A large majority of compact stereo recorders on the market today are incredibly convenient and feature-laden, but many of them still won't properly record loud sources. Either the internal mics distort, or the electronics do, as most of these units do not have input trims before the mic pre.
External microphones with 1/8-inch miniplug inputs are not always viable professional solutions, either. The new Marantz PMD661 puts these concerns to rest.
The PMD661 reveals purely professional intent in its dual XLR inputs with phantom power and input attenuation. As is typical for many internal-microphone- equipped digital recorders today, flash media data storage is employed in the PMD661, which makes data acquisition and transfers easy via the USB port. Up to 96 kHz recording is available, using BWAV files at 16- or 24- bit, as well as MP3 encoding at various depths. Exemplary features include a timer record function, defeatable auto track splitting (which creates a new track ID after a selected length of time) and my favorite, Silent Skip; the latter commences recording whenever the audio threshold level is crossed, returning to record-ready after level has dropped below threshold (great for surveillance or unattended recording).
I simply took the unit out of its box, loaded batteries and without a glance at the manual, hit record. How about that — one-touch recording with no menus, pages, or confusion! The internal mics were amply sensitive with a reasonably smooth top end and great stereo imaging. The multi-function keys and controls for playback were simple and intuitive, and a minimum of front-panel clutter contributes to its overall ease of use.
The visual display of the PMD661 was a most pleasant surprise, with stark contrast and easy readability in varying light conditions; the OLED (Organic LED) display is bright and readable from across the room. During file playback, one can view file info, remaining time and elapsed time, as well as monitor the output meters (with momentary peak hold).
With my own 105 dB rock band in our rehearsal studio (don't worry, I use Emtech custom earplugs), I fired up the PMD661 and tried the internal mics. As expected, it couldn't take the SPL. After engaging -18 dB of mic attenuation (available at either -6 or -12 dB as well), the 661 easily handled our volume and ample bottom end. This also gave me an opportunity to try the pre-record feature, which allows the two seconds previous to recording to be captured. Now this I need!
Later, I recorded another loud band with the PMD661, this time with a pair of SM57s in ORTF. I had tons of headroom with the input trims at about 5 out of 10 with no attenuation employed. I had to create a "preset" to use external mics, but once I figured out this feature, I realized that you can create presets for three "input selection-file type-resolution" setups, and store and recall them for quick decisions made later.
The band wanted a reference CD, so a file dump into my Intel Mac was needed for some editing and processing. Using USB, simple drag-and-drops were the only work involved in transfers. This was so much easier than recording with either a rackmounted CD recorder, a PC, or even a laptop; with the PMD661, there are no excuses for not recording band rehearsals, in-the-studio writing sessions, and so on. I also loaded these files onto my PC, again via USB with no problems at all, but when I re-connected to my Mac, the files were no longer accessible. After a chat with Marantz technical support (which was easier to reach and more courteous than I typically find in the current business climate), they suggested I reload the PMD661 firmware; that successfully fixed the problem. This problem appears to have been a one-time occurrence, has not happened again since, and didn't shake my confidence in the PMD661; neither set of my files were lost or damaged during the re-initialization process — they were put in a new (trash) folder.
The final tests of the 661 using phantom power and external condenser mics yielded no surprises. With my trusty AKG C422 stereo microphone connected, I tried this configuration for a number of recordings; sources ranged from drum kit, full band, and singer/songwriter to Foley work and an ENG rig. My only response is "wow," not because of its excellent sound quality — which sounds just like what I've grown accustomed to in my studio — but that it was captured in a box smaller than my mic's power supply!
I found the PMD661 to meet all my needs for compact recording: portability, the ability to take some serious SPLs, ample headroom, good converters, and numerous convenience features. My complaints are few and not major: recorded files play back one after another without interruption or pause, the internal mics sound a tad thin (yet not unlike a pair of mid-pro-level, small-diaphragm condensers) and the headphone amp is too weak to overcome loud ambient sound (I tried to record myself singing and playing acoustic, but I couldn't hear myself well enough in the cans).
Many compact recorders can handle the boardroom or the coffeehouse. Many compact recorders offer large feature sets, some offer DSP and FX, and some others even offer mic modeling. However, if sound quality, durability, and the ability to record the concert hall, rehearsal or nightclub — with pro results and with or without professional mics — are requirements, the PMD661 appears to be the best choice on the market today.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC.firstname.lastname@example.org
SECOND OPINION: Marantz PMD661: An Avid Field Recordist's New Choice
by Frank Beacham
I've owned or used just about all of the latest generation of low-cost portable flash-based audio recorders. A few, like Sony's PCM-D1 (supreme quality), PCM-D50 (great audio quality and ease-of-use at a lower-cost), and Yamaha's Pocketrak 2G (tiny size for stealth recording), have stood out of the pack in excellence and value. Now Marantz, a longtime maker of digital audio recorders, has gotten it right with its excellent PMD661, a complete overhaul of its predecessor, the PMD660. With this redesign, the company has developed perhaps the best general purpose and fully featured flash-based recorder on the market for a street price of less than $600.
Until the PMD661, Sony easily won the battles for easy-touse software and a good display amongst pro-capable portables. Now, Marantz has tackled that issue with simpleto- use software and a big, clear, spread-out OLED display that's a real work of art; the company even separated the VU meter with a perfectly located bar of LEDs. Control buttons are also simplified and spread-out, making them very intuitive to use. The PMD661's three user profiles, which allow various configurations to be recalled instantly, offers additional value and a new level of genuine user convenience. Finally, all the pro inputs you'll need are on this recorder. Another bravo improvement is the addition of uncompressed PCM recording in either 16 or 24-bit depth with sample rates of 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz. Using 24-bit mode allows a recordist to take advantage of the extra headroom — an important feature in the field.
Marantz also did the battery compartment right: It's something that many manufacturers shortcut in their lowcost portable recorders. Since one changes batteries almost every day, a rugged, convenient battery assembly is a must. The PMD661 uses four standard AA batteries, which give it in excess of five hours recording time; that's pretty much a full day's use on a single battery change. An AC adapter is also included, a component not always standard in competing products' packages.
There are many more features to the PMD661, but the ones I described make this portable stand out from the rest. It took Marantz a while to perfect the portable, but they finally did it. This is a best-of-class audio recorder and an excellent value.