How to Get Really Good Emergency Backup Audio

Photo courtesy of Transom.org, a leading source of gear reviews and advice for podcasters and audio field recordists.

This morning I heard sad news from a pal and coworker at the school where I serve as web manager. The only video of the school’s annual theater production had unusable audio — and there was no backup. Quite a disaster, as these theater events are professional-quality productions and a major highlight of the school year.

I was reminded, sadly, of a recent event where I recorded a presentation for prospective parents by the school principal and my friend, who teaches middle school. I was on hand to record video and audio, but I forgot to push Record on the  recorder/mixer. In my defense, the recorder does look like it’s recording, what with the meters and timeline bouncing like crazy.

The difference is that I had the extremely competent little Sony handheld PCM-M10 recorder running as a backup, and because it’s amazing, my bacon was saved.

I offered my friend the following advice for recording backup audio at events:

I’m taking Curtis Judd’s paid Learn Light and Sound online courses on field audio recording and audio post-production, and he suggests having a backup recorder running in case of emergencies like these.

I have two recorders – a professional field recorder/mixer and a small handheld Sony PCM-M10 recorder. Honestly, the little Sony is amazing; expert review here, brochure here.

You can listen to samples recorded with the PCM-M10 here. They are at the top of the page. They are from the Christmas concert at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, CA.

I was seated in the audience, about halfway back, with the recorder lying on a chair beside me. I suggest listening to “Sing We the Virgin Mary” just because it’s so pretty.

I made a serious error – guided by an article, I set the gain way too low, which meant that I had to push it up in post, which in turn made the background noise very evident. Still, I think the audio is amazing. A tiny handheld recorder lying on a chair, far back in the hall with the gain set wrong, and you can hear the words of the ensemble songs clearly. Plus, the sound manages to be uncannily sweet, at least to my ancient untrained inexpert ears.

At the time I posted these files I didn’t have a clue about post-processing audio. Of course, if I were editing them today I would apply what I’ve learned from the audio course and correct some of the noise and reverb. Still, I think the recordings leave no doubt as to why so many audio professionals keep the Sony PCM-M10 in their bags.

The PCM-M10 is discontinued. Because of their popularity they tend to sell used for a bundle, but you can find them on Ebay for as little as $200 to $230, last I checked. You can record for up to 19 hours with two fresh AA batteries at maximum quality (24-bit, 96 kHz). The recorder includes an effective built-in limiter to prevent clipping loud sounds.

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