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In a world where consumer products sport interchangeable names — quick, who makes the X50? — Yamaha's new Pocketrak 2G stands out. As the name implies, it's a pocket-size, two-track recorder with two gigabytes of internal memory. Truth in advertising at last.

(In case you were curious, a partial list of companies making products called the X50 includes Korg, Konica, Passport, and Boeing. Makes me wonder if anyone ever ordered a radar detector and received a jet instead.)

Hip Pocket Rocket

Pocketrak Front Angle
Just half an inch thick, the Yamaha Pocketrak puts CD-resolution WAV recording in your fingertips. (Click to enlarge.)

Measuring just 1-1/4 x 4-5/8 x 1/2 inches and weighing in at 1.7 ounces, the Pocketrak ($399 list) truly lives up to its name. It's so small I "lost" it more than once in my gig bag. But small does not necessarily mean wimpy — it records uncompressed 44.1kHz, 16-bit stereo WAV files as well as several MP3 flavors to a hefty 2GB internal memory chip. (More specs.) On the downside, the highest MP3 recording resolution is just 128kbps.

[Update, 2008-10-13: Version 2.01 firmware boosts that to 160kbps.]

The Pocketrak has connections for external mic/line sources, headphones, and your computer, via a pop-out USB plug. Its built-in mics tilt up, which is handy if you need to place the unit on a table, because that reduces acoustic reflections. There is even a tiny built-in speaker so you can confirm that you did indeed record something. Unlike some onboard speakers I've heard, this one is loud enough to cut through a noisy room.

Power comes from a Sanyo "Eneloop" rechargeable battery, which is designed to hold its charge much longer than normal rechargeables. In a pinch you can swap it for a standard AAA battery so you won't miss that critical recording while your unit is recharging. Nice indeed.

Yamaha claims battery life of up to 19 hours, depending on the type of recording; WAV format consumes much more juice than MP3. I didn't get anywhere near that much, but I never lost a recording due to a dead battery, either. Unlike some devices, the Pocketrak does not automatically recharge when it's connected to a computer via USB. Instead, you initiate charging by holding the Fast Forward button. I thought that might be to avoid the memory effect, but Sanyo expressly states its Eneloop batteries do not have this issue, so I don't understand the need for the extra step.

By the way, Eneloop batteries are readily available, so replacing one that has come to the end of its life is no big deal.

The Pocketrak comes with everything you need to start recording, including a well-designed faux leather case that protects the unit without hindering access to any essential controls. A 1/4" camera tripod socket is hidden under the belt loop; there is even a 3/8" adapter for some, but not all, mic stands.

First Test

The day the Yamaha arrived, I dropped it in my pocket and headed to a local Old Time jam. Nothing better than field-testing before reading the manual! Recording looked easy, thanks to a large red button on the top of the unit. A single press put it into record-ready mode, displaying a screen with the type of file — WAV is the default — and level meters. Ah, but how to adjust the levels? I needed my glasses to make out the legends on the various buttons and switches mounted along the side and back; nothing read "Rec Level."

This is where my experience as a reviewer paid off. I assumed that something would let me set levels. The "Vol +" and "Vol –" buttons didn't (they handle playback volume), so I kept trying. As it turns out, Fast Forward and Rewind double for level setting. Intuitive? No, though it is spelled out in the manual. However, the point is that I was able to make decent recordings without cracking the manual. Score a big one for ease of use. The following file is literally the first thing I recorded on the Pocketrak. I captured it as a 44.1kHz WAV, and then compressed it to MP3 on my computer for faster web playback.

Tiny Baubles

Given the Pocketrak's dimensions, it is obvious that its controls are tiny. The good news is that everything is well laid out. In addition to the FF, Play, Rewind, and volume buttons, the Pocketrak sports buttons to access the file management screens, a Delete button, and one that doubles as Stop and Menu. On the rear panel you will find the on/off slider and a three-way playback speed control: normal, or 25% faster or slower.

I have to admit that I found the itty-bitty controls difficult to use, forcing me to use my nail rather than my thumb.

Which gets me to the display. Let me put it bluntly: we are talking about a screen that could hide behind a postage stamp. Heck, even with my reading glasses I had to put the dang thing right up to my nose sometimes.

That said, the backlit display is bright and crisp. However, the level meters are only visible in standby mode; when recording, you have to rely on the clipping LED, which lights up when the input gets too loud. I don't get that. Yamaha certainly has experience making recorders. Don't they know that we engineer types like to watch the levels?

USB and You

One of the Pocketrak's more interesting design elements is a built-in USB plug that slides out of the bottom like a switchblade. I was curious if it would make a solid connection — light as it is, the Pocketrak weighs significantly more than the average flash drive.

I plugged it directly into my desktop computer, where the USB port left the Pocketrak hanging several inches in the air, and an ancient iBook. In both cases, the connection was tenuous at best. I was able to transfer data, but I had to make sure I did not touch the computer lest the whole thing wiggle loose. You're better off using the supplied USB extension cable. Still, it's reassuring to know you can upload files and charge the battery even if you forget the cord.

Pocketrak USB Plug
No funky adapter cables needed here — the Pocketrak sports a full-size, pop-out USB plug. Also note the Play Speed switch, which speeds or slows playback by 25% without affecting pitch.

Folder Name Game

Fig. 1: File System
Fig. 1: The Pocketrak organizes files into task-oriented folders. The "S" folder is even password-protected.

You can learn a lot about a device's intended use from its file management scheme (see Figure 1). Notice the folders marked Voice, Music, Line, Alarm, and Data? Reading between the lines, it looks to me like Yamaha envisions the Pocketrak as a voice recorder — there are five "Voice" folders and only one each for "Music" and "Line." A number of additional clues point to the same conclusion, as I will cover later.

It turns out recordings made with the internal mics go into one of the Voice folders, labeled A–D and S (more about that "S" in a minute). Select a line source and the files show up in the Line folder. Each folder accepts up to 99 files (the Line folder holds 199). Voice folders let you easily organize your recordings, but beware: although you can move files between folders or rename them when connected to a computer, the Pocketrak will only recognize files that follow strict naming conventions.

So, what's with the Music folder? That's for files you download — both MP3 and WMA files are supported, even WMA with DRM. To arrange songs in a playlist, simply add a subfolder.

Data folders are included so you can use the unit as a normal flash drive. There is even a password-protected secure area — the "S" folders — so you can be sure no one will discover your amazing new song.

Save for the secure area, accessing folders is as simple as a single button push. Other than that, file management is pretty limited. You cannot move, edit, or rename files on the recorder itself. You can easily delete the entire contents of a folder, though.

The Manual folder, which does not appear on the screenshot above, contains a PDF file with the manual — a barebones start-up guide is in the box. If that PDF is missing, as it was on my review unit, find it online. I suggest prospective buyers download the manual before shelling out those hard-earned shekels.

Alarming Features

Yamaha's entry in the "what else can we think of?" category turns the Pocketrak into an alarm clock. Drag an MP3 or WMA file to the Alarm folder, set the timer, and you'll never have to worry about missing another episode of "Heroes."

Even cooler, use the timer to commence recording at a set time — just the thing to grab that lecture while you are out hitting the beach. You can set recording length to 30, 60, or 120 minutes, or let it fill all the available memory. Too bad there's no way to set the date as well; then you'd never have to attend another Monday morning staff meeting.

I Hear Voices

Pocketrak Flip-Up Mics
Flip-up mics help reduce the boundary effect (unwanted resonance caused by laying a mic directly on a flat surface like a table).

The Pocketrak supports voice-activated recording — VAS (for Voice Activated System) in Yamaha-speak. VAS starts recording when the level exceeds one of five user-defined settings. Below that threshold, it slips back into pause and inserts a short gap into the audio file. When the level again exceeds the threshold, the Pocketrak resumes recording. That is a very good thing; some recorders stop recording at that point, potentially missing something important. Among other things, VAS is useful for condensing long-winded monologues or secretly recording the mating calls of the elusive Fargone Meadow Twit.

VAS recording requires activating Auto Level Control (ALC), which can be heavy handed — listen to the weird artifacts in the following clip. To be fair, at a lower mic sensitivity setting, ALC worked like a charm. In the example below, I actually stopped talking for 15 to 30 seconds between phrases.

Incidentally, with ALC engaged, the Pocketrak becomes a one-touch recorder — handy for interviews, podcasts, and other spoken-word work.

The Pocketrak also boasts a feature called Clear Voice. According to the manual, this "makes audio playback less noisy." I purposely recorded in a noisy environment to test it. To my ears, Clear Voice sounded like a fairly heavy handed high- and low-cut EQ — which would help filter out wind noise but didn't do much for my noisy air conditioner. The Clear Voice effect works only during playback.

The recording timer and VAS are both great features for capturing spoken material like lectures, business meetings, and secret arms deals. In fact, given the size of the recorder, I can see Yamaha selling a pile to spy wannabes.

Music to My Ears

In spite of its voice recorder pedigree, the Pocketrak is capable of making decent music recordings. Check out this clip from a jam session I attended in Colorado:

All I did was turn it on, tilt up the mics up so they would be off the floor, and slide the recorder into the middle of the circle. I was sitting behind the mics, so my vocal sounds distant, but the fiddle, steel guitar, and bass sound just fine. I was particularly impressed with the sound of the bass — not an easy instrument to capture.

Voice of Reason

The Pocketrak is clearly intended as a voice recorder. The auto-Level Control is fine for voice, but there is no limiter or EQ. In fact, the product website compares it not to recorders in its price range, but to a basic voice recorder. (See Figure 2.)

Fig. 2: Signal-to-Noise Ratio Graph
Fig. 2: Typical recorders this size are much noisier, according to this analysis by the manufacturer.

That prompts the question: you can pick up a decent voice recorder for well under $100, so why spend several times as much for the Pocketrak 2G?

Leaving aside the issue of price, I'll admit that I grew quite fond of the little guy — it crams an impressive number of features into a minuscule package. It is so small that I never thought of leaving it behind for want of room in my gig bag or briefcase. Even with the tiny display and itty-bitty controls, it is extremely easy to use.

I really like the innovative flip-up mics as well as the nifty case and tripod stand. The whopping 2 gigs of internal memory (enough to hold over 3 hours of WAV audio or 35 hours of 128kbps MP3) and low-drain rechargeable battery are very cool, indeed. I don't know of any inexpensive voice recorder that can match the features, resolution, or capacity of the Pocketrak.

Pocketrak in Pocket
It really is pocket size. (Click to enlarge.)

The frequency response is fine for voice work but leaves something be desired for music. When I did record music, I thought the highs sounded a little splashed. However, as you heard, it does just fine in a pinch.

If music is your thing, there are quite a few choices at or below this price point that record at higher resolutions, have better mics, and sport other features better suited to capturing music. In fact, Yamaha makes a sibling recorder, the Pocketrak CX, aimed at the music crowd.

The bottom line is that the Pocketrak 2G is a solid — albeit pricey — choice for interviewers, students, and business types who need a tiny, large-capacity voice recorder that handles both MP3 and WAV files. In fact, with a built-in USB terminal and swappable battery, it is the ideal recorder for the backpacking ethnographer.

If that's your bag, Yamaha's got your recorder.

Thanks to the old time music crowd in Ashland, OR — Dave, Swampy, Tom, and Jewels. Thanks as well to the gang in Longmont, CO — Gene, Carl, Dave, and Chris. Good friends, cold beer, and music; who could ask for anything more?

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