I use a DAT recorder for field recording, but I'm not especially fond of the format. Although generally reliable, DAT recorders have been known to eat tape, which is why I always make sure my team packs more than one recorder. “If you care, carry a spare” has become my mantra.
But what else is there besides DAT? I toyed with the idea of setting up a laptop computer as my field recorder until I remembered how often my computer crashes at home. I also considered the question of what might happen to a laptop on the shores of a glacial lake or in the crush of a crowded subway.
My solution for the past few years has been to carry a consumer Sharp portable MiniDisc (MD) recorder as a backup (and occasionally primary) recorder. With a professional front end such as the Denecke AD-20 mic preamp and A/D combo, the MiniDisc format can sound good. That wasn't always the case when introduced by Sony in 1991, MiniDisc's ATRAC data compression was criticized by audio reviewers and largely dismissed. Since then, however, much progress has been made. Indeed, at this point, I can't reliably tell an MD copy from the linear pulse-code modulation (PCM) original.
Still, the limitations of consumer portable MD recorders are painfully obvious: tiny input jacks, poor metering, awkward level adjustments, noisy mic preamps, no digital outputs, and so on. You can get around some of the limitations by buttressing consumer gear with pro-audio peripherals, but doing so leads to a bag full of gadgets and a rat's nest of cables.
Until recently, the only professional MD recorder available was the Marantz PMD650. Fortunately, those seeking an all-in-one solution now have another viable choice: HHB's new Portadisc MDP500 (see Fig. 1). I tested the Portadisc in a variety of conditions on two continents, and my initial positive impressions were, for the most part, confirmed.
The Portadisc is clearly designed by people who know field recording. From its sturdy construction to its prerecord buffer, the unit practically shouts “professional” the moment you take it out of the box. Roughly the size of a medium hardcover book, the purple Portadisc is packed with features: XLR jacks, phantom-power mic inputs, USB support, a switchable limiter, low-cut filters, extensive monitoring options, and even a tiny built-in speaker.
You gain access to the Portadisc's many features through a menu-based interface on the front panel. Four dedicated buttons and three soft keys walk you through a two-line, 24-character backlit LCD (which can be difficult to read in poor lighting).
Using the Portadisc in the field inspires confidence. Small but useful touches abound; crucial controls are optimally placed and operate positively. The record-level and headphone-volume dials can be latched to avoid unintentional adjustments. A nicely designed nylon carrying bag is included, with convenient clear panels for wet weather operation and Velcro openings for secure cable access. My only initial complaint was with the shoulder strap, which was uncomfortable and somewhat unreliable.
INS AND OUTS
The Portadisc offers outstanding flexibility through its array of connectors (see Fig. 2). In addition to the balanced XLR mic/line inputs, it also has RCA line-output jacks; a ¼-inch headphone jack; and three digital I/O options: S/PDIF on both Toslink optical and coaxial jacks, and USB. The recorder also has a mini-DIN-plug connector so you can link to a remote transport (optional).
Left and right input sources can be set independently. You can also simultaneously record from one analog input and one channel of a digital source. Mic-input features include phantom power, attenuator, low-cut filter, and limiter. The line input offers a limiter, too, and there's even a built-in microphone for slating takes and a speaker for headphone-free playback.
The Portadisc can exchange digital audio with a factory-USB-equipped Macintosh (with OS 9 or later) or a PC (with Windows 98/ME/2000). When I discovered that the Portadisc had a USB connector, I hoped it would let the computer view and edit track or disc names and permit file-based (rather than real-time) audio transfers. The Portadisc's USB implementation, however, is minimal; the unit appears simply as a sound input or output device (like an external microphone or USB loudspeaker). Nevertheless, if your computer doesn't have S/PDIF or optical I/O, the Portadisc's USB port could save you a few hundred bucks.
POWER TO GO
Power can be the Achilles' heel of a portable electronic device. Happily, though, battery implementation for the Portadisc is solid and reliable. The Portadisc comes with eight AA nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable cells that fit into a removable tray mounted behind a sliding cover on the unit's back panel. As the batteries deplete, a two-digit “percent remaining” counter keeps you apprised of the battery status. HHB claims about three hours of recording time on a fully charged set. I received a bit less time, but that was using Schoeps microphones, which draw a fair amount of phantom power. A spare battery tray is provided, so if you carry an extra set of AA batteries (which I strongly recommend), you can swap the entire battery pack and be recording again in seconds.
The included AC adapter can power the deck and also can serve as a battery charger. It is conveniently small and can be detached from the AC cord. In addition, it automatically switches to match the line voltage of the country you're in I used it in New Zealand (220 VAC) without a hitch. “No worries,” as they say down under.
Most disc-based recorders assume a risk not shared by tape-based machines: loss of the take if power is interrupted during recording. That's because, typically, the disc's table of contents (TOC) is updated only after the recording is complete. That isn't just a theoretical possibility I've lost audio on my consumer MD when an external battery connection came loose during recording.
Fortunately, HHB solved that problem. Even if you are foolhardy enough to remove the Portadisc's internal battery pack while recording, the unit automatically updates the TOC the next time it is turned on, rescuing the final take. That is an extremely nice feature.
My favorite Portadisc feature is the glorious prerecord buffer. When you put the deck into Pause/Record mode, it begins recording sound to a 6-second RAM buffer. When the buffer fills, the oldest audio is discarded to make room for incoming sounds. When you take the machine out of pause, the contents of the buffer are written to disc, followed by the remainder of the take. In other words, the Portadisc is a time machine that takes you back to the moment when you wish you had started recording but didn't.
That is a wonderful feature when you are recording unpredictable sources such as animal sounds, distant church bells, crowd reactions, building demolitions, and so on. Instead of missing the beginning of those sounds or idly recording in the hope that something interesting might come along, you can relax in Pause mode, secure in the knowledge that when the sound source begins, you will capture all of it.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
After the mic itself, the microphone preamplifier is typically the element in the recording chain that has the most effect on recording quality. Judging by the Portadisc's sturdy XLR inputs and HHB's professional pedigree, I expected good performance from the Portadisc's mic preamps. To my surprise, the analog electronics were the Portadisc's weakest link.
Some of my field-recording work involves capturing quiet sounds from nature, often recorded from a distance. For premium results, that requires a quiet (not to mention accurate) mic preamp. Though the Portadisc's mic preamps were acceptable for recording close-miked dialog or amplified music, they are noticeably noisy when recording quiet sources.
Even more annoying than the noise level from the preamps is a subtle whine that appears in recordings when the deck's phantom power is engaged. After I discovered that problem on the original review unit, HHB kindly sent another deck for me to test. The second machine was something of an improvement, but it did not entirely resolve the discouraging problem.
Although the Portadisc's meters are good, they don't always tell the whole story. Metering is derived from the output of the A/D converter, but it is possible to drive the microphone preamp into clipping, even though the meters register levels well below digital zero. In fairness, that only happens when your record-level knob is at the lowest part of its range, but a teensy LED that showed clipping in the mic pre would have been appreciated. Rule of thumb: if your record-level knob is below 4 and the VU meter is running hot, it's a good idea to apply the Portadisc's mic attenuator (-15 and -30 dB settings are provided) and crank up the input-level knob.
Speaking of proper level setting, the built-in limiter circuit works as advertised. However, the automatic gain control (AGC) is unreliable it is easy to drive the A/D into distortion if you speak loudly while eating the mic. Skip the AGC and use the onboard limiter as needed.
The HHB Portadisc MDP500 is well suited to broadcast journalism, electronic news gathering, interview archiving, and similar tasks. However, my interests center on sound design and music recording. Because of its somewhat noisy analog front end (especially when using phantom power), I can't recommend the Portadisc MDP500 for recordings of very quiet sounds. Aside from that, it is a full-feature, professional MiniDisc recorder that is more than qualified for the tasks of capturing real-world sounds and exchanging audio with other digital devices.
Rudy Trubitt is a writer and sound recordist. He has been writing for EM since 1990.
Portadisc MDP500 Specifications
Recording Time80 min. (stereo); 160 min. (mono)Analog Inputs(2) balanced XLR mic/line (with +48V phantom power); (2) unbalanced RCA lineDigital I/O(2) S/PDIF (coaxial and optical Toslink); USBHeadphone Output¼" TRSFrequency Response10 Hz-20 kHz (-0.5 dB)Signal-to-Noise Ratio (playback)>89 dBDynamic Range (line input)>96 dBTotal Harmonic Distortion<0.02% @ 1 kHz (0 dBFS)Power12V DC; (8) AA batteries (8 rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride included)Remote Control Connectorparallel 8-pin mini-DINDimensions10" (W) × 2.2" (H) × 7.1" (D)Weight4.44 lbs.
portable MiniDisc recorder
FEATURES5.0AUDIO QUALITY2.5EASE OF USE4.0VALUE3.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Glorious prerecord buffer. Outstanding assortment of features. Comprehensive I/O.
CONS: Somewhat noisy analog front end, especially with phantom power engaged. LCD often difficult to read.