FIG. 1: One of a new breed of handheld recorders, the Korg MR-1 is the first to record 1-bit, 2.82 MHz audio. It includes a small stereo electret microphone.
With more portable stereo recorders available than ever, recordists have some tough choices to make. The past couple of years have seen hardware innovations from a variety of manufacturers, from Fostex and Sony to Edirol and M-Audio. Two of the newest machines to stir up some excitement are from Korg, a company known for its multitrack digital recorders.
Eschewing the flash memory that competing models embrace, the pocket-size MR-1 and book-size MR-1000 contain fixed 20 GB and 40 GB hard drives, respectively. They offer a comprehensive selection of audio formats, the most notable being 1-bit Direct Stream Digital (DSD). They also record 16- and 24-bit linear PCM audio at sampling rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz and store those files in Broadcast WAV (BWF) format. The MR-1 can record MP3 files at a fixed rate of 192 Kbps, and both recorders can play MP3s at all standard rates. The bundled software application AudioGate (Mac/Win) imports audio files by means of the recorder's USB 2.0 port and converts them from any supported format (except for MP3) to any other (see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com).
Bit by Bit
Although most EM readers have lots of experience using multibit digital recorders, you may be unfamiliar with single-bit audio. It's easy to assume that 24 bits must be 24 times better than 1 bit, but that isn't necessarily true. The MR-1's maximum sampling rate (2.82 MHz) is 64 times that of a standard audio CD, and the MR-1000's maximum rate (5.64 MHz) doubles that. Another 1-bit advantage has to do with the way A/D converters process PCM audio. (However, because your computer's audio interface can't play 1-bit audio files, you'll need to play them through the recorder's outputs if you want playback at full fidelity.) Rather than trying to explain the theory behind 1-bit audio's potential superiority, I suggest checking out “Future Proof Recording Explained” on Korg's Web site, which details the differences between single- and multibit formats.
One-bit recording has been around for more than 15 years, and it has served as the basis of the DSD Interface Format (DFF or DSDIFF) used by Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) players since 1999. In addition to DSDIFF, the MR-1 and MR-1000 record and play two other 1-bit formats: DSD Stream File (DSF), supported by some Sony VAIO computers, and Wideband Single-Bit Data (WSD), a format used by the 1-Bit Audio Consortium, a manufacturers' group.
Small Is Beautiful
The chrome-colored MR-1 isn't much larger than a full-size Apple iPod, and it contains a factory-installed, rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery, just as the iPod does (see Fig. 1). Its user interface also bears some resemblance to the iPod's. You turn a data wheel (called the parameter dial) on the right side panel to scroll through menu choices, press the same wheel to select them, and press a Menu button to step backward through the menu hierarchy.
Two additional buttons on the right side panel increase and decrease the playback level, and holding down a sliding switch for two seconds turns power off and on. Sliding the switch in the opposite direction locks it to prevent accidents. On the left side panel are a connection for the 5 VDC lump-in-the-line power supply (which, with cable, weighs much more than the unit it's powering) and a miniature USB port like those on digital cameras.
On the top panel, line and headphone outputs are unbalanced stereo minijacks, and the left and right inputs are minijacks that accept balanced or unbalanced sources. Although that arrangement offers some flexibility, it precludes using a stereo mic with a TRS miniplug unless you rig a splitter. Phantom-powered mics are out of the question without a separate mixer or preamp. Also on the top panel are a switch to select either mic or line inputs, and another to enable +3V “plug-in power” for the included CM-2M stereo electret microphone.
On the front panel, the MR-1's graphical 160 × 104-pixel LCD has a backlight you can set to remain on either all the time or for between 2 and 60 seconds when you press any button. In addition to displaying menus, the LCD shows level meters and status, information about selected files, and various parameter settings. Below the display are five transport buttons for playback and pause, record, stop, rewind, and fast-forward. When you're recording, pressing the parameter dial conveniently toggles to the Rec Level screen, which is calibrated from -95.5 to +31.5 dB — an ingenious solution for instantly changing levels.
Korg says that the MR-1's battery is good for about 2.5 hours of continuous operation, depending on the data format you choose. Of course, starting, stopping, and using the backlight will shorten battery life. That figure falls short of recorders that rely on flash memory because of the need to power the MR-1's internal hard drive. And the battery takes about 5 hours to reach a full charge with the MR-1 connected to AC power. For recording without an AC source for more than 2.5 hours, then, you'll need an external battery pack; Korg plans to introduce one that holds four AA batteries soon after you read this, and numerous third-party 5V battery packs are currently available. When the MR-1's battery will no longer hold a charge, Korg recommends taking it to a service center for replacement. Doing it yourself should be a simple operation; however, the battery sells for more than $80.
FIG. 2: With a maximum 1-bit sampling rate of 5.64 MHz and a maximum 24-bit rate of 192 kHz, the compact MR-1000 boasts plenty of professional features.
Bigger Is Better
The MR-1000 is the MR-1's tabletop counterpart (see Fig. 2). It doubles the DSD standard's sampling rate and contains a hard drive twice the size of the MR-1's. The MR-1000 has a sturdy aluminum chassis and comes with a handy padded carrying case. Power is supplied by the included 12 VDC lump-in-the-line supply (which ironically is more lightweight than the MR-1's) or by eight AA batteries, which yield four hours of mobile power.
The MR-1000's backplate has ample room for full-size audio connections (see Fig. 3). Two inputs on XLR/TRS combo jacks share a phantom power switch for the XLRs and a low/high-gain switch. Balanced outputs are on XLR jacks, and unbalanced outputs are on RCA jacks. A limiter on/off switch, standard USB 2.0 port, and DC power connector complete the rear panel. A front-panel TRS jack accommodates stereo headphones and has its own level knob. All that's lacking are minijack inputs, which would be handy for certain compact mics (like the CM-2M).
FIG. 3: On the MR-1000''s rear panel, you''ll find connections for analog audio I/O, USB 2.0, and 12 VDC power, as well as switches for phantom power, a limiter, and high or low gain.
The MR-1000 has the same display as its smaller sibling, but thanks to a larger front panel, it furnishes dedicated, concentric Rec Level knobs instead of the MR-1's Rec Level screen. The MR-1000's larger transport buttons, power and Menu/Esc button, and parameter dial all have an excellent feel. You can reach and see all the controls when the recorder is hanging from your shoulder in its carrying case, which has a thoughtful hinged Velcro panel that affords easy access to the input jacks.
The MR-1000's ability to record 1-bit audio at 5.64 MHz makes it unique among recorders. Korg suggests that the best use of this ability is to capture and archive your master recordings, and I agree. Recordings of live performances at the highest 1-bit rate sound closer to the original than anything I've ever heard, including analog tape.
Out Here in the Field
I captured a variety of ambient and musical sources using both recorders. For remote recording with the MR-1, I used the included CM-2M stereo mic. The mic comes with a bracket that serves as a tiny mic stand, and the bracket has a threaded hole for mounting on a camera tripod if needed. The mic performed well, though it was extremely susceptible to handling noise, and recording outdoors would have been impossible if I hadn't rigged up a windscreen. Nonetheless, the CM-2M's high sensitivity proved advantageous in some circumstances and even allowed me to make microscopic, close-miked recordings of insects buzzing and water dripping.
For recording with the MR-1000, I used a matched pair of sE Electronics SE3 small-diaphragm condenser mics. They have a cardioid polar pattern and come with shockmounts and a bar for mounting both mics on a single stand. I preferred the MR-1000 for recording live musical performances for two reasons: the phantom-powered XLR inputs allowed me to select mics most appropriate for the job, and 1-bit recordings made at 5.64 MHz were so lifelike. Of course, using superior mics made a difference. Which machine you choose will depend on your budget, though, and either one offers advantages for a host of applications, from Podcasting to taking a feed direct from your mixing board.
On either machine, you can add markers by simply pressing the Record button as you're recording. Markers are added automatically if you pause and continue recording, and pressing the Record button during playback also adds markers.
New recordings are automatically named by their format followed by a sequential number (WAV_0001, for example). You can rather quickly rename files with up to 16 characters by scrolling through lists of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols with the parameter dial and selecting them one at a time.
Get It to Go
A pocket-size recorder like the MR-1 is desirable for many situations, like when you want to record discreetly or you don't want to carry mic cables or adapters around. The MR-1 is well suited to those occasions; its 2.5-hour battery life can be a drawback, but work-arounds exist if you don't mind carrying an extra power source. I wish there were some way to attach the included stereo mic to the MR-1 itself, but noise from the internal drive would be a problem. Still, the MR-1's size and fidelity definitely make it an ideal companion for capturing sounds you might otherwise miss.
I used the MR-1 for a couple of months before I received the MR-1000, and though I appreciate the MR-1's portability, I'm more impressed by the MR-1000. I do wish both recorders had digital audio ports, however. Although 1-bit recording on the MR-1 sounds amazing, the MR-1000's top rate sounds twice as amazing. Either way, the awesome fidelity and performance of 1-bit recording have become affordable.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton has been fascinated with capturing sounds ever since his older brother brought home a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1962.
Click here for product specifications for the Korg MR-1 and MR-1000
portable stereo recorder
GUIDE TO EM METERS 5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3AUDIO QUALITY5VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent sound. Supports many audio formats. Very portable. Includes a sensitive stereo mic.
CONS: No digital audio I/O. Audio I/O on minijacks only. Disappointing battery life. Expensive battery.
portable stereo recorder
FEATURES4EASE OF USE4AUDIO QUALITY5VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent sound. Supports many audio formats. XLR I/O. Phantom power. Uses AA batteries. Real input-level knobs. Carrying case included.
CONS: No digital audio I/O.