Basics: What to Buy

From an email to Kevin Kelly for “The Whole Earth Review”

So you want to make a story for radio?

The first tool I’d recommend is our public radio website Transom.org, which covers a spectrum of Tools, Ideas and Practices. You’ll find recommendations for new gear here, but more than that, you find new voices and new ways of telling. It’s a performance space and master class with the likes of Studs Terkel, Sarah Vowell, Norman Corwin, Scott Carrier and lots of others. We’re quite proud of it (it comes from our non-profit group in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Atlantic Public Media) and it’s having a positive impact in public broadcasting.

As for gear, many people are using the small mini-disc recorders in the field these days. The portable mini-discs are teeny and cheap, but honestly I feel that’s their weakness. They break. Their tiny mic inputs get stressed. Humidity hurts them. If you want to hear something heretical in the digital age, I often still use an old analog cassette recorder, the venerable Sony TC-D5M, available used on EBAY; it is even repairable. It runs on D-Cells and is not subject to digital gremlins. It sounds quite sweet, if somewhat noisy compared to the silent sheen of digital, and I can almost ALWAYS RELY ON IT. I use portable DAT recorders too, but the best, the HHB, uses rechargeable batteries which, like all rechargeables, are inherently evil and programmed by the devil to fade at the moment they are needed most. I personally do not use Minidisc recorders, but they sound good for the money, which is why lots of people love them and, so… okay, I would recommend them for a good first machine. The model numbers change, but the Sony and Sharp units are the most popular, with the Sharp often preferred for their more flexible volume controls. And, HHB makes a really good but really expensive one. For specific mini-disc recorders, check the latest recommendations at www.minidisc.org.

For an all-purpose interview mic, I’d pick the Beyer M58. It’s a dynamic omni with a long handle for getting in CLOSE to the speaker’s mouth, which is REQUIRED FOR RADIO. It represents a good balance between sweet sound and indestructibility. Yes, it’s a bit expensive, but you won’t grow out of it. A cheaper alternative would be the Audio-Technica AT804. You need a windscreen for the mic, a set of headphones (Walkman-style will do), and the proper XLR-miniplug cable to connect the mic with the mini-disc recorder. The best cable has a right-angle plug which doesn’t stress the delicate input. Sonic Studios makes nice custom cables. In fact, their website sells a variety of portable rigs, configured and ready to go, plus lots of good advice for recordists. Check www.sonicstudios.com and a similar vendor www.core-sound.com.

Finally, I’d say the most remarkable new tool is Digidesign’s ProTools. ProTools is editing and mixing software. It replaces many bulky and expensive items of yesteryear, like the reel-to-reel tape recorders we used to edit on with razor blades (a lost and lovely skill), the multi-track machines and mixers which blended our sounds, the various outboard signal processing devices which improved the audio. Now it all comes in a little box for a few hundred bucks. Anyone raised around computers will get the hang of it quickly. It’s powerful stuff. Of course, you still have to have talent, smarts, and a good ear. Digital technology hasn’t changed that.

Digidesign has a free version, ProTools Free, which is just enough to get you hooked and make you want to move on to the hard stuff… which is NOT free, but still just a fraction of what it would have been only a few years ago for this kind of power in a digital audio workstation. It works best on the Mac.

With ProTools Free you can get sound in and out of a computer in the analog realm using inexpensive devices like the Griffin Technology iMic. Keeping it digital, however, can be tricky. There are lots of work-arounds that will get you started for little money (check the Transom.org discussion boards), but if you’re at all serious, you’ll be happier spending the few hundred bucks for the commercial ProTools package, which includes a hardware interface (it’s like an external audio card) allowing you make both digital and analog connections easily. Their MBox package is the cheapest of these – at about $450, with the fully enabled software included. One thing: the interface must be connected to your computer in order for the commercial version of ProTools to work.

For more on the MBox, check out Jeff Towne’s Unlocking the Mbox Article.

So, a good setup is an inexpensive portable mini-disk recorder, a Beyer M58 mic, the Digidesign MBox as the interface between the gear, with ProTools software installed on any recent Mac, even an iBook. An external firewire many-gigabyte drive is recommended but not necessary. This package gives you all the digital/analog ins and outs, plus astonishing editing/mixing/processing tools for creating fully professional stories or music. Burn a CD or rip an MP3 when you’re done, and share with the multitudes. At Transom.org, you’ll find youngsters and oldsters who are doing exactly this and are getting their stories on public radio. It’s a step in the direction of citizen access to mainstream media, when most steps are headed in the opposite direction.

~Jay Allison

Buying Resources

Mbox
$450 from www.sweetwater.com

Beyer M58 microphone
$220

Audio-Technica AT804 mic
$79
www.Bradleybroadcast.com
www.bwsonline.com

Mini-disc Recorders
$140
www.buy.com

Griffin Technology iMic
$35
www.griffintechnology.com

XLR to 3.5mm TRS Mini cable (and other accessories)Ê
$12
www.bradleybroadcast.com
www.sonicstudios.com
www.core-sound.com

ProTools Free
Free download at www.digidesign.com

Current Reviews of Mini-Discs
www.minidisc.org

 

Also on Transom…

Minidisc Guide
What you need to know when buying a minidisc recorder, and recommendations from professionals who would know.

Gear Guide
A description of audio hardware and software currently available on the market.

What Microphone Do I Get?
If you’re in the mood for some details to get you started, here’s some info to help narrow the search.

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