Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Gear, Part 1: Digital Voice Recorders

I record all my interviews and all the conference sessions that I cover, and I've been doing so ever since I started in this profession 27 years ago. I'm just not fast enough at taking notes to get exact quotes down, and I also find that listening to a talk a second time enhances my understanding.

In that 27 years I've gone through somewhere between 6 and 10 recorders. At the start I was buying fairly cheap cassette recorders. They were bulky, the sound quality was lousy, and they tended to break in a year or two.

Then I bought a microcassette recorder. It was small, which was terrific, but the sound quality was even lousier. And although the microcassettes were much smaller than standard cassettes, they didn't stack as well, so they were more difficult to store and organize. And the recorders tended to break in a year or two.

Then I decided that I needed something of higher quality, something intended especially for journalists. Sony came out with a line of high quality Pressman cassette recorders. Although they used standard cassettes, they were hardly bigger than 2 or 3 cassettes. They seemed quite sturdy, with metal casings, and they had lots of neat features, the best of which was an index function. When someone came out with a good quote, I could push a button. When listening to the tape later, I could fast-forward until I heard a special sound, which marked the index location. The sound wasn't broadcast quality, but it was much better than I had been used to. These Sony Pressman recorders didn't come cheap--about $200. But they tended to break in a year or two. I went through four of them.

The last one broke in the middle of a meeting. On a Sunday. At a resort far from any big cities. It was 20 miles to the nearest open Radio Shack, where the only cassette recorder was this big bulky thing that cost $19.95. I considered myself lucky when it lasted for the remaining day of the conference.

It was at that point that I started looking into digital voice recorders. I quickly determined that Olympus made the ones that were best for my purposes. I ended up with an Olympus DM-1 (which is no longer made). I've had it for almost 4 years now, and I haven't had the slightest problem with it.

I think the main reason is that it has no moving parts. Cassette recorders have lots of moving parts, and they need to move with quite a bit of precision. If one little plastic gear in its guts gets a little bit out of alignment, the recorder is toast. But digital recording does not depend on moving a long magnetic ribbon past a recording head at a constant speed. Instead the sound information is digitized and stored on the equivalent of a flash drive; a SmartMedia card in the case of the DM-1. A single 128 MB SmartMedia card can store 22 hours at the highest quality setting (still well below broadcast quality), enough for an entire meeting.

Each separate talk can be a separate file, and within each file I can put up to 16 index marks. That makes it far easier to go straight to the talk I want to listen to, and then straight to the most interesting or quotable parts of that talk.

Then I download the files to my computer through a USB cable or with a card reader. And then I use the free software that came with the recorder to transcribe the recording. I also purchased a foot pedal that makes it even easier to transcribe. The recording plays as long as I keep the middle pedal pushed down, and stops the instant I lift my foot. And I've set the software to back up 2 seconds automatically, so when I put my foot back on the pedal it's easy to pick up where I left off. (The left pedal is fast forward, and the right one is reverse.)

The biggest drawback of the DM-1 is that the sound quality with the built-in mic isn't great. I've purchased an external Sony ECM-F01 Flat Mic, which helps a lot, although it's still no where near broadcast quality.

The Olympus DM-1 isn't being sold any more, which is too bad because I like its snazzy blue color. The ones out right now are pretty much silver or black. But I covet the top-of-the-line DS-50, which offers 275 hours of stereo recording and a removable stereo microphone. Unfortunately, I don't expect my DM-1 ever to fail.


Martina said...

What a great digital voice recorders video is very stagger.

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