I'm a musician well acquainted with the F-word. No—wait! Not that one; the other F-word. "Folk," as in folk music—real, pre-industrial music like you used to find before radios and phonographs came along and standardized everything. Old-time fiddle and banjo tunes, Hawaiian slack key, Galician bagpipes, Greek bouzoukis, village brass bands—it's all folk music to me.
We folk musicians learn our music the old-fashioned way, from recordings. Preferably from field recordings made on the front porch of a crazy-quilt cabin down in some inhospitable holler. Nothing beats grabbing a tune off the bow of a good fiddler or hearing the vocal nuances of a great traditional singer.
That's why I jumped at the chance to look at Edirol's new R-09 digital recorder. Here's a field recorder that fits in the palm of your hand, has built-in stereo mics, records to inexpensive (and sturdy!) SD memory cards, records both uncompressed WAV files and MP3s, connects to your computer via USB, and runs off AA batteries. I was particularly curious to see how it stacked up against the M-Audio MicroTrack, which I reviewed late last year. Based on the barrage of emails I've received, you're curious, too. So let's jump in.
Even at six ounces and barely over four inches tall, the Edirol R-09 offers big-league features such as 24-bit stereo WAV recording and outstanding battery life.
Edirol (a division of music-industry monolith Roland) rocked the recording world last year with the release of the R-1, a portable flash-RAM recorder with some surprisingly sophisticated features, such as onboard effects and editing. However, some recordists balked at the R-1's size and price tag. So Edirol did the obvious thing: it took the best features of the R-1 and stuck them in a unit that can easily slip into a shirt pocket, simultaneously shaving a hundred bucks off the R-1's $549 list price. (The R-09 lists for $450; its street price is around $399.)
The R-09 makes good use of its limited footprint. Thanks to a large rocker switch mounted front and center, one-handed recording is a snap. A single press on the record button arms the recorder so you can set levels, while a red LED flashes brightly. Press Rec a second time, and the LED glows steady as you begin recording.
Metering is accomplished via the small display; there's also a peak LED. Setting levels can be tricky, as the input buttons mounted on the recorder's left side are quite small. A mic gain switch on the rear panel adds 24dB of boost when you switch it from Low to Hi, which is handy for quiet sources.
Speaking of small, I needed reading glasses to make out the legends for the various controls. To make matters worse, components on each side—the power switch, input level buttons, DC power jack on the left and the hold switch, output level buttons, and headphone/optical out jack on the right—are labeled with tiny black letters embossed on black plastic. Once I got used to the layout, I could work by touch, but those first few days were frustrating!
The R-09 is smaller than you might imagine; here my sandal acts as a mic stand.
The display is also tiny, but it packs in a lot of info. Most of the real estate is devoted to horizontal input meters and a large counter. (Despite the hours-minutes-seconds display, the R-09 does not read or record time code—though neither does anything else near this price.) You do get a readout of the audio filename and type. You can edit filenames after the fact, a most welcome feature. There's also an indication of battery life and time remaining on the card.
You can record both WAV and MP3s at multiple sample rates and resolutions on the same card. Currently, SD cards of up to 2GB are supported; recording times vary depending on the type of recording. (See the Recording Time chart.) According to Edirol, upcoming firmware will support cards up to 4GB.
The R-09 can handle external mics (a switch on the back selects mono or stereo operation) and supplies phantom power for mini mics at its 1/8-inch input. Alternatively, you can use its 1/8-inch stereo line input. The mini headphone jack doubles as an optical digital line out.
According to Edirol, battery life is around four hours when recording. As a test, I popped in newly charged batteries, dialed up the lowest MP3 setting to maximize recording time, and hit Record. After six solid hours, the batteries still had enough life to handle routine file maintenance! Your mileage may vary. You can also run off the included AC power adaptor.
Changing batteries is a snap: pop open an ingenious trap door on the bottom and Bob's your uncle! Open the door halfway to access the USB port and memory card. A flick of the wrist and it fully opens, revealing the battery compartment. One caveat: the hinges are flimsy and the door can easily get off its track when fully opened. At one point, I was afraid I'd broken it off.
The lightweight battery hatch gives access to the USB connector as well—as long as the R-09 isn't in its optional case.
Three tiny buttons run in a row across the face of the unit. Touch the first for a menu of audio files you've recorded; the transport buttons double as cursor controls. Once a file is selected, you can play it back, name it, delete it, or even move it to a new folder of your choice. Though editing names with cursor keys can be tedious, this is a great feature for keeping track of recordings when you can't get to your computer.
The labels on the left and right sides are tough to read, but once you learn them, you can fly.
Hold down the same button to access the menu. Here's where you choose recording settings and configure other aspects of the device, such as screen brightness and power management. You can even set the file playback order to use the R-09 as a portable jukebox. It won't render your iPod obsolete, but it's a nice touch.
The Repeat/A-B button loops individual songs or sections, which is useful for transcribing a lecture or learning a difficult riff.
The Reverb button adds plate, room, or hall reverberation at playback. So if you want to hear your ambient recording with even more ambience, this button's for you. How's it sound? Like too much plate, room, or hall reverberation, in my opinion. Fortunately, you cannot engage this feature when recording.
My review unit arrived just days before I left for Moloka'i, Hawaii, where I help run the Aloha Music Camp. A week of camping by the ocean, with guitars and ukulele playing 'neath swaying palm trees while tropical birds keep time. What better test, eh?
One morning I came across Big Island guitarist Chris Yeaton playing on the lanai of the Kaupoa Beach House. Just the kind of recording situation I love: no setup, no hassles, just a handheld recorder and a great musician playing from the heart. In the background, you can hear the ocean, a bit of wind, and a group of hungry campers:
Venturing out onto Kaupoa Beach, I quickly discovered that the internal mics have no windscreens, nor can you add them. That's a real shame. I'd planned to use the recorder to capture environmental sounds, but even the gentlest of breezes ruined the recordings:
Engaging the Low Cut switch helped slightly. But until Edirol or some enterprising third party releases a windscreen for the R-09's built-in mics, I'd suggest using an external mic with a windscreen (such as Edirol's optional CS-15) for outdoor recording.
Edirol offers some other interesting accessories for the R-09 as well, including a cover with a nifty tripod stand (the OP-R09C; see photo), a mic-stand adapter (the OP-R09M) that attaches to the cover, and a roomy padded carrying case (the CB-R09S).
Unless you use an external mic, positioning the R-09 can be tricky. And how do you keep it clean? Edirol's OP-R09C, a nifty tripod that connects to a fitted cover, handles both of those issues quite elegantly. The case and tripod are sold together.
The next week, I sat in with a weekly old-time session in Ashland, Oregon. By switching to MP3 recording, I was able to record the entire four-hour jam on a single 500MB memory card. Slick!
Maximum recording time varies with the size of the card and type of audio file. Edirol says an upcoming firmware update will support 4GB memory cards, doubling the potential recording time.
Rounding out my musical summer, I attended Lark Camp, a huge celebration of world music held in the redwoods near Mendocino, California. At this event, you'll hear literally every kind of music and dance you can imagine.
Following a glorious cacophony one afternoon, I stumbled across a group of Galician bagpipers learning a new tune (QuickTime movie). Talk about loud! I had to drop the levels almost to zip to avoid clipping. I'm not thrilled with the way the drums came out, though. It sounds like there was some clipping, even though I kept the levels well out of the red:
(Please note that I'm not faulting Edirol here; every new recorder takes time to dial in. But I'd certainly want to test the R-09 a lot more before I recorded anything irreplaceable.)
Speaking of levels, the R-09 includes switchable Automatic Gain Control (AGC), a fairly severe compressor circuit. Edirol recommends using AGC for situations such as a large business conference, where you want both near and far voices to be equally intelligible. It does that type of squashing just fine, but I wanted to see if it could automate the gain on a loud musical signal. (Hey, I get paid to push the boundaries!)
I got the chance one night when the bagpipe group joined forces with a raucous brass ensemble. Unlike the limiters found on some field recorders, which serve to keep the signal from clipping, AGC can have a profound (and ugly) effect on your recordings:
Galician bagpipe madness at Lark Camp
When activated, AGC overrides your input settings, so there's no way to mitigate the effect. That means any nearby sound will take precedence, such as when the crowd's whoops of delight (or is it shock?) temporarily overpower the band. Worse, the AGC circuit was totally overwhelmed by the drums, which clipped horribly (see screenshot). Lesson learned: Save AGC for its intended use—interviews and conferences—and simply give yourself lots of headroom for loud bands. Remember, with 24-bit recording you don't have to slam the meters.
Even with Automatic Gain Control (AGC) active, loud sounds may clip. That's because AGC is a compressor, not a limiter.
Back home at last, I finished up by recording some 24-bit, 48kHz WAV files, the highest resolution the R-09 supports. So you can hear the nuance, I've uploaded the files in WAV format instead of MP3, although I did convert them to 16-bit format to save space. Here's my Taylor 414 K recorded with the 09's internal mics:
For contrast, here's the guitar through a stereo pair of AKG 1000s condensers, the same mics I used on the MicroTrack review. In this case, I also ran the mics through the preamps on a Mackie Onyx mixer into the recorder's line input. Why? The R-09 supplies only low-voltage "plug-in power." That's suitable for mini mics such as the Edirol CS-15, but not enough to run bigger condensers.
Of course, for "grab and go" recording, the R-09's higher-resolution MP3 formats are just fine. Remember, a lot of us used cassettes for this kind of thing in the past. MP3s are perfect for podcasting or uploading to the Web, too. Just be aware that you'll need to covert the files to WAV or AIFF format to do any editing on your computer.
The back of the R-09 holds clearly labeled switches for four recording parameters.
As recently as a year and a half ago, finding an inexpensive digital field recorder was nigh on impossible. Since then, the Edirol R1, M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 (which I reviewed here), Sony Hi-MD MiniDisc recorders, and the Marantz PMD660 have brought high-end features to the masses. How does the R-09 stack up? Very well, thank you.
Some may quibble that it doesn't support higher sample rates. To be honest, I don't think you're really giving up anything here. We're talking itsy-bitsy mic preamps and audio converters. What's the chance of achieving hi-def audio through the 1/8-inch input jacks?
R-09 recordings don't reveal as much detail as I'd expect from pro gear, that's true. But, again, look at the price. I'd be happy to use this recorder to learn new tunes or create a podcast. It's like photography: sometimes I haul out the big camera and tripod. Most of the time I'm happy to reach for my pocket camera and take the snapshot.
The Edirol R-09 is a handy field recorder with some surprisingly sophisticated file-maintenance features. It is profoundly easy to use (once you suss out the buttons), it records to inexpensive media, and the onboard mics do a decent job. Battery life is outstanding. It looks cool, too.
It's not for everyone. Professionals will want higher sample rates, enhanced metering, and more robust mics. But they'll have to pay a lot more.
I'll bet Edirol sells 'em by the truckload.
Thanks to Chris Yeaton for the beautiful slack key; to Puna for the photo of the band; to Swampy, Bob, and the rest for the old-time clip; and to Cano Cardoso and the Lark Camp gaita band.
|Recorder||stereo; switchable to mono with external microphone|
|AD/DA conversion||24 bit, 44.1/48kHz|
|Recording Formats||MP3: 44.1/48kHz; 64/96/128/160/192/224/320kbps|
|WAV: 44.1/48kHz; 16/24 bit|
|Playback Formats||MP3: 32/44.1/48kHz; 64/96/128/160/192/224/256/320kbps or VBR (variable bit rate)|
|WAV: 32/44.1/48kHz; 16/24 bit|
|Memory Card||SD Card (supports 64MB-2GB; 4GB support forthcoming)|
Internal stereo microphone, 1/8" stereo mic input (plug-in power), 1/8" stereo line input
|Audio Outputs||1/8" stereo combination analog/optical (mini TOSLINK)|
|Nominal Input Level||Variable|
|Mic Input||–36dBu (default input level)|
|Line Input||0dBu (default input level)|
|Input Impedance||Mic: 20kohms; Line: 17kohms|
|USB Interface||Mini-B type connector (supports USB 2.0/1.1 mass storage device class)|
|Effects||Playback reverb: 3 types (Hall1, Hall2, Room, Plate)|
|Display||120x64-dot Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) graphic display|
|Power Supply||AC adapter or (2) AA batteries|
|Battery Life||Playback: approximately 5.5 hours; Recording: approximately 4 hours (with alkaline batteries)|
|Included Accessories||Owner's manual, AC adapter, 64MB SD memory card, USB cable|
|Size||2-1/2" W x 4-1/16" D x 1-3/16" H|
My review of the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 was my first experience with writing for an online magazine. I was totally unprepared for the number of emails I received: everything from kudos and flames to people asking for tech support or soliciting buying advice.
I'm not complaining, mind you. I've enjoyed meeting new people online and learning about your worlds. But I do have a life. That's why we have the dandy little forum at the end of each article, so you can ask questions and anyone can reply. Heck, I've learned a lot from the answers posted below my reviews.
I'm well aware that many of you have been waiting for the Edirol R-09 to appear so you can compare it to the MicroTrack. Both recorders are compact, both easy to use, both record to flash memory—heck, they even cost the same amount. Choosing between them won't be easy.
So here's my answer to the burning question "Which one should I buy?"
I can't tell you. Sorry. You will have to make up your own mind. Read the reviews, peruse the specs, listen to the examples. Check out online forums—and by all means post to this one. Ultimately, the decision is yours alone.
My guess is we'll see the kind of passionate debate now enjoyed (?) by Windows and Mac devotees.
So, go ahead and email me to complain about the review, boost my ego about my guitar playing, or ask where in the world Galicia is. However, if you write me for buying advice, I'll forward your email to an ex-government worker in Nigeria who will be able to help. For a price.