Roland R-05 WAV/MP3 Recorder, CS-10EM Binaural Microphones/Earphones
By Jon Chappell_1 |
A professional-level mobile recorder featuring optional binaural recording
$299 list, $249 street
By Jon Chappell
The Roland R-05 Recorder
A few years ago, all the major manufacturers jumped on the two-track mobile recording format, releasing units—multiple units, in some cases—about the size of a cellphone or smaller that could capture high-resolution audio onto an SD card. All of them had certain common features, such as decent-quality onboard stereo mics (some were even adjustable) and a range of recording formats from MP3 to CD to 24-bit/96kHz. If you opted for a smaller recorder the size of a cigarette lighter, you might forgo some high-end features for the sake of portability, but all these units provided unprecedented quality and storage capabilities. So the trick became trying to sort them out. For a unit to really shine, it would have to not only have the requisite high-quality mics and multiple file formats, but a really good interface and, possibly, one bonus feature no one else included.
That’s exactly the case with the Roland R-05 WAV/MP3 Recorder. While it is similar in quality to its price-comparable brethren, the R-05 is the easiest recorder to operate of all the ones I’ve tested, tried, or purchased for my own personal use. And that unique feature? Try binaural recording, which is a fancy way of saying that its optional set of earbuds doubles as stereo microphones (the CS-10EMs, sold separately). I found more uses than I thought I would for these in-ear mics, while the unit itself seemed almost clairvoyant in anticipating my needs. I never had to crack the manual, despite the depth of the features. Even when I had to drill down in a menu, I always reached for the right menu to do it. I credit that to the recorder, not me. Let’s see what uses binaural recording has, and what Roland got right in their R-05 that make it such a winner for recordists on the go.
The R-05 is about the size of a pack of cigarettes or a standard cellphone, except a little thicker. Its side-to-side width is still narrow enough to hold comfortably in one hand, yet the display is highly readable even though it sports a lot of info (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Several views of the R05, showing the intelligence of the control layout.
As with most Roland recording gear, there are tons of thoughtful, well-implemented features, too many to list (so check out http://www.roland.com/products/en/R-05 for a complete list). So here are just some of the things Roland got right. First, it uses AA batteries. You can use disposable alkalines or rechargeable lithium ones, but you can be assured you’ll never be stuck without power as long as there’s a 24-hour gas station around. It also has an AC adapter for people who use the unit in a permanent (or quasi-permanent) setting most of the time and want to save batteries for when they’re on the road. The physical switches on the housing are thankfully limited to mic gain, limiter on/off, low-cut, and power—all the things you might change on the fly and none of the things you wouldn’t. For example, I’ve seen some units that put the Delete File command on the outside. Why would you need that on the outside of the unit?
On the front panel is where you find switches that are not the global set-and-forget kind, including the transport and navigations buttons. I like the arrangement of having the transport and level controls on the bottom—where your thumb can easily reach them in the heat of the moment—with the nav keys (the ones you access less) at the top. You can still wrangle all the switches and buttons with one hand, though, which is important if, say, you’re say, holding an external mic with your other hand.
Selecting the file format for recording is done with the Menu key, under which are other related parameters such as Recorder Setup (file name, auto record start), Player Setup (continuous play, loop, reverb, speed setting), Display, Power Management, Input Setup (limiter, external mic type, binaural mic power), and more. Rather than cram every function under one menu switch, Roland wisely includes an additional front-panel Finder button, where you perform most of your file-management tasks. The division is welcome, and the Finder function is critical for renaming, moving, copying, trimming, deleting, combining, and dividing files, as well as seeing the files’ information. Whereas Menu takes care of the recorder, Finder is dedicated to file organization, and it’s a great interface design touch.
Mercifully, though, input levels and output volume are separate, external switches bookending the basic transport controls. Especially important for musicians is an A/B loop switch that allows you to play back continuously any user-defined passage. When recording, the A/B switch acts as a Split control, dividing up files based on your switch presses, for more manageable playback. A novel Rehearsal switch (whose total time is user-definable) could be called “soundcheck,” because it listens to the source and automatically adjusts the input level. When you hit the recessed Record switch in the center of the transport, the red light blinks under the switch to indicate standby, and the display also pulsates—nice. This allows you to test levels before committing to “rolling tape.”
Of course, there’s no tape, only an SD card for storage, and you can get hours of high-quality recordings on a single inexpensive 2GB card (included—yay!). See Fig. 2 for the breakdown of recording times vs. SD card capacity. The available resolutions run from 64 kbps mp3 all the way up to 24-bit/96kHz, which is better (way better) than CD quality and on a par with high-end DAWs. Note that on the chart in Fig. 2 there’s an entry for an mp3 + wave file. This mode records two versions at once—a high quality wave and a low quality mp3, which you can email or offload immediately. There are choice touches like this all through the recorder, making it a well-thought-out pro-level tool.
Fig. 2. A chart showing the available recording times for different file formats using different capacity SD cards. Note the combine WAVE + MP3 modes that simultaneously record a high-res wave file along with a low-res mp3.
The display has only one screen (some recorders have two, allowing you to see file info such as date and time), but the parameters shown are the essential ones, and well-displayed. You see the file name, total time of the file, sample rate, elapsed time, and generous metering that spreads the width of the display. A status bar shows you how far through the file you’ve gone, for the times when you can’t read the numerals on the meter. Slick.
My only true beef with the R-05 is that it doesn’t have an onboard speaker. Any onboard speaker—even an underpowered one—is welcome, if just to let you know you recorded what you thought you did. And most units in this price range do have them. But it almost becomes moot because I’ll never travel anywhere with the awesome binaural earbuds that allow me to record sounds as nature intended—through my ears.
Roland offers an option in the CS-10EM Binaural Microphones/Earphones ($149 list, $130 street, see Fig. 3). The onboard omnidirectional electret condenser mics allow you to record binaurally—a fancy way of describing mics placed on a dummy head that sport artificial pinnae (human outer-ear contours) to effect a realistic listening experience. For the mics to work, the power must be sourced from the recorder, so only certain Roland recorders will work with these headphone/mics, as the unit sends power along the audio cables in the same way phantom power works in studio-level condenser microphones. You activate the power through a Menu control.
FIg. 3. The CS-10EM's are well-designed in-ear microphones/earphones. They allow you record using the binaural (human-head oriented) method.
Binaural recording is one of those thing you don’t know you need until you try it. Then you can’t live without it. You plug the buds in your ears in the normal fashion. These particular models are quite comfortable and snug. I wore them around town, on an airplane, and even on the treadmill at the gym, all to great satisfaction. But they really showed their uniqueness as microphones. I recorded several lectures and a large-ensemble recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City—one of the world’s best acoustic spaces. The results were uncannily real. Upon playback, it sounded like I was back in the Hall. Of course, I had been monitoring the sound in the first place through the headphones (and looking a little conspicuous as an audience member), so I might have been influenced by memory, but the stereo separation was ultra-realistic. Roland advertises 360-degree sound, and it’s really true. Sounds seem to be coming from all around you—above and behind, as well as left and right.
Because the mics hear what your ears hear, there are numerous applications for binaural recording. For example, I’ve always had trouble recording phone calls, which I do a lot of in my capacities as a journalist. But the CS-10EM has solved the problem. With the earphones in, I simply hold the phone up to my ear the normal way, and I monitor through the headphones. Weirdly, I’m not actually listening directly to the phone in my ear. The sound comes through the mics, goes down the wire and into the recorder and then back out as a monitor signal through the headphones—some couple of millimeters away from the mic. It works beautifully, and I no longer need a separate setup for my landline vs. my cellphone. The good and the bad of binaural recording is this: your recorder hears exactly what your ears do. But it also means that you have to wear the mics in your ears to achieve the effect. As realistic as the Carnegie Hall recording was, I wondered if I had missed anything by not listening to the music directly, without earbuds and A/D-D/A conversion. But then again, in my telephone recording, it’s the most efficient system possible.
The Roland R-05 is a typical Roland product: feature rich, powerful, and evolved. It has an excellent manual, and the interface is the best I’ve seen. When considered along with the wave + mp3 dual-recording capabilities, its musician-oriented functions of A/B and Rehearsal, and the game-changing binaural recording option, and you have a professional-level mobile recording tool that is the best in its class.
Jon Chappell is the author of six books in the well-known “For Dummies” series, including Rock Guitar for Dummies and Blues Guitar for Dummies, as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).