For many of us who grew up on tape, Sony was the name to trust for rugged and dependable field recorders. That's why Sony's recent entry into the flash recorder sweepstakes, the PCM-D1, got my attention. But at $1,995, it's too rich for me.
Now Sony has taken the essential features of the D1 and stuffed them into the new D50 ... for about a third the price. I've been testing one for more than a month and I like it more every day.
Right out of the box, the D50 exudes confidence, thanks in part to a rugged aluminum case. The first thing I noticed is its heft; compared to some other recorders on the market, the D50 is positively solid. That's not to say it's big; it snuggles comfortably in your palm, with essential controls well within reach for one-handed operation.
And this puppy was designed for field use: the twin mics are safe behind a steel cage, both the record level and headphone level controls are protected against accidental knocks, and all of the buttons and switches feel reassuringly solid. Even better, the mics swivel between 90 and 120° and everywhere in between. It runs on four AA batteries — even the battery compartment is well designed and solid — or AC via a wall-wart adapter.
While most of the D50's competition requires an additional memory card, the D50 has 4GB of flash RAM built in. That's enough for almost two hours of recording at 96kHz/24-bit resolution, or a whopping six-and-a-half hours at 44.1/16. Need more? Pop in a Memory Stick as large as 4GB. (See the "Good Memories" sidebar for supported formats). As with most flash recorders, the D50 has a 2GB limit per file; recordings that exceed the limit are split into two files.
Sony thoughtfully provides everything you need to start recording right out of the box, even the batteries, so naturally I fired up the D50 before I unpacked the manual. Because the file-naming protocol involves the date and time, my first task was to set the clock. Luckily, this was easier than setting the one on my car; all I had to do was follow onscreen instructions.
Sony is taking no chances when it comes to removable media: the D50 officially supports only two kinds of flash RAM cards: Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo and Memory Stick PRO Duo (High Speed). Senior Product Manager Karl Kussmaul explains that standard Memory Stick data transfer rates are not fast enough for the D50, which "will most certainly lead to unreliable recorder operation." He continues, "Standard speed MS devices may appear (initially) like they work; however, there's a high risk of recordings becoming corrupted and USB transfer speeds will also be significantly compromised, especially when operating at 24/96."
I screwed a mini tripod into the built-in threaded adapter, pointed the mics vaguely in the direction of my guitar, and pressed Record. With the D50 in record-ready mode, I dialed in levels with the large thumbwheel. Given the orientation (upside-down), I couldn't get a clear view of the meters on the display, so I took care that the green LEDs indicating a –12dB level glowed but the red overload LEDs didn't flash. These bright LEDs are handy — one of my pet peeves is meters that disappear when you point the recorder at yourself.
To commence recording, all I had to do was press the flashing Pause button. Couldn't be simpler.
The generous display conveys a lot of information. A tiny button toggles between elapsed recording or playback time, remaining recording time, and recording date. The meters are large enough for my aging eyes to read without glasses. There's even a dedicated button to light up the display when needed — which means it does not light up when you do not need it. A small thing, but it saves the battery.
Be aware that a menu option that turns off the LED has nothing to do with the display; instead, it disables LEDs that indicate recording status, including the –12dB and Over LEDs. (The meters and other display functions operate normally.) I suppose this might be useful in extreme stealth situations, but more than once I accidentally commenced recording before I was ready. Sony's Karl Kussmaul notes that many performers feel more comfortable if they don't have a red Record light glaring at them.
Listening back to my first recording I was impressed with the sound of the mics — I thought the guitar had a nice amount of detail and the pre-amp noise was practically non-existent. Although I recorded the example as a 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV, I have also uploaded an MP3 conversion for those with slower connections. The D50 does not record MP3s.
The D50 shares something called Super Bit Mapping (SBM) with its more expensive sibling. Here's the scoop: when you select 16-bit recording, the D50 records at 20-bit resolution in order to increase the dynamic range. Normally, the extra four bits are discarded.
Engaging SBM recodes the data to squeeze 20 bits of information into a 16-bit word. The idea is to use a higher bit rate to reduce quantization noise and then employ noise shaping to move any grunge away from frequencies we can hear. To test this, I recorded two short clips of my guitar at 16/44.1 — one without SBM, one with. To my ears, there is a difference: the SBM track is more detailed and has less grit.
Here's an uncompressed WAV file so you can hear it for yourself. Pay attention as the guitar trails off into silence — it's smooth as silk.
Super Bit Mapping is a great addition to the D50, but it makes one wonder: why not use it for all 16-bit files? According to Sony, it's best to turn SBM off if you'll be editing the recording in your computer. The manual doesn't explicitly state why, but it stands to reason that reprocessing the processed signal could create unwelcome artifacts as the computer wrestles with the complex math, accumulating rounding errors. SBM is a shaped dithering process, and digital gurus like Bob Katz (who is very good at math) assert it is best to not dither at each stage, but to wait until the file is ready to be mastered. In practical terms, though, I doubt most folks could hear the difference caused by this extra step.
Super Bit Mapping is disabled when you select 24-bit recording.
As with most digital recorders, you'll need to dig into the menu structure sooner or later. Navigation starts with a silver button labeled with a tiny folder icon and the word "Menu." A quick press puts you in the Folder screen. Here you select one of ten folders to store your recordings — up to 99 files per folder. This makes it easy to group recordings, but you can't change the names of the folders. Keep a pencil handy so you'll be able to find things later.
Holding the Folder/Menu button for one second or more accesses the Menu ... errr, menu. Use the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons to scroll, and the Play button to make a selection. Here's a nice touch: although you set such functions as Limiter release time, Digital Pitch Control (more on this later), and Low Cut Filter cutoff in software, tiny hardware sliders on the sides or back of the recorder engage or disengage these functions. Albeit miniature, the switches are easy to find and remarkably solid. I applaud Sony's engineers for making so many vital functions accessible.
The Menu offers most of what you'd expect, including options for sample rate and bit depth (see the specs sidebar for types and recording times); internal or removable memory (sadly, you can't set the recorder to automatically write to both in sequence if space gets tight); clock; and formatting options. Track editing is extremely limited: the only available options are Delete All (for tracks in a selected folder) and Delete (for the currently selected track). There is no way to rename tracks, reorder them, or move them to a different folder.
However, you can split long tracks manually during recording or playback with a dedicated button on the face of the unit. Of course, if you are using the built-in mics, you run the risk of adding unwanted handling noise, as well. Sony has an optional remote control that would be useful here, but I didn't have a chance to test it.
All in all, navigation is about average. I found I constantly got the Folder screen when I wanted the Menu, and vice versa. Worse, if I accidentally backed out of a menu item, my previous choice was not retained. However, the most important functions do not require re-entering the menu once you've set the initial parameters. I'd rather put up with the D50's minor quirks than the endless menu archeology I've encountered in some other recorders.
You can also import MP3 files from your computer for playback. Be aware that placing your playback-only folders anywhere but the root directory renders them invisible. You also have to follow Sony's strict naming conventions and 99-song limit, although you can have up to 500 playback folders. The D50 displays album and song titles just like any other MP3 player, but you can't peek inside the folders to select individual songs. Instead, you select a folder, and then scroll through the titles one at a time using the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons. Given Sony's vast experience with personal music playback devices, I find this lack of finesse surprising.
One of the most talked about features of the expensive Sony PCM-D1 is its unique limiter. It works like this: the recorder creates two audio files during recording. One is written to memory, another — recorded 20dB down — is held in a buffer. If peaks exceed zero (i.e., maximum digital level), the recorder grabs a portion of the safety track and writes it to memory. I am happy to say that the D50 shares this feature.
How does sound? To be honest, it works so well I didn't know it was engaged. I'm so used to hearing poorly implemented dynamics processors drastically ducking the audio and then sucking the levels back up that at first I thought my review unit wasn't functioning properly!
To test it, I purposely slammed the levels, causing the red LEDs to flash like Rudolph's nose (hey, it was just before Christmas). Listening back, I didn't hear any clipping, but I didn't hear any pumping, either. So I imported the files into my DAW and inspected the waveforms under the microscope. I expected to see a 20dB drop whenever the limiter wrote the safety track to memory; when I didn't, I contacted Sony. It turns out everything was just fine; when the safety track kicks in, it's boosted until its peaks are just below zero. (See Figure 1.)
Sure, slam the level too hard and you'll clip the waveform. And with no user-selectable threshold and only three release times (153ms, 1 second, and 1 minute) you have limited control. But the PCM-D50 limiter isn't a conventional limiter (dynamics signal processor). As a result, it doesn't require extensive parameter controls (threshold, release, hold time, etc.) to operate transparently, and that makes it easy to use. This is far and away the most useful limiter I have ever encountered on a portable device.
As with my last review, my editor solicited questions and comments from you, our readers, before I started work. I find these to be quite useful, since they often point me in directions I wouldn't otherwise consider. A couple of posters were interested how the D50 would stack up as an interview device, so I turned it on and pointed it at an unsuspecting young friend:
As you can hear, my less-than-stellar technique resulted in a great deal of handling noise. I could learn to tame that with practice, but notice the whoosh of wind each time I swung the recorder between the subject and me. Later I tried another approach. For this next example, I used the low cut filter to take care of most of the handling noise, and attached Sony's optional windscreen to tame the wind:
I think the noise is quite acceptable in this instance. Don't forget you can always use an external mic via the 1/8-inch TRS input; plug-in power is engaged in software. Note that you can't set individual left and right levels, though.
Select "Pre-record" and the D50 continually stores five seconds of audio in a circular buffer — plenty of time to hit Record after the subject admits taking the bribe. Just be aware that it takes the D50 around six seconds to power up.
I can think of two potential deal breakers if interviews are your thing: first, you can't record MP3s, which means more work for podcasters; and second, you can't record in mono, even with a monaural microphone.
That said, battery life is excellent. (Sony claims up to 14 hours; I didn't have the patience to test it.) In addition, you can set the mics to 120°, increasing the separation between interviewer and interviewee.
Another reader wondered if the D50's internal clock was stable enough to record audio for video. In other words, can you press Record on two unsynchronized devices and expect them to stay together over time?
To test that, I simultaneously recorded hour-long audio tracks at 48kHz (the standard rate for video sound) on the D50 and my trusty MOTU 828 audio interface. I set up an audible timing reference and clanged a pan at regular intervals to generate easy-to-see waveforms. That allowed me to line up the start times precisely once I had imported the D50's track into my DAW.
After one hour, the D50 had drifted about 100ms behind the reference track. That equates to three frames, more or less. What's more, the drift increased at a set rate over time, indicating the D50's clock was not fluctuating randomly.
Admittedly, this is anything but scientific (perhaps the MOTU was running fast), but it does indicate that you could get away with resolving audio to videos once you determine the fudge factor. Nevertheless, pros will definitely want to go with a recorder that supports time code.
Speaking of sync, I was surprised to find a menu item labeled "Synch Record." This has nothing to do with video; rather it's a throwback to the days of recording CDs to cassette or Mini-Disc instead of ripping them to your computer. Synch Record simply means that the D50 will not begin recording until you press Play on the other device. In this age of downloads, iTunes, and audio editors, does anybody need this anymore?
You have the option of recording via analog or optical digital line in. Both share a 1/8-inch jack; there is a second 1/8-inch TRS jack for an external mic. (For some reason the mic/line switch is on the opposite side of the recorder, next to the line-out jack.) Like the line-in, the line-out automatically configures to analog or optical cables.
To test the line input, I recorded an old cassette filled with vintage Romanian folk music. Using the Divide button, I created a new file for each song on the fly. On a couple of tracks, I thought the recorder might have cut off the downbeat, since the screen still flashed a status message, but each new file started precisely where I'd punched the button. Divide also works after the fact during playback.
As with Synch Record, I was intrigued by the inclusion of Digital Pitch Control (DPC). The idea is to alter playback speed without changing the pitch. Slowing down a difficult musical passage is a great way to learn it, and Sony's DPC does a pretty good job. Sure, you'll hear artifacts, particularly at more extreme settings (up to 75% slower). But I can see folks who attend music workshops or festivals buying piles of these recorders just for this feature.
I am not so certain about the other side of DPC — for not only can you slow tracks down, but you can increase playback speed up to 100% (twice as fast). I suppose you could use this to speed through a lecture, but at the extreme setting any talking sounds like one of those unintelligible medical disclaimers on TV. On the other hand, my guitar playing sure got impressive when I sped it up.
DPC works with both WAV and MP3 files — nice.
The D50 sports a mini-USB jack and supports Hi-Speed USB 2.0 for quick file transfers. Connection is as simple as you'd expect — plug it in and the device shows up on your computer. Take care, though: if you rename folders or files that the recorder needs, you run the risk of making them unreadable. USB connection takes precedence over whatever else you are doing; so don't plug in while recording. Nor can you record, or indeed access any menu item, once you are connected. Too bad — the D50 would have made a dandy USB mic.
One more wrinkle: terminating the connection on my Mac, whether by using the Finder's "eject" button or by dragging the device icon to the trash, did not automatically end the session as far as the recorder was concerned. I found I had to ignore the dire warnings on the display and physically unplug the cable; as expected, this did no harm to my data. PC users can relax; this is a Mac-only issue, and not a dire one at that.
After testing half a dozen field recorders in the last couple of years, I've developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to marketing promises. In truth, I don't ask for much: I want a rugged, portable device that is easy to use, has enough battery life and memory to capture a concert in the bush, and makes recordings that sound like what I point it at.
On each of these areas, the Sony D50 delivers beautifully. Although I didn't strap it to a crash-test dummy, the aluminum case feels able to take abuse. Each of the switches and buttons displays the kind of quality we've come to expect from Sony. The combination of hefty internal flash memory with a slot for removable media is the best of both worlds.
The D50's mics do a fine job of capturing both music and speech. The fact that they are movable is icing on the cake. Here are a couple of recordings I did at a local Irish jam session so you can hear the difference between the 90 and 120° positions:
You may have realized there's some clever engineering going on inside the D50 to make this work. In 90° (X-Y) mode, the right mic picks up the left signal. In 120° mode, left is left and right is right. The recorder adjusts automatically to route the signals correctly.
To my ears, the onboard mics offer quite a bit of detail with a minimum of coloration. The mic pres have a huge amount of headroom with very acceptable noise levels. Of course, if you crank them up fully, you will hear some hiss (as you will with any preamp made — but that's not the point; it's about the signal-to-noise ratio, remember?) Don't forget you can always use your own microphone, or even a preamp with a digital output.
Sony sells a high-end microphone adapter box, the XLR-1, which bolts to the back of the D50. Although it contains four AA batteries, it's not a preamp; the batteries simply provide 48v phantom power to your mics. According to Sony, the XLR-1 is purely passive. It contains large balancing transformers, offers a 50kHz frequency response, and "doesn't add any noise to the microphone signal path."
Although I find it useful when memory is tight, I really don't miss MP3 recording. (Of course, there's always the option of recording at 22.05kHz.) This is also one of the few recorders I've heard with which recording at higher sample rates and bit depths is worth the extra memory.
Given that some other flash recorders support file sizes larger than 2GB, I asked Sony if it planned to increase that limit in a firmware update. Product Manager Kussmaul replied, "Let me explain more about this frequently misunderstood issue. The original Microsoft WAV file standard requires the 2GB file limit. The D50 adheres to this original standard to ensure recordings can be accessed on virtually any computer with any application. We could have chosen another linear PCM file format that allows for file sizes in excess of 2GB; however, not all D50 users would be able to easily access the files using their existing applications. An update to the D50 exceeding the 2GB limit could result in many users needing to change out the applications they use."
You'll have to trust me that recordings I made at 24/96 sounded gorgeous; they are simply too large to post online.
I have already raved about the limiter, but it's worth repeating: this is the most useful limiter I have seen yet in a portable device.
I did not have the opportunity to test drive the optional remote control, but my review unit did come with Sony's excellent optional AD-PCM1 windscreen. As pros know, "fluffy" windscreens are far superior to foam. Given the mics' sensitivity to wind, this is a must-have accessory, though not an inexpensive one. If you don't want to spend the bucks, take a trip to a local fabric store for some fake fur and fire up the hot glue gun. You can even choose your own color.
To sum up: the Sony PCM-D50 is everything a field recorder should be. Although it might appear expensive compared to some of the others, consider that you get four gigs of memory included, robust construction, excellent mics, and a number of useful features ported over from its upscale cousin. If you're serious about field recording, the D50 is well worth your consideration.
Mark Nelson is both an acoustic musician and the author of Getting Started in Computer Music (Thomson Course Technology). He oscillates between Oregon and Hawaii, where he co-produces the Aloha Music Camp.
|Built-in Microphones||Electret condenser microphones offering X-Y or wide stereo positions|
|High sensitivity (–35.0dB/Pa 1 kHz typical)|
|Maximum input level: 120dB SPL|
|Microphone Input (stereo minijack)||Input impedance: 22k ohm
Rated input level: 2.5mV; Minimum input level: 0.7mV
Supports external mic plug-in power
|Analog Line Input||Input impedance: 40K ohms
Rated input level: 2.0V;
Minimum input level: 450mV
|Optical Digital Input||Input level –24.5dBm to –14.5dBm.
Absorption wavelength: 630nm to 690nm
|Analog Output:||Output impedance: 220 ohms
Rated output level: 1.7V
Load impedance: 22k ohms
|Optical Digital Output||Output level –21dBm to –15dBm
Emission wavelength: 630 nm to 680nm
|Headphone Output||stereo minijack
Noise level: 20.0dBSPL(A) typical
Rated output level: 400 mV
Maximum output level: 25 mW + 25 mW or more
|Load Impedance||16 ohms|
|Sampling Rates||22.05kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz|
|Quantization||16-bit linear, 24-bit linear|
|Playback Format||.WAV and MP3|
|Frequency Response (Line Input to Line Output)||For Fs = 22.05kHz: 20Hz to 10kHz (0 to –2dB)|
|For Fs = 44.1kHz: 20Hz to 20kHz (0 to –2dB)|
|For Fs = 48kHz: 20Hz to 22kHz (0 to –2dB)|
|For Fs = 96kHz: 20Hz to 40kHz (0 to –2dB)|
|Signal-to-Noise Ratio (Line Input to Line Output)||93dB or greater (1kHz IHF-A) when set to 24-bit|
|Total Harmonic Distortion (Line Input to Line Output)||0.01% or below (1kHz, 22kHz LPF)|
|USB Connection||Hi-Speed USB, Mass Storage class|
|Power Requirements||DC in 6V. Four AA size alkaline batteries or adapter (both supplied)|
|Approx. Battery Life||14 Hours @44.1/16 recording or 12 Hours @ 96/24 recording|
|Dimensions (W x H x D)||2-7/8" x 6-1/8" x 1-5/16" not including projecting parts and controls|
|Weight||12.88 oz (including batteries)|
|Supplied Accessories||Sound Forge Audio Studio LE Software CD-ROM, AC Power Adapter (6V) model AC-ES608K, USB Cable, (4) alkaline batteries (AA size), operating instructions|