Yamaha's Pocketful of Miracles

Pocketrak CX Flash Memory Recorder Sounds Good But Is It Too Small?
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Is smaller better?

Electronic components are shrinking to reduce materials cost and to meet ambitious goals to pack more entertainment capability in smaller packages. Is there a point of diminishing returns? Cell phone handset manufacturers don't seem to think so. Thus, it is no surprise that Yamaha has produced a high-quality, well-engineered, flash memory (micro SD card) audio recorder in a similarly minuscule form factor, the Pocketrak CX.

Physical layout

The Pocketrak CX will take up about half of a shirt pocket with its pair of coincident X-Y microphones barely showing. The capsules are not isolated from the case so you need to hold the unit carefully to minimize handling noise while recording an interview. A metal frame extends above the mics to protect them from shock. Metallic trim surrounds the edge giving the unit a less fragile look for something so diminutive.

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The author holds the unit, to provide a sense of scale The LCD display has a bright orange backlight making it easy to read in poor light in spite of its postage stamp-size screen. Recording mode, stereo volume level bargraphs, cut or track number, cut length, elapsed time, microphone gain, battery charge, remaining record time and other information is displayed depending upon menu and mode.

The switches and pushbuttons are too small for typical adult male fingers. You have to work hard not to press more than one button at a time. This is especially true for the circular five-button menu, volume, back and forward controls.

Most of the buttons have dual uses.

Record puts the unit into record standby mode so you can preview and adjust levels. A second press starts the recording. Stop is also the escape key for menus. Play also selects three playback speeds, normal, 70 percent and 150 percent, handy for learning new rifts or for speed listening to a lecture.

Buttons on the side provide power on-off, file folder selection or A-B repeat, file list display or index mark, edit functions or play a phrase and a delete key. Borrowing from Microsoft Windows, delete can be set to be nondestructive. The file will simply be reassigned to the recycle folder where it can be retrieved if required or permanently deleted.

On the back of the unit is a slide switch that will lock out all pushbuttons, an important feature to help prevent loss of a recording in progress. Another nice touch is the way the record button functions. A two-color LED at the top of the unit functions as a charging, recording and peak level indicator.

Confidence monitoring

The built-in speaker is bright and tinny sounding as one might expect for a transducer that is only about a half-inch in diameter. Its volume is quite low. But, if you put your ear close to it you can easily hear well-articulated voice playback.

Unfortunately, the speaker is on the rear of the unit. You cannot see the LCD screen information such as cut number while listening to it. This is best done with headphones.

The 1/8-inch headphone jack has ample drive level for Walkman-style headphones and earbuds like those provided with the unit. Don't expect to get a lot of volume out of a serious pair of headphones such as the beyerdynamic DT 770. The headphone outputs are active when the unit is in record standby or record mode. Thus, you can monitor your audio during the recording process.

You won't get more than unbalanced 1/8-inch audio I/O jacks in these tiny packages. If you want robust connections you'll have to spend a lot more money and/or buy much larger units with adequate real estate.

The first generation of flash memory recorders had power issues, blowing through a set of alkaline batteries in a couple of hours. I've yet to run down the Sanyo eneloop NiMH rechargeable battery. If you do, you can substitute an ordinary AA alkaline battery for the rechargeable. Just be sure to switch the battery type in the menu options since you do not want to accidentally charge a nonrechargeable type battery.

A powered USB port will recharge the eneloop battery and power the Pocketrak CX. Recharging can be very slow, almost five hours! But run time is amazing and well worth the wait.

Unlike conventional NiMH batteries, the Sanyo battery does not suffer from self-discharge. I've found it to be comparable to lithium with a very low self-discharge rate.

According to Yamaha the battery will power the recorder for between 20 and 44 hours depending upon the record mode and whether you disable the backlight and record lamp. A nonrechargeable alkaline battery can provide up to 54 hours of MP3 record time!

Computer connectivity

Yamaha says it's compatible with Windows XP and Vista, no mention of Windows 2000. Since Windows 2000 understands USB thumb drives I was quite confident the Pocketrak CX would be compatible with my old office computer. Indeed it was. After connecting the USB cable, the file folder structure on the SD card was immediately available in "My Computer." It couldn't be simpler. I could drag and drop sound files directly into Cool Edit Pro, be they PCM or MP3. No need to dub or even copy files to the local hard drive.

The Pocketrak CX comes with a 2 GB micro SD card. Recording 16-bit PCM at 48 kHz will provide almost three hours of recording time. Recording at the highest MP3 rate of 320 kbps yields 13.5 hours of record time. Recording at the lowest quality 32 kbps monaural setting yields an astounding 136 hours of record time.

Just like today's cell phone handsets, the Yamaha packs features beyond its primary mission.

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It can be used as an MP3 music player, a thumb drive for storing and transferring data between computers, an alarm clock and a timed automatic recording device. It uses separate file folders for most of these functions.

Here's where it gets quirky. Audio recorded through the line-level input is stored in the "L" folder. But the only record mode for line input is 192 kHz MP3. Phooey! What were they thinking? I'm guessing fear of someone using it for duplicating audio off of CDs may have played into this design decision.

In spite of this limitation I was surprised to discover a simple work-a-round to provide high-quality uncompressed recordings from line-level sources such as the front of hall mixer for a show you might be sponsoring, or the mult box feed from a news press conference. Because most flash memory recorder internal software level trims are post preamp it would normally not be advisable to feed line level into a mic input. But it works with the Yamaha! If you set the microphone gain switch to low and then set the electronic record gain to 5, the external mic input will handle –10 dB EIA consumer line level just fine. No clipping. No distortion.

Built-in audio processing includes a five-band equalizer for playback, high-pass filter for windy, noisy locations, AGC for recording situations where setting levels prior to recording is unfeasible and peak limiting which can be used with manual gain control or AGC.

The user manual could be better. Many of the features are not mentioned with sufficient detail to be useful.

Sound

How does it sound?

In 48 kHz PCM mode, it captures live music with excellent detail, better than one would expect with its limited built-in mic capsules. Fed an external signal from better microphones, it sounds even richer. For voice recording even middle bit-rate MP3 will be adequate for newscasts. AGC breathes and compresses. So, stay away from it for music. The limiter function does a good job of preventing digital flat topping and can be used while recording music.

I asked my local news director what he thought about the Pocketrak CX. He loved its compactness and fabulous battery life. But he did have reservations about its fragility and requirement for special handling when doing handheld interviews on the run. This isn't a device you want to knock around or let rattle in the bottom of a remote kit. And it's small enough to get lost for days in the disarray of the average newsroom.

The Pocketrak CX ships with the following accessories: Sanyo rechargeable AA cell NiMH battery; 2 GB micro SD flash card; soft cloth carry pouch; ear buds; mic stand to 1/4-inch stud adapter; wind screen; Steinberg Cubase AI4 editing software and paper manual.

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