by Robert Lindquist
In my office I have a 1980s vintage Revox A77 open reel stereo tape recorder with a deck that’s marred with scratches from the razor blades used to cut tape during many a late night editing session.
It hasn’t been used in years, but it is a grand reminder of the importance of being able to accurately and reliably record and edit audio, any place and anytime. I have little doubt that with a little AC applied, this old A77 would whir back to life without hesitation.
In the pre-digital days, you really needed a purpose-built recorder like an Ampex, RCA, SONY, Studer, or this old Revox if you were producing anything for public consumption. Over the last 25 years, however, that all changed. Digital recording devices, in a variety of shapes, styles and formats, have come and gone in relatively short cycles—each a little smaller, and little better than the previous.
All along the way, SONY has been the company pushing the envelope. It was, afterall, SONY that first adapted the reel-to-reel tape recorder concept for home use (with those little 3” tape reels) as well as the much under-appreciated mini-disk, years later. As of late, SONY’s efforts in the professional digital recording department have focused on amazing handheld devices that combine stunning audio quality with cell-phone size (and weight) convenience.
The latest device from SONY’s PCM line is the M10, which is significantly smaller than the PCM D50 released just a couple of years ago. While the temptation here is to compare the newer, smaller M10 with the M50, that would assume you already know everything there is to know about the M50, so I’ll save you having to do all that homework and just focus on this new unit.
Friendly Look and Feel
In a slight twist from the norm, the PCM M10 sent us was a pre-release unit and came without an instruction manual. Although the unit you purchase will come with all the proper documentation, it should ease your mind to know that if you’ve operated any type of digital recording device (including digital cameras), you probably won’t need it. Most everything is pretty common sense. All the transport buttons are clearly labeled (FF, FR, Stop, Pause, Record and Play) and properly spaced so that even big fingers won’t hit two buttons at a time. They are placed so that you can operate the unit with just one hand—sort of like using your thumbs for texting. Some of the buttons do double duty, also helping out with navigating through the various menu items as well as selecting where you would like a particular session stored.
Like the other Sony personal handheld recorders, this newer smaller unit is 96 kHz/24-bit capable with 4 GB of internal flash memory. It also has a microSD/Memory Stick Micro™ (M2™) Slot. Some of the more notable features include a tiny built-in speaker (IMHO: bring headphones, you’ll need them), digital pitch control, digital limiter, low-cut filter, and A-B repeat capability. Sound Forge Audio Studio Recorder Edition software is also part of the deal. It also uses (but not abuses) AA batteries instead of an internal rechargeable one, so you can replace power on the fly very easily. The case is has a highly durable feel and appears to be up to the task of getting knocked around in a gig bag.
On the Road
After a using the M10 to record a few tracks in the studio, I took it along to a rehearsal of Christmas concert by a local choir. While there is handy tri-pod mount on the bottom, I opted to just place it by the soundboard. The built-in electric condenser microphones worked exceptionally well, even at a distance of about 40 feet from the choir. There are inputs for an external microphone (didn’t need it) and line level signals (mini-jacks) as well as out puts for headphones.
As you know, the one thing that ruins most recordings is when the recording level so too high or too low—and you didn’t know it. To help you get levels that are just right, this little SONY unit comes with very accurate metering, supported by a mic sensitivity switch, and a manual/auto recording control. It took just a few seconds to get the level right. Red lights positioned in the upper left and right corners of the unit’s face will let you know immediately if the levels too high—easy to do, as the microphones are quite sensitive. Fortunately, so are these indicators. For those occasions when a sound check was just not possible, I used the auto level feature and was quite pleased with the result.
Knowing how easy it is to push the record button a second or two (or three) after a performance has started, SONY has included a 5 second pre-record buffer feature which (when set) continually caches that portion of the performance you would have missed. What’s even more common, however, is starting to record way to soon. When this happens, all you need do is cue to the performance stop point (using the Fast Forward, rewind and Play buttons) and then push the “T-Mark” button. That will effectively detach the actual performance recording from all the pre-roll chatter, which you can these easily delete. Once the recording was done, it was a simple task to bring the digital files into my PC via the USB out, where it sits waiting for additional editing.
Now, at this point, I could simply say that I was totally impressed with this new recorder from SONY and what a great tool it is for singing, songwriting and improving your musicianship—which it is. But when I put it next to that old Revox A77 and realize just how far technology has come, in a relatively short period of time, I have to wonder what is next. For all practical purposes, the PCM M10 is about as perfect a recording device as you would ever need. It’s the right size and weight, it performs well, does what’s supposed to, is easy to operate and the merlot red case adds a nice little extra class and coolness. With a street price of around $299, it provides a lot of value for the investment. Yet, somewhere over in the SONY R&D department, somebody is working on the next generation digital recorder— and some how they’ll manage to come up with something that even out does this one.