This page is compiled from various questions that I have been asked and contains answers I have written to people who have come from my music website.

Generally the page has been updated to add material in a sort of chronological way, but the latest update added material pretty close to the beginning, and the latest stuff addresses some very important mechanical considerations about microphone selection and use, and about how to avoid heart-breaking disappointment when the recording process fails. b But first, a discussion of the bigger picture.

Q: Hey Joe, 

While you are a good guitarist, you don't know jack about quality recording gear. Go here if you want some REAL information and here for the thread in which I came across your website  

A: Sent 10/12/2005

The core issue in recording live sound is fitting the tools to the tasks. The people who kept bugging me about what gear to carry in their backpacks or the pick boxes of their guitar-cases, to record music that they are personally involved in, needed tools that actually have very little to do with the stuff the live-show tapers have been carrying around. And for that kind of work, a minidisc recorder and a pair of Panasonic capsules can work very well if you know how to use them.

Listen to  and then point me to something that you have recorded that really sounds better than this - or more like what it really sounds like to be playing a duet like this with another guitarist (which is what I was trying to convey to the tlistener) - and I will tell you how I recorded it.

Sometimes 4 hours of mono is fantastic and can provide a scratch track that turns into a great studio-live album with a genuine live feel. In fact, these days I carry a cheap little digital camera that records 7 hours of 8-bit mono in .wav onto a 128mb SD-card and it makes very useful recordings from which very useful information can be recovered, especially at jam sessions.

In a lot of the rooms where guitar-players are forced to play and listen to live music, with the restaurant running and the grill's smoke-hood sucking and the walk-in cooler compressors rumbling away, and the overhead fans whirring, the noise-floor really is about -15 already. You don't need 24 bits to record 15 dB of dynamic range guys! Same is true of live sound. The damned stage monitors were putting out a wicked sounding 120 hz buzz/hum at about - 20 at both of the last shows I recorded.

I am about 2 years in to using the PMD-670 Marantz now and while I don't quite love it, I have no doubt that it outperforms every other audio recorder I have ever owned in pretty much every important way except size and battery consumption. I have hardly recorded anything on the minidisc since the Marantz arrived, becasue I n longer have to do real-time transfers: my CF card reader runs at USB2.0 and I can unload a 1 GB card in a few seconds. 

It is about twice as big as it ought to be, and does not run as long as I want it to between battery pack changes. But I can get a 1 GB card full at 44.1 at 16bit, with the headphones running and the display lit up, which is about all I need til the price of RAM drops another 50%.  I love that we are finally getting reasonably portable digital recorders that record 24 bit at 96 or even 192 khz and when Steve Jobs finally drives the price of 4 gb flashram down to an affordable level with his new flash-based iPods, I will upgrade from my Marantz 670 to something like the M-audio micro-tracker, a tool that did not exist when I got the Marantz. But the reality is that when I got this deck, a 512MB CF card cost over $150 and at 192 khz  and 24 bit, a 512 mb CF card barely gets you one tune.

But tied to this is proliferation of ever-cheaper digital storage is another issue that I consider very important: what I have found most interesting over the past few years is that the general public is making it very clear that free and cheap and convenient is far more important than good. Hence Job's control of 75% of the personal audio market. Which is funny, actually: we spent the last 25 years debating whether CD at 16 bit 44.1 was really good enough to replace our libraries of analog vinyl and tape, and now the majority of my friends are putting their music collections onto laptops and iPods. And when you go to raves and live D-J performances, you are hearing 160kbps and even 128kbps mp3's beat-mapped and mixed, and most people are listening to this crap through stuff that sounds as bad as or worse than a bunch of Mackie powered speakers.

Q: Say, where can I get one of those portable DAT recorders and how much do they go for?

A: On EBAY, but I would recommend NOT doing it. They are simply too expensive to operate
Buy a minidisc recorder instead. The machines are cheap and the recordings "sound" clean and quiet.
Specifically, buy a Sharp minidisc, not a Sony. Sharp makes them for live recording, Sony does not.

There are still some Sharp MD-SR60's available (10/14/2003).

I have recorded over 200 of the 72 - 80 minute minidiscs "in the field" on mine now, and I have used exactly 2 rechargeable AA batteries, that are both still >99% useable. Actually, I now carry a small Sunpak charger called Picturesplus that came with 4 Sunpak labled 1600mAh Ni-MH batteries in it. These batteries are every bit as good as the SHARP battery that came with the recorder. This charger is actually smaller and far more convenient than the wall-wart that came with the recorder, has folding plug-in prongs for the 120vac, and survived use in Hungary and Germany last winter. I decided that having 4 batteries on board was a blessing cuz I could go longer before charging them and I was carrying a FUJI digital camera that ran on AA batteries, too.

To have recorded that same amount of music on my Sony DAT would have required about 500 AA non-rechargeable Duracell batteries, and the minidisc is smaller, quieter and MUCH easier to use. The discs are still about $2.00 each, so they cost a bit more than I was paying for DAT tape, but they appear to be far more durable, are MUCH easier to carry, and are MUCH faster and easier to use.

One major beauty of this format is that you can record in MONO for twice as long on a disk, at no loss of fidelity.

Whether or not it sounds as good as DAT is somewhat moot until you start carrying expensive, fragile mics and an external mic preamp. Basically, as long as "it" (the recorder) sounds better than the mics I am using to feed "it" a signal, it hardly matters what "it" is. And if the sound source is a PA system, I find it hard to believe that what I use to record it really makes much difference, if the mics are reasonably well placed and the recorder's electronics are not overloaded. Most PA systems are about as subtle as the semi-trucks that haul them, IMHO. Look at it this way: the sound probably STARTS with an old SM-57 or SM-58! And the signal goes rapidly downhill from there. The poor signal goes through dozens of gain stages, hundreds of yards of wire, dozens of mechanical connections and finally comes out into an untreated room full of chaotic resonances, through arrays of marginally controlled loudspeakers with up to 15% THD.

If you have great mics already and want better sound than the minidisc can provide, buy a no-moving parts all-digital recorder or a preamp/interface with firewire port and figure out how to hook it onto an i-pod, ipaq, PDA or something like that. CoreSound just announced their PDA interface. I want one!

Check out the stuff on the Core Soundwebsite, also look at Soundprofessionals and which will link you to the SP site.

But I am serious when I say that the OLD-style Sharp recorders like the MD-SR60 that I use and recommend, or SR-90 that Flip and Zeke got (which is essentially the same unit), are better tools for most purposes than the Sony D-8 DAT, and a better live recording tool better than ANY Sony minidisc or most of the newer Sharp recorders.

Sent: Friday, October 17, 2003 10:29 AM
Subject: Minidisc Discussion

I apologize to just bother you out of the blue by sending this email about minidisc recorders, but my browser pulled up this link , so I wanted to quickly ask you about it. There's a drumming performance coming to town here in Dallas soon, and I'd like to record it with a minidisc player, but don't have one yet. I am assuming, based on given discussion, that an older Sharp is the way to go...correct? After I purchase one of those, is there an external mic you recommend to do this with? The older Sharps can still be found for sale, correct? Any help with this is GREATLY appreciated. Thank you for your time.

Dallas, Tx
A: Yes on all counts. And I will fix the page to add the stuff I am about to write.

Yes, find an older Sharp. I looked last week and they still exist cheap. I still prefer the MD-SR60 of all the machines I've seen to date.

For little portable mics, I personally recommend Core Sound, which is on the web, and linked off my base breskintunes page but there are lots of options these days and some of them undoubtedly work fine and cost less money. The mics that use a battery box to power the mics can handle higher sound pressure (loud rooms) than the mics that use the "plug in power" supplied by the recorder. Some offer bass rolloff filters that are VERY useful if you are recording loud music (PA systems) in boomy rooms.

But you can use ANYTHING for a mic that doesn't need real phantom power, if you make up the necessary cables. If you know someone in a rock band, they probably have some old Shure SM-57 dynamic mics around and those have been used as drum and guitar amp mics for decades. Audax makes fairly cheap mics that the local drummers are all using, but those are all big and they use cables with big XLR plugs on them. It seems sort of absurd to have the connectors on the mic cables take up more room in my pack than the recorder, but that's life these days ...

Everyone who sells small mics for stealth recording of live shows has had to address the boomy bass that builds up in auditoriums and clubs, which your ears adjust to at the show, but which overloads your speakers when you get home and makes the recording sound muddy. So they all sell mics with bass rolloff options of varying sophistication. Professional-type mics used on stage often have bass rolloff switches on them to allow the user to control if not really get rid of low frequency component of windnoise, proximity effect caused by idiots "eating the mics" on stage, and the resonance peaks from the typical hollow undamped stage that comes up through the mic stand.

This is not quite the same problem, but if you have a pair of good recording mics you can use, you will probably want to switch "in" the bass rolloff filter, and if they have "pads" (old Nakamichi CM-300's are cool mics with interchangable capsules - omni and cardioid - that have both bass rolloff and pad switches and can be found cheap and even upgraded internally if you decide that you can hear the difference the upgraded parts make) you will probably want to use the "pad" as well, when things get loud.

For drums, if you are going to be mic'ing them from up close, you might want something a bit less sensitive than condensor mics, but I had great luck at WOMAD recording a workshop in which a line of about a dozen brilliant African drummers from about 7 different nations and drumming traditions were sitting on the front of the stage exchanging centuries-old rhythms. I was sitting about 4 feet in front of them in the second row, with my Core Sound battery box mics (early models from 1996 with no bass rolloff) plugged into the line input of the MD-SR60.

Regardless of what you use for mics, if the signal clips on peaks (there record level indicator shows overload and you hear muddy distortion on playback - NOTE: you will NOT hear this clipping in the headphones while you are recording), just move the microphone plug into the line input. With the Sharp, I am quite sure that you don't even have to stop the recorder. On these machines (and on the Sonys, too) the line input is literally connected to exactly the same mic preamp electronics as the mic input but there is a 20 dB pad (a network of resistors) in front of it.

So the effect of plugging into the line input is that you reduce the peak voltage coming from the mic by 20 dB which gets you back into the middle range of the input level control again. This does not address microphone clipping, which happens when the sound pressure is either too loud for the mic to handle mechanically (rare, but sometimes happens with studio condensor mics in front of big PA systems or up too close to big drums) or the power supply for the mic (like the 3 - 4.5 volts provided as "plug in power" by minidisc, Sony DAT walkmans and good cassette recorders) runs out of headroom and can't provide the voltage swings that the preamplifier inside the mic requires.

Which is why you really do want the 9 volt supply for your stealthy mics, and why studio condensor mics use 48 volts phantom power. Finally, for most recoding EXCEPT rock concerts, I am convinced that you want OMNI mics not Cardioid mics because they are much more accurate, and yes, you really can make your own stealthy mics out of panasonic capsules and parts from Radio Shack and yes they work great and NO they don't sound as good as my Core Sound mics, but it may not matter.

National Geographic has a rule for it's photographers that I learned in the early '70's, and it applies to live recording as well. The basic answer to almost all technical questions about what shutter speed and what f-stop to use is always the same: "set the camera at f-8 and BE THERE."

Because there is simply no substitute for having the recorder on and the tape rolling, and having a signal that is not too hot getting onto the tape. At the risk of restating the obvious I will point out: fiddling around with complex and expensive equipment makes it less likely that you will get the recording of that critical moment, the musical equivalent of the Pulitzer-prize-winning image. Minidisc recorders offer incredible freedom. Minimum parts, minumum connections to keep track of, minimum number of things to forget to do, but running out of discs sucks, running out of batteries sucks and being on pause when you though you were recording is absolutely heartbreaking.

Which leads directly to the following: to avoid heartbreak, ALWAYS begin by writing a track on the blank disk. Turn it on, go into record, go out of "pause" into play so that you are actually encoding data onto the disk, and then stop and save and shut it all the way off. That writes a TOC onto the disk, which makes it possible to recover the data if something goes wrong.

Then, at any chance you get - which means whenever it looks like there may be a break of 40 seconds or so in the program, save the recording. This means go to STOP, and shut it all the way down (Goodbye) and then turn it back on (on the MD-SR60 this means hit the record button to come up in record/pause mode and then when it shows the blinking track number, go out of pause so that it is atually recording again. Time this operation and see how long it actually takes, and then do it whenever you can get away with it. Better to lose the first few notes of the intro to the next song than to lose the whole recording cuz the battery died in a way that the machine did not understand and thus did not compensate for.

The HOLD switch on the back of the recorder is a truly fantastic feature. Learn to use it immediately.

now, after that interruption, back to the previous discussion:

Q: Thanks for the speedy reply! It looks like I'll be able to afford a little recording rig to drop ideas.
Is there a way I can connect the MD-SR60 to my computer to edit, etc? Can you recommend any other items, accessories, etc?

P.S. If anything else comes to mind, please do tell. I really appreciate this information as I don't know any musicians or people who are into recording:)

A1: That download problem is the one real rub. None of the minidisc recorders currently on the market for under $500 have digital outputs. They all have digital inputs to steal music off the internet. But no digital outputs. Not even the ones that purport to have USB ports - it is a special lobotomized USB port that provide input only. They don't even have "line out" connections.
Which means you have to go out of the recorder's headphone electronics into the soundcard's analog input. Bummer on paper, moot point in reality. Still substantially cleaner than the mic signal most of the time.

A2: Fact is, it sounds as good as the electronics in most of the stuff you will ultimately be playing the CD on. Another option is to pay someone with a $500 rackmount "pro" minidisc system to dump the important stuff to CD for you.

A3: This was a problem with the DAT, but different. The D-7/D-8 has digital out but not standard SP/DIF coaxial connection or Toslink light-pipe - it is optical but takes a special $90 adapter cable. I ended up buying 2 rackmount DAT decks (and a series of expensive sound cards with toslink and SP/DIF on them) to dub DAT to DAT and to get stuff off the DAT tapes I recorded with the D-7 into the PC so I could put it on CD.

Q: Could you explain why the older Sharps record better than the newer Sony models? The reason I ask is because for a few dollars more the Sony MZ-N505 comes with a USB and allows you to transfer mp3, wma and wav files quickly to your minidisc! I think that's the last question I have:)

A: I can't imagine transferring pre-recorded music (MP3, CD, etc.) onto a minidisc recorder. It's that simple. I almost never listen to recorded music except as background music in restaurants or sometimes to keep me awake in the car. Rest of the time I listen to "real" music or recordings of real music.
I use the minidisc recorder as I used the DAT machines before that and the tape machines before that - to capture music in the field and get it onto a stable archival medium (meaning get it off tape) ASAP.

A: Sharp is the only maker who put the record level controls on the front of the machine rather than making you dig through the on-screen menus to find them. Try that in the dark.
The new machines ALL provide features that I do not want and leave off features that I do want. They all offer MDLP "long play" AKA greater compression, which I do not want, they use "odd" (kA non AA) batteries, which means I must carry their charger around and it is bigger than the recorder, and several of the newer machines with USB don't even have a place to plug a microphone, let alone clearly labeled "rec level" "controls and elapsed or remaining time and VU level display with overload indicator right on the front of the machine. The newer Sharp puts the whole display and recording controls on the remote (great!) and gives a much needed indicator that shows that you are in "record-pause" mode (which means you might think that you are in record and that tape is rolling, but it's not) but does not use a AA. So, there you are. That is why I am still pushing people toward the 3-year-old Sharp technology.

Q: A: To what end, though?
Q: Does Net MD allow you to transfer from MD to PC?
A: You can "check in" MD tracks, but only if they originated from the Open MG Jukebox application on your computer. You can NOT transfer independently recorded MD tracks (such as those recorded onto MD with a microphone) to your PC.

A: You could get a USB interface and plug it into the Sony (or Sharp) USB - but if you are going to do that (adding $129 for a USB mic preamp) it seems like a better idea to go the next step - and go for a firewire interface to an ipod, or some other solution - the latest is a 24/96 PDA interface on the Core Sound website.

Q: "Nuff said. I felt that I got some solid advice from a knowledgable individual and went ahead and ordered myself an SR60 from Kmart:) They have them for $119, free ground, plus tax. So now I wont eat for a week, BUT....i can record my homebrew noises...or something:)

A: Well done!!! next step - make some binaural mics.

Q: hm, can you post mp3s of your minidisc recordings so that I can download them? I see you have RA files, but I don't particularly care for those.

A: Yes - I'll post some new pages that offer some "bigger" MP3 files later this week.
The RA codec sucks, sonically, and my RA posts are mostly from 1996-1997, before the MP3 thing tookoff and before anyone had broadband. The MP3 codec I have been using for the past few years attempts to offer streaming content to dialup users.
I have stolen the interface from and modified it to offer both narrowband streams and downloadable non-streaming content, and built a bunch of new pages with links to new music, but have not yet uploaded the files.

Regardless, there is no way you will ever be able to distinguish between recordings made on DAT, minidisc or 24bit/96Khz DAW, in the MP3 versions, unless someone really screwed up.

Q: Boy, you're really good. I listened to c major to f minor and it's been a while since I've heard a melody that pretty. The recording is pretty damn good! Seems it gets distorded in those highs with lots of bass, but geez...this sounds so good (by the way, I'm just making an observation from a "recorder" perspective. Please don't be offended!).

Ugh, man...I want to play that good. I have to listen to this again. Say, I know one can't learn to play by reading a book but is there anything you can recommend? I just ordered Bruce Arnold's Music Theory for Guitar Vol.1 because since I'm no musical genius I want to learn music in good faith and reading music is part of that I guess.

You should update your webpage:-) I'd like to see what kind of gear you have (guitars, etc).

Why don't you play at the Roeder House some time?

Thanks. From the heart.
And I promise, my new stuff is even prettier.
And wait til you hear that one in hifi!
This settles it, I will update the site.
I have not updated the site in years!
here - try these pages tomorrow night.
But don't peek yet.

Q: I reckon you're self taught? Do you read music? I get the feeling you don't listen to recorded music?

A: OK, so last night I dug through a stack of minidiscs and edited a bunch of clips into MP3s - 32K, 96K, and 128Kb/s. I copied them to a CD and FTP'd some of them (32 Kb/s versions of 6 recordings) to the website.
Then I started editing the filenames, paths etc. on the new web pages, so the links will work New pages are not FTP'd to the site yet, but I will finish linking and FTP them later tonite.
I've been playing since I was about 9. My first guitar teacher was the guy next-door, when I was too young and too little to play. He was a drunk, and beat his son, my pal, but a genius level player who taught me to surrender to great music and let it carry me away. He played slide - lap steel, on a guitar with raised action and a BIZARRE slide - a length of 1" diameter brass rod with big flats filed on it, so that by rotating the slide he could change the mechanics of the slide and create gaps that gave him open strings, or even a few flattened intervals.
I almost never listen to recorded music except in restaurants or sometimes in the car. I had 2300 CD's ripped off when my place was robbed and have not replaced any of them. I really haven't listened to much recorded music for most of the past 30 years, though I accumulated a lot of it in binge buying episodes from time to time. Like - I'd get ALL of John Coltrane, or ALL of Bob Dylan, or ALL of Miles.
I can sight-read, but I hate to do it. I took guitar lessons for a while when I was about 12, but the teacher did not understand what it was that I was after, or play what moved me, and mostly I hated practicing scales. I don't play scales, and I don't think scales. I had played for 2 years before I got any lessons so I learned some things on my own that are really pretty unusual. Bruce Ackles, the guy who I had watched play slide didn't finger the neck at all.
I play with different first-position chord fingerings than other people so if you try to play my stuff, like the C-to-Fm thing, you will have a problem - I finger C, Em, and Am with the same fingering - just change the strings I am fingering. The shape for all 3 of them is the C shape. The Fm is also that shape. Play with it. For some things, it make life a whole lot easier.
For a lot of years, from age 16 to 25, I studied ethnomusicology under Robert Garfias
Debugging some links. I am connected at 50.666 and "Really dont love me" on 2002 is streaming at 32 Kbps

©(mostly) Joe Breskin 2002
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