Times have changed.
I used to think cutting-edge portable recording technology required some fashion of metal-coated mylar orbiting around a magnet. Optical media, such as CD-R and MiniDisc, took a step away from the magnet, but there is still that motor in there, spinning around and making noise. Now, we are entering another new age of recording media technology with no moving parts. Non-volatile read write memory (NVRWM, or flash memory) devices are already in widespread use, most notably for digital cameras, MP3 players and USB memory sticks, but the memory limitations have only recently been lifted to the point where useful quantities of high-quality audio can be recorded. There are already a number of handheld audio flash recorders on the market, but they rely on severely compressed recording formats that limit them to the same fidelity level of the now-endangered microcassette recorder. Professional quality, removable media flash devices are now upon us, however. Edirol’s R-1 and M-Audio’s MicroTrack 24/96 units were both released last year to mixed reviews. (See Craig Anderton’s review of the R-1 in our Dec. ’05 issue versus Scott Colburn’s review of the MicroTrack in March ’06, both of which compare the flash recorders to the redoubtable Sony MZ-M100 MiniDisc recorder.) The former, however, only handles up to 44.1kHz in WAV format, while the latter handles a more respectable 96kHz. Portability and affordability are great, but overall capability is lacking.
Now we have the TASCAM HD-P2, which records up to 192kHz/24-bit and offers many of the same features as the R-1 and the MicroTrack. I had the opportunity to pick up one of these while visiting Seattle and it has been a faithful companion since. The HD-P2 has served well in a variety of situations, including interviews, nature/location recording, live performance recording (ranging from high-SPL noise shows to semi-ambient, acoustic performances), as well as tracking sessions at home and in the studio. The major drawback to the HD-P2 in comparison to the R-1 and MicroTrack is definitely size. The HD-P2 is about the size of a box of cereal (approximately 10"x 8 x 2.5") and weighs almost two pounds, whereas the other two occupy little more space than a pack of cigarettes. The benefits of higher sample rate recording format are obvious, however, and larger, easier controls make the unit more user-friendly, as well, so the Tascam has more appeal to me for my location recordings when I’m less concerned about stealth than I am about fidelity (the only bootleg recordings I do now are for my friends, and they also appreciate the higher sample rates). Even so, the HD-P2 is still an easily portable unit that happens to fit well in my record bag alongside my faithful Røde NT5s.
At first glance, the unit does not give the user great confidence in its durability, as the exterior is a mostly plastic affair. The majority of the controls are recessed buttons and switches, however, and the overall design is pretty sleek, so there is not much to get bashed in tight recording situations. The many connectors are also recessed on the side of the unit, and are built well enough to keep the XLR ins and headphone outs from going loose after two and a half months of recording all across this continent and Europe. The plastic-buckled strap included with the unit did not inspire much confidence, either. Closer inspection of the unit did reveal that the strap mounts are not only metal themselves (and replaceable, too), but are also mounted to a metal chassis that immediately gave me greater hope for the future of my relationship with this little bundle of joy.
There are some other benefits to this unit over my current mobile setup (an overbuilt Dell laptop with breakout-style interface that takes at least 20 minutes to set up). The HD-P2 is a standalone unit capable of recording direct to a compact flash card through its internal microphone and playing back through its internal speaker. I do not recommend using either item for much else besides interviews and song-sketches, but they are there. One annoying feature is the fact that the speaker remains on unless you plug in headphones. I found an easy workaround for more stealthy recordings by using a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter that remains in the unit whether I am monitoring or not (my portable headphones are 1/8", anyway). The unit does offer 48V phantom power for the two XLR inputs. It’s nothing special, but it gets the job done in the box. The fact that the XLR inputs are on the opposite side from the headphone jack also annoys me, as it would be far more streamlined with them both on one side, but I’m not going for James Bond-style, microcassette-in-the-G-string shit, anyway. The only other annoyance is that the plastic switches jiggle and clack like a bunch of tiny maracas when porting this thing around. It took me three or four sessions before I figured out what it was, too. By then, I had acquired a new bag to put it in, which muffled the buttons quite well. If I use this thing out in the open, though, I put medical tape on all the buttons I’m not going to actually use.
All that aside, this has been an impressive unit for me. It’s easy to use, with a programmable set of default settings that make setting it up for short-order interviews a breeze. For more involved projects, the limitations of CF media capacity do come to the fore. At 192kHz/24-bit in stereo, this thing barely gets 15 minutes onto a 1GB card. There are 4GB and even 8GB CF cards out there now, though, as long as you are willing to pay for them (±$350 for 8GB). Although it’s true that MiniDiscs cost much less, they also hold much less. In comparison to HD recorders, the HD-P2 is a much better choice, as there is none of that annoying HD noise on the final recording. There’s nothing worse than getting all-the-hell away from civilization to record unspoiled nature in situ and ending up with nothing but the sound of the damned disc buzzing away. Having recently done some recordings in the San Augustine National Forest in Texas with my big rig, I can tell you that hard discs are freakin’ loud when you’re really out there. Even my old Sony cassette recorder was quieter.
Regardless, this is a very capable rig. It uses FireWire to connect to the computer for download, and also has RCA and S/PDIF connections for recording, and both AES and coaxial time code connections. The preamps are no better than the Edirol R-1’s, but they are there, and, since the unit runs on 12v DC power, they allow you to have a complete recording system running off your cigarette lighter if you want to. Having traveled with it from Seattle to Boston by car and then by plane to Prague and train to Vienna, I can vouch for its portability and durability. At a list price of $1299, it’s a bit pricier than one might expect from TASCAM, but it is well worth it (it can easily be found for under $1k, anyway, so it’s still way cheaper than a Nagra). NVRWM recording is the wave of the future, make no mistake about it, and the HD-P2 is one of the best offerings for the money right now in the world of flash recorders.