my agent was pleased that I was able to achieve ISDN level quality on a wireless connection on my Mac Mini.
Ever the inquisitive type I decided to read up on this ipDTL (If I could get the letters in the right order) and decided that there wasn’t enough material to sate my curiosity. On an impulse I visited the website for the company behind ipDTL (a UK startup called In:Quality) and sent them off a message. CEO and founder of In:Quality Kevin Leach was kind enough to get back in touch with me forthwith and agreed to an interview that I present to you kind folks of the Voiceover inclination.
Before we start I want to thank Mr. Kevin Leach for his time, speed and kindness in indulging me my questions
Mahmoud Taji: From Radio Freelancer to Studio Director for the BBC to Radio tutor and finally entrepreneur. Quite an eclectic background but one that seems to have a common thread throughout. Could you give a little more detail on your background and career Kevin?
Kevin Leach: Indeed there’s a theme there. Radio is all I ever wanted to do. I started as a small-time presenter in my home town and just drifted into more technical roles. I’ve always been keen on the technical side of the industry and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t so competitive and therefore easier to penetrate.
MT: As a veteran studio director for the BBC you must have been on the ground and neck deep in the day to day issues of having your reporters conduct interviews in remote locations, could you give me a basic run down of what this process would entail and the estimated costs that it would incur?
KL: My time was split between the studio and location so I got to see both sides of the operation. The most flexible solution has traditionally been Inmarsat satellite ISDN – sometimes built into a vehicle and at other times in a rucksack. They managed to get the satellite into orbit no problem but failed to design an RF cable that didn’t fall apart when you unplugged it from the antenna! This costs about $5 per minute for the calls alone – it’s not a budget solution. For big events we would have the telecoms company install a temporary ISDN line. This was reliable but would cost upward of $1000 for the line alone.
MT: What was the event or series of events that convinced you that going solo and establishing a startup like In:Quality could you give us a chronological breakdown of what happened?
KL: I was hanging out of a 4th floor window at the University of Manchester to install a satellite antenna so that BBC Radio 4 could feature a string quartet on their early-evening news programme. I had to drop a long ethernet cable down the side of the building to the ground floor, through a window and then setup the ISDN kit. At the same time the BBC were relocating from their existing studios alongside the University campus so their academics would no longer be able to pop across the road to give an interview. They didn’t want to pay for ISDN and I knew there had to and easier, more flexible and cost-effective solution.
MT: Is ipDTL just Kevin Leach or do you have a team of trusted Mad scientists hidden somewhere?
KL: We have a developer who is an absolute genius and a handful of other freelancers but right now I do nearly everything. There are plans to grow the business but this needs to be done at a manageable pace and with the right people – that’s the difficult bit.
KL: I couldn’t think of anything better! VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is the general term for internet telephony. DTL in TV and radio stands for ‘Down the Line’. ISDN is a known and accepted term for the technology we’re trying to replace. Somehow from all of that we ended up with ipDTL.
MT: How long did it take to develop the ipDTL technology, what were the challenges you faced?
KL: It was really quick. I realised it was possible in May 2013, a few months later we were using it internally – for both TV and radio. Preparing it for the market and then upgrading it to what we have today has involved a lot of work. The biggest challenges have been about user-friendliness and managing subscriptions than the actual business of connectivity.
MT: The ipDTL technology wasn’t initially developed as an ISDN alternative for voice actors or at least that wasn’t the initial goal, as far as I understand it, what gave you the idea of going head to head against ISDN?
KL: Broadcast is my background so that was the initial target market as it’s what I know. It quickly became apparent that the voice-production community were crying out for something like this so we changed how connections and logins work to make it more suitable for them. It’s still evolving and will continue to do so.
MT: Last year you won the the Radio Academy Technical Innovation award at the annual UK Radio Festival , first congratulations on the award, second was that award reaffirmation that you were on the right track with In:Quality?
KL: Thanks! It was kind of the other way around. When I submitted the award entry, In:Quality was still a side-project that I was doing alongside my other work. I decided that if we were nominated I’d need a product to market to the wider industry to maximise the publicity it would generate. I haven’t had much chance to reflect since then as every day has brought with it a new challenge.
MT: Do you think you and In:Quality are one of the harbingers of the death of ISDN?
KL: I guess from an audio perspective, yes – but only by luck. The internet has already replaced ISDN in the wider world. There are loads of other companies that have worked way harder on this than me though – Comrex, Tieline, Source Elements, SoundStreak, Technica Del Arte. I just saw the potential of an emerging technology and jumped on it at the right time.
MT: As a voice artist the other applications for ipDTL don’t really interest me, but as a voiceover blogger the idea of conducting high quality audio interviews is very appealing. I know this information is on your website but could you give us a breakdown of the costs and the different membership tiers?
KL: A login costs $80 per year or $160 for ‘high quality’. You can add Link+ (guest login) for the same price again – otherwise the person you’re connecting to also needs a subscription.
MT: Are you planning on releasing any new products on the market or will you be concentrating on promoting ipDTL for the next while?
KL: We’ve just launched the ipDTL Network which is a map-based database of ipDTL users around the world. The focus right now is on ipDTL. There are several new features about to be launched – for a sneak peak head to https://test.ipdtl.com
MT: I was recently made aware of a new Source Connect product called Source Connect Now that utilizes a technology very similar to yours. Through the browser recording, could you give me your thoughts on this?
KL: I can’t blame them. Their existing software has a mixed reputation in the industry so if this improves that it will be worth their while. I met Robert from Source Elements at VO Atlanta last weekend. He’s a sound guy…as well as a ‘sound guy’. It’s obviously a shame to muddy the waters with two similar products but if they didn’t do it somebody else would have done.
MT: ipDTL is a SAAS or Software as a Service, I’ve only just used it when an agency I work for in the UK sent me a link to setup and test ipDTL on my studio computer, what is the other side of the coin? What does the paid member get? do they get a plugin for their DAW or do they get a rudimentary DAW like SoundStreak provides?
KL: You can manag a list of contacts who can connect with you. We’re about to add a simple mixer, chat, script sharing, file transfer and recording – all in the browser. Again – take a look at that test site. We’re always looking at new features and and a smoother user experience.
MT: Can we expect to see ipDTL working on mobile phones and tablets in the near future?
KL: Android works already – although we don’t support it officially as it’s still a bit raw. Chrome for iOS doesn’t work the same as it does on other devices so that’s gonna take a bit more work.
MT: Would it be possible to make ipDTL work in a way that a client can go to a voice actor’s website and click a button that will automatically log them into a session with the voice actor? Possibly have a permanent identifier code that would forego the need to log in without credentials?
KL: Link+ does exactly that! If a user embeds their Link+ URL in their webpage anybody can connect with them in a couple of clicks. Of course it depends if you want to give complete strangers the ability to pop up uninvited – but it’s harmless as only the user with the subscription can initiate a connection.
MT: Who do you see as your biggest competition right now? You are the second of three SAAS ISDN alternatives, soundstreak being the first, then you and then Source-connect now when they get out of beta, how do you see this panning out, and would this increased number of alternatives be a benefit for clients in general or just a confusing mess?
KL: It’s a constantly evolving landscape and I don’t believe any of us can rest on our laurels. Can you imagine if the only smartphone on the market was iPhone? A few years ago you could be forgiven for thinking Nokia had the mobile markets own up. Competition is good and nothing stands still. There are exciting times ahead for all of us and the industries which we serve.
And with that our Interview concluded. Again I would like to thank Kevin for this most informative interview. Personally I’m very excited at the prospect of a growing number of alternatives to the ISDN paradigm. I know it’ll be around for a while yet but still it would be nice for the world to move on. And just in case I’ll keep a black suit ready in case the time is nigh for ISDN.
Thank you for reading .