A review of various portable audio recording equipment (iPods versus Edirol R-09)

As many of you know, I have developed a bit of a passion for acquiring recording equipment. I’ve been hunting for something that is portable while still being high quality and I wanted to share my findings with those who may also be feeling a bit lost with all the possibilities. In July of 2006, XtremeMac released their MicroMemo audio recorder that is compatible with the 5G and 6G (generation, not gigabyte) video iPods. I had bought a video iPod early this summer in anticipation of there being a microphone coming out soon for it. The previous generations of iPods were capable of recording but limited to the relatively crappy 8 bit 22KHz mono recording level. The 5th and 6th generation iPods can record at 16 bit 22KHz or 44KHz, which is a noticeable improvement.

So after much nail-biting anticipation, I received my MicroMemo in the beginning of August. Of course, it came just after my trip to BlogHer, so I couldn’t use it for recording anything there. But I was excited to start trying it out. I bought a cover for my iPod and trimmed away the bottom so I could wear the iPod and MicroMemo on my pants pocket. This proved to be very handy because I could walk around and pick up decent recordings without having to carry it and instantly make everyone wonder what the hell I was doing.

My first frustration, though, was the battery life. While the 60GB iPod could record days of audio, the battery would crap out after three hours or so. My latest test with a full battery recording ambient noise at my desk lasted for 3 hours 28 minutes and 22 seconds before dying rather ungracefully (at one point I thought I had killed it for good).

While at BlogHer, I attended a session on podcasting where we talked about equipment. One woman showed me her Roland Edirol R-09 recorder and said she was really pleased with it. It was lighter than the iPod, could accept AA batteries or AC power, and actually existed versus my not quite available MicroMemo (at the time). I made a note and ordered one as soon as I got home.

My frustration with the Edirol, though, was the relatively small amount of data it could hold. The Edirol R-09 takes SD cards and can’t handle more than a 2GB card. That would hold approximately 2.5 hours of audio before maxing out (don’t hold me to that number, I never put it to the test). And while the SD card could be replaced, it was one more gadget to carry around and the built-in microphone didn’t sound so hot compared to an external dynamic mic (which added more cables and more stares of what the hell I was doing).

So I was sad that I had two fairly pricey gadgets, but neither of them seemed to do all that I wanted and both had their annoyances. The iPod had tons of room, but couldn’t accept power with the microphone attached and only lasted a few hours. The Edirol could be plugged up to AC power or have the batteries easily replaced, but I would have to buy several SD cards to go with it and it was definitely a one purpose device.

Then I found this link of iTunes and iPods secrets on BoingBoing confirming what I had hoped – the new iPod Nanos (released September 12, 2006) are also compatible with the MicroMemo microphones. This is a recording geek’s dream. I borrowed my buddy’s Nano this morning to perform an experiment. By lunch, I was heading to the Apple store to get my own.

Using the MicroMemo attached to the 8GB iPod Nano, I could record not quite five hours of high quality audio (4 hours 55 minutes 8 seconds, to be exact). This was using the iPod straight out the box without verifying the battery was absolutely full, so I feel pretty confidant I could have made the 5 hour mark. The total of all that audio was 2.91GB as an uncompressed wav file. That gives me 4.5 GB or so left for all my workout playlists and music without running out of space.

The connection between the Nano and the MicroMemo is very tight and feels much more secure than the connect to the 5G iPod. And the weight (or lack thereof) is astounding. Another fantastic feature is the Nano is solid state versus the hard drive in the iPod. And while it wasn’t really loud, you could still hear the hard drive spinning on the iPod video with the microphone provided with the MicroMemo.

So my current setup includes a 2G 8GB iPod Nano ($249 retail) and an XtremeMac MicroMemo microphone ($59.95 retail). I will most likely sell my Edirol R-09 and will keep using my 5G iPod in the kitchen radio for rocking out without having to heft it around.

If you’re interested in upgrading the setup a little more, you can add in a dynamic microphone, some lavalier microphones, a DXA-2S "mixer" from BeachTek, and lots of high quality XLR cables. But those are all extra toys and just mean more crap to lug around.

What started all this was my hope to take these to my parents’ house to interview them about some family history. I knew getting them to come here and sit still in front of the condenser microphones wasn’t going to happen easily, so my desire for something simple and small was what drove me. I also wanted something that didn’t look like a huge setup because it would just intimidate whoever I was interviewing and distract from us having a normal conversation. But this little Nano and Micromemo sitting on the table seems like a fine solution. I promise I’ll make some sample recordings and post them soon.

I’m trying to keep this short to avoid rambling on and on, but if you have any questions about where I got all these goodies or how to get your own recording equipment, just let me know. You can see more examples of all my equipment on my Flickr set for portable audio equipment.