FlashMic Focused on Field Recording

Over the past few years, I've witnessed the odd sight of reporters holding out recorders with integrated mics trying to grab sound.
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(click thumbnail)KUT(FM) political reporter Ben Philpott used the FlashMic to cover a special session of the Texas legislature, when independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman submitted petitions for a place on the ballot.Over the past few years, I've witnessed the odd sight of reporters holding out recorders with integrated mics trying to grab sound. Unfortunately, those mics are designed more for catching quotes for transcription rather than for broadcast use. Why not start with the mic and add the recorder?

That's pretty much what HHB has done to create the DRM85 FlashMic. It is a digital recorder integrated into the end of a standard-sized handheld condenser field mic 9.6 inches long and weighing in at 13 ounces. The idea here is that the integrated design removes the clutter inherent to the separate recorder/mic combo.

The FlashMic is built around a special omnidirectional version of Sennheiser's K-Series condenser capsule. A recorder with a gigabyte of static RAM memory is built into the base of the handle, with a pair of AA batteries hidden in the body.

Three buttons at the base of the handle control basic stop-record-play functions. A backlit LCD screen next to the controls show levels, recording time and battery levels. The basic I/O is at the bottom with a 1/8-inch jack for headphones, a USB 2.0 interface connector and a menu wheel to manually access the various controls and settings for audio quality, and recording and headphone levels.

Recording quality runs from 48 kHz uncompressed PCM yielding just over three hours recording time to 32 kHz MPEG 2 128 kbps that will record for over 18 hours. Settings also can be set via the FlashMic Manager software and loaded into the unit. Up to nine presets can be programmed to match the needs of individual reporters working out of the same newsroom.

Setting up the DRM85 with the built-in controls is easy enough. I found it easy to navigate, even though I am not a big fan of menu-driven quasi-computer devices. The FlashMic Manager software is easy to figure. Most will simply set these once and just use the Start and Stop buttons.

The small LCD screen makes keeping track of time remaining and levels simple. While recording, an extra tap on the Record button inserts a cue marker that shows up in Adobe Audition and Sony Sound Forge. As recording time drops below 10 minutes, the backlighting begins to flash on and off to signal an alert.

Another safety feature locks out the manual controls to protect against accidentally stopping a recording. As it turns out, this is key (see below). The six-plus-hour company spec for battery life is conservative for the two alkaline AA cells needed to power the DRM85. A pair of Energizer "Max" batteries lasted seven hours and 20 minutes - more than enough for a full day's work.

There was some question as to handling noise. I found it wasn't an issue, though some colleagues have noted that the FlashMic is susceptible to picking up these rumblings. I did notice that when I attached a headphone, the front of the cable and connector could transmit noise that might pollute a recording.
Product CapsuleThumbs Up

Excellent audio quality

Good battery life

Simple operation

Thumbs Down

No auto-shutdown to save batteries

Easy to accidentally stop recordings

No additional audio input

Price: $1,200

Contact: Sennheiser USA in Connecticut at (860) 434-9190 or visit www.sennheiserusa.com
Speaking of headphones, the unit sends sound to them whether or not it is recording. It is better to only get audio when you are recording so there is no confusion. There's nothing worse than thinking you're monitoring a good recording only to discover that the recorder is off. This is something that could be an easy fix in future firmware revisions.

Texas-sized test
Ben Philpott, the political reporter for NPR affiliate KUT(FM) in Austin, Texas, gave the FlashMic a field test. KUT's news department uses consumer-grade Sony MiniDisc recorders with EV RE50 mics, but is getting ready to upgrade to professional Flash recorders. Digital audio is transferred via USB from the MiniDisc into Windows-based DAWs running Adobe Audition editing software.

As it happened, Philpott tried out the FlashMic during a particularly auspicious news week. A special session of the legislature was in session while Kinky Friedman, the colorful independent candidate for this fall's gubernatorial race, submitted his petitions to earn a place on the ballot.

Philpott found that the quality of the recordings made with the FlashMic at their in-house standard of uncompressed 48 kHz was a noticeable improvement over their existing setup. Reaching in over the scrum of reporters at the Kinky Friedman event, the audio quality was crisp and clean despite the fact that he was back a few feet from the candidate.

"Since this is an omni, I expected to it pick up a lot of extraneous sound, but it zeroed in quite well here," Philpott said.

He also used it extensively to record his voiceovers through the week. Accessing audio files in the FlashMic was an effective, efficient improvement over working with MiniDisc.

In terms of the unit's primary function, the FlashMic was a hit. There were, however, some rough edges. Initially, Philpott did not know about the control lockout feature and inadvertently stopped a recording while holding the mic. Despite the safety feature, it would be better to place the controls somewhere other than where the hand naturally rests. Also, the unit does not have an auto off switch and so he ate a set of batteries when he forgot to power it down.

The limits of the dedicated mic concept became clear in Philpott's coverage of the legislative session. The FlashMic could not capture the feed from the mult box. The simple solution would be to include a line- or mic-level input to get the full functionality needed. He also found that having a proper stand for the FlashMic was essential to place it on the podium for press conferences and similar events.

The FlashMic does what it is designed to do well. But because it lacks an additional input, it cannot take the place of an all-purpose recorder. However it can play a crucial role in a news department's arsenal. With the unit's $1,200 price, that added edge comes at a cost.

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