FIG. 1: The meters, LCD readout, and essential buttons are conveniently arranged on the PCM-D1''s front panel.
The Sony PCM-D1 sounds great, is intuitive to operate, and is the coolest-looking piece of gear I've seen in a long time. Although the price is not for the faint of heart, it's the best device I've found for capturing high-quality audio with minimal setup time. Thanks to its built-in mics, fast power-up, and easy operation, I can have the D1 out of its padded carrying case, clipped onto a tripod with levels set, and be recording audio in less than 60 seconds — and that includes setting up the tripod.
The D1 is ideal for recording concerts, recitals, lessons, and rehearsals. In addition to recording music, we found it to be an excellent tool for recording sound effects, voice, and travelogue soundscapes. In short, this recorder is easy to fall in love with.
The D1 is mechanically impressive. It has a solid, professional feel — the shell is made of pressed titanium attached to an aluminum frame, with little plastic aside from the button tops, LCD lens, and meter faces. The D1's most distinctive visual feature is the top-mounted pair of shiny microphones, which were custom designed for this product by Sony's mic group (see Fig. 1). These electret condenser cardioid mics are permanently fixed to the unit in a not-quite-coincident 90-degree XY configuration. The entire mic assembly tilts up and down, allowing some flexibility in the mic direction relative to your viewing angle of the unit's front-panel controls.
Although you can use external microphones, your options are limited by the 3.5 mm minijack mic input, lack of phantom power, and, more surprisingly, lack of plug-in power (a mic input that provides a small voltage, typically 3 to 4V, to power electret condenser mics). The D1 also uses 3.5 mm minijacks for line input and headphone output. A combination 3.5 mm minijack and optical jack provides line and optical-digital output (see Figs. 2 and 3). There is no digital audio input to the device.
The D1's self-noise is impressively low. In our measurements, we found the noise floor of the D1's mic preamp (not measuring the contribution of the built-in mics) to be from 10 to 30 dB quieter than those of other field recorders we've tested. When using the built-in mics, the D1's self-noise didn't intrude significantly in our recordings, even with the input cranked up. One unexpected source of self-noise did reveal itself — when a gust of wind pegged the analog level meters, there was an audible metallic tinkling of the needles hitting their stops.
Recording with the D1 is a piece of cake. Pressing the record button illuminates its red LED, causing the pause button to blink yellow. Concentric analog record-level knobs sit opposite the headphone-level knob, placing them conveniently under your right thumb or left middle finger. Their operation is solid and silky-smooth. (We offset the left- and right-channel record levels to compensate for a 1.5 dB difference in the line input sensitivity of our review unit.)
FIG. 2: The right side of the PCM-D1 houses the record-level controls, mic and headphone jacks, and power switch.
Four switches line a recessed groove around the outer edge of the deck. They include power on, mic attenuation (-20 dB), mic/line select, and a hold control. The switches are easy to operate and have a good positive feel, and their location makes it unlikely that you'll activate them inadvertently. The hold button does not affect the record or headphone levels because those are controlled by analog knobs. A highpass filter for the internal mics and a peak limiter are menu-selectable options. Dedicated switches for these would be more convenient.
The analog level meters are the highlight of the user interface and are visible in virtually any lighting condition. With backlighting engaged, I could read levels in total darkness from a dozen feet away. The meters also include a dual-color LED to indicate signal presence and clipping (-1 dBfs). My only quibble with the metering is that the bottom of the analog-meter scale is -20 dB. When I'm leaving a lot of headroom, which is fairly often, there is relatively little meter movement.
Metering is further enhanced by a large LCD screen, which has left and right bar-graph meters with a wide -60 to 0 dBfs range. Graphical peak-hold indicators and numerical readouts show the available headroom at all times. In short, the D1 provides a comprehensive level-metering solution — better than any recorder I own, portable or otherwise.
The D1 takes a novel approach to peak limiting. Rather than inserting an analog limiting circuit into the signal path before the A/D converter, the D1 splits the analog signal into two paths. The first path is used while the deck is operating below digital clipping. The second path is attenuated 20 dB in the analog domain before being digitized by a second A/D converter. When digital clipping occurs, the second path springs into action, normalizing the -20 dB signal to full scale and substituting its audio for the clipped waveform. Although I appreciate this purist, instant-attack-time approach to peak limiting, in practice we found the D1's limiter operation to be quite audible due to its overly long release, which ranged from just under 200 ms to as much as 400 ms when pushed hard.
FIG. 3: USB, digital-out, and line-in connectors, along with the headphone level control, are located on the left side of the PCM-D1.
The D1 records 16- or 24-bit audio at sampling rates as high as 96 kHz, writing WAV files to its 4 GB of internal memory. You can add Sony Proprietary Memory Stick Pro modules for additional removable storage. A mini USB connector on the D1 lets you mount it on the desktop of a Mac or PC. We used the unit with both types of computers without installing any special software. As expected, USB 2.0 computers pull audio off the D1 at impressive speeds — roughly 1 GB in 4 minutes on a newer Mac.
The D1 records a new WAV file each time recording is started. You can pause, then continue writing to the same file. Alternatively, you can hit the Divide button to split the currently recording or playing file in two. Among other things, that lets you divide a long recording into the parts of interest and then delete unwanted parts to recover memory.
Each recording is given an 8-digit file name. The first six digits reflect the recording date (YY, MM, DD), and the last two are an ID (0 to 99) that increments for each successive recording made on the same date. For example, the 13th recording made on June 29, 2006, would be named 06062913.WAV.
There are always 10 folders in the D1's internal memory, holding as many as 99 files each. You record into, and play files from, the currently selected folder. You can use an external computer to rename files and move them around. The D1's display shows the first 12 characters of a file name, but you can scroll it to reveal longer, descriptive file names.
The menu system is simple and to the point. A few options might require a trip to the owner's manual. For instance, the LED on/off menu item refers not to the display's backlighting, which has a front-panel button, but to an option that disables the LEDs that illuminate the transport controls. This subtle feature was added to prevent the D1 from calling attention to itself in a darkened theater, especially important when it is positioned near the lip of the stage during a performance.
The D1 comes with four Sony NiMH rechargeable AA batteries and a charger. These 2,000 milliamp-per-hour cells can power the D1 for 4 to 5 hours. In a pinch, you can use regular alkaline batteries, which will give an hour or two of operation. An external DC input connector and AC adapter are provided. You can also use an external battery pack. The D1 will accept external voltages between 5.2 and 7.2 VDC, and it displays a warning message if the voltage is outside of that range.
We were quite pleased with the overall battery implementation, which features a removable battery sled to hold the AAs. An extra sled is available as an accessory, although considering the D1's price, I'd prefer that it were included. You don't need batteries when connecting the D1 to your computer because it runs on USB power.
Fun in the Field
The D1 has a bright, detailed sound. Our ears, as well as Sony's published frequency response curve for the internal mics, affirm a broad low-frequency rolloff of roughly -3 dB per octave starting around 700 Hz. The top end is bright, with a bump between 10 and 16 kHz. Sony doesn't spec the mics' ultrasonic response, but we recorded plenty of signal at 40 kHz while dropping tiny steel drill bits onto a concrete floor.
We did a careful A/B comparison of the D1's internal mics with a Røde NT4, another fixed-angle 90-degree XY cardioid. The NT4 has noticeably more low end and slightly better imaging, whereas the D1 adds an attractive sparkle and sheen that the NT4 lacks. In practice we preferred the D1 mics on acoustic guitar and the NT4 mics on a drum kit.
FIG. 4: The handheld PCM-D1 field recorder en route to Ford''s Terror in southeastern Alaska.
I took the D1 on a trip to southeastern Alaska (see Fig. 4). Its relatively small size and quick operation were big advantages. With the unit secured by its handy wrist strap, I captured the splashing of spawning salmon as my four-year-old daughter provided enthusiastic color commentary. Later, in a light rain, with the D1 mounted on a tripod, I was able to capture the call of nesting bald eagles from across a marsh, a distance of about 50 yards. On the downside, due to the mic's diminished low-frequency response, I was not able to capture the low-end oomph from calving glaciers.
Back home my colleague Bruce Koball recorded a jazz quartet consisting of piano, bass, drums, and trumpet. The D1, placed on a tabletop 6 feet in front of the bandstand and pointed a bit away from the drums, captured a pleasing recording of the performance. An EQ pass was needed to restore some lost energy to the acoustic bass.
We also did quite a few sound-effect recordings: passing freight trains, chirping frogs at midnight near a mountain creek, the electric hum of a toaster oven, the gurgle of an espresso machine pump, and so on. The results were uniformly good.
Handling noise can be an issue with the D1, especially at high gain settings. It's also sensitive to wind. The included foam windscreen helps, but it's suitable only for light breeze conditions. Engaging the 200 Hz filter will help in a stiffer breeze, but you sacrifice more low end. I left the windscreen attached most of the time. The mics are plenty bright, so I wasn't worried about whatever tiny effect the foam might have on the top end, and the gray windscreen helps de-bling the attention-getting chrome grille surrounding the mic assembly. In my line of work, the less conspicuous the gear is, the happier I am.
Grant Us These Wishes
We wish the D1 had a prerecord buffer. That would allow you to continuously record into a short buffer and then tack the contents of that buffer onto the beginning of your recording. In effect, you would capture a few seconds before you officially started recording.
We also wish for plug-in or phantom power and more-robust input connectors so that we could use a larger variety of microphones. A digital input would have been another way to expand the D1's front-end options, although dragging around a separate mic-pre A/D is at odds with the operating ethos of the D1. It would also be nice to be able to drop markers in the WAV file during recording and playback to highlight sounds of interest for later reference.
Why We Like It
The D1's self-contained nature is a strength as well as an occasional weakness. Your options are limited when it comes to suppressing wind and handling noise; you can't exactly stuff the D1 into a field-recording-style wind-shield blimp assembly and expect to operate its controls. And in a concert setting, there will surely be times when you'll have to choose between optimal mic placement and access to the recorder's controls.
But taken on its own terms, this deck excels. The D1 is a great example of what happens when a manufacturer sets out with a clear goal and follows through. We understand that the design team included a number of performing musicians; a priority was clearly given to high-quality audio and simple, convenient operation. These two goals are harmoniously blended. If low cost had been among the design criteria, I doubt the end result would have been as satisfying. The price of this unit puts it out of reach for some, but those who take the plunge will be glad they did.
portable digital recorder
FEATURES4EASE OF USE5AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Bright, clean, and detailed sound. Intuitive, immediate operation. Superb level metering.
CONS: Some handling and wind-noise issues. No digital input, plug-in, or phantom power. No prerecord buffer.