USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

An Audio Panacea?
Not just a neat peripheral, the Jukebox Recorder promises to be an immensely useful tool

The newsroom of the future, we were once told, would be home to multimedia reporters as adept at on-air broadcasts as producing tightly crafted prose. All stories would be Web enabled and woe to the ink-stained wretch who didn?t master HTML pronto.

As the first year of the 21st century wraps up, it?s clear that other than at the highest of high-tech news outlets (think CNET?s, maybe; or the predictions have proved fatuous. But that doesn?t mean journalists shouldn?t be thinking beyond the written word and pixilated photograph with their stories. Particularly for the freelance and blogging set, many of whom already record their interviews, why not include audio as part of your finished product?

One reason is that it?s been a real pain in the butt. It?s bad enough fast-forwarding and rewinding through that 60-minute cassette for the four killer quotes you want for your story. Who?s got the patience to then convert that tape of dubious audio quality into digital format, splice out the dull stuff and post it to a Web site or blog?

In fact it?s a lot easier to accomplish all of that, thanks to products like the Archos Jukebox Recorder.

At heart, the Recorder is a portable 6-gigabyte hard drive. Portable storage is what the French firm Archos is best known for; in addition to the Recorder they make some fine mini-DVD and CD-Recordable drives. But in the Recorder the company has hit on a product that is in and of itself a powerful tool, not just a neat peripheral.

That?s because beyond 6 gigs of space, the Recorder has burned into its little integrated circuits an MP3 recording processor. That means the device can function as a digital tape deck and record broadcast-quality audio in a natively-compressed format.

As a straight reporting tool, the Recorder (like just about any digital recorder) is a lot easier than tape to flit through in the hunt for choice parts. In the same way you can bop around an audio CD at will, going from first song to last in a couple clicks, so too can a reporter on deadline zip through hours of dialog for the quotes they?re after. I recently covered a technology trade show featuring keynotes from the likes of Microsoft, Adobe and Quark. On an average I had about an hour to turn around stories of 750-1,000 words apiece on what was said. Even with no experience with the Archos device, using it ratcheted down the assignment from ball busting to only slightly frantic.

Recording an interview or event is a straightforward process. With buttons on the front of the device you tap out a file name, set the recording quality, test the sound levels and press go. When you?re through, you can listen to the results directly through a set of included headphones. Or better still, hook the Recorder up to your PC through its USB cable and drag-and-drop the resulting MP3 file onto your desktop for easier manipulation.

With low-cost and free software like Acoustica, CoolEdit and Sound Forge, it?s an uncomplicated process to cut and paste snippets of your recording together into a new file. Then FTP it to your site, throw up a link and people can now download and listen to what you?ve wrought.

The Archos Recorder comes with a built-in microphone, which is plenty good for dictation. But because the mic is part of the unit itself, it picks up the occasional whir of the unit?s hard drive writing to disk. Better to use an external microphone, even a cheap one from Radio Shack.

The product?s one serious flaw -- and something Archos would be wise to address in future models -- is that the microphone port is not self-powered. But the addition of a mini-preamp, which sits between your microphone and the Recorder, can boost the input signal. The Sound Professionals sells the best around, for about $150. An alternative is to pick up a battery-powered, clip-on microphone, which accomplishes much the same, but has a more limited range.

Which brings us to price. At about $300, the Archos Jukebox Recorder is not cheap. This isn?t a toy, after all. Throw in a preamp and you?re talking about an investment of around $450. Luckily the price of the Recorder should fall in the months ahead. The unit I tested went for $360 at a local electronic store in September. Harmony Computers now has them in stock for $289, meaning the cost has already dropped by about 20 percent. And for comparison sake, Apple?s iPod, which has just 5 gigs of space and no MP3 recording ability, goes for about $400.

The Archos Jukebox comes with Musicmatch Software, an A/C adapter, earphones, USB cable, RCA cables and a scuba-suit-like carry pouch. The instruction book is close to worthless, but because the Recorder is so simple, there isn?t actually a lot to say. An Archos discussion board has sprung up on Yahoo! Groups, and answers to most questions (plus some fun hacks) can be found there.

The Recorder runs on four AA NiMH batteries that can be recharged by plugging the unit into a wall socket. It?s a little perplexing that while juicing up, the Recorder?s backlight stays lit, and the unit itself gets noticeably warm. But after using and recharging the product for several weeks, I?ve not had any problems.

The next big leap in audio recording for newsies is transcription software that can auto-convert your interviews into text. Lernout & Hauspie, the voice recognition company that once led the pack, just had bankruptcy declared on it by a Belgian judge. So don?t expect such wonders from them any time soon. But within three years or so that kind of news tool should exist, at least in a rudimentary format. And maybe then the newsroom really will start to live up to the multimedia hype of days past.