Portable Recorders Are a Hot Topic - Here's Sony's Initial Offering
By Craig Anderton
There are a lot of no-moving-parts, solid-state, stereo portable recorders making the scene, like the Edirol R-1 and the M-Audio MicroTrack. But Sony is clearly going after the high end with the PCM-D1--high-end performance, high-end price. For example, the body is made of 1mm thick pressed titanium, and the sucker feels solid (despite weighing under a pound); there's no cheap plastic housing here. Switches are more or less recessed so you don't bump them accidentally, and the record level knob is protected by a wrap-around metal band that makes it very hard to move it accidentally. The meters are sweet, too: Little analog jobs with a cool vintage factor.
When I received this unit, it was so new that there wasn't even a manual...which really didn't matter a whole lot, because once you figure out that hitting "play" gets it to play, you're okay. But there are some more esoteric functions, like "divide," so I was glad they have the manual posted online at Sony.com. You'll be glad too, if you want to know more about what this unit is all about.
You don't just get a couple throwaway mics, but two electret condenser mics with a claimed response that approaches 30kHz. What's also interesting is how they're positioned in an X-Y pattern and angled in toward each other--recording in stereo gives surprisingly good depth and imaging. What's more, there are stainless steel curved rods that protect the mics in case you drop the unit (which actually seems like it could survive a fall), and a cute little windscreen. Sony doesn't skimp on the mic pres, either: They're Analog Devices AD797 chips. Interestingly, the PCM-D1 also uses the old trick of separating the analog and digital circuits, and powering them separately, to prevent digital "hash" from getting into sensitive analog circuits.
As to storage, the PCM-D1 comes with 4GB of internal Flash RAM, which gives about two hours when recording with 24-bit/96kHz resolution. At the other end of the resolution scale (22kHz/16 bits), you'll get about 13 hours. There is the option to record to removeable Memory Stick Pro (High Speed) units, which weigh in at around $160 for a 2GB unit (a 4GB model will set you back around $800). Of course, if you can fit your recordings into the internal 4GB of memory, you don't need any extra memory. Just transfer the contents over to your computer (Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later; Windows XP/2K Pro SP3 or later) via USB 2.0, then wipe the internal memory for more storage.
So now that we have the box figured out, the next issue is how you actually deal with recording. The PCM-D1 case does fit nicely in the palm of your hand, and if you're reasonably careful, the mics don't pick up handling noise. The unit also lays flat if you want to put it on a table, or some other flat surface and then aim it toward your sound source. Not good enough? Then use a tripod with the tripod mount on the bottom. As to recording time, you'll get about four hours with four AA rechargeable batteries. (Happily, the PCM-D1 doesn't use weird, non-standard batteries.)
A few other goodies round out the unit, like a high pass filter with 200Hz cutoff frequency, mic attenuator, and a particularly interesting limiter: There's a separate buffer containing audio that's down –20dB compared to the standard record signal path. When a loud transient occurs, the PCM-D1 pulls audio from the buffer, and brings it up to a suitably high level. Clever, eh?
So that's the deal: Pricey, yes, but you get what you pay for. The PCM-D1 is pretty straightforward; for example, there's no instrument input, tuner, or effects, which you'll find on the more musician-oriented Edirol R-1. But when you need a truly high-quality and compact portable recorder, and your bank account can handle the cost, the PCM-D1 will float your boat with the utmost fidelity.
Craig 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.