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Field Test: Sony PCM-D1 Handheld Recorder


Sony’s strong background in broadcast is showing in a handsome field recorder that will please ENG pros and recording folks alike. The Sony PCM-D1 portable field recorder features built-in electret condenser mics in a stereo X/Y configuration, analog and digital meters, signal limiting, highpass filtering, an LCD and 4 GB of Flash memory that can store up to two hours of stereo WAV files recorded at 24-bit/96kHz.

For projects that require extended recording times, a Memory Stick Pro slot is included. Connected to a computer via USB 2 port, the PCM-D1 acts like any other removable drive on a PC or Mac, allowing for an easy transfer.

Besides great specs that feature quality Analog Devices signal path components, what really makes the PCM-D1 so exciting is that Sony packed this much power into an attractive titanium housing that weighs less than 19 ounces. That’s with batteries — regular, find-’em-anywhere AA batteries. Rechargeable batteries included with the unit provide five hours of recording time; long-life lithium batteries provide between seven and eight hours. Considering everything the PCM-D1 does, that’s not a complaint, and as with any type of audio gear, it’s nothing new.

I started recording with the PCM-D1 as soon as I could get it out of the box. It’s intuitive to use and does not require a manual. I loaded it with batteries, and suddenly the world was my studio. The first test for the recorder was an interview conducted outside during lunch. I simply set the PCM-D1 on the table, tilted the mics up a bit (the tilt mount comes in handy), set the levels and let it rip. The highpass filter did a nice job of eliminating some of the wind and traffic noise.

The PCM-D1, like Sony MiniDisc recorders, has a handy feature that allows you to divide recordings in real time or later during playback. When it came time to edit the interview, I wasn’t stuck with one huge WAV file that I had to hunt through to find my bites.

For fun, I used the PCM-D1 to record some of the springtime downpours we’ve had in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with various sounds in the distance such as fire trucks and police cars. Then I compared the results to some of the previous recordings I had done with a different, and larger, rig. Although the mics were not of the same type and quality, the PCM-D1 lacked some of the body of the large-diaphragm mics I had used previously. My point with this comparision is, so what? It required zero setup, and for gathering sounds for picture in a pinch, it could be a real lifesaver.

Later, I had a gig with a rock band I play with in the Bay Area. Because I play drums, I wasn’t able to monitor the recording. I handed the PCM-D1 to a friend in the audience and told him to point it at the stage and watch the levels. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. The PCM-D1 is especially strong at recording middle to high frequencies. Guitar and vocals really shined, while the drums and bass lacked a little body.

I recorded a solo artist singing and playing acoustic guitar, and the PCM-D1 sounded very good. An acoustic artist or songwriter would be happy with the PCM-D1 for this purpose alone. The PCM-D1 was placed just a couple of feet in front of the artist closer to the guitar with the mics tilted slightly upward; again, the tilt feature comes in handy. A little compression and EQ and — voilà! — instant demo CD.

My final project with the PCM-D1 was recording a high school choir, and the results were very impressive. The handy threaded slot on the bottom of the unit made it a breeze to mount the PCM-D1 on a standard camera tripod. The X/Y configuration of the mics makes the PCM-D1 ideal for capturing a live stereo performance, such as with a choir. Again, with a little sweetening, you’d have a usable recording you could be proud of.

The PCM-D1 is a reporter’s dream. I told a couple of my friends at local radio stations KCBS and NPR about the capabilities of the PCM-D1, and they just looked at me incredulously. Budget would be the only thing holding them back from making the leap. At $1,800, the PCM-D1 is an investment. That might be hard to swallow for some radio stations getting by just fine with MiniDiscs and other portable recorders, but the PCM-D1’s versatility makes it very enticing.

I also have a couple of other things to add to the wish list. Because the mics and controls are all part of the same unit, there’s no way to ride the levels without handling noise being picked up by the mics. A simple remote connected via USB for turning levels up and down would be very cool. Also, when the user is navigating the menu, the volume control is in the perfect spot to the left of the menu for scrolling through the menu options. I kept wanting to scroll through the menu using the volume knob vs. the buttons on the face of the PCM-D1. However, these are minor ergonomic tweaks.

Overall, I really enjoyed using the PCM-D1. It performed very well, and I was just getting started. The PCM-D1 should be on the short list of anyone considering a portable, professional, solid-state recording device.

Sony Pro Audio, 800/686-7669,

Rick Spence is the owner of AVT Pro, a production company in the Silicon Valley.