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Olympus DM 20 and Mac OS X: Converting WMV files

Olympus DM20

I am now the lucky owner of an Olympus DM20 audio recorder (the most expensive 128 MB of portable storage in existence at €200+).

I needed a voice recorder to be able to do interviews for this website, mainly in dance. In particular it is absolutely impossible to keep up taking paper notes when interviewing Darrel Toulon.

It’s a very difficult job finding a good quality voice recorder which is at all compatible with Apple computers. All of Sony’s voice recording gear was out of the question as it just won’t work with Macs. After a good start with crossplatform compatible recorders, Panasonic is no longer in the voice recorder game at all.

The DM20 does an outstanding job recording voice audio in the field and blows away its less expensive brethren, the Olympus WS-100 (64 MB), WS-200 (128 MB), WS-300 (256 MB), WS-310 (512 MB), WS-320 (1 GB). None of the other machines such as the DS2 (apart from the even lower capcity DM10) are at all Mac compatible.

Why did I choose the Olympus DM20 with its limited capacity and high price? After reading Adlevision‘s wonderfully detailed comparative review of the WS-320 on Amazon, I decided I wanted pro gear that I could rely on:

For context, understand that I also own an Olympus DM-20 that I am using for comparison: whereas the DM-20 is the perfect voice recorder, aside from memory and transfer speed limitations, the WS-320 looks like a toy by comparison….

#3, there is a lot of hiss in the background when you record, even in STHQ mode. I don’t think this is a defect issue, I think it’s a CODEC issue or maybe hiss from the device electronics getting in as EMI–I don’t know, but the noise knocks it right out for any sort of serious recording. It’s close to the same when using an external microphone, more than for the DM20, although some hiss goes along with analog microphones of course. This reminds me of a microcassette, for example. I’ve tried using a pro-quality studio mic and good headphones to make sure, which gave less hiss but still more on the 320 than the 20 (The DM20 mic and codec are pristene by comparison)

#4, compared to the DM-20, HQ quality is much lower than what I was expecting. HQ on the WS320 already sounds a bit like an answering machine with digital background flutter (artifacts) when you hear it on headphones, whereas on the DM20 I can hear the words to music being played on the stereos of passing cars fifty feet away in HQ mode! …. Finally, the mic level on the DM20 is much, much stronger than the WS320. “Dictation” mode on the WS320 is inadequate unless you’re playing back the files in a silent room with the recorder’s volume max’ed, and even then it’s very low playing back. In both dic and conf modes, the DM20 mic makes much LOUDER RECORDINGS!!!…

#5, The plastic housing conducts and amplifies every slight pressure of your hand on the recorder. It’s a constant distraction, and very pronounced. This is not a problem when using an external mic.

#6, The hold and voice/music switches are now so small and have so incredibly little travel distance that I literally can’t tell with certainty by touch when I’ve pressed a button. Somehow I always manage not to successfully put it on hold when I attach it to the computer, probably because the switch slides back while I’m separating the pieces or plugging it in. These controls are slightly too easy to move by accident.

#7, The buttons are now too small to operate easily. I have to concentrate on them to a degree that’s distracting, especially record/stop/play. I’ve also noticed that the recorder seems to shut off after X seconds, whether or not it’s in hold mode. As a result, sometimes I have to hit Rec twice five seconds apart before anything will happen….

I had no idea there would be such a vast gulf between Olympus’ “business” products like the DS-2 and DM-20 versus these new products that attempt to cram in features at a “low” cost. Certainly, buying separate devices for voice and MP3s might be better, at least until they release a pro lineup to match these specs and boost the transfer speeds somehow. I’m looking at it from a professional perspective (where $200 is a sensible price), and from the perspective of voice memos (where $200 is NOT required). This new lineup disappoints me even for the task of making voice memos while I’m writing, since it’s so unergonomic; and certainly I could never take it into the field for interviews….

Unfortunately the Mac OS X compatibility isn’t as clear cut as all that. No problem with connecting the DM20 with a standard small USB connector. It mounts like a hard drive. But in the best case (HQ mono mode, 8h recording time), the DM20 records in 32KHz (mono; 64KHz stereo) WMV format.

What can you do with that audio on your hard drive?

You can’t play it in Quicktime, even with Flip4Mac installed. Upgrading to the requisite studio version of Flip4Mac for 2 way conversions will set you back a cool $179. That’s not on. Not even sure if it would work.

You can play it back with Windows Media Player 9. You can play it back with VLC. You can create trouble for yourself by trying to convert it with the following shareware applications which don’t work properly DivXWMAConverter 1.2.1 (freeware), EasyWMA 2.5.7 ($10) or Music Man 1.7.6 ($20).

Free is great when it works. Pay is okay when it works well. Not working at all is not good at any price.

What does work to convert the WMV files to AIFF or WAV or MP3 files?

A couple of good choices:

VLC will let you transcode it via the Streaming/Export wizard although a pop up dialogue along the way recommends against using VLC for file conversion for reasons unknown. I converted to uncompressed WAV this way. What is tedious is that you have to do this file by file. Argh.

Even better, the venerable and now retired Audion will allow you to create a playlist of all your DSS folders and recordings and do a batch convert on the bunch. The converted files show up in your ~user/Music folder with an MP3 extension attached.

Achtung: strangely enough Audion will not play back the WMV files at all adequately, even on a DP G5. First convert, and then listen and/or edit in the sound application of your choice, starting with Quicktime.

Panic has retired Audion and Audion is now a free download.

Obligatory software for all DM20 users. Olympus should buy Audion from the guys at Panic and include it Audion with every DM10 and DM20 sold.

If you want to record field audio and you have a Mac you now know two important things:

  1. What voice recorder to buy.
  2. How to make the files compatible with your Mac
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