Intro from Jay Allison: If they keep making them, we'll keep testing them. Jeff Towne has been working with the new Marantz 661 Digital Audio Recorder, an update of the 660 (also reviewed on Transom). For radio production use, this machine has nice features like XLR inputs, AA batteries, and a 1/4-inch headphone jack. Jeff says the pre-amps are much better than in the earlier unit and that the 661 now uses SD cards. While it's bigger than a lot of the tiny new digital recorders, this one looks to be a good workhorse in the field. Check it.
From Jeff Towne
Portable field recorders have changed dramatically in the years since the Marantz PMD 660 was released. Even back in 2005, it was not the first flash-memory based field recorder, but it was the earliest to offer professional features such as XLR mic inputs and phantom power in an affordable and compact package. What seemed like a conveniently tiny box then looks impractically large today, now that there are high-quality recorders that can fit in a shirt pocket. But there still are some advantages to a larger form: XLR mic inputs take up space, so do large displays and speakers.
The original PMD 660 had some downsides: the mic preamps were hissy and would distort with high-output mics, the mini headphone jacks were prone to shorting out, the built-in microphones were practically useless, and pins in the Compact Flash memory card slot would occasionally bend, rendering the machine inoperable. Despite those problems, it has remained a popular recorder because it was easy to use, fairly durable, and sounded good enough for many situations.
Marantz has updated the PMD 660 with the PMD 661 and the good news is that it’s a major improvement all around. While it still resembles the 660, it’s slimmed down a little, and most of the major issues that plagued the original have been solved. The mic preamps are much cleaner, the headphone jack is now a much more solid-feeling quarter-inch jack, and the memory card type has been changed to SD, which doesn’t have pins that are as likely to bend.
The display is improved as well; it’s big and bright, easily read in darkness and full light. For better or worse, the display is split between multiple pages: one is time elapsed, another time remain, another page has a meter display, another page displays all the recording set-up information. This has some advantages; each display is large and clear, much easier to read than a jumbled display that tries to show everything. It can, however, be irritating to have to switch screens to see some vital information. In most cases it’s not a problem, there’s a second set of LED meters, so the display can generally be left set to show the time.
The second set of meters is a series of lights set at an angle on the end of the recorder, so it can be read when the machine is set on a table top, or when hung over the shoulder on the provided strap. That meter is easy to read in the dark, and not too bad even in bright light.
Between the two meters and the analog input gain knob, it’s fairly easy to set a good record level, and the best news about the PMD 661 is that it sounds great. The microphone preamps are clean, provide full 48 volt phantom power, and do not distort when high-output microphones are plugged-in, like the 660 used to. Like most of these portable recorders, higher-output microphones are a better match, resulting in cleaner sound quality. But even popular dynamic omni mics such as the Electrovoice RE-50, or the Beyer M58 are viable choices. There’s a little background hiss when cranking the input gain up above 6 or 7, so condenser mics are better choices for recording quiet sources like conversational voices, and the on-board phantom power makes using mics like the Beyer MCE-58 or the Audio Technica 8010 more convenient.
The built-in mics are decent quality, and would be acceptable for gathering ambience and rough you-are-there audio, but they’re not very well suited for interviews, partially for sonic reasons, and partly for ergonomic ones. This recorder is a little bulky to hold in an ideal position for good voice recording, and the internal mics are pretty sensitive to P-Pops and handling noise on the body of the recorder. The 661 is clearly designed to be used with external mics, and while the internals may be helpful in some situations, they shouldn’t be the first choice. The mics also pick up some hum from the recorder itself, which may be masked by busy ambiences or loud sources, but the hum would be fairly apparent in a voice recording in a quiet room.
The ability to hang this recorder over the shoulder is a major plus when recording on the move. The ergonomics are very good in that position, the meters are in plain view, the input gain can be adjusted with a large analog knob, and one’s hands are free to hold a mic, or notes, or to easily make adjustments. There’s also a socket on the bottom of the recorder that allows the recorder to be mounted on a standard photo tripod.
The downside of the physical dimensions of this recorder is that compared to many other current models of flash-media recorders it’s large and heavy. It’s 3.7” wide, 6.5” long and 1.4” high, and weighs just under a pound (14 oz.) In absolute terms, that’s not so big, but compared to an Olympus LS-10, it’s almost comical. That size does allow for XLR mic jacks with full phantom power, it provides a much better, brighter display with two metering options, and it leaves space for a quarter-inch headphone jack and a good-sized input gain knob.
Other than tweaking that input gain knob, there aren’t a lot of adjustments to be made while recording. There are a wide range of possible record settings, but in practical use, there are usually only a few configurations that a user consistently employs. The 661 has three presets into which one can store preferred setups.
Input can be switched between the XLR mic/line inputs, an alternate line input on a stereo minijack, or an S/PDIF digital input on an RCA coax connector.
Recording formats can be chosen between linear PCM (wav files) at 16 or 24 bits or MP3 files at several resolutions between 64 khz and 320 khz. The compressed MP3 files allow much longer record times, but sound quality can be compromised, so stick with the PCM settings for serious audio production. Sample rates can be set to 44.1 khz, 48khz or even 96khz. Files can be recorded as stereo or mono: mono files take up half the space on the memory card that stereo files do. When recording in mono, the sound from one microphone is routed to both channels of the headphones. The pre-record setting records audio into a buffer so that recording can start before the record button is pushed. Level control can be set for manual or for Automatic Level Control. The ALC is rather heavy-handed, creating audible pumping sounds, and causing peaks to clip, so it’s best avoided for broadcast use.
The recorder can be set to make new tracks at designated time intervals: from once a minute, in several gradations up to once every 24 hours. It can be set to create marks when audio level crosses a predefined audio level; those marks can be used to navigate when playing back on the recorder (but do not transfer into editing programs.) A pad can be applied to the mic input, attenuating the input gain by 6, 12, or 18 dB. This is useful when recording very loud events. A low cut filter can be engaged to reduce bassy sounds such as wind rumble or handling noise on a microphone. Conversely a High Cut can be engaged if one wishes to reduce the treble end of the spectrum. These filters are effective, but fairly coarse. Much more accurate adjustments can be made at the mix stage, so it’s usually best to avoid those filters unless facing an extreme situation that requires them.
The length of time skipped backward when playing back in the recorder can be adjusted, as can settings for what buttons are disabled by the lock function. Battery settings can be switched between Alkaline and rechargeable Ni-MH. This setting allows the recorder to more accurately predict the life of the four AA batteries required to power the recorder. The recorder can be set to power itself off after a defined period of no buttons being pushed. It also can be set to beep an audible warning when battery life is getting very low. If the batteries run out while recording, the record session stops, closes and is saved before the unit powers off.
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I got a respectable 6 hours of constant recording from new Alkaline AA batteries, even with phantom power switched on, and mics connected. The total record time possible will vary with battery type, whether phantom power is on, and may even be somewhat affected by the recording format.
Each of these settings can be saved into a preset. The procedure for making and editing presets is a little cumbersome, requiring many button pushes and cursor moves, but the process starts feeling automatic after a few tries. Switching between presets is fairly quick: there are three software-defined buttons under the main display, the one on the left is the menu button, pressing that brings up a menu. The first item on the menu is Presets, so pressing the Enter button at the center of the main navigation control on the top of the unit navigates to the preset page. Pressing up or down on the navigation control chooses the preset number, pressing enter brings up another menu, allowing one to select this preset as the active configuration, to edit that preset, or to rename that preset. Choosing Select will load the record settings saved in that preset.
Pressing Edit brings up four pages of editable settings, 20 in all, which can be navigated by the up/down/left/right buttons that surround the Enter button. When the desired settings are edited, pressing the soft key that is now named EXIT will bring up a dialog asking whether to store this new configuration. Use the left and right keys to highlight YES, press enter, and the new settings are stored in that preset. It seems like one ought to be able to just start recording at this point, but a preset still needs to be loaded, so again, choose a preset, press enter, then enter again to select it.
This sounds like too many menu pages and button clicks, and it can get a little frustrating to have to navigate all those levels just to change an input setting, or file-type, but in practice, the most common recording setups can be stored in the three presets, and accessing those is relatively quick: MENU>>ENTER>>(select preset)ENTER>>ENTER. Yes, that’s five button pushes for even the simplest change, but if the desired preset is already loaded, recording can start with one press of the large REC button.
That button glows red when recording is underway, and recording does start with one press, there’s not an intermediate Record-Pause mode as with some recorders (which frequently leads to missed recordings.) There is a REC PAUSE button that will pause the recording, and the red record indicator will blink to indicate that status, but it’s highly recommended to avoid using the pause button. If one only uses RECORD and STOP, there’s less ambiguity about whether a recording is actually underway. The left-most soft button under the main display is marked TR during recording, and pressing it will start a new track. The middle soft button will toggle that same button to “undo” which will prompt a dialog to undo the most recent recording, so make sure the left button is set to TR if you’d like to make new tracks in the midst of recording. The right-most button will insert a mark at the time it’s pressed. Those marks can be used later to navigate through the file when playing the audio on the recorder, but they do not move with the soundfile when it’s transferred to a computer for editing.
There’s a mini USB jack on the side of the recorder, so files can be transferred to a computer by simply attaching a USB cable. The 661 Automatically enters USB mode, and will show up as an external drive on your computer’s desktop. Alternately, the memory card can be easily removed and inserted into an external card reader, which generally allows for faster data transfer, although the built-in USB 2 interface is significantly faster than the 660’s standard USB connection.
Overall, the PMD 661 is a significant improvement over the 660, demonstrating much-improved audio quality, a better display, a louder, more stable headphone output, and adding a digital input. The XLR mic jacks with full phantom power, powering by four standard AA batteries, and its ability to record mono files make it very attractive for serious on-the go field recording. Unlike its predecessor, it’s not especially picky about what mics are connected to it, although cleaner sound is obtained by using higher-output mics. Thankfully the onboard 48 volt phantom power makes using condenser mics easy, a major advantage over smaller recorders that use minijack inputs for microphones.
The main stumbling point is its size and weight: it’s pretty small compared to the portable cassette or DAT recorders that were standard only a few years ago, but compared to many of the tiny hand-held flash recorders, it’s a behemoth. It’s not going to fit in anyone’s shirt pocket, but the human sized controls, highly readable display and XLR inputs make a good argument for its relative bulk. The case is still that classic Marantz plastic, not the most durable material, but build quality feels solid otherwise.
There are new, smaller, less-expensive recorders from Zoom and Tascam that feature XLR inputs and phantom power, but the sound quality and ergonomics of the 661 set a high bar to leap over. If the size is not a problem, and the approximately $600 pricetag is affordable, the PMD 661 is worth considering.