Standards drive a personal technology upgrade

RCA RP5030 vs Olympus J300

Lately, spouse has needed to record some interviews. At the recommendation of one of Linda’s colleagues, I wound up setting her up on our Mac with Audacity, the open source audio digitizer/recorder for Mac OS X, Linux and Windows. Linda was collaborating with colleagues on other platforms, and it was nice to have source files that were interchangeable.

The MP3 export of the interview was the easiest thing to exchange, however. Everbody could listen to it: iTunes would play it back, as would dozens of other commonly available free or cheap software packages. I took note of that, given that I was thinking of replacing my trusty Olympus Pearlcorder J300 (which was standing by, in case of tech problems with Audacity and/or the Mac).

I used the Olympus, a microcassette recorder, while I was working for NewsForge, to conduct interviews, record speeches and presentations et al. Mitch Kapor, Jonathan Schwartz, some officials I talked to about the 2003 blackout and others were among the many who spoke into this diminutive machine.

My early years as a journalist taught me always to buy the most reliable technology when it was something you had to rely on every day, and that wasn’t always the latest and most expensive thing. In 2003, digital audio recorders were available, but they were expensive, and among the machines that allowed moving a digital file to a computer, most required you to use proprietary software to decode a proprietary format.

So rather than spend $300+ on a machine that would make something called DSS files, I opted to spend $70 on a microcassette recorder that was well regarded by fellow writers, who noted that its built-in mic and electronics did a remarkable job in everything from giant halls to one-on-one interviews to phone interviews. All who had tried recording direct-to-PC noted it was usually more awkward than just using a purpose-built machine like the J300.

I figured I could always digitize the tapes if need be, and bought the Olympus. In practice, the microcassettes were inexpensive and easy to use and store, and I never bothered digitizing. I could put on good headphones, and type my story as I played back, rewound and replayed the interview.

It worked fine for speeches in giant halls like San Francisco’s Moscone Center, on podiums at press conferences, phone interviews (with a $25 Radio Shack adaptor) and, once, during a cell-phone interview conducted in my car at the side of a road. The biggest drawbak of the Olympus was turning the tape over after 30 minutes, and/or putting in a new tape.

So I replaced the Olympus, not with a $300 digital recorder, but with a $50 RCA model. The main reason is that the $50 RCA RP 5030 records direct to mp3. The Sony and Olympus models I looked at, all recorded to WMA, and some of those models required Windows and a proprietary app to move files over USB. The RCA is a USB mass-storage device – just plug it in on Mac, Linux or Windows and grab the mp3s. Its UI is straightforward, it uses AAA batteries and has mic and earphone jacks, as well as voice-actuated record… if it doesn’t work out, the investment has been modest


About Chris Gulker

Chris Gulker, a self-described Infuential Blogger, lived in Menlo Park, California with spouse Linda. He passed away in late October 2010.
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