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7 Portable Stereo and Multitrack Recorders

May 16, 2012
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Portable digital recorders have exploded in popularity. They have become less expensive, easier to use, and filled with features—some even include musician’s tools such as metronomes, tuners, and looped playback. These handheld devices are small enough to stow away in your guitar case, gig bag, or pocket, yet are capable of capturing hours of CD-quality (or better) audio—thanks to flash memory for storing digital files. Portable recorders sometimes feature built-in memory, but usually achieve their maximum data storage via SD and microSD cards. These common media formats are easy to find and relatively inexpensive.

A major determining factor of a portable recorder’s sound quality is its builtin microphones—particularly the pickup pattern. This is worth noting, because while a pair of omnidirectional capsules is great for recording jam sessions or lessons (they’ll pick up everything in the room), that setup isn’t the best choice for concert recording (in addition to the musicians, the mics will capture the distracting sound of the audience). Another important consideration for multitrackers is the number of channels the unit can record simultaneously.

The new recorders from Korg, Olympus, Roland, Sony, Tascam, Yamaha, and Zoom evaluated here all share certain features (such as a USB port that allows you to drag and drop audio files from the recorder to your computer desktop). But how those features are implemented is what will make a particular recorder right for you. Larger displays, mics that can be repositioned, and enhanced connectivity in the form of “combo” jacks that accept XLR, as well as balanced and unbalanced (TRS and TS) 1/4" inputs are just some of the things that can make a recorder easier to use, and more adaptable to a variety of situations.

Korg MR-2

Unique among portable digital recorders, the MR-2 offers high-resolution, 1-bit Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording at a sampling rate of 2.8224MHz. That’s 64 times faster than the 44.1kHz sample rate of a CD, and it provides the same level of audio quality heard on Super- Audio Compact Discs (SACD). The MR-2 ($499 street) can record and play other 1-bit formats (DSDIFF, WSD, DSF), as well as standard BWF files up to 24-bit, 192kHz, and mp2 and mp3 files.

You can play your 1-bit recordings from the MR-2, or from your computer using the included Korg AudioGate (Mac/Win) freeware application. AudioGate provides format conversion between 1-bit formats, WAV/BWF/AIFF files, and compressed formats (mp3, AAC, WMA, Flac, and so forth). It also offers basic editing features, and can be used to create DSD discs. The converter is essential for retaining the high level of detail in your MR-2 recordings when translating them into other audio formats.

The MR-2’s condenser mic capsules are in an x/y configuration, and they can be positioned within a 210-degree plane using the dial on the side of the recorder. This allows you to position the recorder vertically or horizontally, and threaded camerastand sockets are provided on the bottom and back panel. The MR-2 also includes 3.5mm stereo mic and line inputs.

The interface is a breeze to use, with an easy-to-read screen and a jog wheel for transport control and menu surfing. Above the LCD is a pair of peak-level lights. Input gain and playback volume are controlled by small buttons on the side—all within easy reach during one-hand operation.

Korg thoughtfully added 40 presets (recording setups) in the MR-2. There are presets for recording classical music, pop, rock, specific instruments (drums, solo male vocal, solo female vocal, piano, etc.), and environmental sounds. There are also ten slots for saving custom setups.

The MR-2 uses SD and SDHC cards, with support up to 32GB. And with the ability to record high-resolution audio, you’ll want to spring for the largest card you can afford, because you will be capturing lots of data. The unit can be powered by USB or two AA batteries (Korg recommends using Nickel-metal hydride batteries for their better overall performance and longer life).

Olympus LS-100

Disguised as a portable stereo recorder, the LS-100 ($399 street) allows you to create projects using up to eight tracks. As a result, the device is suitable for songwriting, concert recording, and building multitrack demos on the go. The LS-100 starts with a fixed pair of cardioid condenser mics in a 90-degree configuration. Situated on the bottom of the case is a pair of combo jacks that accept XLR, as well as balanced and unbalanced (TRS and TS) 1/4" inputs. The external inputs allow you to record a wide range of signals, including high-impedance instruments and unbalanced microphones. The unit also includes a 3.5mm stereo mic input with plug-in power.

Despite the extra inputs, the LS-100 only records two tracks at a time—although it does offer a couple of overdubbing options. Basic overdubbing creates a new file by mixing the playback sound and the input signal. You can also record one or two inputs to individual tracks, or bounce multiple tracks to a new track. Each track can also be edited (including the ability to add compression or limiting on individual tracks).

The concentric input level knobs give you independent control over the gain for each channel, and the internal and external mic inputs have three sensitivity levels. Each combo jack has an individual phantom- power switch, with +24V and +48V options.

The musician-oriented features include a metronome, a tuner, a built-in speaker, and the ability to adjust a file’s playback speed without altering its pitch. One unique feature the LS-100 has is a Lissajous display that can be used to determine phase coherent positioning of your external mics. Outstanding!

The LS-100 has 4GB of internal memory, and can use SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards up to 64GB. It can record mp3 files at 64 to 320kbps, and WAV files up to 24-bit, 96kHz. The LS-100 can also convert 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files to 128kbps mp3 files internally, as well as write stereo WAV files to an external CD burner via USB from the recorder itself. Multitrack mode only works with 16-bit, 44.1kHz (CD quality) files.

The LS100 uses a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery, which is charged using the USB port and the supplied AC converter. The recorder also comes with a strap, a case, and a USB adapter.

Roland R-26

The R-26 ($499 street) is not only the largest recorder in this roundup, it offers a number of features that help it stand out from the crowd. For starters, the device can record six channels at once. It has two fixed pairs of built-in microphones—a spaced pair of omnidirectional capsules, and an x/y pair of cardioid capsules. The mic pairs can be used individually or simultaneously, with a stereo audio file created from each pair, or one file that combines them. This lets you create a tight stereo recording of whatever is onstage while mixing in the desired amount of room ambience.

In addition to the built-in mics, the R-26 has two types of external inputs: one accepts a 3.5mm powered-mic plug, and the other is a pair of combo jacks that accept XLR and 1/4" (balanced or unbalanced) input. The combo jacks offer +48V phantom power. The external inputs can be used at the same time as the internal mics, and they can also operate in mid/side recording mode.

The R-26 can be used as a USB audio interface, and it can be configured to record directly to your computer while simultaneously tracking to its onboard SD or SDHC cards (cards up to 32GB are supported). Another interesting feature is the Loop Back function, which lets you record into your computer a mix of a file playing from the computer, and your choice of R-26 inputs.

The R-26 is also the only dedicated handheld recorder that has a large (2.5" x 2.5") touch-screen interface, which makes navigating the feature-rich menus quick and easy. For example, to configure the mics, press the Menu button, then tap Input Setup to reveal the three choices you have—internal mics, plug-in mic, and analog input (the combo jacks). For each input, you can apply a limiter, turn on the low-cut filter and set its cutoff frequency, and engage the plug-in or phantom power for the external mics. I got a lot done using the touch-screen before ever opening the manual—which is pretty remarkable for a recorder of this complexity.

The unit has large input-level controls that are easy to adjust from the side of the unit with your thumb, or from above with a finger. The R-26 records 16- and 24-bit WAV and BWF (Broadcast WAV Format) files up to 96kHz, with mp3 support up to 320kbps. The playback modes include single project, sequential project, and shuffle play—each with repeat functionality. Four AA batteries or the included AC converter can power the recorder, and the R-26 also comes with a windscreen and Cakewalk Sonar LE for Windows.

Sony PCM-M10

Sony changed the world of portable music players forever when it introduced the Walkman in 1979. The 2005 release of its flagship solid-state device, the PCM-D1, helped ignite the current craze in handheld recorders. It wasn’t long before the company brought the technology down in price to capture a different strata of users.

Roughly the size of two iPhones stacked atop each another, the Sony PCM-M10 ($299 street) features a spaced pair of omnidirectional mics. Although the omni capsules won’t provide the stereo separation that cardioid mics do, the PCMM10 captures a surprising amount of detail and clarity, and the mics are sensitive enough to record distant sounds very well. (Sony’s next model up, the PCMD50, costs $200 more, but offers directional mics that can be re-positioned to capture a narrow or wide stereo field.) The PCM-M10 includes an external stereo mic input with plug-in power, as well as a stereo input for line-level signals. Both inputs are conveniently situated between the microphone capsules.

Well-designed ergonomically, the PCMM10’ s most important functions have dedicated buttons. For example, you can adjust the input level with a thumb or finger, depending on which hand the recorder is in. There’s also a five-second pre-recording buffer that captures audio before you initiate recording, a Hold button that prevents accidental use of the transport controls, and a built-in mono speaker.

The PCM-M10 records up to 24-bit, 96kHz WAV files and supports mp3 bit rates from 64kbps to 320kbps. The PCMM10 is notable for having 4GB of built-in flash memory. And depending on which type of memory card you use—MicroSD, MicroSDHC, and Memory Stick Micro are supported—you can have as much as 16GB additional memory on hand. That adds up to 31 hours of CD-quality recording time. And should the internal memory fill up as you’re tracking, the PCM-M10B crossmemory recording function automatically switches to the card media.

Two features that musicians will enjoy include independent control over pitch and speed during file playback. This allows you to alter the tempo of an audio file without changing pitch, or alter the pitch without affecting speed.

Constructed of aluminum with a metal reinforcement ring around the edge, the PCM-M10 comes with an AC adapter, a copy of Sony Sound Forge for Windows editing software, and a wired remote control (with a six-foot cable) that offers basic transport functionality and marker placement.

Tascam DR-40

Tascam has been at the forefront of portable-recording technology for decades. The company’s cassette-based Portastudio was eventually superseded by a digital version, though it kept the intuitive interface that made these products easy to use. It should come as no surprise that Tascam’s DR-40 ($199 street) is a rugged, lightweight, and affordable recorder that offers an array of pro features.

A pair of combo jacks at the bottom of the recorder accept XLR and balanced (TRS) 1/4" connections. You can use them for recording or overdubbing, or in conjunction with the built-in microphones. The unit’s cardioid mics can be positioned in either an x/y configuration, or spaced apart at a 90-degree angle to capture a narrow or wide stereo field, respectively.

Despite the DR-40’s low price, the sound quality of recordings made with the internal microphones is exceptional. But it is especially nice to have the option of supplementing them with dynamic or condenser mics of your choice. For example, you could spot-mic a couple of acoustic guitars using the external inputs, and use the built-in mics to capture room sound. There is a setting for mid-side decoding, and even a delay option for correcting any timing issues caused by the distance between the external and internal mics.

In 4-channel mode, the DR-40 creates two stereo files—one file for each type of input. In Dual mode, you also record two stereo files—one at the input level you set, and a secondary file at a reduced level that is user definable (from -6dB to -12dB). The second file serves as a safety backup if the input levels to the main file are overloaded. There are also two overdubbing modes. One combines the playback and overdubbed part into a new file, and the other creates a new file from the two, but leaves the original intact.

The user interface includes large buttons and a 2" x 1.75" display that helps make the DR-40 easier to use than smaller recorders. A number of features—input level, hold, external input, and phantom power—are conveniently placed on the left side, and can be accessed with your thumb when you hold the recorder in your left hand. Other handy options include a two-second prerecord buffer, a tuner, and onboard reverb. A mono speaker, automatic level control, limiting, high-pass filtering, looped playback, and playback speed adjustment without pitch change round out the features.

The DR-40 records up to 24-bit, 96kHz WAV and BWF files, as well as mp3 formats from 32kbps to 320kbps. It accepts SD and SDHC cards up 64GB. The unit is powered by three AA batteries, or an optional AC adapter, and it can be operated from an optional wired remote.

Yamaha Pocketrak W24

At 5" tall, and less than 2" wide, the Yamaha Pocketrak W24 can sit inconspicuously onstage or in rehearsal, and then pack into your pocket when you are done. One of two portable recorders in Yamaha’s Pocketrak lineup, the W24 offers fixed cardioid capsules in an x/y configuration that are protected by a metal roll bar.

Because of the W24’s narrow footprint, the screen size is fairly small— less than one square inch. However, the front-panel transport controls are normal size, and a multi-function cursor is used for changing playback levels, stepping through Menu items, and moving between recorded files. Smaller buttons on the side include Scene, List, and Folder— which assist you in menu navigation— and there are also switches for Automatic Level Control and the Limiter. The external stereo mic and line input share the same 3.5mm jack.

The W24 includes a tuner, a metronome, and a 5-band equalizer for use during playback. The unit has a built-in mono speaker next to the Hold button on the back. The unit holds 2GB of onboard memory, which you can expand with a microSD or microSDHC card up to 32GB. It records WAV files up to 24-bit, 96kHz resolution and mp3 files from 32kbps to 320kbps. Remarkably, the W24 runs on a single AA battery.

The W24 comes with a wireless remote control—a welcome addition as the device is so small and light—that allows hands-free access to the transport controls when the recorder is mounted on a stand, or placed out of reach. Other included accessories are a windscreen, a USB cable, a camerastand adapter, and Cubase AI software.

Musicians looking for a recorder that is even more portable for songwriting, lessons, and rehearsals should check out the Pocketrak C24 ($149). The C24 has a spaced pair of omnidirectional mics, so you’ll capture everything in the room, and it includes a music-stand clip that conveniently attaches to the recorder’s retractable USB plug.

Zoom H2n

The H2n is designed to be positioned horizontally—like a side-address microphone— and the four internal mic capsules can capture sound coming from every direction. The mics on one side of the unit offer mid-side (M/S) recording by pairing a cardioid capsule with a figure-8 element. The mics on the other side are two cardioid capsules in an x/y configuration that creates a more traditional stereo sound. You can also substitute an external stereo mic for the internal x/y pair, with plug-in power provided.

In addition, the H2n offers two “surround” modes. In 2-channel mode, signals from both sets of stereo mics are mixed down to one stereo file, whereas in 4-channel mode, the x/y and M/S pairs are simultaneously recorded to separate stereo files. This can provide separate high-quality recordings of the action onstage, as well as in the audience, which you can mix later in your DAW. You select the pick-up pattern using the dial on top of the mic cage.

The M/S stereo technique provides a very strong center image because it points a cardioid mic at center stage, while the figure-8 capsule captures sound from the sides. One nice thing about this technique is that it gives you the option of adjusting the stereo width before or after you record, simply by raising or lowering the volume of the figure-8 mic.

Zoom came up with a fairly easy system for navigating the H2n’s menus. Press the Hold button for two seconds to enter the menu area, then move the Play control up and down to step between parameters. Pushing Play selects a parameter. The H2n’s one-button system allows you to quickly set up a session with the same hand that’s holding the recorder.

The H2n records Broadcast WAV Format (BWF) files up to 24-bit, 96kHz and a wide range of mp3 rates, from 48kbps to 320kbps. (Only 16- and 24-bit WAV files at 44.1 and 48kHz can be recorded in 4-channel mode.) The recorder includes a tuner, a metronome, a two-second prerecord buffer, a built-in reference speaker, loop playback, and independently adjustable tempo and pitch during playback. The H2n can also be used as a USB audio interface for your computer.

The H2n uses SD and SDHC cards, and it also has a built-in drive that acts as a default recording destination. This is a handy feature if you forget to put a card in the H2n, however, the drive creates MP3 files at 96kbps that are for playback only and cannnot be copied to a card or computer The recorder comes with a 2GB card, batteries, and a copy of Steinberg WaveLab LE.

Specifications

KORG MR-2

CONTACT Korg, korgusa.com
PRICE $499 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 2
COMBINATION INPUTS No
MIC CONFIGURATION x/y
KUDOS 1-bit recording. Supports numerous audio formats. Presets included.
CONCERNS Low battery life.

OLYMPUS LS-100

CONTACT Olympus, olympusamerica.com
PRICE $399 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 2
COMBINATION INPUTS Yes
MIC CONFIGURATION Spaced directional
KUDOS Plays eight tracks at a time. Combo jacks accept unbalanced 1/4" input. Lissajous display.
CONCERNS Records only two channels at a time.

ROLAND R-26

CONTACT Roland, rolandus.com
PRICE $499 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 6
COMBINATION INPUTS Yes
MIC CONFIGURATION x/y, spaced omni
KUDOS Touch-screen display. Records six channels simultaneously. Can be used as an interface.
CONCERNS Large.

SONY PCM-M10

CONTACT Sony, sony.com/proaudio
PRICE $299 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 2
COMBINATION INPUTS No
MIC CONFIGURATION Spaced omni
KUDOS 4GB internal memory. Five-second pre-record. Sensitive mics.
CONCERNS Omnidirectional mics limit utility.

TASCAM DR-40

CONTACT Tascam, tascam.com
PRICE $199 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 4
COMBINATION INPUTS Yes
MIC CONFIGURATION x/y and N.O.S.
KUDOS Dual mode. Combo jacks. Mics can be repositioned.
CONCERNS Case doesn’t feel as sturdy as other recorders.

YAMAHA Pocketrak W24

CONTACT Yamaha, yamaha.com
PRICE $299 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 2
COMBINATION INPUTS No
MIC CONFIGURATION Spaced directional
KUDOS Ultra compact. Includes wireless remote. Uses only one AA battery.
CONCERNS Small screen.

ZOOM H2N

CONTACT Zoom, zoom.co.jp
PRICE $199 street
RECORDABLE CHANNELS 4
COMBINATION INPUTS No
MIC CONFIGURATION x/y, mid-side
KUDOS Built-in M-S and x/y stereo mics. Simultaneous 4- channel recording.
CONCERNS Files on the built-in drive must be played through the output jack into another recorder for backup.

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