Skip to main content

Sony Produces an Instant Podcast Classic

As a child of the 1970s "Portapak" revolution, I'll always have a weak spot for Sony--the visionary company that fired the engines of the portable video revolution.

Because I was a customer of this pioneering company at its bleeding edge best, it has been heartbreaking in recent years to watch Akio Morita's great enterprise lose its way.

But the beauty of Sony is that no matter how lame its top management might be at times, it's still a place where engineering excellence thrives. No other electronics company today--outside of Sony's arch competitor, Apple Computer--seems capable of pulling off such periodic fits of pure genius.

I'm pleased to inform you that Sony has done it again. Some anonymous engineering team in Japan seems to have ignored the recent cost-cutting memos and decided to go for broke by designing what may be the best handheld audio recorder ever built.

The fact that's it arrival coincided with that of the red hot podcasting movement may just be lucky timing, but it's the kind of luck made when product creation is driven by genuine innovation and not market share. Just like in the old days when portable video cameras where still considered "revolutionary."

Sony's new work of art should have a more creative name, but someone (in management, no doubt) decided to name it the PCM-D1 Linear PCM Recorder. In reality, it's an ultra high-quality recording studio in a small box.

Now this is no ordinary box. It's actually a titanium tank--weighing only 18.5 ounces and built like those beautifully crafted '70s-era Sony products.

BELLS & WHISTLES

Inside, it's filled with the accouterments of sonic excellence like premium, ultra low-noise mic preamps; variable gain circuits that improve the signal-to-noise ratio; and separation of analog and digital components to reduce interference.

The audio is stored in 4 GB of internal flash memory (expandable with an optional memory stick) and the unit is capable of 96k/24 bit recording. It produces computer-ready .WAV files, and it runs on four easy-to-find AA batteries.

OK, but other digital audio recorders are also well-designed and have the same functionality. What makes the PCM-D1 special, especially for podcasters? In one word: ergonomics.

The D1 combines an extraordinary level of intuitive design with a build quality rarely found in today's electronic products. In field use, this Sony recorder allows a non-technical user to acquire remarkable audio quality with idiot-proof simplicity.

When you're alone in the field--a "one-man band" trying to acquire sound and images for digital media production--this no-brainer level of reliable operation becomes a prized commodity. Often it can't be bought for any amount of money.

If you don't believe this, check out the complex layers of menus on most digital recording devices. The instruction manuals are often larger and heavier than the device itself. Manufacturers sometimes create "profiles" just to group and manage all the menu choices together.

Such profiles are not needed on the D1. The operator makes a couple of initial choices and then can forget it. Mental checklists are not necessary. When you're on location and have 10 things on your mind at once, having a truly intuitive recording device is something very special.

There's an old rule of thumb that you can tell if a product is well-designed when it is so easy to use that you don't need to read the manual. That's the case with the D1. Coupling such ease of use, however, with a product designed like a Rolls Royce is a true rarity.

INTUITIVE INTERFACE

Sony allowed me to spend a few days with one of the first D1s available in the United States. It arrived in time to take it to Strawberry Fields in Central Park on Dec. 8, the 25th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I was able record some of the many performers singing Lennon songs in the park that cold, windy day.

Since I was new to the D1 and hadn't thoroughly read the manual, I worried that I might be missing something. It seemed too easy to use. I simply chose the 44.1/16 bit setting, turned on the limiter, hit record/pause, set the levels on the built twin VU meters, and then let it roll.

Using the included windscreen, I aimed the built-in X-Y configured condenser microphones toward the performers. A couple of times during the day I checked the audio on earphones. Everything seemed fine.

When I got home, I plugged the D1 into the USB 2.0 jack on my Macintosh. Within seconds, the recorder appeared as a hard drive. I dragged the .WAV files to my desktop. No special software needed.

The surprise came when I opened the files and listened with Amadeus II, a simple audio editing application. The sonic quality was stunning. The stereo imaging perfect. There was no handling noise from the recorder.

I tried other challenging applications, like doing a podcast interview at a table in a noisy Manhattan coffee shop. I attached a small photo tripod to the mount socket at the bottom of the D1.

Again, I set the level and just began recording. The conversation was perfect--the levels well-balanced even against the background clatter of plates, glasses and crowd noise.

PERFORMANCE

I moved other applications, from impromptu interviews to music rehearsals. The D1 exceeded expectations in each application.

Viewing this recorder from the perspective of a producer and not as an engineer, I predict its ease of use and no-compromise design will make it a star with Internet broadcasters seeking quality field recording.

Of course, you get what you pay for and this is one Sony product that doesn't come cheap. At a street price of about $1,850, the D1 is a machine for serious recordists.

But the best news is that it exists at all. In a sea of mediocre products from companies competing on low price, its reassuring to see that engineering excellence still lives at Sony. Let's hope the sleeping giant roars like this again!

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.