At long last, the Sony PCM-D50 portable recorder finally arrived at my door. I was a bit confused because I had to sign for two identical boxes from Sony Corporation; the second contained the ECM-957PRO mid-side (MS) stereo condenser microphone with built-in MS decoder. Once through the shipping tape and packing peanuts, I had my very favorable first impression of the PCM-D50. It's hefty, built with a sturdy aluminum chassis, obviously well engineered and also perhaps the sexiest of portable recorders, challenged only by the Olympus LS-10. As portable recorders go, the D50 is midsized: roughly 3-by-6-by-1.5 inches. That's coat-pocket size — larger than the LS-10 or Yamaha Pocketrak, yet far smaller than the Marantz PMD660.
The controls and surface features are as impressive in ergonomics as they are in appearance. The recording-level knob is nice and big (about two-thirds of an inch across), numbered in red from 1 to 10 and sits protected under an aluminum housing. So instead of the common low/medium/high three-position gain switch, the D50 lets you choose any real number between 1 and 10. The two condenser mics can be set to two positions: X/Y and wide-stereo. A parallel mic setting is also possible, should you require front-address on both left and right channels — typical summing and phase caveats apply. These options give the D50 versatility matched only by the Zoom H2, which contains four condenser diaphragms that function as X/Y and wide-stereo simultaneously.
In addition to tanklike construction and a sensible design, even the finer details left me impressed. For instance, the condensers each have a 45-degree bevel on their top edge. In X/Y mode, the beveled edge of each condenser sits perfectly parallel — about half-a-millimeter apart — creating an extremely small, exactly rectangular gap between them, which works as a visual point of reference for just how precise their X/Y orientation really is. Granted, that's a surface detail; sonically, it's not going to make much difference. So just how much can this book be judged by its cover?
QUITE A HANDFUL
PCM-D50's menus are simple. Click on the menu button once quickly, and the LCD screen brings up a list of 10 folders, allowing you to group your projects by storing them in separate files. Once you choose a folder with the arrow keys — also the fast-forward (FF) and fast-rewind (FR) buttons — you are free to play back files in that folder or record new ones.
Holding down the menu button brings to the screen the D50's straightforward yet carefully considered feature set. Rec Mode selects all common sample resolutions between 22.05 kHz/16-bit and 96 kHz/24-bit, with the exception of an 88.2 kHz sampling rate option, which will disappoint those producers leery of rendering to Red Book from 96 kHz. To me, 96 is just fine.
A dual digital limiter protects your recordings from clipping from overly loud sources. LCF, the low-cut filter, is a must-have feature on a portable recorder, and allows you to select between 150 Hz and 70 Hz, knocking out wind and other sources of low-frequency noise. Pre Rec, the prerecord option, enables a five-second buffer of recorded audio.
The PCM-D50's digital pitch control (DPC) and Easy Search and Divide functions are particularly useful for rehearsals and jams. DPC allows a track to be slowed down by increments of five percent, down to 75 percent slower, or to be sped up by increments of 10 percent, as much as 100 percent faster. A switch on the left side toggles the DPC function on or off. The DPC function would have helped out in a lot of previous jams I've attended when players needed something that was wasn't available right away: a pitch-controlled, slowed-down playback. Also, DPC makes transcribing a recorded speech, class, lecture, etc., effortless for a decent typist.
Easy Search and Divide functions make it simple to organize and navigate through files. With Easy Search turned on, one can search through a track by repeatedly pressing the FF or FR buttons, skipping ahead 10 seconds at a time or skipping back three seconds at a time. With Easy Search off, the recorder's search functions act like a CD player's. Finally, the Divide function slices up existing tracks either while recording or during playback. Press the silver Divide button, and a pair of scissors indicates that the track is being divided. That prevents the break in flow caused by having to rearm the recorder every time there's a botched take or new idea.
I used the D50 and ECM-957 for every application I could think of. First, I set it on a coffee table to record a party's jam session. A typical boxy room mix with disproportionate levels was still detailed and intelligible. Renditions of “I've Got a Woman” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” were mixed with the banter of exhausted co-workers unwinding.
Using the D50 as a handheld portable recorder was fantastic. If done carefully, handling noise is a negligible concern. The main problem I encountered was wind noise: Breath and outdoor wind were significant problems. The low-cut filter made a noticeable difference, but there was no getting around the fact that the condensers were easily overwhelmed. For that reason, I suggest buying a windscreen if you're going to be recording outside. The D50 windscreen looks like an Einstein wig or a leftover scrap of Muppet. On the D50, it looks like a big gray Afro. I like it.
The optional ECM-957PRO stereo microphone is dramatically less sensitive to wind than the D50's onboard condensers. The D50 condensers would cut out completely if I exhaled close to them, but the ECM-957 was completely immune and reproduced my voice with sharpness and clarity at all frequencies. The switch on the ECM-957PRO provides selectable directivity (90 or 120 degrees). This selects two alternative modes for the built-in MS decoder. You can also switch it from front-address to side-address by moving one of the elements. Using it as a front-address microphone, I encountered very little interference from the wind or from breath. Though it isn't as directional as a shotgun mic, it can still be used quite successfully as a front-address field-recording mic.
The D50's gain can be adjusted noiselessly via the record-level knob. This unexpected feature is particularly useful for field recordings. In effect, the record-level knob can be used as an on-the-fly fader for sound sources with predictable sound-pressure changes. For example, an ambulance siren peaks abruptly as it passes. Rolling the gain down and back up with the sound-pressure increase and decrease makes for a less-dramatic difference between loud and soft, thus taking full advantage of the bit depth and headroom.
MIC VS. MIC
The condensers on the PCM-D50 are clear, detailed and — as promised by Sony — virtually noiseless. Noise was negligible even when a -50 dB signal forced me to crank the volume to bring the levels up to an audible volume. That's partly because the amplifier circuitry is independent of the power circuitry.
To get an idea of how the D50's condensers compared to its competition's, I tested them against a Zoom H4 and H2, and a Roland CD-2, which contains the same condensers as the Edirol R-09 handheld recorder. On a Martin D-28 guitar, I strummed E chords and recorded multiple strums through each recorder. I set all gains to their middle value (for example, 5 for the D50), wrongly assuming that I would get roughly identical amplitude from each recorder. Unfortunately, the D50 was substantially quieter. I later rerecorded the D28 with the D50 gain set at 7 and got what I needed without any apparent extra noise.
Only slight differences were apparent, but they were real enough. Perhaps the best-sounding condensers, to my ear, were the CD-2 condensers, notwithstanding servo noise from recording directly to CD in the absence of a Flash card. The D50's condensers sounded a touch tinny with pronounced highs and mids compared to the rest, but ostensibly they are comparable to the H2 and H4 and seem well suited to guitar recordings.
I love most portable recorders, but up until I saw the Sony PCM-D50, the Zoom H4 was my favorite. Would I pay the extra hundred or so bucks for the Sony? You bet.
PCM-D50 > $599.99
ECM-957PRO > $449.95
Pros: Rugged construction. Virtually noiseless recording. Switchable mic positions. Built-in 4 GB Flash memory and Memory Stick Pro expansion slot. Connects to Mac or PC via USB 2.
Cons: Very wind sensitive.