Intro from Jay Allison: For the Season of Gifts, we have a Jeff Towne review of another tiny new digital audio recorder, this time the Marantz PMD620. The 620 is getting pretty close to the mark, but still has a few weird quirks that may drive you crazy, or maybe you can work around them. Check out all Jeff’s thorough, radio producer-specific reviews at Transom—lots of pictures, details from field use, comparison charts, and audio samples with various microphones.
From Jeff Towne
Marantz has a long history of making professional audio recorders for journalists. Their PMD 222 cassette decks can still be seen in service today, and their PMD 670 was one of the earliest professional flash recorders designed for reporters. Considering this history, it’s no surprise that Marantz got a lot right in the design of the PMD 620, their smallest recorder yet. It’s also surprising that they got a few things very wrong.
On the positive side, although it’s very small and light, the recorder feels very sturdy and well-built. It’s still mostly plastic, but there’s some well-placed metal components, and the switches and buttons feel solid. It sells for about $400 US.
The access doors for the SD card and USB port feel a little flimsy, but that’s certainly not unique to this recorder.
Recording is started by one press of the large REC button, and a red light around it glows solidly when a recording is rolling. That red indicator blinks when a recording is paused. Input volume is on a hardware rocker switch on the side.
Most importantly, audio quality is very good, even when using external microphones. The recorder starts up fast, ready for recording in only a few seconds, and can operate for over four hours on two AA batteries. Controls are fairly obvious, and even the settings that are buried in menus are fairly easy to access.
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Record settings can be stored in three presets, allowing fast access to one’s preferred set-ups. File type (.wav or MP3,) sample rate (44.1K or 48K for .wav files,) bit-depth (16 or 24,) stereo or mono, manual or automatic level control, input preference, and more, a total of 24 parameters, can be saved. This makes changing from stereo ambience collecting to mono interview recording, or high-quality wav file recording to memory-saving mp3 recording, much less menu-intensive.
These presets reside on the recorder, and will not be lost if the SD card is reformatted. The presets can be copied from one 620 to another by saving a preset configuration file onto an SD card, placing that SD card into a second 620, then loading the configuration file. This way, multiple 620s can be set-up identically without laborious repetitive paging through all 24 settings, ideal for newsrooms, educational settings, and other shared-equipment environments.
It should be noted that the 620 can record mono files, which take up half the space on SD cards that stereo files do. Many of the other small machines only record stereo files, or require odd contortions to record mono. When in mono mode, the signal is directed to both channels for monitoring.
The 620 ships with a cradle with two connectors on the back: a belt clip and a standard photo tripod socket that allows the recorder to be mounted in a stable position. It’s plastic and flimsy-feeling, but effective, and allows access to all important controls.
As with most of these small, relatively inexpensive recorders, the mic preamps are not quite as clean as we might like, and have less gain than some of the higher-end professional recorders. However, the 620 makes relatively clean recordings, sounding clearer and less hissy than most of the other small handheld flash recorders, including its larger predecessor, the Marantz PMD 660.
This is especially noticeable when using external microphones. There is only a mini jack for mics, so one needs an adapter cable to use a professional microphone with an XLR connector. This machine does NOT provide phantom power for condenser mics, despite the manual’s confusing use of the term. It CAN provide "plug-in power" for certain small electret microphones, but not the standard 48 volt phantom power required by most professional mics. Because of that, one must either use a dynamic mic, or a condenser mic that has an internal battery.
The input gain has to be turned up very high for use with dynamic omni mics, such as the Electrovoice RE50 or Beyer M58, but the 620 can actually make a decent recording using mics like those. It does even better with higher-output condenser mics, showing only a very small amount of background noise.
Interview mic recording samples:
The internal mics are of decent quality, serviceable in most situations, but a little bright and edgy sounding compared to the mics on the Zoom H2 or H4. In an odd contrast with other similar small flash memory recorders, the 620 actually seems to sound cleaner when using external microphones than with its own built-in mics.
The 620 even has a built-in speaker for those times one just can’t bear to put the headphones on. It’s a tiny speaker, so of course it’s tinny and not all that loud, but it could be handy in certain circumstances.
On the negative side, there are a few design problems that make the 620 problematic. The headphone jack is located directly in-between the two microphones, putting the protruding cable in an inconvenient place if using the internal mics to interview someone. Additionally, the cable can tap against the microphones if one is moving around.
IMPORTANT UPDATE! In April of 2008, Marantz released a firmware update, available here>> . This update fixes an annoying monitoring latency problem as well as a few other issues. There is a "ReadMe" file packaged with the download that explains the process, which can be easily done by any user. Basically one copies the downloaded file onto an SD card, puts the SD card into the 620, powers it up, and the display will ask whether to update. Select "yes" and the 620 will update and restart.
So the following complaints about monitoring latency are now moot, but we’ll leave them here to describe the original recorder.
Much more troubling is the short delay in the sound reaching the headphones, presumably a latency caused by monitoring the sound after it has been through the electronic processing of the record circuit. It’s a very short delay, but just enough to make it difficult to speak while monitoring on headphones. There’s something very unnerving about hearing one’s voice on a short delay, making it difficult to speak naturally, something to keep in mind if one is planning on using one’s questions in the final production.
(One doesn’t hear the ringing feedback in that sound sample when headphones and mic are in their normal positions, but it illustrates the delay in the monitor path.)
This very short delay is less of a problem when monitoring someone else speaking, or other sounds in the environment, but it does make it harder to accurately assess the sound being picked up by the microphone. My fear is that users will stop wearing the headphones, or take one ear off, resulting in less-careful placement of the microphone, potentially allowing more P-pops, or the subject drifting off-mic.
Between the headphone jack placement and the monitoring latency, it seems that Marantz doesn’t think that people wear headphones while recording. But watching meters is not enough: careful listening through good headphones is the only way to verify proper mic placement, and that a bad cable, or external noise in the environment, isn’t going to ruin the recording.
Less severe, but still worth considering is the issue of mechanical noise. The lack of moving parts makes these flash recorders wonderfully quiet for close-up intimate recording. But sometimes, buttons and switches can make noises that show up on the recording. The 620’s record-level controls are on a rocker switch on the right side of the machine, and are easy to adjust on the fly, but pressing the up or down makes an audible click. It’s not very loud, but it IS audible in quiet environments.
Similarly, the LCD screen shows record-level meters OR a time display, not both at once. Toggling between the meter display and the time display requires a button push, and that button clicks. This is a large concern when using the built-in mics, less so when using an external mics, but worth preparing for in either case. One should try to get a good level before critical recording begins, and only change the input level while recording if absolutely necessary.
It’s always safest to leave the screen displaying the input levels, to make sure that the recording is in the safe range, but if it’s important to watch the time display, there are two handy indicator lights above the screen: a green light shows that there is a signal present, the red one will light up if the signal has clipped, the result of too much level into the inputs.
The screen itself is easy to read, with large numbers and meters. Unfortunately, the display gets washed-out in bright sun, but is very good in dark environments and typical room lighting.
Automatic Level Control is fairly good, reducing peaks and returning to normal record gain settings fairly smoothly. This is not always reflected in the headphone signal, a loud spike can create distortion in the monitoring chain even when the recorded signal is clean. Switching the ALC on (one of the selections in the preset set-ups) will cause the input gain to be set fairly high, increasing the average noise floor of the recording. Loud sounds can cause some "pumping" artifacts as the gain circuit reacts to the changing input, so one is usually better-off setting levels manually if possible. But when encountering unpredictable environments with wide ranges of loud and soft sounds, the ALC can be a life saver, and this implementation sounds relatively good.
There are two internal pad settings (also located within the preset set-ups) which reduce the sensitivity of the inputs, for recording loud sounds. These pads work well, allowing for undistorted recordings of amplified music, raucous crowds, explosions, or other such challenging sound sources.
This aspect of the PMD 620 is one of the things that makes this recorder more suited for radio reporters: the microphone gain is relatively high, but can be reduced in loud situations. Most of the other small flash recorders seem to be designed to record loud sources, and simply cannot provide enough gain for quiet ones.
Another useful feature is the flexibilty of track marking. In manual mode, while recording, another press of the (quiet) record button will start a new track at that point, without pausing the recording.
Marantz does not guarantee that the transition between tracks will be seamless, but in practice there seemed to be only a minor disruption to the waveform, which was barely audible, and fairly easily repaired in a digital editor. But it should be noted that the track transitions are not completely transparent down to the sample level. There are auto track marking settings as well, creating new files automatically at predetermined time intervals of 1, 5, 10, 15 or 30 minutes, or 1, 2, 6, 8, 12 or 24 hours. Automatic track marks make for easier navigation through very long recordings, and ensure that recordings are saved, even in the event of batteries falling out, or a power cord becoming disconnected before a file is saved. If batteries run-down during a recording, the 620 will automatically close and save the active file before shutting down.
While playing back, sections of a file can be marked and copied, allowing for faster access to, or transfer of, those sections of audio. This can be especially useful in time-sensitive situations. Files can be browsed, played and deleted with a few clicks through the menu.
In most cases, it’s more practical to transfer the original recordings to a computer for editing. Audio is easily transferred to the computer via the mini USB connection, and the recorder automatically enters data transfer mode when the USB cable is connected. The built-in USB circuit is very slow, the deceptively-named "full speed" rather than the much faster "high speed," so using an external card reader will make for significantly faster transfer of large files. The 620 can use most standard SD cards and larger SDHD cards.
The 620 can make very long uninterrupted recordings, restricted only by the size of the recording media. The 620 can supposedly handle a 2 terabyte SD memory card, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see one of those any time soon, and files that large would be pretty ungainly, and likely incompatible with most editing programs, even computer OS restrictions. Nonetheless, it’s good to know that the 620 can record past the 2 gig file limit that some recorders impose.
The inevitable menus are easy to navigate via the up/down left/right and select buttons that double as transport controls during playback.
With its small size, easy operation, and relatively clean sound with popular reporters’ microphones, the PMD 620 is almost an ideal choice.
The monitoring latency poses a serious problem, making it difficult to accurately monitor a recording, especially in an interview situation. (The original monitoring latency has been eliminated via a firmware upgrade.) The small amount of background hiss, the mechanical noise from button-pushes, and the unfortunate location of the headphone jack are annoyances, but can be worked-around. Whether one can live with the delay in the headphones is a bigger concern, how severe a problem this is may vary by user. But it’s one of the few downsides to an otherwise useful, convenient recorder.