Rycote Portable Recorder Suspension

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Shown with optional accessories.

The Long Version: One of my favourite things about having a field audio recorder with built-in mics is the advice on how to avoid self-noise: hold it with a firm but relaxed grip. Seriously, am I expected to have years of practice with that technique or something?

It turns out that the easiest way to achieve this firm-but-loose hold is with a suspension mount. At present Rycote seems to be the only ones offering such a thing for portable recorders, as it screws into the camera-standard quarter-inch tripod socket that's on the bottom of most of them.

The good news is that the Rycote system works very well and promises to be durable. The suspension is a set of nylon-feeling plastic 'lyre' springs that are the masters of smooth-but-strong holds. It's good enough to let me create usable recordings while I walk with the recorder, which was simply impossible otherwise.

The biggest problem with the Rycote suspension system is that they missed the 'portable' part of the design brief. Instead of attaching to the bottom of the recorder with a captive screw, which is how the rest of the world does it, this product has decided to use a threaded rod and plastic thumb nut. The rod is detached from the assembly, screwed into the recorder – without the benefit of even a slot-head cut into the ends – and then inserted through the suspenders' mounting hole, to be locked in place by the black plastic nut-thing. This makes attaching and detaching the recorder into a major hassle, and the shock mount is too awkward and ungainly to easily pack away intact.

I've circumvented this design shortcoming by adding a Manfrotto quick release to the top of the shock mount, and I now leave the matching plate on the recorder all of the time. This also makes it compatible with my light full-sized tripod, monopod, and gorillapod, so I probably would have done it anyway, but it's going to be an unreasonable nuisance for a normal person who needs to attach and detach the recorder easily.

The non-recorder end of the shock mount has a pivot, and it's held together with a Philips screw and a nut. Adjusting the tension is done with a screwdriver, and there are no click-stops or other design refinements. This puts me firmly in the "I would have done it anyway" category once again. I usually carry a Swiss Army Knife with me, and keep a small Leatherman in my sound bag, so adjusting the screws' tension is no big deal. For me. Other people may have a different experience, but then again, field recording doesn't seem like an activity for minimalists.

Completing our physical tour, the end of the swivel mount is threaded for a 3/8ths screw attachment, so it can attach directly to the top of tripods or stands. Rycote also includes a separate cold-shoe foot that can thread into the bottom, and it in turn has a quarter-inch thread in the bottom of it, making it a handy adapter to have.

This shock mount is also sold in a kit that includes a grip bar and whichever Rycote windscreen is appropriate for each particular recorder, even though only the H2N variant seems to be in stock in the few stores that list it at all. And it must be a really nice grip bar that comes with it, because buying the suspension mount, windscreen, and an Ikan grip bar costs a whole lot less than buying the full package from B&H.

And while it goes beyond the scope of this review, one of the smarter things I've done is attach my old "Ultrapod II" to the bottom of my grip bar, giving me the isolation of the shock mount even when I'm using the recorder on a tabletop-sized tripod. Highly recommended.

The Rycote suspension mount takes some forum flack for being expensive, but given that there's no competitor to judge it against, it's hard to say how much something like this "should" cost. From what I see in microphone suspension mounts it doesn't seem unreasonable, and it's nice to know that Rycote consistently ranks above the competition, so we're not really missing out by not having a plethora of choices. And yes, I am a lifelong Apple Macintosh owner – why do you ask?

What makes me happy is that it's a zero-maintenance design: unlike the elastics that some makers use, Rycote's plastic "lyre" system will never wear out. That's worth something in running costs, spare-parts logistics, upkeep, and simple peace-of-mind.

Owning the Rycote has led me to a trap, though: it's so good, and so nice to use with the pistol-grip bar, that I automatically include the time to add it to my recorder when deciding if I have a chance of taking the Sony out to catch something that's happening around me. I forget that I could just hand-hold the recorder if I'm in a hurry, letting me avoid the two-step deployment process. Ah, well. It's not strictly a product fault, but be warned that having a suspension mount can be habit-forming.

last updated 25 jan 2013


Ultra-Pod II Table-Top Tripod

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I still want a new Gorillapod.

The Long Version: It's easy to take things for granted when they're inexpensive, lightweight, and plastic, and that's what I've done with my 'Ultrapod'. Officially the named the Ultra-Pod II – it's moulded into the product – the name of the actual manufacturer seems to change depending on who you ask.

The Ultrapod is ideally suited to small SLRs or the typical mirrorless camera, which it holds quite well. The rather large footprint does a good job of compensating for its light weight. It's not suitable for larger cameras or longer lenses, though, since there's a bit of spring in it when it's feeling stressed.

I've owned this little tripod for over a decade, and have carried it often enough that the silver paint has worn off. I've also lost the rubber anti-slip foot from the main leg, which has been effectively replaced with hockey tape. But like all of my tripods, I've never really intensively used it – they're for special occasions – but the ultrapod has always been what I've reached for when I want something small and lighter, if weaker, than my Manfrotto tabletop tripod.

The Ultrapod uses a double-jointed attachement for the camera. The top is something of a ball joint, letting the camera pivot and rotate, although it has limited side to side movement, while the lower joint is only a single-axis pivot point. This double joint means that the camera, or whatever, can lie flat on its back along the body of the folded tripod. That's a rare thing to need, but it solves an uncommon problem for me.

I use a shock mount and grip bar to hold my audio recorder, and the Ultrapod screws onto the end of it. It adds almost no weight, holds securely as long as the recorder stays centered, and folds over on itself to fit in the bag. So after all these years of owning it the Ultrapod is finally in regular service, doing a job that no other tripod design could. What can I say? I execute excellent planning, even when it's matched with lousy timing.

last updated 19 jan 2013


Victorinox Electrician

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Soft stainless – it's the "inox" part of the name.

The Long Version: Until recently I've been something of a Swiss Army Knife neophyte, thinking that the boxy red-scaled models were about all there was. These are the knives that I remember my father owning, and they're nifty, with lots of options but not particularly practical or easy to carry. Discovering the multitude of thinner knives, especially the aluminium-scaled Alox ones, has been a revelation. It's entirely posible that the Victorinox Electrician could be the perfect pocket utility knife.

The Electrician has four tools: Large blade, sheepsfoot blade, caplifter, and awl. The aluminum scales don't include tweezers or a toothpick, and there's no cork screw, so right away a couple of the SAK calling-cards have been stripped away. There's also no can opener, which is odd for a model that has a cap lifter, and while I don't miss it I do wish that the Combo Tool that combines both tasks, and then some, was included in the cap lifter's place.

The Cap Lifter, which is nominally for opening bottles, is something that I mostly use as a small pry bar and screwdriver for all of those screws that are sized for a coin. Pretty standard stuff: it locks at ninety degrees as well as straight out, and if you've seen a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife before, it won't hold any surprises. Similarly, the main blade is the typical pattern, and while this 93mm knife packs a slightly bigger punch than most, it's not all that unusual.

The two greatest things about the Electrician are the sheepsfoot blade and the awl. Yes, the awl: it's that tool that normally sticks out of the back of the knife, and along with the Parcel Hook, ranks among the least useful of the common SAK tools. Except that, when I really do face the occasional need to punch a hole in something, the awl has no substitute. And the Electrician's awl is in-line with the handle, making it far more dexterous than the ones that stick out of the back of other knives, and it has an uncommon bend along the spine, replacing the nail nick as an opening method and making it extremely useful as a narrow wedge.

About the only actual use I have for the Can Opener tool is as a staple puller, and the Electrician's Awl does a good job here instead. The awl also serves admirably as a rough blade for tasks that might nick the dedicated knives, like breaking nylon zip ties, and naturally it makes a very strong piercing tool. About the only thing it can't do is sew – for that the traditional SAK awl, with its eye, remains superior. That seems like a minor niche (rhymes with quiche) feature to give up in exchange for a genuinely useful tool.

And then there's the sheepsfoot 'electrician' blade: this is what truly sets the Electrician apart. It's an exceptional utility knife, being long enough to cut through most material and short enough that it's a snap to use. The point being in-line with the blade – like on a box cutter – makes it excel at tasks like cutting boxes, breaking tape, and stripping labels, which is almost everything that I actually use a knife for when I'm at work.

The length of the 'electrician' blade is just right: long enough to do work, and short enough to be easy to control. I prefer working with knives that have blades that are shorter than my fingers, as it's an intuitive size, and the electrician beats that by being shorter than my thumb. Combined with a large handle, this knife is easy and natural to us even when I keep it in my hand while moving boxes around.

Of course, I cheat: the electrician blade has a crescent-shaped section that's designed as a scraper. It's sharply beveled but not actually sharpened; a couple of passes with a Spyderco triangular stone took care of that and turned it into the worlds' largest serration. Now when I slice through heavy plastic film – the wrap around six-packs of pop bottles, for example – the material gets cut even if it bunches up at the base of the blade.

Like all of the super-stain-resistant SAK steel, the blades take a sharp edge and then don't hold it for very long, but the short blade takes just seconds to retouch on a pocketable DMT sharpening hone. And routing most of the heavy work to this utility blade leaves the large blade razor-sharp for the times when it's needed. Win-win.

The aluminum scales also contribute to the Electrician's utility. The knife loses the tweezer and toothpick, but in exchange it gains a solid grip from a tough material that will only look better as it gains scratches and scars. The two-layer Alox knives are also only slightly thicker than a single-layered Cellidor knife like the Bantam, so even at its above-average 3.5" length, it's an easy knife to carry.

The Victorinox Electrician is also easy to carry for other reasons: it's a Swiss Army Knife, and despite its militaristic roots, they're generally pretty innocuous. It's going to be the absolutely last choice of the Mall-Ninja Tacticool crowd that make owning knives so obnoxious for those of us they call 'sheeple'. Non-locking slip-joint blades are fairly inoffensive and legal almost everywhere, while the Electrician is still big and solid enough to have real utility.

The last review I wrote was of my Chris Reeve Sebenza, which is a highly refined modern locking-bladed knife. It's possibly the best of its kind, and it's certainly the best knife that I own. But I could buy eight Electricians – $45 MSRP, dealers may sell for less – for what my plain Small Sebenza cost. Let me tell you, if I had found this little knife first, I might have saved myself a lot of money.

last updated 7 jan 2013

contact me...

You can click here for Matthew's e-mail address.