The field of affordable digital field recorders is getting crowded. But back when it wasn't, the Marantz PMD660 was one of the leaders. The company's new PMD620 promises to deliver pro features at an affordable price. Does it? Read on.
Roughly the size and heft of a deck of cards, the PMD620 fits nicely in your palm. Three large round buttons in the center serve as record controls: Stop, Rec Pause, and Rec. Recording starts with a single press, handy for interviews and field work. To set levels, first press Rec Pause and use the +/– buttons mounted on the right side.
A four-way rocker ring with a center button handles transport, playback volume, and cursor chores. The Display/Menu/Store button is similarly multitasked: a quick press toggles between three screens on the tiny but readable display; hold the button for two seconds to enter the menu and then press it again to store your changes. Confusing? Not after you've used it awhile.
The power switch is a slider on the right side; it only takes a couple of seconds to power up and you're ready to record. The left side has three 1/8-inch jacks for line in, line out, and an optional remote.
Heavy metal screens at the top of the case protect two omnidirectional condenser mics, which are angled 110° apart. At the bottom you'll find the USB port and the slot for an SD card. Both of these, as well as the socket for the power adapter, are "protected" by very flimsy plastic doors. After only three weeks of use, one of the doors on my review unit no longer closes. You'll probably want to access the card often, too, because the built-in USB port is USB 2.0 "full speed" (i.e., slow) rather than "hi-speed" (fast).
Speaking of power, the PMD620 runs on two AA batteries. Battery life is quite good — Marantz claims around five hours and I can't argue. A lump-in-the-line AC adapter is included. You also get an audio Y-cable, a USB cable, a wrist strap, a camera tripod bracket, and a 512MB SD card. The PDM620 accepts SDHC (high capacity) cards as well, reportedly up to two terabytes (2,048GB!) in size, so if those ever arrive, you'll be ready.
One thing that sets the PMD620 apart from the pack is how you set recording options. Instead of dialing up parameters for file type and resolution, you select one of three presets. Each preset contains a full set of parameters — everything from input through record format and sample rate, mic attenuation, "plug-in power" for external microphones, low cut filter … 24 options in all; including such universal choices as file sorting scheme, date format, LED brightness, and Machine ID.
This means you can quickly jump between radically different working states. For instance, I set up one preset for recording MP3 files at a session using the internal microphones, no limiting, no low-cut filter, and with the level LED set to light at –6dB. I also created one for live recording at 16/44.1, and another for lo-res MP3 monaural voice recording using an external mic. The presets are stored on the PMD620 itself, but you can also save them to SD card and transfer them to another unit, which could be helpful for organizations with multiple recordists.
If it were possible to select presets via hardware I might be more excited about the preset feature. But you must enter the menu to choose a preset, and then confirm your choice with a second button press. That slows things down a bit.
Worse, diving into the preset menus is the only way you can make essential recording changes, such as engaging automatic gain control or adding power for an external mic. In practice, that means you will be diving in and altering your presets every time an unanticipated situation comes up. After only a couple of weeks, I found my presets were hopelessly fuddled and I had to return to the factory defaults and start over. I suggest creating two presets for specific recording scenarios and saving the third one for temporary changes.
Incidentally, one preset option selects the input source: internal mic, external mic, line-in, or auto. This last automatically senses if an external mic or line source is connected and even gives priority to the mic in the event you connect two sources. Considering how useful this is I can't see why you would choose the other options.
The Display button toggles between different screens depending on the state of the recorder. At rest, you get a screen showing the current record setup (internal/external mic, file format, sample rate, and bit depth), another showing remaining recording time and the number of files, and a third displaying date and time.
The options change when playing back a file. Here you get one screen with the file attributes such as file type, name, and creation date (as with many small digital devices, you can rename a file, but it is a tedious process), a second showing elapsed playing time, and a third with remaining time. Both of the time displays have one of those ubiquitous little scroll bars.
While recording, the choices are a meter screen, one showing elapsed recording time, and another displaying the available recording time.
This is a lot of information, but it is quite well laid out and accessible. Thanks to its OLED (Organic LED), the screen is bright and crisp in a variety of lighting conditions. You can even change the font size on a couple of the screens, a boon to those of us in the gray-hair club.
The PMD records stereo or mono WAV files at 44.1 and 48 kHz sample rates and at 16- and 24-bits. For MP3 recording you choose between three settings: MP3-H, MP3-M, and MP3-L. The actual resolution varies depending on whether you have selected stereo or mono recording. For stereo, the settings are 192, 128, and 64 kbps; mono files are one half that (96, 64, and 32 kbps for those of us who don't like math).
Mono recording is quite well implemented. Not only can you choose to send the internal mics, an external stereo mic or stereo line source to a mono track, but you can also set the external microphone input or line-in to mono. Of course, if you set the input source to mono and neglect to set the recorder to mono as well, you will end up with the same signal on both sides of a stereo file.
As I mentioned, once you've set up a preset, recording could not be easier. One-button recording is ideal for interviews, so that was the first thing I tried. Unlike some other recorders I have tested, handling and wind noise from moving the recorder between interviewer and interviewee are minimal. I also liked the clear sound of the internal mics on voices:
Next I tried an inexpensive lavaliere mic. As this was a mono mic, I appreciated the ability to select both mono input and monaural recording:
As you can hear, audio quality took a big hit, and there is a fair amount of noise present. Chalk that up more to the mic than the preamp. Later tests showed the preamps, while not pristine, to be within acceptable noise levels for a device in this price range. Of course, if you crank the levels in a quiet room, you'll hear a lot of hiss. Just be sure your dog doesn't bark.
The PMD620 also has a handy feature for those who transcribe interviews or lecture notes: the Skip Back button immediately zips back in time so you can hear a section again. You set the interval — from one to 60 seconds — in the preset menu.
One evening as I grabbed some firewood, I heard a coyote hollering on a hill nearby. I snatched up the recorder, maxed the gain, and headed outside. The wind was blowing through the pines at a good clip and I figured the recordings would be ruined without a windscreen. Listening back, I was happy to learn I was wrong; even without a windscreen, the PMD can handle moderate amounts of wind. As someone who has had many festival recordings ruined on calm days, this alone warms me to using the PMD620 for field recording. Again, the noise you hear is due to the wind and the fact that I had the levels as high as they would go:
The following Sunday found me in Seattle playing at a weekly kani kapila (jam session) held at the Kona Kitchen. I slipped the PMD620 into its plastic tripod adapter, screwed in a mini tripod, and listened to falsetto champion Gary Madeiros blast into the outer limits:
To round out my testing, I wanted to hear how the PMD620 sounded in more controlled conditions. Here is a sample of me practicing flailing … errr, frailing my oversized gourd banjo. I recorded this as a 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV but converted it to MP3 for faster web playback.
As with most portable recorders, setting levels can be tricky when the display is pointed away from you. Here's where the Marantz's two LEDs come in handy. I set the green LED to light up at –12dB; by taking care that it stayed lit without slamming the red peak LED, I knew I had a decent level.
My final test was one I have done for each of my recorder reviews here at O'Reilly. I recorded my big ol' Taylor flattop with the mics about 14 inches away and pointed roughly at where the neck joins the body. This is essentially the same method I have used each time, so you can readily compare how each recorder handles similar material. I have uploaded the example both as an MP3 (for fast playback) and in its original uncompressed form.
Standing out in a crowded field takes some doing. One way is to do a little of everything and blow people away with the sheer number of features; another is to excel at one thing. The Marantz PMD620 takes the middle ground. Like its forebears, it is positioned as a solid tool for everyday use.
For me, its strong suit is as a voice recorder. Handling noise is quite low, and engaging the low-cut filter practically eliminates it. Mono recording is a plus, as is the ability to record at both MP3 and WAV formats. I really like one-touch recording, and it is particularly well done here. I am not a fan of automated level control or limiting on most small recorders, but the features are there if you need them.
There is even a modicum of non-destructive editing for emergency field work. The Copy Segment command creates a new auto file from material between markers you enter during playback. If your selection spans two or more similar files, the new file will even meld the gaps.
Although I am not sold on the implementation of recording presets, with care and forethought, presets can be useful. I liked the internal microphones, particularly on voice, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well they resisted wind noise. The lack of higher sample rates really doesn't bother me; for most workaday recording, 96kHz files take up too much space.
The itty bitty speaker on the back is good for spot checks; in noisy environments I had to grab my headphones. And that brings up the placement of the headphone jack (see photo). I had to be very careful lest my movements cause the headphone cord to bang into one of the mics or, worse, jerk the recorder around. That made it tough to monitor recordings in progress. According to Marantz's Brian Gorman, the company put the headphone jack on the top to make it easier to stash the PMD620 in a pocket or bag and use it with an external mic and headphones. He noted that the line-out jack on the side can also drive headphones, albeit without volume control.
I do not like the flimsy doors covering the USB port, DC jack, and SD card slot. For a unit touted as a field recorder, these are a problem waiting to happen. The plastic sled that serves as a tripod adapter/belt clip is pretty low-tech, too, but it gets the job done.
When all is said and done the PMD620 is a contender. Once you've taken the time to create your presets, it is sublimely easy to use. It does a good job recording outdoors; handles music recording reasonably well; and has a number of useful features for interviewing, podcasts, and other voice work.
|Price||$499 ($399 street)|
|Accessories||RC600 Remote Control ($89)|
||16/24 bit; 44.1/48kHz|
||1/8" stereo jack
Input Sensitivity: 6mVrms/30kohm
Phantom Power: 5V, 1mA (max)
||1/8" stereo jack
Input Sensitivity: 500 mVrms/20 kohm
||1/8" stereo jack
Standard Level 1.0 Vrms/10 kohm
||1/8" stereo jack
Standard Level 16 mW/16 ohms
||(Excluding Batteries) 110g (4oz)|
|Battery Life (Alkaline)||5 hours (Typical)|
|Included Accessories||Audio Cable
Tripod/Belt Clip Adapter
512MB SD Card
Thanks to the gang at the Kona Kitchen: Gary, Kory, Jack, Al, Gregg, Lori, et al. Good food, good friends, good music — who could ask for more?