FIG. 1: The Pocketrak 2G offers advanced features such as an adjustable mic, a built-in speaker, and a slide-out USB connector—all within an ultraslim, lightweight profile.
If you're in the market for a pocket-size digital recorder, then you have more choices than ever. Even pro audio recorder yet (see Fig. 1). Although its small size does necessitate a few compromises, Yamaha has done an excellent job of packing maximum features into minimal space.
The Pocketrak is roughly the size of the original iPod nano, only half an inch thick and weighing just 1.7 ounces (including battery). I could fit at least six Pocketraks in the space of my old Edirol R-1, and several within the footprint of any current recorder. Despite being significantly slimmer and lighter than the competition, however, it boasts several firsts and some advanced features. It's one of only a handful of recorders to offer a built-in speaker, in addition to a headphone out, for quick playback monitoring in the field. A slide-out, full-size USB connector enables direct connection to a computer, without the need for a cable. And the built-in stereo microphone can be tilted up for a better angle on a tabletop.
The unit is powered by a single AAA battery and comes with a Sanyo Eneloop NiMH rechargeable battery in the box. According to Sanyo, the Eneloop does not suffer from the self-discharge typical of rechargeables. Yamaha claims it can power the Pocketrak for up to 19 hours of continuous MP3 recording. The recorder will also run with any standard AAA alkaline, making backup power readily available should the rechargeable ever die on you in the field.
Also included in the box are a leather carrying case, a USB extension cable, earphones, a stand adapter, a printed manual, and an installer disc for Steinberg Cubase AI 4 (Mac/Win; see Fig. 2). The case has a way to attach the unit to a tripod (or mic stand, with the included adapter) through a threaded socket in the bottom. The USB cable provides a more secure connection to certain USB ports than the slide-out connector. The bundled Cubase software adds outstanding value if you don't already have a DAW, offering a cross-platform, professional-quality solution for editing and mastering your recordings (see the online bonus material at emusician.com).
The Pocketrak's user interface packs a lot of functionality into minimal space, with most controls doing double or triple duty. Nonetheless, one-handed operation is easy if you press the buttons with your thumb. The menu interface feels much like a cell phone's, and essential items are easy to access with minimal scrolling. The menus furnish access to many useful functions, such as selectable recording format (16 to 160 Kbps MP3 and 16-bit WAV), Automatic Level Control, a Stereo Wide effect, timer- and voice-activated recording, playback EQ, and more.
FIG. 2: Included with the Pocketrak 2G are a leather carrying case, a USB extension cable, a rechargeable AAA battery, earbuds, a stand adapter, a manual, and Cubase AI 4 software.
However, I discovered a few limitations and bothersome aspects of the Pocketrak's operation and interface. Some seem like reasonable compromises due to its compact size, but others I found harder to understand. A single stereo minijack is your only port for both mic and line input. There is no AC power option, but the Eneloop battery is robust and can be recharged when you connect the recorder to your computer. The Pocketrak does not use memory cards, but the 2 GB of built-in flash memory provides up to 3 hours of recording at highest resolution. Unfortunately, 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio is the maximum resolution available. That's sufficient for professional quality, but 24-bit and higher sampling rates are more or less standard fare nowadays.
Harder to understand is that you can make line-level recordings only as MP3s, making the unit inadequate for 2-track studio mixdowns. Yamaha says this limitation is a result of digital rights management (DRM) concerns. Another thing that bothered me: although you can set microphone levels in standby mode, once you actually begin recording, the meters disappear from the display and you can't adjust the levels.
The operating system has a file and folder structure that's somewhat complex. Mic recordings, line recordings, data files, and music files from your computer's MP3 library each have to go in their own designated folder (A, B, C, D, L, M, S, and so on), and files must observe the folder's naming conventions. I assume part of this system stems from the fact that Yamaha has designed the unit to do double duty as a consumer music player, and thus wanted to keep music files separate from your recordings (in the M folder). And given its nano profile, it could make a perfect one-stop pro recorder and MP3 player. Features such as bass boost, preset EQs, a shuffle mode, and the ability to play DRM-protected WMA files make it a formidable iPod surrogate. And ultimately, once you get used to it, the folder scheme is logical and painless to live with.
I tested the Pocketrak in the studio and in a number of live recording environments, with the internal mic and with an Audio-Technica AT825 (a high-end, industry-standard stereo field-recording microphone). I must admit that I didn't expect such impressive quality with the built-in stereo mic, but the results were nothing short of spectacular. For live recordings, they sounded as good as what I obtained with the AT825 (see Web Clips 1 and 2). This was great news, as it meant I could expect excellent results in the field, without the need to lug around an extra mic that is several times the size and weight of the Pocketrak unit itself.
I was less impressed with the unit's capabilities with an external mic in the studio. On my tests with acoustic guitars, the quiet of the studio revealed an elevated noise floor with the AT825. The same mic on my Edirol R-1 was much quieter.
Pick Your Pocket
The Pocketrak 2G excels at professional-quality recordings with pocket-size convenience. Additional features allow it to double as an MP3 player, flash drive, and more, which could be perfect for an on-the-go student or reporter who also wants to be able to record lectures, music lessons, or interviews. What's more, it includes slow- and fast-speed playback to aid in transcription (although that feature works only with MP3 recordings, not WAV).
Given the Pocketrak's price point, however, I would prefer to see more focus on higher resolution and professional needs than Swiss-Army-knife, prosumer-gadget features. Still, the unit's ultracompact size, tilting mic, direct computer connection, long-lasting battery, and bundled DAW software make it a unique and compelling alternative for the professional market. It's an ideal choice for high-quality stealth recordings, and it's a super quick-idea scratch pad: you can power on and begin recording your flashes of inspiration in about 3 seconds. Overall, the Pocketrak 2G is an excellent, nano-size, all-in-one pro recorder and portable music player.
Babz is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music-technology writer in New York City.