L.A. reporter, solid-state recorder make news
It is crime-time today in Los Angeles, and KFI’s Eric Leonard’s got ’em all on the air: alleged child molesters; alleged wife-and-husband murderers (take your pick); and alleged brutal cops. It’s all in a day’s work at one of America’s most listened to news-talk station. KFI at 640(AM) is owned by Clear Channel and has a cume of 1.6 million.
Leonard, 27, an eight-year veteran of covering flamboyancy, flakes and fires, is a news director’s dream: young and hungry, with a sixth-sense for breaking news; creative under relentless deadline pressure; and possessing an awesome technical ability that translates to great on-air sound.
His new dark-tinted-window Ford Explorer, affectionately called “The Office,” sports eight antennas, a GPS never-lost moving map with voice system; two scanners, three cell phones, a mixer and dual two-way radio systems – one a wide-band FM system for filing – all driven by a dual-battery 12 V system and a 110 V generator.
Product CapsuleThumbs Up
Fast random access to files
On-board EDL-type editing
Good mix of analog and digital I/O plus USB transfer
Low battery consumption
Limiter attack is slow in some cases
Noisy mic attenuator
Contact: Marantz Professional in Illinois at (630) 741-0330 or go to www.d-mpro.com
The Office’s radio is usually tuned to the competition. And the competition is fierce, evident as we rolled to a typical media circus “news conference” featuring Michael Jackson’s sycophants and apologists.
The CNN studio-on-wheels dominated the scene. Resembling an armored car with a giant dish on top, the rig dwarfed the six other local and network TV trucks with their immense auger-like telescoping antennas. So many reporters, correspondents and camera operators crowded this sidewalk scene, they were literally layered on stepladders.
Leonard surveyed the event, placed his microphone with the others in a 12-inch-wide disk on a light stand. The disk had 14-plus multiple holes sized for hand mics, resembling an old ice cream cone holder. This “Larry Greene” special was the invention of a frustrated soundman grown weary of gaff-and-duct taping mics together
On the other end of the mic, Leonard ran his XLR plug into a Marantz PMD670 solid-state recorder, which records audio on Flash cards.
Unlike MiniDisc recorders, even the $1,500 and above variety, which transfer audio into editing systems in real time, the Marantz audio files drag-and-drop through a USB connection. Slow transfer times in the L.A. market mean only one thing: you are not competitive, so get out of the way.
Finished with recording, Leonard cleverly cradles the PMD670 in the Explorer’s now-turned-upside-down steering wheel. Pressed for time, just minutes before the top of the hour, he locates the desired tracks from his hand-written notes, moving back-and-forth swiftly with the Marantz’s arrow keys.
Dumping cuts into the Sony, Leonard gives the audio a quick check, then finishes the broadcast copy. Seconds later, he calls the KFI studio, gets levels and, mic in hand, breathlessly starts the broadcast from the Explorer’s front seat.
Alternating effortlessly between five VOs and four audio clips by jogging buttons on the MiniDisc unit, Leonard rocks a quick :30 to the station’s hungry news-talk junkies. It is a stunning fusion of art-and-technology. And he makes it look easy.
Leonard then drags-and-drops the Marantz audio into his laptop, saves to the hard-drive and burns a backup archive CD so he can locate audio for future programs. It is all cool and seamless. Satisfied with his CD, Leonard erases the 1 GB Flashcard and he is good to go.
Always eager to learn and share, Leonard grabbed my PMD670 and programmed the unit through the file/algorithm selection for max quality recording in stereo, 44.1 kHz, .WAV, the necessary combination for the CD burn.
“Now, our newsroom system digitizes at 22.050 kHz/16 bits, which sounds fine on AM radio but falls apart on FM because of the low sampling frequency,” Leonard said. “We avoid any compression because of ‘artifacting’ in the studio-to-transmitter link. MP2 compression is more gentle, about a 10:3 reduction, than MP3, absolutely the best choice for preserving audio quality while conserving storage space.”
As of this writing, Leonard has used the PMD670 for five months and he reports that it has not “erred, crashed or failed to operate or complete a recording,” despite a “pretty decent field bashing” during the Los Angeles forest fires.
“The PMD670 was exposed to smoke and ash, splashed with water and sticky orange fire retardant and dragged down dusty roads,” Leonard said. “The next week I had it in freezing temps and it still delivered.”
Frustration with MD recorders
Leonard chose the PMD670 as the answer to frustrating experiences with consumer and pro MiniDisc recorders.
“I had three concerns when considering an HD or solid-state recorder,” said Leonard.
Battery endurance was crucial. It had to operate for a full day in the field on a single charge. Second, the recorder had to operate as a standalone unit offering the field cueing and editing functions available on cassette and MD records, as Leonard does “hot playback” on the air, rolling in sound bites. Of course he also needed the ability to transfer audio files drag-and-drop to a computer.
Third on Leonard’s wish list was the desire for a manual record level control and decent mic pres, with at least 60 dB of gain. “Any less and those ‘talking heads’ who move off-mic at press conferences are lost,” he said.
The PMD670 more than answered Leonard’s wishes. His first set of eight AAs ran more than 10 hours. The recorder allowed tracks and cue points to be marked, shuttled to with ease, with near-instant playback. “The Marantz has the fastest playback-start-from-pause I’ve ever used.”
Leonard said that the mic preamps on the PMD670 offer plenty of gain. While the manual level control works fine, the lengthy attack and fall-off time on the ALC setting is unacceptable for most applications – likewise for the limiter.
He went on to say that the limiter does not kick in nearly fast enough to prevent over-modulated utterances. Far better, suggested Leonard, to set levels at -20 and allow peaks around -12, thereby preventing everything but the “gunshots” from slamming the meters.
Another issue Leonard has with the unit is with the 20 dB mic attenuator, which introduces a lot of noise when it is switched in.
“This probably isn’t a problem for target users who run omnidirectional dynamic mics, but could be an issue for users intent on recording concerts or high-quality dialog with condenser mics using the unit’s phantom power,” said Leonard.
The bottom line? “The whole point of using the PMD670 is, of course, the digital file transfer. I often edit my stories in the field using the laptop, then transmit files directly to the audio server at the station over a wireless Internet connection,” Leonard said.
“The PMD670 streamlines this process by giving me near-instant access to the recorded files. I can do drag-and-drop audio editing in less than half the time it took with conventional real-time transfers.”
Oh, Number Four on Leonard’s wish list? A dish atop his Explorer and a producer riding shotgun, like “Tank” in the Matrix.
“I could be so much more productive then!” said Leonard. This news guy isn’t content to just kill the competition in L.A., he wants to bury them, too.
Thanks to Location Sound Corp. in North Hollywood California and the KFI news ops for their assistance with this article.