Tuesday, 17 February 2009


I am starting work on two projects in different primary schools later this month. In both cases the schools are interested in encouraging the exploration of soundscapes. Although their approaches differ, each school has recently invested in a number small microphones that contain a 128MB memory. Called Easi-Speaks http://www.tts-group.co.uk/Product.aspx?cref=TTSPR1081690, they look and feel like toys which is great because they are lightweight, robust and not in the least intimidating. Being unfamiliar with them I borrowed an Easi-Speak and took it on a trip to Amsterdam last weekend.

I have a Zoom H4 that I use for location recording because it is very portable and records high quality wav files. It has phantom power for external mics as well as a stereo pair of high quality built-in mics. It runs on a pair of AA batteries, records in a variety of formats and has virtually limitless memory, especially if I take along a spare flash card. It will fit in any large pocket.

The Easi-Speak records mp3 files at 128kbps or wav files at64kbps, neither of which makes for hi-fidelity but which makes its memory go much further. To charge its integral battery it requires a dedicated charger or else a computer that will charge it via its USB port. This can be a problem in the field, as I discovered when I accidentally left it switched on, although not recording, and the battery went flat. I don't know how easy it would be to incorporate an automatic switch off if it has been idle for any length of time. I can see this being a problem for children on field trips. The good news is that files already recorded into the memory are not lost.

The microphone doubles as a loudspeaker and there is a headphone socket so it is possible to play back files although, without any kind of display, playback is best done via a computer when back at base.

One feature I am very pleased to find omitted is 'automatic level control'. When ghetto blasters came fitted with a microphone – useful for recording band rehearsals onto cassette back in the eighties – they automatically adjusted the volume level to prevent overloading the medium. A crude form of compression, in fact. In a nutshell it makes the loud sounds quieter and the quiet sounds louder, including all the background noise you would rather do without. On my test-run I recorded myself approaching a barrel organ, passing by and walking on. If I play the sound back now and close my eyes I can see it all vividly as the music fades in and out again. With automatic level control the volume would have remained fairly constant with background noise and hiss morphing into music and back to noise again.

The downside is that it is possible to overload the microphone by holding it too close to the mouth when singing or speaking, but good microphone technique is a useful skill that is easily acquired. Given the choice I would always opt for the ability to control levels myself, even if the odd take is ruined by overloading the mic.

So, all in all, a fabulous piece of kit for the money – a mere £29.99 from the manufacturers (less if you buy five at a time). Just as for some trips you just want to take along a little point-and-shoot camera rather than a bulky SLR, so this is tiny enough to carry on the off chance of coming across something interesting. I want one! And I'm looking forward to learning a few tricks from the kids when we take them with us on field trips.

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