Sony PCM-D50 Stereo Recorder

As someone whose audio recording days stretch back to reel-to-reel, I've greeted digital and tapeless recorders with open arms, especially in the past few years as they've leapfrogged in quality while shrinking in size and price.
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As someone whose audio recording days stretch back to reel-to-reel, I've greeted digital and tapeless recorders with open arms, especially in the past few years as they've leapfrogged in quality while shrinking in size and price. Prior to that, there were very few top quality, compact, tapeless stereo audio recorders selling at less than $2,000, much less $500. Sony's PCM-D50 may be the best of the new crop of recorders to push or break that price barrier with a unit capable of grabbing the highest quality audio for TV and big screen sound tracks.

FEATURES

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The Sony PCM-D50
At first glance, the PCM-D50 could be mistaken for its older and pricier cousin, the PCM-D1, which has a pair of owl-eyed VU meters and a titanium chassis. Despite being 1.5 inches shorter, and built on an aluminum frame, the PCM-D50 doesn't compromise on external features. Nor are the switches, I/Os and displays jammed together so tightly as to impede their use. Rather, they're smartly distributed but with less vacant space between clusters of switches than on the D1. The PCM-D50 even has a few features that are absent on the D1: peak level warning lights, digital pitch control (DPC), pre-record, stereo mic heads adjustable between X-Y and wide positions. Its display screen is the same size as the D1's, but seems larger due to the shorter chassis. When illuminated, the LCD screen glows amber and beams the status of multiple functions, including time recorded or time still remaining at the current record mode, plus record/play status and more.

Placement and design of controls for key functions such as the mic and headphone jacks, plus input/output level dials should look familiar, especially to anyone who has used the PCM D1. However, neither have onboard XLR mic inputs, but use 1/8-inch miniplug mic and line inputs and outputs, headphone plugs. Data and software load via a USB miniport.

The PCM-D50 is a 96 kHz 24-bit audio recorder that can also sample at lower rates and resolutions down to 16 kHz and 16-bits. In the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz mode, it records up to six hours of audio in standard WAV files on its 4 GB internal compact flash memory. This can be doubled by adding an optional 4 GB Pro-HG memory stick in the slot provided. The use of flash memory facilitates one of the PCM-D50's notable features—pre-record—which captures the last five seconds of audio that occurred before unpausing the record button. Actually, the PCM-D50 is continuously capturing audio once the record button is first pressed, but only five seconds is buffered in memory. Once unpaused, this five seconds of sound captured is recorded to the flash drive along with everything that follows.

The D50 comes equipped with an onboard, two position (X-Y or wide) stereo condenser microphone with elements that pivot in a 120 degree arc. They are protected by a double railed crash bar that half-encircles the mic heads and also provides a sturdy frame for attaching the fuzzy windscreen.

A key accessory is the XLR-1 mic adapter. It's the same length and width as the D50, but is nearly twice its thickness. Part of this thickness is due to the four "C" cells that provide phantom power to external mics when needed. It is fairly basic, with a pair of XLR inputs and a short line out to connect with the PCM-D50 recorder. It's powered-up by a tiny switch which triggers a tiny red power indicator LED.

The D50 slides easily and securely onto the XLR-1 via a special adapter plate. There is also a larger adapter plate that allows both to be mounted on a tripod for convenient, hands-free recording. The PCM-D50 can also be mounted on a tripod, by itself, and either with or without the adapter plate for the XLR-1.

The PCM-D50 is powered by four "AA" batteries, or by an AC adaptor. Both of these are included in the box along with Sonic Forge software.

IN USE

One of my first impressions of the PCM-D50 was that it was a bit bigger than its "life-sized" photo, and possibly better too. It feels solid and comfortable in your hands, as you'd expect a really good pro tool to feel. Also, its interface seemed user-friendly, despite the compact size. Deck controls looked familiar and despite being small, were spaced far enough apart for comfortable use. To easily distinguish them from those used for deck control, the menu and "divide track" buttons are silver rather than black. The display panel light switch is also designed for easy recognition and is located for easy access. I often used my thumb to trigger it in the dark, while holding the PCM-D50 in one hand and a mic in the other to capture the sounds of owls, tree frogs, crickets and other nighttime animals. By contrast, the power switches on the PCM-D50, and also on the XLR-1, are minute and are deliberately hard to use. A sturdy fingernail is needed to flip them. This minimizes the chance of accidentally doing so and draining batteries while in transit.

I love the PCM-D50's bold LCD screen, which displays record level benchmarks from –50 dB to zero dB. Time elapsed and recording time remaining are shown and can be enabled. Battery level, file number and active functions, such as the limiter, are displayed when active. Handy also are the dual green and red LEDs on the front panel. These illuminate when record levels run –12 db and greater than –1 dB, respectively. On several occasions—especially at night—with the display panel dark to conserve power, they alerted me to a potential problem.

I also really liked the tight feel of the large record level knob, which is "geared down" to turn slowly and hold the level selected. It's partly shielded to further guard against accidentally changing the record level. The same is true of the smaller headphone level dial on the opposite side of the display screen. Both are designed to adjust levels while recording and without looking, which really helped my nocturnal recordings.

Both the limiter and dual-frequency selectable low-cut filter are also switch-activated, but the specific levels for each must be selected via the menu. Unfortunately, neither is accessible when the XLR-1 is docked, as the mounting plate covers both these switches on the PCM-D50's underside. Finding a place on the sides or top panel for these switches in the next version of the PCM-D50 would be helpful so that the important limiter and LCF functions aren't impeded when using the XLR-1. My workaround was to keep them mostly on, but at higher thresholds. Another option would be to activate them via the menu.

As I mentioned, one of the PCM-D50's nicest features is "pre-record." This allows you to capture audio before hitting the take (pause) button. Actually, when in pre-record mode, the PCM-D50 is continuously capturing but can only save five seconds in memory, which is what is recorded when you unpause the unit. This was great for recording the sporadic sounds of birds, mammals, frogs, insects and other creatures. The down side of pre-record is that you also pick up handling noise when rushing for the pause/record buttons and the PCM-D50 isn't pre-positioned for recording. The workaround was to have the PCM-D50 secured and in pre-record mode whenever anticipating recordable audio. The underside of the PCM-D50 is threaded for tripod mounting, but unfortunately I don't have a small enough tripod head to use it. Sony does make a special compact tripod for the unit, but I didn't have one for this review.

In terms of audio quality, the PCM-D50 delivered—right from the start. My initial recordings were all made with the on-board stereo mic, which performed better than anticipated. I recorded a duo performing on keyboards, electronic drums and vocals in a small art gallery. The original plan was to take a feed from their sound board, but I had to mic it, as an interconnecting cable wasn't readily available. The unit's 120-degree XY mic configuration covered the stage area nicely from my "front row" vantage point, cutting out most of the noise from the audience behind me. The biggest challenge was adjusting the record level while recording and photographing. Using the limiter and low cut filter helped, as did keeping a close eye on the LED warning lights while recording at 48 kHz and 24-bits. The limiter did a good job of padding sudden spikes in volume, but I also slowly reduced the volume if high levels persisted.

The end result was quite mellifluous and I didn't notice the large peaks perceived while recording. Encouraged by these results, I did several more recordings at 48 kHz and 24-bits, using the onboard stereo microphone system, and also using the limiter, along with the low cut filter and fuzzy windscreen, especially when working outdoors.

Most of the results were equally satisfying, and with minimal wind noise.

However, I did get fooled once when recording owls in the dark. Apparently, I had the headphone level boosted too high and the owl calls sounded overly loud. Unfortunately, I neglected to illuminate the screen to check the meters. If I had, I would have noticed the weak signal. It was another case of being fooled by an adrenalin rush, but not a flaw of the recorder. Also, the owls were 100 yards away and there was a pretty audible insect chorus in between, competing with the owls.

Another solution would have been the use of a shotgun mic, which I did subsequently, and got better results. With the shotgun, the signal strength of the target source improved measurably, especially relative to the competing background noise. I did seem to have added a slight amount of noise with this configuration, but it was only noticeable when played back at a higher volume.

I also could have used a miniplug adapter for plugging the shotgun mic directly into the PCM-D50, but I didn't have one handy at the time. I used the shotgun later to record natural sound via the XLR-1 accessory and got better results when I focused it on stronger audio signals. However, I was perfectly happy using the onboard stereo mic when recording "natural concerts" instead of trying to highlight soloists. That's where the shotgun and XLR-1 were invaluable.

Fast Facts Application
Television EFP, ENG, and events coverage, as well as radio and the Internet

Key Features
Variety of sampling rates and resolutions; "pre-record" capability; built-in mics.

Price
PCM-D50 MSRP $599; XLR-1, $499; tripod, $70.

Contact
Sony Electronics Inc.
202-930-7330
www.sony.com/professionalI also discovered that it is easy enough to do it both ways, by simply plugging and unplugging the short line out from the XLR-1 to the PCM-D50. No menu changes are needed for the recorder to default to its stereo mic when not receiving an outboard audio signal. Another advantage of keeping the XLR-1 docked to the PCM-D50, even when not using an external mic, is that it makes a sturdy hand grip, one that picks up less "handling noise" than when holding the PCM-D50 alone. This further improved the already impressively clean sound quality when recording with the PCM-D50's stereo mic, provided that I could get close enough to the target source.

I also found some of the playback features—apparently provided with musicians in mind—were useful for monitoring and analyzing ambient audio for stereo or 5.1 sound tracks. These included the A-B repeat function for marking sections of tracks to replay in a continuous loop. This feature is great for scrutinizing and critiquing key sections of recorded audio in detail, as well as for extending desirable short recordings in playback. The unit's digital pitch control can be used for similar purposes—but in a different way—by changing the playback speed, without affecting pitch. This is great for analyzing bird, song and frog calls without changing their basic characteristics. The divide track function—also switch activated—makes it easy to divide up long uninterrupted tracks (during recording and playback)—which may include very different material, into more discrete packets. However you can't un-divide tracks, so cue/consider carefully before dividing.

For editing captured sounds, the WAV files created downloaded quickly and easily once Sonic Forge's Audio Studio LE software was loaded on my P4, and after connecting the PCM-D50 to it via the mini-USB cable provided.

SUMMARY

The PCM-D50 is a highly professional, compact digital stereo audio recorder that should serve the audio recording needs of a broad range of professionals. It offers most of the same features as its much higher priced and older cousin, the PCM-D1, and also provides some new features, such as pre-record and a digital pitch control. It can record audio at up to 96 kHz with 24-bit resolution, and offers lots of bang for the price.

The recorder includes an adjustable stereo mic, digital pitch control, looping, easy search, synchronized recording, and most of the pro features found in audio recorders in its price class. Moreover, it's rugged, smartly designed and energy efficient—capable of operating all day on a set of alkaline batteries. It's small enough to fit into a coat pocket, ready to roll, and it could be a valuable addition to the tool chest of many pro users. Given the PCM-D50's size, price and quality, there is no longer an excuse not to pack a pro audio recorder for grabbing excellent audio for all sorts of applications.

Carl Mrozek operates Eagle Eye Media, based in Buffalo, N.Y., which specializes in wildlife and outdoor subjects. His work regularly appears on the Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel, CBS, PBS and other networks. Contact him at eagleye@localnet.net.