Building the perfect radio recorder

After an eventful two days reporting for the BBC on the floods in York at the turn of the year, where he was faced with a number of technical challenges, Jerry Ibbotson felt inspired to think up his own piece of kit that would excel in this environment…

If you live in the UK then in the lull between Christmas and New Year, where you’re not entirely sure what day it is, one news story will have dominated all others. After heavy rainfall (and a few issues with flood defences) some parts of the UK found themselves with water in places where H2O is not meant to be. My hometown of York faced the worst flooding since 1982 and, take it from me, it’s a city that’s used to rivers overflowing.

That’s why I found myself dragged, temporarily, back to the bosom of the BBC to help my local station (and former employer) with its flood updates. Over two days I spent 22 hours doing live broadcasts from “Silver Command”. It’s not as grand as it sounds, just a room at Police HQ full of people with laptops co-ordinating the emergency response. My task was to stand in a corner and broadcast regular updates on street closures and evacuations and do interviews with those in charge.

It also gave me a chance to mull over what I think would make a perfect bit of radio gear. I’ve written for Audio Media International on several occasions on the new generation of mobile-journalism practises, centred around phones and tablets. But I still tend to use a ‘proper’ recorder, a Roland R26, when I’m reporting because… well… I’m like that. So how to marry the two?

The concept

Let’s start with a blank sheet of paper. What do we want our machine to do? It must be as comfortable recording as it is doing live broadcasting. It must be easy to handle and move about and have a decent battery life. And it must be easily upgradeable and highly flexible.

The chassis first. At Silver Command I was using an iPad with an iRig cable to hook up an ENG mic and headphones. But moving about with the iPad is a faff, both from its shape and the long cable length. I always feel like Mr Bean, struggling not to drop everything.

Conversely, I love the R-26 because of its ‘half brick’ shape. It’s easy to hold, even if Roland is ridiculously parsimonious in making you pay extra for a strap. Really, Roland? Really?? So I’d begin with something this shape but with a shoulder strap thrown in. (Bitter? Moi?)

Inputs next. I want two XLRs for audio in and a dedicated headphone jack with its own volume knob. Then a decent touchscreen that covers as much of the machine’s face as possible.

Connectivity? It needs to have a 3G/4G SIM and WiFi as a minimum, with Bluetooth as a bonus. What happened with the York floods couldn’t have been made up: after flooding the electrics of part of the city’s flood defences, the waters then got into the city’s telephone exchange. This took out communications of various kinds for around 48 hours. It highlighted the need for having as many connectivity options as possible; I even saw police officers and army personnel throwing their mobiles down in disgust.

For the record

Recording capabilities? Of course, with WAV and compressed formats on offer. But getting material to base is critical so a full arsenal of uploading weapons is needed, not just Dropbox. Being able to save presets to filing straight into servers is needed here – uploading onto the BBC’s Radioman system for example. Even email would be useful.

The recording facilities would tie in with the live broadcasting part of the kit: quick access to manual levels as well as a fallback Auto Gain. I’d use these both when recording or when doing live inserts.

How about the operating system? It would need to be upgradeable and able to take in third-party software (such as Luci) so I’d go with a tweaked Android build. I have to admit to not being much of an Apple fan boy but as this is my own machine iOS wouldn’t be available to me anyway.

How would my machine work? Take the flood reporting as an example. Out in the field I’d use it to record material using an external mic (though it would have a built in capsule too). Using 4G I’d send this back to base while I headed to my OB point at the Command Centre. I’d then hook up with the studio via something like Luci Live on WiFi. This is where a strong battery life is needed, along with the ability to hook up to external power. USB power input perhaps?

The touchscreen is vital here – giving access to apps and resources. And if there isn’t room for hardware dials on the chassis, the level controls would be front and centre. With proper phantom power, I could hook up condenser mics if needed, to make a mini-studio.

So there you go, all sketched out on a piece of A4 in between radio broadcasts. Copyright: Me.

Jerry Ibbotson has worked in pro-audio for more than 20 years, first as a BBC radio journalist and then as a sound designer in the games industry. He’s now a freelance audio producer and writer.