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Nagra USB Recorder: Future Cool

Digital audio recorders that use solid-state digital media are a boon for professional newsgathering and field audio acquisition.

Digital audio recorders that use solid-state digital media are a boon for professional newsgathering and field audio acquisition.

(click thumbnail)Recording to a solid block of RAM means no more jammed cassette tapes, no MiniDiscs getting knocked off-track, no DATs to rewind and search through.

Denon and Marantz recently leapt out of the gate with offerings styled after each company’s over-the-shoulder field recorders. The Denon DN-F20R and the Marantz PMD690 both emulate the under-finger familiarity and appearance of earlier analog models.

It took a collaboration between the engineering minds of Nagra and Digigram to take a different tack. The result is the Nagra RCX220 (retail price $2,430).

This digital recorder breaks the mold of what a field recorder should look like and how it should feel, without affecting what it is supposed to do.

A shave, a drink and a light
Product CapsuleThumbs Up:

  • Small, well-engineered design
  • Various compression settings
  • High-speed USB file transfer
  • Digigram Xtrack editor thrown in free

Thumbs Down:

  • Sensitive mic picks up mechanical noise
  • Drivers and software require minimum Win98SE
  • Despite classy design, case actually is uncomfortable to handle for long periods

For information contact Nagra USA in Nashville at (800) 813-1663, (615) 726-5191 or visit the Web site at
The Nagra RCX220 handheld audio recorder is the cousin to the Nagra ARES-P digital recorder.

The difference lies in some of the editing features and the ability to offload digital audio files rapidly via USB port.

Both recorders share an appearance somewhere between a stainless-steel whiskey flask and a Swiss electric razor; and it flips open like a Zippo lighter to receive batteries and media.

The recorder digitizes audio with Digigram soundcard technology, records to solid-state RAM media and transfers said audio via USB connection to a host computer for editing.

The compact recorder offers versatile recording capabilities, such as capturing mono or stereo audio in MPEG 1 Layer II and downloading it at high speed directly to computer via USB. Once inside the computer, audio is edited via Xtrack LE, the fast and easy-to-use MPEG digital editor offered by Digigram.

You are, by all means, welcome to skip the USB feature altogether, remove the media and pop it into a PCMCIA card reader attached to the audio workstation computer.

The frosty, steely looking RCX220 is innovative. And the audio quality is every bit what you might expect from a Digigram/Nagra collaboration.

THD is 0.1 percent at 1 kHz, with a dynamic range of 85 dB and frequency response of 30 Hz to 20 kHz at the 48 kHz sampling rate.

These may not sound like stunning specs if your life revolves around rackmount studio gear kept under glass, but are significant figures for a field recorder and are miles ahead of whatever may be in your shoulder bag now.

The center of attention on the brushed aluminum and steel case is the yellow-green LCD display. Here, you may view a volume meter, recording status, the time remaining and big bold graphics that shows what mode the recorder is in.

Below the display is a cluster of rubber membrane buttons that handle all menu functions. Search the cut list and write titles to each audio file contained in the RCX220; activate Tools for date, time, formatting and repair; and vary Settings, including the built-in limiter, digital compression scheme and settings, and whether or not you want the display backlight turned on.

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The button quartet

A Home button is centered between four up/down/right/left cursor keys that navigate the entire menu structure. A pair of + and – keys select the ALC threshold level, input and output levels.

There is a quartet of Rewind, Stop, Play and Fast Forward buttons. A single Record button with a raised dot on the surface helps you find the correct button, even in the dark.

Simpler yet, there is a hard-start Record button drilled into the right side of the case for index-fingertip operation. Hit it and you are rolling.

Where do the memory cards and batteries go? Surprise: A flush-mounted latch on the right side of the unit unlocks the upper part of the recorder, tipping it open sideways like a Zippo cigarette lighter.

A PCMCIA card socket is fitted in the top portion and a battery compartment in the lower half. The hinge is solid metal and looks as if it can handle extensive flipping and flopping.

A multipin microphone socket tops off the RCX220, and accommodates a Nagra mono cardioid electret mic element or a fairly elaborate M-S capsule. A blank plug is also included for you to wire your own microphone.

The Nagra microphones sound open and spacious, but look amusingly like kitchen faucet aerators and give the unit its liquor-flask silhouette.

In use

The entire RCX220 package consists of the recorder and the Windows-based software (sorry, Mac users).

The RCX220 offers 17 different bit rates and sample frequencies, from G722 and MPEG mono 64/16, all the way up to 192/48 stereo. In a quiet room, the limiter cranks everything up, so you may wish to reset it to a higher threshold so your headphones don’t drive you crazy with compressor “breathing.”

Recording time is governed by several factors: the capacity of the RAM card, the sample rate and the compression scheme. Go linear stereo at 48 kHz and expect a quick session, as 11.5 MB will be eaten every minute. On a 48 MB card, that is not much time at all.

Recording in mono, reducing the sample rate and going the MPEG route proportionally increases recording time. By experimenting with the settings, you will find a combination appropriate for your audio acquisition needs and card capacity.

Conspicuously absent from recordings made on the RCX220 – besides tape hiss – is the mechanical motor noise and commutator whine typical of recordings made on a cassette deck. If you have grown so used to this noise that it goes unnoticed, a clean recording minus the drone will surprise you.

In a tabletop situation, the recorder performs as advertised. In motion, however, as when jockeying for position in a crowd, mechanical noise is picked up by the top-mounted microphones.

Normal handling of the unit or of a headphone cable attached to it creates friction noise that is picked up by the front-mounted mic. During handling, the microphone can even pick up the gentle rattle of the mechanism that ejects the PCM card. At low recording levels, the sound is noticeable on playback.

You may wish to avoid the top-mounted mics entirely and wire up your own favorite ENG microphone to the matching plug. The cable will offer some isolation.

The interchangeable M-S mic capsule does exactly what an M-S capsule is supposed to do – record a nice spacious stereo spread that can be manipulated for width later in the computer. If your job requires gathering atmosphere sound for, say, an NPR-type long-form report, the M-S capsule would provide a compelling stereo image.

The computer

I have a special preference for the Digigram Xtrack program. A few years back, I supervised the production of 16 hours of original audio programming for RW Online, using an early version of Xtrack on an office 486 PC.

Installing the Digigram Xtrack editing software CD-ROM on the editing computer can be a stroll in the sun or a walk on hot coals, depending on your PC skills and your current machine.

The disc includes Xtrack and the necessary drivers for the Digigram audio interface. Note that the system runs on Windows 98 SE (Second Edition). Do an installation on Win95 or the original Win98 and the drivers will not load.

You may still use the RCX220 without Xtrack by plugging into the headphone jack and offloading good old analog audio into your console or DAW, or stick the RAM card into a reader. But you lose the speed of the USB transfer.

Minimum requirements are a PII-300 with 64 MB RAM and a standard USB port to operate properly. For best performance, do not use an office hand-me-down. Get a dedicated audio computer.

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The Nagra RCX220 is a remarkable digital recorder. The Xtrack MPEG editing software and USB compatibility make an irresistible combination. And there is that cool, metallic matte-finish Star Wars look. But that look may be one if its liabilities.

Grasping that squared-off case for long periods is uncomfortable and could lead to muscular cramping in the hand. Unless the hand strap is attached to the recorder, you don’t dare release or relax your grip.

Never mind a better mousetrap; the world will beat a path to the door of the first person who invents a form-fitting, clamp-on rubber grip for the unit to properly fit the hand.

The RCX220 has no moving parts to break or jam, but a fall or an impact against a hard surface could seriously damage or even snap off the front-mounted microphone element. I hope Nagra engineers will address the mechanical noise aspect as well as the potential for damage.

Similarly, RCX drivers for Win 98 First Edition or even Windows 95 would be desirable. Some thriftier broadcast managers out there would need a real good reason to spend several grand on a single RCX200 to begin with. To be told afterward that he or she needs to purchase new versions of Windows for each PC intended to connect to the RCX220 will not go over well.

On the other hand, transferring files via USB is fast, once the computer is fine-tuned and the proper drivers are in place. Editing in Xtrack is as easy as any other editor out there. In some ways it is even better because it edits MPEG files directly without having to decompress and then re-render them.

The best reasons to get a Nagra RCX220: It is fast and stylish, it records clean compressed audio and lets you title and index your tracks while riding back to the station. It is considerably smaller than an over-the-shoulder solid-state IC media recorder and will fit in a jacket or vest pocket.

The second-best reason: Other reporters stuck using their old, beat-up cassette decks will see you at the press conference with your shiny new RCX200 and will be absolutely envious of you.