Choosing A Portable Recorder:
by Adam Liberman
UPDATE June 2012:
Note that the following content is provided for historical purposes. There are excellent digital memory card recorders available in all price ranges that have far superior performance. We don't recommend buying a portable cassette recorder for any reason except as a museum piece. Note that even NOS (new old stock) may not perform well, because the belts may have become deformed after sitting in the same position for years.
UPDATE January 2008:
There are now digital memory recorders on the market starting at $200, with high quality units available for $500 and up (check out the Fostex FR-2LE). Because it is no longer financially practical for you or us to repair portable cassette and DAT recorders, we have discontinued providing this service. We have made our Marantz PMD222 mic preamp mod public, and you can download Technote TS106 for instructions. We continue to repair Sonosax, Aaton Cantar, and other high quality film and television production sound equipment.
UPDATE August, 2006:
New digital recorders continue to come on the market, expanding the choices available. However, expect to pay $1000 and up for a unit that is rugged and has quiet microphone preamps. For those who still prefer cassette or DAT, we continue to provide expert service repairing and restoring the Sony WM-D6C, TC-D5M, TC-D5 Pro II, TCD-D7, and TCD-D8 recorders.
UPDATE June, 2004:
In the last two years a number of things have rapidly changed. Digital recorders have become better and less expensive, and all the remaining portable stereo cassette recorders have been discontinued (the Marantz PMD430, and the Sony TC-D5M, TC-D5 Pro II, and WM-D6C). For portable field recording, we recommend getting a MiniDisc in the $220 - $350 price range or a digital recorder like the Marantz PMD670, Fostex FR-2, or Sound Devices 722 in the $700 and up price range. If you really really still wish to use cassettes, then look for a used Sony WM-D6C or Sony TC-D5M on eBay, but expect to put some money into restoring it to perfect condition.
UPDATE June, 2002:
The article below was written in 1992 and still serves as an excellent reference for choosing a cassette recorder. However, much has changed in the last 10 years, and the following additions help bring it up to date:
- Sony WM-D6C recorders after US serial number 267,201 (Canada 270,001; AEP 269,301; UK 269,601; E [Europe] 270,001) feature a glass epoxy circuit board instead of the old phenolic one. This greatly improves durability and reliability, although the jacks and record level control remain weak spots. Make sure that any unit you buy is the new version -- you can only tell by the serial number, located under the battery case.
- Sony's TCM-5000EV was left out of the original review. It is a disaster -- the recording quality and frequency response are poor, and the internal construction is a nightmare: many thin drive belts that stretch, lots of wires, etc. In fact, we no longer service them because they are not worth the labor involved.
- The Marantz PMD222's XLR mic jack is unusable because of the excessive hiss due to its poor circuit design. We don't recommend using the XLR jack (you can still use the mini jack) unless you request our PMD222 modification to greatly improve its performance. In addition, we have seen some recorders where the XLR jack has broken off of the plastic front panel.
- Marantz's new PMD101 is the least expensive version of their mono machines. It has automatic recording level only and lacks many other features. The 1/4" microphone jack is of low quality and wears out. If you want a Marantz mono portable, spend a little more for at least the PMD201 and you'll have a much better machine.
DAT recorders have come and gone during this time. Due to their mechanical complexity, they are prone to eating tape, drop-outs (momentary losses of sound), and needing service periodically (which makes us happy!). Still, they are capable of excellent sound quality and are a top choice for those who wish an uncompressed archival digital recording format. Many DAT recorders have gone to extremes of the earth and brought back excellent sound. Sony's ultra small TCD-D100 and PCM-M1 (same as the D100 but without copy protection) portables are the best, but the nearly as good TCD-D8 is easier to repair.
Mini-Disc (MD) has improved greatly during the years, and recorders with a microphone input jack can be had for as little as $230. Although they use a compression method to pack more sound onto the small discs, most people can't hear the slight loss in sound quality (they're still much better than cassette). It's an excellent format for news reporters, music teachers, and many others. Newer models have an option to record up to 320 minutes on one disc! We haven't done extensive reviews and the models change frequently, so we won't recommend specific models at this time. Sharp portables in general have a vastly better user interface than Sony for setting manual recording levels, a must for high quality recording. Unfortunately, reliability has been a problem. More rugged models from HHB and Marantz should be more reliable, but they're more expense and heavier. Go to www.minidisco.com for a good selection and advice. While we don't officially endorse minidisco.com, we've only heard good feedback so far. We do service Mini-Disc recorders, but if it costs under $250 new we'll likely tell you to just get a new one when it doesn't work any more.
Machines that record directly to memory or to hard disc drives are also available. We hope to review some of these machines in the future and give specific recommendations then.
In summary, one the digital formats mentioned above is probably your best choice for a new recorder. Compared to cassette, there's no tape hiss (but watch out for poor quality hissy microphone preamps if you record nature sounds!) and they have ruler flat frequency response and lower distortion. Why consider a new cassette machine? There aren't a lot of reasons any more, but some of them are: A good cassette recorder may be the most reliable thing for extremes of temperature, humidity, and vibration; You may have a large investment in tapes or a high-end home or professional deck; You might prefer the "feel" of using cassette and are familiar with it; You might be satisfied with its sound quality and don't want to spend $250 on a Mini-Disc that might break in two years.
And if you still have your old portable cassette recorder, consider getting it overhauled. Sony's WM-D6C and TC-D5M are the finest portable cassette machines ever made, and one in good working condition makes an excellent back-up machine. Besides, it's a piece of history!
- Adam Liberman, 6/2002
The original article follows:
Copyright © 1992 Adam Liberman.
Reprinted from Nature Sounds, Fall 1992, a publication of the Nature Sounds Society, Oakland California. www.naturesounds.org
The most basic piece of gear a field recordist needs to buy is a machine to record on. Choosing from the variety of machines available from different manufacturers can be just as confusing to recordists who wish to upgrade their equipment as it is to those who are just starting out. Often the best advise comes from those who have actually used the equipment in the field.
This multi-issue series will examine the choices available. Drawing both from my extensive maintenance and field experience, and from the advice of many other audio professionals, this series of articles will examine the choices available to nature sound recordists.
The main formats available today are open-reel, cassette, and R-DAT. In this issue we will focus on cassette recorders. Cassette machines have long been the mainstay of those who couldn't afford an open-reel Nagra or didn't want to lug its 24 pounds on their shoulders all day long.
R-DAT, or Rotary (head) Digital Audio Tape, is a recent format that records sound digitally. The digital audio signal is stored on the tape as ones and zeros, much like a computer stores information on its disks. The R-DAT is quickly encroaching onto both traditional Nagra and cassette turf. R-DAT recorders are rapidly becoming less expensive and improving in quality. We'll examine R-DATs in a future issue.
The best cassette machines suitable for field recording are manufactured by Marantz and Sony. All nine models tested feature manual level control, switchable microphone attenuator, headphone jack with volume, and line out jacks. Each model will be evaluated individually below.
Although it is commonly referred to as the "Walkman Pro," don't confuse it with the WM-D3, which is also called "Walkman Pro" but is an inferior machine. This machine packs excellent quality into a small package. Features include both Dolby B and C noise reduction, and variable speed control. The quartz-lock capstan servo keeps wow & flutter very low and maintains perfect speed.
The WM-D6C lacks a built-in speaker. Unless you use an external speaker, this makes it unsuitable as a playback machine for enticing bird calls. Playback is sometimes used by some recordists to evoke bird vocalizations.
Although a stereo machine, there is only a single record volume control and a single LED level meter which reads the loudest of the two channels. This limitation should not be a drawback under most circumstances. The LEDs are difficult to see in bright sunlight unless you shield them with your hand.
Because of its compactness, some precautions need to be taken to insure longevity. Sideswiping any audio or power plug while it is inserted into the machine, or dropping the machine on a hard floor can cause the circuit board to crack, necessitating time consuming and expensive repairs. After much use, the stereo mini-jacks will almost surely become intermittent and need to be replaced. But with reasonable care to protect the machine from damage, the WM-D6C is capable of providing years of dependable service.
The WM-D3 includes most of the features and sound quality of the lightweight WM-D6C but weighs half as much. It lacks Dolby C noise reduction and the ability to record on metal cassettes. It's not nearly as well constructed or as durable as the WM-D6C. The flimsy cassette holder/door is a trouble spot. If you want a small machine, avoid this model and buy the superior WM-D6C.
For years the TC-D5M has been the standard recorder for low budget documentary and independent filmmakers, and is probably still the best portable cassette machine you can buy. Compared to the WM-D6C, you loose variable speed control and Dolby C noise reduction. The additional $300 buys you a more rugged package, larger piano-type function keys, two lighted VU meters, battery voltage indicator, switchable limiter, independent left and right volume controls, a built-in speaker, and larger phone and RCA type jacks.
The TC-D5M has low wow & flutter and accurate speed because of its quartz-lock servo.
Typical of Sony's better products and a cut above other manufacturers, the design is elegant and the construction quality excellent. Cracks are never a problem with this model because none of the jacks or switches are mounted on the main circuit board. Nothing regularly fails on these machines. With proper routine maintenance, and the occasional head and belt replacement normal for all recorders, these machines usually run indefinitely.
SONY TC-D5 PRO II
The PRO II version of the TC-D5M consumer model is sold through Sony's Professional Audio division. The main distinguishing feature of the TC-D5 PRO II is the more rugged XLR type microphone connectors and balanced inputs. Two internal microphone transformers balance the signal. I have not tested these transformers, so I can't comment on their performance. Unless they are of the highest quality, transformers can cause degradation of the sound. If you use a short microphone cable, balanced inputs are rarely needed for nature sound recording. On the rare occasions when balanced inputs are needed, an external balancing transformer can be used with any tape recorder.
Unlike the TC-D5M, the PRO II version lacks line input jacks, and can't record on metal tape, a distinct disadvantage for field recording. Metal tape is desirable for nature recording because of its ability to record high frequencies, like bird calls, at higher levels than chrome tape. Since it cost significantly more and does less, I can't see any reason to buy the "professional" PRO II instead of the consumer TC-D5M model.
The special features offered by Marantz make them very popular recorders among news reporters and nature sound recordists.
The PMD221 is one of three mono models in the Marantz line. Separate record and playback heads let you check the quality of your recording as it is being recorded, instead of having to rewind the tape and play it back later. Certain recording problems, like tape overload or dirty heads, can only be heard if you monitor tape playback.
A pitch control is provided, as well as a special half-speed position for recording and playback. The half-speed option reduces sound quality significantly and is only suitable for low quality transcription. The microphone input has a switchable low-cut filter and attenuator. Record level is displayed on a large meter, and you have the choice of manual, manual with limiter, or automatic level control. No noise reduction system is provided, so tape hiss is audible. The switchable memory rewind feature stops the tape when the counter reads zero. Battery check is a yes/no LED indicator.
While the Marantz PMD221 rates highly on features, there are several areas which are no match for the Sonys. The speed control circuit is much less precise than on the Sonys, and azimuth stability is sometimes problematic. All the controls and jacks are mounted on a thin circuit board that cracks easily, making damage likely. Stress on the microphone jack often causes the adjoining circuit board traces to break, requiring repair. As the machines wear, the jacks become intermittent, and the nylon gears in the drive start to rattle. The Marantzes are overall less rugged than comparable Sony models.
The PMD222 is essentially the same as the PMD221, but it adds
a more durable XLR-type connector for the microphone. Since the mini jacks on
the PMD221 are a major source of problems, this version should prove to be more
durable if you avoid using the mini jack. The PMD222 also adds a peak recording
indicator light, to help avoid over-recording.
[Update: The balanced XLR input adds more than 10dB of noise, making it unacceptable for professional use without modification (see our mod page on the Marantz PMD 222 for more details).]
Similar to the PMD221, but lacks separate record and playback heads and memory rewind. If you are on a tight budget, you get almost all the features of the PMD221 for less money. You loose the advantage of monitoring your recording off the tape.
Marantz's best stereo machine features both Dolby B and dbx noise reduction, pitch and bias adjust controls, larger 1/4" phone jacks, switchable limiter, microphone attenuator, peak indicator, switchable mono or stereo mic inputs, and three head off-tape monitoring.
Dbx noise reduction is more powerful than Dolby C and virtually eliminates tape noise, but under certain conditions, including nature sound recording, it may produce unwanted audible side effects. Since tapes recorded with dolby or dbx must be played back on a machine using the same type of noise reduction, and cassette machines with dbx are rare, this could be a limitation if you plan to exchange tapes with others.
When using one microphone, a mono switch sends the left channel microphone signal to both channels. This provides a backup in case one channel does not record well. Other recorders need an external "y" adapter to do this.
Two illuminated VU meters are provided, with separate record volume controls for each channel.
Especially useful for recording birds, where transient sounds can overload recording tape even when the meters are barely moving, the PMD430 allows you to monitor tape playback as you are recording.
Compared to the Sony TC-D5M, the PMD430 sports more features but is not as well made. Like the mono PMD221, azimuth stability tends to be a problem, and the speed control system is less sophisticated and less precise than on the Sony. With hard use, the jacks tend to wear out, and the drive gears become noisy.
Similar to the PMD430, but lacks separate record and playback heads for off-tape record monitoring and lacks dbx noise reduction. This model has been discontinued but may be available in some stores.
If you want quality sound in a small, lightweight package, and will use some care to protect it from damage, the Sony WM-D6C is an excellent choice. If you want a more rugged machine, with larger jacks and controls, and don't mind the added weight and size, then the Sony TC-D5M is by far the best machine.
If you are on a tight budget, or don't like the small buttons on the Sony WM-D6C, then consider one of the mono Marantzes. For lowest price, get the PMD201. Otherwise, skip the PMD221 and go for the PMD222. The addition of an XLR-type microphone jack should make this model significantly more durable than the PMD221 or PMD201.
Before spending $500-700 on a cassette recorder, however, I would consider investigating the new digital R-DATs. There are models available now with street prices as low as $500. I'll be examining the current selection of R-DATs in a forthcoming issue.
Aurora IL 60504
1 Sony Drive
Park Ridge NJ 07656
Adam Liberman designs and maintains professional audio equipment, records sound for motion pictures and video, designs sound for theatre, and is editor of Nature Sounds.
Table 1: Comparison of Features
Notes: Manufacturers' claimed frequency response is similar for all machines. It is not included since there is typically greater variation in alignment between individual units than between different models. Weight includes batteries.