It all started in 2005 with the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96. I jumped at the chance to review this inexpensive new flash recorder, lugging it along on a trip to Maui to record band rehearsals and live shows. As luck would have it, the next recorder I reviewed, the Edirol R-09, also arrived in time for one of my periodic trips to Hawaii, where I produce the Aloha Music Camp.
Now, in what amounts to a scary bit of synchronicity, both M-Audio and Edirol rolled out revamped versions that arrived just as I was packing for yet another trip to the land of palm trees and plumeria.
I was curious to see how the new models compared to the originals: are the changes evolutionary or revolutionary? Because I've covered each recorder pretty thoroughly already, here I'll point out changes and improvements; you might wish to revisit the original reviews for background.
In my first review, I gave the MicroTrack high marks for ease of use and audio quality, but complained about the battery and non-standard phantom power. I was curious to see if M-Audio paid attention.
The improved MicroTrack II looks and feels almost the same as the original. That means it's tiny, lightweight, and still sports 1/4" TRS, 1/8" stereo mic/line, and S/PDIF inputs, as well as RCA audio outs.
Good news: it now supports full 48V phantom power as well, vastly increasing the number of microphones you can use. However, as with the original, you must take care when using phantom power and a TRS plug, lest you inadvertently damage the device. (See page 4 of my original review for details.)
The MicroTrack II defaults to one-touch recording, which means that the only way to set levels is while you're recording. However, it's a simple matter to change the setting so that one press on the Rec button puts the MicroTrack II into record-ready mode and a second starts recording. As that's my preferred way to work, I'm happy to have the choice.
On the downside, you have to be alert, because there is no flashing LED indicating you're in record-ready mode, just a tiny Pause icon on the fairly dim display — easy to miss in a low-light situation.
M-Audio has improved input level setting as well. The three-way mic level sliders are gone, and good riddance. I was able to record sources at a wide variety of levels with no problems. However, if recording drums and artillery is your thing, pick up the optional 10dB pad.
Here's a quick rundown on some of the physical changes in the new models. Both M-Audio and Edirol continue to upgrade their products via free firmware updates. Visit their sites (M-Audio; Edirol/Roland) to make sure you have the latest.
One of the things I love about field recorders is their ability to take an "audio snapshot"; I'm not always interested in capturing audiophile perfection. As I've said elsewhere, it's like photography — sometimes you don't want to worry about finding the right lens and wrestling with a tripod; a point-and-shoot digicam will do just fine.
The Aloha Music Camp was perfect for that mindset because it brings some of the best musicians in Hawaii to teach 'ukulele, slack key guitar, hula, and more to a large group of dedicated campers. You can bet there are plenty of great audio moments to record.
One day I happened on Maui songbird Robyn Mahealani Kneubuhl and steel guitarist KonaBob Stauffer in an impromptu rehearsal. As you can see from the photo at right, I simply fired up both recorders and stood back. Because the MicroTrack II doesn't have a tripod socket, it ended up flat on a glass table — probably the worst way to record due to the boundary effect. But listen to the performance and tell me if it was worth it; later you'll hear how the R-09HR fared. I recorded this example in 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV format and then compressed it to 192kbps MP3 in my computer for faster download.
As a bonus, M-Audio includes an analog limiter. That's right: unlike most field recorders, the MicroTrack II puts the limiter is where it should be — in front of the analog-to-digital converters. It works fine if you're recording spoken word; as you can hear, without the limiter the audio is seriously distorted:
I would get more excited if the limiter offered some degree of control — on/off is all you get. And I don't think it's transparent enough for music.
My biggest gripe with the original MicroTrack was with the internal battery: it had an annoying habit of draining even when turned off. Replacing a MicroTrack battery that has reached the end of its life still requires a costly trip back to the manufacturer, but at least it now holds a charge overnight. However, I discovered a fully charged battery will drain over a period of a couple of weeks. Battery life is still good — I got close to the published five hours — but it drops to three hours or less with phantom power engaged.
And recharging the battery still takes more time than swapping out a couple of AA cells; I missed some prime recording opportunities while the recorder was juicing up back at the hotel. Once again, I would strongly suggest picking up a USB battery pack for emergencies.
Like the original, the MicroTrack II records MP3 and WAV files, the latter at resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. Unless you use decent external mics, the extra storage space required for high-resolution recording may not be worth the increase in quality. However, flash memory is cheap, and the MicroTrack II supports both Compact Flash and Microdrives in any size. Just be sure you buy one before setting out on safari; M-Audio no longer includes a memory card in the box. Ouch!
Just to show you how good the MicroTrack II can sound, here is a snippet of my guitar recorded as a mono 44.1kHz/16-bit WAV file using a Neumann KM184 microphone. You might remember that this was one of the mics you could not use with the original MicroTrack:
One caveat: my review unit locked up on me a couple of times. A firmware update from M-Audio appears to have fixed the problem.
With its big, 1/4" inputs; excellent audio quality (as long as you used quality microphones); and high-res, uncompressed WAV file support, the original MicroTrack was a solid choice for recording on the go. I am happy to say version II is even better.
When all is said and done, a field recorder is a tool for capturing dreams. Well after midnight on the last night of camp, I happened across one of those moments: a session with two of the best guitarists in Hawaii. Good thing I had the recorder in my bag.
Listen to Sonny Lim from Waimea and Ikaika Marzo from Kalapana dig into "Punahou Special." Pure chicken skin:
Covered in soft black silicone, the revamped Edirol R-09HR feels downright sensual. As before, most everything you need is within easy reach for one-handed operation. Even better, labels for the various switches and sliders appear in easy-to-read white script.
The flimsy door covering the battery compartment, USB port, and memory-card slot on the original is gone. Dual AA batteries now fit under a sliding panel on the back, while the card slot and USB port hide under a smaller — and sturdier — door in the bottom. You still have to remove the unit from the optional case to access any of these areas, but at least I didn't worry about breaking something.
I was happy to see the R-09HR comes with just about everything you need to start recording in the box, including a 512MB SD card. (The HR supports cards up to 32GB.) A little S-shaped piece of clear plastic piqued my interest; it took me a moment to realize it was a simple table stand. Because the only way to attach the R-09 to a tripod is to purchase an expensive optional case, this is a welcome gadget indeed.
For me the R-09HR's biggest new feature is also its smallest: a tiny wireless remote. Now I could set up the recorder in an inconspicuous spot and wait, setting levels and recording without disturbing anyone. How much better than fumbling with the controls and then sticking the unit in someone's face! Here's a great, laid-back, slack-key song played by Kevin Brown for his class; even the birds got into the spirit:
Edirol claims the remote has a range of 12 feet; I found it worked admirably under a variety of conditions and distances. In addition to standard transport functions, the remote also lets you split audio files on the fly — handy for recording a live concert. You can also pause and resume a recording without creating a new file — something not all digital recorders can do.
In case you're curious how the R-09HR handled that jam session I mentioned a while back, here's a clip from the first song Robyn and Bob played:
Like its predecessor, the R-09HR boasts an impressive array of file-management features. The revamped faceplate sports a couple new controls: the Finder (for navigating audio files and folders) and Menu functions now have dedicated buttons. One new function, Speed, changes the playback, slowing it down or speeding it up based on a pre-selected value. Slowing down the audio is useful if you're attempting to transcribe an interview with a nervous subject or struggling to learn a difficult musical passage. Why speed it up? Well, ever wish your science teacher would hurry up and end the lecture?
Probably the biggest change is in recording resolution; the R-09HR (for High Resolution) now supports uncompressed WAV files up to 24-bit/96kHz, like the MicroTrack. Is the extra resolution worth the memory hit? That depends on you. Higher resolutions won't make bad recordings better, but if you take care, you can get excellent recordings using the built-in microphones — and even better ones with external mics.
Late one night I played my uke on the lanai and recorded tracks at various sample rates and bit depths. Listening back, I could hear a difference, sure; but would I record everything at the highest resolution because it sounds better? No, I wouldn't. That's just me; I don't necessarily need jaw-dropping audio all the time.
Due to space limitations, I can't post one of the uncompressed files, but here is something I recorded at 24/96 and converted to MP3. You'll have to take it from me that it sounded pretty darn good — as good as an 'ukulele played next to the ocean can sound:
I was taken with the Edirol R-09 back in 2006. With high-resolution recording and a nifty little wireless remote, the newest incarnation is a big step up.
I was admittedly skeptical when my editor asked me to look at the MicroTrack II and the Edirol R-09HR. I'd already given them both a thorough going-over; how much could they have changed in a couple of years? I expected at best modest improvements rather than any revolutionary changes.
By examining the two recorders at the same time, I found that they serve very different needs.
The MicroTrack v.1 suffered from poorly implemented phantom power. That has been addressed, making the MicroTrack II more useful and a better value. It is particularly strong when used with external microphones, making it an excellent choice for serious field recording where audio quality is a concern. With full 48V phantom power, the range of microphones is limited only by your budget. Of course, you still need to scare up XLR-to-TRS cables, but it beats hauling around a separate preamp and power supply.
Although the battery is still problematic, inexpensive battery packs are readily available — or you can make your own. You can even buy an inexpensive solar charger for those extreme recording sessions! Just remember that you will have to send the unit back to M-Audio when the battery eventually fails.
I would not recommend the MicroTrack II to everyone. Its quirky interface (do you see any transport controls?), hard-to-read display, and lack of even basic file maintenance routines could prove frustrating to novices. With no tripod or mic stand adapter, it's pretty much relegated to handheld or shirt-pocket operation. It is so light that your external mic cords threaten to send it flying if you set it on a table.
The MicroTrack II lacks many of the bells and whistles found on its competitors, sure; but that is just the point. It does one thing, and it does it well. If you like to record with your own mics, but you were put off by the insufficient phantom power in the original, you will like the MicroTrack II.
In some ways the Edirol R-09HR is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Whereas M-Audio has obviously targeted audio professionals and experienced amateurs, Edirol goes out of the way to educate the consumer. The documentation includes a big manual and a very good illustrated Practical Guide (23MB PDF) with tips on recording, mic placement, uploading files to your computer, and more.
The R-09HR remains one of the easiest recorders to use and it is a good choice for anyone wanting to capture songs at a music festival, record lectures, or create podcasts. You can use external microphones via its 1/8" stereo mic input, but you'll need a preamp and power supply for studio-grade mics.
Although the R-09HR still does not have a built-in windscreen, the redesigned mics are a little better at resisting wind. You might want to engage the low-cut filter — or you can take Edirol's advice and drape a handkerchief over the mics when recording outside. You'll still need to accessorize to get a tripod adapter, but the addition of high-resolution recording, a new remote, and the clever plastic stand make a good recorder great.