There’s been understandable excitement about the Marantz PMD660, a solid-state recorder that seems designed with the reporter in mind. It’s small, it’s not too expensive, yet with enough professional attributes to give it some tangible advantages over the smaller, cheaper consumer recorders many of us have been using.
Solid-state “Flash Media” recorders in general offer a few advantages over conventional recorders, especially the lack of moving parts, elimination of expendable media, and easy transfer of audio to a computer for editing and archiving. But they also require some shifts of paradigm: we no longer record onto a master tape or disc, which will then be saved in an archive. Instead, audio is recorded to a memory card, then transferred to a computer, after which the card is erased and used again. One needs to have enough storage: large capacity compact flash cards, and perhaps multiple cards. Prices for these cards are changing all the time, in the spring of 2005, they have dropped below $100 per gig. Each gigabyte will give about 90 minutes of stereo recording, or three hours of mono, when recording 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sample rate, .wav files.
The Marantz PMD 660 is a smaller, more streamlined version of their PMD 670, the latest in a long line of recorders designed for journalists in the field. The 660 is missing a few options that its big brother has, but it seems that the relative convenience of the smaller, less-expensive version is a decent compromise.
The 660 is very light, and fairly compact. It’s not quite small enough to casually toss into a pocket like a little consumer minidisc recorder, or a reporter’s digital voice recorder, but it’s pretty reasonable for something that has XLR inputs and a speaker. It feels a little fragile, because it’s plastic, so I don’t have lots of faith that it would survive a drop too well. It does not come with a case, and there is not presently one offered by Marantz, which is too bad, it probably could use some padding. The ergonomics are good, with controls in fairly convenient locations, meters easy to read when the unit is hung from its shoulder strap, the mic inputs conveniently on the bottom.
Marantz is frequently criticized for the noisiness of their mic preamps, but the 660’s are fairly clean when used with condenser mics, which the manual recommends, saying that dynamic mics will work, but are not ideal. The unit will provide phantom power for condenser mics. With fairly loud condenser mics there’s still a very low hiss, but it’s so low it’s unlikely to cause much of a problem for most users. With a dynamic omni such as the Electrovoice 635 or RE50, or Beyer M-58, the hiss is much more prominent. So this might be the deciding factor whether this is the recorder for you. If you really like using a relatively low-output mic, such as an RE50 or Beyer M-58, there really might be some hiss issues. But if you use a louder mic, like a Sennheiser K6/ME66 shotgun, the hiss probably won’t be an issue.
The Oade Brothers company offers an analog input modification to the larger PMD670. They were kind enough to lend me a unit and I felt that that their modifications really do noticably improve the input stage. They may offer similar modifications to the 660 in the future. Even with these modifications, they say they still get the best results with louder condenser mics.
Analog line-level in and out are available on stereo mini jacks, made active by a menu setting.
There are two built-in electret mics flush mounted on the top of the unit, but I found them pretty useless for anything but dictation-level recording. There’s an obvious high frequency whine on the recordings, and any hand movement on the case translates to very loud scraping sounds.
There are not nearly as many recording options as some recorders, and many of those that remain are buried in menus. But there is a clever concept: three presets that store input configuration, recording format, automatic or manual gain control, and many other settings. So you can have a preset for “external mic/mono/44.1 wav/AGC” and another that’s the same but with manual record level, and another that’s “built-in mic/stereo/mp3/AGC” or many other combinations. The individual settings can be changed with a few button combinations, but there are almost no hardware switches for the things we’re used to switching, like Automatic Gain Control, or for the mic pad, or for selecting built-in mic, external mic or line, these are all menu selections. But the presets let you have your most common set-ups ready to go, and that’s a pretty good trade-off.
The 660 does NOT offer MP2 recording, only 16-bit PCM (wav files) at 44.1khz or 48khz, or fairly low bandwidth MP3, (128 kbps stereo or 64 kbps mono.) It does NOT have a limiter. It does have Automatic Gain Control, which has all the usual problems: some pumping as the levels shift, and possible clipping if the AGC can’t pull back fast enough when recording something suddenly loud. I feel that the overall level is a bit too high with the AGC on, but I generally prefer the sound of recordings with record levels set manually.
The metering is pretty easy to read, except in very bright sun, it’s a light-ladder rather than an LCD. The gradations are fairly coarse: seven “signal present” lights and then a clip. I have lit the red clip light a few times without audible distortion. There is a clever record-indicator light to the left of the meter: solid red means you’re recording, a blinking red means you’re in record-pause, no light, you’re not recording. There is a 20dB pad for reducing the input gain of the mics if recording something very loud. When in manual record mode, the input volume is adjusted by large nested knobs that move together, but the left and right inputs can be adjusted separately. The 660 does not have the 670’s recording mode that automatically records a mono mic to both channels, with a lower signal on one. Recording in mono mode gives twice the record time of stereo recordings.
You can also see if you’re recording by watching the display on the top of the unit, which has a bright momentary backlight for dim environments, and a display mode that can show elapsed time in the track or remaining time left on the memory card. This better than most old fashioned tape decks, but it might have been nice to have some kind of counter on the same edge as the meters.
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The 660 comes with a power adapter, but for portable recording, it runs on 4 standard AA batteries. Battery life is pretty good, but you’ll want to invest in some good rechargeables, or battery costs will build up pretty fast! With phantom power off, I was able to get over six and a half hours of continuous recording on one set of standard off-the-shelf alkalines. Using a condenser mic with the 660’s phantom power took about an hour off of that record time. Using a condenser mic with its own internal battery would likely be the most efficient. The battery display is a little ambiguous, I ran for over an hour on an empty battery icon, so you might need to develop some additional battery life estimates. I filled an entire 2-gig CF card, recording a mono 44.1 wav file, so I know to change the batteries when the card is full. The good news is that just before the batteries run out, the PMD660 will write table-of-contents data, so even if you run the machine until the batteries die, you should not lose any recordings. The machine will also emit a loud beeping sound about 15 seconds before it shuts down. This can be turned off, and it’s a little too close to the end of battery life to be really helpful, but at least it’s some kind of warning.
There’s no digital in or out, but using the USB connection, or just reading the CF card in an external reader, should obviate the need for digital out. You can’t just play a small section of your recording out digitally (although there is a way to copy sections of your recording internally, so you could transfer less than the entire CF card to your computer.) The data transfer is easy, there’s no proprietary software, just plug up the provided USB cable, and power the unit on while holding the “copy/USB” button, and the memory card will appear as an external drive on your computer. There aren’t drivers for some older operating systems, but the compact flash cards can be read by an external card reader. It’s plug-and-play under Mac OSX and Windows XP. The interface is the older USB-1 standard, and therefore not too speedy. It takes about 15 minutes to move an hour-long stereo .wav file (660 megs). Using an external USB-2 card reader is MUCH better if your computer supports USB 2, the same file copied in less than 5 minutes.
Individual tracks, or the entire card, can be deleted with a few button pushes on the 660, but be careful: it does ask twice, but there’s no undo.
Many of these recorders can save files as smaller “compressed” files, usually in the MP2 or MP3 format. This can dramatically increase recording time, but a word of caution is in order. The convenience of compressed files is undeniable, and in many cases the sound of an MP2 or MP3 is of sufficient quality for many uses. But there’s a larger issue. “Lossy” compression like MP2 and MP3 is a cumulative process, and while one or two compressions are often barely noticeable, more can lead to highly unpleasant audio artifacts. MP2 is a very common delivery format in the broadcast world, and also a popular storage format in broadcast automation systems. Other types of compression are more common on the internet, or in satellite broadcast. So if you record to a compressed format in the field, it might sound just fine playing back, but if it’s recompressed for delivery to you r editor, and then recompressed for satellite delivery, and then again on the way into a storage system, your audio might “break” and start sounding metallic and gurgley. If your recording will be used in such a way that you’re sure there won’t be additional transcodings, you can likely use a compressed format with few negative consequences. But for broadcast or delivery over the internet, it is highly recommended to record in an uncompressed format, such as .wav. Be careful, you CAN record compressed MP2 files with the “.bwf” file extension, which stands for “Broadcast Wave File” but does NOT always indicate an uncompressed format. Make sure you are recording a 44.1 khz or 48 khz PCM file to be safest.
The Marantz PMD 660 has a street price of about $500, but comes with only a 64 meg Compact Flash memory card, which only gives you about 6 minutes of stereo .wav recording, so you’ll need to add a larger card. One and two gigabyte Compact Flash cards are readily available for a little under $100 per gig. Larger capacity “microdrives” are compatible, but reportedly draw more power and can be succeptible to bumps and vibration, although we have not had a chance to test any microdrives yet. The compact flash media seem impervious to movement of the recorder and even moderate bumping and shaking. The cover over the card slot, on the front of the unit, below the meters, feels a little flimsy, but if using the 660’s USB interface, the card would never need to be removed. The door can even be screwed shut for greater security for the small but expensive memory cards.
In short, the PMD 660 has a few shortcomings, but provides a good balance of price and features. The XLR mic inputs, phantom power and large input volume dial are real pluses, and the preset recording modes make it easy to use. The mic pre amps are decent quality when used with condenser mics,a little hissy with dynamics. Ergonomics are pretty good, with well-positioned, easy-to-read meters, and logical mic-jack placement. Transfer of files to a computer is fast and easy, although large file do take some time to move over USB. Although it’s not quite as small or inexpensive as consumer minidisc recorders, the professional inputs, easy file transfer, and good input volume control make this an attractive option.
The Marantz PMD 670 is larger and more expensive, and while it offers more recording options, such as recording to MP2, and a limiter, the 660 does most of what its big brother does, and provides a simpler, less intimidating interface and more convenient form. The Edirol R1 is a little smaller and less expensive, but does not offer XLR mic inputs or phantom power. The Fostex FR2 is about twice as expensive and much larger and heavier. The Sound Devices 722 is more than 4 times as expensive, but offers a large dedicated hard drive and superior input sonics. Any of those recorders will do the job, and might fit someone’s specific needs better, but the PMD 660 is a well-designed tool, especially for remote interviews and other newsgathering-type activities.