I’m a portable recording freak: I’ve used cassette, DAT, Minidisc, and TASCAM’s PS5. I’ve used ’em all, dropped ’em all, been in situations where recording was . . . uh . . . hazardous to my health (see sidebar), and am always looking for something better, smaller, and groovier.
In this corner: Edirol’s R-1 with the virtues of no moving parts or mechanical noise, and serious recording options that lift it out of the “toy” category. It records uncompressed WAV (16/24 bits), as well as MP3 up to 320kbps, to CompactFlash (CF) cartridges up to 4GB in size. (However, note that the cartridge format — presumably related to the Windows FAT protocol — imposes a 2GB file size limit.) Recording sampling rate is 44.1kHz, but the R-1 can play back files at all common sampling rates.
And in this corner: Sony’s MZ-M100 Hi-MD, the latest and definitely greatest iteration of MD technology. Now, just in case your opinion about MD is based on early models, it’s time for an opinion update. This recorder/ player uses 1GB discs, can record uncompressed WAV files, talks to computers, and implements the latest version of ATRAC (which sounds better than MP3) if you want to use data compression.
THE STORAGE STORY
With the R-1, a 2GB CF cartridge accommodates slightly over two hours of 24-bit WAV files, and almost 14 hours of MP3 data at 320kbps. Drop the MP3 rate to 64kbps for 69 hours (!) of recording time. MD’s 1GB disc yields about one and a half hours of uncompressed recording, and with ATRAC3plus, almost eight hours at 256kbps, 34 hours at 64kbps, and 45 hours at 48kbps. Still stuck on MP3? Do 17 hours at 128kbps.
But if you need to record a lot of audio, consider media cost. After googling around for a bit, a 1GB CF cartridge averaged around $70, and a 1GB Hi-MD disc, $7 in a 10-pack. In either case, you’ll likely end up transferring the contents to your computer — so if you don’t need lots of continuous recording, you won’t need to carry a wad of CF cartridges. But if you’re deep in fieldwork (or want to bring along a bunch of your favorite music), MD gets the nod for cost-effective storage media.
What about reliability? CF is inherently ultra-reliable, but MD holds up extremely well. The disc is in a plastic enclosure that keeps out dust and apparently, the Forces of Evil — MD users report excellent reliability. I can attest that they are rugged little suckers that seem unaffected by heat, cold, humidity, and the vibration caused by stacks of EAWs shaking a dance floor at a dB level that kills insects. For fail-safe, CF rocks. But I wouldn’t lose much sleep over losing MD data.
The R-1 is clearly designed for musicians, and has a “studio” pedigree. Effects can be added during playback or recording, and it’s comforting to be able to add limiting to the signal path when you’re concerned about overloads. The “mastering” effect, which offers two-band compression, is helpful, as is the hum noise cut. Noise gating, EQ, and other effects increase the unit’s versatility; and there are other cool features, like half-speed playback, pitch stretching, and block repeat. Oh, and you’ll never find an MD with a built-in tuner and metronome.
The MZ-M100 took a more circuitous path to its current market niche: a consumer format that flopped in the U.S., but was reborn as the pro’s choice for field recording, interviews, and other audio-on-the-go applications. Yet MD still does well as a consumer item in Japan and to some extent, Europe. So the MZ-M100 straddles the consumer/pro line. It lets you name tracks, and includes digital rights management (DRM) for those ripping copy-protected material — but if you’re a pro doing your recording through the analog or line ins, you can transfer the recordings to unprotected WAV files on your computer.
No contest: The MZ-M100 is sleek, shiny, and has an integrated fluorescent display that’s so cute you want to lick it. The R-1, while still palm-sized, is somewhat bigger and heavier (about 3.75" x 1" x 5-1/4" vs. 3.75" x 3/4" x 3-3/8"). Mitigating circumstance: The R-1 has built-in stereo mics that sound good. Like, surprisingly good — and with no moving parts, they pick up no noise. The MZ-M100 comes with a great stereo mic (the ECM-DS70P), but it’s about 2.25" across and connects via a thin cable to the MD. So the R-1 is bulkier, but in a way, more convenient for situations where you can place the recorder exactly where you want to record.
Either unit transfers to Mac OS X or Windows XP via USB 2.0. The Edirol is simpler: It just shows up as a USB peripheral — drag your files and go.
Sony includes their SonicStage software, which can transfer files to and from MD and has other bells and whistles, but is PC only. However, included Mac software lets you pull files off the MD to your computer, which is probably all that pros really care about.
With two alkaline batteries, the R-1 will do about five and a half hours of playback and two hours of recording. With its single AA alkaline battery, the MZ-M100 stats are a little more complex: In Hi-MD mode, you’ll get two hours of uncompressed recordings, and three hours when using data compression; using standard Minidiscs gives about double that. With the internal rechargeable NiMH battery by itself, you’ll get three and a half to five hours of uncompressed recording, depending on the type of disc used. Playback is about twice that of the R-1 for data compressed formats, and about eight hours for linear PCM.
You can also use rechargeable batteries for either device, but the MD lets you use the internal battery with a “sidecar” alkaline battery. This combination allows recording times of up to eight hours.
SO WHICH ONE WINS?
For straight-ahead field recording and sample collecting, either does the job — and either positively demolishes DAT or cassette. But I’d give the edge to MD. It’s smaller, lighter, less expensive ($439.95 vs. $550 list), uses one instead of two batteries yet has longer record/playback times, and the media cost is currently 1/10th that of CompactFlash. Also note you can get a bundle with Sony Sound Forge 8 software for $549.95.
However, the R-1 is a more versatile, musician-oriented device. It has no copy protection, and includes useful, “musician-friendly” extras that MD doesn’t have. If you’re looking for a recorder that bridges field recording, occasional use in the studio, and capturing musical ideas, the R-1 offers more amenities.