Page 4 - ACCENT Aug 10
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4 ACCENT Special Edition - August 2010

Hand-held digital audio recorders                                                                             ü Primary
                                                                                                              ü Secondary
A practical guide to choosing the right one                                                                   ü Tertiary

Small, hand-held, professional quality audio           mics or shotgun mics (e.g. for later syncing with      the angle between the mics (as on the Zoom H4n)
       recorders are now common place. The first       video shoots or recording drama/stage plays).          is a useful feature. Varying the angle between 90°
       professional portable digital audio recorders                                                          and 120° also requires attention to mic placement
appeared around 15 years ago and used digital          Explaining the Features                                and distance from the sound source. However, such
audio tapes (DAT). While the sound quality was                                                                a feature can noticeably improve recordings of
excellent they had the disadvantage of previous        To make an informed choice it is important to          choirs, concert bands and orchestras.
tape-based analogue recorders... they had many         firstly understand the various features that are
moving parts and the recordings were linear. This      available and where they are most relevant. Here       Playback & Computer connection
meant that the tape had to be wound forward or         we present a short summary of features you will see    All the recorders have outputs for headphones and
backward to find specific recordings and transfer-     and the details you should note depending on your      connecting to a sound system or PA for playback.
ring to computers required playback in real-time.      intended use.                                          Some models have small speakers built-in, but
                                                                                                              these are only used as a personal monitor to confirm
Then came the mini-disc. These still had many          Audio quality                                          a recording or choose a particular track.
moving parts, but now the recording was nonlinear,     All recorders will record in uncompressed WAV au-
which meant you could go directly to a specific        dio at 16bit/44.1kHz ... which is CD quality. In fact  Playing through a sound system is most conveni-
audio recording in the same way as a CD. However,      most will record at higher levels, up to 24bit/96kHz   ent when you want students to immediately hear
audio quality was not as high as DAT (usually only     which is studio quality. All recorders will also re-   a recording just made. But all recorders can also
12bit audio compared to 16bit CD quality) and          cord as compressed MP3 audio, with quality levels      be directly connected to a computer (PC or Mac)
transferring to computer required special software.    ranging from “radio quality” (64kbps) to near CD       via USB. On the computer they will appear similar
                                                       quality (160kbps or higher).

But that’s all changed in recent years. Today’s        One recorder (Roland R05) will simultaneously          to a USB thumb drive and you can immediately
memory based digital audio recorders have              record in BOTH WAV and MP3, giving you two             playback audio files from the computer (they will
no moving parts and can record in CD quality           choices of quality and file size for later use.        automatically open in Windows Media Player,
(16bit/44.1kHz) and higher... as well as in a range                                                           iTunes or whatever your default player may be).
of MP3 quality levels.                                 As a general rule high quality MP3 files (160kbps)
                                                       are approximately 1/10 the file size of CD quality     Of course you can also drag the files to your com-
      So how do you decide which is                    WAV files.                                             puter for editing or use in other projects... including
      best for your particular needs?                                                                         burning to a CD, importing into an audio/recording
                                                       If you are recording for a video or CD, the higher     or video editing program or uploading as a podcast
In the chart opposite we have summarised the           quality WAV file is preferred. On the other hand, if   etc. The options are virtually endless these days.
brands and models (including a few new releases)       for spontaneous classroom recording and playback
that meet the various needs of educators... as well    or for a website, podcast, iPod/MP3 player or          Playback Controls
as many professionals, including TV/Radio broad-       general multimedia applications then an MP3 file of    Some recorders have playback controls specifically
casters, film makers and musicians.                    good to high quality (128-160kbps) is fine.            for learning and practising music. These include
                                                                                                              looping a section of a song and changing tempo
The first thing to keep in mind is that ALL of these   Finally, the higher audio quality (and usually higher  and/or pitch independently.
recorders are capable of very good audio quality.      cost) recorders also have quieter electronics. This
Play back a well recorded audio track on any of        can be very important if you are recording quiet or    Recording Level controls
them and the differences will be hard to pick ... but  more distant sources. If you need to substantially     Most recorders have simple pre-set level controls,
that does not mean they all perform equally. This is   increase the level AFTER recording (e.g. by “nor-      such as Low, Medium or High as well as Automatic
where you need to look more closely at the specific    malising”) then electronic noise can be a critical     Gain or Level options. These cover most common
features as well as what, where and why you are        issue.                                                 situations and make recording very quick and easy.
recording. And, finally, value vs the performance
you want.                                              Microphones                                            More advanced models allow you more control
                                                       Most important... while all the recorders come         which is particularly desirable for high quality
As is often the case, the equipment chosen by pro-     with condenser microphones (most built-in), they       recordings of musical performances that have wide
fessional users may have fewer features than lower     can vary considerably in sensitivity and frequency     ranging dynamics. You will get the best results if
cost “consumer” equipment. The more professional       response... and noise. While none are “bad”, they      you set recording levels manually... and turn any
models typically allow far more user control, rely     do perform differently under different conditions.     automatic features off.
less on automated features and hence can require       Smaller condenser mics in particular can be more
greater knowledge to operate... but they can then      easily distorted by high sound levels. They are also   Stereo vs 4-channel recording
produce superior results in a particular situation.    less responsive to low frequencies.                    Some recorders offer the ability to record up to
They may also allow for specialised external mi-                                                              4 channels simultaneously. The Zoom H2 for
crophones, including phantom powered condenser         If you are particularly interested in achieving        example includes 4 built-in mics and you can
                                                       optimum stereo recording then the ability to vary      choose the front pair, the rear pair or all 4 to

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