Recordist Profile: Bob Zilly

Bob Zilly, 1/25/2009.

Bob Zilly, 1/25/2009.

Bob's two recorders.  Left: Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder; right: Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder.

Bob's two recorders. Left: Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder; right: Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder.

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.

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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!

8 comments to Recordist Profile: Bob Zilly

  • K. Cowcill

    That’s not bad at all! I have a 17 inch parabolic mike (bought from the late Dan Gibson), but when doing point counts it isn’t something I want to drag through some of the dense boreal forest in case I get a strange bird or unique song I’d like to record. I’ll have to look into this…and if it works with a shotgun mike, then that is still more portable than my parabolic dish.

    Incidentally, a handheld recorder would have been useful today. I heard strange noises in a tree as I was hiking through the trails to get into town (why drive when you can walk through the bush). The snow was too deep for me to walk off the trail to investigate so I stood there for 15 minutes till two birds popped into view. Pine Grosbeaks, male and female. I would have liked to have recorded their exchanges.

    Consider me inspired.

  • I hope that you will have Bob update us on the merits of his new LS-10 recorder compared to the VN-5200PC recorder. I look forward to it as I am already bogged down with camera equipment and would be interested in a simple but hopefully worthwhile one-piece recording equipment set-up.

  • Murray Lord

    If you want a simple one piece recording set up, have you considered a Remembird? http://www.remembird.com

  • Thanks for the tips above–I am still awaiting the day when these recording devices can tell me what bird it is–or present a list of suitable candidates.

    There was a consumer product out there (awhile back) developed by researchers at one time but it is no longer available and they told me they were working on a better product (this about 2-3 years ago). Still waiting. Gary

  • K. Cowcill

    If you buy an Olympus (or other recorder) be sure it can download the files to a computer. I suggested that the office supply small hand-held recorders for some of their field crews. Instead of buying the 5200 model to test, they bought the Olympus VN-6000 model. It has a larger recording capacity (1 GB vs 512(?)). However, the 6000 model cannot download the files to a computer. The 5200 model can.

    I’ve been testing the 6000 model anyway, and it isn’t too bad at all. I easily picked up the strange Chestnut-sided Warbler song from over 10 m/30 ft (wish I could download). It plays back clearly despite a lot of other background noise. Birds in the distance (REVI) could also be heard (wish I could download). The Brown Thrasher was loud and clear (as it should be considering the volume of the song). On playback it was lacking in timbre and sounded rather tinny rather than the more full-throated song I’m used to, but that was playing it using the recorder’s own speaker. Through good speakers it might sound a lot better (if only there was a way to download it). I even managed to pick up a Canada Warbler doing a subdued version of its song while it skulked in the underbrush (distance 3 to 4 m/10 to 14 feet).

    If these files were loadable (did I wish for that already?) it would be an easy matter to enhance them. This week I’ll have the office return this one and pick up one (or more) of the 5200 model. Right now they’re only 60 dollars CND (U.S. exchange has been hovering around par although today is .96 so it should be a similar price in the U.S.). For the price and for what they’ll be used for (incidental recordings of nearby birds as field crews go about other survey work in the far north) it seems to be a good deal.

    btw, I would like it if Bob updates us on his LS-10 recorder and how it compares to the 5200 recorder.

  • Luke Owens

    K. Cowcill,
    I have been using a hand held digital audio recorder with built in mics that I am quite happy with. The Zoom H2 Handy Recorder. It records on HDSC sound cards witch can be easily downloaded onto a computer. It is user friendly and good on batteries. It accepts an external mic (I recently acquired a Sennheiser ME66 and K6 power module) but I have been satisfied with the internal mics. I paid around $220 cdn for the H2 this past January.
    I am curious about the point counting project you are working on. I am a point counter working in the Sierra Nevada at present. Are you with Bird Studies Canada?

    Luke Owens

  • [...] the day, if you’re really interested in audio, then by all means buy a recorder — the Olympus VN-5200PC is hard to beat for the price — but if you’re in the field for other reasons and find [...]

  • I have been using the Olympus LS 10 recorder without outside microphone and feel it’s doing an excellent job. Bob Zilla’s photo of the LS-10 shows it without windscreens on the mics. I think they are very important. also getting the correct setting: Recording level 10, Low Cut ON and Mic Sense Low. I am also using Audacity, the beta version, as sound editor. It has an excellent noise removal tool. You can listen to several of my recordings here:
    http://tinyurl.com/2u7rqrr
    There are 2 bird song quizzes on the page – I am embarrassed to say that I misidentified a couple of recordings and was corrected by my readers.