Intro from Jay Allison: Jeff Towne reviews three new portable digital recorders from Tascam (The DR-07, DR-1, and DR-100): “Tascam has released three smaller, less-expensive SD card-based recorders, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but all offering good functionality and decent sound quality.” I won’t give it away, but one of them gets the nod as the best new budget recorder. Jeff also includes a mini-review of a relatively inexpensive omni field mic to match with the new generation of recorders, the Audio Technica 8010.
Tascam has been a serious player in professional-level field recording for many years. Their DAP-1 portable DAT machine was a very popular device for remote recording, and its digital successor, the HDP-2 (reviewed here>>) offered the same functionality, recording to Compact Flash media rather than digital tape. But the HDP-2 is big and expensive. Tascam has released three smaller, less-expensive SD card-based recorders, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but all offering good functionality and decent sound quality.
Transferring files to a computer for editing or archiving is simple: plug in a (supplied) mini USB-to-USB cable from the recorder to a USB jack on your computer. Do not plug into a USB hub, plug directly into the computer. The recorders will automatically go into USB transfer mode, and appear on the computer as a removable drive. Soundfiles are stored in a folder called “Music” and can be copied to another drive by dragging and dropping or any conventional file management technique.
The DR-1 and DR-100 can also charge their internal Li-Ion batteries while connected via USB, but it’s a slow process, allow several hours for a full charge using this method. Unlike some manufacturers devices, these recorders can NOT perform record or playback functions while connected via USB, so your computer or a portable USB battery pack cannot act as a back-up power source. One can purchase an optional A/C power adapter from Tascam, but none of the recorders ships with one.
The internal mics are of decent quality, although there is a noticeable amount of hiss when used to record quiet sources. Their position pointing out the end of the recorder make the DR-07 much better-suited for impromptu interviewing than the Zoom H2, another sub-$200 flash recorder that’s proved attractive to budget-minded recordists. The built-in mics are very directional, and so they’re pretty susceptible to P-Pops, wind and handling noise, so ideally, one would want to use an external microphone for serious interviews, but it’s nice to have the built-in mics for fast-paced run-and-gun circumstances. Tascam provides a foam windscreen that helps reduce the effect of wind on the mics, and it does help, but it only goes so far. Any hand movement on the case is very audible as well, so the built-in mics are not an ideal choice for interviews, but they can work well for recording ambiences and impromptu vox populi comments.
There’s no switching required or menu settings to change when using an external mic, just plug the mic into the mini jack and the recorder automatically switches to that input. (There’s a menu setting to activate the separate line-level input.) The record volume for all inputs is set in two places: there’s a menu setting for low, medium or high gain, and then a volume knob on the side. Choosing high gain and then turning the input knob up high creates a problematic whiny buzz, so a high-output microphone is best suited for typical interviews. Popular dynamic omni mics, such as the RE-50, don’t have a loud enough output for this recorder, resulting in buzzy, or hissy background sound when levels are normalized at the mix stage.
However, this inexpensive recorder sounds pretty good with higher-output microphones. Condenser mics that get phantom power from internal batteries work very well with the DR-07, creating relatively low-noise recordings. There is a built-in limiter that can be engaged via a menu, and it doesn’t impact too negatively on the sound quality, but the Automatic Gain Control is pretty heavy-handed, and is best avoided if sound quality is an issue. This sub-$200 recorder’s sonic purity is not going to rival machines 5 to 10 times its price, but it sounds much better with external microphones than the other recorders in its price range.
The DR-1 functions very similarly to the DR-07, and has the same basic sonic behavior as well. The built-in mics are pretty good, but using them requires a steady hand, as handling noise and wind can be a problem. If an external mic is used, like with the DR-07, the DR-1 requires a fairly high-output model to avoid hissy background noise, unless one is recording loud events. But with a condenser mic, the DR-1 can make very good sounding recordings even of quiet sources like interviews.
In a refreshing change from most recorders, choosing which input is live does not require hunting through menus and sub-menus: there’s a hardware switch on the top of the recorder that allows easy selection and confirmation of the active input. Unlike the Zoom H4n, the DR-100 can only record from one pair of inputs at a time, which is pretty standard, and usually sufficient for most field recordings.
Surprisingly, the DR-100 displays similar audio performance as its smaller relatives. The XLR jacks provide a more secure connection, and the phantom power allows a wider-range of microphones to be used, but the mic preamps still don’t have sufficient gain to make strong recordings with low-output mics. The preamps are a bit cleaner overall than the ones in the DR-1 and DR-07 – not pristinely quiet even with high-output mics, there’s a small amount of background hiss – but overall, the sound quality is quite good. But the DR-100’s performance with low-output mics such as reporter stand-bys the EV RE50, or 635A, leaves much to be desired.
The built-in unidirectional microphones are handy for recording music, ambiences and live events, but like the external inputs, they seem to be optimized for loud sounds. While these internal mics could be used for interviewing in some circumstances, there’s a noticeable whooshy background hiss, and a low-level pulsating high-pitch tone that’s clearly audible when recording in quiet spaces. Additionally, the microphones are very sensitive to P-Pops and wind, and handling noise from the case is readily transmitted through the mics, so in most cases, an external microphone is better for interview work.
The built-in omnidirectional microphones are almost useless; any recorded sound is muffled, buried in hiss and that pesky high-pitched tone. Still, there could be some practical use for these mics, as long as the recordings were not meant for broadcast or critical listening.
The DR-100 ships with a soft carrying pouch, which offers some protection, but sadly doesn’t have a pocket for cables or spare media, or even space for the foam windscreen. But it’s better than nothing, and can protect the unit from minor scratches and bumps.
One big difference between the three recorders is the powering scheme. The DR-1 is burdened with a proprietary rechargeable battery, not AA cells as has become fairly standard for these compact recorders. The battery is relatively long-lived, and can be removed, so carrying a spare is a possible solution, but it’s not nearly as convenient as being able to use readily-available AA batteries.
The good news is that the DR-07 and the DR-100, do not suffer from this problem. Two AA batteries power the tiny DR-07, and the more professionally-oriented DR-100 can run on either an internal rechargeable Li-Ion battery or two AA batteries. Even better than that, the DR100 can start recording with the one battery, then switch automatically to the other without interrupting the recording (although in our tests, we haven’t been able to make this seamless transition work!) If one is meticulous about recharging the internal battery, you may never need the AAs. But if recharging is not practical in the field, one can use easily-sourced AA batteries, either alkaline or rechargeable Ni-MH types. For long recording times, the two batteries can cascade. Tascam claims that the DR-100 can derive about 5 hours of record time from the rechargeable Li-Ion, approximately 2 hours from two Alkaline AAs, or about 4 from good quality rechargeable Ni-MH rechargeable AAs, and in our real-world tests, those numbers look pretty accurate. The DR-07 recorded over 9 hours on a single pair of Alkaline AA batteries.
We can go only so far on AA's, but we can do so much more if you...
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As mentioned above, none of the recorders ships with an AC power adapter, but it’s available as an option. The DR-1 and DR-100 recharge when connected to a computer via USB, but recharging takes a LONG time (the DR-100 requires several hours to fully-charge this way) and the machines will not record while connected to a computer, so if one makes long recordings in places where wall outlets are available, it might be prudent to invest in the AC power cord.