Nagra and Digigram put their collective engineering minds together to create something new and different in portable recording devices. The result does not disappoint.
Product PointsApplications: Broadcast news audio acquisition, recording and editing
Key Features: MPEG compression; simple, elegant case; quick connect to PC via USB
Contact: Nagra USA at 800-813-1663 615-726-5191
+ Ease of use
+ USB download to computer
+ Outstanding design
– Some mechanical noise picked up when using internal mic
– Case can be uncomfortable to hold for long periods
The Score: Nagra and Digigram’s collaboration pays off with a uniquely designed recorder.
The Swiss-made Nagra RCX220 ($2,430) is a handheld audio recorder that digitizes audio with Digigram compression technology, records to solid-state Flash RAM media and transfers said audio via USB connection to a host computer for editing.
The RCX220 is similar in many respects to the Nagra ARES-P digital recorder, the difference being the USB port and some of the editing features found in the former.
The unit offers the broadcast news professional and field audio recordist a compact and versatile recording device that captures mono or stereo audio in MPEG 1 Layer II and downloads it to a computer via USB. Once in the computer, audio is edited via Xtrack LE, the fast and easy-to-use MPEG digital editor offered from Digigram.
Use of the USB connection is innovative, as it allows audio to be moved at high speed into the workstation for editing and broadcast with short turnaround time. No need to physically flip the media (a Flash RAM PC PCMCIA card) out of the case and into a reader. Just clip a cable to the port atop the RCX220 and the download begins.
A lot of broadcast pros have yet to deal with the quirkiness that USB has presented in recent memory. On current computers, the USB issue is much cleaner than it used to be, but if your PC is two or more years old, you may want to flip through your “… for Dummies” books first to be sure you get it right.
Then again, you are welcome to skip the USB feature altogether, remove the media and pop it into a PCMCIA card reader attached to the audio computer, if you so desire.
The RCX220 is innovative and cool to look at, and the audio quality is every bit what you might expect from a Nagra/Digigram collaboration.
The actual recorder is sleek and stylish, with the look of a large Swiss electric shaver or a stainless-steel booze flask. The brushed-aluminum and steel case is topped by a greenish LCD display that shows volume level, recording status and time remaining – large blocky graphics tell at a glance whether the recorder is stopped or rolling, playing or recording.
Underneath, a tight cluster of rubber-membrane buttons handles all menu functions, which include Directory, a list of cuts contained in the RCX220; Tools, which include setting the date and time, card formatting and repair; and Settings, which include the built-in auto level control (ALC), data compression scheme and settings and whether you want the display backlight turned on or not.
A “Home” button is located in the center of four up/down/right/left arrow keys, all of which move you through the entire menu structure. When first exposed to the RCX220, it takes a couple of moments to figure out how to navigate, but the controls are kept simple for the heat of battle.
Underneath are Rewind, Stop, Play and Fast Forward buttons, and a single Record button with a raised tactile dot on the surface. Even in the dark you cannot mistake which little rubber nubbin rolls the recording.
In fact, even if it is dark and you cannot find the proper button on the keypad, no sweat. A Nagra engineer came up with the bright idea of milling a hole on the right side of the recorder and putting in a hard Record button. If you are holding the recorder in your left hand, you can fire the Record mode with your index finger.
A pair of + and – keys select the ALC threshold level, input and output levels – safer and smaller than a pair of dials and perfectly in line with the style of the device.
The big secret is where the Nagra designers hid the batteries and the media. Squeeze a hidden catch on the right side of the unit, just beneath the buttons, and the upper part tips open sideways, like a Zippo lighter.
Inside, a PCMCIA card socket is in the top portion and a battery compartment in the lower half. An elaborate clip holds five AA cells in place. The hinge is solid and stout, far from the crummy hinges that hold personal stereo products together.
Crowning the RCX220 is a multipin microphone socket that accommodates a Nagra mono cardioid electret microphone element or a fairly elaborate M/S capsule. A blank plug is also included for you to wire your own microphone. The Nagra mics look amusingly like faucet aerators found on kitchen plumbing fixtures, giving the unit its liquor-bottle silhouette, but they sound absolutely grand with the RCX220.
The recorder will take down anything you give it in any one of 17 different bit- rates and sample frequencies, from G722 and MPEG mono 64/16, all the way up to 192/48 stereo. When the room is mighty quiet, the ALC cranks everything up. You may wish to set the ALC to a fast reaction time and a higher threshold so your headphones don’t drive you crazy.
A handstrap and a USB cable round out the features boxed with the RCX220.
A CD-ROM is included with the RCX220 that includes Digigram Xtrack editing software and the necessary drivers for your computer to see the Digigram audio interface. Nagra engineers have optimized the system to install easily and run on Windows 98 SE (Second Edition) – anything lesser and the drivers will not load.
This is not to say the RCX220 is useless without Win98SE. You can always plug into the headphone jack and extract good old analog audio to run into your console or DAW. You can, as mentioned earlier, also take out the RAM card. But the USB port is there for a reason.
The readme file on the CD-ROM specifies a minimum Pentium II 300, 64 MB RAM and a standard USB port to operate properly.
Mac users, my apologies; no version for you, unless you can get it to work under a Windows emulator – I have not tried.
My field test of the RCX220 consisted of an interview with Washington radio personality Doug “The Greaseman” Tracht, recently returning to active on-air duty following a two-year hiatus. The recorder was set on a tabletop in his studio and every word was cleanly captured.
Conspicuously absent from the recording (besides tape hiss) was the mechanical motor noise and commutator whine typical of recordings made on a cassette deck – still a first choice among many broadcast field reporters. If you have grown so used to this noise that it goes unnoticed, a clean recording minus the motor drone is going to surprise you.
Oddly enough, some members of the “cassette crowd” have trouble understanding one element of digital recording and storage: archiving. Reporters and news directors tend to stash their best material on hundreds of cassette tapes, usually for an end-of-year news special or for historical or personal interest.
Many look upon the PCM RAM card as just another “cassette” and blanch when they associate the cost of digital media versus analog tape, thinking they have to purchase and save a roomful of RAM cards. These folks need to understand that this media is designed to be reused and those “historic” cuts can just be spun onto a hard disk and burned to a CD later.
In a stationary position, the recorder does what it is supposed to. When the recorder is in motion, however, say when jockeying for position in a crowd to get a clean ‘voicer from some politician, some mechanical noise can be picked up by the top-mounted microphones.
Normal handling of the unit or of a headphone cable attached to it creates friction noise. And oddly enough, the microphone can pick up the gentle rattle of the tiny plunger inside the recorder that ejects the PCM card. At low recording levels, the sound is noticeable on playback.
In large crowds where lots of “walla” is going on, the internal ALC will pull recording levels way down to compensate. In this case, you will never notice any mechanical noise. But for most news and audio gathering applications, the simple solution is to avoid the top-mounted mics entirely and wire up your own favorite ENG mic to the matching plug.
The interchangeable M/S microphone capsule does exactly what an M/S capsule is supposed to do – record a nice spacious stereo spread that can be manipulated for width later in the computer.
The RCX220 will bring your field recordings back alive and sounding great, with none of the jamming or hiss problems offered by cassette or other ENG-type recording equipment. When neccessary, the ALC keeps things in check without having to adjust record levels every time somebody clears his throat.
And a dandy feature – titling – made chasing the cuts down later an easy task. Rather than depend on some cryptic text that says, “69StgFDr,” I will know “69Mustang Ft Door,” was the sound effect I captured of a classic ‘Stang with a squeaky front door hinge at the Antique Car Show.
That metallic Tricorder look is cool, no question. But gripping the case for an hour or two while waiting for the President’s conference actually becomes uncomfortable.
While no moving parts are going to break if the unit falls and strikes the ground, the microphone element can take on some serious damage or even snap off. There is a horrific feeling one gets in the gut from knowing one dropped a piece of gear costing $2,430. A form-fitting, slide-on rubberized grip for the unit to properly fit the hand would make a nice accessory.
The USB feature works fabulously, once the computer is fine-tuned and the proper drivers are in place. When the Nagra RCX220 switches into remote mode, audio offloads are amazingly fast. And editing in Xtrack is as easy as any other editor out there. Better, because it edits MPEG files directly without having to decompress and then re-render them.
The Nagra RCX220 is fast, it records clean, it lets you title your tracks while sitting in the car, and it is lots smaller than an over-the-shoulder solid-state IC media recorder.
By itself, the Nagra RCX220 is a remarkable recorder. With the Xtrack MPEG editing software and USB compatibility, the combination is hard to beat.