Bob Zilly of Longmont, Colorado describes himself as a “casual and opportunistic” recordist. I’m excited to profile Bob in this first post of 2010 not only because he’s a terrifically nice guy, but also because I think his recording style and equipment will appeal to many readers who might like to get into audio recording in a relatively quick, easy, and inexpensive way.
Bob uses the simplest kind of digital recording device: handheld voice recorders. No external microphone, no headphones, no cords or cables to worry about (unless you want them). At right you can see his two rigs:
Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder (right). This thing retails for well under $100. It records only in a compressed format (WMA), which won’t do for some audio purists, but it really doesn’t distort bird sounds either, as far as I can tell. For someone who just wanted to dabble in recording — say, brushing up on the local songs, documenting the occasional rarity, maybe even determining a crossbill type from time to time — this model would be ideal.
Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder (left). For a couple hundred dollars more, this machine allows higher-quality recording, eliminating the compression that MP3 and similar formats introduce. Both this and the above recorder can be operated with an external shotgun microphone if desired.
Here’s what Bob had to say about why he records, and how he likes his equipment:
Several years ago I bought a digital voice recorder to replace pen and paper for keeping lists. I found that while playing back the recordings I could sometimes hear the bird I was talking about. After that I would sometimes record the sounds of birds that I didn’t know in order to help identify them.
Mind you, voice recorders certainly have limitations. The microphone’s pickup pattern is less than desirable and I often hear airplanes, insects, and handling sounds on my recordings. I sometimes yearn for a shotgun or parabolic mic to pick up faint sounds and exclude background noise — but then again my equipment fits in my shirt pocket and I can be recording in the time it takes to pull it out of my pocket and press a button. I don’t usually go out specifically to record bird sounds but since the recorder is always in my pocket I can record whenever an opportunity presents itself.
I also recently bought a true high-fidelity pcm recorder (the Olympus LS-10) but I’m still just using the built in microphones and have just started playing around with it. Jury is still out on whether I like it. I tried setting record levels manually on some quiet sounds and this led to lots of amplifier noise because I had to crank the levels up a lot to see anything on the VU meters. Later I tried using the auto record level function but then the quiet sounds were barely audible. I think my voice recorder did a better job. I’ll play with it some more but I may have to think about getting a shotgun mic and possibly an external preamp too so I can use line in.
It’s true, of course, that the single most important piece of equipment in a recording rig is the microphone, and these handheld recorders don’t have the best built-in microphones; they’re designed for a human voice at a distance of a couple of feet, not a Song Sparrow 80 meters away. But for those who simply want basic recording capabilities when the opportunity arises, these things can work pretty well, as this recording by Bob shows. I’ll let him introduce it:
I was visiting my mom in Illinois and woke up at 4:00 AM and heard this guy. I just opened the window and grabbed the voice recorder. The hum is from the building next door, not the recorder. Because of the hum and the bugs its not the best recording but rather an example of how opportunistic you can be with simple equipment.
Not too shabby! Here’s hoping that Northern Cardinal helps inspire others to follow Bob’s lead and get into recording, even if it’s just the casual kind!