New entry point: USB Flash Recorders

Zoom has lowered the entry point to owning and using a Flash Recorder!  $99 will put a Zoom H1 Flash Recorder in your hands and let you enter the world of pocket digital recording!  Students should be recording practice sessions and etudes before lessons and auditions’ directors should be recording rehearsals and concerts.  There really is no excuse for the musician who is serious about improving to not own one of these incredible devices.

The Zoom H1 is powered by a single AA battery, but lets you record up to 10 solid hours. It comes with a 2GB microSD memory card, so you’re ready to start recording right out of the box, but upgrade to a 32GB  microSD card and you can record up to 10 hours straight.

There are a pair of pro-quality XY stereo condenser microphones onboard the Zoom H1 means you don’t even need to plug in your own microphone, but there’s an 1/8″ input on the side in case you want to upgrade to a higher-quality condenser stereo mic.  (See my post below for recommended mics.)  Whether you need better-than-CD-quality 24-bit/96kHz PCM WAV format for professional post production or memory-saving MP3 format (48kbps-320kbps) for the Web or email, you’ll get it from the H1.  The H1’s even perfect capturing quality stereo digital soundtracks for video recording, mounting easily to video and DSLR camera shoes.

The Zoom H1 is probably the easiest-to-use recorder to date.  All of the H1’s essential controls are conveniently laid out at the tips of your fingers with physical switches.  You don’t need to navigate multiple menus on a small screen.  Adjusting the input level and dropping markers as you record are only the press of a button away.  There’s even a reference speaker at the foot of the H1, allowing you to review your recordings, even if you don’t have a pair of headphones with you.  No, you can’t really review it for quality, but it could prevent you from accidently deleting a good take a day later.

If you have been waiting, now it the time to jump!  For less than $100, you can’t go wrong!

Cassette Tape to CD – What’s the Easiest Way?

Recently I was asked: What’s the easiest way to turn a cassette tape into a CD?

There are several ways to do this one.  Make no mistake: all of them take time, and usually a computer.  But it can be done, and it really isn’t that hard.

There are USB Cassette Decks – you plug them into a desktop computer, play the cassette, and record it onto the computer using something like Audacity (a free digital sound editor).  I’d recommend the ION Audio Tape2PC USB Dual Cassette Deck and Tape to MP3 Converter.  It lists for $200, and retails for about $140.

But, if you already have a cassette deck and/or turntable, though, a better solution is the Ion U-record Music Archiver.  List $100, retails about $60.  You will still be using Audacity, but you will have more flexibility (of analog sources) and save some money.

As far as I know, there is no single deck that is a CD recorder and a cassette deck player/recorder.  Closest thing I could find online was the Crosley CR248 Songwriter, a retro-looking turntable, tape deck, CD recorder all-in-one for about $350.  I have never heard of this, so I can’t really tell you much about it, but it is probably THE easiest solution…

I personally use a CD recorder deck with a standard turntable or tapedeck when I do this.  It is far less elegant than any of the three solutions above, but it’s the equipment I already had.  I press “record” on the CD Recorder, “Start” or “Play” on the turntable or tape deck, and then play the record or cassette into the CD Recorder.  Because I am not usually pleased with the quality of the final product, I usually import the newly recorded CD into Audacity, and then edit out the clicks and pops, normalize the final file, and then export it as a .WAV file.

Have fun!

USB Microphones

Recently I was asked about USB Microphones.  These are mics that you can connect directly to your computer with no need of a “box” in the middle to convert the signal to digital.  With one of these mics, you can record directly into Audacity or GarageBand with nothing else needed.  In short, I love them.  They work at a wonderfully high level without a lot of expense and almost no difficulty.  Here are a few low-cost, big value mics I would recommend:

Samson C01U USB Condensor Mic (~$75)

Snowball by Blue Microphones USB Condensor Mic (~$85)

Snowflake by Blue Microphones “Travel-Size” USB Condensor Mic (~$70)

I own and use the Samson regularly for recording auditions for later review, and for voice-overs on study recordings and podcasts.  If this is your first foray into digital recording, however, I would strongly urge that you look at this one:

Samson G Track USB Microphone and Audio Interface (~$125)

The G-track is a large-diaphragm condensor mic with USB connectivity, a computer audio interface, and boasts a stereo headphone jack for no-latency monitoring. Record vocals and an instrument directly to a computer with this amazing combination of a large diaphragm studio condenser and an audio interface that resides snugly in the microphone’s body. The G Track comes with a desktop mic stand, mic clip, USB and audio cable. The G Track also includes Cakewalk SONAR LE audio recording software.  If you are a singer/songwriter, you can sing into the mic, plug your guitar or digital keyboard directly into the bottom of the mic, and plug your headphones into the bottom to hear your plug-ins and processing!  Nothing else needed!  Recording on two separate tracks, voice and line input, with one mic.  You can even mix the levels and set the playback volume with handy spring loaded knobs on the side of the mic casing.  Once you have them set, just push them back into the casing so that they don’t accidently get turned.  Incredible!

I would love to explore the Snowball more.  I’ve never had the chance to use one myself, but the folks at Blue make wonderfully sounding mics and the price is so low!  Does anyone have experiences with either of the Blue USB mics?  I’d love to hear about your findings.


Pocket Flash Recorders

My favorite go-to device for Music Educators would have to be the digital flash recorder.  Why?  Because the learning curve is so easy, even though they are incredibly powerful machines.  The cost is relatively low, and because they are instantly useful, and they work so well!

Digital flash recorders often have built in condenser microphones, can run on batteries or AC, and sound GREAT.  Some have a lot more bells and whistles than others.  Recently I was asked which kind I recommend.  Current models available include the Edirol R-9, Zoom H2 and H4, and the M-Audio Microtrak II.

All of the pocket digital recorders out there are really great machines, to be honest.  The Edirols use a 1/8″ stereo mini-plug for external mics, where the M-Audio Microtrack uses separate 1/4″ plugs for each channel, so both would require some sort of XLR converter.  I like the fact that the mics are truly built in for the Zoom and the Edirol.  Nothing to forget when recording last minute!  Some models you have to plug an included stereo mic in before recording live, dynamic audio (the Microtrak comes to mind).  Honestly, if you were to ask me what I recommend, I would go with the Zoom H2 or H4.  They’re cheaper than both the Edirol and the Microtrack, but still sound great.  You don’t need these recorders if you are trying to put out an audiophile recording against the best from Deutsche Grammaphon or Dorian, but for just about anything less, they are perfect!

Hope that helps!

Mic-ing for Jazz Ensemble

I have been asked what mics I use for my Jazz Bands for soloists and vocals.  I usually use Audio Technica ATM31a handheld condenser mics for both.  These accept phantom power, or run with a single AA battery inserted.  I would like to pick up a number of additional mics for my jazz band and am considering the Shure SM57 and SM58.  I am hoping for some knowledgeable input from my readers out there, especially Nick Ellis and/or Joe Fischer.  Let me know what you use and what you would recommend.

CD Recorders

So I got to actually work with two different models/brands of CD Recorders for Howard County recently.  On the outside, these would appear to be identical units.  You know, the situation where one company makes a product “behind the scenes” for another company, than slaps the second company’s logo on the casing.  The two recorders were the Marantz CDR420 and the SuperScope PSD330.  Both worked wonderfully – producing high quality recordings with the built-in condenser mics, and even better ones with a decent external stereo pair plugged in.  They looked IDENTICAL, with the same layout of switches and buttons, same hardware, same labels, everything.  But that’s where the similarities ended.

The Marantz was capable of some incredible features, including serving as a hard disc recorder, with no CD-R media even necessary for recording and immediate playback.  However, when saving to CD, the process was so convoluted and multi-stepped, that the county decided NOT to use them for judges’ comments during festivals.

Instead, they bought a complete set of the SuperScope recorders which, despite looking identical to the Marantz units, functioned in a completely different way.  These were operated much more intuitively, much like a tape deck.  The quality and recordings remained high, but the ease of use was remarkably better.

End result?  If you are considering a CD Recorder, I assume it is because you would like to record quickly and easily to disc, with a CD being the end objective.  If that is the case, than the SuperScope is easily your choice.  If you want to record to hard disc for quick playback in the classroom, then consider a small digital (Flash) recorder and skip both of these products.  If you are looking to record a complete CD product, and plan on doing a lot of editing without a computer, than the Marantz is the one for you.  But, let me assure you, there is a much better way.

Go with the SuperScope, or a digital flash recorder.

Why blog?

Hi.  My name is Andrew Spang and, among many other things, I am the Music Technology Representative to the Howard County Music Leadership Team.  I try to be helpful and a useful resource to my amazing colleagues in the Howard County Public School System.  In this blog, I will endeavor to provide advice, insight, cool ideas, lesson plans and resources to people who teach music and want to use technology to better enable them to do so.  This is, in no way, an official reflection of the Howard County Public School System, nor is it meant to set policy or be a definitive interpretation of legal positions.  Please, read what might help you, utilize the resources posted here, ask questions or offer clarifications and/or suggestions.  I hope that you find this useful, and not too intimidating.