Monday, August 04, 2008

The New Olympus LS-10

So much has changed in the world of technology, This is particularly noticable in the realm of portable recording, or as it is called nowadays, mobile recording, or mobrecording.

When I was about 12 years old, I had a small reel-to-reel tape recorder that used 3" reels. That was when I was infected by the recording bug. I also found out that I could take a cable that had two alligator clips on one end, and a mini plug on the other, and record directly off the air from my clock radio. I did this by clipping the alligator clips to the speaker terminals inside the clock radio, and plugging the mini plug into the microphone input jack. I remember wondering if I could record TV by doing the same thing to the back of a picture tube. Good thing I never tried that! Of course, this was 1965, years before home video recording became available.

Back in the 1980s, I was a reporter at Houston's leading news-talk station, AM 740 KTRH. When we needed to gather audio recordings in the field, we used professional-level audio cassette recorders, much like the Marantz PMD222 seen here. These were far sturdier than the typical consumer model, and had features such as half-speed record and playback for instances where you needed to extend time. Most of the time, normal speed was used, as this yielded the highest quality sound. These machines had a solid feel to them not found on any home model, and came with a leather carrying case and strap for the reporters use in the field. They also had a large VU meter, and when coupled with a professional microphone, produced really outstanding analog recordings.

Once back in the studio, you would dub the sound from the cassette onto a large reel-to-reel tape recorder for editing. Of course this introduced a generational degradation as the reel tape picked up not only the original recorded sounds, but also any background hiss from the cassette. To get the sound ready for broadcast, you would then play the reel tape until you found where you wanted to start and end the playback, mark the tape at the playback head with a white or yellow grease pencil, place the tape in the groove of a splicing block, and put the pieces together with splicing tape, making sure to trim the edges with a razor blade to prevent adhesive from the splicing tape from gumming up the recorder's heads. Then, when the edits were complete, the reel tape was dubbed to a broadcast continuous loop tape cartridge, or cart, for use on the air. Again, this introduced another generation of degradation, but the result was perfectly fine for use on AM news radio.

Splicing tape to edit the old fashioned way

How things have changed! Today, there are field recorders that fit in a shirt pocket that can record full fidelity in stereo. Editing is done on a computer, using a variety of sound editing software; no splicing tape involved. And the end result is not only a perfect copy of the original digital recording, but it can be digitally enhanced and any extraneous noise removed from the recording prior to final broadcast.

I have occasionally thought about buying a reel-to-reel deck off of eBay, but the lovely spouse always responds with "Why would you want that?" I think it would be fun to have one, and I do have some recordings on such tapes still stored away. It would be good to see what is on them. But truly, the LS is probably right.

So all this leads up to the fact that last week I picked up one of the lastest generation of the "studios in a pocket" recorders, the Olympus LS-10. It's good reviews, features, and quality made it stand out over the competition. In addition, I have been very pleased with my Olympus E-500 Digital SLR camera, so I knew the company puts out a great product. The LS-10 can be used for everything from making a stereo recording of a symphony or band, to radio news gathering, to documenting meetings, to recording sounds of nature. It's form factor is not that unlike the size of a typical cellular telephone.

Olympus has put some features and quality into the LS-10 that puts it above competing recorders, many costing much more than the $399 manufacturer's suggested list price (I paid considerably less using online pricing and matching). First of all, it has an aluminum body that gives it a professional look and feel, as well as adding to the durability of the unit. The built in stereo microphones come with wind screens in the box, along with a carrying case, a wrist strap, a USB cable for connection to a computer, and stereo dubbing cables. It also has a capable sound editing software package for Windows and Mac OSX, but I haven't used it yet, as I find that the free and open source program Audacity fills the bill for me. While Olympus says the LS-10 recorder is supported on Mac and Windows, it works perfectly fine on my Linux box as well, appearing as two external hard for the internal 2 GB of memory, and another for the SD Card (if you have one in your recorder). Yes, that's right! Unlike most recorders like this, the LS-10 comes equipped with a generous amount of internal memory AND a SDHC slot for using memory cards up to 16 GB in capacity. This gives you hour after hour of room for recordings in various resolutions and formats. The LS-10 can record in uncompressed WAV format, as well as MP3 and WMF (Windows Media File) formats. Another fact I like, is that the LS-10 uses two standard AA alkaline or rechargeable NiCad batteries. This means no charging or charger to tote around, as well as being able to grab a couple of AAs anywhere, anytime. The machine is rated at 12 hours of recording on a single pair of batteries! This is probably why the AC adapter is an extra purchase, but I think that most people will not need it.

Both the recording level and playback level controls are thumbwheels marked in units from 0 up to 10. The screen has all the information you need, clearly displayed in monochrome LCD with a soothing orange backlight that can be set via menus as to how long it stays on, or if it lights up at all. This little gem is totally intuitive if you have ever used a recorder at all. Despite its diminuitive size, the LS-10 neither crowded or hard to use. In fact, it can be operated with one hand. To record, you punch the record button once to see and set the recording levels from the VU meters displayed on the LCD. You then punch it again to begin recording. Subsequent punches either pause or unpause your recording, and you hit the stop button to end the recording. Simple, eh? It also has an earphone jack so you can use a set of headphones or ear buds to monitor your recordings as they are made. It also has a tiny pair of stereo speakers on the back to field check recordings. They are not high fidelity at all, but suffice to be sure you got the sounds you thought you did.

I have all kinds of ideas on how to make use of this great little recorder. The frequency response and quality of recordings of this is stunning. You can also put it on a standard camera tripod for stability, as it has a tripod threaded hole in the back. For controlling it from a distance, you can also purchase a remote control unit for the LS-10. Expect to hear samples of my recordings on this blog from time to time. This should be fun!

Olympus LS-10 Portable PCM Audio Recorder In Summary

A great tool for the musician, reporter, podcaster, or recording enthusiast! With included batteries and internal memory, it is all ready to go straight from the box!

  • Stunning recording quality
  • Quality build with aluminum body
  • 2 GB internal recording memory
  • SDHC slot for additional memory
  • High quality stereo mikes with jack for external mikes
  • Includes carrying case
  • Tripod mountable
  • 12 hour battery life with 2 AA alkaline batteries
  • Built in enhancements such as zoom mike, audio enhancments, reverb, auto level
  • Record in uncompressed WAV or compressed MP3 and WMF, at various bit depths
    • WAV tops at 96kHz, 24 bit (Better than CD quality)
    • MP3 best quality at 320 kbps
    • WMA best quality at 160 kpbs
  • Includes windscreens, which attach solidly to the mics
  • Includes audio editing software
  • Includes first set of AA alkaline batteries
  • Supported under Windows & Mac, works fine with Linux
  • Can be used as an external hard drive to move computer files

  • AC Power Supply not included (don't need it with long battery life)

Highly recommended

Right-hand side showing low cut switch, mike sensitivity switch, record level adjustment, external microphone jack and line in jack.

Left-hand side showing earphone jack, SDHC slot cover, playback level adjustment, USB port cover, and hold/power slider switch.

Back of LS-10, showing mini speakers and threaded tripod connection, and foam wind screens.