Fast FactsApplications: Field, broadcast
Key Features: Compact Flash media; 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz sample rates; 16-bit PCM; phantom power; battery operable; XLR connectors; USB port
Contact: Marantz at 630-741-0330, www.d-mpro.com.
+ Solid state pro-quality Flash memory recorder for under $500
+ XLR connectors, phantom power
+ Excellent manual controls and operation
+ Presets make setup easy and repeatable
– Finicky mic preamps require proper choice of mic
– Slow USB 1.1 file transfer
– Unfriendly battery compartmentAudio recorders using Flash storage media have been around for awhile. What’s new is that the cost of both Flash memory and high-quality recording devices using it have recently plummeted. This trend is well illustrated by the new Marantz PMD660 Professional Solid-State Recorder.
With a street price at under $500, this 1.1-pound Marantz portable records to standard Compact Flash cards while adding professional features such as uncompressed 16-bit audio, XLR connectors and phantom power. The 660 thus becomes an attractive alternative to the consumer-level DAT and MiniDisc recorders frequently used by professional interviewers, journalists and radio news reporters.
The Marantz PMD660 is not the only new low-cost portable Flash recording device on the market, but it differentiates itself clearly from the rest of the pack. Unlike the Edirol R1, a Flash recorder that’s a bit smaller, lower cost and more music-centric but without pro connectivity, the PMD660 is clearly a tool targeted to audio journalists. With certain limitations, it does a very good job for its intended purpose.
Key to this new recorder is its ability to record WAV and MP3 files onto Flash memory, which means it has no moving parts. Compact Flash cards, which are very reliable and easily reused, are priced now at less than $100 per gigabyte – and dropping fast thanks to the digital photography revolution.
At the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sample rate, each gigabyte provides about 90 minutes of stereo recording, or three hours of mono. The resulting WAV file can be transferred to a PC or Macintosh for editing either through the 660’s USB port or a Compact Flash card reader.
The PMD660 has a long roster of features, ranging from built-in mics with automatic gain level control to long-play MP3 recording capability. Many of these are just fine for non-critical utility applications, but the professional recordist will opt for the settings that result in optimum audio quality.
Starting off, the 660 has a limitation – its preamps – that demand attention. With this recorder, the preamps sound best when using high-output condenser microphones. A -20 dB pad is onboard to compensate for various microphone sensitivities. [Marantz adds: There was an input sensitivity issue on some very early PMD660s. Some users reported an abnormal amount of noise floor. This issue has been resolved by adjusting the –20 dB pad circuit.]
Even with some condensers, 660 users have reported mixed results with the preamps. I had no problem, achieving excellent quality using an Audio-Technica AT825 cardioid stereo condenser and a Rode NT-3 mono condenser with the 660. In both cases, I powered the mics on internal batteries, rather than with the 660’s phantom power feature, to gain longer battery life from the recorder.
As with most audio recorders, the automatic level gain control (AGLC) should be avoided during critical recording to avoiding a “pumping” artifact. I got excellent results riding gain manually with the nice big control knob on the 660. The meter, a row of seven LEDs with a clip light, was useful and easily readable except in bright sunlight. If the source becomes too “hot,” there’s a 20 dB pad for reducing mic gain.
Marantz gave the 660 a myriad of control choices that can easily overwhelm the novice or occasional user in the field. Unfortunately, the wrong choice of a critical parameter could ruin a recording. Fortunately, the designers recognized this potential problem and created three user-definable presets that allow settings to be configured in advance and in groups.
For example, I use Preset 1 for highest-quality stereo recordings (16-bit PCM, 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz) made with an external stereo microphone. Preset 2 is used for highest-quality mono recordings. Preset 3 is set for lower-quality MP3 recordings using the internal microphones and ALGC. This is for recording meetings or other non-critical events.
I experimented with the PMD660 on a variety of applications. A live recording in a music club of a bluegrass band using the Audio-Technica AT825 stereo microphone was remarkably good. After over two hours of recording, the four AA batteries still had room to go. Setting and monitoring levels was easy, though I found myself wishing the 660 had a built-in limiter.
A mono recording of a speech using the Rode NT3 mic also went well. On this recording, I used Marantz’s RC600 wired remote control. It’s especially nice for starting, stopping and marking points in recordings and can easily be attached to a handheld microphone if desired.
On the negative side, I found the cheap plastic battery compartment on the bottom of the recorder a bit tight and unfriendly to use. Unlike the battery compartments of pro gear designed for frequent battery changes, the snap-in door is stiff and hard to remove, and the four AA batteries are too snug in their holder. The result is a battery change that takes too long, especially in low light on location. Hopefully, over time this holder with “loosen up” with repeated use.
Another minus was Marantz’s choice of the glacially slow USB (version 1.1) port for audio file transfer to a PC. As a workaround, I purchased a USB (version 2.0) Compact Flash reader at a photo store for about $20 and used it to drag the audio file directly from the Flash card to the desktop of my Macintosh. This dramatically reduced the transfer time over using the 660. I then easily opened the file with BIAS Peak 4 editing software.
Overall, Marantz has created a low-cost Flash media recorder that breaks new ground for working journalists and broadcasters. With 660, the designers got a lot right, especially the XLR connectors, phantom power, presets, and simple controls for manual metering in the field. This makes the 660 a great basic tapeless field recorder and one that offers real advances over the MiniDisc and DAT platforms for field journalism.
Ironically, my wish list for improvements – including better preamps, 24-bit performance, longer battery life, and USB 2.0 connectivity – have been addressed in Marantz’s new PMD671 High Resolution Compact Flash Recorder. Those goodies, however, come at an additional cost and weight: a price that is double that of the PMD660 and a weight that’s about three times heavier.