Olympus LS-20M video-capable audio recorder

The Olympus LS-20M

A handheld audio recorder is an essential part of the reporter’s toolkit, either for recording interviews on its own, or together with a digital SLR for video. But there is also a handful of audio recorders that have video capabilities too.

The idea of having a small device that can record high-quality audio – and video too – is appealing. There are plenty of compact stills cameras which record video that is good enough for web use, but most have only very basic audio functions. Even many of the entry-level camcorders, although their image quality is decent enough, lack features such as a jack for an external mic.

Currently, Olympus, Alesis and Zoom all have audio recorders with a video camera. Of these, the Olympus and the Zooms (the Q2 and Q3HD) record HD video.

Zoom is well-known for its solid state audio recorders, which are rightly popular with DSLR users. Olympus, for its part, makes both solid state audio recorders, and a range of compact and Micro Four Thirds digital cameras.

The Olympus LS-20M sits in the company’s professional audio recorder range, alongside dedicated audio recorders such as the LS-11 and XLR equipped LS-100. The LS-20M has no XLRs, making it closer to the pocket-friendly LS-11. The trade off is the lack of XLRs, although it does have a stereo minijack input. And it has a video camera.

As an audio recorder, the LS-20M is well-equipped in some areas, and more limited in others. It supports modes up to 96kHz, at 24 bits, for high-quality recording; the single jack input can be set to mic or line. There is clear metering via a small, backlit mono screen, and recording is via two presses of the clearly marked button; the first press activates monitoring/standby.

There is the option for a remote control, and a timer record function, which could be very useful for reporters who need to appear on camera during an interview.

Storage is via SD or SDHC cards, the computer interface is USB, the device has an internal lithium-ion battery, and it charges via USB or an adapter. Next to the USB port, there is a micro HDMI for video playback.

Anyone used to a handheld audio recorder will be comfortable with the LS-20M straight away: it follows a design that is now quite standard in small, point and record devices. Although the main finish is shiny and semi-metallic, the recorder feels well made. And the sides are matte and more rubberised, making it easier to handhold. And the video camera is right at the top of the device, between the microphones. If you use an audio recorder in a “point and record” way, such as at a press conference, then the LS-20M does that too, with the added benefit of video.

This, though, does come at a cost: the addition of video appears to make the LS-20M slightly less practical as an audio recorder, and the video itself is compromised.

Sound quality, quality sound?

Overall the sound quality, in a studio environment was good. Initial audio tests, in 48kHz (for video compatibility) and 16 and 24 bit, showed that the recorder performs well. The 16 bit mode in particular was clean, and the audio holds up well when edited or compressed.

The sound quality, however, is let down somewhat by the ergonomics. And positioning the recorder is critical however, and it is quite prone to both wind and handling noise.

Condenser mics, too, pick up almost any background noise (you can hear some handling and breathing noise in our test clips, despite our best efforts), so it is important to try different recording levels and monitor carefully. This is not an issue that affects only the LS-20M, and on the positive side, it is easy to obtain good, loud voice recordings without distortion or any audible mic pre-amp noise.

The recorder’s fixed, 90 degree position of the microphones is perhaps designed more for recording music than for voice. It is a configuration that works best close up, or where a degree of room noise adds to the atmosphere, say at a gig.

For close in voice work the mic angles appear not to cause any real problems. But mic positioning is more of an issue for recording video and audio together, either using the Olympus’s internal video camera, or with the recorder mounted on a DSLR. Then, a more directional microphone would be useful.

Several audio recorders aimed at a similar market to the LS-20M come with adjustable mics, which means they can be used in a stereo pattern for music, or at a push, two interviewees, and in a straight position for a single speaker interview, or a voiceover.

Of course, the mics on the LS-20M cannot move, because if they did, they might obscure the video camera. And the video camera also makes it harder to position the device correctly to capture the best-quality audio, at least when recording video too.

It also makes it impossible to fit a windshield, which this device sorely needs when recording outside (at least, that is, if you want to keep the video mode).

Adjusting audio levels and mic positioning is the best way to make the most of a recorder’s internal microphones: using an external mic rather defeats the point of a point and go recorder, and really requires an XLR connector. And the Olympus lacks separate dials for either audio input or for monitoring, relying on multi-purpose buttons. This means there are no indications of either recording or monitoring levels when the device is powered off.

Then there are the limits on device positioning thrown up by the video mode, compounded by the position of the LS-20M’s screen. The camera is a fixed focal length, fixed focus type.

At this price – currently around £200+VAT online – it is perhaps unreasonable to expect more. But finding a natural, and in-focus position for the camera’s slightly wide-angle lens (Olympus doesn’t specify the focal length) means keeping the camera far enough away from the interviewee for the internal mics to struggle.

Of course, this is not an issue if the device is being used for B-roll or with an external mic or sound feed, or for audio-only tasks, but it seems that Olympus’ design priority of making a quality audio recorder that is intuitive and practical to use has created a video recorder that is hard to recommend.

Other devices in its class, such as the Zoom, as well as small portable video cameras such as Sony’s Bloggie (or even Cisco’s Flip) have the camera on the back, so the screen can be used as a monitor. So do smartphones. This makes it easier to frame a shot either in the hand, or with the device on the table, than it is on the Olympus.

The top mounted screen is very awkward to see if you hand-hold the device at, say, shoulder height for a vox pop. It is not much easier to use on a tripod, and also the screen is hard to view in bright light.

This might mean the mics are in the right position for optimal audio recording, but it makes correct framing of video very hard to do, and makes correcting exposure or white balance or setting audio levels, almost impossible, unless the device is on a tripod. For all its many disadvantages, a Flip could just be placed on a table, switched on, and used. A camcorder-style adjustable screen would transform the LS-20M’s usefulness for video, although it would no doubt add to the cost.

No world camera

And the video mode has other drawbacks. Using video shortens the device’s battery life significantly (in our tests, the battery lasted about two hours for video recording, but we never had a flat battery recording sound).

Then there is the video quality itself. With a small lens and sensor, the LS-20M is not going to compete with a camcorder or DSLR, but although the videos looked fine on the small internal screen, in full HD (1080p) they looked poor. Video from the iPhone or the latest Android phones is cleaner and crisper. The ability to achieve correct exposure was limited, and the camera seems to have a limited dynamic range: highlights burned out, and shadows lacked detail.

Apple’s Final Cut X also failed to recognise the video automatically, something which is rare. Another, significant drawback for European video makers is the fixed, 30fps framerate. Although this is a shortcoming shared by competing devices, with no support for 25fps combining LS-20M footage with that from other cameras becomes awkward and given the video quality, not really worthwhile.

The idea behind the LS-20M is a good one, but unfortunately the device’s ergonomics cancel out many of the advantages of having the video function, at least for reporting.

The LS-20M might play well with musicians, a market it was almost certainly designed for. But for low-end video journalism, a stills camera capable of 720p video, or even a smartphone, and a dedicated audio recorder will be more practical and will produce better results.

For audio reports or podcasting, the LS-20M is not a bad choice. But the video functions are best seen as an added extra, rather than the main function of the device. For audio work, it is not worth paying a premium for the LS-20M’s video capabilities. But if you can find the device for about the same price as an audio-only recorder, it is worth considering.