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Field Recording Gets Small and Affordable

 

By Craig Anderton

 

I’d been using Minidisc (please, don’t laugh) for almost ten years to do all kinds of portable recording applications, from grabbing samples, to recording song ideas, to recording audio at trade shows in order to supplement what the camcorder picks up. But aside from being a DF (Doomed Format), portable recording technology has advanced a lot since the days of the MD—and now, there are lots of handy little solid-state-based recording devices on the market.

This was brought home to me as I prepared to do another round of Harmony Central videos at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, and needed to capture audio. Given the high noise levels, recording at trade show videos is not easy, particularly in terms of capturing people speaking. I’ve tried using a mic patched into the camcorder: Great…until someone trips over the cable. I’ve set up wireless lapel mics, but sometimes it just takes up too much time to get everything wired up and tested. And my trusty Minidisc not only needed its discs changed every 74 minutes, it still had the problems involved with miking.

Then it struck me: Why not use a solid-state portable recorder, put it in the person’s hand, and have them talk into the mic? I could always lay the audio in behind the video, and free-sync the two. I have the excellent Korg MR-1, which uses DSD recording technology instead of PCM, but I feel it’s too expensive to take to a trade show: If the person holding it dropped it, I’d flip out. So, I decided I needed the "sweet spot" of highest quality and smallest size for the lowest cost.

 

Fig1.jpg

Fig. 1: The MicroTrack II portable recorder.

 

At the time, choices were fewer that was is available now. With the Sony PCM-D50 and Marantz PMD660 hitting the streets for about $500, and the Edirol R-09 going for around $400, it came down to a choice between the TASCAM DR-1 and M-Audio MicroTrack II, both of which street for about $300. (I considered the Zoom H4, which also streets for $300, but it’s considerably bigger than the other two.) It was not an easy choice, because the TASCAM has some great features the MicroTrack II doesn’t: User-replaceable battery (a big negative for the MicroTrack II), low frequency cutoff filter for dealing with wind noise, overdub capabilities, a tuner, and an included 1GB SD card (basically like having a 7\\\% discount off the price, because you don’t have to go buy a card).

But the MicroTrack II has some major advantages going for it, too: Smaller size (2-1/2W x 1-1/16H x 4-3/8D vs. 2.8W x 1.1H x 5.3D for the DR-1), the ability to recharge from a USB port, 1/4" line/mic ins in case I wanted to patch directly from an instrument out, Broadcast WAV support with the ability to insert markers on-the-fly, easily detachable mic design, and the ability to write files larger than 2GB. I came to the conclusion that while they both had the same core functionality, the DR-1 seemed slanted more to the musician market, while the MicroTrack II was optimized more for field recording. And as I was about to embark on serious field recording, that (and the smaller size) settled it.

 

THE PACKAGE

 

Fig2.jpg

Fig. 2: The MicroTrack II along with most of its included accessories.

 

The MicroTrack II package consists of (from left to right in the photo) a USB to mini USB cable, AC adapter, the recorder itself and below it a stereo T condenser mic that plugs directly into the MicroTrack II, carrying pouch, an extension cable that allows extending the mic away from the MicroTrack II. Not shown: A set of earbuds, printed quick start guide, and software (Audacity editor and complete instruction manual on PDF).

It uses Compact Flash cartridges for storage, and you can use capacities greater than 2GB: If a file exceeds the FAT32 format 2GB limit, MicroTrack II will continue by writing to a new file. That’s a neat trick, especially because you can record up to 24/96 WAV files (as well as 16-bit, or 44.1/48/88.2 sample rates), which can chew up the bytes pretty fast. When recording MP3 files, options range from 96 to 320kbps. Personally, I would have liked 64kbps as well for "note-taking" but with a decent-sized CF cartridge, you won’t run out of time.

 

POWER TIME

Power comes from an internal, rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery. I typically get 3-4 hours of pretty much continuous stereo recording per charge; you get more time if you’re doing playback-only. You can recharge via the mini-USB port by connecting the included cable to a USB port, or to the AC adapter, which terminates in a USB-type connector. Although the battery is not user-replaceable, you can use a device like the Energizer brand cell phone chargers; about $7 with mini-USB outs to recharge on the go, or provide "auxiliary power"—these are basically battery "sidecars." If/when the battery gets so old that it won’t hold a charge any more (iPod fans, you know what I mean), you need to send the unit back to M-Audio, who will replace the battery with a new one for about $70.

 

INS AND OUTS

The MicroTrack II is surprisingly complete in this respect, offering 1/8" mic in for the included T mic (with +5V phantom power), 1/4" TRS mic/line with switchable +48V phantom power (with separate ins for left and right) so you can use your own fave condenser mics if you like, and S/PDIF in.

Outs are 1/8" headphone jack, RCA left and right line outs, and USB for computer transfers to and from the MicroTrack II. This is also where you can charge the internal battery.

 

Fig3.jpg

Fig. 3: The mic input on the left works with the included T mic, while the two TRS jacks accept mic or line ins. The headphone out is on the right.

 

Fig4.jpg

Fig. 4: The Line Outs use RCA phono jacks, and there’s also a S/PDIF input. The mini-USB connector is on the right.

 

THE OPERATING SYSTEM

Fig5.jpg

Fig. 5: The backlit display is informative and readable, even under low-light conditions, thanks to optional backlighting.

 

This is a standout feature, because it’s so easy to figure out. It’s helped by a backlit LCD with a three-position brightness switch: Full, half, and off.

A Menu button reveals various options (Files, Record Settings, Options, and System); there’s a little navigation button where you can move from one option to another, then press to select that option. Once within those categories, you choose what you want to edit, and edit it. You can always go back a level by hitting the Menu button.

When recording, the main screen shows level meters, file name, number of files, file timing, output volume, etc. You set levels with left and right buttons, which can link for stereo operation and have red LEDs at the top to indicate clipping, and green LEDs at the bottom to indicate signal. When you want to record, you—surprise!—click on the record button. A dedicated delete button makes it easy to delete files.

One caution: Because the MicroTrack II is portable, you’re likely to slip it in a pocket or hit the case accidentally, which could turn the on-off switch to the opposite state, turn off recording by accident, or cause other mischief. Fortunately, a Hold button will freeze the existing button state, making it impossible to alter your settings accidentally.

 

EXTRAS

Fig6.jpg

Fig. 6: The various operational options are accessible from a set of buttons along the side. The Navigation button on the other side provides a way to select among various menu choices.

 

The MicroTrack II has a bunch of other useful features. You can scrub through audio files as you rewind/fast forward through them, choose from six different playback EQ curves (flat, bass or treble boost, bass or treble cut, and bass+treble boost), check time left for recording for whatever recording format you choose, and turn the limiter on/off (with stereo link or dual mono option). And for what it’s worth, the MicroTrack II is class-compliant, so you don’t need to install any drivers in Windows XP SP2/Vista or Mac OS X 10.2.8 (or higher) computers—just plug and play. You can choose one of six languages for operation (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese), but a firmware download is available for simplified Chinese as well.

In accordance with Anderton’s Law of Manuals ("products that are so easy to use you don’t need a manual always have the best documentation"), the documentation—printed quick start, and full instructions on PDF—is extremely clear and helpful. The pouch included with the MicroTrack II is excellent for carrying the unit on your belt when recording, but it holds only the recorder itself, not the accessories. M-Audio offers an optional pack ($99.95) for carrying the MicroTrack II and its various accessories; it even allows accessing all the MicroTrack II features (including ports and switches) while it’s protected in the pack. If your needs aren’t quite so industrial-strength, a good alternative is something like the R-Tech model #553395 camera case, available at Office Depot for under $20. It’s just big enough to hold the MicroTrack II, mic, AC adapter, a couple CF cards, etc. but you can’t access the controls while the unit is in the case.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Of course another issue is sound quality, and I was very happy with the sound. The MicroTrack II’s included mic is way better than I expected, and being able to record at high resolution bit depths and sample rates—as well as use your own condenser mics, if you’re so inclined—is very cool.

Despite the "trial by fire" nature of taking the MicroTrack II out on a gig with only a limited amount of experience, it acquitted itself superbly. The only problem was pilot error, like when I forgot the Hold button was on and tried to power-up. However, when I looked at the display, it said "Hold switch active" and after a "doh!" moment, was able to remedy the problem quickly. One unexpected useful feature was that if I instructed the person holding the MicroTrack II to orient it in a certain way, I could see the LEDs and make sure that 1) it was getting signal, and 2) it wasn’t clipping.

I’d say the standout features are ease of use, sound quality, and small size. The MicroTrack II did everything I hoped it would do, and more; if you’re looking for a field recorder that hits the sweet spot of cost, quality, and size, the MicroTrack II gives you exactly that.

 

CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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