Hands-on with the HHB FlashMic DRM85

Fantastic. That's the HHB FlashMic in a word. In a few more words... it's a high-quality microphone with a built-in flash memory recorder, providing over three hours of high-quality uncompressed audio recording. It's simple in operation, rugged, and will have radio reporters and better-funded podcasters scrambling over one another to get their hands on them. And since HHB were kind enough to lend one to our in-house audio expert Zog for a little road-testing, we can bring you some feedback on how it works on the frontline of podcast production.

The DRM85, to give it its proper model name, is based around an omni-directional condensor mic capsule from Sennheiser - and indeed it looks very much like the hand-held Sennheiser radio mics that you will probably have seen in use by touring bands and in various TV applications. A closer look, however, reveals that at the base of the mic, where the radio mic would have its transmitter, there is in its place the recorder hardware. This consists of a simple LCD screen, and three buttons - record and play transport controls, plus a menu button, all in the slightly outsized, nursery-style of design generally found on professional audio equipment. On the very bottom of the mic are a mini-USB connector, a combined scroll/push button to navigate the FlashMic's own operating system menus, and a headphones socket. The lower section of the mic body unscrews to provide access to the battery compartment - two AA cells provide around 5-6 hours of battery life, which is pretty decent considering that they have to provide phantom power to the capsule (condensor mics usually run off 48V power supplies) as well as power for the recorder.

In use, the FlashMic is quite straightforward. You turn it on, press the record button, and, well... that's it. The FlashMic will carry on recording until it runs out of RAM or battery power, or until you press stop. And if it does run out of juice (we tried this...) your recording, up to that point, will be safe in the FlashMic's memory. The LCD on the lower mic body shows whether the mic is recording or not, battery level, and input audio level - in short, just the things you need to know about you handheld recorder. When you want to retrieve your recordings, just plug the DRM85 into your computer via the mini-USB connector, and it will appear as an external storage device on your desktop. Files are recorded as WAVs if you choose to record uncompressed audio (our preference), or .MP2s (ie. using MPEG audio compression Layer 2, generally considered a better alternative to MP3 for professinal applications) if you record compressed audio. Basic management software is provided on CD-ROM, providing a simple interface to change setting on the DRM85, and to store these settings in six presets. Besides sample rate and quality, you can set recording level (with an Automatic Gain Control option), 12dB/octave high-pass filter on/off, energy-saving display options, and file naming and copyright information. Software runs on most versions of Windows, and on Mac OS X (though, as we found, some early G5 iMacs may not 'see' the mic or run the software; HHB are working on this incompatibility).

The mic's own menu-driven operating system, restricted by only a small LCD and a single push/scroll button, is a little fiddly and not always as intuitive as one might like, but it is at least simple, and allows you to change all of its settings - handy if, for example, you realise that you're almost out of memory and want to squeeze extra recording time out by switching from 48kHz uncompressed recording (a little over three hours) to 32k, 128kbps MP3 (18 hours 15 minutes). You do not, however, need to navigate menus and options in basic operation, which is good news - just record, play and the menu button are enough to get you through a day's work.

The audio quality of the FlashMic is very good - perhaps not quite what it would be with the same capsule combined with a good studio mic pre-amp, but nonetheless easily up to any radio broadcast or podcast application. A side-by-side test reveals that the sound is brighter, and a little thinner and less rounded than Sennheiser's own MKH40 vocal mic, though the comparison is a little unfair - the MKH40 on its own costs more than the DRM85, and doesn't even have a built-in digital recorder to justify part of the price. Having used the DRM85 to record everything from quiet conversations to Formula One engines revving in the pit-lane, we can report that the Automatic Gain Control does a good job, and enables the mic to pick up a wide range of volume with ease and with no distortion. We've stuck with the AGC setting through most of our time with the DRM85 for the sake of simplicity and peace of mind - we know that it'll always record at the appropriate level.

The inclusion of a headphone socket (on a mini-jack) is very welcome, allowing as it does the roving reporter to check recordings in progress, or to play back and listen to stored recordings. Though the 'extra' functionality of the FlashMic isn't always particularly intuitive, figuring out how to fast forward or rewind through tracks proved to be easy enough - just nudge the push/scroll button one way or the other.

The HHB FlashMic really is a very cool bit of kit. In the first place, there's something especially cool about the fact that digital recording hardware has become so small and cheap that, where a few years ago you might think about squeezing a half-decent mic into a digital recorder, it's now possible to squeeze the digital recorder into the mic. Now THAT's progress. But, in all seriousness, the benefits that flow from integrating a digital recorder in a broadcast-quality mic are very real. Any form of location recording calls for equipment that is as near idiot-proof as possible, and the DRM85 is just that, partly because of its integrated nature - no cables to lose or work loose, and only one device to feed with batteries. (This isn't to say that podcasters, radio reporters, and others who go out on the road with a mic and recoding equipment are, in fact, idiots, but under the pressure of time and circumstances - you only have one shot at an interview, and you're still forming the questions in your head as you check that the batteries are still alive – the tools of your trade should be simple to use, as well as rugged and reliable. Which is why professional location recorders costing thousands of dollars tend to have jumbo-sized Fisher-Price style transport controls that only a moron in a hurry could mis-read.)

The DRM 85 replaces a whole bag of kit with a single, easy-to-use device, and that's a huge benefit – just pick up a couple of spare AA cells and you're ready for anything. The only drawback for most potential users will be the price. At £699 + VAT, it will be too expensive for many podcasters - though not for the likes of the BBC, who I confidently predict will buy hundreds. Perhaps some way down the line HHB and Sennheiser will come up with a cheaper alternative... until then, if you have the means and spend much time carrying around a mic and a portable recorder, this is really is an essential purchase.

© P. Ireson 2006. Just because this text is posted on the internet it does not follow that you are free to copy and reproduce it without permission - you are not.

Sampling Frequency 48kHz, 44.1kHz, 32kHz. Selection by FlashMic Manager software or on DRM85
Bit Resolution (Linear) 16 Bit
Audio Formats Linear PCM, MPEG 1 Layer 2, Selection by FlashMic Manager software or on DRM85. 6 mode settings
Bitrates (MPEG) 192, 160, 128 kbps
Frequency Response 20 Hz - 20 kHz ±1dB @ 48 kHz FS Linear PCM
THD + N < 0.1% (20 Hz - 20 kHz) @ 48 kHz FS Linear PCM
Number of Channels 1 (Mono)
Microphone Capsule Omni-directional
Record Level Automatic Gain Control (AGC = on), Manual Gain Control (AGC = off)
High Pass Filter Switchable on/off, 12 dB/octave @ 100Hz
Data Storage System Fixed internal memory, capacity 1 GB.
Date / Time Internal real-time clock, running as long as power supply is available. Back-up supply for 1 minute to allow battery change. Set / synchronized automatically by host computer application according to host computer clock. Manual setting on DRM85 by menu item.
File Format Broadcast wave file (.wav). Linear PCM or MPEG 1 Layer 2 compressed. Date / Time stamp is stored in file header. Filename generated automatically by DRM85, basic text string provided from PC software.
File System FAT. Mounts as a removable drive via USB mass storage device protocol. File transfer is possible with the FlashMic Manager software or through Windows Explorer and Mac OS Finder.
Headphone Output 3.5mm stereo socket, mono signal to both channels. Drive capability for 32Ωheadphone, short circuit protection.
Optional Accessories Wind shield, table stand.
Weight 366 grammes / 13 ounces (excluding batteries)
Dimensions Length 244mm / 9.6 inches. Diameter at widest point (mic capsule) 50mm, 2 inches.


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