What’s next for newsgathering gear?

Jerry Ibbotson reveals how smartphones are becoming an increasingly popular choice for radio news recording, and why manufacturers need to catch up. 

Next time you’re watching the TV news and you see someone being interviewed by the press pack take a good look at the recording equipment being thrust into people’s faces. As well as the ENG mics and windshields bobbing about at the bottom of the screen (much to the annoyance of the cameramen) you’ll see an increasing number of devices that many audio pros will not consider ‘proper’ recording gear – mobile phones.

I realise this is sacrilege to many of those reading this magazine but smartphones are now more and more likely to be part of a radio journalist’s arsenal. From reel-to-reel recorders or Marantz cassette machines, through Minidisc and more lately all-in-ones like the HHB FlashMic or Nagra Ares, we’ve come a long way. But phones?

Actually, if you listen to the radio and to news in particular, you’ll have been hearing actuality captured on a phone for a couple of years now. BBC radio reporters are issued with iPhones as standard kit. An old friend of mine, Nick Garnett at BBC Radio 5 Live, is a pioneer of this and uses his iPhone and a range of apps including Luci Live (reviewed in Audio Media a couple of years ago) and Voddio to record and share all his material.

It’s the ‘s’ word – share – that is important here. As Nick has told me (a relative Luddite in this field) before: it’s no good if you have the best audio in the world if you can’t get it to air. And that’s where phones (and tablets to a certain degree) come in. Having recorded interviews using the surprisingly good microphone on an iPhone, it’s a doddle to then file that material back to base for broadcast. Email will do the job in many circumstances but specialist apps are also available and better for larger files.

The BBC has its own software, PNG, which combines recording and editing with the ability to drop the sound files directly onto the corporation’s own servers. You can conceivably have material on air in minutes without recourse to a big expensive satellite truck or radio car.

I’ve used PNG myself, recording a succession of radio interviews at the scene of a developing story and filing each one back to the studio while I walked to the next. By the time I arrived ‘home’ at the newsroom, each interview had already been edited and put to air. And all of this was done with a piece of hardware with a fruity-sounding name.

It’s not just a flash in the pan. I’ve spoken to a well-known manufacturer of portable recorders that was looking at how to commercially answer the increasing need for ‘capture and forward’ technology – recording and getting on air. The conclusion we came to was that if the software doing the file transfer was kept separate from the recorder (i.e. on a phone) it would be easier to update and modify.

A while later I spotted a machine from Olympus, which does a pretty good range of portable audio machines that take a first step in this direction.

The DM-901 actually sits not in the Olympus Audio Recorder range but among its business hardware. It’s a voice recorder – a 21st century dictating machine. It sits in the palm of your hand and is meant for note-taking, interviewing for non-broadcast and business presentations. Not the usual review fare for Audio Media International but bear with me. 

It can record in .wav format at 48kHz 16-bit or as MP3 and has a decent range of options to choose from, including a Low Cut Filter and a mic ‘zoom’. As well as the built-in capsules it also has a 3.5mm minijack input for a separate microphone – reminiscent of the MiniDiscs of the mid to late 1990s and earlier 2000s. In fact I think I still have a minijack-to-XLR lead rattling around somewhere. I played around with various controls and did some test recordings with the onboard mics and the results were perfectly acceptable; certainly no worse than a lot of smartphones.

But what had drawn my attention to the Olympus was not the hardware but the software. There is a separate Audio Controller app for both iOS and Android phones that hooks up directly to the DM-901 via WiFi. I downloaded it from Google Play to a Motorola Moto G phone and after a bit of jiggery-pockery, synched the phone to the recorder. 

One tip: make sure the WiFi on the Olympus is actually activated before you start cursing and swearing. And make sure your phone is disconnected from your usual WiFi source as well.

What you have in the app is a remote control for the DM-901 that lets you stop and start recording. This could be useful at press conferences, where the controller has to sit at the front of the event while the reporter loiters at the back. You can index recorders and even add images to them if necessary. 

But the real trick up the Audio Controller’s sleeve is its ability to upload recordings from the recorder, via the smartphone to Dropbox. It can only do this with MP3 recordings at 128kbps but the procedure is pretty straightforward.

The downside is that it only works with Dropbox, which is great if that’s your Cloud storage of choice but less so if it isn’t. To me, it’s a case of so close but no cigar. I have to admire Olympus for taking this first step down the transfer road. But when I can download a free voice recorder app for my phone that lets me use Android’s range of Share options, then the bar is set quite high.

Also – why use WiFi? That’s what my phone should be using to upload the audio, but it can’t if it’s hooked up to the recorder. Why not use Bluetooth for the phone/recorder link instead?

Those things aside, at least someone’s actually made the first move. The Olympus Audio app and hardware may be flawed but they have to be saluted for getting the ball rolling.

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.