Recording audio easily in the field combines a careful balance of
several elements, including audio quality, recording format and
equipment load. Thanks to the continuing miniaturization of electronics
and mechanical devices, a great deal of recording power, quality and
reliability is available in some highly compact devices.
The uses for portable recording vary widely, but the most frequent
application is for gathering news, interviews or actualities. Because
of the fast-paced nature of these events, recorders with minimal or
easy-to-use controls and features allow recordings to be made quickly
and without errors. Many options are available in portable recorders.
The most basic models may have an internal mic or mic connector. Some
have line-level inputs. Additional features added to the basic package
include a built-in speaker, various selections for the recording speed
or format, multiple inputs, stereo or multiple tracks, multiple power
options or extended battery-time options, editing and transmission
capability. As more features are added, the retail price naturally
increases. The operational complexity may also increase.
When choosing a model, tailor the features to the application. A
reporter on a daily news beat may only need basic recording with a
built-in mic and maybe a line-level input for an audio pool feed. He
will likely return to the studio after each element, so the editing and
transmission features are unnecessary and may hinder easy
Likewise, do not overlook the possibilities that the additional
features may provide. If the extra items are out of the way and do not
interfere with basic operation, you may find that these features are
useful as new situations and needs arise.
Inside the extras
With a few basic differences, the audio quality of most recorders
ranges from good to outstanding. When a poor recording is made, it can
usually be attributed to an incorrect input level or an
inferior-quality mic. Some recorders have internal mics, which may
yield satisfactory results. They are convenient and simplify operation,
but to eliminate background noise or get closer to the audio source, an
external mic may be needed. A rugged dynamic mic can make a significant
The external mic connection on a recorder can be a problem. Most
connector choices are XLR or 3.5mm. Because of its size and locking
capability, the XLR provides a more reliable connection, and it is less
prone to being broken. The drawback is that an XLR connector is
substantially larger. This is a limitation in the quest to design
more-compact recording devices, but in most cases, an XLR connector
will probably be the preferred choice.
Once the audio is recorded, it will most likely need to be
transferred to another system. Removable media makes this easy in the
studio. For digital formats, it may be quicker to transfer the file
directly from the field unit through a direct connection, such as a USB
port. In cases where the reporter will not return to the studio, the
ability to transfer files via telephone may offer a practical solution.
Some recorders offer direct POTS or ISDN connectivity to facilitate
Choosing a format
Part of the decision process in choosing a portable recorder is to
consider the media format. There are five basic formats in popular use:
cassette, DAT, Minidisc, Optical (CD-R and DVD-R) and solid-state (PC
Card and Compact Flash). Each format offers its own advantages and
disadvantages. While all of them have proven to be practical and
provide quality results for contribution material, certain aspects may
make one more favorable over another.
When deciding on a format, consider the format's quality, the cost
of the format media, reliability of the transport, availability of
media and transferability of the media to other devices.
While cassette is still a popular choice, its analog format is an
obvious disadvantage to digital formats. CD and DAT record linear
digital audio, which yields the highest quality. Solid-state recorders
typically offer several encoding formats, so the audio quality can vary
by the choice made. Minidisc uses ATRAC audio encoding, which sounds
good. In the end, all of them provide acceptable contribution-level
When it comes to media cost, CD-R wins the race. When purchased in
quantity, the price per piece can easily be well below one dollar.
DVD-R is priced higher, but will see continued price reduction in time.
Cassette and Minidisc are relatively inexpensive, with DAT prices being
slightly more. Solid-state media has the highest cost, but it never
wears out and can offer long recording times.
For reliability, nothing can beat a system with no moving parts.
Solid-state recorders win in this arena. The tape formats require
periodic cleaning. The optical formats also need clean lenses.
Alignment and repair of the mechanical transports can also be a
problem. The mechanical formats are also susceptible to problems from
It is unlikely that you will own a recorder and keep only one piece
of recording media with it. It is always useful to have a spare. If a
recorder sees frequent use on the road, the need to obtain backup media
on short notice can arise.
I conducted my own unscientific research on this by visiting an
electronics department store and a discount department store to
evaluate the availability of various media formats. At both I found
that CD-R and to a lesser extent DVD-R had the greatest representation
in the displays, which was not surprising. Solid-state media was also
popular at the electronics store, but was in the laptop and digital
camera sections and not with the recording media. The next most popular
was cassette. Minidisc had a small showing, while DAT was almost
non-existent. Granted, any of these formats can be easily found through
other outlets, but for a last-minute need, this is something to
The ability to play the recording in another location can be
convenient. Once a facility adopts a standard format, there is the
option to play recordings in the studio. Even with this in mind, CD
players are everywhere, and cassettes are common, making both
convenient choices. Minidisc and DAT are somewhat rare outside the
studio. Solid-state media will only be playable in the original
recorder or perhaps on a PC.
Personal recorders for the consumer market are everywhere. While
these devices offer long recording times, they usually do not provide
professional features such as an external mic connection or the ability
to download recorded data, and they may not be as rugged as
professional designs. They may also use inferior coding algorithms.
Denon DN-F20R uses Compact Flash media up to 192MB. The sampling
rate is selectable between 24kHz or 48kHz, and the bit rate is variable
from 16kb/s to 128kb/s (MPEG). The two memory card slots allow
continuous recording. The unit supports MPEG 1, MPEG 2 and linear PCM
Sonifex Courier records onto PC Card drives or memory cards up
to 2GB and provides recording in MPEG Layer II, .BWF and .WAV formats.
In addition, the unit offers POTS and ISDN connectivity with an
internal phone book, a USB port for file transfer and a scrub wheel for
sleek design makes the Maycom Handheld II easy to use for quick
interviews. Using Compact Flash cards to record linear or MP2 files,
the unit can also be placed into an accessory docking station to
download audio files and provide additional I/O and battery
Marantz PMD690 includes a built-in microphone, a built-in
speaker and professional mic/line inputs and outputs. It records in
stereo or mono to a PC Card or a Compact Flash memory card. Features
include an automatic level control and a pre-record audio cache. Audio
files can be saved as .WAV, .BWF or MP2.
Nagra ARES-P records more than three hours of stereo with a
192MB PC Card. It records in G.722 or MPEG Layer II. Options include a
plug-in mic. The ARES-P becomes the Digigram RCX220 with the
addition of a USB port and a copy of Digigram's Xtrack editor.
Orban Opticodec 7000 is a portable audio recorder that can edit
and transmit via a built-in ISDN codec. It records in MPEG Layer II,
Layer III, .BWF and .WAV to type III PC Cards. It features XLR inputs
and outputs and a headphone jack. As many as 32 minutes of stereo audio
can be recorded.
XLR, RCA and S/PDIF I/O, the Marantz PMD650 Minidisc recorder
features a 40 second audio buffer for shock absorption, two-second
pre-record buf-fer, one-touch recording, variable mic attenuator,
backlit LCD display, built-in mic and speaker, a remote control input
and a headphone jack. SCMS copy control can be turned on or off.
Tascam DA-P1 DAT recorder features 48kHz and 44.1kHz sampling
rates, S/PDIF and RCA unbalanced analog I/O, balanced XLR mic/line
inputs with 48V phantom power, a 20dB pad and limiter, a backlit LCD
display for low-light conditions and a headphone jack. It will run for
as long as two hours on a single charge.
Pocketrec runs on a PocketPC PDA. The PDA can also run other
applications. Audio files are created and stored within the unit or on
solid-state memory cards. Record time is limited by the storage
capacity. Files can be transferred through the PDA's connection
methods. Basic audio editing can also be done.
Sony TC-D5PROII cassette recorder is a lightweight stereo
recorder and features a capstan-servo disc-drive system, external dc
power input, balanced XLR mic inputs, VU metering with peak indicators,
Dolby B noise reduction, a limiter and mic attenuator, a headphone jack
and built-in speaker. A stereo line output is available on RCA
HHB Portadisc MPD500 minidisc recorder has balanced XLR mic/line
inputs, RCA phono line outputs, a headphone jack and S/PDIF digital
I/O. A USB interface allows for real-time transfer of files to editing
systems. Basic editing functions are also available on the unit itself.
A memory buffer prevents errors from vibration and a six-second
pre-record buffer adds additional confidence.
Fostex PD-6 is a DVD-R recorder with a six-channel mixer that
accepts mic-level (with 12V T-power and 48V phantom power) or line
level signals. Each channel features adjustable input gain, a variable
high-pass filter and limiter. AES-3 and S/PDIF I/O is also
Mayah Flashman records onto Compact Flash cards, which allow
more than eight hours of recording on a 256MB card. The removable card
can be read by standard PC card readers for file transfer. Its features
include 32kHz/44.1kHz/48kHz sampling rates, S/PDIF I/O, XLR mic input,
RS-232 data port and a stereo line output.
Maycom Easycorder is a portable PC Card recorder that includes a
graphical editor. A large illuminated screen and illuminated buttons, a
mechanical and electrical lock during recording, a large gain control
knob and presets for many operational settings add to the Easycorder's
functionality. Storage is via the internal memory or via removable PC
Sony PCM-M1 DAT recorder is the company's smallest and lightest
DAT unit. It features selectable 48kHz/44.1kHz/32kHz sampling frequency
selection, as long as 3.5 hours of continuous recording with supplied
NiMH rechargeable batteries, selectable ID6 (SCMS copy protection),
record margin indication, start ID level select, a back-lit LCD
display, mic/line input, headphone output and line-level output.
Marantz CDR300 features stereo XLR and ¼" mic/line inputs
with 48V phantom power, S/PDIF inputs and outputs and an internal
microphone and speaker. Record levels can be adjusted automatically or
manually. You can also record your own CDs from audio sources such as
CDs, LPs, cassettes or DAT.