Jack Kontney /
11.20.2009
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
In review: Sony’s PCM-M10 handheld digital recorder

With the proliferation of reliable flash media in the past few years (the market for these convenient tools is crowded), I was curious as to what the new Sony PCM-M10 handheld digital recorder had to offer. I ran it through its paces for about a month of my working life, which includes a lot of voice recording (in-person and phone interviews) and a significant amount of live music (concerts, rehearsals and studio recording). Plus, those interviews all get transcribed, and the music must be listened to. The PCM-M10 handled all these tasks with ease. Battery life is excellent, and the 4GB of onboard memory was more than enough for my needs.

Physically, the PCM-M10 is compact and chunky, roughly the same dimensions as an iPhone, but about twice as thick. It fits securely and comfortably in the palm of the hand and tips the scales at a solid 6.6oz with two AA batteries. In terms of hardware, I liked the use of traditional transport controls (play, record, stop, fast forward, rewind and pause), which are augmented by a “T-mark” track-marking tool. A generous, easy-to-read LCD screen shows everything a recordist needs to know: input level, run time, file name, battery status and status of all engaged record/playback functions. At the top of the faceplate are left and right input level lights (green for signal present, red for overload).

The side panels of the PCM-M10 are dedicated to physical I/O and master controls. Two well-protected, integral omni condenser mics offer stereo pickup of the acoustic environment. There are mini-plug input jacks for both line and mic-level signals. A manual record level wheel dominates the right-hand side, where the power switch is also located. The left-hand side houses the headphone/line output, DC power input, memory slot and mini-USB port. Tucked beneath the protective metal side guard are additional dedicated switches for mic sensitivity (hi/low), manual/auto record level and playback speed control function activation. A rocker switch controls playback volume for both the headphone jack and the onboard speaker located in the base.

While that’s a lot of control hardware, there’s even more. Beneath the LCD is a row of five buttons (file, menu, delete, A>B and display) used to access and control the M10’s generous menu of record and playback features. Press a button and a menu appears, navigated via the dual-function transport controls. This took a little getting used to, because I was inclined to use that big, accessible rec level wheel to navigate menus.

The file button accesses the 10 folders available to hold your recordings. The machine knows the date and time and starts a new folder with your first recording of a new day. Each recording is assigned a name consisting of the date and serial number, with appropriate file extension (MP3 or WAV). When playing back, you can access files directly by navigating through the menu or serially by advancing the fast forward/rewind buttons with the machine stopped.

The menu button accesses the heart of the M10’s capabilities, with more than two dozen selectable items. The main menu listing covers 14 items, two of which are critical in recording: a low-cut filter (on/off) and record mode, which offers 10 options. There are three flavors of MP3 and seven LPCM (WAV) options, including PCM sample rates from 22kHz to 96kHz and a choice of 16- or 24-bit acuity.

Two very cool playback options include speed control (only active when the external DPC switch is on) and key control (for pitch transposition). Playback speed can be adjusted between -75 percent and 100 percent (double time) in 5 percent increments, preserving pitch over the entire range — very useful when trying to learn a chord sequence or transcribe an interview. Conversely, the key control setting allows you to change the pitch of a recording by six semitones, sharp or flat, without affecting playback speed. The speed and pitch controls can be used together as well, so you can actually slow down the playback while moving the pitch up to a higher key.

Other menu selections include: effect (bass boost options), easy search, play mode, divide (for splitting tracks using T-mark or present position), delete file, file copy, add “take,” file protect, memory (removable media) and a detail menu.

The detail menu (actually a submenu) is where you find a lot of one-time setup features, such as clock and language, plus battery type (NIMH or alkaline) and options for the LCD backlight and LED status lights (which can be turned off for stealth recording). There’s also an audio out selection for headphone vs. line-level output, a crossmemory recording function allowing the onboard flash and miniSD to play nice together, on/off for playback level meter, plug-in power and the dreaded format option (which reformats the flash memory, deleting all files in the process).

It’s important to realize that a couple key recording options are located in the detail menu as well: the limiter (on/off) and a five-second preroll record feature. Personally, I would like to see the recording setup features all grouped together up one level in the hierarchy, but had little trouble navigating to (and using) these options once I found them.

The other front-panel buttons include delete (current file only), loop and display. The loop (marked A-B) allows the user to create a playback loop on the fly during playback. Hit the button twice to mark the beginning and end of the loop, and the M10 will repeat it endlessly until you escape by hitting the button again. The display button toggles among four display modes, including run time and countdown. There’s also a four-segment battery meter and, just below it, a display of the remaining record time at current settings — extremely useful.

The display itself is well laid out, providing all the information one might want in clearly legible type and/or graphics, with the main function (runtime, countdown time, date or clock time) in bolder type. Below that are the T-mark indicator flag, current folder location and the track name. On playback, a file’s metadata is displayed at the upper left. Across the bottom, all pertinent settings are shown: record mode, engaged effects such as the limiter and low-cut filter (record) and speed/pitch settings (playback).

Operational notes

The PCM-M10 has all the capabilities one expects in a handheld. But how does it behave in the field? To answer the question, I inserted a fresh pair of AAs and hit the road. My first stop was Martyr’s, a Chicago club where one of my favorite bands, Tributosaurus, was playing its monthly show.

Martyr’s holds about 300 people and was full. I pulled out the M10 and recorded the 90-minute show across a variety of settings — everything from low-res MP3 to 96k/24-bit WAV. I also experimented with both manual and auto input-level controls and used both the onboard stereo mic setup and an external binaural system plugged into the unit’s stereo mic input.

Results were mixed, but through no fault of the M10. While the show (a tribute to the Doobie Brothers) was loud, it did not threaten the 123dB limit of the condenser mics. (Well, maybe some of the snare hits…) My first few tracks were badly distorted on playback, but that was my own fault. I had chosen to use the manual input-level control on those songs and fell into my old analog habit of pushing the level a bit hot, hoping to create more dynamic room.

As the show moved along, I used more conservative input settings, resulting in some amazingly realistic recordings. Using the low-cut filter and the limiter also made the M10 more forgiving of levels set too aggressively. The lesson learned is that in the digital realm, when you exceed the 0dB setting and trigger the overload light, you really are distorting.

When using my binaural mic setup, things got audibly better. My pickup system is a Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient IEM system, which has condenser mics embedded in its custom silicone earpieces. Typically, this is used by musicians to combine ambient sound with an in-ear mix. However, my 3D bodypack has been modified to take the audio from the earphone-mounted mics (which don’t distort until beyond 140dB) and send it to a record out, which I simply patched into the mic input on the PCM-M10 with a short stereo mini-jack jumper cable. Thus, the M10 was literally picking up exactly what my ears were hearing.

Properly set up, in both manual and auto modes, the PCM-M10 does an admirable job. The onboard mics are not especially forgiving, but they handle the full frequency range of a live show. In the crowded club, all I could do was hold the recorder head-high and aim it at the stage. The stereo image from the PA was reasonably good, and I was surprised at how little handling noise was evident. In a perfect world, I would have mounted the unit on a camera tripod.

The real test came at a local recording studio (Reelsounds Studios in Skokie, IL) a few nights later. Listening to the results of the (well-recorded) tracks on good studio monitors was very revealing. The results were outstanding, especially on the tunes recorded through the Sensaphonics 3D system. Left/right separation was very natural, and audio fidelity was just as I experienced live. With eyes closed and the volume up, it was like a sense-memory of the concert.

I also used the PCM-M10 for the less-demanding task of recording interviews at the recent AES Convention in New York. With the low-cut filter on and auto-level engaged, I got uniformly usable recordings, even at low MP3 settings. This may sound trivial, but getting intelligible recordings in a loud trade show environment has been a challenge for me in the past. With the M10’s stereo mic configuration and low-cut filter, I got much more usable results than with my previous digital recorders. Transcription, while as onerous as ever, was a relative breeze.

The final test was to confirm my live recording experience in a more controlled environment. I went back to Reelsounds Studios on two occasions, recording different bands during live rehearsal and recording sessions. With a better handle on how to set levels and use the M10’s onboard tools, I got some beautiful recordings. It just goes to show, a little experience goes a long way toward capturing live sound with finesse and fidelity.

Conclusions

While I have some quibbles with some of the choices Sony made in its menu structure, the PCM-M10 is clearly a jam-packed piece of engineering design. In terms of hardware, I was very impressed that Sony provides everything you need in the basic purchase, including 4GB of internal memory. The recorder also comes with the USB 2.0 cable needed for file transfer, an AC wall adapter, a copy of Sound Forge LE audio software (for easy editing of files and metadata on PC) and a wired remote and hand strap. Battery life is rated at an impressive 19 hours for a pair of alkalines, and I can confirm getting more than that. It also accepts NIMH rechargeables.

It’s on the software level that the PCM-M10 really shines. With its USB connectivity, files can be dragged freely between the PCM-M10 and your computer. While Sound Forge is a PC-only program, the PCM-M10 itself is platform-agnostic. In addition to the WAV and MP3 files it records, it can also play back iTunes and Windows Media Player files (non-DRM WMA and M4A) and display their metadata. And with its capacity to add 16GB or more memory with a microSD card, some users may prefer to load their music files onto the M10 and leave their iPods at home.

This added flexibility explains the presence of several functions that I don’t normally associate with a high-end portable recording device, such as the bass boost (“effects”), the multiple playback/repeat modes and the ability to turn the level meter off during playback, providing the screen real estate to display song title and artist. Once I determined this added functionality actually was there for a reason, I began to see the M10 in a different, broader light.

The Sony PCM-M10 handheld digital recorder is everything a musician or sound engineer might want as a tool for documenting rehearsals and shows, including long battery life, tripod mount, ergonomic design, inconspicuous size and capacious memory. But it’s much more. It has the high resolution, low noise floor and long battery life needed for outside field production; it has the file flexibility needed to act as a portable music player, which means one less device to carry around; and it has the ease of use, pro features and solid construction that a recording engineer on the go requires.

In short, the PCM-M10 is (to borrow a Sony trademark) a “dream machine.” Its ability to act as a convenient tool for all my activities — music recording, field recording, journalism, learning new songs and audiophile music playback — makes it the perfect tool for both work and play. When Sony called to get my review sample returned, I simply asked, “How much?” It’s mine now.



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