Playing the Field
Thanks to the popularity of notebook computers and digital cameras, evolutionary technology has led to new, relatively low-cost products that are extremely useful for the music, film, and broadcast-audio communities. Solid-state removable RAM cards and small, high-capacity hard drives have improved by leaps and bounds as prices have dropped steadily. Many audio professionals will remember 2005 as the year that tapeless field recording became affordable.
For decades, film-audio professionals have used the legendary and ubiquitous Nagra analog field recorders. Though large, heavy, and somewhat cumbersome, they sound incredibly good, conveying all the richness (and inherent hiss) of analog tape. In the '90s, portable DAT recorders made serious inroads among field recordists. The cost and size of DAT tape, as well as the lack of noise and the price of the units, were tough to beat. But DAT also has at least three disadvantages: the tiny tapes are fragile, you must transfer your field recordings to a DAW for editing in real time, and DAT is limited to 16-bit, 48 kHz audio. Over the past five years, excellent hard-drive-based field recorders have emerged from companies such as Nagra, Deva, and HHB, moving the industry into the random-access age. Those specialty products, however, are priced out of the reach of most individuals.
Enter the more modestly priced tapeless field recorder. A number of products that record to either CompactFlash cards or to notebook-size hard drives have emerged in the past year or two. Whether you are a musician looking to record your rehearsals and gigs with little hassle, a sound designer interested in capturing new real-world grist for your signal-processing mill, a concert recordist interested in getting that performance in high fidelity, or a location recordist garnering production dialog and effects on the set, an excellent new product is out there to fit your needs. EM decided to take a look at what some of these great new recorders have to offer.
One of the big challenges in any product roundup is determining what to include and what to leave out. In the interest of fairness, EM's editors and I devised a set of rules to help with that decision. Because affordability is paramount, each unit had to have a retail price below $3,000 (and most are priced less than $2,000). We don't consider laptops with USB audio interfaces to be sufficiently rigorous to withstand many common field-recording situations, so we limited our scope to standalone devices. Finally, sound quality is crucial, so we limited our coverage to products that have the ability to record linear uncompressed audio.
Nonetheless, the included recorders do vary greatly in price and intended applications. Most are stereo, one is a 4-track recorder, and two are intended primarily for recording speech. The most expensive model costs almost five times as much as the least expensive one. I will discuss the less costly recorders first and then work my way up in ascending order of price.
To help with the evaluation process, I selected a few audio professionals who make field recording an integral part of their careers. I handed each of them one of these products to take out on a real-world mission. Their impressions and subjective results accompany the product descriptions.
The Edirol R-1 ($550) is a handheld, CompactFlash-based portable recorder (see Fig. 1). Slightly too large to be called pocket-size, it does manage to pack impressive specs into a small package. The R-1 records 16- and 24-bit uncompressed WAV files at 44.1 kHz and MP3 files at rates from 64 kHz to 320 kHz. With a built-in stereo mic, half-speed playback, on-the-fly looping, and built-in effects, it functions as a terrific composing and practicing recorder. A stereo minijack provides an input for external microphones, and it supplies 2V plug-in power for electret condenser mics as well. For rapid data transfer, the R-1 will connect to any PC or Mac through USB.
FIG. 1: The Edirol R-1 delivers the goods in a small, inexpensive package.
As with most of the units covered in this article, the R-1 includes a 64 MB CompactFlash card to get you started, but it is far too small to be of practical use. With it, the R-1 can barely record 3 minutes of 24-bit uncompressed material. With almost daily price reductions of CompactFlash media, though, storage cost really shouldn't be an issue. The R-1 can see partitions as large as 4 GB, so anything larger will have to be split into multiple partitions.
Tim Nielsen is a sound designer and editor who has worked on Pirates of the Caribbean and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He used the R-1 for a month and liked it. In terms of sound quality, he said that it “was better than expected for a $400 recorder, even when using the internal stereo mic. While it's no replacement for a high-end professional recorder, the input stages appear fairly clean, and I was generally impressed with the sound. I tested the R-1 with a pair of Audio-Technica omnidirectional lavalier mics. While not audiophile in any sense, that pairing generated surprisingly high-quality recordings.”
Tim liked the streamlined nature of the R-1, but he found a few glitches as well. “Usability is about as simple as can be, but it's here that the R-1 shows a couple of flaws. The first is the metering, which is accomplished with a 15-segment, mono, sluggish LED display. The meter updates are so slow that it's useless as a peak meter and appears to be showing averaged levels.”
The R-1 has some simple and marginally useful built-in effects such as three simple reverbs, simple EQ, and a de-esser; Tim liked the effects for monitoring. “While none of the effects are quite up to snuff to use for recording, they're convenient to have on playback. But there is a flaw: if you engage them while recording, they will be recorded, and the audio-effects button is easily bumped. If you're not monitoring while recording, you could be in for a nasty shock as you playback later only to find bad simulated plate reverb married to your recordings. The R-1 does have a hold button, though, a nice safety feature that should prevent any mishaps.”
All in all, Tim was impressed with the R-1, especially as a replacement for a portable DAT or a MiniDisc recorder (see the sidebar, “HHB MDP500 MiniDisc Recorder”). “While it's no competition for my Sound Devices 722, I could easily see replacing my Sharp MiniDisc with the R-1. I loved the ease of use, the quality for the recordings, and the simplicity of drag-and-drop file transfers. I wish it were a bit smaller, that the batteries lasted a bit longer, and that the metering was more usable. But as it is, it's a bargain for the price, and as a practice or composing tool, it's perfect.”
The Marantz PMD660 ($649) solid-state recorder is about the size and weight of a thick paperback novel (see Fig. 2). The PMD660 is optimized for quick, on-the-go news gathering and interviews. Though relatively inexpensive, the PMD660 feels sturdy, well constructed, and is able to withstand some knocks in the field. All the buttons, knobs, and other protrusions have been carefully recessed into the casing for maximum protection.
FIG. 2: The Marantz PMD660 is well established as the field recorder of choice for radio and news gathering.
The PMD660 has two XLR mic inputs with phantom power and a pair of internal microphones. Unbalanced line inputs and outputs are on -inch TRS jacks. A built-in speaker and a headphone jack let you listen to your recordings. Audio resolution maxes out at 16-bit, 48 kHz in WAV format, and files can be recorded in MP3 format. The meter has an 8-segment LED display, which is a welcome surprise considering how many of these units use less-readable LCD bar graphs instead. Although the user interface is simple and streamlined, learning how to configure the unit will probably require a trip to the manual. Once you've decided on your record settings, you can store them to one of three user-configurable presets.
Though the PMD660 is moderately priced, it has a number of useful and welcome features such as a prerecord buffer, built-in limiting, rudimentary track editing, and a dedicated Marker button that drops an edit-decision-list mark into the file during record. It also has automatic pause recording, which stops recording during silence and then records again when the noise level exceeds a user-configurable threshold. Edit functions include setting in and out points after recording, copying segments to new files, deleting files, and creating virtual tracks, which can combine sections from one or more files stored in CompactFlash memory.
Although Marantz intends the PMD660 to be used for recording interviews and other spoken-word applications, I tried using it to record sound effects for a short film entitled Pancho's Pizza. I used a Sennheiser 416 running into a Grace Design Lunatec V2 mic preamp, which then fed the PMD660's line input. Lower-level recordings, such as car bys, lighter flicks, and pizza-box Foley sounded fine. The recordings were crisp, detailed, and neutral in character. Louder sounds, such as door closes, had a tendency to distort, although the clip light didn't alert me.
Mac Smith is a sound editor whose credits include Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, November, and Star Wars Episode III: The Video Game. He worked with the PMD660 and heard the same distortion problems that I did. “The biggest downfall is that if you are recording any moderately loud sounds, the signal will clip. I was recording vocalizations from my one-year-old son, and the audio would distort using both the internal microphones and an external microphone.” He also noted, “The internal microphone, while convenient, does pick up some noise from the unit and is very sensitive to any slight touch of the recorder.” Clearly, recording sound effects is not the PMD660's forte, nor is it intended to be.
For its intended applications, however, the PMD660 shines. John Fletcher is a radio journalist for KVMR-FM in Nevada City, California. “I've been using the PMD660 for in-field interviews for about three months now,” says Fletcher. “It's a vast improvement over the MiniDisc players that we had been using before. Playback and editing are simple, and I love the ability to edit directly on the machine. It's lightweight, and the built-in microphone eliminates problems that I've had with handling noise using external mics.” Back at the studio, his interviews are edited in Pro Tools for broadcast. “We have a CompactFlash card reader hooked up to our Pro Tools system, so at the end of the day, we pull the card from the PMD660, pop it in the reader, add some sound effects and music, and out it goes on the air.”
The bigger sibling of the PMD660, the PMD671 ($1,199) is Marantz's flagship portable solid-state recorder (see Fig. 3). It is based on the popular PMD670 model but offers 24-bit, 96 kHz audio and an improved mic preamp design. The unit is designed for traditional over-the-shoulder field recording.
FIG. 3: The Marantz PMD671 has professional features at a modest price.
Marantz has been in the business of portable field recording for a long time. I have fond memories of beginning my recording career with its PMD430 cassette field recorder 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, the PMD671 shares many design decisions with Marantz's other portable products; consequently, if you like their design, you'll feel right at home with this one.
Mic and line inputs are separate jacks, with mics on +4 dBU XLRs and lines on -10 dBV RCAs. Phantom power is available, as well as a — 20 dB mic pad, bandpass and highpass input filtering, and a limiter. Monitoring features include source/file monitoring and the ability to play back and listen through an internal speaker or headphones. Other professional features include on-the-fly EDL marking during record or playback, a Record Undo button, a prerecord buffer, a Loop Repeat button, and rudimentary track-playback sequencing.
The PMD671 requires 8 AA batteries, but optional NiCad and NiMH battery packs fit in the same area. The included AC adapter will automatically charge the battery pack when it's plugged into the unit. Coaxial S/PDIF in and out supports all sampling rates as high as 96 kHz. Interestingly, the PMD671 can record in MP2 and MP3 formats at rates as high as 384 Kbps. Linear PCM sampling rates go from 8 kHz to 96 kHz.
In the Field
David Hughes is a sound designer and editor with a long string of top films under his belt, including Fight Club, Minority Report, and Panic Room. He used the PMD671 to record doorknobs and doors opening and closing with a Sennheiser MKH40, narration with the same mic, and a Martin D-35 acoustic guitar with a pair of AKG 414 mics.
The PMD671 had aspects that David really liked: “There are a few nice thoughtful features that I liked. The headphone monitor can be switched to listen to stereo, left routed to both, or right routed to both. While not as useful as an M/S decoder matrix, that can help make dual-level mono or M/S recording a little less confusing in the headphones. There is a prerecord buffer of four seconds, but at higher bit rates and sampling rates, that is cut to two seconds; it's still useful, though. The ergonomics of the machine are easy to run and easy to look at in action, with big meters and a big level knob. The unit mounts on a Mac desktop through USB with no fuss and no drivers to load.”
A self-professed picky recordist, David had problems with the PMD671's preamps. “I wanted to love the unit, but the mic preamps were disappointing. Their high self-noise made any recording that I gathered practically unusable for professional applications without using lowpass filtering to remove the hiss. I was using an MKH 40, which is one of the quietest mics you can buy. It's a great machine for someone who already owns a high-quality portable mic pre. Otherwise, this machine would be stellar if [Marantz] would improve that one problem.” Since then, David has gotten his wish: according to Marantz, recent firmware and hardware updates have addressed such concerns.
The Fostex FR-2 field memory recorder ($1,499) is built for the working professional. It is a no-nonsense, somewhat bulky black box that definitely looks like it can take the punishment of working in the field (see Fig. 4). The unit can record mono or stereo Broadcast Wave Format files in 16- or 24 bits at sampling rates from 22.05 kHz to 192 kHz. Line and mic inputs share a single pair of XLR jacks, and the analog output is unbalanced — 10 dBV on RCA jacks. Digital audio I/O is AES/EBU or S/PDIF on XLR jacks, maxing out at 96 kHz.
FIG. 4: The Fostex FR-2 has superb sound quality and optional support for SMPTE time code.
Unlike all the other units, the FR-2 features input trims in addition to record-level knobs to best maximize gain structure. It also has switchable 100 Hz highpass filters, a limiter, and a prerecord function. The optional SMPTE card ($799) allows the FR-2 to slave to and generate SMPTE. The FR-2 is the only unit in this roundup that's capable of doing that.
Kudos also for the FR-2's Menu knob: rotating it changes menu options, and pressing it in selects the currently focused option. That method of navigation and selection is quick and easy.
The FR-2 has two ports for storage: CompactFlash and PC Card. The PC Card port can use Flash ATA micro drives, which currently store as much as 5 GB.
In a professional situation, every moment counts, and searching for a parameter in a menu system can be difficult and frustrating. The FR-2 assigns all the most important recording parameters to hardware knobs and switches that you can see and change at a glance. That includes knobs for sampling rate and bit depth and switches to select 48V phantom power, a 100 Hz highpass filter, and mono or stereo operation. The FR-2 reminds me of a Dodge Dart: it may not be the smallest or sexiest-looking ride available, but it is solid, dependable, and easy to drive.
The FR-2's Achilles' heel has to be its battery system. It uses 8 AA batteries that should last for 80 minutes, according to the specs. They actually lasted about an hour for me, which means you would need 64 batteries in a single eight-hour day of field recording. Having several sets of NiMH rechargeable batteries would be an absolute must for using the FR-2 away from AC power; a far more hassle-free solution would be to connect a 12V lead-acid external battery to the FR-2's DC input. Fortunately, the FR-2's power-saving mode can extend battery life somewhat.
I have a few minor grumbles about the FR-2. The AC supply ($69) is a separate item to be purchased from Fostex. The FR-2 comes with neither a CompactFlash card nor an AC power supply. Every other unit in this roundup that relies solely on CompactFlash as a storage medium comes with a small card to get you started. I also wish the FR-2 had a ladder LED VU display like the Sound Devices 722 (discussed later in this article) does. For something as critical as constantly checking level, a dim LCD VU display just doesn't work for me. In addition, high-resolution files can get big quickly. Next time around, Fostex should consider putting in a faster data transmission protocol, such as USB 2.0 or FireWire.
I tried the FR-2 in a number of different environments for recording car doors and engines, birds and frogs in the wild, and a jazz-funk band rehearsal. In each case, the unit performed like a champ. The mic preamps are dead quiet and detailed, and I liked the solid feel of the unit's buttons. One peculiarity is that you have to press Rec Standby to finish recording; the Stop button is for playback only.
Overall, I was blown away by the sound quality and solid feel of the unit. It is clearly built to last and was designed with the needs of the field-audio professional in mind. At $1,500, it takes dead aim at recordists retiring their Tascam DA-P1 DAT recorders, and it makes an excellent upgrade. Most of my colleagues and I felt that the FR-2 truly had the best-sounding mic preamps in the roundup. If budget is an issue but getting the highest possible sound quality is important, then this is the unit for you. Aside from the annoying AA battery drain and Fostex's dubious decision to sell a unit like this without an AC adapter, I unhesitatingly recommend the FR-2.
The Edirol R-4 is a 4-channel desktop-oriented portable recorder (see Fig. 5). At $1,895, it is shooting for the upper end of the affordable tapeless field-recorder world, and it has the feature set to justify the price. Four channels of recording set it apart from all the other contenders in this roundup. The extra power is perfect for recording a band rehearsal with separate tracks for different musicians, for recording quadraphonic ambiences (making it useful for film or video games), or for multichannel production recording. The R-4 comes equipped with a 40 GB internal hard drive, which can hold a lot more 24-bit, 96 kHz 4-channel recordings than a CompactFlash card could (a CompactFlash port is included, too). The unit has built-in stereo microphones and stereo speakers. A sturdy padded carry bag is bundled with the unit.
FIG. 5: The Edirol R-4 features four mic preamps, 4-channel recording, and a 40 GB hard drive.
The R-4's design favors desktop use more than over-the-shoulder recording. It is powered by 8 AA batteries or an AC adapter. For long jaunts away from power I would recommend getting NiMH rechargeable batteries or a lead-acid battery that could plug into the R-4's DC power jack. The recorder's look and user interface are classic Roland, and it is exceptionally easy to use, with a big user-friendly LCD display and dedicated rubberized buttons for most of the commonly used functions. The mic/line inputs are of the combination XLR/TRS variety, with switchable phantom power in banks of two tracks. Rudimentary wave-editing procedures let you trim, divide, combine, and merge files on the unit. I give the R-4 two big thumbs up for the shuttle and scrub wheels, which allow you to move through recorded material forward and backward to find the moment that you're looking for.
Like the R-1, the R-4 comes with built-in effects that can be configured for playback only or for recording and playback. Unlike the R-1's, the effects sound pretty good and are oriented toward optimizing the recording rather than the creative processing. The effects include 3-band parametric and 6-band graphic EQ, a noise gate, an aural enhancer, and a compressor/de-esser.
Four on the Score
Al Nelson was sound-effects recordist on such films as AI and The Hulk and is currently recording effects for the upcoming Pixar film Cars. Al was also the sound designer on the recent Sony Classics release, November. He used the R-4 in the field and was impressed. His favorite aspect was simply the fact that it was tapeless.
“Despite a number of critiques that I may have, let's remember this: no more DAT tape. No $40 runs to the pro audio store before we go on that little recording adventure. No unraveling the little tape from around my Tascam DA-P1's insides after getting the one great take that I was waiting for. Just power up and start recording. And with 40 GB, you can keep the past month's stuff without fear of running out of space. Transferring my recordings to the computer was easy. I plugged the R-4's USB port into a Mac and it showed up on the desktop as a drive. Dragging and dropping was as simple as could be. It was way better than loading a linear tape.”
Al also liked the R-4's layout and user interface. He said it was “an easy ramp-up to use. To start recording, it's pretty straightforward. There are not many menu items overall, and it's intuitive as to where you need to go to set up to record. The first time I had to go to the manual was to figure out how to monitor input without recording, which is achieved by pressing Pause while in Record mode.”
Al thought that the preamps were clean, though he heard “a little bit of that hissy air with a quiet source and high gain. The device itself is very quiet, perfect on the Foley stage.” He thought the input metering was reliable enough, but that the clip indicator was “not obvious — it was just a black dash. I would really prefer to see green, yellow, and red LCDs.”
Al played around with the onboard effects as well. “The EQ seemed useful for auditioning whether or not a particular recording situation could be fixed in post, but I wouldn't choose to process internally if I had better outboard options or plug-ins. Things like emphasis and compression would probably be useful for vocals, though. Great for that indie film editorial team who might be recording voice-over or maverick-style ADR.”
The R-4 does have its share of drawbacks. Al noted that the phantom power “comes in banks of two. What if I have three dynamics and a condenser?” In addition, Al would like to see a mid-side (M/S) decode headphone-monitoring mode, which is useful for field recordists. The only unit in this roundup that does offer such a mode is the Sound Devices 722. He felt that the preamp “gain is clean, but I could use a bit more.” Ultimately, he didn't think the R-4 was an appropriate choice for field recording, because “the thing is big and kind of clunky. It's set up like a desktop device. For what I do, it needs to be streamlined. It's really designed to lay flat for easy use. The transport is on the front, but all other menu options, switches, and so on are on top.”
In summary, Al said it was a great tool for low-budget film projects. “For all of those spare-bedroom editorial departments making documentaries and indie movies, the R-4 will be a lifesaver. Small productions can now buy a decent shotgun mic and an R-4 and prep most of their track. There's no timecode; by recording guerilla-style to picture, however, they can shoot narration, maverick-style ADR, simple Foley, and so on. They can record sounds while they shoot, spend a few weeks hunting and gathering, and actually create their project's sound library for cheap.”
He also said, “For music, it looks to be a great tool as well. It's clean and quiet enough to take to your favorite room, empty lecture hall or church; plug in a few mics; and record for hours. Those extra two inputs could make a huge difference in allowing you to record close- and distant-perspective versions of the music.”
SOUND DEVICES 722
The Sound Devices 722 ($2,650) is the unit that most pros I know either own or are planning to buy (see Fig. 6). Though it is the priciest of the bunch (costing $1,250 more than the excellent Fostex FR-2), it is loaded with features that would make any sound recordist drool. The 722 is small and lightweight, sounds great, and comes loaded with a 40 GB internal hard drive.
FIG. 6: The Sound Devices 722 delivers great sound quality and professional features in a sleek package.
For protection, the 722 is built from solid aluminum plates all the way around. Because it has no controls on the top or bottom plates, you can operate it easily within a protective case with just the front and sides exposed. The front panel is loaded with bright LEDs and an LCD, with a relative paucity of knobs and buttons — 13 in all. A knob on the side lets you control most functions by giving you access to the 722's menu system.
The 722 records WAV files as high as 24-bit, 192 kHz. It can also encode to MP3 format, providing a maximum record time of 1,422 hours at 64 Kbps. The unit has a CompactFlash port that you can use instead of the hard drive. If you're concerned about the reliability of hard drives in the field, you can record to CompactFlash and the hard drive simultaneously, ensuring redundancy in case of failure.
The 722 is crammed full of more features than space permits me to describe; suffice it to say that flexibility and detail were clearly the intentions of the design team. Some examples are flexible routing between inputs and recording tracks and the ability to route input, track, or postrecord (confidence monitoring) to the headphones. You can adjust the meter ballistics, LED brightness, highpass-filter knee and cutoff frequency, and the output level of the warning beep. Presets let you set your favorite recording and headphone configurations, a reference tone oscillator, and a VCR-like time and date auto-record feature.
Special kudos must go to the 722's battery system. Rather than using AA batteries, the 722 uses 7.2V lithium ion (Li-ion) cells that are compatible with current-generation Sony camcorders. The included battery stores a relatively paltry 1,500 mAh, which will power the 722 for two hours, but larger batteries are available through consumer electronics and camera stores. The included AC-to-DC adapter will run the 722 and charge the battery simultaneously. For serious excursions into the wilderness, you can connect large-capacity lead-acid batteries to the DC power input.
On the Job
I used the 722 for a variety of sound-design and audio-production tasks for about a month, and was very pleased with the results. The upcoming DVD rerelease of the film Titanic includes a new scene where a character is playing an old upright piano. I used the 722 on a variety of pianos in different situations and recorded mono from six feet away using a Schoeps cardioid mic to get an appropriate room sound. The 722's clean mic preamps picked up a good balance of room reverb and piano, creating a convincing image.
My favorite use of the 722 so far has been for recording natural ambiences in a quiet environment. I used Sennheiser MKH 30 and MKH 40 mics in an M/S configuration for recording crickets, wind in trees, and general rural ambiences. I was absolutely blown away by the level of detail afforded by that combination. The mics have exceptionally low noise floors, which worked beautifully with the 722's crisp, detailed preamps to give me a clear, subtle signal with no hiss. The 722's ability to decode the M/S signal through the headphone monitor while recording the unencoded materials to the hard drive affords a great level of flexibility. I'm absolutely sold on this pairing as a high-end audiophile recording solution for nature recordists and sound-design professionals.
The 722 does have a learning curve. Though it's obvious that Sound Devices carefully thought out the interface, certain idiosyncrasies take some getting used to. The VU meter calibration is different from that of most digital systems with which I am familiar, with only four LEDs representing the area between — 12 dBfs and 0 and 15 LEDs representing the region between — 50 dBfs and — 12. The result is that I calibrated my recording level lower than I normally would, creating fairly quiet files that sometimes needed to have gain added in Pro Tools. The 722 doesn't give you a way to delete files directly from the recorder; you must connect it to a computer and do so remotely. Sound Devices made that decision specifically to avoid undue hard-drive fragmentation. Nonetheless, users have requested the ability to delete files directly, and a future firmware update will implement that feature.
While the 722 is a deep and comprehensive box that I see as the de facto choice for many professionals, I still can't shake the feeling that the product got rushed to market before it was completely ready. Though the fit and finish is generally first-rate, the BNC connectors on the right side stick out farther than the protective paneling and are thus exposed to knocks. (Sound Devices assures readers that the connectors have been rigorously tested and should withstand any handling.) The lock washers holding them in place protrude asymmetrically to one side, which is a niggling detail but surprising considering the price of the unit. In the first unit I received for review, the FireWire connection did not work; Sound Devices immediately sent me a replacement. Transferring data through FireWire required a bit of futzing about before my Macs would see the unit. If I had the 722 connected to the Mac but powered down, powering it up will immediately crash the Mac, requiring a restart. I've discovered through trial and error that the most reliable method is to make sure that both units are powered up, connect the FireWire cable to the Mac first, and then connect the cable to the 722. The previous unit also crashed on occasion, though I experienced no crash problems with my current unit (firmware rev 1.37). According to the manufacturer, Mac OS X connectivity issues will be resolved in the 722's next firmware update.
My biggest gripe about the 722 at present is the lack of a dedicated switch for engaging phantom power. The default method for turning on phantom power is by accessing menu items, making what should be an instantaneous act require at least three button clicks and two twists of the Menu knob. Fortunately, pairs of buttons on the front panel, when pressed together, serve as navigation shortcuts to toggle phantom power on and off. Nonetheless, having friendly switches labeled 48V near the mic inputs would make the unit more intuitive and easier to use. Those issues aside, if budget is not as important a consideration as size and features and your primary purpose is portable field recording away from power sources, the 722 is tough to beat.
Apples to Apples
To get a relative sense of how these machines sound in comparison with one another, I recorded the same materials to each unit. I tried to exercise the full dynamic range of the preamps by recording a snare drum at close range, dialog at medium range, and a quiet nighttime exterior ambience. I recorded the snare using a Shure SM57 placed two inches from the rim of the instrument. I recorded myself reading the dialog — a scene from a movie script — with a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic at a distance of 12 feet. I recorded the ambience in a suburban neighborhood on a quiet, breezy night using a pair of Earthworks QTC1 omni mics placed about ten feet apart. Though each recording was a unique performance, I took scrupulous care to make sure that the levels of the performances, as well as the VU meter readings on the recording units, were as closely matched as possible. Although 24-bit recording would have probably revealed additional differences, all recordings were made at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz.
Because the R-1 does not feature 48V phantom power, I used a Lunatec V2 mic preamp on the dialog test for that unit to power the mics. In addition, the R-1's mic preamps did not have enough gain to record the quiet nighttime ambience convincingly.
I transferred the recordings to a Mac using FireWire or USB 2.0 and then edited them in Pro Tools. The only processing that I performed was some slight level balancing to even out their loudness. Once I had completed that process, I sent the files to a number of golden-eared listeners without telling them which file was recorded on what machine.
As with any subjective experience, different listeners had different impressions; a few of their observations are listed in the table “Listener Comments.” There certainly were trends, though. Nearly everyone really liked the sound of the Fostex FR-2's preamps on all three record sources. No one cared for the PMD660's recording of the snare drum, which was no surprise because its preamps were not designed for recording music. Nonetheless, many people liked it on the ambience recording. No one liked the R-1's dialog recording, but it added a surprising amount of compressive rock punch to the snare recording that appealed to many. Most people liked the PMD671's dialog recording, but felt it was too noisy and had an unconvincing stereo image in the ambience recording — but again, that was not its intended application.
The Envelope, Please
If you want something inexpensive, portable, and easy to throw in your bag to capture that perfect aural moment, the R-1 is hard to beat. The built-in mics and onboard DSP make it the unit of choice for musicians and casual field recordists.
The award for best user interface goes to the Edirol R-4, whose big, clearly marked buttons; easy-to-read LCD panel; and generally good layout allowed me to get right in and record without cracking the manual. It's also the only field recorder in this price range that offers four discrete mic preamps. For a semiprofessional production sound gig that doesn't require SMPTE, the R-4 could be a great choice, allowing for three separate actors on lavalier mics and a boom mic. It would also have solid advantages for recording a live band from a board; you could record a stereo band mix, with two separate tracks for vocals.
The Marantz PMD660 is the unit best suited for news-gathering and interviews. Its small, fairly lightweight size; strong build; and built-in mics make it the choice for grab-and-go situations.
To my ears, the best mic preamp was a tie between the Fostex FR-2 and Sound Devices 722. Both preamps are whisper-quiet, clean, and detailed, with headroom to burn and the ability to record materials with a wide dynamic range. I'd feel comfortable using either unit to record anything from crickets to a rock concert.
The FR-2 and 722 are also tied in the contest for the most suitable for professional audio field production. If money were no object and I were primarily focused on field recording, I would favor the 722 because of its miniscule size and excellent battery system. If I were recording production audio, I would go for the FR-2, whose professional, no-nonsense knob and switch-based interface; ability to read and write SMPTE; external speaker; and sturdy, blocklike design make it a winner.
Just before this article went to press, three new tapeless field recorders were announced. For details, please see the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 and the Sony Hi-MD Recorders descriptions in this issue's What's New section.
Nick Peck is a sound designer, jazz organist, composer/engineer, and interactive-audio consultant living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Special thanks to Al Nelson, Mac Smith, Tim Nielsen, David Hughes, Matt Gallagher, Agnes and Julian Peck, and all the intrepid surveyors (you know who you are) for their help in creating this article.
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HHB MDP 500 MINIDISC RECORDER
No self-respecting article on field recorders would be complete without at least a nod to the venerable MiniDisc. Tiny, lightweight, and inexpensive, the MiniDisc is based on magneto-optical technology. It is capable of recording as much as 80 minutes of stereo, 20-bit, 44.1 kHz audio. The MiniDisc's primary disadvantage is the use of a lossy compression codec called ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding). ATRAC is similar to other audio compression algorithms such as MP3 in that it takes advantage of the psychoacoustic phenomena of perceptual masking to remove data that the listener is less likely to notice. Although any audio compression format is a compromise relative to linear audio, MiniDisc sounds pretty good and has been popular for years.
FIG. A: HHB''s MDP500 is a ruggedly built MiniDisc recorder with a well-rounded feature set.
HHB's MDP500 ($1,712) professional MiniDisc recorder is a serious piece of equipment, designed for field and concert recording (see Fig. A). The MDP500 is loaded with pro features and is ruggedly built to last. Handy features include balanced mic/line inputs on XLR jacks with phantom power, a mono internal microphone, a monitor speaker, and optional limiting. Line outputs are stereo unbalanced RCA jacks, and S/PDIF in and out are available on either coaxial or optical ports. The MDP500's USB connection will stream audio in real time into your computer, though you can't access files on the unit as you can with the linear recorders in this article. Track editing in the box, a lockable record-level setting, a six-second prerecord buffer, an NiMH rechargeable battery pack, and user-configurable recording presets round out a comprehensive feature set.
I recorded a band rehearsal with the MDP500 and was more than satisfied with the results in terms of sound quality and ease of use. MiniDiscs are so cheap (around $1.50 each) and so small that they are an excellent medium for recording rehearsals and gigs. Their random-access nature makes it fast and easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, and 80 minutes of recording time is just right for an evening's rehearsal or a set at a club. The MiniDisc is particularly useful if you are on the road and don't have time to offload material from a CompactFlash card in between shows.