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electronic MUSICIAN

M-AUDIO MICROTRACK 24/96

By JOHN McJUNKIN | February 1, 2006

>It's 2006, and we finally have some choice for recording high-quality digital audio with a device that has no moving parts. M-Audio has introduced the MicroTrack 24/96, one of a small handful of such devices currently available. It has numerous powerful features and an attractive price that will no doubt tempt many users who live on the go.

Recording directly to RAM is going to catch on first in mobile recording, for two reasons. The lack of moving parts eliminates potential mechanical failures, and because high-resolution multitrack RAM recording is not yet commercially practical, mono or stereo recording in the field will be the most attractive in RAM. Yes, there are multitrack Flash recorders now, but they employ data compression, and most of us have grown accustomed to full-bandwidth digital recording in the studio. Nonetheless, there are already 8GB CompactFlash cards. With 8 GB, you could theoretically record almost nine minutes of 24 tracks at 24-bit/96kHz resolution. In five years, we'll still probably archive to super high-density spinning-disk hard drives, but by then, there should be 80GB CF cards; and with microprocessing power increasing as well, RAM-based, portable recording is going to be a nearly irresistible prospect. While it's probably only a matter of time before most musicians own a portable Flash recorder, I recommend jumping right into the game, regardless of which unit you choose.

LE PETIT RECORDER

At 2.4 by 4.3 by 1.1 inches, the MicroTrack is unquestionably a pocket-sized unit, one of the smallest of those currently available. It literally fits in your pocket and weighs about five ounces. It is intended for one-handed operation. This can be done, but I'm not superimpressed with this touted functionality. The unit's navigation wheel is really sensitive and takes some getting used to. The wheel (more like a lever on the right side of the box) can be pushed up or down, scrolling through various choices in the menu. Pushing it in works as the “enter” function, confirming your selection. I do appreciate what M-Audio tried to accomplish with this, and with a little practice, it'll do the trick for you.

Let's talk I/O — there are ⅛-inch jacks for input and for headphone output (earbuds are included). The ⅛-inch input is TRS stereo, and a slick little T-shaped stereo microphone that plugs right in is also included. There is also a stereo pair of ¼-inch balanced inputs for more sophisticated miking. The unit provides phantom power to these inputs, so yes, you can use your pair of Neumann TLM-103 cardioid mics to record some live studio sessions. What about the mic pre's? Okay, they're not at the Neve/Avalon/Grace Design level of quality, but considering they're crammed inside this tiny pocket box, they're great, with a mile of headroom. The unit also sports an S/PDIF input, stereo RCA output and a USB connection.

The outer face controls consist of a pair of toggle buttons that adjust input levels for both left and right channels, a similar toggle button that determines output level, a record button, a delete button and a power button. Speaking of power, the unit comes with its own rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which can be charged either by USB power or by the included AC/USB adapter — very nice. The navigation wheel and the CF card slot are on the right side of the MicroTrack; on the left side sits the Menu button and three sliding switches: Hold, L/M/H and Phantom Power on/off. The Hold switch disables all other buttons (just like on a portable music player), so if you've got the thing shoved in your pocket while recording, you won't inadvertently reach in and stop the recording or change levels. The L/M/H determines the input levels. The L position is intended for line-level inputs on either the ⅛- or ¼-inch inputs. The M position is for microphones, and the H position boosts the gain on the ¼-inch inputs only. The unit also has an internal booster that can provide an additional 27 dB if necessary. Mind you, this boost is digital in nature, so you'll want to exhaust all of the overhead available with the L/M/H switch before you start boosting. If you are familiar with the difference in quality between optical zoom and digital zoom on a digital camera or camcorder, you can imagine the audio equivalent of using the MicroTrack's digital boost rather than the L/M/H switch.

In the main menu, you'll find headings for Files, Record Setting, Back Light and System. The Files menu is in essence the unit's browser, and it gives you access to the files and folders on your Flash card (a 64MB CF card is included. The Record Settings menu allows you to make choices in regard to three things: record input, recording format and recording resolution. The MicroTrack records to WAV or MP3. Obviously, you'll want to use WAV for critical, high-resolution recordings, while of course bearing in mind that WAV will chew up RAM much more quickly than MP3. If you can live with a lower-quality recording (for speech, reference-only practices, etc.) then MP3 is the way to go for saving you some significant real estate on your memory card. The other consideration is sample rate. Obviously, the higher it is, the higher the quality and the less recording time will be available. When recording WAV files, the available sample rates are 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz. In MP3 mode, 44.1 and 48 kHz are available, and MP3 resolutions of 96, 112, 128, 160, 192, 224 and 320 kbps are available. Most likely, you'll use a low-res MP3 setting such as 96 kbps for noncritical applications like speech, and the highest-resolution setting of 320 kbps for important music recording. There is also a menu item called Channels, which currently only allows stereo operation, but a future version of firmware is supposed to enable mono operation, which will literally record only one of the two channels. The last option under Record Settings, Record Time Available, indicates the remaining time on your memory card.

The Back Light menu lets you set the display's back light to be always off, always on or to stay lit for 5-, 15- or 30-second increments. If you're trying to conserve battery power, this is important, because the backlight activates virtually every time you press a button. Under the System menu, the options are Connect to PC, Format Media, Link L+R, Playback EQ, Verify Delete, Scrub Audio, Auto Off, Language, Factory Defaults, Firmware Update, Version, Contrast, Date & Time and About. Most of these items are going to be pretty self-explanatory, but the Link L+R option toggles between allowing independent setting of input levels for each channel or not. The Playback EQ setting is not parametric by any stretch of the imagination, but it does at least enable boost/reduce of bass and treble or both. Scrub Audio is another planned upgrade for a future firmware version that is supposed to enable you to hear audio during fast-forward or rewind.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Once I unpacked this little box and started futzing with it, I immediately found the entire system to be fairly self-explanatory. There's really nothing in the main menu or general operation of the MicroTrack that would be other than what it seems to anyone who even has a moderate amount of recording experience. I immediately recorded any number of things with the unit's included stereo microphone and found myself pretty impressed with the quality. The stereo mic is a small-diaphragm condenser affair and captures the entire frequency spectrum nicely. The resolution in the high end is everything you'd expect from a condenser. The “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” use of the stereo microphone is to record live music. Indeed, if you're authorized to do so, this is an excellent tool for that application. For that matter, if you're a performer and want to record your show from the front-of-house board, you could take a feed from the console, in either the analog or digital domain, and capture an excellent live recording. I also used the MicroTrack to record a meeting of an advisory board on which I sit, and enjoyed truly excellent results. In this case, stereo recording is overkill, so I'm anxiously awaiting the firmware update that will enable mono recording for such applications. Obviously, mono recordings will use up a lot less memory. For live recordings of virtually anything, the MicroTrack really shines, but there's another powerful use for this unit.

I unceremoniously disconnected the S/PDIF cable leading from the output of my primary console to my venerable old DAT machine, and instead fed it into the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96. I simply could not come up with a good reason not to do this. There is the obvious elimination of the difficulties associated with stretched tapes and other moving-part mechanical bugaboos, but there's also the increased resolution from 16-bit/44.1 kHz to 24-bit/96 kHz. You may think that's no big deal, because anybody can either bounce a DAW mix at that resolution or otherwise record into their computer at that resolution. Ah, but can you shove that computer into the pocket of your jeans, ride your scooter over to your buddy's house to record and play back that mix for him at that same resolution? Didn't think so. Sure, I left the output of my DAT machine connected to one of my mixer's S/PDIF inputs, but only so I can accommodate clients who bring in DAT tapes (even though it's been a long time since I've seen one of those).

One other thought: Not only can you plug into your friend's mixer and play back at high resolution, but you can also plug into his computer via USB and drag your mix onto the hard drive. Isn't that nice? If your friend is a mastering engineer, he can now master your piece and get it back to you next week. Not only can you drag and drop audio files to and from the MicroTrack, but you can do the same with data files of any kind.

OH, THE AUDACITY

If you're not already familiar with Audacity, which is included with the MicroTrack, it's a powerful application for audio editing. The disk in my box only had the Windows version, but Mac users, don't despair. You can download the Mac version at http://audacity.sourceforge.net. It has a lot of features not found in other, more expensive 2-track editor apps. Here's a perfect example: If I have to rip vinyl without the benefit of an RIAA-EQ'd preamp, I can go back and tilt the EQ in the appropriate RIAA fashion with Audacity. Once you go out and record something with your MicroTrack, you can bring it home, edit and sculpt it with Audacity before burning it to a CD.

The time has indeed arrived for us to stop horsing around with bulky mobile recorders with moving parts. For a mono and/or 2-track RAM recording, I can very strongly recommend the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 as your entry into that world. Moreover, I would also strongly recommend the use of this unit as a means by which to capture your mixdown in lieu of clunkier, older technology such as DAT machines. I will most certainly be doing so myself. Do yourself a favor and check out the MicroTrack 24/96.

M-AUDIO

MICROTRACK 24/96 > $499.95

Pros: Pocket-sized, high-quality, RAM-based digital recorder (no moving parts).

Cons: One-handed operation can be a bit dodgy. Small, 64MB CF card included.

Contact: www.m-audio.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

MAC: Mac OS 10.2.8, OS 10.3.7 or OS 10.4 and later; available USB 1.1 or 2.0 port

PC: Windows 2000/XP (SP1); available USB 1.1 or 2.0 port

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