June 02, 2010
Despite their modest size and weight, the latest generation of compact recorders brings big sound and heavy-duty features to musicians on the go.
By Emile Menasché
Talk to someone under the age of 30, and they may be hard pressed to tell you what a cassette tape looks like—unless he or she is a songwriter. Long after cassettes disappeared from music stores, board rooms, and just about everywhere else people needed to make recordings on the fly, they remained in the hands, file cabinets, and drawers of tunesmiths. They may not have had the best sound quality, but until something could match the cassette's ability to let us capture ideas and record long rehearsals with minimal fuss, they wouldn't go extinct.
Well sorry, tape, but your 90 minutes are up. Portable digital recorders have come a long way in recent years, both in terms of sound quality (many now offer 24-bit/96 kHz resolution) and storage (thanks to the use of memory cards and easy file transfer to computers). Models specifically targeted at musicians even boast such features as onboard effects, instrument-specific inputs, and more.
The first wave of these machines were pricey, and some will still run you over $1,000. But thanks to intense competition among manufacturers, the suggested retail price of a nicely appointed handheld now runs between $150–600 (street prices are often 30-50% lower). So, with all those choices out there, what should you be looking for? Here are some of the key features:
Inputs: If there's one factor that makes a recorder suitable for music (as opposed to speech) this is it. Most of the units we've surveyed are equipped with built-in stereo microphones; some, like the Zoom H2 ($334.99) and others, have up to four.
The mics may be in a fixed position or may be moveable, though the latter feature is usually only found on more expensive models like the Sony PCM-D50 ($599.99). Units with fixed mics generally fall into two categories: those with the mics arranged in a classic X/Y stereo recording pattern (which is especially effective for acoustic guitar, drum overheads, etc.); and those with the mics in an omnidirectional pattern, which is best for capturing general room ambience.
In addition to the built-in mics, many units offer auxiliary analog inputs for outboard microphones, instruments, and other sources. These may be stereo mini jacks—similar to what you'd find on a laptop computer—and these are fine for many applications. But if you plan to use professional studio or stage mics, look for a unit with XLR/1/4" combination inputs and onboard phantom power. Some devices allow you to combine their auxiliary inputs with the built-in mics—great if you want to take a stereo feed from the mixing console at a gig while using the mics to capture some room ambience.
Remember, however, that not all mics are created equal. This also goes for electronics such as microphone preamps and analog-todigital converters. A lower-cost device should have no problem capturing ideas with clear sound, but if you hope to use your portable for master-quality recordings, you may want to invest a little more. The PCM-D50, for example, has separate circuit boards for the mics, digital audio, analog audio, and power in an effort to minimize noise.
If the mic's sound is paramount, you might want to check our the HHB FlashMic range ($1,149–1,699), which combines a Sennheiser handheld mic with an internal recorder. HHB offers several versions, including an omnidirectional pickup pattern, a cardioid pickup pattern for more isolated recording, and models that combine each of those pickup patterns with a built-in line input.
A growing number of these portables are targeted directly at guitarists. The Line 6 Back-Track has a single 1/4" guitar input ($139.99); it also comes in a version with a mic ($209.99). Tascam's GTR-1 ($469.99) offers stereo mics and a built-in guitar input, plus two mini jacks (mic and line) for other sources. Many other products include guitar amp simulation among their onboard effects.
Outputs: Pretty much every portable recorder has a stereo headphones output, which can also be used to power computer speakers, a car stereo's aux in, etc. You may also find a separate line output in addition to the headphones. A growing number of devices also have built-in speakers. They may not offer stellar sound, but they do let you check levels without having to put on 'phones, which can be very handy.
Audio formats: Remember when 16-bit/44.1 kHz "CD quality" resolution was a badge of honor for digital devices? These days, you can get a 24-bit/48 kHz handheld for around $200; spend a little more, and you can record at 96 kHz.
Impressive as those specs sound, there are two factors to consider. First, do the unit's built-in mics and inputs take advantage of that increased resolution? That's a tough one to answer unless you spend time listening to the machines—which we recommend. The second question is how often you'll actually want to record at such high resolution. The higher the sample rate, the larger the files (see tracks and storage, below). If you're planning to record a rehearsal, you may run out of memory long before the music stops. And unless you're watching the machine, you'll have no way on knowing when your time is running low.
Fortunately, most devices also allow you to record in the space-saving MP3 format. This is great for long sessions, and is also handy when you want to knock out an idea and e-mail it to someone. The down side: There is an audible difference in sound quality. (If you haven't compared MP3s to uncompressed recordings in a while, try tracking the same source both ways and listen; we really are losing something when we listen to music in compressed formats!)
Creative goodies: While it's great to be able to capture a clean, unadorned recording, there are times when a little sweetening can add to the inspiration. You can find handhelds with few or no onboard effects as well as units equipped with such signal processing as EQ, reverb, delay, guitar amp simulation, and more.
Additional available features include onboard editing, variable speed recording, phrase trainers that let you slow down a track without changing its pitch, builtin
tuners, and more.
If it's been a while since you've checked out a digital handheld device, you may be surprised to learn that some of the latest models offer some amount multi-track recording, including the ability to overdub. The BOSS Micro-BR ($290.50), boast a built-in drum machine, four track recording, and other creative aids. A relatively new addition to the portable set are machines that record video as well as audio, including the Zoom Q3 ($374.99) and Alesis VideoTrack ($299). Look for this segment to grow as YouTube becomes more of a platform for musical artists. Again, watch the memory to make sure you have enough space to record your brilliant ideas.
Tracks and Storage: Most handhelds can store data to an SD memory card (or similar compact storage device), to internal flash memory, or, ideally, both. SD cards and their ilk are great because they're inexpensive, come in multi-gigabyte sizes, and can be swapped in an out of the machine easily. SD cards can also be used to transfer data directly to a computer without being inserted in the recorder—which can be a lifesaver if you've run out of batteries or, worse, broken your recorder. Flash memory lets you work when you don't have a card; my experience has also been that it takes machines marginally less time to get rolling when recording to flash memory, which makes the 8 GB of internal flash memory on Olympus' new LS-11 ($399) especially appealing.
A portable recorder equipped with a couple of gigs of memory can store a lot audio files—especially if you record MP3s —so the unit's file management system is crucial. The more easily you can find, name, rename, and organize your work, the better, especially if you're using the recorder to capture inspiration on the fly. I had a (now discontinued) device that gave every file an identical time and date stamp, no matter what day—or even year—it was recorded. I'm still trying to sort through that mess!
Computer Connection: With the exception of sound quality, perhaps nothing sets a portable digital recorder apart from the venerable old cassette deck more than its ability to transfer files to a computer. This lets you bring your portable recordings into an audio program to add more tracks or edit what you've got, as well as organize, audition, back up, and share you work.
Many devices have USB connections that work in similar fashion to those found on a digital camera. Plug the unit into the computer, and the files stored on it appear
as an external hard drive on your system. With a fast USB connection, you can usually play files right from the portable without copying them to the computer.
Some portables can also serve an audio interface though that same USB connection; in this scenario, you use the portable's mics and other inputs to feed a DAW program and record directly onto the computer. I've done this a few times with a Zoom unit, and though the sound wasn't quite what I'd have achieved with a high-end microphone and FireWire audio interface, it was waaaay better than using my laptop's internal mic.
Look and feel: With so many models capable of performing similar functions, your purchase decision may well come down to whether you find the recorder inviting to use. Remember, it's easy to get caught up in stats such as recording resolution, storage capacity, etc. But don't neglect things like the legibility of the display, the size and weight of the machine, tactile feel of the buttons, and the clarity of the operating system. They become huge factors in day-to-day use.
Other important questions: How long to the batteries last? Does the unit come with a plug-in power supply? If it shuts down suddenly, what happens to the audio you just recorded?
Finally, ask how well it fits your lifestyle. If you plan to carry your device to gigs, you may want to look at a machine with a rugged metal housing like Sony's PCM-M10 ($399)—which also comes with a wired remote for easier positioning. Or, you may even want a device with a wireless remote, like Yamaha's new and super compact W24 ($458). Maybe you want something with fewer bells and whistles but is ready to record within seconds, or a unit that can serve as a portable multi-track while you're on the road.
Finally, before you make the purchase, try to get a sense of how easily you can perform such core operations as setting recording levels, creating new files, selecting the recording format, initiating recording and playback, moving through a song, etc. Can you see the meters from across the room? Does an accidental brush of the front panel change your settings against your will? Is it obvious when the unit is in record and when it's stopped? You don't want to have to think of any of those things when inspiration strikes.
This is one reason that it's worth trying at least one unit that's a little bit out of your intended price range; you may find that its usability trumps any avings—or you may actually like a lower cost unit better. If at all possible, get a hands-on test of all the devices on your list. If that's not in the cards, at least buy from a vendor with a liberal return policy.
Fortunately, the recent explosion of new models with powerful features makes it easier than ever to find a portable that will fit the bill while fitting in your
pocket, no matter your budget.