Sunday, July 31, 2005

MicroTrack versus MiniDisc

There is a new device on the market that may be just the thing for location recording. The M-Audio MicroTrack is set to compete with other solid-state portable recorders from the likes of Marantz and Fostex. It will also go head-to-head with minidisc recorders (which is what I currently use). Here I will do a feature comparison against the current generation of Hi-MD recorders.


For a list price of US$500 you get a box "about the size and weight of a deck of cards" (actually 187 x 175 x 55 mm and 502g) that can record stereo audio at up to 24-bit 96kHz, storing it to a CompactFlash or microdrive card.

The price of this media is a lot more than similar capacity 1GB minidiscs: $70 versus about $7. However, MD recorders capture uncompressed PCM files at "only" CD quality: 16-bit and 44.1KHz. If you need the extra resolution there's no choice between the two devices. Personally I would like the dynamic range of a 24-bit recording but don't see the value in enhanced sampling rate. You will be able to record about one hour of 24-bit 44.1KHz audio on a 1 GB card.

Like MD units, the MicroTrack has an 1/8" input with 5V plug-in power for electret microphones. But unlike MD, it also has phantom power for use with professional condenser mics. In an apparent space-saving measure the MicroTrack only accepts 1/4" TRS inputs, not standard XLR. This means you will need plug adaptors for your mic cables.

There are separate left and right level controls, signal and peak indicators, and a mic/line switch. The final input is S/PDIF coax for direct digital transfers.

To get files off the unit, it mounts as a normal USB 2.0 mass storage device: no drivers or special software needed. This is yet another advantage over MD. Although most of the disadvantages of Sony's SonicStage software are disappearing over time, it's still cumbersome to use.

For audio output there are dual RCA in addition to the usual 1/8" headphone socket, with a level control.

The power options are flexible. The built-in rechargeable Lithium ion battery has a stated life of 8h (3h when using phantom power). This is similar to a MD with the highest-capacity battery. The unit can also be powered via USB and (thank you!) a standard power supply. This means that as long as you have a power outlet nearby you can record until your media runs out.

When purchased, the MicroTrack comes with a 64MB CompactFlash card (which you will immediately want to replace with something larger), an electret microphone, and power supply.

From the available pictures I like the look of the device, and its ergonomics. It won't win any design awards, but is practical. The controls are much larger than those on my MD recorder, which is great.

In terms of price, the $369 retail on offer if certainly more than a top-end MD.

Some important questions remain:
  • How good are the mic pre-amps?
  • How good is the UI?
  • How stable is the recording?
  • What is the build quality?


These are make-or-break features. Until the unit gets tested in the field no final determination can be made. However, I would have preferred a different feature mix at a lower price point. For example, a 60GB hard drive is actually cheaper than the 1GB CompactFlash needed to make this recorder useful. To have a built-in drive of that capacity would be more than worth the extra weight.

Other opinions are cropping up everywhere. As one would expect they might for a device this exciting.

Supposedly it ships August 5th in Europe, which is only days away. Calculating how many days is left as an exercise for the reader. :-)

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6 comments:

robin said...

Some actual test results are now starting to come in. This noise floor analysis seem to indicate that the 1/4" input is out of whack. There's 25dB more dynamic range using the 1/8" jack? Odd.

Core Sound have a fledgling comparison to their own PDA-centred recording system. Notably they have found that the phantom power supplies only 30 V, not the full 48 V it should to be on spec. Also, the noise floor in no way reaches the 24-bit range, rather being closer to 16 or 17 bits. Their conclusion is that this unit will provide quality equivalent to MD but no better.

robin said...

Another blog has a thread on this unit.

n said...

I ordered one, prob sending it back. buttons were buggy, (I did update firmware) and the 30v issue is a bummer if you want to use quality mics. Noise floor is less than ideal. Just a cheaply assembled unit as well. I agree, who cares if it's teeny and light, slap a HD in there and it's great. I do like idea of removable CF but too expensive. Even though MD seems to be near the end of its life, I still think it's a more desirable option in comparison, don't ask me why.

Outer Banks Productions said...

Now that it's January, anyone have any new input on this unit? It looks like it has lots of potential. I want to use it for backup wedding videography audio. Doug- Outer Banks Productions The Outer Banks Blog

Chris Lindquist said...

We're using a couple MicroTracks to record interviews for podcasting from our site. (Here's a recent example.) The included stereo "t" mic works fine (the sample recording was made using that mic with the interviewer and subject physically passing the unit back and forth. We recorded in MP3 format, 44.1KHz, 16 bit to preserve storage space). We're now investigating Sound Professionals lav mics to make the interview recording process smoother. Anyone have any experience with the SP gear or Reactive Sounds mics?

robin said...

For discussions of the mics in question see Taper Section and the Reactive Sounds and live recording forums on minidisc.org.

Or read my new article on the topic. Thanks for your interest!

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