“I need to play with one of those” was Jerry Ibbotson’s initial reaction to the release of this new handy device for broadcasters, but does it meet his expectations? Let’s see.
Have you watched The Good Wife? It’s the hugely successful US TV drama about a woman called Alicia Florrik, played by Julianna Margulies, who returns to work in law after a 15-year hiatus. Well that’s been me over the last few months, as I’ve been back in the hustle and bustle of a radio newsroom, following a gap of a mere decade and a half.
A lot has changed in that time, not least in the hardware department. Radio reporters’ kit has evolved from Uhers and Marantzs (reel-to-reel and cassette respectively) through MiniDisc (one of my old favourites from my Newsbeat days) and on to solid state. Radio hacks can now be seen holding anything from an HHB FlashMic (now no longer made) to an iPhone. The latter is standard issue to more and more BBC radio journalists and comes with a suite of recording, editing, filing and live broadcasting software, some of which I’ve covered before in Audio Media.
But people are always looking for something new and the station engineer at BBC Radio York emailed me details of the Tascam DR-10X. It looks like a transmitter for a radio mic, but is actually a small recorder that plugs into the base of any dynamic microphone (ie, no phantom power needed). My immediate reaction was, “Oh, that’s clever.” My next was, “I need to play with one of those.”
When you first get your hands on the machine, it surprises you just how small it is – fitting in the palm of your hand. It has a grey composite body and a small OLED screen with just one line of characters. There are four buttons on the front for the menu system and audio playback, a combined On/Off and Record switch on one side and a micro USB port plus SD card slot and headphone connection on the other.
At the top is an XLR connector. This is pretty clever in that it not only has a rotating clamp but also a plastic collar to hold the base of your chosen microphone snugly in place. One concern I had before the Tascam arrived was that there would be a lot of ‘rattle’ around the XLR. This does not seem to be the case, thanks to that smart design.
The DR-10X records in just one format – mono Broadcast Wav. With memory now cheap and plentiful, there’s really no need to use compressed formats that still have to be converted to linear PCM for editing. The sample and bit rate are 48kHz/24 bit. The menu system is easy enough to navigate (it passed my “do I need to actually read the manual” test) and lets you alter settings such as the Low Cut Filter and whether or not the Auto Gain is working.
With the latter, I did have to pick up the instruction book to work out that the alternative to using the AGC is to select one of three preset sensitivity levels. Presumably with a unit this small, having a gain dial or buttons would take up too much room. In use in a newsroom, I can imagine the Auto setting being left on at all times anyway.
There is a useful Dual Record function that records a second version of your audio, at 6dB below the main channel. I remember using a similar Dual Leg Mono feature on my Marantz PMD 671 several years ago and it can come in handy if you’re worried about clipping and/or if your source has an unpredictable level.
To put the unit to the test I dropped in a single AAA battery and a Micro SD card and hooked it up to my ageing but trustworthy AKG news mic. This has recently been used in conjunction with my own recorder, a Roland R26, which I personally consider to be one of the best all-round machines I’ve used in 25 years of working in both radio and sound design. Not much to live up to then.
I initially set the DR-10X to Auto mode and did some recordings, monitoring on headphones. I’m old school, in that I’ve used cans when recording throughout my career. As audio purists you’ll be thinking, “So what?” but a surprising number of radio journalists don’t bother. The first thing that hit me was a wall of preamp hiss. The recording was OK, if a little dull, but the amount of noise was disappointing. Even when I was speaking, and therefore driving the AGC down, there was still a lot of hissing – a common flaw in a lot of cheaper recorders.
I switched to the lower of the manual presets and repeated the test. This time there was less hiss, but the signal was also at a lower level. But boosting this back up to a more acceptable peak also dragged the noise. I played all my recordings to my engineer friend and he agreed: there was too much preamp noise. He also didn’t like the overall sound of the recording.
Even taking into account the fact that a lot of radio material is broadcast as Mpeg2 and goes through all sorts of grim compression, encoding and decoding before it emerges in your kitchen or bathroom, this is not good. If a recording on a smartphone, using a free app, passes the quality threshold then the bar is set at a decent height for a bespoke recorder using a professional-quality microphone.
That’s not to say I don’t like the design of the Tascam DR-10X and I love the concept even more – I’d even call it inspired. A recorder that fits in your pocket that hooks straight up to a ‘proper’ ENG mic is a cracking idea. But the execution has let it down. It may be due to trying to reach a low price point, but the audio quality isn’t up to scratch and the hiss level using the AGC is unacceptable when there are so many alternatives in the market place. My advice is: throw in a better preamp circuit, raise the price and people will be happy to buy one. I would.
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.