Music recording, past and present

Tascam DR-07 digital recorderUntil recently, I had a minidisc recorder which I had used to record live music – mainly my own practices and performances – and which I had occasionally used to make digital recordings of public speaking. The latter were mainly sermons at church which I recorded off the sound board so that I, as the resident A/V boy, could transfer them to CD or mp3 recordings for their web site. I’d long since switched the church to other solutions, however, my music recording had fallen by the wayside because of the minidisc’s shortcomings.  This post is mainly about the Tascam DR-07 digital recorder which replaced it, but a very brief trip down minidisc memory lane will help put my excitement about this new unit in perspective.

There were two main problems with the minidisc format.

First, while it was “good for its day,” minidisc players and recorders were designed around a rewritable optical disc in a square cartridge. They looked a lot like 3.5″ floppy disks (remember those?). The good news – minidiscs were relatively cheap and could be popped in and out of the recorder very easily, and could be re-written thousands of times. The bad news – their capacity mirrored that of CDs, so at most they offered 80 minutes if you wanted to use their best quality setting.

Sharp MD77 playerSecond, and much worse, minidisc recorders and players, with rare exceptions, did not allow digital uploads to computer. Sony had introduced the minidisc format back in 1992 in hopes of creating another consumer music format – one more portable and more congenial to making the digital equivalent of “mix tapes.” While units capable of near-CD quality (at least in terms of the bit rate) live recording were quickly added to the product mix, the format continued to be centered around making copies of commercial recordings, and the recording industry was not interested in encouraging any manufacturers to allow digital uploads of minidisc recordings, regardless of whether they originated as CD transfers or your own recital. So a typical minidisc recorder with a set of external microphones made you a decent digital recording – which there was no way to tranfer to a computer digitally. You had to connect an analog cable between your minidisc and a computer, start a session of a recording software like Audacity, and press PLAY. Argh!

Still, this setup was better for field recording than analog cassettes, and was used by many of my musician peers. About the only semi-practical alternative that was available around the time I got my first minidisc unit (early ‘2000s)was to get a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) deck. But DAT was far more expensive, the equipment (like minidisc) was mechanically complex, and so it remained mainly in the realm of professionals.  By the way, read that wikipedia link about the DAT format – the mp3 player wasn’t the first gadget the record industry got up in arms about.

This whole discussion may sound incredibly quaint to anyone at all familiar with the present generation of mp3 players, but keep in mind that mp3 playback is a much simpler task than making a high quality digital recording, and the iPod is only about nine years old, even if you go all the way back to the first generation. I’d estimate that mp3 players have only become commonplace since 2006 at the earliest (one benchmark – cars started featuring iPod and auxiliary inputs around this time). 

I’d become aware of portable solid state digital recorders that used storage cards and made uncompressed recordings, but they were still a bit too rich for my blood – all of the ones I’d heard of cost $400 plus. So I’d begun to use the minidisc only rarely and reluctantly, and begun to wait for something to come along at a breakthrough price.

Then Tascam introduced the DR-07. At a street price of around $150, it got my attention. Initially, I was fearful that at that price it would be poorly built or would produce inferior recordings, but the reviews I saw online made me decide it was worth a try. I’ve also started taking clarinet lessons from Dr. Tim Phillips down in Troy (about an hour away from me), and while we get together in person regularly, he’s also willing to listen to my playing when I send him recordings. While the church has a setup where they record direct to a computer with a USB output from the soundboard, I also had an opportunity to use this recorder as a backup to that system.

So I went down to Guitar Center and took the plunge. Here are my impressions around the 2 week mark.

The unit comes with a 2 GB SD card, a foam windscreen for the on-board mics, USB cable, and 2 AA batteries. An AC adapter is sold separately for about $25 (fortunately, my old Sharp minidisc’s AC adapter met the specs exactly and the tip was the very same size, so hey, something salvaged!).

The quality of the buttons, case finish, and the like are reasonably good. Everything feels tight and responds well to commands. However, if you’re used to the likes of the iPod, you’ll consider it a bit of a step back, especially the display and menu systems, which are logical and easy to read but not especially sexy. This isn’t off-putting to me – it’s still dynamite compared to the Sharp minidisc player I had. Minidiscs were more popular in Japan, so they have that “Japanese market” look and feel. For example, my minidisc player featured 8 bit monochromatic fish swimming across the display when in playback mode. Wha? It’s also worth noting that more expensive units may have better buttons and knobs and more input types, but none of them I’ve seen have a display that’s much better or different. It’s an audio recorder, not a typical piece of consumer electronics.

My clarinet teacher has a higher-end Marantz unit, and it has at least one thing the DR-07 doesn’t. Or rather, two. The DR-07 lacks XLR microphone connectors, which are the round connectors found on better microphones. However, it has a line input and an external microphone input. Both are 1/8th inch stereo jacks. The microphone input can be set for powered or unpowered microphones. The manual cautions that you need to check this setting and make sure it’s right before plugging equipment in, as it does not switch automatically. You could damage equipment by not doing this right. You can buy adapters that bring the popular XLR connectors down to 1/8th inch stereo, but in most cases where you were using those types of microphones, I’d think you’d be using the output from some kind of mixing board anyway. I found in my limited use of the DR-07 with a mixing board that I got much better results using the mic in than the line in. This is counter-intuitive, but I did not get high enough levels with the line in. So I set power to “OFF” for the mic in and connected to the board that way.

I think the recording level is odd – it’s a rotary dial set into the side of the unit (like the frequency or volume control on a clock radio or older portable radio). I don’t know exactly how it works, but given the type of control it is, I’d say it’s likely an older style mechanical/electrical switch. It works fine, but given that even the audio playback level (i.e. the playback volume) is a pair of electronic switches, I’d have preferred that this crucial control be fully electronic, as it was on my minidisc and on the low-end Sony digital recorder we used to use at church. However, the Marantz appears to have a mechanical knob for this control as well, and it typically costs over $500, so perhaps the engineers know something I don’t.

In addition to being a recorder, the DR-07 of course plays back tracks, and has the basic controls you’d expect, although again not as slick and highly thought out as an iPod would be. You can set up repeats for single tracks or the entire set of recordings and you can even set up playlists. If I were wanting to do anything this involved with playback, however, I’d probably move the tracks to a computer and from there either play them off the PC or move them to my iPod.

It’s worth mentioning that the DR-07 does not have a speaker at all. If you want to listen, you’ll have to plug in earphones or an external powered speaker system.

The DR-07 has special playback modes as well. You can change playback speed with or without changing pitch (useful, for example, if you’re a guitarist recording some licks someone else is doing, and you’re trying to learn the song, or perhaps if you’re trying to convince your clarinet teacher you can play much faster than you really can). You can also change pitch without changing speed. In the latter, the controls assign semitone values to the adjustment you’re making, but fine tuning is also possible from the controls. I have trouble imagining why you’d want to do this, but perhaps a singer might want to record an instrumentalist then adjust the track for his or her key. Finally, you can mark a beginning and end point within a track as a loop and let the segment in between play over and over. I found that changing playback speed too drastically, especially slowing down, can result in noticable distortion if you are trying to maintain pitch. And using the “change pitch” control by itself drastically reduced the sound quality – the distortion sounds kind of like reverb. It’s still somewhat useful for practice or the like, but  these modes would not be usable for performance purposes (for example, if you were recording a backing track and trying to use it for performance by plugging it into the sound system). Trying to make a field recorder do these kind of advanced tricks is somewhat unrealistic, in my view – such editing is better done using PC software.

At the best recording quality level, the DR-07 makes a  24 bit, 44100 hz WAV file. If you want to learn more about digital quality levels, the wikipedia articles on bit rate and sampling rate might be of interest. Suffice it to say that 24 bit is actually a bit (no pun intended) higher than the Red Book CD standard of 16 bit, 44100 hz. I have made most of my recordings using the 16 bit, 44100 hz WAV file format, mainly because this allows me to simply move the file over to a computer and play it or burn a CD with no conversion. Audacity does process 24 bit recordings, but the version of Windows Media Center I have can’t play them. In my opinion, this quality difference is purely theoretical in an inexpensive field recorder, but according to the manual the 24 bit setting allows for somewhat greater dynamic range. The unit also allows you to select MP3 formats at rates ranging from 32 kbps (kilobits per second) to 320 kbps, with a total of seven MP3 formats available (all presumably maintain the standard 44100 hz sampling rate). As a rough point of reference, 32 kbps is incredibly low quality (a digital landline telephone is supposed to be about 64 kbps), while 320 kbps is better than the quality level most people use when ripping tracks off their CDs to put on their MP3 players.

For every trade down in quality, you make a smaller size file for the same time length recording, naturally. I have not had the need to make recordings direct in MP3 format, preferring to make conversions on the computer, but there is a file size limit that comes into play. The recorder can only make a 2 GB file, regardless of the size of SD card inserted. Having a bigger SD card lets you make more recordings, but doesn’t let you go longer. So a 24 bit WAV file can only be around 2 hours, a 16 bit WAV file can be a little over 3 hours, and all the MP3 formats would allow you to make insanely long recordings ranging from about 14 hours to almost 24 (any application of this I can think of makes me think surveillance, not recording of musical performances, but perhaps you want to make bootleg recordings of an entire music festival in one go. More power to you.).

Given that a modern finished CD can only be about 80 minutes long (a bit longer than a typical performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which legend has it formed the benchmark for that audio format’s original required length of 74 minutes), and that you can even hit the advance button to start a fresh recording without pausing the recorder for any length of time at all, this seems plenty. A far cry from having to swap out minidiscs or other media during intermissions.

Transferring the file from the DR-07 to a computer for further editing, as with any solid state recorder, is quite simple. Either pop the SD card out and gently insert it into a reader (many laptops read SD cards and the like), or just connect the DR-07 to the computer with the included USB cable and read the recorder as you would any external drive device. You can also erase, rename, and move files TO the SD card for use with the DR-07.

Digital bit rates are great, and all that, but then again my cell phone has a camera with a digital resolution around half that of my Canon SLR camera, and yet that lens the size of a toenail does it in. Likewise, the weak link in any digital recording, especially a field unit like this one, would be the other parts of the chain – the microphones and the analog circuitry that converts the sound to ones and zeros. So how good is the recording?

Sony ECM DS70PIn layman’s terms, it’s really, really good, I’m happy to say. I’ve done recordings with the internal microphones and with a Sony ECM DS70P self-powered external microphone that I used to use with the minidisc, and they seem about the same. Internal microphones used to be a terrible compromise on recorders, because they picked up their own noise. Cassettes and minidiscs have plenty of that – I believe a certain amount of noise even came across on the minidisc using the external microphone, either over the air or perhaps conducted through the cable. A solid state recorder doesn’t make mechanical noise, so in theory the pair of internal microphones can do about as good a job as an external stereo mic. Of course, any little microphone like this is a compromise, and wouldn’t capture a good stereo image for a large ensemble, but you’d be surprised how well it does for chamber music. I have yet to record something like a piano or string ensemble playing with me, but based on past experience, along with the recordings I’ve made of just myself, I expect decent results.

clarinet excerpt from DR-07 (.wav file, approx 3 MB, 15 seconds)

I’ve also done some speech recording off the sound board at church, and again the results are good. A better test would be to capture a musical performance being professionally mixed and output from a board, and if I ever get a chance to do something like that I’ll try to update this post.

 John Gibson excerpt from DR-07 (.wav file, approx 1 MB, 5-7 seconds)

So far I’m very satisfied with the unit, especially for the price. It’s important for a musician, especially a wind musician or singer, to record oneself to hear what you really sound like, and while listening to one’s own performances is about like looking at pictures of yourself (i.e. you have to be a bit vain to really enjoy the process), other people seem to like them sometimes, so it’s nice to be able to record some things and make CDs and the like.

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