As technology advances, new inventions have made almost every part of the radio station more efficient and less expensive to operate. While the industry has seen so many improvements, one area seems to have been almost overlooked: the portable field recorder. This device is commonly used by promotions departments at concerts to get audio drops from artists, or by the news department for recording interviews or press conferences. Many radio stations are still using portable cassette recorders because of too few economical options. Portable DAT machines are hard to find and can be a maintenance nightmare. The small Minidisc recorder is also fading fast. So where do we turn now for these machines?
There are a few high-cost devices out there, but for the average radio station that uses these recorders only on occasion, the price is an issue. One of the reasons we've been able to find inexpensive recorders in the past is because we could use consumer models, which were available in most electronics and department stores. Today, consumers have turned away from recording music from the radio and have moved to downloading MP3 files from the Internet to their new portable storage devices. There are plenty of low-cost MP3 players on the market, but it's difficult to find one that records via a microphone or line input. Most are set up for audio file transfers from a computer, which means they don't really record at all. There are a few models with built-in microphones, but these typically are used for low quality dictation, and are not broadcast quality audio.
I have searched for a solution for some time and have finally found one. Edirol has introduced the R-1 digital audio recorder, which is about half the cost of competing models. The recorder is a 24-bit or 16-bit WAV, or MP3 digital recorder that is loaded with some amazing features for such a small package. Measuring 3.75"W × 5" H × 1" D, the recorder operates on two AA batteries or with the included ac power adapter. The recorder comes with a 64MB Compact Flash card, and can be used straight out of the box for recording with the built-in stereo microphone. I found the quality and sensitivity of the mic to be good, but for more versatility the unit has a stereo external line input and a stereo/mono microphone input with a switch to select a dynamic or condenser mic. These are unbalanced 1/8" mini jack inputs. It is these external inputs that are absent from so many of the consumer models. Audio levels can be adjusted manually with an input level pot on the side. A display selection button on the front can select a VU input meter or can show the recording time remaining on the memory card.
No moving parts
The memory card used is a standard Compact Flash card, which is available at most stores. The cost is relatively low. On-the-shelf memory cards typically range in capacity from 32MB up to 2GB. Larger cards can be specially ordered. One big plus of using memory cards like this is that the recorder has no moving or mechanical parts like cassette, DAT, CD or MD recorders. This means no heads or optics to replace, and no parts to align. It will also be more resistant to damage from rough use or being thrown on the floor of a car.
Performance at a glance
Records to Compact Flash
MP3 and linear WAV recording modes
Built-in EQ, reverb, effects and noise filters
Built-in stereo microphone
External line and mic inputs
Operates on batteries or included ac adapter
The recorder has several recording quality settings, including seven MP3 settings from 64kb/s to 320kb/s, and a 44.1kHz WAV in 16- or 24-bits. With the included 64MB memory card set at MP3 192kb/s, the unit can record 43 minutes of audio. Larger memory cards and lower quality settings can provide 70 hours of recording time. For news gathering, I found the audio to be acceptable down to 96kb/s, but would suggest 128kb/s or higher. I was really impressed with the audio quality at and above 196kb/s.
The recorder has so many features that when I first turned it on, I thought it might be difficult to use, but this was not the case. Turn it on, press record, press play and it's recording. Each of the main functions — play/pause, record, stop, previous and next track selection, A-B repeat and ½ speed playback — has its own dedicated buttons for basic usage.
Included in the audio effects menu are features such as an Easy EQ mode with 11 presets for various types of music. Customize the audio using the built-in 10-band equalizer that offers ±12dB range of control. Next is an adjustable reverb for different types of room or hall effects, followed by a set of fun voice-altering effects. This is called the voice perform mode, which provides pitch shift, a springy or a spacy effect.
The center channel cancel effect is adjustable and can be used for vocal elimination. To help improve the audio quality there is a noise reducer and a hum noise cut filter. For the musician, there is a built in tuner and tone generator selectable to different musical notes. Once the instrument is tuned, the built-in metronome can be used to stay on beat.
The track splitting mode automatically begins a new track number every time the unit detects three or more seconds of silence. Finally, there's a sleep mode that will turn off the unit at a preset interval from one to 60 minutes, or it can be defeated.
There are a few ways to retrieve the audio from the unit. First is the headphone output jack, which can be connected to a console to feed audio real time. Second, the recorder is equipped with a USB port that will interface with a PC and allow direct file transfers to the computer for editing and playback faster than real time. Of course the memory card can always be ejected and plugged into a computer card reader for file transfers as well.
In the field
I sent the unit into the field with one of our news reporters to get a true test of the equipment's abilities. As I suspected, the reporter did not get too deep into the effects built in, but had no problems figuring out how to use the recorder. It interfaces nicely with press conference multi-feed boxes and can accommodate mic or line output levels. While the feeds that we received during the test were clean, it's not uncommon for us to get hum from these audio sources. In cases where the noise is out of our control, the hum filter would be useful. After recording, the files can be transferred to a laptop computer with editing software to produce the final copy of the news story.
While the recorder performed well, the news reporter and I made some observations. First, to see the input level VU meter, the unit must be in the record mode, and then the display button must be pressed. The default display reads Record Standby. I would like to have the option to have this level meter be the default screen because the REC button lights and flashes when in the standby mode, and is lit steady when recording. Also, while actually recording you can't access the menu options. I can understand why some features should be locked out, but it might be nice to select the auto limiter while recording should you see a wide ranges of dynamics. The only other issue pointed out by our news reporter was that he would like to see a push button to allow track splitting on the fly while recording. During a press conference, it can be useful to split a track when different speakers talk, or when different subjects are addressed. The auto track splitting mode is fine for quiet recordings, but when you are on location, there is always enough background noise to prevent the detection of silence. The only other way to do this with the Edirol is to press the stop button, then go back into the record mode, which takes about four seconds for the cycle.
Typically, I would keep the record mode set to the MP3 mode to give more recording time, but it is nice to have the ability to record in a linear WAV mode to get an uncompromised quality recording.
These items are minor in comparison to what the device is capable of doing. Overall, I was quite impressed with the unit and am happy to see the price barrier finally broken on these Compact Flash recorders.
Fluker is the director of engineering for Cox Radio in Orlando.
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