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Monday, March 9, 2009

Digital Recording In A Flash;
Portable And Highly Resolute




  Since I am a big proponent of high resolution recording, I often get asked about which of the portable Flash-memory recorders do I prefer for home audiophile recording (guitar, piano, violin, daughter’s singing debut, etc.)
  Although not a professional audio engineer, an audiophile wants a piece of recording gear that lives up to the pedigree of his or her playback setup. Sure, you could use a computer with an audio interface, but the smaller size of the Flash recorders makes them easier to set up and their dedicated audio OS usually makes them less complicated to operate The choice of recorders actually depends on what type of audio you plan to record. Do you need just stereo; or are you more ambitious and want multi-channel? Do you want built-in microphones or do you plan to use external mics with external preamps? Do you want to use external converters? All these factors should be taken into account when shopping for a portable recorder. For the purpose of this article, I focus on stereo recorders.

Better Sounding/Easy to Use
  Today’s portable digital recorders (think of them as mini-audio computers) are relatively easy to operate. Once you have made the recordings, you can listen to them on the unit, or digitally transfer the recorded tracks via USB or FireWire to your computer for editing. The tracks can then be played back from your computer or you can burn them to a separate player disc format, such as DVD-V, DVD-A or even Blu-ray.
  Depending on your needs and budget, here is the list of my favorite PCM recorders that I recently tested.
Category I:
Self-Contained Handheld Recorders
 This class of recorder has everything you need to record instrument or voice; the key component is the stereo pair of attached or plug-in microphones. These recorders are also pretty good line-level recorders, although several link via the diminutive, 1/8-inch mini-jack. Some even have digital input and output connections. Prices range from a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.
Although none of these recorders achieves real 24-bit performance (most recorders can’t), my listening tests show the advantage of recording in the high-resolution modes over the 16-bit option: more open, more detailed.

•Sony PCM-D1 — About $1,900, this made-in-Japan, 4GB internal FLASH-memory recorder (up to 24-bit/96 kHz) is built with a ultra-strong titanium skin and contains Analog Devices mic preamp electronics and excellent built-in cardioid mics. The ‘D1 can be powered by four rechargeable or disposable AA batteries. An optional, attachable plug-in stereo preamp is available to accommodate XLR-based external mics, but is $500 extra.
Likes: Recorded/playback sound quality, switchable limiter to prevent accidental recording overload, optical digital SPDIF out, removable battery pack, extra recording time via Memory Stick Pro card slot;
Dislikes: Mini-jack analog input/output.
•Sony PCM-D50 — About $450. A down-priced version (made in China, of course)of the PCM-D1 with a step down in mics, preamp and recording/playback specs, but not by much in terms of audibility. Optional wired remote available.
Likes: Sound quality, optical mini-plug digital I/Os for external converters, switchable limiter, Memory Stick Pro slot, removable battery pack;
Dislikes: Those pesky mini-jacks.
•M-Audio MicroTrack II — Priced at about $300, this low-cost, made- in-China, Compact Flash Memory Card media recorder does 24/96 kHz and includes a quality plug-in stereo mic. Though it is a bit plasticy, the recorded and playback sound is pretty darn good at 96 kHz, and it includes digital RCA SPDIF input, as well as 1/4-inch line inputs and RCA line outputs. If I need a quick point and record recorder to document my guitar demos, I reach for this one.
Likes: Price, digital in, good sounding stereo mics;
Dislikes: Internal battery (not easy to replace).
•Yamaha PocketTrack 2G — Not a high-res recorder, but this baby makes the list because of its size. Only about as big as an Apple laptop remote, the $350 PocketTrack can record quality 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio straight to its internal 2GB Flash Memory, and the sound is quite good. The mics are decent as well. I have recorded some good guitar demos with my custom Martin using this little Yammie.
Likes: Small size, amazing audio considering the size. long-life, special AAA-sized battery;
Dislikes: No line-in recording at 44.1 kHz (MP3 only) and no 96 kHz at all, Oh! It is v-e-r-y easy to misplace.

Category II:
Mid-size Portables

  These recorders are a bit larger than the handheld portables, and contain more high-end features, such as XLR mic preamps with phantom power for professional microphones, time code options, AES/EBU or SPDIF digital I/O and 1/4-inch headphone jack. They are a better choice in cases where you want an audibly better, professional grade, externally mic’d recording.
  You can plug in whatever microphone you want — from $100 cheapie condensers to the Neumann, Gefell, Schoeps, Shure, Audix, DPA, etc. Usually the converters are improved as well, and the displays are larger and more detailed. However, they are more expensive than most handhelds (the exception is the Sony PCM-D1).
Sound Devices — If you got the bucks, choose any of the stereo professional Sound Device recorders. These are pro all the way and the prices reflects it, but the features and specs will make an audiophile proud. Of the company's various models, the Model 702 is probably your best choice for high-end stereo home recording.
•TASCAM HD-P2 — My personal favorite recorder, based on its excellent sound quality and features-to-cost ratio. For a buck under a grand, this AC/DC-powered 24-bit, (up to) 192-kHz sampling Compact Flash recorder packs a lot of features: SPDIF digital I/O, unbalanced RCA line and XLR balanced line I/O, good mic preamps with phantom power, switchable limiter, time-code chase, word-clock sync port, nice headphone amp.
Likes: Specs on this unit are nearly as good as much more expensive studio recorders, the internal DAC is good as many separates, quality headphone amp;
Dislikes: Hard plastic skin definitely spells mid-level Chinese manufacture, no removable battery holder to make quick swaps when the power runs down.
•Korg MR1000 — Similar features to the TASCAM, but a bit more money and a bit more fit and finish, the AC/DC-powered Korg MR-1000 sells for about $1,200. Besides 24-bit PCM up to 192 kHz, it records in the 1-bit format DSD (the source for SACD). To my ears, the PCM did not sound quite as detailed as the TASCAM, but the DSD is stellar. Also includes software that converts DSD to the more accessible PCM.
Likes: Nice meters, limiter, DSD recording, easy to operate;
Dislikes: DSD tools are scarce for making reference discs that can be played back in anything but a computer.
Stay Tuned
  There you have it — my recommended list of portable recorders. There are others on the market that likely would make the list,. but I have not yet sampled them. I will update the list as I review more of these products. Happy Recording! Stay tuned for additional articles pertaining to home recording, including my picks for editing software and high resolution DVD-V and DVD-A burner programs. Maybe even a Blu-ray burner program.

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