I'm cross-posting this to the Ampex and ARSC lists since both have had
discussions recently about field recorders.

Digital solid-state recorders are definitely where news-gathering is moving.
At AES were two very interesting devices. Each may or may not be adequate
for music work, but they'd sure simplify field interviews. I'd argue the
second one, in particular, would be perfectly fine to capture a rehearsal or
club gig and could also take an unbalanced feed from a soundboard (ie a
headphones feed).

First was an omnidirectional mic with a built-in 1 gig flash recorder from
HHB (might be HBB -- I don't have the literature at this location and I get
confused which they are). That will be on sale by the end of this year. It
can record up to 48/16-bit, but their initial release did not include
44.1/16! The sales guy assured me and a lady from one of the Canadian
broadcast outfits that the final version will include CD-standard audio
since, it turns out, many broadcast plants are standardized on that format.
This one seems very much geared toward the radio reporter with a hand-held
mic. I would use it for interviews, but some insist on lav mics so it would
not be for them. Note that 1gig is it -- no removable media. There's a
reason for that, see below.

The other one that caught my eye was Nagra's new unit. It's about the size
of a microcassette recorder, but 1/3 or less the weight and no moving parts.
Runs on 2x AA batteries. Nice big screen and very easy user interface. This
unit has a stereo pair of electret mics plugged into the top. You can unplug
them and have an unbalanced stereo mic input, and next to it an unbalanced
stereo line input. No phantom power, of course, but obviously some battery
power for the standard-issue electrets. I have some experience with a
similar setup on an MD recorder and this setup captures far more audio far
better than you'd think, but the picky will not like it. Of course, on an MD
recorder the mics usually pick up transport noise, which will not be a
problem here. The user interface is clear and easy, and you can edit and
insert timing marks right in the device. Built-in 1 gig of flash memory.
Being a Nagra, it lists for $1000, which is pretty steep for what it is, but
it's built like a Nagra so it'll last in the field.

So why not removable media? Both sales people told me that 2 AA batteries
was the power the units were built for and that's not enough to power
CompactFlash for hours of recording. Plus, news departments lose removable
media and the word from on high in broadcast journalism was -- nothing a
reporter can lose, misplace or have their kids grab from their bag to use in
the digi-cam. Both of these units plug in via USB and mount right up as hard
drives for MacOS or Win2k/XP. I think the Nagra comes with some
editing/export/import software.

For my needs, the HHB unit is non-ideal and the Nagra is too expensive. But
I'm hoping someone designing a $300 unit will look at the feature sets of
these two and do one for the rest of us. I've decided the current crop of
$400 units (M-Audio/Edirol/others) are too ambitious for their price points
and could do simpler units that work better. I don't really care about the
weight/bulk of 4xAA batteries if that gives me CompactFlash, so in that way
the M-Audio and Edirol units are a better fit.

I am pretty confident that this is the way portable recording is going, so I
think the next generation of devices out in 6-12 months will offer better
form-factors and more appropriate features and interfaces, probably for less
cost. So I plan to wait and see.

-- Tom Fine