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News Flash: Field recorders are hot again! Once the domain of inquiring journalists, roving musicologists, and Hollywood remote recordists, field recording experienced a huge surge in popularity with the advent of inexpensive portable cassette recorders like the venerable Sony Walkman Pro back in the way-back.

But then the technology foundered. Although you could buy a portable DAT (digital audio tape) recorder, the price never came down to the reach of us mere mortals. MiniDisc recorders became popular with radio journalists and concert "tapers," but they recorded in Sony's proprietary compressed format. And finding one with a mic input in mainstream U.S. stores was as hard as finding an honest politician.

If you were able to track down a MiniDisc recorder, you still were faced with the problem of uploading your recordings to your computer for editing. Unless you had one of the pricey professional models, the only way to get your recordings off the beasts was to do a real-time analog transfer. Sony finally added USB upload (and uncompressed WAV file recording) in its new Hi-MD models, the MZ-M100 and MZ-M10. But uploading the files requires proprietary software and there are growing indications that the MiniDisc format is doomed.

Happily, technology marches on, and today, home studio owners, hobbyists, musicians, and budding ethnologists have several strong field recorder choices for under $500 street, including the Edirol R-1, Marantz PMD660, and the most compact of all, the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96. All three record on flash RAM, so there are no moving parts to gunk up or pollute your recordings with vibration noise.

MicroTrack with Card The M-Audio MicroTrack sports an absurdly easy-to-use interface. Everything you need is within reach of one hand.

Outstanding in the Field

So what's a field recorder? Here's my definition: a device that lets you make a recording in a field. As in: no electricity, no roads, no buildings, no shelter, no access to any gear that you cannot carry on your back. That means a field recorder should be small, lightweight, and rugged. It should have either a built-in microphone or decent microphone preamps; ideally it will have both. Phantom power (for driving condenser mics) is a plus, as are line inputs.

Recordings must be on a par with broadcast quality or better — no 8-bit voice recorders for me. The recorder must support both compressed and uncompressed audio; computer connectivity is a plus. It should be butt-simple to use so you don't miss the perfect quote, ivorybill mating call, or amazing song while you fumble with the controls. It must have sufficient recording capacity to capture an extended speech or musical performance, and the battery should last a long, long time. Did I mention it should be small?

Because I love field recording — one of my first jobs was documenting the 1974 National Fiddle Championships for NPR — I jumped at the chance to review M-Audio's new MicroTrack 24/96. That I had an extended trip planned to Maui with several interesting recording opportunities was icing on the cake.

MicroTrack Accessories
The M-Audio MicroTrack comes with everything you need to start recording, although you'll want to add a larger flash card.

Touring the Case

MicroTrack Top and Bottom In addition to mic and line-level inputs (bottom photo), the MicroTrack also features an S/PDIF digital-audio input.

The MicroTrack records MP3 and WAV files at a variety of sample rates and resolutions to CompactFlash cards or microdrives. Connectors include:

  • 1/8-inch miniphone input for electret condenser mics
  • 1/4-inch TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) line/microphone inputs with phantom power (more on this in a moment)
  • S/PDIF digital audio input
  • RCA line outputs
  • Miniphone stereo output for headphones
  • USB 2.0 port

All of this fits in a box scarcely larger than a first-generation iPod. Forget the backpack studio, we're talking back pocket here.

The MicroTrack ships with everything you need to get started:

  • Mini T-style stereo microphone
  • USB cable
  • Wall-wart power adapter (you charge the battery via USB, by plugging the cable either into the wall plug adaptor or directly into your computer's USB port)
  • Earbuds
  • 64MB CompactFlash card
  • QuickStart guide and PDF manual
  • Even a dandy drawstring carrying case

Here's one essential add-on: more memory. The included card yields just six minutes and 20 seconds of recording time at 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution, the CD standard. Of course, the actual recording time varies widely depending on the type of recording — compressed MP3 or uncompressed WAV — sample rate, and bit resolution. For instance, that same 64MB card can handle about an hour and a half of MP3s encoded at 96kbps, which is just fine for recording lecture notes or capturing your grandmother's life story.

Although the MicroTrack can accept any size CompactFlash cards and even microdrives, there is currently a 2GB limit on audio files. In 24-bit, 96kHz, uncompressed format, that's about 62 minutes. However, as I discuss in a moment, using the highest sampling rate makes so little difference on this recorder that you should feel free to record at 44.1kHz, which will more than double your recording time.

As far as inspiring professional confidence, don't look for rugged hardware knobs, VU meters, or bulletproof audio jacks. At slightly over 5 oz., the unit is lightweight almost to a fault — the weight of my mic cables pulled it off the table more than once — and its construction doesn't bode well for heavy-duty use. Yes, more about that later, too. The slightly bulbous shape and silver-and-black color scheme remind me of something from a '60s sci-fi show.

But all in all, the layout works quite well and I salute M-Audio for designing a recorder that I could operate with one hand. The front sports the power switch, a 1.5-inch square LCD, Delete and Record buttons, and three rocker switches to set input and output levels. (You can control the left and right levels independently.) Two pairs of LEDs indicate signal presence and peak level.

MicroTrack Left-Right The recorder's sides feature additional controls. The L/M/H switch sets mic sensitivity (provided you have the latest firmware); the Ph Pwr switch supplies 30V phantom power to the mics.

Running up the left side are the phantom power switch, a mic/line selector with two mic levels, a Hold switch that prevents you from accidentally interrupting a recording or switching on the unit while it's in your pocket, and a Menu button to access the internal menus. Unfortunately, the Hold switch appears to draw power even if the unit is turned off, which can drain the battery.

On the right you get a nav wheel to scroll through and select menu items, play files, etc., and a large slot for the memory cards. One nice touch: the card's eject button folds out of the way so you won't pop out the memory at an inopportune time.

Beach Recording Capturing the elusive sizzle when the tropical sun hits the Pacific.

In Use

I tested the MicroTrack under a variety of conditions, including rehearsals and performances at the Aloha Week Festivities in Hana, Maui. I made a number of recordings at a variety of WAV and MP3 resolutions using both the included mini mic and an Audio-Technica AT822 self-powered stereo mic — a real workhorse. I also took a line feed directly off the mixer when possible — nice to have that option! Both mics worked fine, though the AT822 yielded the best quality. (Check out the audio examples.)

That said, I found M-Audio's mini mic to be a useful addition, and I'd happily use it for voice recording, tune collecting at festivals, or other situations where portability and convenience are paramount.

Handheld Recording M-Audio's stereo T-mic does a good job for informal recording situations (hear some examples). Here I'm recording slack key greats Kevin Brown and Pekelo Cosma in Lahaina, Maui.

It was difficult to get an adequate level using the TRS microphone inputs without resorting to the internal 27 dB boost. Nor could I hear a significant improvement between recording at 44.1 and 96 kHz. I'd suggest forgoing the higher sample rates — you'll save memory, too, because doubling the sample rate doubles the storage requirements. I thought the MP3 recordings were quite good, particularly at the higher bit rates, though in the quieter sections they exhibited the usual graininess and lack of detail associated with lossy data compression.

With the firmware that came with my review unit (and which is currently in most models out there), the only way to set recording levels was while you were recording. That meant you'd be making an extra test file every time you changed levels. Sure, deleting files is easy, but it's far better to set levels while in standby or record-pause mode.

I also discovered another glitch in the initial firmware: the three-position switch that selects Line, Microphone, and Microphone High (a 12dB boost) for the 1/4-inch inputs was reversed. That problem, along with a potentially more severe one that sent loud spikes through the system, is found on all models with software version 1.0.2. M-Audio has posted a beta firmware revision (v. 1.2.0) on its website that fixes both of these troubling problems. If you have a MicroTrack, you absolutely need this update.

Here's something cool: I'd planned on swapping cards prior to our band's set, but the schedule changed at the last minute. As I no longer had enough free memory to record the set as a WAV file, I quickly changed over to MP3 mode and saw my available recording time jump from about 15 minutes to well over an hour and a half. I really like having the ability to record to a number of file formats and resolutions on the same card.

Mark-o Likes It

As you can tell, I'm quite taken with this little puppy. I learned to use it in nothing flat. I can hold it in one hand and operate all of the controls. It makes acceptable field recordings. As a plus, it records straight to MP3, handy for e-mailing song ideas to bandmates or creating podcasts.

The MicroTrack takes about 12 seconds to boot up, but once it's running you can start recording with a single button press. There is a slight delay while it writes the newly recorded file to memory, but you can pause and restart instantly.

Transferring files couldn't be easier. Connect a USB cable to your computer and the MicroTrack appears on your computer screen as an external hard drive. From there, drag the files where you need 'em. With USB 2's 480 megabit-per-second (60 megabyte-per-second) transfer speed, it took about 15 minutes to transfer the 804MB of files I recorded in Hana. (The theoretical fastest transfer time, calculated by dividing 804 by 60, would be 13.4 minutes, but all communication protocols demand some overhead.) Still, that beats doing transfers in real time.

About the battery: How long it lasts depends on what you're doing. I never ran out of juice when recording, but I was careful to fully recharge after each session. M-Audio says the battery will last up to five hours in ideal conditions; using phantom power, I got three hours and 40 minutes before it failed. However, it takes about two hours to recharge—up to seven hours if you totally drain the battery! Worse, you cannot swap it out for a fresh one, which is a real bummer. However, here's a cool tip: the MicroTrack will operate with just about any USB battery pack, like you'd use for a personal music player.

Recharging is simple: Plugging the USB cable into a computer or the wall adaptor puts the unit into charging mode. To operate the MicroTrack while it's plugged in, you press its Delete key (!). Incidentally, the AC adaptor is a very cleverly designed wall wart no wider than a standard AC plug. Cool. When the day comes that the battery no longer takes a charge, M-Audio will replace it for you if you send them the entire recorder and $75. (The process is described in this PDF. )

The Dark Side of Paradise

One of my endearing qualities as a product reviewer is that I never fail to get a defective unit. So it didn't come as a huge surprise that one day the MicroTrack was deader than a week-old mango. While waiting for the replacement, I had time to contemplate what I don't like about the recorder. Here goes, in no particular order:

Phantom Power 1. Phantom power is a small voltage supplied via the mic cable to power a condenser microphone. The standard is 48 volts, though many mics are built to operate over a fairly wide range. That's a good thing, because the MicroTrack offers just 30V.

Yes, that does make the battery last longer. But according to a representative from Neumann, a leading microphone manufacturer, out-of-spec voltages can damage some mics. M-Audio itself warns: In very rare cases, damage to your equipment may occur as a result of using a level of phantom power that is different from the manufacturer's specified requirement. Please verify operating requirements with your microphone's manufacturer. M-Audio is not responsible for any damage to your MicroTrack 24/96, microphone, or other equipment which may be caused by a phantom power mismatch. So stick with M-Audio's list of approved mics to be safe. These include a number of popular models from AKG, Audio-Technica, Crown, Sennheiser, and Shure.

X-Y Guitar Recording The AKG 1000S mics, shown here in an X-Y pattern, are compatible with the MicroTrack's 30V phantom power.

Phantom Power 2. The mic inputs use TRS jacks instead of the standard XLR in order to save weight and real estate. That's fine as long as you have the proper adaptors. But some mics, notably the AT 822, use 1/4-inch TS (Tip/Sleeve) connectors. Send phantom to this mic, and you'll fry it. Even worse, inserting a TS or TRS plug while phantom power is on could cause a short that could destroy your recorder. I wish the MicroTrack's phantom-power switch were a little harder to engage.

Setting Levels. Even though the latest firmware (v 1.2) allows you to monitor and set levels while paused, you can't simultaneously hit Pause and Record to enter a standby mode like you can on most recorders. That means all of your recordings will start with a second or two of junk recorded before you can hit Pause. Also, there's not much headroom, so it's easy to clip the waveform (see screenshot). Some field recorders, including the comparable Edirol R-1, have an analog limiter on the inputs to help prevent clipping.

Waveform Clipping Clipped waveforms sound horrible. Make sure your recordings never light up the peak LEDs.

Battery. I already mentioned my disappointment that you cannot replace the battery. This one's another potential deal breaker — there's nothing worse than running out of juice in the middle of a session. I'd love to see M-Audio offer a custom portable battery pack, but until then, you can Velcro a USB battery pack to the unit.

File Numbering. For some reason, the MicroTrack remembers every file it's ever written, even if you delete it. File identifiers consist of four numbers, as in 0002, 0049, etc. The only way to start numbering back at 0001 — say, when you pop in a new card — is to select Reset to Factory Defaults in the System menu. Incidentally, it is possible to type in file names while the recorder is connected to your computer. That's handy if you use the MicroTrack as a portable playback device, say, between songs at a gig.

Reliability. Though I cannot fault M-Audio for the defective unit — heck, I've trashed much more expensive gear from Roland, Tascam, Yamaha, and many, many more — I still have some doubts. The MicroTrack doesn't feel solid. Still, I'm encouraged that M-Audio got the new firmware out as fast as they did; it shows they are committed to making this thing work.

All's Well That Ends Well

Hula Dancer The terrible working conditions I endured to bring you this review.

After a week's wait, I had a new unit and was back up and running. Good thing, because I had one more recording to do (see photo at right).

So, how does it stack up? In spite of the flaws I've mentioned, the MicroTrack 24/96 is a solid choice for someone looking for a lightweight field recorder for documenting rehearsals, capturing live performances at festivals and workshops, recording podcast interviews, etc. Because it's so small, you could keep it handy to capture song ideas or band riffs whenever inspiration strikes. Get something good? Upload the file to your computer and start adding parts.

The ability to record both MP3 and WAV files on the same card is a definite plus, as is the extremely easy-to-use interface. Though the 1/8-inch mic input is noticeably noisier than the TRS inputs, the included mini microphone is quite good. Using better mics, I was struck with how good the MicroTrack sounded at 24-bit resolution, at both the 44.1 and 48kHz sampling rates. To be honest, I don't think the slight improvement at higher sample rates is worth the memory hit.

The MicroTrack's nearest competitors are the Edirol R-1 and Marantz PMD660 flash recorders, and Sony's MZ-M100 HD MiniDisc recorder. The Edirol lacks balanced 1/4-inch inputs and phantom power; the Marantz is limited to 16-bit, 48kHz resolution. And both sell for about $100 more than the MicroTrack; you could put that money towards a high-quality mic. The Sony only records to 16-bit, 44.1 WAV and Sony's proprietary ATRAC compression format, not MP3; HD MiniDiscs are limited to 1GB; and there is some question about the future of the MiniDisc format.

No, the MicroTrack is not in the same league as the professional units from Tascam, Sony, and others — but those cost two to ten times as much. You want fully professional features? Then start saving. But if you want an easy-to-use, versatile recorder that fits in your pocket and won't break the bank, give the MicroTrack a close look.

Mahalos to Kevin Brown, Duke Walls, Bob, Pekelo, Maile, and the hospitable people of heavenly Hana for help with this review.

M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 Specifications

MSRP $499
MP3 recording 96 to 320kbps at 44.1 or 48kHz
PCM recording 16 or 24-bit at 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96kHz
Storage capacity Variable based on data rate and storage medium. CompactFlash or microdrive. Maximum size card: Unlimited
Battery life Approximately 4-5 hours (3 hours with phantom power)
Width 61mm or 2.4"
Height 109.5mm or 4.3"
Thickness 28.5mm or 1.12" over the LCD
Weight 4.9oz or 138.9 grams without CF card; 5.2oz or 147.4 grams with CF card
1/8" Mic Input
Input Level –14dBV
Signal-to-Noise Ratio –98dB, A-weighted
Dynamic Range 98dB, A-weighted
THD+N 0.003% (–90dB) @ –1dBFS, 1kHz
Channel-to-Channel Crosstalk (Bal) < –100dB
Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz, +/– 0.5dB
Preamp Gain >34dB
Stereo electret condenser power 5V
1/4" Mic/Line Inputs
Maximum Input Level +4.3dBu, balanced; +2.1dBV, unbalanced
Signal-to-Noise Ratio –100dB, A-weighted
Dynamic Range 100dB, A-weighted
THD+N 0.003% (–90dB) @ –1dBFS, 1kHz
Channel-to-Channel Crosstalk (Bal) < –100dB
Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz, +/– 0.3dB @ 48kHz sample rate
Preamp Gain > 55dB
Phantom Power 30V, switchable
Line Outputs
Maximum Output Level +2dBV, unbalanced
Signal-to-Noise Ratio –102dB, A-weighted
Dynamic Range 102dB, A-weighted
THD+N 0.00265% (–91.5dB) @ –1dBFS, 1kHz
Channel-to-Channel Crosstalk (Bal) < –100dB
Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz, +/– 0.3dB @ 48kHz sample rate
Headphone Output
Maximum Output –2.0dBV at THD < 0.02% into 32 ohms
Working Range 16 ohms to 600 ohms
Windows 2000, XP (SP1)
Mac OS X 10.3.9 or greater
USB 1.1 or 2.0 port on the computer for connection and charging

Audio Examples

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