Mark A. Sicoli, May 2010
Some notes on Basic Audio
Solid state digital recorders called PCM recorders are standard equipment (pulse code modulation refers to the way the audio signal is encoded digitally). The units can plug into a USB port to transfer the digital files to your computer’s hard drive. Even so I like to use a separate (inexpensive) card reader for transfering because the transfer rates are many times faster with a card reader. Separate microphones are generally not needed because the solid state technology has no moving parts to make machine noise for the internal mic to pick up (often the reason to use an external mic with DAT, hard drive, and videotape recorders). With all these recorders it’s recommended to use them on their batteries rather than plug into AC power. Recording humm can be introduced by the AC-DC transformers. The prices have been coming down since the technology is not so new anymore, so recorders that encode in uncompressed WAV formats can be found between $180 and $300.
Edirol R-09hr. This is a pocket sized solid state digital recorder (PCM) that uses SD memory. It has been redesigned with sturdier construction and better battery door from the previous model (R-09) and now includes a wireless remote control so recording can be started or stopped without having to fiddle directly with with the unit. It fits in a shirt pocket is light and unobtrusive. Its looks are simple which is a good thing since some of these small devices are designed to look more like stun guns. It can also take external microphones through 1/8 inch stereo input. One reason I have choosen the Edirol R-09 over other recorders in the past is the record-pause feature which allows pausing when recording. Most other units only allow pause during playback. Record-pause is useful when recording many short segments as for example with a dialect survey. Rather than multiplying the number of tracks every time you want to stop recording, it allows the same track to be paused and restarted when recording. The price tag is about $280-300.
Another option in a similar recorder is the Olympus LS-10 PCM recorder. This is a very solid unit, also small enough to fit in the pocket, takes SD memory and can connect to a computer USB port. The screen is a bit larger than the Edirol which is nice. It looks a bit higher tech with aluminum microphone nubs projecting out of the unit, but when the mics are covered with their foam covers they more or less blend in. Also has 1/8 inch stereo jack for an external microphone. This machine also has a record pause function. Simply hit the record button while recording to pause the machine. A nice feature is that the LS-10 has internal memory so if you forget the SD card or fill it up you can still record for a while. I have seen it listed a bit cheaper than the Edirol for around $180-250
Olympus also makes several “dictation quality digital recorders” around $100 or less that may be useful for recording interviews without the thought of ever conducting close conversation analysis or acoustic analysis. These types of recorders record in a compressed format WMA (windows media audio) and do not record in uncompressed WAV format which is the standard for archiving and which is the most flexible. Since we don’t yet know what questions we will have of our recorded data in the future, I recommend always recording uncompressed. Even for “only interviews”, if you can spend just a little more money for a PCM recorder that records WAV format and which will have much better built in microphones than these dictation machines, you will thank yourself when listening to many hours of recordings later.
The Zoom H4n is another PCM recorder that looks a bit more alien than the others with two mics projecting from the top side and crossing over (the stun gun look). It’s also a bit bulkier than the others. The nice feature of this recorder is that it has XLR inputs for studio microphones and 1/4″ jacks as well (the others have 1/8 stereo connectors for external mics). I know for some applications like using certain headset mics the XLR capability is nice. Mac users take caution: I’ve read that, believe it or not, when connected as a USB the ZoomH4 doesn’t mount to Macintosh computers to transfer files without installing extra drivers, or you could buy a separate card reader. Prices start about $300.
I’m not sure if this machine allows record pause (the smaller ZoomH2 does not. The H2 is not recommended for this and other reasons).
Marantz has some units that allow XLR microphones. Generally I haven’t found them to be worth the extra bulk and much higher prices. Some people have experienced recording failures where periodically a track just doesn’t get written with a Marantz.