Inspirazione! : Recording on the Go: A Survey of Small Recorders

Last month, I reviewed a piece of gear that records directly to CD, costs about $750 and is the size of laptop computer. This month, I’d like to continue to cover the wide variety of small recording devices singers are using to record themselves and their students.

The tool of listening back to ourselves is about a century old, and one that most singers rely on. Even an old cassette Walkman, or a microcassette recorder can give you an idea of what’s going on, remind you what the teacher said, and most importantly hear a version of your voice that is not what you hear inside your head (which vibrates through the bones of your skull and sinuses, rather than traveling through the auditory canal).

As a general rule, I find students who are the most dedicated to recording their lessons are the ones who are most serious about improving. As a teacher, I like to be able to say, quite frankly, “Don’t take my word for it. Listen for yourself.” It takes me out of the position of being an authority figure, and allows the student to judge his or her own progress.

The types of recorders covered here are mostly suitable for just that sort of listening: Coachings, lessons, rehearsals, and other settings where you want a fast, easy way to capture the sound without necessarily needing a professional-quality recording. I also include some discussion of easy home recording, which—since most new computers have built in audio capabilities and often, even microphone inputs—has never been easier.

I will assume that those of you who prefer moving parts and one button simplicity are happy with your microcassette or cassette recorders, although cassettes are becoming as hard to find as pay phones. While we’re on the subject of tapes, yes, there is such a thing as digital audiotape or DAT, but it’s just not a versatile format compared with the newer stuff, so we won’t cover DAT in this article.

Before buying a digital voice recorder consider what format you want to end up with. Most digital recorders can make files in MP3 and other formats. Some higher-end digital recorders have editing capability, but if you want to work with the files, you probably want a recorder with a USB cable so you can connect it to your computer.

Also, consider how much you plan on recording. Do you want to save all your lessons and rehearsals for a year? How many hours of recording time do you want your device to be able to hold? (Some hold just 12, others hundreds.)

On the subject of sound quality, if you just want to remember what your teacher says, or whether someone did an appoggiatura from above or below, then pretty much anything will do. Even a low quality recording with background noise and too much compression (something like Minnie Mouse in a wind storm) will be OK. Once your ear adjusts to the quality, you can still compare within those parameters. If a teacher, for example, gives a correction and you try it again, you’ll be able to tell if it’s fuller and more resonant on most any device.

One way to dramatically improve sound quality on any device is to use a good quality, external microphone that doesn’t pick up any hard drive or mechanical noise from the recorder. Also, a device that allows you to set the input levels is helpful (so that you won’t cause distortion on high notes). Generally, the higher you can set the levels without causing distortion, the better the sound. If sound quality is important to you, look for a device with those capabilities.

If portability is not an issue—perhaps for teachers who want to record for their students—recording directly to the hard drive on your computer and burning a CD is a realistic, inexpensive option. Newer computers with built-in audio cards, shareware for editing, and even microphone inputs, make this a viable option. In fact, if you carry a laptop, this becomes a portable option, too.

As with other devices, it’s important to use an external microphone. Some computers come with built-in mikes of decent quality these days, but often they pick up hard-drive noise. If your computer doesn’t have a microphone interface, M Audio makes a device called a Mobile Preamp. You can find many brands of interface, but the M Audio is a standard and therefore easy to find online used.

Here are just a few specific possibilities to get you thinking.

Olympus VN3100PC retails for $69.99 (you can find it for much less online). This one has the USB connection and the option of an “extra high quality mode,” where you can sacrifice recording many hours to record fewer at a higher quality. Olympus and Sony both have wide selections of digital recorders starting at $39.99, but their high-end devices generally have more storage, editing, and organizational capability rather than a higher-quality sound.

Both the Nano and the video iPods have recording capability with the addition of an external microphone. Prices for the Nanos begin at $149. Of the three available microphone types—Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo, Griffin Technology’s iTalk Pro, and XtremeMac’s MicroMemo—the last has a detachable microphone on a flexible neck, which helps to keep the recorded sound away from hard-drive noise. (The Nano doesn’t have a hard drive.)

As you can see at these prices, buying an iPod just to record might be more expensive than a single-purpose voice recorder, but if you have one already or want one for general use, the cost of the microphone (the three mentioned list from $49.99 to $69.99) might be worth it.

For a higher resolution recording, M Audio’s MicroTrack 24/96 records in MP3 format or the higher resolution WAV format with a less compressed sound than other digital recorders. It lists for $499, which is a big jump in price, but I’m including it here because it’s a big jump in sound quality and is about the size of a deck of cards. If you shop around online, you can find it much cheaper. Also, Edirol makes one like it.

Sony Minidisc recorders use a square disc (oxymoron). The later models have increased recording time and make transferring to computer files easier. The latest model lists for $349.95. Like the MicroTrack, it supports WAV formats (as well as MP3) and allows you to set levels and use an external microphone.

This article is just a stone skipped on the surface of these devices, so make sure, as always, to do your own research, ask a lot of questions, and make sure the device is right for you, especially if it’s a stretch on the budget. The human voice may not have changed much in the last hundred years, but technology changes in nanoseconds, so it’s important to keep up.

At the same time, don’t be the first on your block to buy the new thing. Buying the first run of a product is often no more than paying to try out all the bugs the manufacturer will iron out in the second version (which will be half the price), so learn to ride the technology wave, or rather, WAV, MP3, or whatever the next format may be.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at