Intro from Jay Allison
Transom is committed to testing new tools for public radio producers. To that end, our TOOLS editor Jeff Towne has reviewed a lot of the new small digital recorders. They’re getting better. In fact, of the Sony PCM-D50, Jeff says, “Among all the small handheld flash recorders, the Sony D50 certainly is near the front of the pack. It does most things right, with only a few minor problems, and no tragic flaws.” So, it’s not quite perfect, but if you’re in the market, you should check out this review.
From Jeff Towne
Sony has long been a reliable source for small field recorders for reporters. The venerable TC-D5M cassette recorder, the Walkman Pro, the TCD-D7 DAT recorder, and various Minidisc recorders have occupied prominent places in independent audio producers’ gear bags over the years. With the shift of technology to flash-memory-based recorders, many have wondered why so many of the small, inexpensive devices didn’t record as cleanly as their Sony Minidisc recorders did, and wished for a flash recorder with a Sony pedigree. At first, Sony’s only offering was the $2,000 PCM-D1, celebrated for its sound quality, but beyond the budget of many recordists.
The Sony PCM-D50 shares many attributes of its more expensive predecessor, and even with more affordable microphone elements and preamps, it delivers high quality sound from both the internal mics and external sources.
The compact design leaves no room for XLR mic inputs, so a stereo mini jack is the only port for connecting an external mic. The major downside of this design is that the D50 cannot provide phantom power to condenser microphones, so if one wishes to use an external mic, it must be a dynamic, or a condenser with its own battery for phantom power. The D50 can provide "plug-in power" to small electret microphones that require it, but it’s important to remember that this is not the same thing as phantom power.
If one needs phantom power and XLR inputs, there is an optional module for the D50 and D1, called the XLR1, but that adapter is approximately the same size and price of the recorder itself. Doubling the size and price of the recording rig makes this solution much less attractive, but it is nice to know that the option is available if needed.
Even without the XLR1, the D50 is a little larger than most of the hand-held flash recorders. While it might be just a bit too wide to easily fit in a pocket, or be comfortable in smaller hands, it does feel sturdy and well-built. Buttons and knobs are logically-placed, especially the input volume knob, which falls comfortably under one’s thumb when the recorder is held in the right hand. This smooth, solid-feeling knob is just one of the elements that makes the D50 feel much more serious and professional than many of its competitors. One gets the sense that this recorder is built to last, and could survive some real-world bumps and scrapes.
There are hardware switches for most important functions, and while there is an extensive array of settings accessible through menus, many of the adjustments one would most often make are handled by physical buttons and switches. Choosing mic or line-level input is done with a switch on the upper left side, somewhat illogically placed on the opposite side of the machine from the inputs, though it’s not too hard to find. The limiter and low-cut filter can be engaged with switches on the back. Connecting an external mic engages that input automatically, no switching or menu-surfing required. Same for connecting the recorder to a computer to transfer soundfiles: just plug in the USB cable and the D50 automatically enters file-transfer mode. The line-in and line-out jacks double as mini optical S/PDIF digital connections, and the machine automatically detects whether an analog or digital connection is made.
Recording is simple: press the red record button to enter record-pause, a red record indicator light flashes. Adjust the input volume, then press the pause button to begin recording. The record indicator changes to a steady red, and the elapsed time counter begins running. Although this is a common design, I prefer the one-button record functionality of the Marantz 620 and the Sound Devices recorders. I’d always rather be rolling by default. In chaotic situations, it’s too easy to see meters bouncing and hear sound in the headphones and assume one is recording. Beware the pause button, it is not your friend. This behavior can be overridden by pressing both the record and play buttons simultaneously and recording will begin immediately. However, that’s not an especially easy button combination to achieve without using both hands.
If one is adjusting something in a menu, the record function cannot be engaged. One must back out of the menu first, then hit record, then disengage the pause –– not ideal if suddenly confronted with an important event.
Compensating for this potential source of delay, and for unexpected live circumstances, the D50 offers a pre-record buffer, which holds 5 seconds of audio in memory at all times, allowing recording to start before the record button is pushed. Gotta love time travel.
The display is fairly easy to read, although it’s better in moderate to low light than bright sun. If the LCD meters are difficult to see, there are handy signal-present and clip indicators above the meters, although those are not easy to see in bright light either. As expected, green indicates a healthy input level, red an over. The single input gain knob does not allow setting separate levels for the left and right channels, but this is not unusual in small recorders. Other than the lack of discrete left and right trims, it’s an excellent input control: silent, stiff enough to resist accidental bumps, and smooth enough to allow precise adjustments even with one thumb.
D50 Internal microphones in the 90-degree orientation, recording a 12-string guitar, approximately 12" from the instrument
(thanks to Mark Oppenlander for the guitar work)
The D50′s built-in mics sound very good, and the two capsules can be physically positioned in different patterns, which is useful in different recording situations. The 90-degree setting gets pretty close to a classic XY stereo pattern, which delivers some stereo separation and very good mono compatibility. There is an unmarked detent for the mics facing straight forward, and this position would probably make the most sense for recording an interview if the stereo ambience is unimportant or might be distracting. The 120-degree setting gives more vivid stereo separation, and is better for capturing widely-spaced sources. The distance between the mic elements is not quite right, but the angle between them is the same as used in the ORTF stereo mic technique widely used for classical music recording. This capsule orientation does not always translate perfectly to mono, but in most circumstances it will sound fine.
The internal microphones present some challenges in real-world uses. The most troublesome is the issue of wind-sensitivity. All microphones, especially directional ones, are susceptible to wind noise, but the D50′s internal mics are VERY sensitive to the slightest breeze, breath noise or vocal plosive. Even moving the recorder in a gentle movement pointing from one person to another, can generate enough air movement to create loud rumbles and distortions. I would go so far as to say that if one intends on using the D50 internal microphones in any other circumstance than indoors on a stand, a windscreen is absolutely required.
The good news is that Sony’s optional furry windscreen is quite effective. The bad news is that it costs almost $50, it sheds a little, and it inevitably elicits jokes about Don King, Tribbles and the possibility that the windscreen itself is alive. Spending the money and enduring the ridicule are both worth it because the furry windscreen does an excellent job of controlling both wind and voice plosive issues. There’s a limit of course: this furry does not provide sufficient protection to get clear sound in high winds, but it does a fine job in normal circumstances.
The other irritating characteristic of directional mics in general, and ones mounted on a a recorder in particular, is that they readily pick-up handling noise. Sony offers a stand as an expensive accessory, but the socket on the bottom of the unit is a standard photo-tripod thread, so many inexpensive options are available if a stationary position is desired. With a little practice, it’s not too difficult to develop a soft-yet-firm grip on the recorder that will reduce noise from the case.
While the D50’s internal microphones are quick to use, they’re not ideal for all situations. In many circumstances, especially in interview situations, an external mic is preferable. Most of the small flash-media recorders have been lacking in this regard, with poor-quality preamps resulting in low levels and distorted or hissy sound. The D50 provides enough clean gain that one can use even low output microphones, such as the EV-RE50 or the Beyer M58. Those dynamic omnis often create the biggest problems for small flash recorders, requiring the input gains to be cranked all the way up, resulting in noise and grunge. Even then, the soundfiles often needed digital boosting at the editing stage.
Not so with the Sony D50: there is still more gain available after setting a good level for recording a conversation using a dynamic omni mic. There was a small amount of hiss in the background, but pretty far back, significantly quieter than the majority of small hand-held recorders. Higher output microphones, such as condenser mics with internal batteries for phantom power, sounded good as well.
The D50 has an unconventional digital limiter. Instead of a typical analog gain reduction in reaction to a loud sound, the D50 is continually creating a second audio path, 20dB lower than the signal being recorded. If the limiter is engaged, and a loud sound would cause clipping, the D50 will switch over to the lower-level signal, and record that quieter signal instead. It then returns to the original record level at a rate set in the menu: 150ms, 1 sec, or 1 min. At the shorter recovery times, the effect sounds similar to a conventional limiter, just with a predetermined 20dB attenuation. At the 1-minute recovery time, there is no pumping in reaction to a loud sound, just a consistently lower record level, then a smooth, gradual return to the original setting. It seems odd, but in practice, it sounds pretty good, and artifacts can be adjusted in later editing, because it’s reducing the volume in a consistent and predictable way. Extremely loud signals can still clip the inputs, if that 20dB duck is insufficient to keep the signal out of the red, but in most cases the limiter does a good job of avoiding clips, and reducing artifacts.
A new soundfile can be started while recording by pressing the "divide" button next to the transport controls. This button does make an audible click if one is using the internal mics. Additionally, although the tracks can be reassembled fairly smoothly in a digital editor, there is a slight discontinuity at the exact moment of the divide, so it’s best to press that button at a non-critical moment. The D50 has a 2-gig file-size limit: if a long and/or high-resolution recording reaches 2 gigs, that file will close, and recording will automatically continue in a new file.
The D50 only records stereo files, there is no setting that allows the user to save memory by recording mono wav files. This is an annoyance, but as flash memory gets cheaper and capacities get larger, it may be a minor quibble.
It runs on 4 AA batteries, held in a quick-release sled that allows for fast changeovers if you have a spare. Battery life is pretty remarkable, I had the thing recording and playing back and transferring files over USB for over 12 hours on 4 standard alkaline batteries, and it was still showing some battery life remaining, before I gave up and went to sleep.
As is the case with most any electronic device these days, especially one as small as this, many of the settings are hidden in menus. Thankfully the D50′s menus are fairly easy to navigate and for the most part only one-deep. The options can be scrolled-through by pressing the forward or rewind keys on the transport, and then selected by pressing the play/enter button.
One press of the menu button reveals 10 folders into which one can record. This can be handy for keeping soundfiles for different projects organized, but occasionally results in a bit of hunting around for your soundfiles if you didn’t pay attention to which folder was active at the time of recording.
Pressing and holding the menu button reveals the other options available as global record settings. All record modes are uncompressed, ranging from 22.05 khz/16 bit to 96 khz/24 bit. There is no option to record to MP3, although it can play them back. MP3 is not a good format for original recordings, it is preferable to record 44.1khz/16 bit .wav files at a minimum, so this is not a big loss. This is a professional-level recorder, if you need a machine to record non-critical audio in compressed formats, there are smaller, less expensive options out there than this one.
There are settings for the release time for the limiter and the frequency of the low-cut filter, although these are engaged through hardware switches on the back of the recorder. One can engage "super bit-mapping" which claims to give 20-bit quality when recording a 16-bit file. The pre-record buffer can be turned on and off, as can plug-in power, and the display LEDs.
The D50 can play back audio at faster or slower speeds than it was recorded. The percentage of speeding up or down is set in the menu. Engaging this Digital Pitch Control is done by flipping a switch on the left side of the recorder.
One can choose to record to the built-in 4-gigabytes of memory, or to an (optional) external Sony Memory Stick. Sadly, one cannot record to both at the same time, nor can a recording automatically switch from one to the other if one fills up. Although a standard Sony Memory Stick will fit in the slot, Sony recommends using their "Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo" or "Memory Stick Pro Duo" cards, claiming that the slower standard Memory Sticks may not operate reliably.
Files can be deleted from the menu as well, or all memory can be erased and reformatted.
Overall, the Sony PCM-D50 is a very well-built recorder, offering most of what’s been on my wish list. The internal mics sound great, and most impressively, external mics do as well. It comes with 4 gigs of built-in memory, which will provide a lot of record time, even without buying any removable Memory Sticks.
On the down side: being relegated to a minijack mic input, and therefore no phantom power, rules out using a few of my favorite mics. Although the jack Sony used on this machine appears to be robust, those connectors are historically much more prone to failure than XLRs. Stereo-only recording burns through memory twice as fast as it should, if one is doing one-mic interviews. A mono record mode would be nice. The furry wind screen is pretty much a necessity, they really ought to include it with the recorder. And the D50 is just a little bit too big and heavy to casually carry around with you all the time.
But I think all those complaints are overwhelmed by the overall good sound quality from both internal and external microphones as well as line-level inputs.
There seem to be new flash recorders released every few weeks, in fact as I was writing this review, I noticed two more that need to be investigated. While I’m not prepared to declare a winner, among all the small handheld flash recorders, the Sony D50 certainly is near the front of the pack. It does most things right, with only a few minor problems, and no tragic flaws.