Denon DN-F20R Portable IC Recorder

Radio reporters and sound designers have used over-the-shoulder cassette decks such as the Marantz PMD-222 for ages. The new DN-F20R portable IC recorder from Denon can be similarly slung, but you now have permission to leave your cassettes in the trunk; the DN-F20R records to solid-state media.
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Radio reporters and sound designers have used over-the-shoulder cassette decks such as the Marantz PMD-222 for ages. The new DN-F20R portable IC recorder from Denon can be similarly slung, but you now have permission to leave your cassettes in the trunk; the DN-F20R records to solid-state media.
Product PointsApplications: Field-recording short-form audio and radio newsgathering

Key Features:
Portable news recording deck; linear and MPEG encoding on nonmoving RAM media

Price:
$1,299

Contact:
Denon at 973-396-0810; www.del.denon.com.
The DN-F20R accepts mono or stereo line- or mic-level audio and writes it to ScanDisk CompactFlash RAM cards no bigger than refrigerator magnets. One or two cards, up to 80 MB each in capacity, can be used with the DN-F20R. No more hissy audio, no more jammed or flaking analog cassette tapes and - most important - no more moving parts to wear out.

This device is very good at its intended purpose: field recording short-form audio and radio newsgathering. The limitations of recording time vs. audio quality preclude its use in most other applications. You would not likely bring a Denon DN-F20R along with you to capture motion picture audio or as a DAT replacement to make a two-track concert mix right off the board.

Features

Because of its portability and intended applications, the Denon DN-F20R ($1,299) will invariably be compared to portable MD decks, so this may be a good time to point out some differences. Naturally, nothing spins on the DN-F20R, but that's not all.

The DN-F20R has two XLR mic connectors, where many MD units have a 1/8" TRS stereo mini-jack. No need here for a failure-prone XLR-to-mini adapter. Likewise, the headphone jack is a serious 1/4" stereo affair rather than a Walkman-style mini plug.

The battery door locks and stays locked. You won't be dropping AA cells on your shoes when you need your deck the most. And the input level and headphone monitor pots are real rotary controls, not fingertip edge-trimmer pots.

Audio outputs and line ins are on a set of RCA plugs. Given the intended use of the DN-F20R in radio newsrooms, this makes sense. Most newsrooms I know of are wired unbalanced now for quick connection of existing portable electronic newsgathering (ENG) recorders.

Controls on the DN-F20R are simple: play, stop, record and fast-forward and back buttons, with more esoteric features accessible with a single mode button. Recordings can be done by feel; the rectangular record button has a raised dot and the play/pause key has a concave depression. The tactile click felt when the buttons are depressed all but assures that recording is underway.

In use

The DN-F20R records audio as either MPEG or linear uncompressed WAV files. Depending on the settings used, a stock 32 MB RAM card can hold anywhere from a 2.8-minute uncompressed stereo WAV file, to beyond 68 minutes for an MPEG-2 Layer 2 mono recording at 64 kbps. There are two sockets for RAM cards, hiking the deck's recording capacity to 192 MB x 2. In an MPEG-2 mono recording at 64 kbps, two 192 MB cards would give you more than 13.5 hours of field recording.

The bit rate can be reduced to increase recording time on the RAM card, but at the expense of audio quality. The lowest setting I dared do was an MPEG-2 recording with 24-kHz sampling at 24 kbps bit rate.

At this rate, frequency response dips to 10 kHz tops. My test recording was murky and filled with a bad warble. This is not to say MPEG compression is a bad thing. Properly set, the DN-F20R can utilize the popular compression scheme to very satisfactory ends.

My own purposes called for the best compromise I could strike between card capacity and audio quality appropriate for broadcast. I came up with 48 kHz mono at a 64 kbps bit rate. A maxed-out DN-F20R can record 34 minutes of uncompressed audio at 48 kHz stereo or 68 minutes in mono.

Indexing cuts is done automatically. The DN-F20R adheres to the DOS convention of directory and file hierarchies, with up to eight characters, a period and a three-letter extension all in capitals.

For example, the first MPEG file found in Directory No. 5 would carry the filename "5001.mpg" and so on. Newly recorded segments are automatically given file names and directory locations.

This convention is very helpful if you are transferring files directly into a PC for editing. Should you wish to do so, you will need an ATA adapter, which allows the small card to fit a standard PCMCIA slot. For desktop computers, Sandisk, among others, offers docking ports with USB or parallel connectors (for about $50). Once installed, the DN-F20R appears to your computer as another hard drive, allowing click-and-drag copying.

File names can be changed for easy indexing and understanding (more on this process in a moment). You should know that Windows 95/98/2000 long file names do not work here, so your ambient recording of white horses frolicking in a meadow may have to be cryptically named wthrsmed.mpg until you get to your computer.

The mode button atop the case is where the action is. This selects the recording mode menu to pick from the available formats and sample rates. The button also comes into play when naming, editing or erasing files.

Enter file-name-edit mode and choose an eight-character name based on letters, numbers and punctuation marks by using the rewind and fast-forward buttons. While not as rapid as entering a name with a data entry wheel, there is not enough real estate on the DN-F20R to mount a rotary encoder.

Use the mode button also for dividing files into useable segments. Isolate a four-second section of audio, then use the rewind and fast-forward keys to shuttle the audio in steps of 0.024 or 0.048 seconds, depending on sample rate. The divide position is established when the Enter button is pressed.

There is only one mystery on the DN-F20R: a 1/8" TRS port for a remote control device that's not even offered by Denon. Front panel operations can be duplicated through this port with normally open pushbuttons and a series-wired resistor tree. The total resistance placed across this jack places the recorder into a particular function.

While the DN-F20R makes for a robust ENG deck, its editing capabilities are a bit sparse. For instance, some MiniDisc machines meant for newsgathering allow the creation of edit decision lists (EDLs), which the recorder uses to assemble different files in a specified order. Not being able to execute this function puts the DN-F20R at a disadvantage in the newsgathering realm. Even though most editing for news is completed back at the station, advanced editing features on the deck itself would be handy in a pinch.

Summary

Denon has done much to reduce the dependency of moving media in the field with this recorder. Given the potential for failures outside of the studio (stuck or damaged tape, caked heads or even media damage if an MD deck is seriously struck), a durable and dependable recorder with no moving parts would prove its mettle very quickly.

The specifications state the deck can tolerate noncondensing humidity up to 90 percent. That kind of constant moisture in the air could possibly mean a curtailed life for the motor and drive shaft combination in a cassette deck anyway.

Although the DN-F20R is not a high-end field recorder for movie dialogue or two-track master, it's ideal for radio ENG and basic field work. If you have to bring that audio back from the field no matter what - and conditions of that field are unknown - you'll be safe with the Denon strapped to your side.