HHb FlashMic DRM85
Intro from Jay Allison
Continuing in Transom’s tradition of reviewing the new digital field gear for radio reporting, our Tools Editor Jeff Towne has just finished testing the HHb FlashMics, in both cardioid and omni versions. He posits, “What if you could have a good interview mic, and not worry about cables, or phantom power, or whether the mic is compatible with your recorder? What if you could hold it and operate it with one hand? Well, you can.” This is a unique field recorder, albeit expensive and with a few other downsides–but, depending on your requirements, certainly a tool you should check out.
from Jeff Towne
What if you could have a good interview mic, and not worry about cables, or phantom power, or whether the mic is compatible with your recorder? What if you could hold it and operate it with one hand? Well, you can. The HHb FlashMic DRM85 offers exactly that: a high quality microphone, in omnidirectional or cardioid models, with a recorder built right in. HHb has a long history of making portable recorders, and parent-company Sennheiser makes very fine microphones, so it should be no surprise that the FlashMic is a good-sounding, easy-to use device. That quality and convenience comes at a price: approximately $1,000 USD, but the audio quality and ease-of-use make that sum easier to justify.
One of the persistent problems we’ve encountered with the new flash-memory recorders is finding an external microphone that matches well. Most of the small units have decent quality built-in mics, but none of them are the equal of a good interview mic. It’s also often uncomfortable to position these self-contained recorders such that the mics are in an optimal position, especially if one wants to be able to keep an eye on the input meters. So especially for interviews, the better answer is to use a good external mic, designed for that task. But some of the flash recorders don’t sound especially good with external mics, delivering low levels and hiss. Some distort when using high-output condenser mics. Most of the small recorders use minijack inputs, which are not as robust as XLR, and cannot send phantom power to condenser mics. The FlashMic’s integrated design gets around all of these problems, making for an easy, good-sounding package.
After using the FlashMic for a little while, it seems very cumbersome to have to bother with cables, to tie up a hand holding a recorder, or even have a machine slung over a shoulder. There’s a real appeal to quickly pulling out a single device, powering on, and seconds later, being recording with a professional-quality mic.
Public Radio producer Gregg McVicar sees many strengths, and only a few downsides:
What I like about the FlashMic is the one-button simplicity of it. Also, because it projects a modern professional image, interviewees respond very positively to the mic itself and to the way that I am more relaxed, not having to fuss with wires, meters and pause buttons. It always delivers a solid broadcast-quality sound and because it has a dynamic mic, it’s not fussy in field conditions. Mine is the “C” version, for “cardioid” and they’re not kidding. The DRM-85C has a very tight pickup pattern which has served me well gathering interviews in noisy backstage situations. I usually plug an earbud into the mic itself and use that as monitor. Together in a small padded shoulder bag, or even a large coat pocket, this makes for a very mobile rig. Using a miniplug in the earphone jack, I’ve even played interview segments live straight to air with good results as it is easy to cue a track for playback.
On the downside, it runs through batteries rather quickly, so one always needs to carry extra AA’s. Also, compact as it is, it is still larger and heavier than many smaller flash recorders on the market today. But these are minor complaints. Mine is currently at HHb for replacement of a failed electrical component, but it’s being repaired under warrantee via Sennheiser, where the service has been excellent.
Transom.org founder Jay Allison feels much the same:
I love Flashmic for its no-brainery-ness. There’s nothing much to
check or monitor. No cables. It’s almost weird. If it didn’t cost
so much, and have such a small memory capacity, it’d be good to send
out with non-tech types, like kids in radio classes. It’s rugged,
with no parts that can break, and you could carry it right in your
pocket. On the down side, it’s large and intimidating, an RE-50 on
steroids, in black.
I used it to record a bunch of 60-second on-location billboards for
our series “Stories from the Heart of the Land.” It was nice for
this, because when you work the mic VERY close to your mouth, it has
an urgent, confidential quality to the sound, while still (at least
with the omni) capturing the ambience around you. At a little more
distance (I’d recommend working within a foot of the speaker’s
mouth), it’s got a nice verite, newsy sound. It’s not rich and full,
but rather legible and immediate. For a run & gun daily reporter
type, this would be an excellent tool.
The FlashMic is indeed very simple to use, and that quick, one-button operation is immensely appealing. On most recorders, Automatic Gain Control sounds terrible, yet this version just works, delivering good quality audio with very little effort. The small meter is not always easy to see, depending on mic position, yet, especially with the AGC engaged, it’s rarely a problem. The FlashMic feels like a pro machine, with a solid build-quality, well-designed and positioned buttons, and a readable LCD display. It powers-up quickly and one can be collecting good sound in seconds. Manual levels can be set, and even adjusted on the fly, but it’s not especially convenient to do so, and especially given the small meter display, it’s a relief to be able to just set it to automatic and forget about it.
The device’s size and weight are worth considering: on one hand, the FlashMic is much more compact than most recorder/mic combinations; on the other hand, at 14 ounces, the mic can feel heavy during long interviews. And at almost ten inches long, it’s not as easily stowed as some of the very compact recorders. The high quality of the microphone, and ease-of-use of the recorder may make those issues worth tolerating, but they’re worth keeping in mind when considering this tool. I had the mic out for people to try during a conference filled with independent radio producers, and many folks’ immediate reaction was that it was too big and heavy for them.
There are two models of the FlashMic, the DRM85, and the DRM85-C. They’re functionally identical, the only difference being the pick-up pattern of the microphone capsule. The DRM85 is omnidirectional, the DRM85-C is cardioid. Just like when one is picking a mic to use with a conventional recorder, whether one prefers an omni or the more directional cardioid will come down to personal taste, and the kinds of sounds one is recording. Either type of mic can do a good job in most all circumstances, but they do have different strengths. Cardioid mics focus-in on what they’re pointed at, and reject more of the background, and have a bigger, warmer sound when worked close. They’re also more susceptible to wind noise and plosives, as well as handling noise. Omnis are more forgiving of inexact mic placement, naturally pick up more of the surrounding ambience, and are less likely to be affected by wind, P-Pops and handling noise.
We did a test recording with both models simultaneously, held right next to one another, levels set identically. The difference in sonic character, as well as the relative amount of background noise is fairly apparent. One is not necessarily better than the other, but the two mics do behave differently. In each test, the recording from the Omni FlashMic is followed by the same recording made by the Cardioid FlashMic.
This also brings up one of the major shortcomings of the FlashMic concept: the user is committed to one type of microphone. The capsules cannot be interchanged, and the FlashMic is a bit too expensive to just buy one of each. And in circumstances that call for some other kind of mic, such as a shotgun mic, boundary mic, or stereo mic, you’re out of luck.
The original models of FlashMic are unable to accept an external line-in signal, such as a feed from a press-box, or a mixer. There are two later models, the DRM-LI and the DRM-LI-C, that include a line input for those circumstances. The line input is mono and requires a special cable, and the -LI models cost $400 more than the basic FlashMics. (Given that price, it might make sense to just buy a separate flash recorder for those times one needs a line-in.)
The other major shortcoming of the FlashMic is the built-in memory. There’s no card slot for adding additional storage space, or swapping-in a new card in the field, so once the one gigabyte of internal memory is full, you’re done recording until you can offload the audio. Because it only records mono files, that one gig can translate to fairly long record times: three hours of uncompressed 16-bit.wav files at 48khz, 15 minutes more at 44.1 khz.
The FlashMic can also record compressed MPEG1- layer2 (MP2) files, which have lower audio quality, but still sound fairly good. The file sizes are significantly smaller, fitting over 12 hours of recording at the highest MP2 setting on that 1 gig of memory, more than 18 hours at the lowest settings. A word of caution: These MPEG files may be fine in some circumstances, but they can exhibit unpleasant sonic artifacts, especially later in the production chain if compressed again for storage or delivery. To ensure the best sound quality, it’s preferable to record to uncompressed “linear” files even though those use more space. The FlashMic cannot record at 24 bit, or at sample rates above 48Khz, but those higher resolutions would reduce the available record time even further, and any sonic benefits would be small given the most common uses of this kind of equipment.
There are widely-varying reports of battery life, ranging from 3 to 12 hours on two AAs. We got over 10 hours on two fresh alkaline batteries, which should be sufficient for most continuous recording sessions. The FlashMic draws approximately the same current in standby as it does in record, so it should be shut down when not actively recording.
The FlashMic is very easy to operate. There is a small MENU toggle switch on the bottom of the unit that performs most navigating and selecting functions. Hold it in for a few seconds, and the unit powers up, ready to record in about 6 seconds. Press the M button on the top of the mic to bring up a menu in the small LCD display, then flip the toggle switch down until the parameter to be adjusted appears. Press the toggle in to select that parameter, flip it up or down to display the preferred setting, then press in again to select that value. The LCD will show OK, and the change is made. Some important settings, like file deletion, will ask for confirmation, simply flip the toggle to display Y or N as appropriate, then press in.
Another click of the M button will return the FlashMic to standby mode. Even when making choices in a menu, pressing the red button will start recording, so one should never miss the start of a sound because one is in the middle of making an adjustment. Even better, there’s a selectable pre-record buffer which will keep up to 10 seconds of sound in memory, so one can start a recording even before pressing the record button. Pressing the M button will stop the recording. Pressing the red record button while a recording is underway will not create a new file, but it will place a marker in the file, which can be read by some editing programs. Pressing and holding the record button for two seconds will put the FlashMic into REC-LOCK mode, disabling the other controls, to ensure that an accidental button push will not stop an important recording. Pressing and holding Record again will unlock that function. The green play button allows playing back any file in memory, and the MENU toggle on the bottom of the mic can be used to shuttle forward and backward.
There’s a headphone jack (1/8th inch mini) on the bottom of the mic. The headphone level is accessed by two presses of the Menu toggle, then the toggle is flipped up or down as desired, to increase or decrease the monitoring volume. Ideally, I would prefer a little more volume than this output provides, but it’s acceptable.
All settings can be directly accessed through the menu, or stored in presets by using the provided FlashMicManager software. There’s no way to store presets without using the software. Pressing the M button on the FlashMic brings up the word “menu” on the LCD display, one flick down with the toggle calls up the Preset menu. A press to select, then toggling up and down scrolls through all 9 possible presets, which are user-configured sets of file formats, volume settings, etc.
From the original menu, another flick down on the toggle switch displays R Mode. This menu allows setting the soundfile quality: linear 48khz, 44.1 khz or 32khz (.wav files); or one of three compressed MPEG settings (.mp2 files.)
Next is RECLEV which sets the record input gain, from 0 at the lowest gain, to 40 at the highest for quiet sounds. This same menu can be used to switch on the Automatic Gain Control (AGC.) The record gain can also be adjusted on the fly while recording by moving the toggle up or down, but it’s not easy to do that while holding the mic, even harder to do it silently.
Next is HIPASS, which switches a bass-roll-off filter on and off. Bass filtering, in this case starting at 100 hz , can reduce rumble from traffic or ventilation, and make handling noise and P-Pops less severe.
Next is BATTYP, which switches between Alkaline and Rechargeable. Setting the type correctly will allow the battery charge indicator to be more accurate.
Next is DELTRK , which allows deleting individual tracks stored in memory. Scroll through a list of tracks, press the toggle in to delete. You’ll be asked to confirm, so it’s hard to delete a file accidentally. But be careful, this cannot be undone.
The last menu item is TIMDAT, which provides input for setting the current date and time, which are included in the file information, so it’s important to have this set correctly.
All these settings can also be made in the FlashMic Manager software. Up to nine collections of parameters can then be saved as presets, then transferred to the FlashMic for quick set-up. It’s great to be able to make adjustments both ways. One doesn’t really need to install the software to make good use of the FlashMic, although the manager makes many things easier.
FlashMic Manager also offers a utility for downloading the recordings from the FlashMic to your computer, although it’s hardly necessary. Even without using the HHb software, moving files is simple: just use the (provided) standard mini-USB to USB cable to connect the FlashMic to an open USB port on your computer. The FlashMic should appear as a new drive, called DRM85. Within that drive, there’ll be a folder called Audio, and within that will be the soundfiles stored on the FlashMic. Simply drag those files to an appropriate location on your computer’s hard drive. Be sure to “eject” the recorder, don’t just pull the USB cable out; the directory structure may be damaged if the FlashMic’s USB connection is not properly ended.
Before installing the most recent firmware update, one of the test FlashMics could not be recognized by one of my computers, although it could by another. Because the one computer could not recognize the device, it was impossible to eject it, and just disconnecting the USB cable corrupted the FlashMic’s memory, forcing a reformat, and therefore erasure of all files. So be careful – eject the FlashMic from your computer, and if some quirk occurs where you can’t, shut down the computer before disconnecting the USB cable. If you don’t, you risk losing recordings.
When HHb issues new firmware, updating is easy: download the update, connect the FlashMic to your computer via USB, drop the firmware file (called DRM85.bin) in the FlashMic’s root directory, eject the FlashMic, power down and then back on. The FlashMic will go into update mode, then prompt a reformat, so be sure to move all soundfiles from the FlashMic to your computer before updating.
The HHb FlashMic offers very elegant solutions to many of the problems presented by the little, inexpensive flash recorders on the market. What mic works well with this recorder? How does one get good levels with such tiny meters? What kind of cable do I need? How am I supposed to read my notes when I’ve got a mic in one hand and a recorder in the other?
The FlashMic just works: switch it on, hit record, point it in the right direction. The mic itself sounds very good. Both models have a slightly bright, brittle character to the sound that not everyone will love, but that frequency response also translates to very high intelligibility for voices. These mics are tailored very well for interview work, both sonically and functionally. Setting levels, either manually or via AGC, is simple and they can be adjusted on the fly. Transferring files to the computer couldn’t be easier: plug in the USB cable, drag and drop.
If you’re the kind of person who brings three mics to every interview, and uses a different one each time, this device might not be for you. If you collect a lot of stereo ambience, the FlashMic might not be for you. But if you tend to use one trusty interview mic, and need a recorder that is quick to set-up and get rolling, this might be exactly the right tool for you. It’s a little expensive, and is heavy enough to be tiring during extended hand-held interviews, but it’s also professional-level gear, not a kludge of consumer or semi-pro equipment. If the bulk of your recording is one-on-one interviews, especially if you need to get them quickly and not waste time plugging up cables and testing levels, the FlashMic might be the ideal solution.