I always take a recorder and a mic with me when I go on vacation in case I stumble upon a story. When I went to Minnesota in July, instead of bringing my good machine, a Zoom F6, I packed my backup recorder, the much smaller Zoom F3.
The F3 is an astonishing little device that measures 3 inches by 3 inches. It sells for $350 and has the ability to record two tracks of 32-bit floating point audio, which makes it pretty hard to distort recordings. When I record with a sampling rate of 44.1 kilohertz, as I typically do, the 128-gigabyte micro secure digital card in my F3 can hold 200 hours of audio recorded in mono.
The Zoom F3 weighs a tad over 8 ounces. I packed the tiny machine in my knapsack with a small shotgun microphone and a homemade pistol grip.
Sure enough, I found a story up near the Canadian border. I used my F3 to interview instructors and students at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. I recorded seagulls on Lake Superior and kids banging away in the blacksmith shop. The audio quality was pristine.
The ease of that experience got me thinking about the evolution of portable audio recorders. The little F3 is smaller, lighter and a much better recorder than the Sony TC-110 cassette recorder that was the standard in radio journalism when I started out nearly 50 years ago. It is better than the digital audio tape and minidisc recorders that we transitioned to after cassette decks. And it’s still a fraction of the size of the first digital recorders that, at the beginning of the digital age, opened up new possibilities for radio reporting and audio storytelling.
State of the art in the 1960s
I bought my first professional tape recorder, a Uher Report 3000, around 1974. Saul Mineroff, an electronics wiz from Long Island, N.Y., sold me the portable mono reel-to-reel tape recorder.
One of Mineroff’s feats of electronic wizardry was modifying a couple of stereo Uhers so that they could capture quadraphonic sound for a series of albums with recordings of natural sounds, such as grasshoppers chirping in a field.
The German-made Uher has been referred to as the “Poor Man’s Nagra.” As the best portable recorder money could buy back then, the Nagra was used in feature film shoots. WBAI, the Pacifica radio station in New York City where I started my career, bought a Nagra in 1964 for a little more than $1,000. That’s the equivalent of $10,000 in today’s dollars.
While reporting for WBAI, I never had the occasion to use one of the station’s Nagras. But after I started freelancing for NPR, I was blessed when Manoli Wetherell, an engineer in the New York bureau, brought a Nagra to record my interview with Bruce Springsteen.
We did the interview inside a Winnebago on West 44th Street in 1985. The recording was for a piece I reported on an anti-apartheid project organized by Little Steven, the actor and musician who was the lead guitarist of Springsteen’s E Street band. Regrettably, a landlord of mine threw out the reel of tape with the raw interview.
WBAI’s first Nagra came with the station when its license was donated to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960. A former WBAI engineer named Peter Zanger — who went on to work at HBO, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the United Nations — remembers that the old Nagra, which probably dated from the early 1950s, had a crank handle on the side. It was used to wind the spring that caused a motor to transport the tape. To generate enough power to pull through a 15-minute reel of tape, the crank had to be turned three times, Zanger recalled. (The battery inside the machine was used solely to power the tubes for its electronics.)
Zanger still remembers when he used one of WBAI’s Nagras to record the Grateful Dead at a free East Village concert in the late 1960s. The machine was so heavy it wore a groove in his shoulder, he said.
WBAI acquired a Nagra III recorder in 1964 for Chris Koch, its public affairs director, who was preparing to cover the Freedom Summer project, during which student volunteers from the northern U.S. registered Black citizens in Mississippi to vote. Koch wanted to take a Nagra to Mississippi because they were so reliable. But they were very hard to come by.
At that time, the world’s best portable recorder was made by hand in Switzerland by Stefan Kudelski, a Polish World War II refugee. Kudelski built the machines in the garage at his home outside Basel. When someone from WBAI called to ask about buying one, Kudelski said there was a long waiting list and shipping one to New York was out of the question.
Undeterred, Koch flew to Switzerland and showed up at Kudelski’s doorstep with the cash to buy the coveted Nagra.
“My eagerness, enterprise and the stories of the dangers that I faced in Mississippi convinced Kudelski to sell me one on the spot,” Koch recalled. “I flew back to New York, packed and headed to Mississippi with a new Nagra and a box full of audio tapes.”
Koch interviewed the college activists and local children and recorded the freedom songs sung by participants in the movement. He remembered the Nagra as being “sturdy as a tank” and “easy to use” while capturing “beautiful sound.”
The 12-part series he produced for Pacifica Radio, This Little Light, gave listeners a better understanding of life for Black people in Mississippi.
Voice Acts and nutcrackers
As hard as it is today to imagine hand-cranking a recording device, consider my experience as a reporter for WBAI and WNYC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, the fastest way to get audio back to the newsroom was through a landline.
I remember catching a serious case of equipment envy in 1978 when I was WBAI’s City Hall reporter covering the new administration of Mayor Ed Koch. Radio reporters from commercial stations used a device called the Voice Act to send their stories back to the newsroom. The device consisted of a mic with a miniplug jack for feeding audio from a cassette deck.
The Voice Act screwed on to the mouthpiece of a landline telephone handset. Reporters cued up their actualities with the recorder’s pause button, read their continuity live through the Voice Act mic, rolled the tape at the appropriate moment and came back on mic for a live read that included a sign-off.
Warren Levinson, who reported for Associated Press Radio for 40 years, said the Voice Act wasn’t as great as it seemed. He was especially disappointed by the quality of the Voice Act mic and came up with a work-around. He plugged an external mic into a cassette deck that was in record mode and used a cable to connect his Voice Act to the recorder. The sound was much better, he said.
At WBAI we used a simpler tool to access the telephone lines via pay phones. The tool, known as a nutcracker, gripped the cap on a telephone handset’s mouthpiece. Applying a little muscle to the nutcracker, you could break the epoxy seal of the cap and unscrew it. Then you removed the loose microphone disk that leaned against the terminals and attached an audio cable that was in every radio reporter’s toolkit. One end of the cable had a male miniplug; the other end had two alligator clips. The miniplug went into the headphone jack of the cassette recorder, and the alligator clips grabbed onto the two metal terminals in the mouthpiece.
With that setup, you could send tape, live voice tracks or the output of a mixer through the phone.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, radio reporters in New York City had a map of pay phones that had already been cracked. These were mostly in places where they frequently filed stories, like courthouses.
At WBAI we spent a lot of time covering political demonstrations. In 1979 the station broadcast a rally in Lower Manhattan decrying Wall Street’s ties to the nuclear industry. I opened a nearby payphone with a nutcracker, and we connected it to a cable from our mixer. Once we attached the alligator clips to the terminals — bingo! — we were on the air.
This unauthorized use of telecommunications infrastructure was detected by some men in suits who, oddly, let us continue with our broadcast. They did ask me to pose for a Polaroid snapshot displaying our guerrilla electronics, and I was more than happy to oblige. Hey, I was 26.
‘Sounded great but … incredibly inconvenient’
During the 1970s, the standard gear combo in radio news was a Sony TC-110 mono cassette recorder and an Electro-Voice 635A omnidirectional microphone.
Another Sony portable, the TC-800B reel-to-reel tape recorder, had much better fidelity but was heavier to carry around. It weighed close to 12 pounds with the eight D-cell batteries needed for power.
Early in his radio career, independent producer Jay Allison borrowed a TC-800B from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. This was back in 1976.
“It sounded great, but it was unbelievably inconvenient,” Allison recalled. “You couldn’t run with it, and you were constantly changing reels. Every 15 minutes you had to interrupt an interview to start a new reel of tape.”
Its 5-inch reels of quarter-inch audio tape lasted 15 minutes at the optimum recording speed of 7.5 inches per second. Allison said he was reluctant to switch to lighter analog cassette decks because they recorded at half that speed and produced inferior audio.
Another downside of the cassette recorders was that they occasionally would eat the tape. “You lived in terror of that,” said Allison.
Improvements in portable recording technology have had a profound impact on the creativity of radio reporters and producers, Allison said. When lightweight cassette recorders became available in the early 1970s, they could capture sound in situations that hadn’t previously been documented for radio broadcast, such as what it sounds like to ride a bucking horse or kayak down a whitewater river with tape rolling.
Cassette recorders — and, eventually, cheaper handheld digital recorders — also made it possible for producers like Joe Richman to capture the lives of diarists who participated in long-form projects like Teenage Diaries. Richman knew going into such projects that the devices might not survive the process. A few of Radio Diaries’ recorders have been “broken/smashed/lost” over the years, he said in an email. He lent a machine to one teen who ran away with it.
To Richman, cassette decks have been the most foolproof of the recorders to lend out.
“It was helpful to be able to see the tape physically move,” said Richman. “If something went wrong, it was usually easy to repair or rescue on analog tape. With digital, when something goes wrong, it’s gone.”
To this day, Richman remains fond of the Sony TC-D5M, a stereo recorder that debuted in 1980 and weighed less than 4 pounds. Even though it was pricey, Richman sent a few out to diarists. Because the D5M didn’t have an automatic recording level feature, he decided later to use the Marantz PMD222, a mono recorder that was popular in radio newsgathering. In addition to the automatic level feature, the Marantz had an XLR mic jack, which is more secure than miniplugs used on devices for consumers.
‘I thought I was in heaven’
Wetherell recalled breathing a great sigh of relief in the 1990s when NPR supplied her with a TC-D5M in lieu of the Nagra she had been toting around.
“I thought I was in heaven,” Wetherell said of the days when the sleek black TC-D5M hung from her shoulder. Her career with NPR included working as a field recordist for NPR hosts in El Salvador, Bosnia and Somalia.
The Nagra weighed 15 pounds with a dozen D-cell batteries and “got heavier the longer you were carrying it,” she said. Wetherell still suffers from “Nagra shoulder” some 30 years after using the portable reel-to-reel recorder.
The Nagra was lightweight in comparison to the first portable digital audio recording system made by Sony. Available in the early 1980s, it consisted of the PCM-F1 audio processor and a separate unit that recorded audio on Betamax videocassettes. The processor, recorder and the external battery packs needed to power them could weigh as much as 25 pounds.
Celebrated radio drama producer Tom Lopez worked with the PCM system in the 1980s and says he’s impressed with how well the tapes have held up all these years later. There are no dropouts, those very brief moments where audio is lost.
“They were great, great recorders,” said Lopez, founder of ZBS, a radio drama nonprofit in upstate New York.
Arrival of DATs
One radio producer with a studied perspective on the evolution of portable recording technology is Jeff Towne of Echoes, the daily two-hour music show distributed by PRX. He also serves as the tools editor at the public radio website Transom.
Few people working in public radio today have field tested as many recorders as Towne. His gear reviews for Transom have become must-reads for new radio and podcast producers trying to decide which equipment to buy. His write-ups include audio samples of test recordings that he makes with multiple microphones.
Towne started using his father’s Marantz PMD430 cassette recorder when he was still in high school. The PMD430 recorded in stereo, and he used it to record musical performances and interviews. Looking back, Towne said he liked that the recorder had three heads, which enabled him to monitor the actual recording on the tape. But he wasn’t keen on its mic jacks, which required cables with ¼-inch phone plugs.
When Towne joined Echoes in 1989, digital audio tape recorders were the new technology. DATs were smaller cassettes that provided superior quality to their analog cousins, but they had other drawbacks. Every once in a while the recorder wouldn’t capture audio — even though the volume unit meters were registering, the counter was rolling and the spindles of the tape were turning, Towne recalled.
“It made me long for that [third] ‘confidence head’ on the Marantz!” he said.
Past vs. present
These days Allison’s toolkit includes a handheld Nagra SD the size of a pack of cigarettes. The recorder works with a series of interchangeable microphones that attach directly to the machine without cables. Nagra stopped making the unit in 2017. Allison estimates that he paid about $1,000 for it with the accessories.
Towne currently works with a Sound Devices MixPre 10 when he’s making multitrack recordings of live concerts. For interviews he uses either the Sound Devices MixPre 3 or a Tascam X8, which can record six or more tracks.
The handheld Tascam X8 is a great example of how the smaller digital recorders have become feature-packed and cutting-edge. In addition to a pair of built-in microphones, it has four XLR mic jacks and records 32-bit floating point audio.
“It is very convenient to be able to multitrack an interview with such a small device,” Towne said. “It’s great to have one small recorder that could be used for the typical one-mic handheld interview, or multi-mic interviews, or to easily grab some ambi [ambient sound] with the built-in mics … and 32-bit float recording is great for unpredictable situations!”
With a $400 price tag in 2023, the Tascam X8 makes audio recordings that are just as good, if not better than, the old reel-to-reel Nagras.
“There’s really very little difference between the practical audio quality of a Nagra and a good digital recorder,” observed Zanger. “The digital recorder might have a better signal-to-noise ratio.”
“Many people find the analog Nagras to be more ‘musical’ than digital recorders,” Zanger added. “On the other hand, modern digital recorders afford longer recording time. But they’re not as pretty as a Nagra!”