HHB FlashMic DRM85-C
Broadcast, field recording
"US friendly" cardiod pickup; all basic components of the well-received HHB DRM85; 1 GB Flash memory; USB port; a light 13 ounces; long battery life; recordings protected from battery failure; two format algorithms using three sampling frequencies
Sennheiser Electronic Corporation
www.hhb.co.uk The HHB DRM85 FlashMic crossed my home office desk some months ago, and I wrote then that the full-featured flash recorder in a microphone body was impressive, great for those professionals and serious amateurs who need to make quick monaural recordings. That is still true. But while the European market has clutched the DRM85 to its professional bosom, according to reports, the American market has chafed with the omidirectional pickup pattern. The market chafed, that is, until the release of the DRM85-C Flash Mic with cardioid pickup pattern. This should satisfy the American need for tighter sonic pickup, while keeping the fine features of the original DRM85.
The DRM85-C, like its predecessor, has 1 GB of flash memory, a USB port, headphone jack and is powered by two AA batteries. It's still a very light 13 ounces.
The Cardioid pattern drops 3 dB around 60 degrees off-axis, and 6 dB at 90 degrees, while the frequency response curve shows rising voltage levels above 1.1 kHz topping to a 5 dB relative peak around 5 kHz, descending 3 dB at 7.5 kHz and descending 25 dB to 20 kHz. A 12 dB/octave rolloff at 100 Hz can be engaged in boomy environments. Headphones are plugged into the standard 1/8-inch stereo mini jack on the microphone's base, and allow source monitoring and listening to track playback.
The DRM85-C controls are very simple: three buttons and a spring loaded jogswitch. The three buttons control "transport" functions of "Record," "Play" and "Stop/Menu." The jogswitch acts as a soft-selector for dialing amongst menu items, and for adjusting the record and headphone levels. The status of the FlashMic is easily seen in a small backlit LCD display on the side of the body.
It is very simple. The FlashMic, in fact, has a pre-record buffer whereby the 10 seconds of audio prior to pressing the Record button are recorded to the audio file.
There are two audio formats: Linear 16-bit PCM (.wav) or ISO MPEG1 Layer2 ("MP2"), at a sampling frequency of 48 kHz, 44.1 kHz or 32 khz. Both are popular audio formats, and the data-compressed MP2 format is robust and tolerant of multiple transcodings.
Recording times using the 1 GB internal memory range from three hours (.wav, 48 kHz sampling) to over 18 hours (.mp2, 32 kHz sampling, bitrate 128 kbps). There's no problem recording different formats on the memory card, so one can choose better quality for critical audio and later a lower quality format for more recording time, say for a stakeout.
Getting the audio out of the FlashMic is simple, too: plug the provided USB cable into the base of the FlashMic, and then the other end into your Mac or PC, and the computer recognizes the FlashMic as a USB Storage device and presents the file tree as just another removable drive. Simply click 'n' drag files from the "audio" directory and onto your computer's drive — it'll take about 10 minutes to transfer an hour's audio. The latest firmware revision even enables the FlashMic to operate from the computer's USB port power, so even if the mic's AA batteries are removed, you can still access the audio.
The complicated part — audio encoding selections, file naming conventions, and the like — can be revealed or concealed to the user depending on how the nine user-defined presets are configured. The FlashMic is a CPU-like device, so HHB has included a CD-ROM for your PC or Mac containing a simple preset-configurator — the "FlashMic Manager" application — for creating and uploading the nine presets into the FlashMic. Each preset specifies over a dozen recording and audio properties for the mic. File format, sample rate, number of seconds to hold in the pre-record buffer (or none), manual record level or Automatic Gain Control (AGC), High-Pass filter, the LCD backlight options, and even a setting for properly displaying alkaline and rechargeable battery life.
Just as important, file naming conventions can be specified, plus the text of the "Reporter Name," "Company Name" and "Description" fields is embedded in the data chunks of the sound file. The configuration is stored in the FlashMic as a plain-text file in its own directory, but HHB cautions against editing it directly.
I took the DRM85-C FlashMic out of the box and stared blankly at it — it'd been months since I'd worked with the DRM85 — and then I realized, "Don't think; record." I pressed the jogswitch to power up the device and, fter the short bootup process completed, pressed the Record button. The FlashMic obediently began recording. Whew, no surprises. The LCD display counting down the remaining recording time. A small red LED in the microphone base also lights up when in record; the LED can be toggled on and off by pressing and holding the Play button while in Record — useful when you don't want others to see the red recording light.
The default setting uses AGC for level control. Pressing and Holding the Record button while in record "locks out" the transport and power buttons to prevent accidental stops. Pressing and holding Record unlocks the transport and power buttons. A brief press of the Record button places a marker — a "data flag" — in the file for easy locating later. The markers were visible at the waveform's top when I opened the file in Adobe Audition. After recording, press Stop, and the file is quickly closed. I listened to the file in headphones by pressing Play and shuttled around the file by turning the jogswitch "forward" or "backward." The headphone level was too loud, so I pressed and held the jogswitch until the display showed "Phon," and turned the level down by moving the jogswitch backward.
The DRM85-C's firmware is easily upgradable; HHB provides a downloadable file and instructions that involve nothing more than dragging a 268 kilobyte binary file onto the FlashMic's root directory and powercycling the mic. HHB is also provides a downloadable CD image for the FlashMic Manager software, making that installation even easier.
I checked the sonic qualities of the DRM85-C by first evaluating its cardioid pattern recording in a high-ceilinged living room, resting the mic on a candle holder —not on a stand and not even using the provided mic clip — and about 12 inches from my talkative subject. My subject, as with most people, quickly forgot about the mic, and I recorded over an hour in the room. I downloaded that large, linear file to my desktop computer and was pleased with the AGC's gentle touch, and impressed with the mic's sonic quality at one foot. Others talkers across the table from my subject were understandable, but well off-mic. Proximity is important, as with any standard cardioid mic; the user must remember the DRM85-C is not a "shotgun mic" or have parabolic characteristics.
A close friend who hosts and produces Podcasts listened to my playback, and complimented the DRM85-C in a salty fashion:
"Wow!" she said. "This mic recording sounds really good…I gotta get me one of these; can you lend it to me for awhile?" I did, and she started voice-tracking her Podcast script on the spot.
"Wait," I begged. "Let's listen to the playback to get the right mic position for you."
We did, and found the DRM85-C is not pleasing against the lips; the unprotected capsule exhibited plosives and dull muffled sibilances — exactly opposite of what we'd heard in our initial recording. We backed the mic off to the "international broadcast standard" of 3 - 5 inches and the quality bloom returned. I mention this because the DRM85-C's light weight and lack of cabling will cause inattentive users to inadvertently swallow the mic, producing similarly stifled results.
My producer friend was thrilled, and left happy, vowing to do all of her Podcast voice-tracks on the DRM85-C — if I'd only let her. The FlashMic proves once again to be an easy to use, flexible, well-performing tool.