News Flash: Field recorders are hot again! Once the domain of inquiring journalists, roving musicologists, and Hollywood remote recordists, field recording experienced a huge surge in popularity with the advent of inexpensive portable cassette recorders like the venerable Sony Walkman Pro back in the way-back.
But then the technology foundered. Although you could buy a portable DAT (digital audio tape) recorder, the price never came down to the reach of us mere mortals. MiniDisc recorders became popular with radio journalists and concert "tapers," but they recorded in Sony's proprietary compressed format. And finding one with a mic input in mainstream U.S. stores was as hard as finding an honest politician.
If you were able to track down a MiniDisc recorder, you still were faced with the problem of uploading your recordings to your computer for editing. Unless you had one of the pricey professional models, the only way to get your recordings off the beasts was to do a real-time analog transfer. Sony finally added USB upload (and uncompressed WAV file recording) in its new Hi-MD models, the MZ-M100 and MZ-M10. But uploading the files requires proprietary software and there are growing indications that the MiniDisc format is doomed.
Happily, technology marches on, and today, home studio owners, hobbyists, musicians, and budding ethnologists have several strong field recorder choices for under $500 street, including the Edirol R-1, Marantz PMD660, and the most compact of all, the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96. All three record on flash RAM, so there are no moving parts to gunk up or pollute your recordings with vibration noise.
So what's a field recorder? Here's my definition: a device that lets you make a recording in a field. As in: no electricity, no roads, no buildings, no shelter, no access to any gear that you cannot carry on your back. That means a field recorder should be small, lightweight, and rugged. It should have either a built-in microphone or decent microphone preamps; ideally it will have both. Phantom power (for driving condenser mics) is a plus, as are line inputs.
Recordings must be on a par with broadcast quality or better — no 8-bit voice recorders for me. The recorder must support both compressed and uncompressed audio; computer connectivity is a plus. It should be butt-simple to use so you don't miss the perfect quote, ivorybill mating call, or amazing song while you fumble with the controls. It must have sufficient recording capacity to capture an extended speech or musical performance, and the battery should last a long, long time. Did I mention it should be small?
Because I love field recording — one of my first jobs was documenting the 1974 National Fiddle Championships for NPR — I jumped at the chance to review M-Audio's new MicroTrack 24/96. That I had an extended trip planned to Maui with several interesting recording opportunities was icing on the cake.