Marantz’s PMD660 Offers Compact Size, Price; Recording, Editing Features for Newsgathering
The arrival of the Marantz PMD660 portable recorder brings the digital audio revolution to a logical next step. With it, the gathering of sound on rugged, reliable and cost-effective CompactFlash memory cards finally finishes off previous formats, such as cassette, DAT and MiniDisc.
The PMD660 isn’t so much about revolutionary technology as it is about effective packaging and pricing of said technology. With 2 GB CF cards available for under $200, the stage is set for Marantz’s new recorder. The PMD660 is an instant classic and sure to quickly become the industry standard for sound gathering. Once you use it, you won’t want to use anything else.
The PMD660 is a convenient 4.5 x 7.2x 1.9 inches and weighs in at just over a pound. This provides enough real estate to have high-quality Neutrik XLR balanced mic inputs, full-sized controls and an excellent LED audio level meter – a welcome relief from unbalanced 1/8-inch jacks and buttons/menus that seem designed for Lilliputian fingers found on the pocket MiniDisc units. In addition, it includes integrated stereo mics and a speaker.
(click thumbnail)The unit runs off four AA batteries or an included AC power adapter. Other amenities include a USB 1.1 computer interface, 1/8-inch line in and out jacks and a 1/8-inch headphone jack. Also, the PMD660 offers 48 V phantom power and an optional wired remote control. An on/off switch is located on the side.
The CompactFlash card compartment is designed to offer easy removal of the memory storage to pop into a computer. If you prefer to rely on the USB interface to transfer audio, the memory card can be made more permanent with a lock-down screw. In the U.S. market, the package includes a 64 MB card, which is reasonable to have around as an emergency backup; but be sure to budget for at least one 512 MB card.
Product CapsuleTHUMBS UP:
Great battery life
Few MP3 compression choices
1/8-inch headphone and line in/out jacks
Slower USB 1.1 interface
CONTACT: D&M Professional in Illinois at (630) 741-0330 or visit www.d-mpro.com
These digital recorders basically are dedicated computers with simplified interfaces combining a mix of buttons and software menu choices. A familiar series of buttons operate the basic record/playback functions. The high-contrast LCD display shows the pertinent information on recordings and software menus and has a nice, bright backlight as needed.
For those familiar with the larger PMD670, digging into the software options of the PMD660 shows streamlined audio quality choices. Here, the selection is between uncompressed PCM with a choice of mono or stereo at either 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling frequency, or MP3 compressed with mono at 64 kbps or stereo at 128 kbps. MP3 recordings also can be at 44.1 or 48 kHz.
Setting it up for use is easy. Quality settings and numerous options including automatic or manual level control, automatic shutdown with low battery levels, choice of inputs and outputs and automatic track marking can be programmed into three presets. These come programmed for most common uses. Customizing these may seem a bit complicated at first glance, but I was able to find my way through without referring to the manual.
Once programmed, toggling between them also is easy. It takes three buttons to go from gathering interviews through a microphone to getting a line level through a multi-box. The recorder is designed to operate on the tabletop or from the shoulder strap. Strapped on for field use, the mic inputs are on the bottom side with the headphone jack, LED meter and memory compartment on top.
This makes for a practical arrangement.
Man on the street
For a field reporter, the mic cable is down and out of the way. Checking levels – with a choice between peak reading and continuous metering – takes just a downward glance to see that things are lit up properly. Incidentally, all controls except the on/off switch can be locked out to protect recordings in progress.
The unit includes light editing capabilities. The Virtual Track and Copy Segment commands are a nice update on the track mark function familiar to MiniDisc users. After marking sound bites with non-destructive EDL markers, you can have it copy these into new files. This can save effort back in the studio, as the actualities are ready to go once you dump them into the on-air system for a newscast.
I put the PMD660 through its paces with a SanDisk Ultra II CF card, which provides almost nine hours of stereo MP3 recording at 44.1 kHz or 96 minutes in uncompressed 44.1 mono. The first test was just letting it run with the internal mic on and seeing how long it would record.
Battery life was terrific. The manual claims four hours endurance, but my testing showed far better. A set of standard Duracell alkaline cells managed just under seven hours of recording with the backlight and phantom power off. A series of warning beeps came through the headphones to signal that the file was about to be saved and the unit shut down.
The sound quality of recordings made with a beyerdynamic MCE58 and a Shure KSM27 phantom powered condenser was excellent. The audio quality of the 64 kbps mono was much better than I expected and will do fine for interviews and the like. Going uncompressed yielded excellent, rich sound. Though I could discriminate between the compressed and uncompressed recordings, the difference between the 44.1 and 48 kHz settings was too subtle for my ears.
Taking recordings back into the DAW for further evaluation took a little time through the older USB 1.1 interface. The seven-hour test yielded a 383 MB-sized MP3 file that took 9.5 minutes to transfer. It was far faster to pop the CF card and put it into a high-speed reader.
Using Adobe Audition’s analysis utility confirmed the company’s 60dB S/N ratio spec. Finicky pro audio recordists might turn up their noses at anything under 90 dB, but the quality of the field recordings made with this are more dependent on using a quality mic properly.
I only have a few bones to pick with the PMD660. Of course, 1/4-inch rather than 1/8-inch headphone and line in/out jacks are preferable; that may be a necessary tradeoff for the portable size. Though the included MP3 options sound fine, it would have been nice if Marantz had included a 256/128 stereo/mono MP3 option to bridge the quality/storage size gap between uncompressed audio and 128/64 kbps MP3. A USB 2.0 interface is key, too.
I’d also like a protective cover for the on/off switch, USB port and AC adapter plug. This would keep out any contamination and ensure no accidental shutoff. The only missing necessary accessory is a fitted field bag to make this ready for a rainy day out.
The PMD660 is the right size, the right price and has been carefully thought through with audio acquisition for the radio reporter in mind. Even though I might quibble about details in the feature set, the overall package is irresistible.