How I built a recording studio for the price of two Barbie dolls

Kids today are growing up in the world saturated with advanced technology, but we do not realize how natural it all feels to them until we observe them using those tools.

My daughter (age 6) has been asking me for a “tiny radio” for while. Like any parent I wanted to make her happy and over the last six months we’ve seen dozens of radios, large and small, including the cheeky Philips FM radio alarm clock with interchangeable facia (pink and blue, of course), but none of them was the right kind.

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I quickly realized she wanted something she thought was called “tiny radio,” but it wasn’t actually a radio at all. We both grew a little frustrated with this issue, I didn’t know what she meant and she was getting upset with me for not being able to read her mind. You know what I mean if you have kids.

A couple of weeks ago she entered my room as I was practicing a presentation and saw my old Sony voice recorder. She smiled as soon as she saw it, “That’s the tiny radio I want, Daddy.” Oh, so that’s what she wanted. “OK, darling, what kind of voice recorder do you want?” I asked her happy as if I had found Higgs boson in my shirt pocket. “It has to be better than my pink mic.”

Of course! The pink mic!

Unlike the ugly doll it came in the box with, the microphone was an example of great toy design: a hard, scratch-resistant plastic case housing an electret microphone, a tiny loudspeaker, an IC with a tiny bit of flash memory, and two buttons. The mic can play a selection of annoying “baby disco songs,” but it also records voice, which she used to pull all kinds of pranks on us and our guests.

The pink mic had served her well, but she became frustrated with the poor quality and the short recording time. So she wanted to have her own pocket recording studio, just like the one her daddy used to have. (I used to be a podcaster a few years back and now she wanted to have a recording rig of her own.)

I love my daughter to bits and money is usually no object when it comes to toys (within reason), but I also know that a complex audio rig is just too much for a six year old’s attention span. I wanted to give her something she can use on her own, not something I would need to be there to operate. (Being one of “Skype dads” I cannot be there every time she needs my help.)

Luckily, the technological advances that happened over the last five years in voice recording hardware came to my rescue. When I started recording my podcasts in 2004/2005 the digital voice recorders available on the market were either very expensive pro rigs or really crappy “digital business dictation voice recorders” whose designers had tried to squeeze maximum recording times at the expense of quality. And being aimed at business users, almost all of them used the WMA file format. Not much use if you have a Mac.

The popularity of the MP3 file format and the falling prices of Flash memory and the AD/DA ICs that can encode/decode WAVE/PCM and MP3 formats have made it possible to design and manufacture inexpensive digital voice recorders that can record and play high quality audio.

When I realized that the specs of the cheap voice recorders available today exceed the specs of what was available back in 2004 choosing the right recorder for my daughter had become much easier. All she needed was an MP3 recorder that can save files in a 64kbps/22kHz, has a large display, a reasonable amount of memory, a mic socket, and a headphone socket. Having sorted that out, the last thing to take care of was choosing the right color of the recorder. I chose the white Philips Digital Voice Tracer LFH0615. (The exact model is not that important, any Philips Digital Voice Tracer should do just fine.)

When the big day came and my daughter could finally open the boxes she was speechless. She knew she had asked us for “things for grown-ups,” and she did not expect to actually get them. When she saw the voice recorder, the microphone, and the headphones she just stood there for a while in complete silence. When she was finally able to speak again, her first words were, “now need a web page.” That’s when it was my turn to go speechless. I could not believe my ears and didn’t know what to say.

After I was able to speak again, I gave her a short lesson on how to use the microphone, the voice recorder, and the headphones. By the end of the day she has recorded 64 tracks (songs, her own stories, sound experiments, etc.) The dolls and the plush toys are now of no interest to her as she explores the new possibilities this simple rig gave her.

As a chance benefit gone is her slight lisping she was supposed to see a doctor about.

The key to the success and a great way to avoid frustration was making the right equipment choices. I bought the Philips voice recorder not just because it had the right specs, but also because it had big buttons. The microphone is the Sony FV220 dynamic cardioid karaoke mic. It’s a dynamic microphone in a plastic case, which makes it light enough to be safe for kids, you do not want to use pro stage or studio mics that can crush kids’ feet or become deadly projectiles when the mood turn foul. It also looks like a pro stage mic, which is important for small kids that want the “grown up” toys.

One problem with the Sony mic is its handling noise, which I solved with a desk mic stand. That’s right, I gave my daughter a desk mic stand with a heavy base. When the arm is raised all the way up it is just the right height for a six years old girl and it is not as easily toppled over as the typical stage tripod stand. I taught her not to touch the mic when she is recording and that and a little practice took care of the handling noise.

The last part of the setup, the Sennheiser HD 202 II Pro headphones took care of high-quality sound playback, impossible to achieve with a tiny loudspeaker built into the Philips voice recorder.

Before going to bed my daughter told me that she doesn’t want to have her own web page, but she wants to be on YouTube, because “that’s where the real stars are…” For a six years old kid, she is pretty savvy about the places she can find her audience.

I am a bit shocked, to tell you the truth. The kids are not afraid of the new technologies, they simply accept them as if they were always there. When I was her age the most advanced piece of technology I owned was a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Compared to my childhood friends running around with boy scout knives and runny noses I was living in the future, but that is nothing next to what the kids today have access to. What’s more, all these tools are really inexpensive. The total cost of my daughter’s voice recording setup was less than two installments of the “Mattel parent tax” aka. an obligatory purchase of the latest Barbie DVD, the Barbie doll itself and a pink doll house repeated three times a year. The educational and creative potential of our little “recording studio” greatly exceeded the cost of the setup.


PS. I am not a doctor. If your child has problems like the ones I describe in this post, you should probably ask a real doctor for advice. Remember, I am just a guy writing a blog and I am taking care of my own child, not yours.

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