Test Drive: The Marantz PMD690 Portable PC Card Recorder

GETTING STARTED

There are some choices to make on the PMD690 in order to prepare for recording. The first thing to do after unpacking the unit is to format the memory card, much like you’d format a hard disk prior to using it for the first time. The PMD690 uses a Windows-compatible file system, which ensures that you can read the contents of the card directly on a PC or a Macintosh computer. The display prompts guide you through the process, although you may want to keep the manual handy to help you decipher some of the abbreviations on the display (like “bLa”, which is short for blank, not blah).

You’ll want to fiddle some with the various preferences available in the PMD690. You do this by accessing the Presets menu, which is accomplished by holding the MARK (PRESET) button while powering up the unit. Pressing the FF and REW buttons takes you through each of the preset items, which include settings for the file format, time and date, the battery type and the battery alarm. Setting the battery alarm to ON is highly recommended, particularly if you’re using alkaline batteries. Expect about two hours from a set of AA alkalines.

A word about batteries: the PMD690 includes an AC wall-wart adapter and a battery cage that holds eight alkaline AA cells. An optional NiCad rechargeable battery pack is available for $89, or you can add an NiMh battery pack priced at $99 with charging station priced at $199 for a total of $298. (The NiCad battery can be charged directly in the unit.) Trust me, you’ll want one of the optional battery packs, as two hours goes by quickly. Or you can invest in a couple of sets of rechargeable AA NiCads and a charger, available at any Wal-Mart or Office Depot. They’re handy to have around, and over time, they definitely pay for themselves.

One preference you’ll need to set is the bit rates for recording. Recording time per megabyte in the PMD690 varies greatly with the degree of MP2 compression used. The PMD690 lets you select three different rates, two stereo and one mono, and assigns these rates to the SP/LP/MONO slide switch on the top of the unit. This lets you quickly pick the most efficient rate in the field that gives the longest recording time. For testing, I chose 384 kbps for SP, 128 for LP, and 64 for the MONO switch position. Recording in the MONO mode to a 32 MB Flash card gave me nearly an hour of recording time.

HERE ARE SOME FANCY FUNCTIONS

The PMD690’s input section is very flexible. There’s a MIC ATTEN switch that pads the mic input by 0, -15, or -30dB. You can choose to record from both the left and right mic inputs, just the left input, or from the internal condenser mic. When you choose the left mic channel alone and record in stereo, the PMD690 records the left channel audio to both left and right channels of the recorder, with the right channel 15dB down from the left. According to Marantz/Superscope Technologies, this turns the right channel into a “safety” track. If you have an “over” or clipping in the left channel audio, the exact same material is available on the right channel in an unclipped state. You then have the option of replacing the clipped audio with the right channel’s unclipped version. It’s a common technique in video shoots where the production sound is mono anyway.

In a similar vein, when the mic input switch is set to L/R (both inputs) and the record mode is mono, the left and right inputs are combined and recorded on a single track. That’s slick, and again helps save memory. The Skip Silence function looks for the input level to drop below a preset threshold for a preset time. When it sees that it puts the recorder into record-pause mode until a signal greater that -30dB arrives, at which point it goes back into record again.

What Marantz calls the “Ambient Noise Cancel switch” controls what we call rolloff and filtering. It’s a three-position function — the low-cut position works below 150Hz, the bandpass position works below 150Hz and above 3KHz, and flat is off. I couldn’t find a spec, but they sound to me like 12dB/octave filters, and they seem to perform as intended.

The PMD690 is equipped with a pre-record (Pre Rec) feature that records two seconds of audio before the record button is pressed, preventing missed or delayed starts. So how does it know to start recording two seconds before you actually press the REC button? And no, the recorder is not clairvoyant. This is generally accomplished by having the machine in a state of loop record all the time. It is always recording, from whatever input is selected, into a two second memory buffer, and as new audio comes in it overwrites old audio within the buffer. When you finally press REC, the two seconds that’s still in the buffer becomes the beginning of the new recording and it goes on from that point. It’s a cool feature, and it helps make the recorder feel more responsive and quick. In the PMD690 this feature is switch-selected, but it comes on automatically when the Skip Silence function comes on, so it doesn’t miss anything when it pops itself out of pause.

EDITING RECORDINGS

The PMD690 has some simple editing capabilities that you can use without the aid of an external computer, and which seem to be modeled after the MiniDisc recorders. EDL (Edit Decision List) markers can be inserted manually or automatically during recording or playback, and those markers form regions in the EDL. There are four types of markers that correspond to editing functions — a Play marker indicates that the material following the marker is to be played until the next marker is encountered. The Skip marker tells the machine to skip the audio after the marker, until the next EDL marker. The A Point marker denotes the beginning of a repeating loop, and the B marker indicates the end of a loop.

By inserting these markers in appropriate places, you can build an automated playlist that will play and skip and loop according to the markers. You can add markers, delete them, and change their type until you get the playback you want. It works, but like MiniDisc editing, I find it to be a very tedious process, and it seems redundant when you realize that you can just pop the Flash memory card into your computer and mangle it with Sound Forge...

…which is by far the best part of the PMD690.

THE BEST PART

To my way of thinking, the PMD690’s primary advantage over MiniDisc, DAT, and certainly cassette is the memory card. Thanks to its use of standard PCMCIA memory cards, you can begin editing in your computer immediately after recording, by mounting the memory card in your PC. The transfer time is exactly zero, since you can open an MP2 file directly from the memory card into Sound Forge and begin cutting, saving the edited file back to your hard disk. Or you can drag and drop the audio file from the card onto your hard disk and begin editing from there. I copied a half hour MP2 file from the card to my hard disk in a little over a minute. This is a huge time-saver.

It’s not all beer and skittles — I discovered that my favorite Cool Edit 2000 does not support MP2 audio files in any fashion. But that’s why I keep Sound Forge on my PC, which does support MP2 files. Sound Forge has a strong tool set that works well with files recorded in the PMD690, and its sample rate conversion is among the best-sounding I’ve heard (if you don’t know why that’s important I’ll tell you shortly).

There is one significant disadvantage to using Flash memory cards as a recording medium: the initial expense of media. If you’re doing full-fidelity recording, Flash memory is way more expensive than DAT or MiniDisc on a per-minute basis. If you’re recording sound effects in the field for your library, then you want to get the best quality possible and that means stereo linear PCM with no compression. Compared to a 60 minute DAT at $5 or a MiniDisc at $2, a 512 MB Flash card is about $430 at this writing, and only gets you about 45 minutes of stereo. An IBM 1GB Microdrive would get you about 75 minutes for $390. Sure, you get to re-use them many times over several years, but the initial expense is high.

On the other hand, if you’re recording an interview or a remote, or even a local band live in a club, you don’t need that kind of fidelity. MPEG-2 coding at 384 kbps or 256 kbps sounds pretty danged good, and takes up much less space, and you’d be looking good with a 256 MB card for about $140. That would give you three hours of mono at 192 kbps, which is more than fine for voice and most music.

But the big idea here is saving time in transfer. Hey, if your time is worth money then that expensive Flash card will pay for itself in short order. Imagine loading three hours of audio into your computer in the time it takes to get a coffee — that’s worth a Benjamin or three. (It’s a little-known fact that after he developed the concept of E=MC2, Albert Einstein proved that time really does equal money. It’s certainly true in this case.)

The User Guide is serviceable, if brief. You’ll need to read through it all to find the juicy nuggets, but fortunately the English section is only 25 or so pages.

THE VERDICT

My only quibbles with the PMD690 are with the display size and density, and with the fixed sampling rate. Of the two, the fixed sampling rate is more troubling. A great deal of our production work is destined for CD at 44.1kHz. While it’s quick enough to convert from 48 to 44.1 in Sound Forge, the process of sample rate conversion, more properly called re-sampling, can leave audible artifacts.

Having said that, the audio performance of the PMD690 is very good. The mic preamps are clean and quiet, the frequency response is good, and the fact that after recording your audio remains within the digital domain is good news from a quality standpoint. The unit is small and reasonably light, it sounds great, and it’s actually a load of fun to use.

The Marantz PMD690 Portable PC Card Recorder carries a suggested list price of $1,499. For more information in the US, contact Superscope Technologies Inc., 2640 White Oak Circle, Aurora, IL 60504. Phone 630-820-4800, fax 630-820-8103, or visit www.marantzpro.com.

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