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Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide

Retired Equipment List

The Vermont Folklife Center
88 Main Street
Middlebury, Vermont 05753
Phone 802-388-4964 / Fax 802-388-1844
info@vermontfolklifecenter.org / www.vermontfolklifecenter.org

Prepared by Andy Kolovos
Last Updated 2011-10-21

This page contains descriptions of equipment that have been retired from the Vermont Folklife Center Audio Recording Equipment Guide. They will not be updated.


 

Analog Audiocassette Recorders [top]

Although its use is in sharp decline, analog audiocassette is still a standard medium for folklore and oral history field recording. There is an enormous range in price and quality of portable cassette recorders. The machines listed below are some of the highest quality, and therefore most expensive, cassette recorders available. Less expensive machines are certainly out there, and although the quality of the recording will not match what one can do with high-end equipment, they will certainly still get the job done.

The astute reader will note that the two primary manufacturers of higher-end cassette decks, Marantz and Sony, are slowly leaving the business. As a result, I'm limiting this section to currently manufactured and discontinued decks by Marantz and a bunch of discontinued but classic Sony decks. This is not a growth market.

    Marantz PMD430 Marantz's top of the line stereo recorder. I'm still a big fan of Marantz cassette decks. A great, less expensive, tape deck if you want to do analog stereo recording. Now only available used or as old store stock. Sold new at around $530.00, used price varies.

    Marantz PMD222 The mono recording version of the machine above, XLR connectors, VU meter and other goodies. My personal favorite for a moderately priced, high-end mono recorder. Priced around $390.00 new.

    Marantz PMD221 As above, comes with mini jack mic input instead of XLR connectors. Now only available used or as old store stock. Sold new around $370.00, used price varies.

    Marantz PMD201 A mono, two-head recorder with a mini mic jack. Retails around $330.00.

    Marantz PMD101 Similar to the 222 and 221. Has mini jack mic input, lacks record level controls and VU meter. Apparently discontinued. Retailed new around $235.00.

    Sony TC-D5 Pro II The mother of all portable cassette recorders. A mighty, mighty machine. No longer manufactured. Retailed new for $1,000.00. In my experience, a fairly rare site used, and prices vary.

    Sony TC-D5M An analog field recording classic and the machine we still use for analog cassette recording here at the VFC when called for. The D5M was recently celebrated with a review at Transom.com here. It gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling. Only available used or as old store stock. Sold new for $700.00. Used prices seem to vary between $250.00 and $500.00.

    Sony WM-D6 A smaller, less expensive professional quality Sony stereo deck. I like this deck a lot, and on my archivist's salary, it's the one I've got my eye on used. Which is a good thing since that's the only way you can get it. Sold new for around $350.00. Used prices seem to vary between $50.00 and $175.00

    Sony WM-D3 Even smaller than the WM-D6--the size of a standard Walkman. Includes most of the features of the WM-D6. Now only available used. Sold new for approximately $270.00. Used prices seem to vary between $50.00 and $120.00


Portable Compact Disk Recorders

Marantz now has three machines out that record to CD. One drawback to these recorders is that they must sit flat and cannot be moved while recording is underway. Another is that they only create CD-DA discs, and as a result one is limited to CD Quality audio (stereo 16bit/44.1kHz) and CD-R record times (74 or 80 minutes per disc). To learn more about the distinction between CD-DA and CD-ROM discs for audio, please see here.

For a number of reasons I don't love this approach, but the fact that you get a tangible thing at the conclusion of an interviewăa CD-Răseems to make some people more comfortable.

    Marantz CDR300
    CD Recorder The first direct-to-CD field recorder. I know some folks who have been using this machine for several years now and they love it to death. Retails for around $700.00

    Marantz CDR310 Professional CD Recorder
    A somewhat streamlined version of the CDR300, with the added feature of an internal hard disc drive that temporarily stores audio while recording is underway. At the conclusion of the recording session you write a CD-DA or CD-ROM disc. Limited, as you might imagine, to 16bit/44.1kHz recording. Info here. Retails for around $800.00.


DAT [top]

DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is a high-quality digital recording medium. Or perhaps I should more correctly say, "was." A discussion on the Association for Recorded Sound Collections listserv in the fall of 2005 suggested, terrifyingly, that the last factory making transports for DAT decks had shut down operations, and as a result no more new DAT machines are going to be manufactured.

If you've got DAT tapes lying around and a reliable, working deck, now's the time to transfer them--first of all, DAT is generally not regarded as particularly trustworthy for long-term storage of audio. And then, without a deck to play it back, a pile of DATs is only so much plastic.

More detailed information on DAT, including equipment reviews and other recommended machines, can be found at the DAT-Heads website: http://www.solorb.com/dat-heads/.

Who knows how long DAT will continue to be with us, but it was a wonderful field recording format in its day.

Here's a sampling of some DAT machines.

    Sony PCM-M1 Portable DAT recorder, the best of the Sony DATman machines. Discontinued. Only available used now, possibly as old store stock as well. Seemed to retail between $700.00 and $1,000.00. Used prices vary.

    Sony TCD-100 Portable DAT recorder. Very discontinued. Available used. Retailed new around $675.00

    Sony TCD-D10 Pro II This is the machine we used, and at times still turn to. It records wonderfully. It does take some time to learn how to navigate, and they have a reputation for being fragile—although we have yet (knock on wood) to have any problems. Discontinued for a while now, but used machines are out there. Retailed new for the slight sum of $3,000.00.

    TASCAM DA-P1 Portable DAT Recorder. For a lot of folks, what the Sony D5M was to analog cassette, this machine was to DAT. A great, sturdy field recorder. Apparently still being manufactured--or in the least it's still listed in the TASCAM catalog. Basically the last man standing as far as new DAT field recorders. Priced around $1,500.00


Direct-to-Laptop Recording [top]

It is possible to record audio direct to a laptop computer. At the bare minimum all one really needs to do this is a laptop with a sound card that includes a mic-input, a microphone and a sound editing program.

However be fore warned: the microphone pre-amplifiers built into to most stock laptop sound cards are generally pretty bad. Furthermore, the analog-to-digital converters on most stock laptop sound cards are pretty bad as well. If you intend to record via the mic-input on your laptop sound card, this conspiracy of crappiness will definitely have an impact on the quality of the resulting recordings.

To surpass this bare minimum approach one could also employ any one of the gaggle of FireWire (a.k.a. IEEE 1394) and USB-based digital audio interface/microphone pre-amplifier units that have proliferated over the last several years. These devices plug directly into the USB or FireWire port on your laptop and, along with a microphone and audio editing software, turn your laptop into digital recorder of varying quality--varying primarily in relation to the quality of the interface, that is.

Thing is, the quality of the mic pre-amps and A/D converters on these digital audio interfaces range from top-of-the-line to kinda crappy. And, as with most things, you pretty much get what you pay for.

Sidestepping hardware considerations for the moment, there are various other matters that effect laptop recording that one should be aware of as well:

Uncompressed digital audio files are large. By way of example, 80 minutes of stereo audio recorded at 16bit/44.1 kHz takes up 700 megabytes of space. If you intend to record at higher resolutions, the files will be even larger. Be prepared to have ample space available on your hard drive or, better yet, travel with a portable external hard drive dedicated to audio recording.

If you loose power before you save your file, you will quite likely lose your entire recording.

Another huge matter to keep in mind is that laptops tend to make A LOT of noise, noise that will be picked up by your microphone. The careful use of a mic with a directional pick up pattern will limit the amount of machine noise you pick up, as will keeping the PC as far away from the mic as possible--but for sit-down interviews the noise of a laptop fan is hard to escape entirely.

So, do I love this approach for mobile interview recording? Not really. First of all by tying you to a computer/interface combination and the potential need for a reliable power supply, it dramatically limits the environments in which you can record. I'd also rather not have to haul around my a laptop, an external hard drive and an audio interface to each interview and then have wait for the whole mess to boot up before I could get started. And finally, laptop fans really do make a lot of noise--trust me.

However, in a controlled recording environment with the proper sound isolation you could do some first-rate recordings with some of this gear.

Direct-to-laptop recoding certainly does have its benefits. For one, when recording directly to hard drive you can exploit all the benefits of file-based digital audio. Since the recording is created as a computer file, it is simple to exchange, edit and burn to CD. Also, if one already owns a laptop, the cost of a decent USB/FireWire audio interface might well be less than buying a comparable stand-alone digital recorder. Finally, many audio interfaces come with audio editing software.

Over the last few years USB/FireWire audio interfaces have begun to proliferate, so there are more options now than ever.

    Apogee Electronics Mini-Me Very well reviewed professional USB audio interface/mic pre-amp. USB, S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital input/input. XLR and 1/4" mic inputs. An incredible piece of equipment. Pricey at $1,300.00. Info here.

    Digidesign Mbox2 Updated version of Digidesign's pioneering Mbox USB audio interface/mic pre-amp aimed at home recording. For those of you not in the know, Digidesign is the maker of the studio-standard Pro Tools digital audio software. The original release of this unit was very well liked. I for one, like the Mbox2 a bit more--especially the new look. A gaggle of inputs and outputs, including S/PDIF, XLR and 1/4" stereo. A good point: comes with Pro Tools LE software. A bad point: That's the only software it will work with. $450.00. Info here.

    Edirol FA-101 and FA-66 Edirol's two FireWire audio interfaces. Similar to the Edirol USB unit below, but marketed for music recording and playback. As a result, they have MIDI and a whole bunch of analog inputs (8 or so line-level and two mic-level on the FA-101, 4 line-level and 2 mic-level on the FA-66)--waaay more than most folks need for ethnographic interviews. Still, very nice looking units in the price range. Both include FireWire and Optical digital output, all wrapped up in a sturdy metal cases. Only supported for Mac OS X and Windows XP. FA-101 seems to go in the $500.00-$550.00 range, the FA-66 seems to go around $350. Info on the FA-101 here, and the FA-66 here.

    Edirol UA-25 USB USB-based audio/mic pre-amp. The unit can input audio to a computer via USB, Optical and coaxial S/PDIF. Records at up to 24 bit/96kHz. XLR input mic pre-amps with phantom power. All in a sturdy metal case. Looking like this replaced the UA-5, which I heard good things about. The UA-25, I know nothing about. Around $240.00. Info here.

    Griffin iMic Really cheap intro point into USB-based laptop field recording. The new version is still a tiny little disc-shaped thing, but this time it's slightly smaller at 2 inches in diameter and a half an inch thick. All you get with the iMic are stereo mini-jack sized mic and line inputs--no external controls. All the other stuff--input levels, etc., must be managed by whatever audio editing software you are using. The old one did analog to digital conversion at CD quality only, 16bit/44.1kHz--not sure about the new version. The old version also had pretty hissy mic pres as well. However, for $35.00, not a bad place to start. here.

    M-Audio FireWire 410 M-Audio is now owned by Avid, which is the parent company of Digidesign. What these means in a practical sense is that there is now a version of Pro Tools, Pro Tools M-Powered, that owners of M-Audio products can use with their hardware. The Fire-Wire 410 features 2 mic inputs and retails for around $300.00. Pro Tools M-Powered runs around $250.00. Info here.

    M-Audio MobilePre See the Firewire 410 for details on ownership changes at M-Audio. Inexpensive USB audio interface/mic pre-amp. I own one of the original M-Audio versions, and I've been completely underwhelmed. The recordings I've made are a lot noisier than I would like from a digital device. I don't know what, if any, changes have been made to the hardware since Avid took over. Might be a cheaper way to get access to Pro Tools M-Powered software if that's your real goal. Retails $150.00. Details here.

    Mackie Onyx Satellite A new FireWire box from Mackie. I've dropped the Mackie Spike from this list and I'm putting this guy in here instead because I think it's better served to field recording tasks. I must say, it looks pretty dern good: Mackie's Onyx mic-pres, metal case, will work with a slew of different audio editors, it can be bus powered--I'm liking it. Johnny Fenn picked one up recently and his initial reports are quite positive. Comes with Tracktion 2 Software. Info here. Around $400.00.

    Tascam US-122 Tascam's foray into USB-based laptop recording. Really intended for music since it has mic and line inputs as well as MIDI, but will easily work for interviews as well. Comes with TASCAM's GigaStudio 24 software. Records at 16bit/44.1kHz and 16 bit/48kHz. Looks good for the money, but I haven't heard much. Dual XLR mic inputs, Midi, etc. Around $200.00. Info here.

    Sound Devices USB Pre Top-of-the-line USB audio interface with high quality microphone pre-amps and high quality analog to digital converters. Includes USB interface and S/PDIF digital. Has XLR inputs for mics. Retails for around $595.00. In my opinion, one of the top two units (along with the Mini-Me) in this field. Info here.


 

Standard MiniDisc Recorders [top]

Standard MiniDisc is becoming a thing of the past. In 2004 Sony released a new iteration of the MiniDisc format, HiMD, and essentially ended support for the earlier version which begat it.

So then why maintain a section on standard MiniDisc as a part of this resource? Well, for now at least, the format still has at least one (albeit partially crippled) leg to stand on--you can still buy standard MD blanks, for instance. And some companies, Sharp for example, do still manufacture new recorders. Heck, HHB still has their pro MD unit listed in their catalog.

From another perspective, although MiniDisc never got near to supplanting analog audiocassette in popularity as a recording medium, in certain nooks and crannies (say, for example among radio producers, stealth field recordists, certain bundles of oral historians and even amidst clusters of folklorists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists) it developed quite a following--a following that to some degree persists.

In its own freakish and small way, and perhaps for reasons that can't be fully explained, standard MiniDisc found a place in the hearts of a lot of field recordists.

As for me, I went back and forth with MiniDisc--there is/was a lot to hate about it. However, ultimately the compromise between recoding quality, cost, and versatility emblematic of MiniDisc eventually outweighed my gripes and won me, however tentatively, over to the Pro MD camp.

Then Sony went and cut the cord, so that was pretty much that.

I guess my decision to keep this section is a kind of homage to the format. Perhaps some day I'll retire it, along with the section on DAT perhaps, but for now it'll stick around.

Standard MiniDisc was a popular format for audio field recording. Although consumer-grade machines are and were inexpensive, there are a host of concerns about the format that continue to fuel endless griping by yours truly.

1. Although MiniDisc is a digital recording format, consumer-grade machines are intentionally designed so that one cannot get a digital line out of them. This feature (or more correctly lack thereof) is intended to control the creation of digital copies of copyrighted material. Great if you're a recording company, a pain if you're a fieldworker conducting interviews and want to make straight digital transfers for creating CDs or mounting audio on the web.

If you want to get any signal off a consumer MiniDisc recorder--analog or digital--you usually need to do so by taking an analog signal out through the headphone jack. From here it's not hard to make a analog copy of the digital audio contained on the MiniDisc by running the signal into a cassette deck. However, if you want to make a digital copy of the digital signal on the MiniDisc using a consumer-grade machine, you need to go through the motions of converting that headphone jack-derived analog signal back to digital using a second analog-to-digital converter (such as a computer sound card or USB audio device). Uck.

In addition to this being kind of a pain, the bigger issue is that the two points of analog to digital conversion--one from the disc to the headphone jack, the second from the analog signal to the next analog-to-digital converter--do degrade the quality of the audio. And depending on the quality of your internal sound card, external analog-to-digital converter or USB audio device, this degradation can be quite pronounced.

2. Another degree of digital copyright control is maintained through the Serial Copyright Management System (SCMS--generally pronounced "scums"). The SCMS limits the number of digital copies one can make of a copied Minidisc. Once more, this is to prevent a user from disseminating copyrighted materials. Of course, this assumes that one even has the capability to make a digital copy in the first place--most of you don't, and probably never will. It's like a special kind of insult that way.

3. In order to fit 74-80 minutes of audio on the tiny Minidisc, the format uses a compression scheme called ATRAC. Although a MiniDisc records at what is essentially CD-Quality--16bit/44.1kHz--that audio information has to be squished down to fit on the 3 inch disc. Part of this squishing involves throwing out some of the audio data. ATRAC is therefore a "lossy" compression format. For this reason many people do not recommend MiniDisc for recording live music.

4. Finally, there's no knowing how long MiniDisc will be a viable format--especially in light the release of Sony's updated Hi-MD (see below).

That's the bad news--now here's the other side. ATRAC compression has only improved over the last 15 or so years since the format was introduced, to the point where most people would have a very hard time telling the difference between an interview recording made at CD-quality on DAT and an interview recording made on MiniDisc. And even keeping ATRAC compression in mind, with MiniDisc it isn't difficult to match or even surpass the recording quality of a high-end cassette deck, and to do so at 1/3 or so the price. Does this mean I would use MiniDisc to record live music? If I had another option such as DAT or a good Solid State recorder, no. However, if MiniDisc is all you have and/or all you can afford (especially if it won't get recorded otherwise) by all means go for it.

As for the other issues mentioned above, the only way to remedy the digital output and SCMS concerns is to spend big bucks on a pro-grade recorder like the HHB or the Marantz model listed below. However, as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to spend between $700.00 and $1500.00 on a recorder, you might as well just buy a Compact Flash card-based machine and record uncompressed 16bit/48kHz audio at the source.

Another way around the problem of digital output and SCMS is to transfer your recordings using a component MiniDisc player equipped with digital output capabilities. At this point you'd be hard pressed to find any that are still manufactured. My personal favorite was a unit made by Sony, the MDS-E10, a charming, rack-mountable MiniDisc player/recorder with both S/PDIF and TOS-Link output that will also "strip" the SCMS out of the digital signal. We have one here at the Folklife Center and I love the darn thing. Good luck finding one now, though. When I trolled Ebay in search of a back up unit a few months ago they were scarce and pricey.

Finally, format obsolescence is a concern for every recording medium to date. In the nearish future I imagine that high-quality solid state recorders will be what most professional folklorists, ethnomusicologists, oral historians, journalists and others will carry into the field. From my perspective, MiniDisc was (and perhaps still is) a relatively inexpensive way to make good quality recordings.

If I were just starting out, would I adopt standard MiniDisc at this point? Unless a decent recorder fell into my lap for free or next to nothing, frankly no. Still, as long as I can continue to get blanks I'll keep using my Sharp MD-DR480, at least for certain applications.

More detailed information on MiniDisc, including equipment reviews and other recommended machines, can be found at the MiniDisc Community Portal website: http://www.minidisc.org.

Information on MiniDisc field recording, including details of some of the gripes about the format listed above, and recommended machines from the perspective of radio journalists and documentarians--the format's main boosters--can be found at http://www.transom.org

Some recommended recorders:

    HHB MDP500 Professional portable MiniDisc recorder. The Mother Ship of MiniDisc recorders. I thought it was discontinued a while ago, but it still appears in HHB's catalog. Retailed/s in the neighborhood of $1,300.00

    Marantz PMD650 Professional portable MiniDisc recorder. Very good quality, highly recommended. Discontinued, but still available used or as old store stock. Retailed for around $870.00.

    Sharp MD-DR7/MD-DR480 Sharp's flagship MiniDisc recorder from several years back, the machine we used when we employed the format and the one I still sport from time to time. Unlike many Sony machines, allows for adjustments to record level to be made while recording is under way, which is a huge plus. The dual model numbers: MD-DR7 and MD-DR480 refer to the versions of the machine sold in Japan (the former) and Singapore (the latter). The only difference between the two is the language in which the manual is written (Japanese vs. English) and the inclusion of a few extra accessories with the MD-DR480. As far as I can tell this unit is long gone, so used is the only way to go. Sold new for between $260.00 and $280.00


 

Hi-MD Recorders [top]

Sony's newest disc recording format, Hi-MD, has been on the street for a couple of years now at this point. As with early info in this section, most everything I've learned about it has come from the Hi-MD FAQ at www.minidisc.org, a few reviews, manuals and periodic email.

When Sony first unleashed Hi-MD upon us it tapped within me a deep vein of sadness. Yet again, the minds of Sony put their paranoia about digital rights management way ahead of making a useful field recorder.

Over the course of the last couple of years my great frustration has tempered a bit, especially as the Sony corporation gradually removed several of the egregious impedances built into the format and its supporting software. In short, Sony's ever-clenched Fist of Control has relaxed a tad, and now you can do things like digitally upload your own field recordings and (gasp) save them in a standard, non-proprietary format and even (shudder) edit them.

No foolin' folks, when the format was first released you were actually prevented from saving your own uncompressed PCM recording--perhaps an interview with your mom or a song you had written yourself--in any format other than Sony's proprietary and un-editable OpenMG format if you digitally uploaded it to a PC.

OpenMG was developed to maintain tight control on use of digital audio to protect copyright. As a result, you can't burn .omg / .oma files to Audio CD, there is only limited support for playback of .omg / .oma files (mainly or exclusively Sony hardware and software), you can't open and edit .omg / .oma files in any audio editing programs and resave them in a standard format, and you can't share .omg / .oma files with other PCs. Pretty much the worst case scenario from an archival perspective.

So, in response to a rain of criticism regarding PCM file formatting, Sony finally (in Fall 2004) released a piece of software called WAV Conversion Tool that will allow folks to save their original mic-derived PCM recordings as .wav files. According to my contacts in the world of Hi-MD, it seems to work just fine.

WAV Conversion Tool is available here. For further information see Sony's WAV Conversion Tool FAQ here.

In the interest of supporting open-source solutions to the problems caused by proprietary software, I would like to point readers toward another option for working with .omg / .oma field recorded files. A gentleman who goes by the handle of Marcnet created a piece of software called Hi-MD Renderer, a program that will also let you resave .omg /.oma files as .wav files.

For what it's worth, this method is not 100% Andy approved.

First off, doing this sort of thing with copy protected music is outright illegal, and I take no responsibility for people abusing this approach to illegally duplicate copy protected music. The method for doing this is a bit complicated (it requires some level of comfort with DOS, for example) and apparently might: render the file un-openable; affect the audio quality of the resulting file in a negative way; or, due to the innate bugginess of SonicStage, actually delete your files outright. However, reports from users have been quite positive.

Should you be interested in taking this route, info about and a link to the software can be found at www.minidisc.org here and at Marcnet's page here.

So if you've got a Hi-MD recorder that you're using for field recording and you're interested in creating standard PCM files, try out both approaches and see which one works better for you.

In any event, my feelings on Hi-MD can still be summed up with a proverb: Too Little, Too Late.

Here's what I don't dislike about Hi-MD:

1. The pricier models have mic inputs, so you can use an external mic.

2. You can upload recordings to your PC at faster than real time speeds via USB.

3. Unlike standard MD, you can to record uncompressed linear PCM audio at CD Quality (16bit/44.1kHz), in addition to ATRAC compressed audio.

Here's what I don't like about Hi-MD:

2. USB transfer can only be made easily using Windows PCs and must be done through Sony's SonicStage software. Although I've learned that Mac uploading support is out there, from what I've heard, it doesn't work all that well.

3. Although linear PCM is a standard way of encoding uncompressed audio data, PCM recorded files made with Hi-MD equipment are (apparently) created as, and must first be saved in Sony's proprietary OpenMG (.omg / .oma) file format once they are uploaded to a PC via SonicStage.

4. The discs are around $7.00 bucks each--about as much as a blank DAT.

5. As with Sony's standard MD units, one cannot adjust the record level while recording is under way.

In Conclusion:

What does all this mean?

Well, the ability to digitally transfer analog-source recordings at high speed to a PC via USB is great, but…

Although the option to record uncompressed, CD quality audio is a boon for field recordists, the fact that these recordings must exist initially in a proprietary and heavily copy protected file format (.omg or .oma) if you digitally transfer them to PC is extremely annoying. Furthermore, we don't know what problems (if any) WAV Conversion Tool might introduce into your audio as a result of the conversion process from OpenMG to WAV.

And frankly, if you’ve got go through all these gyrations just to get a digital recording in a standard file format, why not just use something else to begin with?

Some Sony Hi-MD recorders:

    Sony MZ-M100 $400.00

    Sony MZ-M10 $300.00

    Sony MZ-RH10 $260.00

    Sony MZ-RH910 $200.00

 


iPod [top]

A few years back (I guess we'd say several generations ago in iPod terms) this ubiquitous cultural icon was a totally lame field recorder. Using one of two microphone interfaces then available--Belkin's Universal Microphone Adaptor and Griffin's iTalk--one could record WAV audio via a microphone, however only at the embarrassing sample rate of 8kHz. Things have changed, at long last. Now instead of being Totally Lame, the iPod is, not quite as lame.

At the time of this writing (November 2009) Apple has several new iPods on the market including the iPod Touch and the iPod Classic and even the iPhone. Both the iPod Classic and the previous generation hard drive-based iPod, the iPod Video (Gen 5 for those Apple Geeks out there) can indeed record stereo 16bit/44.1kHz audio. I'm still trying to figure out what the iPod Touch and iPhone create. I'll keep bugging John Fenn until he tells me.

I have yet to hear what audio recodings on the iPod Classic or iPod Video sound like. I can't imagine they'll really hold water next to even the cheapest of decent recorders (such as your modified PMD660 or an FR2-LE), but I feel pretty sure it'll do a better job than anything you can buy at Staples. You still need an interface, such as the Griffin iTalk Pro (which I imagine is still a pretty weak micpre), and I'd strongly encourage you to use an external mic as well.

Then there's the Alesis Protrack. I've only seen pictures of this thing, but it looks like it could be miles ahead of the older iPod interfaces. It's essentially a frame you click the iPod into, a frame that features (in addition to the dopey X/Y attached mics) XLR inputs, a limiter, a 48V phantom power option and even what appear to be external level controls! What gives? I'm sure the thing doesn't sound pristine, but then again if you've got an iPod and a limited budget, it might be a better option than the iTalk.

So if you're itching to do some interview recording, already have a newer iPod and don't want to spend a pile of money on a decent field recorder, consider plunking down the $35 or so bucks for the iTalk Pro and between $50 and $100 for a less-crappy mini plug mic (perhaps a Sony ECM-MS907 or an Audio-Technica Pro 24) or go the Alesis Protrack ($199) plus-a-heartier-mic route, and you're in business. Is it great? No. Would I buy an iPod specifically with this in mind? No. But if you've got one already, it might not be a bad place to begin

    iPod Classic (Gen 6)
    Not my favorite choice, but it might work for some. Requires an audio interface (i.e. Griffin iTalk Pro, Alesis Protrack). See above for more info. 80 GB model is around $250, 160 GB model is around $350.

    iPod Video (Gen 5)
    See above for comments. Requires an audio interface(i.e. Griffin iTalk Pro, Alesis Protrack). 30 GB model was around $250, 80 GB model was around $350, not sure what they go for on the used/refurbrished market. Griffin iTalk Pro is around $35.00.


Flash Memory Recorders[top]

M-Audio MicroTrack II
M-Audio's new version of their original MicroTrak recorder. Seems like the update addresses several of the shortcomings of the original unit--namely this time it has standard 48V phantom power (the earlier unit supplied only 30V), improved analog input electronics, the ability to record in the mighty Broadcast WAV Format, and—according to the specs online—mono recording. Also, it's black instead of silver.

All that stated the rest seems much the same. It has 1/4" TRS inputs for mic inputs and a built in lithium-ion battery. While I'd prefer XLR to TRS inputs, the TRS inputs are a far better option than, say, the usual stereo miniplug that graces gear in this price point. However, for two reasons the battery issue borders on being a bit of a deal breaker for me.

The built-in lithium-ion battery, much like the iPod, hampers in two ways: 1) when the battery craps out for good I imagine that you'll either have to replace the unit or go though some kind of complex procedure to remove the old one and install the new one. 2) Perhaps more importantly, since one cannot simply swap out the battery for a fresh one, one needs reliable access to electricty to be able to keep it running—and down time to plug the unit in and recharge it! If you do a lot of interviews that require battery power, this might not be the best unit for you.

John Fenn bought one of these things and his report focuses on the primiary problem with the unit--gradually the internal battery becomes less and less able to hold a charge. Which sucks. There are ways out there to swap the dead/dying OEM battery for new a new iPod (or other Li-Ion) battery, and if you're dealing with this issue I point you toward the Magic Google.

For the record, I kinda think most M-Audio stuff is junky, but this version is a marked improvement on the previous one. Going for around $400.00.

Tascam HD-P2
OK, here's where I get disappointed again. Doug Boyd--the perennial canary in the field recorder coal mine--picked one of these up and was pretty let down. Among his complaints were the need for the CF card to go through a "mounting" process before the recorder can be used. There were a few other things he had to say, but me being me I failed to write them down. I will gather more data the next time he and I speak. 24bit/192kHz recorder, cool looking. Additional info here. In the area of $1,000.00.

Zoom H2
In the past year or so I've begun to reconsider this unit because several friends and colleagues have convinced me to do so (and this includes you, Richard Hess). Also, perhaps more importantly, I've decided to try and grow up a touch and be less of a snob about things.

The Zoom H2 is a Not-Great audio recorder. Amongst all the options that litter the large field of Not-Great audio recorders out there, I'm now willing to say that the Zoom H2 is probably at the top of the heap of said inexpensive, lo-fi, Not-Great audio recorders. It is cheap. It does a decent job for the money. And those two factors are its primary virtues: being cheap and being the least crappy of the crappy.

If my choices boiled down to buying one of those horrific OfficeMax/Staples digital voice recorder things or a Zoom H2, I'd buy the Zoom H2. Hands down. If I were teaching a class and needed a mess of recorders, or if I were running a community-based research project on a limited budget, I'd buy a bunch of Zoom H2s. If I had to use one of these things or not get the take (as it were), no question, I'd use it.

However, if I were looking for a recorder and had a reasonable budget--say $400 to $1200, I wouldn't buy a Zoom H2, I'd buy something else.

Now, as far as external mic inputs goes, it only has a mini-plug. In order to use a decent mic with it, you'll need an interface allong the lines of the ones listed in "Cables and Accessories" section below, or choose a decent electrolet condenser like the the Sony ECM-MS907 I mention above. Otherwise you'll be limited to any old crapola mic with a hard wired mini-plug. So it goes. What do you expect for under $180.00? A freaking Nagra? Official details: Zoom H2.

 


Motherships[top]

What do I mean by "Motherships"? These are currently the Mothers-Of-All-Field-Recorders out there. This is fantasy stuff for most of us, me included, so they're here mostly for voyeuristic fun.

    Aaton Cantar-X
    Oh boy. Info here. Lists for $14,000.00.

    HHB Portadrive
    Wow. Lush detail here. A minimal expenditure at around $13,500.00

    Nagra V
    24 bit HDD-based recorder. Nagra, Nagra, Nagra. Learn a bit more here. Lists at $6,100.00, streets around $5,900.00

    Sound Devices 744T
    A four channel version of the 722 above. An exciting little number. Info here. Around $4,000.00.

    Zaxcom Deva IV
    8 channel 24 bit/96kHz HDD recorder. Only 96kHz? Only 8 channels? Jeepers! Info here. Lists for $10,950.00.

    Zaxcom Deva V
    10 channel 24 bit/192kHz HDD recorder. Pretty too. Info here. MSRP--not sure, but I'm guessing it's over 11 grand..


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