Portable media toolkit

Over the past few months I’ve been assembling on the cheap what I think of as a portable media toolkit, and today the latest piece of the puzzle arrived. Here’s the entire collection:


The first piece of the kit is the Zoom H2 audio recorder, the R2D2-looking gizmo on the lower left. I’ve had this for a couple of years now, and am very happy with it. It makes excellent stereo recordings, straight to mp3 files on a SD memory card which I can easily remove and insert into a computer with a reader, meaning one less cable to carry around. I’ve used this to make weekly recordings at church, reference recordings of songs that Chris and I are working on, demo recordings for the website, live recordings at jams and performances, and even interviews. I paid $200 for it, but I see that it is available for as little as $130 right now.

I had the idea of building this toolkit when I started reading about netbooks, the mini-laptops that have become so popular. As I investigated I started to think that the makers might finally have hit on the right combination of size, weight, capability, and price. The netbook I ended up with is the ASUS Eee 1000HE, for which I paid $350, a price I think is remarkably low for what the machine can do. It doesn’t have an optical drive and the screen is small (wide enough, but short at 600 pixels), but it has a 160mb hard drive, excellent wi-fi, a great keyboard, and long battery life (6+ hours). It really is a grab-and-go machine.

On the lower right, the little silver gizmo is a Creative Labs Vado video camera, which I bought for $60. It is the ultimate in portability, able to store up to two hours of video, which you can copy onto your computer by flipping out a USB connector and attaching it; the camera also recharges its battery through the USB connector. Video quality is OK. Operation is simplicity itself, with one big white button that you push to record, push again to stop. One weak point on this camera is that it doesn’t pick up sound well at a distance. However, since the similar camera with good sound (Flip) costs about three times as much, I opted for the Vado.

Just above the Vado is an Olympus FE-20, the camera that arrived today. I bought one directly from Olympus at their online outlet store for $60. It is more capable than the Canon G5 I bought six years ago for $500, and it is tiny by comparison. The point of having the tiny Vado and the tiny Olympus is that they are both truly pocket-sized, meaning I can keep them in my shirt pocket and have them available for picture-taking wherever I happen to be. In the past we’ve been fairly faithful about recording events around the farm in photos, but even the minimal hassle of tracking down and carrying the sizeable G5 has led to more than a few photos being skipped. I’m hoping that these two cameras will make it easier to generate lots of pictures for the archives, especially since it is dirt cheap to store photos anymore.

To either side of the netbook in the back you will see small speakers. These are Logitech V20 USB speakers, which I bought on eBay for $26. Not as small as the smallest you can find, but the sound is loud and very high quality. Most important, the speakers are powered by the USB port, meaning the only wire you connect is to the computer—no power supply needed.

I should mention that it was a joy to fill these gizmos with the memory they needed. The audio recorder and the netbook both got 2Gb of memory added, for less than $20 apiece. The video camera came with 2Gb memory built in. The still camera was even better, accepting the 2Gb memory card I had bought for my cell phone two years ago (for $20) but had never made use of. I’m old enough to remember what memory has cost each step of the way, and I’m always surprised at the next step down in price.

The resulting toolkit is already getting a lot of use. When we’re on the road, there is usually wi-fi available somewhere and so we can check email and otherwise stay connected. Our entire musical library is loaded onto the netbook in iTunes, meaning we can check a song anywhere we happen to be. Chris sets it up with the speakers at the dining table and uses it as a practice workstation; just the other night he was using an audio processing program, the Amazing Slow Downer, to help him learn a fiddle tune. The wi-fi gives us access to the network from anywhere in the house, letting us take the machine to where the problem is, or just to sit in a comfy chair while composing or browsing. We’re practicing using the video and still camera to illustrate various common events around the farm. And so on.

I have mixed feelings about being so gadget-dependent. On the one hand, it keeps me immersed in a world that I often wish I could leave behind for good—and I often suspect I would be better off if I did so. On the other hand, given my background I know these tools inside out and can put them to good use. I suppose it’s irony verging on hypocrisy that I am employing them in the service of a project to help myself and others to wean ourselves from exactly the dependence on modern industrial technology they embody. I do my best to stay aware of that.


2 thoughts on “Portable media toolkit

  1. Have you and Chris found the Amazing Slow Downer to be truly helpful? Cody is asking for it as a birthday present believing it would be a great help, especially for fiddle tunes and solos. Any tips on the best place to buy it?

    Are these gadgets fairly easy to use for those not quite as technically advanced? Our camera and video camera are great quality, but we can’t even figure out how to upload a video once we’ve gotten it into MPEG format. We’re often taking video and photos at performances and concerts, but a lot of the time they end up sitting around for quite a while because it takes a lot of work for us to make them useable.

  2. Lisa,

    Have you and Chris found the Amazing Slow Downer to be truly helpful? Cody is asking for it as a birthday present believing it would be a great help, especially for fiddle tunes and solos.

    Chris and I were just talking about this a couple of days ago. It is incredibly useful. For one thing, by slowing down a recording you can hear many subtleties that your untrained ear can’t hear clearly at full speed, like glides and bends and steps both in vocals and on the fiddle. And once you can hear them slowed down, you can learn to hear them at full speed. More important, maybe, it is easy to set the program to loop over a particular section of a song at any speed, so that you can play along at whatever speed your ability allows. And Chris just found a way to have the loop speed up each time around by a small amount, so that he could learn a section slow and then gradually play it faster and faster.

    One other feature we’ve found helpful is that it does a very good job of changing the pitch without changing the speed. Quite often we want to do a song in a different key than the original, so this allows us to play along in that key.

    Any tips on the best place to buy it?

    I don’t know that it is available anywhere except as a download from the Roni music website. There it costs $50. You can download a free trial version to try out; it is limited in the amount of a song it will play, but gives you a chance to see if you like the program. And the program is pretty simple to learn.

    Are these gadgets fairly easy to use for those not quite as technically advanced? Our camera and video camera are great quality, but we can’t even figure out how to upload a video once we’ve gotten it into MPEG format.

    I feel your pain, and I’m not the best person to judge what normal people are going to find difficult to use, because I’ve been living and breathing this stuff for thirty years. I have to say that I am more mystified than I expected over how to create a proper video for uploading to YouTube. One potentially nice thing about the Vado video camera is that it comes with built in software (built in to the camera, that is) which allows you to upload a video clip directly to YouTube. So if you don’t need to edit the clip, I guess you can do it with the push of a button.

    But usually I want to edit the clips. I use Adobe Premiere Elements for that because I have a copy, but I suppose that Windows Movie Maker or whatever comes for free on the Mac would do about the same job. Where I am puzzled is when the time comes to save a properly compressed clip for uploading; nothing I’ve read anywhere on how to do it seems to match up with the options that Premiere Elements gives me.


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