Thursday 28 May 2009

Ghetto quality Field Recorder.

Hey so, one of my hobbies is field recording. I'm the geek who you will see sat at train stations with a microphone, or on the sea front trying to capture the sound of the sizzle that the sea makes, as the sun's rays hit it. I'm a geek. A power geek. I haven't been laid in years.

So, being poor, I haven't been able to afford the current line of digital audio recorders like the Zoom H2 (£160), the Edirol R-09hr (£300), or the M-Audio Microtrack II (£190). These cool things are handheld small devices that record onto digital media cards, and they do it at high quality...At least 16bit/44.1khz frequency, which is considered CD audio quality. Some do 24bit/96khz which is often broadcast quality.

My setup, being Ghetto, has been a Sony MZ-r909 minidisc recorder, which I got on ebay for £6.

It records using sony's 292kbps ATRAC format, which is similar in quality to 320kbps Mp3 format. The minidisc devices are a hidden bargain in many ways for field recordists. They have a powered (1.5v) stereo mic input, and adjustable pre-amp to set your levels, sound level meter with clipping display, and you can monitor your sound while you record. It can also take simple AA size alkaline batteries. Perfect for being out and about trying to record anything you wish, without fear of dropping it and losing £300 in the process.

The problem with this minidisc setup, is that unlike the new digital recorders, it doesn't record 'CD quality' uncompressed .wav files at 16bit/44.1khz. The minidisc also has an anoying flaw in that, if you wish to transfer your recordings to your computer, you have to do a real-time recording using your sound card input, and the play button on your minidisc. This can take a while in most cases, and also you may mess up the sound volume levels during transfer. I wasn't bothered at first, but it started to annoy me after a while, being a lazy ghetto bum.

So, I had a dream one night that lit up an idea. I thought:

"what if I use my old ipod, and the microphone dictation adapter that I used to record my university lectures with as a recording device and use the minidisc as a preamp to power my microphone?"

This way, I could record directly to my ipod in 16bit/44.1khz .wav files, as opposed to ATRAC, and then just plug in the ipod and drag & drop the file to my computer. So, what did I do....

I learned that my ipod can be loaded with a new operating system called Rockbox, which can record in .wav, .aiff and .mp3, and has adjustable gain controls and pre-record features just to name a few. So, I gave it a try.

It does work very well, but the problem I had was with the right audio channel producing a 'pulsing hiss' when recording, which wasn't what I needed. A sample of the Hiss is here. I want clean pure recordings!!! The setup I am using is:

-Sony MZ-r909 Minidisc (As a microphone preamp)
-XtremeMac Micromemo adaptor (As an audio line-in for the ipod)
-5g ipod (As a recording device)
-Rockbox (As recording software)

After some beard scratching, I figured out a way to eliminate the 'pulsing hiss'. I went through it procedurally: It wasn't my microphone, it wasn't my minidisc, neither was it the micromemo adaptor. It was either the rockbox software, or my ipod.

So, My compromise now was, trading in the rockbox software which has multi-format recording options, and adjustable gain levels, and using the ipod's standard recording program that comes on when you plug in the micromemo adaptor. This alone records in the desired .wav 16bit/44.1khz format, but it doesn't have adjustable gain control. However, as my minidisc does, I can use that and just line-feed the sound to the ipod. Also, you can't use the ipod headphone jack to monitor your audio as you record using the standard ipod recording software, which is unfortunate. You have to plug into the minidisc and watch the level meter there.

But you know what? After all this experimentation...I've got a solution, and it works.
I have my 16bit/44.1khz .wav field recorder, which can just drag & drop. And, i've done it with things that I already had, so my cost is £zero.

You can pay up to £180 for an Alesis Protrack adapter for your ipod, to do the same thing as this Ghetto recorder.

In Conclusion....

If Rockbox develop the recording facility on the 5g ipod so that it doesn't hiss, records in 16bit .Flac format. It will be perfect for my needs.

What I have learned during this process is that:

-It's all one big tradeoff: live monitoring -or- 16bit .wav, drag & drop -for- real-time transfer, Atrac -or- .wav, stereo ipod -or- clear-left/hissy-right channel rockbox. No system, not even the digital recorders are perfect 'killer' devices.
-Rockbox is going to be a great recording system eventually. Maybe it just didn't work for me? If anyone has similar problems please let me know, and likewise any bug fix ideas.
-The 5g ipod can't record in 24bit/96khz audio due to either it's hardware or software.
-the digital age is a great experimentation opportunity.
-Sony & Apple are mosters when it comes to restricting your ability to transfer audio, or record. Solely to protect their music industy monopoly.

So, what is my killer device?
-live monitoring
-powered inputs
-replaceable battery
-multi format recording (.wav, .Flac, .aiff)
-up to 24bit/96khz
-digital media card

If you would like to hear a field recording sample that I made using this setup, see here.

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