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How to Assemble a Quality Mobile/Field Recording System for as Little as $75

Over the last two years I’ve been learning about, investigating and testing various audio recording hardware and software. One of my goals was to have a quality on-location recording setup. After learning from other podcasters on discussion groups like the Yahoo! Groups Podcaster list, and through numerous websites and books, I’ve put together a guide for using the iRiver iFP-800 series of digital audio players/recorders/FM tuners with four different microphones. Almost every day I read other people’s questions about recording in studio and on-location, and I hope that this guide helps many others to get started, or possibly dig their iRiver (or other portable recorder) out of the attic or basement. Feel free to send comments, corrections or links to audio that you’ve made after reading this tutorial to imaging (at) andrewdarlow (dot) com.

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Left to right are the iRiver iFP-890 (256MB), iFP-899 (1GB), and iFP-895 (512MB).

INTRODUCTION

These mic/recorder combos can be used at trade shows, outside at news conferences or even in a studio. The microphone advice in this article also applies to other devices that accept external microphones, such as XtremeMac’s MicroMemo for the iPod Nano and iPod with Video (about $50).

Although I don’t own any of the iRiver iFP-700 series player/recorders – iFP-780 (128MB), iFP-790 (256MB), iFP-795 (512MB) and the iFP-799 (1GB), they are virtually identical to the iFP-800 series, except the line-in jack is on the top instead of the side. If you plug in a small microphone, like the compact Sound Professionals STEREO “T” MICROPHONE – Part No.: SP-SPSM-1 (about $50), the iRiver iFP 700 series can easily function as a mini handheld microphone. The mic can be used with the iFP-800 series as well, but it will stick out the side if plugged directly in.

It’s important to note that the iRiver iFP 700 and 800 series have been discontinued, but used and refurbished models can often be found on Amazon.com or ebay.com. This forum thread on Podcast Pickle is very helpful and discusses the external microphone placement differences between the iFP 700 and 800 series, and this one also has some good advice. Here is a good overview from iRiver’s website of most (if not all) of the players they have sold over the years.

Also available at some retailers are the iFP-900 series players/recorders. These are more square in form, and I’ve just ordered an iFP-990 (256mb) for about $50 to test it. I hope that it performs as well as the iFP-800 series. One negative with the iFP-900 is that it has a rechargeable built-in battery, unlike the iFP-700 and iFP-800 series, which have single AA batteries that can be easily replaced at any time.

Outside links to most shopping and auction sites listed in this article contain our affiliate codes, and any purchases through those links help support our publishing efforts.

SAMPLE RECORDINGS AVAILABLE

There are three sample recordings available to the left by clicking on the silver and blue Podcast Jukebox (Test 01, 02 and 03). No amplification or noise reduction was done to the files. They were recorded on and downloaded from two different iRiver iFP-800 series recorders as follows: Test 01 (Gary Leland from Podcast Pickle – 256 kbps stereo- recorded with the iFP-895 and a handheld dynamic mic); Test 02 (Jason and Melanie VanOrden – 256 kbps stereo- recorded with the iFP-895 and a handheld dynamic mic); and Test 03 (Andrew Darlow – 80 kbps mono- recorded with the iFP-890 and a headset mic). Test 01 and Test 02 were uploaded directly to my FTP account as mp3s with no adjustments (straight from the iFP-895). Test 03 was the only one compressed to mp3 using Apple iTunes after recording. All were recorded at 44.1 kHz sample rate.

The first two recordings (Test 01 and 02) were made in a large open area with a lot of background noise (about 100-200 people talking in a trade-show type of environment) at PodCamp NYC using the handheld mic shown in the photo below with the windscreen and battery. The third (Test 03) was recorded with a RadioShack Hands-Free Headset Microphone (model 33-3012 – about $30) shown in the photo below with its separate battery-powered removable on-off switch and very long extension cord. It works fine with the iRiver iFP-700 and 800 series recorders without the on-off switch, and in my opinion is a fantastic “sound seeing tour” microphone, and its great for interviews (if everyone is wearing one). It is also good for general recording because it is so lightweight and comfortable to wear.

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RadioShack Hands-Free Headset Microphone (model 33-3012 – about $30)

I recommend monitoring the output with headphones to find the right mic placement. That will help you to minimize the popping sounds known as “plosives.” Placing the mic about two inches from the corner of my mouth and making sure I don’t speak directly into the mic works well for me (the photo below shows me wearing the RadioShack Hands-Free Headset Mic). This mic, when directly plugged into a player/recorder will only be able to be heard out of the left channel, and when using the iRiver iFP-800 series (probably the iFP-700 series as well), you must record in stereo to capture a recording (see tip 14 below for how I separate the tracks). In the photo below I am showing how I might monitor the sound with the left earphone of the Etymotic ER•6i Isolator earphones. You can hear my results in the sample audio available in the Podcast Jukebox to the left, and described above (Test 03).

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Yours truly with an iRiver iFP-890 (512MB) recorder, RadioShack headset mic and one of the Etymotic ER6i headphones

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I also recommend marking a mark with white paint or nail polish where the microphone’s “sweet spot” is on the headset just above the windscreen. The red spot on the headset mic is circled in white in the closeup image above.

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BENEFITS OF THE SETUP PICTURED ABOVE

(iRiver iFP-895 512 MB mp3 player/recorder and handheld dynamic microphone):

-Great recording sound quality

-Well Built
-Very portable
-Inexpensive (allows for one or two backups to be purchased. I own three iFPs, and together, they cost me about $200). For very important interviews, it’s always good to have a backup, or you may want to do two recordings at once (as they say, belt and suspenders).
-They are easy to hold in your hand, and the backlit LCD is bright.
-They take a single AA battery which should last 10-40 hours depending upon how much the backlight, FM tuner and recording features are used.
-Can be used with Dynamic or Consensor mics (lapel mics, headset mics (though some condensor mics I’ve used work better with a battery or phantom power to boost the signal)).
-Also functions as a good mp3 player and a line-in recorder for recording from mixers, turntables, etc.

THE TIPS

1. Get the Equipment (items shown in photo)
-iRiver iFP-895 512MB (black color, and about $50 refurbished or used on EBay);

Other iRivers: iFP iRiver iFP-880 128MB (blue color, and about $40-80 refurbished or used on eBay); iFP iRiver iFP-890 256MB (white color, and about $50-100 refurbished or used on eBay); and the iFP-899 1GB (red color, and about $75-150 refurbished or used on eBay).

– RadioShack Unidirectional Dynamic microphone 33-3037 (pictured above) is not available new any more, but the Audio Technica ATR-30 Unidirectional Microphone appears very similar, gets excellent reviews and should perform as well or better. Any good microphone will work but uni-directional mics are good in crowded or loud places if you want the background noise minimized – Cost: About $30.

-Second is the XLR to 1/8 inch plug-(4 inches)-You may need to call to order it since the 4 inch length is a custom order item. You may prefer 1 foot if you want to have the option to keep it in a pocket. You can then also attach it to the mic and coil the cord. I purchased it from https://www.soundprofessionals.com

Specific info about the XLR to 1/8 inch plug to make it easier to order: SP-XLRF3-MINI-1 SOUND PROFESSIONALS 3 PIN XLR FEMALE TO 1/8 INCH (3.5MM) MONO GOLD PLATED RIGHT ANGLE MINI PLUG. Wired for Dual Mono; Gold plated right angle connector; Add DC blocking cap for use with dynamic mics; 4 inches Cost: $31 . Important note: The DC blocking cap helps to avoid a crackling sound that is common with some mics when the 1/8 inch plug moves around. It works extremely well. If you experience this crackling sound with other gear, a piece of gaffer tape can help avoid the problem.

– Next is the windscreen, purchased from Radio Shack (large acoustic foam windscreen-about $6)-it helps significantly to cut down on plosives and will probably extend the life of the microphone.

Last is some black gaffer tape, which can be found in art supply stores. It tears easily and won’t leave residue. About $8. For a cleaner look, you can use a strip of Velcro® brand fastner and a small strip of tape for added stability. A traditional mic flag, which looks like a square or triangle piece of plastic, just under the microphone (usually with a big logo on it), can also be added since the iRiver only takes up a small amount of space at the bottom of the mic.

Total cost for all items including standard shipping: IFP-895: about $149 – IFP-899: about $179.

2. Learn the complex iRiver interface (the iRiver manuals are actually very good, and they have some info about every menu item, so I recommend taking a look at them): There are also about 40 Language Options.

3. There are 4 BUTTONS which will be referred to in this tutorial: LEFT, MIDDLE, RIGHT (on the top of the iRiver iFP 700 and 800 series) & MENU (on the front).

4. Start by Turning it ON by Pressing LEFT, then hold down MENU for about 3 seconds -Then set menu items:

(The LEFT button, held down for a few seconds will also turn the iRivers OFF, and this helps when you get to a screen that you can’t easily navigate away from).

-GENERAL: (Language is set here) Click quickly to enter any menu item, then move joystick, click and hold for a few seconds to go back a level.
-DISPLAY:
-TIMER: Sleep Timer helpful, but won’t work when in Line-In mode (used for recording)
-CONTROL: Most Important Section – CLICK TO ENTER this mode, and you will see:
-FAST SKIP
-SCAN SPEED
-VOICE RECORD
-VOICE AUTO DETECTION
-TUNER RECORD MODE
-**LINE-IN RECORDING MODE** (this section is described in detail below)

Set Quality Level: Following are the highest quality settings using the iFP-895 512MB and iFP-899 1GB as examples: The iFP-895 512MB can record about 3.5hrs. in Stereo 44.1KHz/320Kbps or 7hrs. mono 44.1KHz/160Kbps – The iFP-899 1GB can record 7hrs. Stereo 44.1KHz/320Kbps 14hrs. mono 44.1KHz/160Kbps. Click quickly on MENU to change from Mono to Stereo, and move joystick up and down, then right or left to adjust quality.

You can get more recording hours by reducing Kbps, but the quality will decrease as you lower the Kbps number (bit rate). For example: Stereo 256Kbps or Mono 128Kbps are popular recording settings that will extend your recording times. You may be more than happy with lower settings, such as Stereo 44.1KHz/192Kbps or Mono 44.1KHz/96Kbps. The iRiver iFP-895 512 MB player can record about 6 hrs in Stereo 44.1KHz/192Kbps and about 12 hours at Mono 44.1KHz/96Kbps.

Stereo mode should be used with the Giant Squid Podcasting Omni Stereo Mic– $55. This is a high quality microphone with two separate mics and two tie clips. The company also sells a Mono Mic with one tie-clip- $25, and you will need to test it to determine if Stereo mode is necessary – these omnidirectional mics work very well but are sensitive to background noise. They also sell stereo cardiod unidirectional mics which record sound in the direction they are pointed. For all their mics, I recommend the tie-clip microphone windscreens from Radio Shack to cover them, and to help reduce wind noise and plosive sounds.

– **LINE-IN RECORDING VOLUME** 45 to 55 with the microphone used above seems good for most microphones I’ve tested, but do your own test to make sure that your audio does not clip.

– LINE IN AUTO SYNC
– **LINE IN/EXT. MIC** Must be set to Ext. Mic
– ADJUST PLAYBACK (good for listening to audio books/podcasts)
– MODE- Nothing too important here. – I left them on the defaults.
– SOUND – There are MANY options here-I left them on the defaults.**IMPORTANT** The iRiver players/recorders must be set to LINE IN (Press and hold the RIGHT (Mode) button for a few seconds to see the screen with MP3/FM RADIO/VOICE/LINE IN.

5. When in recording (Line In) mode, the sleep and off timers will not function, and it is easy to forget to turn off the iRiver after you are finished recording.

6. To start recording, press the RIGHT button quickly. To pause, click LEFT button. To resume recording, click LEFT button. To stop recording and quickly listen to the recorded file click the RIGHT button, then the LEFT button. You don’t have to go back to the menu with the “Line-In”. You can see all the recorded files by clicking once on the MENU button. The Menu button is circled in Red below.

7. Move the Hold Button to “hold” after pressing Record if you want to make sure you don’t stop the recording while recording. The hold button is circled in white below, and the MENU button is circled in red. Left to right are the iFP-890 (256MB), iFP-899 (1GB), and iFP-895 (512MB).

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8. To make sure you are recording, look for word “Recording” (not Record) on the LCD which indicates that you are recording. The large numbers should increase and the small numbers below should decrease. It’s a good idea to monitor sound with headphones. RECORD is the folder name with the recordings and they will be named consectively from EXMIC000.REC (EXMIC stands for External Mic).

9. Have Extra Batteries. The iFP-700 and iFP-800 series take single AAs. I recommend changing them often (as soon as the level goes to 2 bars to be safe-or before then). It is advertised as having a 40hr recording/playback time on a standard alkaline battery, but with heavy use, expect less.

DOWNLOADING:

10. Windows Users can make the iRiver a Mass Storage Device like a USB flash drive (thumb drive) by upgrading the firmware, but according to reports on this list, that will cap the recording quality to 96kbps, which is not recommended. Instead, you can use the iRiver Music Manager software to download files. Files are in REC format which appears to be identical to MP3. The prefs allow you to convert to MP3 during download from the recorder to a computer, which I recommend. Otherwise, you will be prompted to convert to mp3 when copying to a computer.

According to iRiver, “The iFP series of players will work with Windows Vista, but they are not supported by Windows Media Player 11.” iRiver has posted a page about Windows Vista compatibiity here.Mac and Windows users in North America can Download the iRiver Music Manager software from the iRiver.com main support page-the online software is probably newer than the CD that you will receive with the player. iRiver users in other countries can navigate to the support tab from the iRiver global home page.

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Mac OSX version of iRiver Music Manager (ver. 1.1.7) running on a PowerPC chip based PowerBook G4. I have not tested the software on an Intel chip-based Mac.

I recommend downloading everything after every series of interviews and create a new folder for each download “session.” I use Audio01, Audio02, etc as my folder names. I then recommend backing up that audio to another disk, and then reformatting on the computer using the Format button in the software. Mac users will not be able to “safely eject.” Just quit the iRiver Music Manager software and pull out the USB cable (the device can not be powered off while connected unless you pull out the battery, which is not necessary). Also, and important to note is that transfer speeds from the iRiver iFP-800s (probably the iFP-700’s as well) are relatively slow, despite the players being USB 2.0 (about 1MB per second).

11. The iFP-800 series are also very good mp3 players, and you can speed up track play, though the voice will sound a bit odd if you speed it up a lot. The FM tuner reception is OK, but not very good (at least in my area of suburban New Jersey).

12. While recording using the hand held microphone, it’s best to place your thumb on top of device and try not to move your hand around, or there will be a shuffling noise in the recording.

13. Place the handheld mic directly in front of people’s chin-about 4-5 inches away from their mouth.

14. I import the file into Audacity and if I use the headset microphone, which requires stereo recording mode, I split the tracks, then delete the empty track, then make the tracks Mono, as shown below in a three step process. I then export to AIFF from Audacity instead of saving the file in Audacity’s format. The iRiver could have been set to mono when used with the handheld dynamic mic, which would double the amount of recording time and avoid the need for the process described below. A good stereo mic can capture unique left and right audio for added impact.

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15. Another good alternative to the iRiver recorders is the Samson Zoom H4 (about $270 at Amazon.com). A 2GB SD card is about $35.

16. An excellent and very inexpensive lavalier microphone (about $20) that I’ve used is the Audio Technica ATR 35s.

Acknowledgements: First, thanks to Doug Kaye from www.gigavox.com for the idea that led me to make the iRiver/dynamic handheld microphone contraption (Doug showed something similar at the Podcast Academy 2005 in Ontario, CA). Thanks also to Adam Curry (www.dailysourcecode.com), whose Sound Seeing tours with an iRiver iFP recorder are always fun to listen to-especially the one in the middle of the night in San Franciso a while back. Thanks also to the many podcasters on the Yahoo Podcasters List who have recommended the iFP recorders, Giant Squid microphone and many other fun toys.

Also, thanks to Todd Cochrane, whose book, Podcasting: The Do it Yourself Guide, gave me my first real education in mixers, microphones and my favorite audio term: phantom power. Another book that helped me through some of the learning curve of Audacity and other audio/podcasting related topics is Podcast Solutions: The Complete Guide to Podcasting by Michael Geoghegan and Dan Klass.

Thanks also to Paul Figgiani whose live presentations and websites, including www.thepointpodcast.com and www.podcastrigs.com, have helped me to understand audio and video much better. And how could I leave out Rob Walsh from Podcast 411, who talks and writes quite a bit about how he uses iRiver recorders on his excellent Podcast 411 website, forums and podcast. I also highly recommend Rob’s book (co-written with Mur Lafferty), Tricks of the Podcasting Masters. And while I’m recommending books, I’ve also learned a lot about audio and podcasting from Podcasting for Dummies by Evo Terra and Tee Morris.

iRiver is a registered trademark of iRiver Limited, and the iFP Digital audio player/Recorder/FM Tuners described here are trademarks of iRiver Limited. All other brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies or organizations.

Related Links

iRiver Manual for the iFP 800 series

Primary North American Support Link (manuals, firmware and latest software) for all iRiver Ultra Portable players

Yahoo! Groups Podcaster list

A very good thread on the Podcast Academy forums about Mono and Stereo recording, and flash-drive recorder backups.

Partner/Affiliate Links

Check auctions for iRiver mp3 recorder/players on eBay.

Check reviews and availability of iRiver mp3 recorder/players on (ranging from about $40-$120) at Amazon.com.

Check pricing and availability for audio cables, microphones and products at SoundProfessionals.com.

Check reviews and pricing on the Etymotic Research ER6i Isolator Earphones and related in-ear headphones (about $69 here).

Check reviews and pricing on the Samson Zoom H4 compact recorder (about $270 here).

Check reviews and pricing on the Audio Technica ATR-30 Unidirectional Microphone (about $30 here).

Check reviews and pricing on the XtremeMac MicroMemo for iPod Nano and iPod with Video (about $50 here).

Check reviews and pricing on the AUDIO TECHNICA ATR-35S Lavalier Microphone (about $26 here).

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