Side by Side comparisons of 3 audio recorders

This was supposed to be a simple, short entry. To avoid future disappointment, lets all just accept that I am a long-winded bugger and best read when you have a little time. I want to be pithy, I really do. I am just not genetically coded to do it.

Every so often, a question shows up on the Anthrodesign list asking about equipment recommendations. The latest query on the list has been about voice recorders. Here are three recorders side by side so you can hear the difference. Times have changed since I got my first Marantz PMD analog recorder at a thrift store. Little did I know my $30 purchase was then state of the art for people from NBC to NPR. I prefer digital recorders over tape now for the portability and because I can send our transcription service the audio files from the field as soon as I get back to the hotel.

But before looking at recorders, let’s understand why you’re using a digital recorder to start with. Like a lot of things you want to plan ahead. Is the resulting audio intended to be used as a soundtrack or documentary later? Maybe it’s strictly for note taking. Are you transcribing the recording yourself, or will you be hiring a transcription service to do it? I have different recorders because I record in a variety of situations.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the question of what kind of trade-offs are you willing to make for quality of sound versus ease of use. MiniDisc recorders will generally offer you a far superior recording quality, but are generally more complicated to use. Whereas something like a mini tape recorder is quite easy to use but the quality of the recording can range from unusable to mediocre. Remember that quality and clarity are not necessarily the same thing. Digital recorders are not designed to offer the highest level of recording quality of everything in the room they are optimized to provide clarity for speech.

On to the recorders! I just made some quick recordings in my living room. It has a couch, chair, a large plasma TV on one side and another wall is mostly window. This means it’s a smallish room with large slabs of glass on two sides and not much sound absorption. A pretty typical bachelor living room. The recorders were on a small table in front of the couch, I had the TV on low, about 4 feet away and the windows open to provide a little ambient noise while I sat about 5 feet away.

If there was an “autogain” setting on the recorder, I turned it off. I used to be a recording engineer and generally avoid autogain settings. Why? What audiogain does is lower or raise the recording level to keep some level of consistency. If what you are recording is very soft, it will try to make it louder. If it gets really loud, it lowers the recording level. This causes an effect referred to as “pumping and breathing” because it causes the volume to go up and down and that constant change makes the volume feel like is it going up and down all the time. This can give the listener the audio equivalent of motion sickenss. Have you seen a home video that is constantly being zoomed in and out? It’s painful to watch, that’s what autogain does to your poor ears. Studios are very controlled, but field recordings are very dynamic. You are in an interview and a truck rolls by, and the autogain will turn the mic way down, lowering the truck noise, as well as the entire interview. The person you are interviewing starts talking softly? Autogain cranks up the volume bringing the voice level up, as well as the birds, washing machine, and leafblower outside. This can happen multiple times a minute even in what you think is a quiet room depending on how sensitive the device. In short, a generally bad idea.

The Sony Minidisc Player and mic set-up I have is not the one pictured here, (the model I have is no longer in stock.). You can’t really tell in this recording, but minidisk recorders are great for recordings you want to use later as soundtracks that you want your audience to listen to without wincing. I made this recording with a Sony MZ-NH900 and a small Sony T-microphone (about 2 inches high) that plugged directly into the recorder. To get a better idea of the quality, here is a field recording I made of some girls singing in a town called Manebhanjan on the Nepal/India border. This used a similar set-up, a small simple mic but a Sharpe minidisk recorder. But quality has a price, namely learning to use one of these little darlings is far from intuitive, and you actually have to worry about things like recording levels. The software that’s included to get your audio from the recorder to your PC and from a proprietary format to a standard format are simply criminal in its design. If UI designers of the recorder or the software could be subject to class action lawsuits, they would be the equivalent of big tobacco. Great sound, but be prepared to invest some time to learn to really use it.

Okay, I got the Belkin TuneTalk at Brookstone exchanging a birthday gift. Here is the good news: built in stereo mics, can also use external mics, no software needed, you just plug it into the video iPod. You hit record and go. Take a listen 3.3mb. the files are .wav files from the git go and you just copy them from the iPod to the hard drive and go. The bad, hear for yourself. I think the quality blows. You get about 3 hours recording time on a fully charged 80gig video iPod. Sure, there is an Amazon link to it here if you want to try it out, but unless you already have a video iPod, I wouldn’t bother.

Ah, the Olympus DS 2 Digital Voice Recorder. Ok, this is what I use most often for the day to day work. Here is the living room test. only 88K The quality is good enough for transcription, in high quality mode records for four hours and you just plug it into a USB port and copy the .wav file off the device. The down side? In the standard play mode it uses a proprietary audio format that requires you to use the included Olympus software to download the files and convert them to .wav files. The software is of course a crime against god and man. Apparently after getting fired from Sony for the minidisc work, the UI designers moved to Olympus to shovel themselves in deeper.

People have also been suggesting the Edirol R-09 or 07 WAVE/MP3 Recorder. I would like to get a sound sample from it, and if you own product, feel free to e-mail me a 15 second sample. Based on the details from Amazon, it has an internal mic, does not use a proprietary format for the files, and uses widely available SD card storage. This is certainly a pretty spendy box, but a couple of folks on the Anthrodesign list swear by them. Besides, what costs you more: spending a few hundreds dollars on a nice bit of kit, or having a crappy recording of the best interview you have ever heard?

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.