My recording kit (and how I chose it)

imageMy audio recording setup was recently featured on the Genealogy Guys podcast, and I’ve long wanted to describe it here. Why haven’t I? In order to follow the course of a story of weighing this or that feature, one must have an understanding of the feature in the first place. So I’ve had to lay some groundwork. I’ve written an article on analog and digital, and have been working on the Equipment Guide to all the different items in a portable audio setup.

Now I’ll revisit, once again, the twists and turns of making my decision, and the factors that led me to buy what I did. Of course, that was in April of 2006. Since then, several new audio recorders have come out. Though my the reasons for my decision are worth examining, I don’t know that I’d come to the exact same conclusions in June, 2007 as I did in April 2006. But I’ll tell you about my list of “must haves” and the factors I considered.

Budget

I’d gotten a little extra wad of cash that I intended to devote to my portable audio recording system. I figured that I could spend something north of $500—but stay well under $1000 for my recording system.

I imagine that readers of this site wishing to spend less money on a recording setup than I did. (After all, the fact that I host this site means I’m pretty serious about portable audio. I’d love to have an equipment budget that’d allow me to buy and try everything out there. Someday.) If “spend less” describes you, don’t be intimidated by my budget. Hooray for ongoing development and market forces! There are lower cost offerings available today that’d meet my selection criteria. Come along, and compare my “must haves” and tradeoffs with your requirements, as I tell you what I bought and why.

My list of “must haves”

The recorder must have the ability to record digital files.

I want to make recordings that are “born digital.” I want to copy the recordings from the recorder to the computer as a file transfer. File-transfer speeds are wonderful;  I’ve done more than enough transfer where I hook up an audio connection between recorder and computer, press play on my portable recorder and press record on my computer to digitize cassette tapes and minidisc recordings. If I have 3 hours of recordings to transfer, it takes 3 hours (plus setup) to transfer it to the computer. Transferring digital files as straight file copying is a Very Good Thing.

But there are several different types of “born digital” files. Which kind, and why?

My recorder must have the ability to create Audio CD-quality WAV files


Translated into exact specifications, that is audio sampled at 16bit, 44.1 kHz rate. Uncompressed. Say goodbye to any of those Olympus models that record in

WMA. Say goodbye to any recorders that record only MP3 files. Though those two types of recordings are born digital (good), they’re born proprietary (WMA, bad) and born compressed (MP3, WMA, bad).

I must have adequate storage.  Lots of it.


CD-quality WAV files that are uncompressed need lots of storage. How much storage? An audio CD can hold a little over an hour’s worth of audio. The same style disc as a data CD holds 650 MB of data (some hold more).

Translate the “how much storage?” question into an interview situation. How long does it take to conduct an interview? Anywhere from an hour to two hours. Plus more, if your interviewee gets talkative. (And you always want to allow extra margin, just in case) Suppose you need to go on a trip to conduct those interviews, and do a lot of talking in a short time period. Here’s an example: I made a set of recordings when I went to New England to visit and interview my great aunt. Not counting some extra recordings—a portion of her 90th birthday festivities and the tour through the old farmhouse—I recorded a little over 8 hours of conversation in four sessions over two days (2 hours at in the morning, 2 hours in the afternoon, the same thing the next day). I recorded in mono on standard-density minidiscs, each of which held slightly more than 2 hours of audio.

How much storage space is needed for 8 hours of audio?

8 hours conversation at Audio CD quality (mono) is 2422.4 mg, or 2.3 GB
8 hours conversation at Audio CD quality (stereo) is 4844.9 MB or 4.7 GB

There are two conclusions to draw from this: Recording uncompressed audio takes a lot of space. Recording in mono saves space. Like, half.

If I’d brought along a computer to offload the audio files, say, at the end of each day, I wouldn’t need the full 4.7 GB capacity for stereo recordings. I would need to have a reasonable amount of storage that I could use to hold the recordings until I could copy them off to a computer. 

For flash memory recorders, I’d need the cards with the highest possible capacity. Last year, I was looking at 1GB and 2GB cards. By now, 4GB cards are more prevalent than they were a year ago. (not all recorders can automatically take 4 GB cards, however.)

Stereo or Mono?

The mathematics of storage space and mono recordings made a large impression on me, so I looked for a recorder that could write WAV files and record in mono. (If I were making this decision again today, the lower cost of both recorders and flash media might make the stereo or mono question moot. But I describe what I was thinking about then.)


Which flash memory device creates mono recordings?
The models I was looking at in April, 2006:

Models available now (in addition to those listed above):

Microphones—built in or plug in?

A built-in microphone on a recorder with moving parts (such as, say, a cassette recorder) will always pick up motor noise. Built in mics are to be avoided in favor of external microphones. But a flash-memory recorder is a solid state recorder: there are no moving parts. Therefore any “built in mics” are much better. Still, all these recorders have connectors to accept external microphones. What kind of connection do they offer? The type of connection doesn’t matter as much if you’re starting out with no microphones on hand—you just buy the type of mic that goes with the recorder and that’s that. But I had some mics already. An XLR mic (the 3-prong connector), and a couple that had a mono mini-plug.

Each of my contenders offered a different type of mic connector (I’ll list the newer ones, too):

RecorderMic Connection
Marantz PMD 660XLR connector
Edirol R-1mini-plug
M-Audio Microtrack 24/961/4-inch balanced plugs
Edirol R-09mini-plug
Samson Zoom H4 HandyXLR, balanced 1.4-inch
Samson Zoom H2mini-plug

I couldn’t make a decision one way or another based on the connections. I know that “balanced” connectors—XLR, 1/4-inch—have an extra, third, cable inside that serves to reduce noise and electrical interference. That’s especially helpful with longer microphone cables, but I doubted that I’d be using long mic cables for my recording purposes. So microphone connections was a toss up. Fooey. I can buy an adapters to make whatever mic plug fit whatever mic port.

Nearing a decision, based on my must-haves

Space considerations and the ability to record in mono was the major deciding factor for me. I’d eliminated all but the Marantz PMD 660 as a result. 1GB and 2 GB flash memory was the top of the line at the time.

The Marantz PMD 660 has a reputation as a durable, portable flash memory recorder priced in the prosumer realm, with a price that ranged near $500. The newcomers to the flash memory recorders were priced in the $400 range (street price $399). But there was still more to consider about the PMD 660. I’d learned about its one drawback from Doug Johnson, technical director of KPCC, my local public radio station and the teacher of a basic audio course at PCC, the community college. The PMD 660 has a noisy pre-amp. (A pre-amp takes the low signal of microphone level an boosts it to standard audio equipment level, or line level. In the process of boosting, though, the pre-amp adds hiss, hence the term “noisy” pre-amp. A quiet pre-amp is A Very Good Thing.) Johnson told me that one of the radio station’s reporters got a modified version of the PMD 660 from a company called Oade Brothers. So if I wanted to get a PMD 660, I’d need to get an upgraded version. A basic upgrade verison of the PMD 660 ran $560. Add the cost of a case, and with adequate amounts of flash memory, and I was looking to spend $700.

(In retrospect, I don’t like my thinking as much. The cost of the pre-amp upgrade easily matches the cost of another external flash memory card. So, sure, I could have bought one of the other recorders and sprung for more memory to hold those stereo recordings. But ah, I’m just reporting the thoughts I went through then. Let’s all learn from the flaws in my thinking, shall we?)

Note: Always, always, the price for the entire system is higher than the price for the main piece of equipment. There are those inevitable matters of media (flash memory), batteries, cables and other incidentals.

And that $700 price tag didn’t include any new microphones beyond the main one I already had.

Last minute zig… thinking outside my little box

Though I was leaning in the direction of the PMD 660, it wasn’t wholly satisfying. I found myself continuing to research. I was at the site of Sound Professionals, an online store devoted to audio. Maybe because the decision was not as satisfying. Maybe because I was scared to spend upwards of $700 on a system that still had me hemming and hawwing. Maybe because I wanted to check out microphones. Maybe because… well, I don’t recall exactly.

But I encountered yet another possible recording system there. It was a custom offering from Sound Professionals:

image
The Kit that I bought, all packed into the larger case.

””

A case outfitted with a custom microphone preamp. The case was an otterbox. And inside the box, next to the preamp, was a device called the Archos G-mini 402. The G-mini is a portable multimedia player with a 20 GB capacity; it has the ability to record audio at line-in levels. I might’ve seen one of them at the first Podcast expo. SoundProfessionals would throw in a small T-shaped single point stereo microphone. The system uses stereo minijacks, which are placed on the outside of the Otterbox case. Great for field recordings near water.

mic and headphones plug in on outside of Otter Box
Microphone about to be plugged into external port.

Hmmm.

The Archos G-mini records audio at line-in level. The pre-amp takes care of the microphone. And is quiet, to boot. It has a 20 GB capacity from an internal hard drive. No flash memory necessary. It connects to a computer through a USB-2 connection. Fast and instant file transfer.

Maybe I was open to an external preamp because I’d already been considering a recording unit with a custom modified pre-amp. I surprised myself (and my boyfriend) with this sudden openness to consider a completely different offering. I checked it against my list of must-haves:

  1. Record digital files. Check.
  2. Create CD-Audio quality WAV files. Check.
  3. File transfer via USB connection. Check.
  4. Lots of space to audio files. 20 GB, wowee! Check, check, check.

 

Mic on (a regular) microphone stand near me

As I recall, the Archos Gmini and the SoundProfessionals custom-modded Otter Box together ran just under $500 That’s less than the price as the special modified PMD 660, before I spent any money on flash memory. Since I was in a buying mood, and this different approach had saved me nearly a couple hundred dollars worth of flash memory, why not buy a high-quality microphone that I could use in interviews? I opted for a high-quality set of small directional mics on a Y-shaped wire gooseneck. I can face one toward me and the other toward the interviewee and what we say will be each recorded in one of the stereo channels. (That way, if I commit the interviewer sin of cross-talk—where I talk over the interviewee—the interviewee audio is clearly recorded in one channel and I can “turn me down” so the recording can hear what the interviewee was saying.)

[Here are 2 Y-shaped gooseneck-style microphones, Better dynamic range, Good dynamic range. I chose the 8-inch arm length ]

Here’s a comparison of my original purchase plan with the way this new hard-disk based solution was stacking up.

Oade PMD price Archos/Otter price
PMD 660, modded $569 Base System $489
2x compact flash $200 dual Y-shaped mic $180
Case $69 Upgrades $69
Total $838 Total $738

I selected some upgrade options: A larger Otter box. The one that SoundProfessionals recommends snugly holds the G-mini. But I opted for the larger size, in order to have space for the extra microphone, its portable tripod-stand and other cables. Further, I ordered my modded Otter Box with additional cables and stereo mini plugs that would work with any recorder and not just the custom cable for the Archos recorder.

image image
Left: the Archos connection: Right, extra connectors work with a minidisc recorder.

I also ordered cables and adapters to fit my hand-held XLR microphone (see mic in header image of this site) to work with this recording setup. And an extra case to hold miscellaneous mics and cords and supplies. By the time the smoke cleared, I spent over $800.

Obsolescence is a fact of life.

During my decision phase, I called the people at the Sound Professionals to ask questions about some items, and discovered that the Archos G-mini 402 was soon to be discontinued (a video camcorder option had just been introduced; it records audio and video, whereas the one I got records only audio and plays both audio and video). Such is digital life. The Camcorder G-Mini 402 is available ($199 as of this writing)

Would I recommend this system? Yes, if you have a hard-disk based recorder that records line-in audio WAV files (larger-capacity iRivers, Cowan iAudio, or other Archos-based PMPs [Portable Media Players] with line-in recording). Sound Professionals makes their Otter-Boxes plus PreAmps in two flavors:

One with the Archos-compatible cable

(this one discontinued), and One with two standard mini-plugs for most other recorders. Too, there’s a yet-lower-priced Box and preamp available.

My audio system, one year later

One year on, how has my system held up? Very nicely. I have no regrets about this purchase. I’m thrilled with the sound quality of the mic and preamp. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the case fits all the requisite parts very nicely. There are two items that do not fit, however. The cord to recharge the Archos G mini’s internal battery and the USB cord to transfer audio from the Archos to my computer need to ride along elsewhere. But if the unit is charged and I’m just recording, everything fits snugly inside the Otter Box case.

One other quibble that I have with the system: Compared to other recording units that have LCD readout of sound levels, the Archos is inefficient. The Archos has a small colors screen, so it has a timeout function for the monitor to go dark after a certain period where it goes unused. That means that I monitor sound levels at the beginning of a recording and then hope all continues well once the screen goes dark.

Also, since the unit has a hard disk drive inside, it is not strictly solid state. I’ve discovered that if I place the recording unit and the microphone on the same surface, the Archos periodically spins up its internal drive to write the new audio data to disk. That motion is picked up by the mic as an extremely low hum. But no system is perfect, and I just make sure that the two are not on the same surface when I make a recording.

If I were buying a system today, would I buy the same thing? Even though I’m very happy with my setup, I would not buy the same thing. Flash memory prices have come down, and the Samson Zoom H4 is a nice all-in-one that I’d find awfully compelling if I were starting from scratch. The Zoom H4 can act as a field recorder on its own, or act as a USB mic and record straight to disk. The announced and “shipping real soon now” Zoom H2 offers similar capabilities at a reduced price; it has a sophisticated built-in mic and the ability to record to 4GB disks or straight to computer. Either one of these gives a lot of bang for about half the price that I paid for my setup. (Note: I’ve only done a tiny hands-on test of the H4 in a trade show booth, and have not laid eyes on the H2, so I state my druthers sight unseen, and equipment unused.)

What about you? What is your budget range? What is on your list of “must haves”?

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on June 28, 2007 in • AudioAudio: Hardware
4 CommentsPermalink

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Comments

thank you, have been searching selling and manufacturers sites most of today and they all lack a users sense of what you want.
I have been working in community radio and oral history through all the changes of technology from reel to reel through cassette and it is sad that mini disc has now faded out so the need to keep up but buy wisely is key.
Timing and testing by users still seems to be not part of marketing products rationale so your thoughts and advice are worth a long plunge into netland..

thanks again

Now to make the right choice…............

Roger Drury

Roger Drury  on 08/07  at  08:53 AM

I have been using a ZoomH4 for just under one year.  I LOVE IT!!!!  While it has way more features than I’ll ever use, (Like guitar amp features), the built in mics have a spectacular audio quailty.  The standard AA batteries last a long time.  I’d recommend the ZoomH4 as the price continues to come down.  I bought mine from http://www.minidisco.com.

Dave Boeve
http://www.AudioMemories.org
Hamilton, Michigan

David Boeve  on 09/10  at  04:37 PM

I love my H4, but realistically it gives me a little too much line noise in the recordings. If I were pickier, I would be really unhappy.

However, for simple speech and convenience of an all-in-one package, it rocks!

Vinny  on 09/29  at  10:44 AM

I’m try to write a grant to purchase equipment in developing an oral history group in our school. If you can give me all the information I will need for this would be great.  I’m also wanting to know if there is a program that will type dication for a reacorder or do I have to hire someone to translate the interview for me.
Any info would be great.  I trying to get this done by May the 1st.
Jan

Janice Moore  on 04/22  at  01:56 PM

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