Intro from Jay Allison
TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne has been living and working with another of the new little digital recorders and just added his review to our roster. Like all Jeff’s reviews, it approaches the machine from the radio producer’s perspective, complete with lots of photos, sound tests, and a comparision chart. The Olympus LS-10, depending on your needs, is pretty close to the mark… and it’s cute, especially when it’s wearing its little earmuff windscreens.
from Jeff Towne
Olympus may be best-known for making cameras, but they have also made small audio recorders for many years. But until recently, those devices were focused more on small size, ease-of-use and long recording times than they were on audio quality. In most cases audio was recorded to highly data-compressed file formats that worked fine for dictation and voice memos, but fell short of broadcast quality.
But Olympus has made a major leap forward with the LS-10, combining the compact form and streamlined functions of a dictation machine with higher-quality microphones, signal path, and encoding formats. In doing so, they’ve created a device that’s a viable choice for reporters and field recordists, yet can still slide easily into a pocket. It’s a little longer than some, but amazingly slim in both width and depth. The case is made of aluminum, and feels sturdy in the hand, yet the LS-10 remains very lightweight. Their claim of “Studio Grade Recording To Go” and “better than a CD” sound might be overselling it a little, but the quality is surprisingly good for a recorder of this size and price (approximately $375.)
It can encode soundfiles in a variety of formats, from high-quality 16 or 24-bit uncompressed .wav files, to space-saving .mp3 or .wma files. The microphones and preamps are not the match of audiophile recorders many times the LS-10′s size and price, but it has surprisingly clean sound for something this small and affordable. The built-in stereo mics are good quality, well-suited to picking up ambience and environments, even passable as informal interview mics.
The LS-10 ships with small foam windscreens for those mics that snap firmly in place. Although they make the recorder look a little like Mickey Mouse, the firm fit inspires more confidence than many other slip-on windscreens. Although foam windscreens can sometimes muffle the sounds reaching the mic, in this case, the foam seems to balance the frequency response of the slightly over-bright microphones. Even with the foam covers, the mics are still somewhat susceptible to wind noise, even just from moving the recorder quickly, so care must be taken when using the built-in mics.
As is the case with most new compact recorders, the external mic and line inputs are minijacks, and there’s no digital input for interfacing with external converters. That minijack input means the LS-10 cannot provide phantom power to external condenser mics, but it can provide “plug-in power” to small electret mics that require it. The good news is that the external mic input is fairly clean and has sufficient gain to allow use with low-output mics like the dynamic omnis so popular with reporters.
Low-output mics, like the RE50, may not quite give as much level as is ideal, but the input gain is just high enough, and the noise floor is just low enough that credible recordings can be made with most microphones. Better quality is achieved with higher-output mics, such as self-powered condensers, but it’s a real advantage that the input gain is sufficient to get decent results with a variety of mics.
And best of all, the input gain is controlled by a hardware knob, not by up and down buttons, or in menus. That wheel is not as smooth or accurate as the one on the Sony D50, but it’s still better than up/down buttons.
Input gain and headphone level are controlled with hardware knobs, but there’s just not much space on this tiny case for too many other switches and buttons, so most adjustments are made via selections in menus. Thankfully the menu structure is fairly simple and easy-to-navigate. Moving around the menus is done with the up/down/left/right and select buttons on the silver disc in the center of the recorder’s face. Given the slim size of the case, this is easy to do with the thumb of the same hand used to hold it, even for those with relatively small hands. By navigating with the outer ring and selecting with the center button most anything can be adjusted with only a few clicks. All options are accessible by simply scrolling down, or one can jump to subcategories by tabbing through the icons on the left, signifying record, playback, display, memory and utilities.
Additionally, the fn button below the navigation wheel can be set to provide quick access to one of the menu items without paging through menus. So the screen for changing Record Mode, or switching between manual and automatic gain, or several other controls can be brought up with a single button press.
One of the major drawbacks of earlier pocket-sized voice recorders was that they only recorded in highly-compressed formats that degraded the audio fidelity of the source. The LS10 is capable of recording at very high resolution, in uncompressed .wav files, which is the preferred format for critical recordings. One could make an argument that 96khz/24 bit is overkill for a recorder with modest microphones, preamps and analog-to-digital converters, but being able to record at 44.1khz/16bit or higher is crucial for serious audio production, especially if the sounds will be edited and mixed.
For less-critical recordings, when long record times are more important than the ultimate sound quality, the LS10 can record directly to .mp3 or .wma. The mp3 resolutions are relatively high, and especially at the higher settings, they can create recordings that sound virtually indistinguishable from .wav files, with smaller file-sizes. But there’s a downside to that tradeoff. It’s tempting to try and cram more record time onto your memory card by using .mp3 or .wma, but it’s always risky to make primary recordings to any “lossy” format.
If files are compressed again later in the production process, for delivery or storage, unpredictable sonic degradation can result. So it’s always safest to make primary recordings in a linear PCM format, in this case, .wav. That said, it’s always good to have options, and the increased record-time offered by those compressed file-types could be a life-saver.
One option the LS10 does not offer is mono recording. All soundfiles are recorded in stereo, even if using an external mono microphone. It would be nice to be able to record mono files, which are half the size of stereo, as can be done on the Marantz recorders and some others. Luckily, the cost of flash memory continues to drop, so it’s not unreasonable to carry several large cards when long recording times are needed.
The LS10 has 2 gigabytes of built-in memory, which may be sufficient space for many users (over 3 hours of stereo 44.1khz/16bit .wav file recording) eliminating the need for flash-memory cards. If additional recording space is desired, there’s a standard SD card slot that will accept cards up to 8 gigabytes. When an SD card is inserted, the LS10 display will ask whether to use this new card or the internal memory as the default recording destination. Of course either can be chosen as the default from within the system menu at any time. When either memory location is full, recording will stop, it will not automatically cascade from one to the other.
Recordings are stored in folders. New soundfiles are automatically saved in folder A, unless otherwise directed, but five folders are available on both the built-in memory and the SD card, providing 10 directories for organizing recordings if desired. Each folder can hold 200 soundfiles.
Although the LS10 works fine with external microphones, stereo recordings using the internal mics are what this device is designed-for, and it’s quick and easy to get up-and running and recording good sound. The LS10 powers-up in about 5 seconds, one click of the record button puts the machine in record-pause mode so you can set input levels, a second click commences recording. Pressing record again will return the LS10 to record-pause. An obvious red light around the record button flashes when in pause, then glows solid red when recording. There is no way to start a new track or place markers in a continuous recording, one must stop and then press record again to create a new soundfile.
The LCD display is small, but offers all vital information on one screen. Filename, battery status, memory setting, remaining record time available on selected memory, record/play status, elapsed time, audio levels and record parameters are all on view, albeit in small characters. The screen is readable in all but extremely bright sun, and the backlight does a good job in dark environments.
The built-in mics are good, if not especially high-fidelity (their sound is a little edgy and over-bright) but they work very well for conveying a sense of being in a place.
The automatic gain control tends to pump the levels up and down audibly, as often happens, but for the most part it does an acceptable job of regulating the input gain. The limiter, only available when in manual gain settings, does a decent job of catching peaks. Some fast transients may overwhelm the processing and still clip, but overall the limiter sounds fairly decent, with a quick recovery time.
The internal mics would not be my first choice for critical interviews, but would work fine for informal voice recording, especially in environments where the speed and convenience of an all-in-one solution is preferable to wiring-up an external mic. For recording a voice, or another sound that will likely be used in mono in the final production, pointing one of the mic capsules directly at the sound source will give better quality than simply aiming the end of the recorder at it. When mixing, split the stereo soundfile into left and right, and only use the channel that sounds more present. If the background ambience is important, pointing the end of the LS10 at the subject and using that soundfile in stereo would be preferred.
The internal mics and some fancy digital signal processing allow for manipulation of the stereo pick-up pattern in a mode Olympus calls “Zoom Mic.” There are various settings, ranging from “normal” to “narrow” to “wide.” Engaging these functions causes phase and volume manipulations that highlight sounds in the center, or at the edges of the stereo field. It’s an interesting effect, but one that creates some artificial-sounding artifacts, so use these settings with caution. I tested it in a small, but noisy restaurant, speaking directly into the center of the built-in mics. In the “wide” setting my voice is barely audible, but sounds to my extreme right and left are picked-up vividly. In the “narrow” setting, those edges are less apparent and more focus is put on the middle of the soundfield, resulting in a more mono-sounding spread. In the “zoom” setting, the recording is effectively in mono, with primary focus directly in front of the end of the recorder. This may be useful in some noisy sonic environments, but unfortunately, all of the zoom-mic settings sound at least a little unnatural, sometimes demonstrating strange dynamic effects, as if a limiter or expander/gate was being applied. So consider carefully whether to commit to this sound or to use more conventional mic-positioning or post-production techniques to deal with troublesome ambience.
There are similar DSP-based effects available on playback, both reverb for simulating the sound of reverberant spaces, and “Euphony” which manipulates the stereo spread of the sounds. These effects are applied at playback, and do not affect the files themselves. There may be some utility to these, but any digital editing program can do this and more, so these playback settings are probably best left switched off.
Soundfiles can be auditioned with headphones, of course, but there are also two small speakers mounted in the back of the LS10, above the battery compartment. As should be expected, the sound is tinny and not very loud, but at those times when you’re sick of headphones, or if you need to play a sound for someone else, the speakers do a passable job.
Battery life is very good, recording 44.1/16bit .wav files I was able to get close to 12 hours on 2 alkaline AA batteries. Higher-resolution recording reduces that battery life somewhat. Rechargeable batteries may give even longer operating times, but cannot be recharged in the unit. The LS10 is not sold with an AC power cord, but one is available as an option.
Transferring files from the LS10 to a computer is straightforward: simply connect a USB cable from the port on the left side of the recorder to a USB port on your computer. The LS10 automatically enters file transfer mode, and will appear on your computer as an external hard drive. Within that hard drive icon, there are folders A-E into which recordings have been stored, and the recordings can simply be copied from there to whatever computer drives are desired. Data is transferred relatively quickly, the LS10 uses the USB2 High Speed protocol, but using an external card-reader is usually faster for moving files from the removable SD flash memory. If soundfiles were recorded to the LS10′s two gigabytes of built-in memory, the files will have to be transferred via the recorder’s USB connector.
For simplicity, size, and ease of use, the Olympus LS10 is near the head of the pack of recent flash media recorders. Its small size, quiet mic preamps, compatibility with external mics and long battery life make it very attractive to reporters and field recordists. Its inability to save memory space by recording mono files, and the internal mics’ sensitivity to wind are small annoyances. The lack of XLR mic inputs and phantom power can be a problem for some, but only the M-Audio Microtrack provides a good solution to that in a small size. The Marantz PMD 620 and Sony PCM-D50 have better mic preamps than the LS10, providing more gain for use with low-output mics, and a slightly smoother sound overall, but the LS10 sounds much better with external microphones than the Zoom or Edirol recorders.
The Olympus LS10 is significantly smaller and lighter than the Sony D50, much easier to stash in a pocket or a gear bag, but it’s longer than the Marantz 620. The LS10′s hardware input gain knob is preferable to the 620′s up/down buttons.
So there’s still no clear winner in the battle of the compact flash recorders, but the Olympus LS10 is a contender, with generally good sound quality, conveniently small size, and overall ease of use.