Mark Nelson is one of my favorite music technology writers because he never fails to combine his pro audio expertise with a beginner's mind and a big helping of humor. He's also a man of contrasts, having written both Getting Started in Computer Music and Learn to Play Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. His review of the M-Audio MicroTrack pocket digital recorder—conducted in Hawaii—shot to number one on Google 48 hours after we published it, and it still holds that spot a year later.

In this episode of Digital Media Insider, I interview Mark about what to look for in a portable digital recorder. (DMI 12-08-2006: 14 minutes 19 seconds)

Production Notes

To capture the interview, I called Mark at his home studio using SkypeOut, which currently allows you to call any U.S. phone for free over the internet. I used my Logitech 250 USB headset, though if I'd thought of it in time, I would have tried the Rode Podcaster mic I use for the main voiceover. I recorded the conversation with the brilliantly simple Ecamm Call Recorder, which saved the recording as a two-track QuickTime AAC file. As described in the previous link, I then used QuickTime Pro to export the AAC file as a stereo AIFF file with my voice on the left channel and Mark's on the right. Next, I loaded the file into BIAS Peak and cleaned up the false starts and mumbles.


Ecamm Call Recorder captured the two sides of the Skype interview to separate audio tracks, which made editing much simpler. In this screenshot from Peak, my questions are on the upper track and Mark's replies are on the bottom. The highlighted region (A) shows where I took a noise fingerprint for SoundSoap. Also notice how much louder the background noise is on Mark's side of the call (B). In region (C), I used Peak's Silence command to remove the noise completely.

Because Mark's track was noisy and pinched from the telephone, I then exported each side of the edited conversation as a mono AIFF file so I could apply noise reduction and EQ independently. I couldn't do much about the overload distortion on Mark's track, because Call Recorder doesn't let you adjust the level of SkypeOut calls. Skype-to-Skype recordings should sound better, but Mark's satellite internet connection didn't support them.

I also prepared some AIFF audio examples in Peak, including an excerpt from Mark's upcoming Zoom H4 Handy Recorder review and two binaural recordings I made with an Olympus stereo voice recorder.

Next I imported the AIFFs into Ableton Live, where I arranged them around my voiceover and background music. Finally, I rendered the mix to an AIFF file and converted it to an MP3 in Peak.

Audio adapters

I dug into my adapter box to monitor the dual-mono file on headphones. Here, the Mac's stereo headphone out is split into left and right RCA plugs, which are then combined into a mono signal before being split again into identical left and right signals. There's probably a way to do this in software, but the sledgehammer approach saved time. I later realized I could just insert the headphone plug partway.

I recorded the voiceover directly into Peak, using the Rode Podcaster. The Rode's USB jack lets you plug it directly into a computer, though it records at 48kHz instead of the standard 44.1kHz, so I used Peak's sample rate converter to bring the voiceover down to the project sampling rate. I also compressed and enhanced the voiceover with Izotope Ozone.

The background music came together in Live as well. I made the opening sound effect by splicing a compressed mouth noise onto a tone cluster I generated in Native Instruments Reaktor. The main groove is from Steinberg Xphraze. (Jim Aikin turned me on to both virtual instruments in his article "My Five Favorite Soft Synths.") The piano is from the Garritan Personal Orchestra, which I discovered when we interviewed Gary Garritan. Then there are a few percussion samples dredged from my hard drive. Altogether, the mix took just six tracks. Effects processing was courtesy of Live's default plugins and Freeverb.

Source Articles

"Review: M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 Pocket Digital Recorder"

Barely larger than a first-gen iPod, this portable recorder lets you capture sound in 24-bit WAV format or compact MP3. But is the low price too good to be true? Accomplished recording engineer Mark Nelson MicroTracks a Hawaiian guitar festival to find out.

"Review: Edirol R-09 Pocket Digital Recorder"

You asked for it: Recording engineer and acoustic guitarist Mark Nelson grabs this hot new 24-bit WAV/MP3 recorder and returns to Hawaii for a shootout with the defending champ, M-Audio's MicroTrack. Listen to the high-res WAV files and decide if Mark chose right.

More Mark Nelson Articles

Check the link above for Mark's upcoming Zoom H4 Handy Recorder review and more.


Some of the products mentioned in the podcast:

David Battino is the audio editor for O’Reilly’s Digital Media site, the co-author of The Art of Digital Music, and on the steering committee for the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IASIG). He also writes, publishes, and performs Japanese kamishibai storycards.

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