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Taping With The iPod?

Building an iPod Recording Rig

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Belkin TuneTalk Stereo

Belkin TuneTalk Stereo

Belkin Inc.
I bought my first iPod in 2003, and almost immediately, I wished it had recording capability. Think about it - ultra portable, lots of storage, and pretty durable (as long as you don't mind it scratching up the moment you leave the house with it!) At the time, I was still recording live to DAT, which involved realtime transfer after the fact, and a lot of recordings got lost due to sheer laziness of not wanting to do that whole transfer thing.

Answering the call of many iPod owners, Belkin introduced their TuneTalk Stereo, designed for the iPod. It's compatible with the second generation iPod Nano, as well as 5th generation and above iPod Classic. It's a lot like other voice recorders on the market for the iPod, but this one has a very unique feature - it has a 1/8" line-in jack, and by default, it records in uncompressed, stereo .WAV format. I didn't think much of it until I was given one to play around with - and I'm very impressed!

Input Options

When taping, the quality of the input stage in the recording interface is of paramount importance. With the Belkin TuneTalk, you've got two options for recording. One, built-in microphones, and second, the line-in jack. If you're doing a stealthy recording, you can use built-in stereo microphones, but be warned; you probably won't get very good recordings in high SPL environments, not to mention the fact that the microphones aren't very high quality. For recording lectures, though, the internal microphones are ideal. So what's missing?

Obviously, the ability to go digital-in would be absolutely fantastic. In fact, a combination optical/analog mini input would be easy. But, for a small attachment that's retailing at around $60, there's not much more I can ask for at this price point. The biggest thing that surprised me is the quality of the input connector itself. The cable connector I used locked very snug into the jack, more so than the actual headphone jack on the iPod. This makes me think that the overall longevity of the 1/8th inch jack will be good.

Recording Format

In high quality mode, the TuneTalk records in 44.1 Khz, 16 bit stereo .WAV format. This is great, especially since your end result is CD. However, if you're into recording 24-bit, this product won't help you.

What's Missing?

Other than a digital input, there's one very big problem with using the iPod - there's no variable input level, and there's no metering to show you what you're doing.

That being said, it seems that the input is a little higher than line-level, meaning chances are, you won't need much more or less gain as long as you can trust the output source you're coming from. This is perhaps the major shortcoming of this method; however, if something like RockBox comes out with an update for the iPod supporting the protocol that the TuneTalk uses, then this might not be an issue.

Preparing the iPod

If you're planning on using the iPod for recording, you might want to consider reformatting the iPod, then loading on only the music you wish to keep around to listen to, removing anything in excess. Leave at least 5 to 10 gigs of storage open just so you don't run into any problems.

Power Issues

Another issue is power. Reports vary, but it looks like the iPod can make it around 2 hours on a full charge while recording. Some users have reported as much as 3 hours per charge, but to be safe, you might want to consider a USB power adapter, ran on AA batteries. There's a few out there to choose from. The TuneTalk allows you to use a pass through USB cable for power (which is included in the package.)

Sound Quality

Being uncompressed .WAV, the sound quality is great, and more than acceptable for concert taping. The stereo image remained intact from the source. The only major issue, to my ears, was the absence of low, resonant bass notes. It sounds as if there's a sharp cutoff in the low frequencies, which may be a side effect of the cheaper analog/digital stage.

Hear for yourself. The recording is Umphrey's McGee from The Pageant in St. Louis earlier this month. Click here for the source recording, and for comparison, click here for the same clip recorded through the TuneTalk. Listen on some headphones, and you'll probably hear what I do.

Building a Rig

To build a rig around the iPod, you'll need a few things to make sure your recording can go on uninterrupted.
  • A 5th generation or newer iPod, including the second generation iPod Nano.
  • Belkin TuneTalk Stereo.
  • 1/8" Recording Cable (and connection adapters).
  • A USB Battery Pack. Consider one like this.

In Conclusion

It might not be perfect, but for just over $60 past the cost of the iPod you already have, there's not much more you can ask for. The quality is great, although the flexibility of options is not. For someone looking to record lectures or the occasional soundboard recording, this is a great deal.

Since the TuneTalk was introduced, there's been a couple other options for recording with your iPod that you might want to explore if you need something better than a two-track, stereo recording.

Belkin has recently introduced the Podcast Studio, a more advanced recording device for the 5th generation-plus iPod. Featuring dual XLR and 1/4" TRS connectors, better quality built-in microphones, as well as microphone preamps with independent level control, the Podcast Studio is another great choice if you're recording straight to iPod.

Sound quality on the Podcast Studio is, not surprisingly, very close to the Tunetalk. However, if you're in situations where you won't be able to get a clean feed from a reliable mixer (or an environment where you really need level control over your mics), the Podcast Studio is the ideal solution.

Podcast Studio will run you about $130, depending on your choice of retailer.

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