HHB FlashMic Field Test

This is an aside from everything else I’m considering at the moment but I feel compelled to write up a brief review of the FlashMic as there is not much information on it published and I’ve just worked with it in the field for a few weeks. Plus I’m processing all this deep personal and emotional stuff and need to geek out for a bit.
Prior to purchasing the FlashMic, I had HHB’s MiniDisc recorder; this served me well in all kinds of situations worldwide for several years. However, it is an over the shoulder recorder and basically requires a separate kit case for itself and its components. I’m travelling as light as possible now so a recorder built into the microphone is ideal (most of what I do is interview to mic anyway so the over the shoulder set-up is often overkill). Also, the MiniDisc recorder was damaged in flight on a prior assignment and was going to cost as much to repair as to replace so it was time to look for a new solution.

I have the DRM85, which is the omnidirectional model; most of my interviews are in somewhat controlled situations but it can be run and gun as well so I wanted the versatility of an omni and also hoped for less handling noise as well (more on that in a bit).

Handling and Design
The recorder has a ‘confidently solid’ feel but is not especially heavy (that said, if you are holding it at arm’s length for a 20 minute interview, the weight will be noticed; but that is the case with almost any microphone). It looks quite bulky in comparison to a standard interview microphone but I think most people would assume (if indeed they would assume anything) that it is a wireless mic. It does however, apparently raise an eyebrow at the airport security check; I was pulled aside at every point and hand searched with an explosives swab for it. It’s just out of their ordinary scope enough that they want to check it (and there was a moment in Frankfurt with security singing into it as if they were on a certain kind of television talent show…wish I would have had it recording).

I have only a couple concerns about the design; the USB and headphone ports are on the bottom end of the unit along with a rocker switch that controls most of the functions. I have a feeling that, of this were used in a ‘full-on’ news-gathering situation, that this area would be susceptible to damage or intrusion by soil or moisture. It would be good if there were some manner of rubber caps for the ports as there are on most professional cameras. The rocker switch, though I’ve no problems with it as yet, seems especially delicate. As it is necessary for all operation (it turns the unit on and off), any damage to it would be an end to the day. It is recessed, so they have physically protected it, but still I think it could do with a bit more robust design. I’ve no qualms about the membrane buttons on the side; they seem ready for anything (however, I do notice that the colour applied to each button is already beginning to wear off).

As this is a somewhat pricey bit of kit, it’s not something one wants to toss about or accidently drop. I’d like it if there were some provision for a wrist strap; I realise it would be difficult to isolate the strap connexion from the microphone to keep it from inducing handling noise. But I think I’m going to find myself fretting over the safety of the recorder where I should be focusing on an interview. I also find myself recording in dodgy situations sometimes on the street; as the recorder is just in one’s hand, it would make a perfect ‘grab and go’ item for an opportunistic thief (no doubt recording my protestations fading into the background as the thief runs off into a back alley).

As it’s an omni, I don’t think it’s especially susceptible to wind noise; nonetheless, I did purchase a dead kitty for it (it’s the Remote Audio Fat Cat; which fits, but it just fits with a bit of argument). It does have more handling noise than I had expected; one must be careful during recording not to futz about with it too much (it seems to have more handling noise than most dynamic cardioids; even the Sennheiser cardioid which I’m assuming the design is based on). This is just something to be aware of but I wish the capsule had slightly more isolation from the body. That said, there is good rejection of ambient noise; I recorded a couple very usable clips in the back of a cab in Mumbai and in a Land Rover out in the country. Also, as an omni, if one places it on a table, it becomes a quasi-PZM mic; I recorded a couple meetings that I knew would not be used for later podcasts but wanted for my records. I picked up acceptable audio by just sitting the microphone on a table in the midst.

Operation
The operation is fairly straightforward; once one figures out how to turn it on (which is not self-evident; it’s by a press and hold of the rocker switch on the bottom). There is a slight delay between a press for on and the recorder booting up and becoming ready for use (again, wish that could be a little less as I found myself wanting to catch a quick bit of conversation and waiting for the recorder to ready itself; that is going to be the case with most digital recorders now anyway. I think it’s just that I learned to do sound recording on a NAGRA which was going at the flip of a switch). As an aside, the manual that comes with the unit is beautifully done; whereas many manuals are either perfunctory or overly cluttered with jargon, HHB seem to have actual humans somewhere who are able to write lucidly.

They’ve managed to devise a fairly intuitive menu system with just a couple buttons and a one line display (this is supplemented with additional set-up software on one’s computer). One can define a number of pre-set recording scenarios; as I always record at the highest bit rate and etc., I didn’t use this much but see how it could be useful for working journalists. One minor niggle which I would imagine will change in the next model is that the display is sort of 1980’s vintage. It can be slightly difficult to read on the go; would be great if they could replace it with an OLED screen with sharp text (though, I would imagine that might be more of a power drain; I’m sure there was some discussion about this in design).

The overall operation could not be simpler; I was quite pleased to finally have something I could toss in a bag and then pull out at a moment’s notice for high-quality interviews. In the field, it’s often those impromptu moments that best capture the heart of the story and it’s a recorder like this that encourages that kind of work.

Sound Quality
In a word, excellent; it’s up with the best digital field recorders. Obviously there are recorders with super high bit rates and so on but a higher bit rate on this unit would be redundant. If anything it’s a bit too clear. The sound is, to my ear, bright; that can be brought back in post, but it would be nice if they could tweak the A/D converter slightly to encourage a warmer ‘NPR sound’. Clarity is good, but you’ll hear every lip parting and the hairs moving in your interviewee’s nose. I realise they are probably aiming for the most detail possible as the general use for this will be broadcast and the sound will probably suffer through several generations of compression.

Wish List
I like what HHB have done with the software interface but hope they take it a step further in future revisions. First, I wish the naming scheme for files was akin to that of digital cameras or that the software recognised the difference between already existing files and new ones. As it is, the naming structure is a straight _001, _002, _003, etc. If one erases files from the mic it begins again at _001; when one then attempts to upload new files into an already existing folder on the computer, there is a risk of over-writing the first set of files. Instead, one needs to organise each new set of files in a different folder and re-name them something sensible along the way. This doesn’t always work well in practice when one is rushing at the end of the day; it would be good if the software worked something like Apple’s iPhoto or the like and recognised the new and old, sorting them accordingly.

Next, I wonder if it might be possible to have the same features of the software for the computer in an iPhone app? This would be very useful for field use (and could even eliminate the need for a laptop on short trips). If a someone could upload, review, and send his or her clips via the iPhone, this would make a perfect field kit for a journalist (or podcaster or what have you). Also, taking it a couple steps further, might it be possible to connect the mic for live use via USB? This would add another level of functionality either on a laptop or phone for live to air spots.

There is a bit of handling noise if one marks a track during recording; could the recorder be equipped with Bluetooth for remote control of functions? For headphone monitors? I know Bluetooth only works within a few feet; but even headphone cables are a bit unwieldy coming out the bottom of the unit; might it be possible to go wireless with this? Or, could there be a complete WiFi interface between an iPhone of laptop to control, monitor, and upload the audio? I can imagine this would be useful for journalists at a press conference (and I know, for the seminar work I do, it would be great, as I’m often sitting in the audience and not able to access the recorder at the podium). That’s probably wishing for a lot, but still possible I think.

One thing that would be relatively easy to do is allow charging via USB; as I was wanting to pack very light for this trip, I opted to use lithium cells rather than bring along a charger (by the way, I used only two pair of lithiums on the whole trip; they seem to work a lot longer than noted in the manual!). It would be one less thing to pack if the rechargeable cells could be topped up via USB.

Also, I think this would be a great recorder for sight impaired people to use. The controls are straightforward; all that would be needed is some audio feedback via the monitors concerning what the mic is doing. This could be in the form of a quiet series of beeps or something like what Apple has done with their new Shuffle; a voice could say what track one is on, time remaining, etc.

Overall
Very pleased; I’m finally able to pack almost all my gear in a small backpack and go work without a load of cases or concern over technical issues. The FlashMic is going to be a constant companion on assignments now and, I think, will change the way I work and approach interviews (from the ease of use aspect as well as the fact that this is a non-imposing device I can pull out when someone might otherwise be intimidated by a big kit). I feel comfortable using it without headphones even (the AGC is excellent) so it is rather like a point and shoot camera except the results are always top notch. I’ll keep updating on its use here as I get out into different situations that test its abilities and limitations.

The interview below was recorded entirely with the FlashMic (as were most of the interviews on my Soundcloud account).