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H.O.W. News & Case Studies
by Rich Parker
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 6, 2006 issue of "Radio Magazine"
For the field recordist or reporter, finding a high quality recording device that is easy to use and carry is an ongoing quest. With the advent of flash memory-based recording there have been several new products available that are portable and have a reasonably long recording time and battery life. Unfortunately, some of these have audio quality specifications that are not up to snuff - the internal mic preamps were noisier than desired, battery life was less than optimal or there was some other small compromise. Most of these units also contain internal microphones, but with rare exceptions the quality was often not adequate for any but the most rudimentary recording tasks. With the introduction of the PCM-D1 solid-state recorder, we have an entirely new animal on the playing field: a portable flash recorder with extremely high quality microphones as an integral part of the package.
Weighing just over a pound (18.2 ounces with batteries), thinner and half again as long (2.5" x 6.75" x 1.3") as the venerable Sony TCD-8 portable DAT recorder many field recordists are accustomed to using, the PCM-D1 linear recorder is, at first glance, a work of engineering art. The unit is immediately visually appealing. Contained in the titanium case are two large and easy-to-read backlit VU meters placed prominently near the top of the unit; above the more commonplace LCD screen, which includes the various bits of information and meters. Below that are a set of easily accessible, human-sized buttons. At the top of the unit is the piece de resistance: a matched pair of X-Y electret/condenser cardioid microphones in a stainless steel cage in a swivel mount.
The controls are easy to read, and dials and adjustments that need protection have that protection built in. As a subtle example, the power switch can be switched on easily by dragging a finger or thumb up the side of the unit, but turning it off is another matter. There is a slight speed bump in the form of a bar molded into the case just above the switch that forces the user to consciously move his finger directly to the off switch to slide it down, preventing accidentally switching the unit off from careless handling. Even the wrist strap features a tab to allow the headphone cable to be inserted through it, which prevents it being jerked out accidentally. Granted, these are small details, but examples of the obvious care that went into the design of the case.
Additionally, there is a small mount on the back of the unit that takes any standard camera tripod mount.
I have always joked that any device that needed a user manual was poorly designed and the PCM-D1 does not disappoint in that regard. In only a few minutes after getting it out of the box, I was able to access and use virtually all of the functions of the unit without having to open the manual.
According to the manual, the permanently mounted X-Y microphones are a pair of carefully machined and matched units. From the supplied frequency response charts, they have fairly flat resolution from 400Hz to 10kHz, with some roll-off in the low end, a slight bump above 10kHz and a slight roll-off out to about 30kHz. (This is to be expected in a small-capsule microphone.) In addition to the permanent stainless steel mic guard, there is a foam windscreen that works quite well in windy environments. Because there are no moving parts there is no mechanical self-noise to affect the recording. The mic pre-amps are listed as Analog Devices AD797s and our listening tests confirmed that it is a quiet and accurate front end for such a small device.
In a rather radical departure for Sony, the unit records linear PCM WAV files that can be transferred from the unit via USB for immediate editing. In addition to the standard 22/44.1/48k at 16-bit sampling rate, recordings can be made at 24-bit/96kHz as well. The Sony Super Bitmap scheme also lives on in the unit as a selectable parameter for recording.
What is perhaps one of the more remarkable features of the device is the unique selectable limiter. In a truly innovative design, a brief shadow recording is continuously made 20dB down from the normal input and stored in memory for a short time. If a transient peak clips the standard input, the lower level audio is normalized and inserted instead to prevent peak distortion. Of course, if the overload exceeds 20dB then all bets are off, but this is far easier than running two mics with a split track with one at 20dB down. We recommend this procedure to our VPR reporters for noisy and unpredictable environments.
Internal flash memory comes standard at 4GB, which yields anywhere from two to 12 hours depending on the sample rate and bit depth, with 24-bit/96kHz requiring the most real estate. In addition, there is an external slot for Sony Memory Stick Pro modules of up to 4GB. There is an external power supply, but the unit also can use alkaline (for two hours) or rechargeable nickel metal hydride (for four to five hours) AA batteries.
In the field
We held two significant field tests with the unit. The first was to place the unit next to a pair of modified Neumann U-87 microphones during a live concert broadcast. After the event, we A/B compared the recordings in the studio and our recording engineers and producers were impressed with the sonic clarity and quietness of the PCM-D1 recording. Although it clearly could not reproduce the low end as faithfully as the large capsule microphones, everyone was amazed at how well it held its own in that environment. Clearly, this would be the device to have for a back-up or safety recorder for an important event. Because the specs and curves for the built-in microphones are well documented, it would be easy to use a bit of low-end boost to save that special event. In many cases it would be adequate for recording on its own, particularly at live, outdoor venues. There is a line input and an external microphone input as well, so a small mixer can be connected.
The second test was somewhat accidental. I gave the unit to one of our reporters who forgot his own recorder, so he had to use the unit without any training whatsoever. He covered a Vermont Senate hearing. Placing the unit on the table and tipping the mics slightly up, he was able to record not only the witness, but also clearly hear all of the questioners around the table - something he'd never been able to do as well before in similar situations.
Overall, the PCM-D1 is an impressive piece of equipment for recording in various environments. One caveat, which Sony mentions in the manual, is that there is a fair amount of handling noise from the thin titanium case. In fact, it can be quite microphonic at times. In the case of our VPR reporter, he became aware of it quickly, and was able to compensate by holding the unit near the bottom and not rubbing his fingers on it, but I wouldn't guarantee that every reporter would be so motivated or careful. In fairness, the Sony rep at NAB2006 said that the unit wasn't specifically designed for hand held use - but I would venture that using a small pistol grip camera mount would probably solve that problem nicely. But set on a table or on a small tripod the unit would do quite nicely for ENG and high-level recording work. (In an unofficial test, I tried placing the unit on the balcony of our church to record a service. With the main action more than 85' away the unit performed well).
Some small quirks of the unit include the fact that it is not possible to seamlessly switch from the onboard memory to the external Memory Stick. It requires stopping, choosing which memory source to use, waiting for it to recognize the memory and then start recording. This is clearly not a change that can be done on the fly. Also, the WAV format has a built in limitation of 2GB for a file, so if you record longer than that, the file will be broken into pieces. Files did not appear to lose any audio when doing that, so a quick edit made everything right again.
Parker is director of engineering for Vermont Public Radio.
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