Recent years have brought extraordinary changes in the footprint and battery consumption of handheld solid-state memory digital recorders, the tools of my trade.
The first generation used removable Compact Flash (CF) media cards or onboard (not removable) solid-state memory.
These are not obsolete by any means and still used as primary recorders by radio reporters; they will continue to provide profitable, reliable service to their owners, especially with manufacturer software/firmware updates.
AEQ PAW-120 However, the rise of Secure Digital (SD) removable media audio recorders of the next generation are providing the same capabilities in smaller, lighter packages that consume fewer disposable batteries and in some instances at a much lower initial cost.
SD cards are now available up to 32 GB (16 GB for microSD cards) making the limitations of "recording capacity" a thing of the past. At these numbers hours of uncompressed WAV files and "days" of MP3 recording become possible. You'll more likely exhaust the batteries before you run out of recording room.
TASCAM DR-1 It should be noted that a number of these recorders use onboard dual microphones for actual stereo recording. In fact almost every recorder here has a built-in microphone of some kind. The old-fashioned "portable" recorder that required a separate microphone (and cable!) looks to be a dying breed.
There are handheld digital audio recorders to fit budgets from the $150 range upwards. What's out there? I hope my own experiences with three units, combined with other devices mentioned in this survey, will help if you are contemplating an audio field recorder.
Recently AEQ and TASCAM separately loaned me handheld recorders to take for a spin.
I used them for, among other things, producing auto racing coverage for my Motor Sports Radio Network program "Race-Talk" and news coverage for CBS News, radio coverage of Jimmie Johnson's historic fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in Homestead, Fla., coverage from a community Thanksgiving dinner put on by Binghamton, N.Y. high school students and Black Friday coverage of shoppers in Tannersville, Pa.
The AEQ PAW-120 (street price $743) is likely the oldest recorder in this survey. It has the footprint of a small cell phone (4.74 x 2 x 1 inches). It has 2 GB of onboard memory and can record in BWF/WAV, MP2 and MP3 audio formats with variable sampling rates.
It uses a proprietary connector for an XLR microphone. It also has rudimentary cuts-only editing. A USB port (only USB 1.1) allows for direct digital offloading of files. An OLED screen allows for easing reading.
Sony PCM-M10 I used this with my Audio-Technica AT897 shotgun mic to record natural sound and a newsmaker actuality from the Thanksgiving dinner in Binghamton, blocks from the American Civic Association, where 13 people were killed in April, 2009. I had to change batteries only once during the time I had it. The PAW-120 is powered by two AA batteries.
The TASCAM DR-1 (street price $299) is a palm-sized recorder (2.8 x 1.1 x 5.3 inches). It's powered by TASCAM's Li-Ion cell phone battery and charged by a USB connection. An AC charger is optional. I found that a BlackBerry wall wart worked just fine.
Zoom H4n The DR-1 uses SD cards for WAV or MP3 files. It has 1/8-inch TRS mic and line and 1/4-inch mono mic jack inputs. Users navigate the set-up menu with a jog wheel; the recording parameters are set with a separate control. Advanced users can use the overdub feature to incorporate natural sound into a report. If natural sound is recorded in a WAV file at a lower level, a vocal track can be recorded over it without having to lay tracks down in a computer-based editing program. I used the DR-1 for Black Friday early morning coverage from Tannersville and for voice tracks in Homestead when putting deadline reports together for CBS.
The TASCAM DR-100 (street price $499), also an SD card recorder, is larger than the DR-1 (3.2 x 1.4 x 6 inches) and has features that make working in the field easier. Like its little sister it too records WAV and MP3 files. The standard infrared remote control seems a gimmick but is nice if you need to start a recorder from your seat, up to 30 feet away. It runs on the TASCAM Li-Ion battery (rated for five hours of recording or playback) and two AA batteries (NiMH rechargeables are rated for four hours, AA alkalines for two hours). It has two sets of onboard microphones, a unique wind sock for the directional onboard condenser mics and XLR inputs with phantom power.
The DR-100 gives the user the ability to overdub, like the DR-1. The DR-100 was the voice track recorder for "Race-Talk" and the news conference recorder for the pre-race news conferences as well as the all-important post-race interview with Jimmie Johnson. One adjusts most of the recording levels with controls on the recorder, which helps when setting recording levels on the fly — usually the case in a fluid news situation.
TASCAM recently debuted two handheld digital recorders at the NAMM show.
Olympus LS-10 The DR-2d and DR-08 are 24-bit/96 kHz recorders that record WAV and MP3 files. The DR-08 (1.45 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches) records to microSD cards while the DR-2d records to SD cards. Both offer USB ports and can operate off of battery power: DR-08 (AAA), DR-2d (AA) or an optional power adaptor. Prices are not yet stated but expect them to be in the "value" range.
Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Sony's latest player in this arena is the PCM-M10 (street price $275). The unit is palm-sized (2.5 x 4.5 x 7/8 inches). It has onboard microphones, a 1/8-inch TRS mic jack and USB file transfer and comes with AC, rechargeable Ni-MH batteries (optional) and AA alkaline power choices. The PCM-M10 has 4 GB of onboard memory (a whole bunch if recording in MP3; a bunch if recording in WAV) and a Memory Stick/microSD card slot for memory augmentation. Also included is a remote control. The PCM-M10 marks tracks while recording.
Zoom has redesigned its H4 into the H4n (street price $299), while its H2 is a value leader ($169) on the market. Both use SD cards with WAV and MP3 file formats, up to 24-bit/96 kHz.
The H2 (2.5 x 4.3 x 1.25 inches) has 3.5 mm TRS mic and line input jacks, plus an onboard microphone. The H4n (2.75 x 6.2 x 1.4 inches), sporting a redesigned shell, buttons, LCD, etc., records in two-track and four-track multitrack. The H4n offers XLR and 1/4-inch inputs. Both H2 and H4n have USB ports for offloading files and can throughput their mic audio to a computer via a USB for live recording to a DAW.
Edirol recorders are popular with those producing NASCAR audio coverage.
The redesigned R-09HR (street price $280) has all the features expected in this class of digital SD card recorder (USB file transfer, 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling rate audio, onboard electret microphones) and a couple of design tweaks for field users from the original R-09 (still carried by NASCAR reporters and producers from the Performance Racing Network and the Motor Racing Network).
HHB FlashMic A small speaker is built in for preview and review purposes. The other change is a redesign of microphone input circuit, which isolates the mic input (3.5 mm) from the main circuit board. The form factor is 2.5 x 4.5 x 1.1 inches. WAV and MP3 formats are used.
The Olympus LS-10 (street $299) is a mid-priced value-packed recorder. I own one and take it in a waist pack or in a jacket pocket literally anywhere I may need to record audio. It's only 5.2 x 1.9 x 0.9 inches.
With 2 GB of internal memory and SD memory card augmentation, long battery life with AA alkalines or NiMH rechargeables and the ability to record in WAV, MP3 or WMA audio formats in 24-bit/96 kHz sampling rate, onboard speakers, a real-world workable limiter and cute little mouse ear windscreens that really do work, the LS-10 is a full-function backup or primary audio recorder for a radio journalist (or for grabbing the ad lib comments from an advertising client for the next commercial). Input is via a 1/8-inch jack and another 1/8-inch jack for headphones/earbuds. Olympus has introduced the LS-11, which upgrades the LS-10 to 8 GB of onboard memory.
Yellowtec iXm Yamaha's new Pocketrak W24 (street $299) builds on a small size form factor and records to microSD/SDHC cards. The W24 is 1.75 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches and has a shared 3.5 mm input for mic and line inputs, along with internal stereo condenser microphones. It operates on a single AA battery and records WAV and MP3 files.
The new Yamaha C24 (street $199), shares the same size, I/O and transfers WAV files via USB 2.0 as the W24. The C24 tips the scales at less than two ounces with its single AAA alkaline battery — which takes portability to another level.
The HHB FlashMic DRM85 (street $999), now practically a long-serving veteran, is popular with radio journalists (more than 10,000 shipped). The units come with a Sennheiser condenser cardioid or omnidirectional microphone, and WAV and MP3 recording capability. There are models with a line input recording option. All can be monitored with earbud or 3.5 mm TRS headphones, and transfer files from the SD card through the USB 2.0 port. I used one a few years ago at the NAB Show and could see where journalists would like the microphone-sized (9.6 x 2 inches) form factor.
Marantz PMD661 From Germany comes the iXM (street $990) by Yellowtec. It too is more a microphone with a built-in recorder rather than a recorder with microphone heads attached. The 10 x 2 inches iXM uses SD cards. It offers a 1/8-inch headphone output and a 1/8-inch mic/line input. A mini USB port allows for digital offloading of files. A nice feature of the iXM's microphone complement are optional interchangeable mic heads (cardioids, omni and supercardioid) made by beyerdynamic. The iXM has an onboard Li-Ion battery (which can be recharged by the USB port) and can be run with three AA batteries. File formats are BWF/WAV and MP3.
Marantz has two units in the SD card category, the PMD661 (street $599) and the PMD620 (street $329). The PMD661 (3.7 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches), the only recorder in this survey without a built-in microphone, takes the best qualities of the older Compact Flash PMD660 and puts them in a smaller, faster (USB 2.0 v 1.1) less energy intensive package with longer battery life and a 24-bit/96 kHz sampling rate. The 661 has an excellent complement of inputs and outputs with dual XLR mic/line and 1/8-inch input. Outputs include RCA and a 1/4-inch headphone jack. The PMD620 (street $329) is Marantz's palm-sized SD recorder, with much longer battery life (two AA vs. four AA). Two onboard electrets mics facilitate audio capture on the PMD620 (2.5 x 4 x 1 inches). It uses a 1/8-inch mic and line inputs and 1/8-inch line and headphone outputs. Marantz recorders have the capability to edit on the machines (cut and paste and virtual non-linear editing), as well as transfer to an audio editing program. Both utilize WAV and MP3 file formats.
The MicroTrack II (street $169) is M-Audio's take on the Compact Flash handheld audio recorder, with both 1/4-inch microphone and line inputs and 3.5 mm microphone input/RCA outputs. It records in mono and stereo up to 24- bit/96 kHz sampling rate, WAV and MP3s and transfers that audio by USB 2.0 interface. The MicroTrack is equipped with an internal battery, which lasts from three to five hours before needing a recharge (three hours if using 48 V phantom power). The AGC and limiter will mellow a hot feed from a mult box, or loud recording to ensure usable audio in those situations.
Korg Sound On Sound
M-Audio MicroTrack II Korg's main entry in this market is the MR-1 (street $329) with 20 GB of onboard memory. It records 1-bit (e.g. DSD) digital audio, PCM digital audio with sampling rates up to 24-bit/192 kHz, and MP3 audio. The MR-1 (2.5 x 4.7 x 0.95 inches) has 3.5 mm balanced mic and line inputs, and also transfers files via a USB 2.0 interface. It has an internal rechargeable battery and is supplied with an AC power supply that charges the battery. The MR1 has been recently joined by Korg's Sound on Sound (SOS) pocket-sized microSD card recorder (expected price around $400). The SOS records WAV format and allows for overdubs of existing tracks (handy if one is trying to lay narration over natural sound or a musical bed). The SOS (2.7 x 5.3 x 1.3 inches) has a 1/4-inch input for a guitar, and 3.5 mm inputs for mic, line and a headphone output. It runs on AA batteries and transfers files by a USB 2.0 interface.
What's your field recorder of choice? Tell us firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Kaminski is news director for the Motor Sports Radio Network. He also is a contributor and freelance reporter for CBS News Radio, and "Radio Road Warrior" columnist for Radio World. Eemail@example.com.