I’m in research mode, interviewing experts for my book. I had been using an Olympus mini-cassette recorder, and wasn’t too unhappy with it, but a few years ago professional journalists convinced me to try out a solid-state digital recorder. I settled on an early Olympus Digital Recorder and it’s been pure delight. There are many more models to choose from now. Each is solid state and essentially a small capacity MP3 player with a built in microphone.
The advantages over the mini-cassette: 1) Ultra-tiny and light, it’s truly pocket size, only as long as your finger, but twice as fat. It’s only weight seems to be the two AA batteries. 2) Digital sound; the built-in mike is fantastically keen and sharp. I usually don’t need the lavaliere mike I used to use with the analog machine. 3) No tapes. I can get up to five hours in this little thing; other versions can get 11 hours. 4) Easy download. After each session I merely plug it into the USB port and it dumps the recording to my hard disk. (Has a nice MacOSX version!). 5) Best part, the files are easily scannable, and bookmarked on my computer. I find I can more readily zip back and forth through an interview to find the parts I want, rather than have the whole affair transcribed. 6) But if I want to, the files are easily transmitted to transcribers via email or the web. No more packaging up tapes. 7) Lastly, the audio files can be easily posted for general archival purposes on the web or elsewhere.
Downsides: Olumpus does not record in MP3 but its own compressed format. It’s more compressed than MP3 and so files are easier to email, but you have to convert them if you want to share them openly.
I carry mine in my bag, next to a Radio Shack itsy bitsy lav mike for extra sound quality in noisy rooms.
There are many Olympus models, some as low as $32, but those don’t have a USB plug — they are listen only. The cheapest one that has a USB outlet to move the digital files is, I believe, the 960PC for $80. But this model does not work with the Mac for some strange reason. The least expensive Olympus model I found that will work with the Mac is the DS-2, which goes for about $100.
None of these models remain in production long.