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iKEY Plus

Wed Mar 21, 2007 - 9:55 AM EDT - By Harv Laser


So like the original iKEY, the Plus operates in basically the same way:

Unscrew the faceplate, insert four rechargeable AA batteries, then screw the plate or one of the other two colored plates back on. Substitute the machined thumbscrews for the flat screws and it'll be easier to get to the batteries without a screwdriver later, but remember, you can operate the Plus strictly off its AC wall wart – for portability, fully charged batteries will get you 4-5 hours of recording time and an LEDs will blink when battery level gets too low.

Cable the Plus to your audio source, whatever it is. The only cable supplied in the box is the turntable cable, so if you want to plug it into a stereo receiver's headphone jack, your laptop's headphone jack or a tape deck, just jog on down to your local electronics supply store, (any Radio Shack will do) pop a few bucks, and pick up a cable that has a stereo plug on one end, and a pair of male RCA jacks on the other.

Plug Any USB 1.0 / 1.1 / 2.0 storage device into the Plus' USB port on its right side. You can use any of a bajillion models of thumb drives, or an SD card of any capacity plugged into a USB card reader, a portable, powered USB hard drive, or an iPod. I like to use the innovative SanDisk Ultra II Plus USB card – no card reader needed!

Ready to record? Power up the iKEY it'll go through a ten second boot-up sequence. The manual explains the order of flashes you'll see on that row of LEDs. It'll read your USB device and display how much space is left on it in increments of 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% or 100%, and these are approximations as to how much space is free on the USB storage device.

Don't worry – the iKEY Plus, like the original iKEY can NOT erase or format your USB device. It does NOT have that capability. It won't destroy or erase anything that's already there. If you're using fresh, unformatted media straight out of the package (none is included with the iKEY Plus), you'll have to format it first, either in your Treo, or on your computer.

Press the SEL button to choose which of the available MP3 qualities you want to use; the appropriate LED will light to indicate your selection.

Then flip the switch on the Plus' left side to select what kind of analog input you want to record – line input, turntable, or mic. Press the REC button and after a 1-2 second lag, congratulations, you're recording. You can adjust the levels with the rotary level wheel and monitor the quality of the file being written to your USB device WHILE recording in real time with headphones, if you have a pair plugged into its port. The segmented VU meters will kick into action and you can ride gain on your recording, as needed.. just try to keep peaks "0 (zero) VU" and watch out for that overload light blinking.

You should see your USB device's read / write light blink periodically as the iKEY Plus writes your MP3 file to it, and the LEDs will also indicate the percentage of free space left on your storage media as it fills up.

Since the iKEY Plus, like its predecessor, accepts only analog input sources, it writes MP3 files with rather non-descript file names like "IKEY_mp3_9". Vinyl records, tapes, radio, mics, whatever your analog source has no embedded track or artist or album info in it, like an Audio CD has. The Plus won't write MP3 tag info into the file. And, like the original iKEY, the Plus is also strictly a recording device. It has NO capability to play back anything you've recorded with it, so after you've finished recording, hold down the REC button for a few seconds until all the LEDs flash in sequence. This serves the purpose of properly closing the recorded file, so you can "eject" your USB device, connect it to your computer or, if it's an SD card, shove it into your Treo, and rename the files to something more meaningful.

There are many software tools available to rename and write tag info into an MP3 file.

Editing a recording

As with the original iKEY, once you press the REC button, it'll keep recording until you press the button again. The iKEY Plus has no way to sense "dead wax" between tracks on an album, no way to set a timer, no way to start and stop recording from a mic like a voice-activated device has. So you have to baby-sit. If you want to record each song on an album as a separate MP3 track, you'll have to use the REC button to start and stop recording each track, OR, you can record one entire side of an album, and then later use some kind of Editing software on your computer to split the side up into separate MP3 files, and the Plus' manual lists some commonly available MP3 Editing software out there (there are dozens of choices, from freeware to expensive commercial titles).

Practice makes perfect

If you already own an original iKEY and you're upgrading to the Plus, its operation should be familiar to you and you'll love the enhanced features. If you've never used one before, it'll take some experimentation to get the hang of its multi-function buttons and what the different sequences of flashes LEDs mean, but this really isn't rocket science, and the manual explains and illustrates everything you could possibly want to know. You'll be making high quality recordings in no time.

As I've said before, if you can hear it, the iKEY Plus can digitize it. It doesn't know and it doesn't care what the input source is because all input is analog. So however you feel about copyright protection or Digital Rights Management what the iKEY Plus does is take literally ANYTHING you can hear, and rip it to any of four selectable qualities of MP3 audio or pure, uncompressed WAV format. It does NOT make a 1-for-1 digital copy of anything, but I challenge any normal human being with good hearing to tell the difference between an Audio CD or DVD soundtrack from 320kbps or even 256kbps MP3 files produced by this lovely little device.

It'll let you convert and preserve your treasured old vinyl or tape recordings into digital with ease. Set it up on a conference table, plug in a mic, and make an MP3 of a meeting in real-time for archiving, storage, distribution and playback later. Sit in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa and record a podcast. When it comes to converting analog input to digital audio, this is just a killer tool. Although GCI tags the iKEY Plus with a retail price of $249.00, you can pick up a brand new one from dozens of retailers and etailers for $149.00 or less. And with its introduction, the price of the original iKEY has dropped radically, so if the Plus' new features aren't mission-critical for your purposes, about $50.00 will get you the original iKEY.

Anything missing?

No consumer electronic device is perfect, and the iKEY Plus is no exception. I wish they had changed its REC LEVEL dial so it had 1-10 markings and some detents on it, for both visual and physical indication of where it's set, but the new VU metering LEDs make that less of a gripe than it was with the original iKEY. The soft carrying pouch is a nice addition, but a fancier zippered case with some compartments to hold more accessories would have been better. The included stereo mic is fair-to-middlin' quality but better than no included mic at all.

And as mentioned, I wish it could sense "dead wax" between vinyl album tracks, and record each track or song as a separate MP3 file automatically, eliminating the need to smack the REC button between each one, or record an entire album side and then need computer-based Editing software to break it into separate tracks later. That'd be a real time-saver if you want to digitize a bunch of records into single tracks.

The good folks at iKEY Audio told me they have an "iKEY Pro" in the works, although they wouldn't let loose with any information about its capabilities.. so they're not sitting still and the iKEY Plus is just the second, but much improved version of the original, with even more interesting (although probably higher priced) devices to come from them in the future.

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