American broadcasters may not be as familiar with equipment made by Madrid-based AEQ as other broadcast brands, but the designer and manufacturer of radio and TV equipment has an extensive track record of major studio installations across Europe, North Africa and China. Still, it is a significant event when a firm steeped in broadcast equipment — from mixing consoles to ISDN codecs — creates a field recorder designed specifically for broadcast journalists.
Until now, many recorders field tested by radio reporters making the leap from tape to digital have been designed primarily for other purposes. Many Minidisk recorders and other solid-state recorders were designed for recording business meetings or for musicians. Journalists had a hand in designing AEQ's PAW 120 digital field recorder, and that pedigree distinguishes this field-friendly device from the pack.
PAW stands for Portable Audio Workstation, a machine significantly smaller than first-generation chip recorders. At 4.75"×2" and a little more than 0.75" in thickness, this lightweight, aluminum-cased recorder can record, play and perform basic editing while easily tucking into your shirt or trouser pocket. It comes with a black leather carrying case with Velcro closure and belt loop.
In the field
I've used a PAW 120 daily since the units were released in the United States in May 2006. It has performed admirably in more than six months of constant use covering breaking news, disasters and documentary work. The recorder is fast on the draw (eight seconds from off to record) and its controls are largely intuitive despite the range and sophistication of its features.
With 512MB of built-in flash memory, the PAW 120 can hold roughly nine hours of FM-quality mono voice recording at 128kb/s, or five hours of music using 256kb/s MPEG 1 Layer II for stereo FM quality. The non-removable flash chip will also hold a little more than 90 minutes of raw, uncompressed stereo audio.
Performance at a glance
Operates for six hours on two AA cells
USB connection for file download or power
Records and edits files
512MB internal storage
Built-in mic and speaker
Basic editing of recorded files
Accepts mono or stereo external mic
Non-removable chips can be an obstacle for those who prefer to use portable memory for storage or to transfer files without a wired connection. Do you collect recorded memory chips like we once squirreled away cassettes? Do you like to hand off a flash card to a colleague? There's no alternative with the PAW 120 for offloading files and storing them on other media. This may not be everyone's way of working.
The standard array of WAV and MP3 flavors can be selected along with BWF, CCITT a/law and u/law formats. Four recording templates can be pre-defined to specify mono, stereo, compression, sample and bit rate. Once programmed, these can be changed quickly. Every option can be custom-set to accommodate individual tastes and needs. The PAW 120 does its best to keep you away from a labyrinth of sub-menus in day-to-day use.
Everything on the recorder is negotiable. You can create your own alphanumeric designators for file names, an invaluable feature for labeling audio files recorded on various stories or locations.
|Some operating controls and connections are placed on the sides of the recorder|
The unit can handle any species of condenser or dynamic microphone, with or without phantom power. My mic doesn't need the PAW's 19dB or 34dB boost for low-output mics. It features a voice-activated recording mode and automatic gain control plus a built-in mic that's perfectly acceptable for emergency moments. A built-in speaker produces enough volume to check a cut without resorting to headphones.
The recorder features line out and headphone jacks, mini-jack inputs for line and mic and a locking adapter cord that accommodates a mono or stereo XLR-connector mic. Though you can use any mini-to-XLR cord, the system's locking 41" cable can't accidentally pop out in the heat of action.
A pre-record mode engages by pressing a single button, allowing you to set levels before using the recorder's side-mounted slider switch to create an audio file. Record levels can be easily adjusted in 0.5dB increments, on the fly if needed, and markers can easily be indexed while recording. A bright red LED indicator flashes in one-second intervals while the PAW is recording. The stop button insists on being pressed for three seconds as a safeguard against accidentally stopping a record session.
It has the power
The recorder's battery life is rated at six hours on two AA cells, which is a significant improvement over other chip recorders, and a claim I can validate from extensive field use. There's little need for an external power source (nor is there one), although it can be powered through its USB cable. Rechargeable batteries can be used, but the PAW 120 does not recharge them via USB power.
The graphical OLED display is one of the best I've encountered, standing head and shoulders above anything on other devices. It is 1” square and displays at a glance, and on a single screen, everything you need to know: system resources, file information, and recording and playback settings.
Side-by-side digital read-outs show the total length of a recorded cut in hours, minutes and seconds alongside a real-time counter. In record mode, these counters display the unit's available record time along with the cumulative length of the cut being recorded. A tri-color progress bar displays this progress graphically — highly useful features for journalists who feed actualities live, directly from their recorders. This is where the recorder's broadcast genes shine.
The unit features a graphical editor capable of fast and easy waveform pull-up editing, although cutting and pasting are not supported. It's a pull-up editor that can take the pauses out of a politician's speech or remove unneeded portions of a large file to save storage space. It is not a full-featured editing system. The graphical representation of the WAV file can be magnified for precise cutting. In and out points are selected by pressing a button or by inputting time code.
The File/Folder Manager works like Windows Explorer, allowing you to create or rename directories and move files among them. The PAW 120's memory is formatted in standard FAT, making the recorder a plug-and-play utility on Windows or Apple machines.
For all its advantages, there are a few quirks: Printed documentation is thin, somewhat vague and printed in tiny type. The website for firmware updates, www.paw-recorder.com, is still in Chinese only, months after the unit's U.S. release, making a mystery of its links for those of us who do not read Chinese.
Carrying the recorder around in my hand while it is turned off, I constantly seem to hit several secret combinations of buttons that launch Chinese-language routines. I've not been able to exit any of them without opening the battery hatch and momentarily removing a battery. I could remember to engage the hold switch, which locks the keyboard, to prevent this — but it is weirdly annoying.
The PAW 120 originally displayed in English or Chinese. Through a firmware update in early November it has added Spanish to the mix. This firmware update also reprogrammed, among other things, search function controls for greater ease in navigating audio files. Apparently, AEQ is listening to end users and will update the PAW 120's operating software as the recorder gains real-world experience, a philosophy all too rare these days.
Linder is an investigative reporter for KNX Newsradio, Los Angeles.
Editor's note: Field Reports are an exclusive Radio magazine feature for radio broadcasters. Each report is prepared by well-qualified staff at a radio station, production facility or consulting company.
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