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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-06-28

The Times They Are a Changin': The Path to an Audio Bliss
Not Being Ignorant Will Help You to a Merry Way.

By Nick Layman

Photo by Nick Layman

Photo by Nick Layman

This compact audio recording devices can easily fit in a bag with ease with room to spare for a smaller shotgun mic. It also has a built in microphone and looks much like a taser.
When I told my family I was getting into photography they bought my first film SLR it was Nikon N90. My grandpa bought it for me to start my career for $250. After dabbling in the darkroom it was time to go digital and I plopped down the thousands of dollars for the camera body and lens. When my grandpa asked how much that outfit cost I just told him the price of everything. His response was, "Mijo, that is a lot of money but it's a good investment."

Now enter this new realm of multimedia production with journalists carrying mics, audio recorders and still/video cameras. The new endeavors are getting pretty pricey to keep up with the times and some people are buying the most expensive audio and microphone set-ups to get the results from gathering audio.

The Old School Devices aka Analog
When I was starting out in my radio station days the studio had an old cut and splice reel-to-reel recorder for the reporters. A couple old school reporters still used razor blades and tape to edit their audio. The cut and splice method is the most extreme audio editing and almost absolute. At the radio station we had three types of recorders that would be issued to the staff. There was the DAT machine, MiniDisc and cassette recorder. Keep in mind that these analog machines need a quality sound card to prevent hissing and other audio malfunctions. Below you will find the pros and cons of each machine from my own experience.

DAT Machine
PROS: This thing is like the Nikon F5 it's a tank and indestructible with its all-metal frame. If you go to a community radio station chances are you will see the scuffs of being dropped and kicked across the ground. The great thing about these machines is they are just tough and durable. Dropped from a stuffed car to a reporter tripping over the mic cord and flinging the machine across the auditorium after a press conference, close to nothing will stop these machines from recording.

The sound quality is pristine and some machines have time coding on them if you are using a DAT deck for loading your audio into the computer. They have input/output source to feed the audio into the desired source for dumping audio.

Some DAT portable machines have two or more XLR inputs for microphones and it makes it very easy to record natural sound and the voice actualities. Also, some have phone inputs for recording phone interviews. This type of recorder is for in depth documentary work or the gear head that wants everything to sound pretty.

CONS: Most DAT machines are heavy and won't fit in a waist pack or backpack without adding a couple pounds to the waist. They are also very long in length and can put your personal waist weight limit to the extreme and POP a herniated disc.

The other draw back is carrying around tapes for the machine and they are found at most music stores but are becoming harder to find. This type of machine is meant for the photojournalist working at one place and on a long-term project.

Price: They also cost a little above $400 for a used one and I have seen some as high as $1200 for a new one.

Mini Disc
Remember when the different electronic companies tried to market the mini disc recorders as the new wave to listen to music and it was going to make our lives easier. People would carry their portable mini disc recorders around with a pouch of mini discs that held Barry Manilow, Blink 182 and Barry White for those special occasions with the lady friend.

PROS:This petite little thing can fit in any shirt pocket or small little Velcro strap that can be put on an arm. Audio can be recorded with recorder input and the audio can be laid down on multiply tracks. A mini disc can fit up to 90 minutes of audio on one disc and they are the size of a palm. The buttons are fairly easy to navigate and most disc recorders have an instant recording start up.

Photo by Nick Layman

Photo by Nick Layman

The mini-disc was going to change the world for consumers by allowing them to have a disc full of their favorite songs. It also had the same promises for the audio journalist but problems such as saving over tracks caused setbacks.
A screen display shows the level input and an audio producer can make sure the levels aren't being over modulated or being to low. The screen will also display the recording time left on the disc and give battery life for user. For the most part these are very easy to use and a person can drop the batteries in and go.

They have now made HD Mini disc recorders that can record audio on a mini disc and make it easy to drag and drop audio into a storage device. This new feature cuts down on the real time play back into the computer.

CONS: They are made of plastic and can't take a beating like the DAT machine and some of the parts are very delicate. The battery door is one of the delicate pieces and I lost the door in a Mojave Desert windstorm. If a person loses this part it will take weeks to get the door since its on backorder. Sometimes it will be on back order and not worth the wait to get the door.

When recording there can't be any battery failure or the audio will be lost. Back to the flimsy door issue if that flings open and ejects the batteries on to the floor you can kiss that beautiful interview good bye. I have seen some audio producers use gaffers tape to make sure there isn't a battery door malfunction. But I have also seen producers lose their audio because of this failure and they angrily inserted profane word 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 followed by a door slam. Don't worry folks it wasn't live or the FCC would have collected a lot of money from our station.

Maintenance is the key and making sure the heads are clean and the discs are properly writing the audio. Usually if I hear some weird noises and the device trying to write itself for more than five minutes there is some trouble in audio land. The mini discs are usually good for 200 uses then its time to use them as beverage coasters. But it also depends on the usage of the disc and overall care of the disc.

Price: You can find deals on mini disc recorders on Internet auction sites and a person can spend anywhere from $80 to $450 for a quality recorder. The $80 ones can be fairly used and expect to get low miles out of them.

Cassette Recorder
I will be honest and say the only time I used the cassette recorder was to play back some interviews a producer had gathered. But for the most part cassette recorders are hardly used but if you're the retro 80s journalist and want to play some Billy Idol on the way to your assignment before recording anything be my guest. The also have a phone jack to plug in for the option to record phone interviews.

I didn't really like the sound quality of the tapes and wasn't to impressed with the analog counter giving time codes. The drawback with these is the tape can get caught in the heads and not allow a proper recording. Also, the heads need to be cleaned if a person is constantly doing assignments.

Price: New $400 Used $299

Photo by Nick Layman

Photo by Nick Layman

Certain tape and DAT machines designed like this make it possible to record phone interviews, long format interviews and pristine audio quality. The drawback is the bulkiness but it will take one heck of a beating before it dies out on you.
Digital saved the multimedia star
Finally the audio producers dream has come true with the totally digital recording device. Many companies are making the SD and Compact Flash card recorders. I love the idea of coming in from an assignment and able to dump the audio files with a super quick USB cord. The above-mentioned recorders would take time because I would have to pour through the audio and find the sound bytes. Imagine an interview that lasted one hour that is one hour of audio dumping, so go make a sandwich; check the AP wire and follow up on story leads.

PROS: The ability to have digital audio at the tip of your hands is incredible and making the workflow time immensely decreases. There are different types of recorders that allow the different features, sizes and digital media storage. Some have the bells and whistles allowing people to have multiply mic inputs and being able to record on the fly. The one I own is very easy to use and has a fast start up time.

Many companies are making digital recorders and the audio producer can pick their favorite one after reviewing the different specs and making some test recordings.

You don't need a wicked sound card to input the audio it just transfers from your device to the computer. Thus, making it less frustrating by not getting distortion from dumping your audio from a recorder through a line in port. Also, different formats can be selected for the producers needs.

CONS: The market is flooded with the different digital recording devices its tough to find the right fit by just reading the companies website. Some are too big to fit into a waist bag and can take up a lot of room in the bag.

Some have slow start up times making it painful to hear beautiful sound opportunities disappear into the air.

Some recorders have their little quirks of recording to soft or to "hot," meaning to loud. Others have a small hiss in the background that many people wouldn't catch but a seasoned audio producer would hear. The Internet is full of reviews for these devices and proper research can yield a great purchase.

Price: $99 to $1000
It is very easy for a person to get into the audio gathering business and if a person is on a shoestring budget the devices you can pick up will be under $200 if you pick up a mic. If you have the money to drop on a recording device, shotgun and omni directional mic you can get the whole package for under $500.

Do your multimedia project a favor and please don't record on the back of the built-in mic and use headphones to monitor sound going into the machine you decide to buy.


(Nick Layman is a freelance journalist based out of Albuquerque, N.M. He works for different publications and the local NPR station. He specializes in multimedia productions with photos.)

Related Links:
Layman's member page

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