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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

15 July 2009

The London Sound Survey kit bag

SOMEONE ASKED RECENTLY about what digital recorder to get, and this prompted a quick rummage around the London Sound Survey kit bag to see what’s inside.

The first recordings were made with an Olympus LS-10. It’s very nicely built, and reflects Olympus’s expertise in making other desirable consumer goods. It has excellent battery life too, an easy-to-read display, and an internal 2Gb memory as well as a slot for SD cards. But what it’s not got is good line-in sensitivity, which is important if you’re using external mics with an external pre-amp. Verdict: ideal for journalists and probably good for sneaking into gigs too.

After that came the Edirol R-09HR. Build quality and ergonomics aren’t as good as the Olympus. The screen is hard to read in daylight. It gobbles up batteries. But it’s got adequate line-in sensitivity, less hissy internal mic pre-amps, and better bass response. Verdict: a recorder with a good sound, but try not to drop it.

I use two sets of external mics with the little recorders described above. One is designed to be head-worn, the other can be adapted to the same end.

First up are the Sonic Studios DSM-6S/EH omnidirectional condenser mics, made by Leonard and Debbie Lombardo in the US. They’re designed to be worn on the head, recording in what Leonard calls ‘dimensional stereo’. They’re not placed in the ears, so don’t really count as binaural, but instead are mounted just forward of the ears. At extra cost you can get a combination windshield and headband, making the mics look like a pair of headphones, which is handy. They won’t work on the 9-volt plug-in power supplied by small recorders, so you have to buy one of their own powering options, such as the PA-3SX preamp. Altogether the Sonic Studios set-up does a great job in busy environments. However, the versatile DSM-6S/EH mics have a self-noise level which isn’t suitable for the very quietest auditory scenes. (Sonic Studios also make a different model, the DSM-1S/H, with lower self-noise.)

The second set of small mics is a pair of Shure WL-183s. These are omnidirectional condenser clip-on mics designed for use on stage, but they’re good for field recording and have won approval from nature recordists. They have a sensitivity of 10mV/Pa and, despite their compact size, a decent self-noise rating of 23dB. You can create recordings similar to the ‘dimensional stereo’ of the Sonic Studios mics by fixing one to each side of your head with a woolly hat or pair of specs. Not quite as discrete as the Sonic Studios mics, but they won’t draw much attention in many outdoor situations. However, you’ll have to wield a soldering iron to make the two mic leads converge onto a single stereo jack. This web page shows how to get the wiring right. You’ll need to buy two TA4M mini-XLR jacks; they’re stocked by Bryant Broadcast in Croydon and cost about a fiver each.

Two more recent acquisitions are an Audio-Technica BP4025 single-point X/Y stereo mic and a Fostex FR-2LE field recorder. The mic uses large-diaphragm capsules and so has a low self-noise of around 14dB and good sensitivity of 25mV/Pa. I haven’t used it much yet but results are so far promising. Hopefully it’ll come into its own with a new site section you’ll be seeing soon. The Fostex recorder is a professional bit of kit with excellent internal pre-amps and, as you’d expect, superior spec all round compared to the smaller and cheaper recorders. It’s not pocket-sized, and together with the Audio-Technica mic with its Rode windshield-blimp, can hardly be used discretely. But they can all fit inside a small sports bag, so it’s an easily portable set-up which can avoid attracting the attentions of light-fingered or grabbing Londoners while en route.

The Rode blimp does what it’s supposed to in reducing wind and handling noise, but the build quality somehow doesn’t match the price. It’s in a similar materials and quality control league as one of those daft paint-with-no-drips gadgets you can buy at B&Q. The alternative is to buy a very expensive Rycote blimp, or make your own, as per the guide on Martin Paling’s website; the latter option is worth investigating before the former. The Rode blimp has a screw fitting on the base of its pistol grip, and a Manfrotto 088 adaptor will enable you to fix it to any cheap camera tripod.

Looking across these different setups, there’s a fortunate relationship between the recording quality of the equipment used, and the constraints on size and discretion imposed by different kinds of environment. Small mics and recorders with their higher self-noise do just fine in busy situations with a lot of background racket, and the bigger mic and recorder are ideal for more tranquil settings where being noticeable isn’t a problem.

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