Fast FactsApplications: Studio, live, broadcast.
Key Features: Compact Flash format; 24-bit/96 kHz sample rate; tiny size; phantom power; includes stereo microphone configuration; USB port; battery operable
Contact: M-Audio at 626-633-9050, www.m-audio.com.
+ Great sound
+ Records to Compact Flash cards
+ S/PDIF digital input
+ Battery power
+ Drag-and-drop file transfer
- Internal battery is factory replaceable only
- Input gain too high for unity-gain recording on line input.
For the budget minded, the MicroTrack 24/96 should become the ubiquitous location recorder of choice. Bye-bye, portable DAT! As profiled in Pro Audio Review's December 2005 issue, portable digital recorders using Flash memory storage exemplify one of the hottest-growing trends in pro-audio today. Sooner or later, every engineer will choose one (or more) of them; after seeing the selection available at the AES convention last fall, I chose M-Audio's MicroTrack 24/96, and have been using it almost daily ever since. To paraphrase the disco song, it's not perfect, but it's perfect for me.
In a nutshell, the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 ($499) is a very lightweight two-channel Compact Flash recorder about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with built-in phantom powered mic preamps, high sample rate recording via analog or digital inputs (as well as all the usual MP3 flavors), and it even comes with a decent sounding tiny T-shaped stereo mic which plugs into its 1/8-inch jack. One can also access the internal mic preamps via a pair of TRS jacks (XLRs just wouldn't fit into something this small, so you'll need to connect adapter cables — like the pair I made up — to your standard mic cables.). You can also feed the MT (as I'll refer to it from now on) directly from the S/PDIF output of your fancy, upscale analog to digital converter. Output is via analog (RCA jacks), headphones, or USB 2.0 directly to computer.
Using this recorder is simplicity itself. After charging the internal battery (overnight is good for the first time), one just inserts a CF card, turns the unit on, and presses the red record button. Well, maybe not that easy — setting a few preferences first would be a good idea, since the unit can record 16-bit or 24-bit WAV files at 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz, or MP3s at various rates between 96 kbps and 320 kbps. You also have to tell it where to get its input from — line, mic-1/8-inch, or mic via TRS connectors. And it's also a good idea to go first to the M-Audio website and download and install the latest driver. I started out at 1.02, and am now up to 1.23. If your computer doesn't take CF cards directly, you can just connect the MT itself via USB, and its memory card will show up as an external drive.
The four main menus—files, record settings, back light timing, and system, are accessed by a pushbutton on the top left side, and the submenus and their various options are dealt with by an interesting up/in/down pushbutton on the top right side. Once you get the hang of its "ballistics," navigation becomes pretty simple and unproblematic. The Files menu allows you to see the titles of files it's recorded ('file0019.wav' for example), and play/pause/stop or delete them. This mode also lights up a nice LCD display of battery status, current file title, transport function, and the stereo level meter.
The Record Settings menu allows you to set the input source, toggle input monitor on/off, engage a 27dB digital boost on the TRS input, select file type/sample rate/bit depth choices, stereo or mono operation, and view the invaluable record time available status. While recording, the LCD display also counts down the time remaining.
The blue backlight can be set for always off, always on, or to turn off after 5 seconds, 15 seconds or 30 seconds. The System menu allows housekeeping choices such as "connect to PC," format media, link L&R, playback EQ (a few typical choices such as one gets in applications like iTunes), toggle the verify delete warning, scrub audio, toggle auto off mode, language (English or Spanish), restore faculty defaults, update the firmware (drag the files to the CF card after downloading, and push the MT navigation button a couple of times), verify firmware version, adjust LCD contrast, set date and time stamp, etc. — the MT designers have obviously built-in just about every setup adjustment one can imagine!
For the past three months, I've made more recordings with this little gizmo than I've done with all my other stereo recorders combined over the past year. The MT is so easy to use, and sounds so good, that you just want to make recordings with it! I've done professional stereo recording sessions using vintage tube mics feeding DW Fearn and Manley tube mic preamps, those feeding Genex and Apogee converters — whose output went right into the MT's little S/PDIF RCA jack. In these situations, I used the MT "plugged in" so I didn't have to worry about battery life. It served basically as a substitute for the stereo high-sample rate DTRS tape recorder setup I've been using for many years (Sony PCM800, Spectral Translator Plus, Apogee PSX100 in ABS 2496 bit-splitting mode) which weighs about forty pounds! It sounded just as good and its recordings were way easier to transfer to my DAW.
And then, on the other hand, I've done stealth acoustic recordings of classical ensembles (University of Massachusetts Chamber Orchestra), traditional Celtic bands (Zoe Darrow and the Fiddleheads), as well as board of directors meetings, sermons at church, my girls' music lessons, etc. — all using the little T-mic supplied with my MT — with no external anything — and they all sounded really nice. The string ensemble performance, in particular, recorded from the back row of Bezanson Recital Hall, sounds good enough to go on the radio, so I'm really impressed with this little mic, and the MT's built-in mic preamps. The mic isn't a directional stereo design; it's kind of like two little mono electret mics with capsules at 180 degrees — about 1.25 inches apart, but it definitely sounds stereo.
I've also used a hybrid of these two types of recordings — fancy external mics and mic preamps/mixer, but going directly into the TRS line inputs of the MT, and the sound was really good; the internal electronics, both digital and analog, is of high quality. The only problem was that I had to pad down the input by about 15 dB, since there was too much gain, even with the line input turned all the way down. M-Audio is aware of this problem, and will soon be shipping a set of optional inline pads for engineers who find the gain too high.
So what else's not to like? Well, the "factory replaceable" battery scares me. I don't like the idea of being without my MicroTrack for, what, a week or so? And what about engineers who need to record longer than the internal battery lasts? Mine has gone for the entire length of a 2GB CF card at 44.1 kHz/24 bits (a little over two hours) with no problem, and I've never recorded a classical concert lasting longer than two hours in over 35 years of recording. But on the other hand, I'd have to wait a few more hours to recharge it, if I had to do another one the same day.
I have also heard that, on some occasions, trying to record on the MT while its battery is low (by simply "plugging it in") produces occasional glitches in the audio, so it appears that it's recording via the battery all the time, even when it's plugged in (via USB); the MT seems to be charging the battery at the same time it's being depleted, that's all. But for my typical uses the battery life has been adequate, and I have yet to need to have it replaced at the factory.
Otherwise, let's see. One of my Western Massachusetts engineering colleagues has trouble with a particular brand of TRS plug interfacing with the left channel TRS jack on both our MTs, but my Neutrik plugs mate reliably. Also, please be aware that the phantom power is not a full 48 volts (more like around 30 VDC), so it might not power all condenser mics fully, but I've not found any problem with the mics I've used with it. And not all Compact Flash cards (and "old fashioned" MicroDrives) work with it; be sure to check M-Audio's list of approved media before you pick up a couple of 2GB CF cards on sale at your local camera shop.
What else? Well, I wouldn't drop it if I were you. And, carrying it around in your pants pocket with the T mic plugged in all the time might put too much torque on the MT's little 1/8-inch stereo connector, so I keep trying not to do that! The other day I shoved it in my coat pocket that way, but removed it as soon as I got into the car.
Maybe I should just go out and buy a second one! I really like this recorder; I don't remember the last time I've gotten an audio gizmo I've enjoyed using this much. Highly recommended, big time!
Fast FactsApplications: Studio, live, broadcast.