Meet Scoopman, son of Walkman: Sony's micro recorder has high-quality sound using tapes the size of a postage stamp, writes Matthew Gwyther

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Indy Lifestyle Online
APART from the coil-bound reporter's notebook - and the libel law - nobody has ever invented anything for the outcast profession of the journalist. But now, displacing St Francis of Sales (1567-1622), who is apparently the patron saint of journalists, comes Sony. Following the Walkman, it has just brought out the Scoopman - a highly sophisticated digital micro recorder that aims to leave all other interview recorders behind in a background of hiss, wow, flutter and rumble.

Readers will be familiar with the basic journalist's interview recorder, examples of which are visible every evening on the television news being thrust into the face of the latest headline-maker. The Scoopman is less than 4 1/2 in (11cm) long and weighs little more than 5oz (142g), but its most remarkable feature is the size of its cassette tapes: about the same as a postage stamp.

Until now it has always been extremely difficult to reduce the size of audio cassettes, a micro cassette at around 2in (5cm) being the smallest. The complex tape-loading mechanisms of the tape recorder itself prevented this. Sony has overcome the problem by using 'pinch rollers' and self-aligning guides inside the cassette to steer the steady passage of the tape. The heads of the recorder rotate and record the digital signal using helical scanning, as in a home video-cassette recorder.

Sony has also invented a non-tracking mechanism to pick up recorded sound, a system beyond the wit of most of those short of an A-level in physics to comprehend. There is also a new high-performance 'metal evaporated' tape which is so thin that one cassette can record two hours' worth of juicy scoops.

The wheat-threshers of the press are numerous these days. Sony has clearly done its research in seeking out new markets. There is no accurate count of the total number of journalists in Britain but it is thought, after a multiplying of the ranks during the Eighties, to be more than 60,000. However, the number who trudge the streets and put their feet in doors to conduct interviews is far smaller. 'We hope to sell about 5,000 Scoopmans in the United Kingdom in the first year, there's such a preponderance of journalists around these days,' says David Snook, Sony's manager for audio communications in Britain. 'I couldn't believe how good it sounded the first time I heard it.'

Mr Snook's enthusiasm is not misplaced: the sound quality produced by the tiny cassette is uncannily bell-like in its clarity. He claims almost 'broadcast-quality' sound, and talks are scheduled with BBC Radio. The Scoopman picks up every last exhalation, trouser rustle and stomach rumble of an interviewee's musings through its separate microphone - not that these extraneous sounds are of much use except to the more expansive of profile writers. It also plays back through headphones especially designed to prevent sound leakage, so the rest of the office does not need to be treated to your scoop when you return to base to transcribe the interview. (The laborious process of transcription is the other time-consuming drawback with tape recorders.)

It may be slightly optimistic to hope for 5,000 journalist purchasers in the first year, and owners of a Scoopman may well be limited to those in the Andrew Morton earnings league. It might be small but its cost is mighty: a suggested retail price of pounds 549. Sony is out to recoup some of its expensive research and development costs.

There are other potential sales targets besides journalists, however. Tony Benn may be in the market for a new recorder - he has been recording every interview he has given for many years and his machine may be wearing out.

Another use of the digital sound quality is bound to be the recording of live music, with or without permission of the performers. (Sony has recognised this possibility and warns against 'infringement of performers' rights' in its brochure.)

The Scoopman is also claimed to be hardy. 'It's designed to be tough,' says Mr Snook. 'Jogging does not knock it out of alignment.' But what of the impromptu press conference conducted scrummage-style on the steps of the Old Bailey, where photographers' elbows are frequently wielded with abandon? 'Well, if you start jumping up and down on it, obviously it won't last five minutes,' he says.

Mr Snook has also been talking to some non-journalists - such as the Ministry of Defence. 'Both the ministry and the police may be interested in using it to record riot situations,' he says, but will be drawn no further.

Would-be buyers can contact Sony on 0784 467074.

(Photograph omitted)

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