Holiday Gadgets I’d want if I were just beginning

The fun of watching the portable audio gadget market is that there’s always something new. So the decisions on what to get if you’re starting from zero are different today than if you were deciding 6 months or a year ago. It’s also different to decide when starting out fresh than when you’ve got other gear that you want this item to work with. If I were starting out today with a few hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket and a desire to interview my relatives about their lives, what would I buy?

I’d try to get a recorder that had the essentials: Ability to record directly to WAV file format (uncompressed CD-quality audio or better; MP3 is compressed and lossy), quick transfer to computer, easy to setup and start recording, and, if possible, a decent microphone. Oh, and all for a price that won’t kill me.

The price of your main gadget is not the final “when the smoke clears, how much will I spend?” price. You have two (maybe three) items to add to it: The price of media (if it’s flash memory), and the price of microphone. And batteries. When I bought my portable recording kit, I went for a small disk-drive based player and recorder (20GB capacity). The money I saved not having to buy flash memory cards I turned around and plunked into a higher-quality microphone. No matter what gadget you look at, you’ll always spend a little extra.

Portable Recorder

But if I were starting from scratch, right here, today, I know what I would buy: The Zoom H4 Handy recorder (of course, I say this having only tested it on my visit to the Portable Media Expo, not having used it myself. So take it with a grain of salt. I hope 2007 will be the year of hands-on product reviews.) Why? At a street price of $299, it’s a hundred bucks under its competitors. It has decent built-in directional microphones. It records in high-resolution format (CD-audio quality or better) with direct transfer to the computer. The digital media card that it take is SD media. The highest capacity card is 2GB. (You can fit about 1.5 hours of conversation (in stere) on a single 2GB memory card.) One of those cards costs under can be had for under $50. For the price of the other flash-memory recorders, which cost $100 more, you can buy the Zoom and two 2GB cards, which ought to get you through a long session recording your relative’s memories. 

It’s a couple of weeks early to make new year’s resolutions, but I resolve in 2007 to get my hands on these units to test out and review, so that I can speak with better authority than I have.

Zoom Handy H4: Available at Amazon (there’s a good review that compares the zoom with another one. The Zoom didn’t win out, tho), or at the Sound Professionals.

USB microphone

Since I began looking at recording equipment, I’ve gotten a nice portable 12” powerbook, and the advent of podcasting has sparked innovations in portable audio recording. So, say you want to ditch a recorder altogether and just record straight to your computer. What should you get?

A USB microphone. One end is the microphone and the other end plugs into the USB port of your computer. You use audio software and your copious available disk space to hold the recording.

There are two I have my eye on, both from Sampson:

The C01U (for 60-70 bucks) is the Samson CO1U USB Condenser Microphone (also available together with a shock mount) Samson Studio Condenser USB microphone. It has a single pickup pattern: Directional (or cardiod).

Its slightly larger brother, the SAMSON AUDIO C03U - Multi-Pattern USB Studio Condenser Microphone (price near $130) is a USB condenser microphone that has three pickup patterns you can choose between: Cardiod (directional), Omni (all sound from everywhere) and Figure-8 or bi-directional pickup patterns. That’s more versatile and you can select the pickup pattern to suit your situation. having a conversation with one other person in a noisy room? Use the Figure 8 pattern. If the room is quiet, make it omnidirectional, to pick up all the sound. Or pick up sound from one directional source with the directional cardiod pickup. And you can get it together with a shock mount, too.

I think that this latter USB microphone will be my next purchase. I did try out both of them at the Portable Media expo. But that was only a test, “hey talk into this and see how it sounds afterwards.” I’d like to try it out in my own settings.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 16, 2006 in • AudioAudio: Hardware
6 CommentsPermalink

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Thanks, Susan. I gather the tech continues to be a bit of a moving target?

Hal  on 12/18  at  08:38 PM

Yes, and it has been ever since the Atari days! tee hee!

When I first looked at this space, there was the ~$600 marantz PMD flash recorder. Then Edirol promised to ship something that cost in the $400 range, the Edirol R-1. That was followed a while later (1.5 years?) with the Edirol R-9. In the meantime,

Podcasting’s advent has helped speed things up. One thing I haven’t even gotten into are the digital voice recorders by the likes of iRiver and Olympus. Olympus records in its own proprietary file format, and I forget what formats there are for iRiver. The iRiver has gone thruogh a couple of product cycles where the classically cool model has been obsolete for a while, now. kinda like the 12-inch powerbooks. A great thing if you can still get your hands on one of ‘em.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 12/18  at  11:49 PM

Thanks for the reply!

> it has been ever since the Atari days!

Yes, indeed. I tried to put a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ smiley in that first comment, but I must have munged it.

Hal  on 12/19  at  12:32 AM

I envy those who have relatives close enough to interview. All of mine are across the pond so its snail mail, e-mail etc, apart from the occasional trip back.
Happy New Year!

Cameron  on 12/30  at  10:29 AM

Cameron, there was a fabulous introductory write up of recording calls when using Skype or Gizmo Project. It was sumbitted for the Carnival of Genealogy I did in November:

Juliann of Roots Rookie wrote a post called Recording phone calls over the internet, where she writes up her research for how to do it.

Methinks I should actually do it and write up a step by step how-to and post it on this site. But in the meantime, go check out what she has to say… and a Happy New Year to you, too!

Susan A. Kitchens  on 12/30  at  12:26 PM

Thanks Susan. I like the look of “Gizmo Project”. I think it will be very useful if you posted on your step-by-step idea.

Cameron  on 12/31  at  08:48 AM

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