Products & Reviews
iKey Portable USB Recorder
Mon Jul 31, 2006 - 9:03 AM EDT - By
Table of Contents
Overview > The Tour Conclusion
The Tour Let's take a tour around the iKey and learn how it works.
The design is pretty logical if you stop and think about it like this: audio goes in the left side, is controlled and monitored on the top, and comes out as MP3s on the right side.
On the left side are the gold-plated stereo RCA line input jacks. Cable these to your audio source, whatever it is. Since the supplied cable terminates in a standard stereo mini-jack, if your source is something like a receiver or tape deck's headphone jack, jog down to Radio Shack and pick up a stereo mini-jack to 1/4 inch headphone jack converter. If you want to rip Internet radio broadcasts (or anything else you can think of) from your laptop, then you'll want to pick up a y-splitter because most laptops' speakers shut off when you plug something into their headphone jack. A splitter will let you monitor what the iKey's recording, either with headphones or powered speakers, since the iKey itself has no monitor jack or speaker on it. These generic little accessories are just a couple bucks each.
A small black rotary wheel next to the gold jacks controls input level. Unfortunately there are no 1-10 level markings or detents on the wheel at all, so you monitor and adjust line level input (too low, too high, or overload / clipping) with the dial and one of the LEDs on top, which I'll get to shortly.
On the iKey's right side you'll find the AC wall wart's jack, the unit's power switch, a reset hole, and a standard USB port. Plug your USB storage device in there. The iKey has a small amount of RAM inside but it is NOT a storage device or player unto itself. Its internal circuits detect incoming analog audio, digitizes it in real-time, opens an MP3 output file, then spits it out the USB port in mouthfuls of MP3 data about every 15-20 seconds. An iKey-made MP3 can be as short or as long as you want, up to the capacity of your USB storage device. I've digitized entire 90 minute cassettes into single MP3 files with it. No problem-o.
The top of the iKey is its "dashboard." The row of seven red LEDs serve different purposes in different modes. Two corner buttons "REC" and "SEL" control all functions.
To digitize audio, in this case let's do it with an audio cassette or a vinyl record, you'd follow these steps: There's an annoying couple-second lag after pressing the REC button before the iKey starts digitizing. In operation, the bank of LEDs blink to show the remaining capacity of your USB storage device in increments of 20% from empty to full. As each 20% "fullness" threshold is reached, the next light starts blinking, so if the 40% light is blinking, your USB device has more than 60% space free. An actual digital display of free space would be more accurate, but this is what you get.
power on your stereo gear
cable the iKey to your audio source; let's use a stereo receiver's headphone jack. It has more than enough output to get the job done.
plop your cassette into your deck or your record onto your turntable.
connect your USB storage device to the iKey
power on the iKey. All the LEDs flash and it'll read your storage device's capacity. It will NOT re-format your USB device, so don't worry about that.
use the SEL button to choose 128, 192, 256kbps MP3 output or uncompressed WAV.
tap the REC button once and start your tape or record playing
The iKey writes MP3 files to the root directory of the USB device.
Keep an eye on the Level Clip light on the left. Solid on means the audio input is too low (counter-intuitive, true enough) so adjust your audio source's volume and / or rotate the line input wheel on the left until the light goes off. If the light blinks too often, this means level clipping so your input is too high and you'll get distortion,
; back the wheel off a bit. Ideally, the Level Clip light should rarely blink and stay off when recording.
Watch the activity light on your USB device, whatever it is and you should see it blink every 15-20 seconds as the iKey writes another chunk of the current MP3 file to it.
A new iKey owner should make some test files as you fiddle around a bit with the output level of your audio source and the input wheel on the iKey until you get a good feel for the correct levels for both. Not too much signal, not too little. There's no way to playback MP3 files on the iKey itself, which means you need to unplug your USB device and connect it to your computer and play what you've just recorded to see if you got the levels right. The iKey could use a headphone jack to monitor what IT hears AS you record.
Done recording? Tap the REC button again to close the MP3 file and ready the iKey to make another. Change tapes, put on a different record, whatever. Each time you tap the REC button it either starts recording a new MP3 file, or, if it's in record mode, closes the current MP3 file.
Unlike some computer-based ripping programs, the iKey cannot sense "dead wax" or silence between tracks on a record or tape and automatically close one MP3 file and start a new one. All recording controls are manual so some babysitting is necessary.
All done? Hold the REC button down a few seconds until all the LEDs flash a few times. This closes everything and you can safely yank your USB device out of the iKey and power it off.
The iKey writes MP3 files with names like "IKEY_mp3_1.mp3" and so on. It will NOT overwrite an existing file on the same USB device. It'll just increment that digit in front of the .mp3 file extension. Since it has NO idea what your audio source is, as it could be anything, it doesn't write any ID3 tags into the files it creates. No song titles, artist information, track or album data. Nothing.
If you want to add ID3 tags, you'll need to hook your USB device to your computer and use any program capable of tagging MP3 files. WinAmp, iTunes, whatever you like. Otherwise, if you've used the iKey to rip a tape or an entire side of a record, or individual tracks to an SD card, you can literally pop the card out of the iKey, pop it into your Treo, and enjoy. You just won't know which track is what by their nondescript filenames, unless you manually add ID3 tags first with a computer.
Possible uses, and the future.
As I said earlier, if you can hear it, the iKey can rip it. It doesn't care what the source is. Records, tapes, DVD soundtracks, CDs, radio, streaming audio, television, a mic, you name it. DRM means nothing to it. Set it up with a mic on a conference table and record a meeting in real time. Sit in the middle of a cornfield with a mic and record a podcast (which is just an MP3 file) running off batteries. Rip MP3s from an old Walkman, Discman, DVD player, transistor radio if a device has an output or headphone jack, you can cable the iKey to it.
Is the iKey perfect? No. What is? I've played with it for a couple months and it needs better level metering. A clipping light isn't really enough. Even though it's recessed, the recording input level wheel is too easy to accidentally move and should be marked and have detents. A headphone jack to monitor what it "hears" would also be very handy, (although like I said, a y-splitter is cheap and works fine too). So would a direct mic input and a turntable phono preamp for folks with newer audio gear whose receivers weren't built to handle a turntable. Well guess what the iKey plus has all those features, but it's months off, according to my contacts at the company, and of course, it'll cost more.
With consumer electronics, there's ALWAYS a "new and improved" version a few months away. If you wait for the next version of everything, you'd never buy anything.
But Version One has respectable audio specs, it gets the job done, and if you've read many of my reviews on TreoCentral, you'll know that quality audio means a lot to me.
The iKey's specs:
Sampling rate: 44.1kHz
16 bit Dynamic range: 98dB
Frequency response: 20hz 20kHz. Next Page: Conclusion >>