The HHB MDP500 PORTADISC portable MiniDisc recorder joins the large fraternity of over-the-shoulder recording devices made for field acquisition and ENG for radio broadcast.
Product PointsApplications: Field recording, electronic news gathering (ENG), broadcast
Key Features: Digital and analog I/O; built-in limiter and bass rolloff; rugged construction.
Contact: HHB Communications USA Inc. at 310-319-1111 Web Site
+ Rugged construction
+ Easy editing menu
+ Lots of connections to external equipment
– Internal mic picked up motor noise
The Score: A feature-packed MD recorder for the field reporter or audio engineer ready for a serious step up.
Its slender case, no thicker than 2-1/8 inches at its deepest point, means the unit won’t be banging into your arm or ribcage when slung on the shoulder for action. Its weight, less than five pounds without batteries, means your neck won’t go stiff, or your arm go to sleep while waiting for that magic audible moment that will justify your paycheck.
Unlike tiny, palm-sized MD recorders intended for the consumer market, the MDP500 is decked out with professional features and the kind of robust construction that reporters and audio techs want and appreciate having.
Plus, there is that cool HHB purple rubber trim …
For this review, I compare the MDP500 ($1,545) to the kind of $250 consumer MD recorder one can get anywhere – a seemingly unfair comparison, but made for a reason.
HHB designed this recorder for such rugged remote use as newsgathering and ambient recording in potentially harsh environments, an arena normally populated by portable cassette decks, but now filling with consumer MiniDisc recorders purchased by cost-conscious managers.
The MDP500 is functionally comparable to equivalent pro recorders from Denon and other manufacturers, but the big competition – at least in my field – comes from expendable equipment nobody minds throwing away after six months.
There is a place for these hi-fi store specials, but these recorders are being asked to do the same job in the same environment. Logically, it is fair to judge them on a level playing field.
Having said that, there is no shortage of serious pro-level extras on the HHB MDP500, such as a pair of locking XLR mic/line inputs on the side, held in place on the metal chassis by screws – no fragile plastic side panels or flimsy decorative aluminum trim here.
I prefer XLR connectors on field gear. Reporters using consumer-type MD recorders must endure 3.5mm (1/8-inch) TRS microphone connectors that pop out with the slightest tug. If I have only one chance to record the sound that alters history, I want a connection I can trust.
The XLR inputs are mic/line switchable, meaning I can go to a press conference with a mic or plug into a mult box with the same cable in the same jacks. No need for a kludged adapter.
RCA jacks abound on the side panel. One set is for coaxial S/PDIF digital I/O and the other is a set of good old analog line outs, which make sense in the radio newsroom. Field gear must be rapidly patched into the console or dubbing station for transfer, and unbalanced RCA cables dangle everywhere in the bullpen.
But HHB is not in techno-denial when it comes to interfacing the MDP500. The device also has S/PDIF optical (TOSlink) ports and a USB interface to patch the MDP500 to a computer-based DAW for audio transfer and editing.
The MD media slides into a slot on the left side of the deck. There are no flimsy flip-tops here that can snap off or bend. Once the TOC and disc title are read, the MDP500 is ready to roll.
Buttons and pots feel lively. The transport keys have a positive click not found in rubber membrane switches. The headphone and monitor pot can be recessed out of the way with your thumb. When concealed, it won’t get accidentally jostled in the crowd and your headset won’t blast your cochleae.
Among the buttons are a trio of F function keys that decide Setup, System and Input. A Key-hold button prevents you from ejecting your MD midrecording. The button for backlighting the display has an interesting behavior: tap it once and it gives you light for only a brief period. Hold it down for two seconds and it stays on.
The internal microphone is mounted about a half-inch from the unit’s monitor speaker. No fear of feedback, however, as the speaker mutes out during recording. The recessed concentric knobs next to the Record Ready lever set the Record Level.
MiniDiscs come with only one compression scheme at one rate. This makes them handier to use than the new breed of recorders using solid-state media and varying flavors of MPEG compression. As much as I like choices, simplicity sometimes wins the battle.
And let’s hear it for a genuine 1/4-inch headphone jack!
If you have ever used an MD recorder in the field or in the rack, you will know the workings of the MDP500 right away.
In use, the transport buttons atop the case are your best friends. Raised ridges divide the Rew/Play/FF/Stop quartet from the others, allowing you to cue and play tracks by feel alone.
You do not even need to see the deck to begin recording. A prominent thumb lever on the front faceplate puts the MDP500 directly into Record mode. Seemingly designed for operation with the left hand (right hand holding mic), the layout of the MDP500 places all of the important controls under the fingertips when slung over the left shoulder.
Many important features are accessed with the Input button. You can select the internal microphone, a digital input or the line/mic XLRs and apply some attenuation. You can drop in a little 75 or 150 Hz cut or kick in the limiter to tame unusually loud politicians.
The MDP500 also provides phantom power for condenser microphones, but you may be better off with a dynamic mic in the field. Besides the durability issue, battery life is curtailed by having to power both the deck and a microphone.
Under the Setup button, you will find five User locations. Here you may store personal settings depending on need – User 1 may want to go optical for all purposes, while User 2 needs XLR mic, limiter and 75 Hz rolloff in mono. Save your preferences here.
The F function softkeys move you through a variety of subfunctions, such as the degree of mic attenuation or which digital input you wish to apply. The display changes to show the softkey function of the moment.
When recording via the internal mic, the automatic gain control (AGC) is switched in, disabling the Record Level control.
I am certain there is a good reason for having an internal microphone, but the mic on the unit I reviewed picked up motor noise from the MD drive. Even though it was at low level, it was noticeable. I would use an external handheld microphone exclusively for any fieldwork.
Editing on the MDP500 is easier than on some rackmount MD decks. The combined functions of the Edit button and the three F softkeys let you erase, combine, divide and move tracks around on a disc.
Lastly, the shoulder strap: for anyone used to seeing “guitar strap” sized studs on a recorder, the attachment points on the MDP500 look undersized. When used with the accompanying strap, these studs are more than substantial. Leave your old strap with the large holes at home.
The MDP500, following in the footsteps of the popular HHB PORTADAT, shows it can run with the news hounds and take it in the nose as well as the best portable decks.
As long as you stay with external microphones and keep the phantom power turned off, your own experience with the MDP500 will be a fruitful and satisfying one long after your colleagues have thrown away their worn-out little store-bought recorders.