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Portable Audio Field Recorders

A new breed of specialized gear moves in By Frank Moldstad

Nagra IV-S, circa 1971
The evolution of modern audio field recorders began in the 1970s, when Nagra introduced the IV-S, a portable 1/4" analog stereo tape recorder. Amazingly, Nagra still sells the IV-S today, although modifications such as SMPTE/EBU time code have been added over the years.

But these days, digital media is the preferred option for professional audio field recorders, with a range of options not only from Nagra, but from competitors such as Fostex, HHB, Zaxcom, Sound Devices, Metric Halo and others.

Capturing a high-quality audio recording on location requires a specialized breed of equipment designed for the task. Portable audio recording systems must be relatively small, lightweight and able to withstand the rigors of the road. They should be able to operate on DC or battery power. And they should offer more flexibility and a significantly better signal quality than simply recording through a video or film cameras audio inputs. Otherwise, why bother?

Some of the newer portable recording setups can capture a high-resolution 24-bit/96k (or 192K) DVD-quality audio signal. Multiple mic preamps are a popular option for providing separate channels for different actors in the same scene, or to capture six streams of audio to be used in a 5.1 surround audio track. Sync features are another valuable feature to have on an field audio recorder: Word Clock I/O, the ability to read/generate Timecode, SMPTE Timecode Rates and Video Sync.   Field recording solutions range in price from less than $500 to more than $10,000, depending on the quality and the options involved. That doesnt include the cost of external microphones, booms and related gear.

Michael "Kriky" Krikorian
For the past 10 years, DAT has been the dominant audio field recording medium. Many post houses in the LA area still request DAT tapes, says Michael "Kriky" Krikorian, an audio specialist there who works with a client list ranging from A&E and MTV to IBM. He uses a DAT recorder for location recordings, but says hes been evaluating some of the new solutions on the market. One product he checked out was the Fostex PD-6, a 24-bit six-channel digital timecode recorder using DVD-RAM with an MSRP of $9,995. ?It would be cool to have six tracks, because then you could isolate people in a production, he says. But he hasnt committed himself yet, because its a fast developing market and he wants to make the right choice. "Im kind of hanging on, waiting to see which way people are going, he says.

An array of new technologies is challenging the supremacy of DATs, including hard disk recorders, DVD and Mini-Disc. But if DAT is on its way out, it's going out slowly. There are still plenty of DAT recorders on the market, ranging from the Sony TCD-D8 stereo DAT Walkman (street price about $600) to the Fostex PD4M field DAT recorder, a four-head Timecode-equipped unit with phantom power, a rechargeable battery pack and a three-channel mixer built-in (MSRP $7,995).

Digigram's Vxpocket v2
Digigram's Vxpocket v2
Laptop Recording
One of the new field recording contenders is the laptop computer. Equipped with a high-quality sound card and multitrack recording software, the laptop can be an economical solution, especially if you already own the laptop. Popular pro-level laptop sounds cards include those made by Digigram and Echo. Theres even a product that turns a PDA into a field audio recorder Core Sounds 24-bit PDAudio compact flash card interface.

Digigram's 24-bit/48k Vxpocket v2 ($509 MSRP) and VXpocket 440 ($659 MSRP) cards feature analog I/O with an XLR breakout cable, SPDIF I/O, and an LTC (SMPTE) time-code input. The VXpocket 440 has four balanced mic/line analog inputs and four balanced analog outputs, while the Vxpocket v2 has two balanced analog mono inputs at microphone or line level and two balanced analog outputs.

Echo's Indigo io 2-channel 24-bit/96k PCMCIA Recording Card (MSRP $229) is a 24-bit, 96kHz audio laptop audio card with stereo 1/8-in. analog I/O jacks that support full duplex 2 channel operation. It also includes a headphone amp.

External Interfaces
Or, instead of a laptop audio card, another option is a new breed of USB-connected portable mic preamps and A/D converters. These include devices such as Apogees Mini-Me, Sound Devices' USBPre, Metric Halos Mobile I/O and a variety of options from M-Audio.

In 2001, Sound Devices introduced the first bus-powered USB microphone interface, the portable USBPre. Retailing for $695, the 24-bit USBPre is completely powered by the USB bus. It is compatible with Macintosh OS 9.x/X, and Windows 98SE/ME, 2000 and XP. The USBPre includes high quality A-D converters and S/PDIF coaxial I/O for digital transfers into and out of the computer.

Apogees Mini-Me ($1,495 MSRP) is a portable 24-bit/96k USB device that works with Macs or PCs, and has two XLR/line level inputs, two mic preamps and built-in limiting and compression. It also features high-quality analog-to-digital conversion, a proprietary internal dithering application that converts a signal from 24-bit to 16-bit. The Mini-Me has S/PDIF and AES digital outs and will run on AC or DC from 6 to 16 volts or via an external battery pack. A version without USB is available for $200 less.

Mobile I/O
Metric Halos Mobile I/O 2882 ($1,495 MSRP) is a FireWire interface designed for portability that provides 18 inputs and 20 outputs of simultaneous I/O at 24-bit/96kHz resolution. It includes eight channels of mic/line/instrument analog inputs with phantom power, eight channels of ADAT I/O, and stereo AES/EBU and S/PDIF I/O. A headphone amp is included.  M-Audio has a variety of portable audio products, ranging from the Audiophile USB, an audio/MIDI interface with digital I/O, to the Duo USB, a 2-in/2-out USB Audio Interface with mic preamps and digital outs. Other portable USB audio interfaces from M-Audio include the MobilePre USB, a bus-powered preamp with a built-in audio interface and the OmniStudio USB, a 4 x 4 audio interface with two mic/instrument preamps. The company has also introduced several new portable FireWire audio devices, such as the Firewire Audiophile, a 4-in/6-out FireWire audio/MIDI interface.

Sound Devices' 722 and 744T
Sound Devices' 722 and 744T
The All-in-One Solution
Meanwhile, a new crop of dedicated all-in-one field audio recorders is emerging with some impressive new entries but some of them are pricey. Among the vendors supplying these units are Zaxcom, Metric Halo, Sound Devices, Fostex and HHB. These portable studios-in-a-box feature built-in mic pres, multiple channels, high resolution audio and a variety of useful extras.

Two brand new field recorders will be introduced this summer by Sound Devices, the two-channel 722 ($2,650 retail) and the four-channel 744T ($4,250 retail). The four-channel unit includes timecode. The size of a paperback book, the 7-Series units can run for several hours on off-the-shelf video batteries. They are aimed at users involved in audio-for-picture, including feature film, documentary sound, effects/foley, and ambience.

HHB's Portadrive is a fully equipped eight channel portable multi-channel recorder with 24-bit/96kHz specs. It records audio to either AES31-3 or Pro Tools V5 session formats (using BWF or SDII audio files) for transfering recorded data to a Mac or PC. It also allows simultaneous recording of mono or stereo rushes to external DVD-RAM drives or other storage devices. It includes six high gain XLR-3 microphone inputs with individual phantom powering, 'gangable' limiters, input pads, high pass filter (HPF) and phase reverse. Comprehensive timecode and synchronization capabilities, headphone monitoring and a built-in battery charger are also included.

Also, HHB has just introduced a USB2.0/FireWire docking station for the Portadrive that accepts the Portadrive 's removable HD caddy via a slot in the front panel, model PDRDSUF ($349 MSRP).

Another portable field recording product from HHB is the MDP500 MiniDisc recorder ($1,599 MSRP), featuring a USB interface for transferring audio to and from a Mac or PC. It records at 44.1kHz with sample rate conversion for 32 and 48kHz. Analog inputs are stereo XLR connectors, analog outputs are stereo (RCA), and S/PDIF (coaxial and optical) is provided for digital I/O. It includes switchable 48V phantom power for microphones, built-in limiters, a bass roll-off function, and on-board editing features with an illuminated LCD display.

Deva V
Deva V
Zaxcoms portable Deva line of hard disk-based audio recorders includes three models, with the $12,950 DEVA V at the top of the line. The DEVA V is a portable, 192 kHz 10-channel, pro audio recorder designed for use on movie and television sets. It features Timecode in/out, Surround Recording capability, 24-bit /192 kHz sampling on all 10 channels, a 16-channel 192 kHz digital mixer, and a headphone amp. Rounding out Zaxcoms line are the 6-track Deva III ($8,950) and the  8-track Deva IV ($9,950). The original Deva was a 4-track model that began its use on television and film in 1999. In 2003, Glenn Sanders and Howy Stark of Zaxcom received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for the Deva II.

And Fostex offers several portable solutions, including the PD6 ($9,995 MSRP), a six-channel digital timecode recorder using DVD-RAM disks that is capable of 24-bit/192KHz recording. It features six-track location audio recording capabilities, with a full-function mixer, Broadcast Wave file format export, an IEEE1394 Firewire interface and extensive timecode abilities.

Finally, Nagra hasn't rested on its laurels. Among its current digital location recorders is the Nagra-DII, a four-channel 24-bit/96k digital audio recorder with internal battery pack that evolved from the company's Nagra-D. Options include a SMPTE/EBU time code and chase synchronizer. Nagra also markets the Nagra-V, a portable battery-powered two-channel removable hard-disk recorder, with linear 24-bit recording technology at up to 96kHz sampling. 


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Related Keywords:Audio, field recording, portable, recording, Zaxcom, Nagra, Michael ?Kriky? Krikorian, DAT, DVD, Metric Halo, Mobile I/O, Mini-Me, recorder,


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