Field Report: Marantz PMD680

Wouldn't it be nice to send a recorder into the field that never came back to the shop for repair?

Most field recorders rely on mechanical transports that are prone to failure. There is an alternative. The Marantz PMD680 has no moving parts because it uses PC memory cards for media. With no moving parts, this device will spend more time covering stories in the field than covering space on the repair bench.

Out of the box

Setup is fairly straightforward, and after the initial configuration, I was recording within five minutes. In a short time, I discovered the more advanced recording features. An array of function buttons provides a wide variety of settings and options including input selection, record-level function, media settings and a button lock (to prevent accidental button presses). The backlit LCD displays timing, record level and transport status. The look and feel is similar to other Marantz portable recorders.

The recording level is adjustable with the front-panel dial. A limiter can be switched on as well, or automatic level control (ALC) can be selected. The ambient noise control (ANC) provides fairly good background noise cancellation. A great feature is the pre-record function. It saves up to two seconds of audio in buffer memory before the record button is pressed. If the speaker at that important press conference starts before you were ready, pre-record will still get those first few words. In order to preserve precious recording space, a Silent Skip mode pauses the recorder when the audio level drops below -30dB.

Recordings are stored on a credit card-sized PCMCIA card (also called a PC card). One benefit to this computer-standard media is that the PC card can be read on a computer. Most laptops have PC card slots. Desktop computers can add a card reader that will appear as an additional hard drive. Audio files do not need to be dubbed, since the files are ready to play in their current form.

Cards are available through any computer supply store, and Marantz lists several approved third-party vendors. The PMD680 encodes audio in two different recording formats: compressed MPEG1 LayerII (MP2) and uncompressed 16-bit PCM. The digital stream is stored as one of three different MS-DOS/Windows compatible file types: wave (.wav), broadcast wave (.bwf) or raw MP2 (.mp2). A unique feature of the .bwf is its ability to store special user-defined data in the extension chunk. Three data lines can store information representing the radio station, reporter or recording deck.

Recording and more

Depending on application and budget, the capacity of the PC card will determine the recording length and quality. The PMD680 can record at rates of 32-, 48-, 64-, 128- and 192kb/s in the MP2 mode or 768kb/s in the PCM mode. Changing the recording rate requires programming a three position selector, which allows switching between long play (LP), medium play (MP) and standard play (SP) rates. Select lower rates for logging or transcription and higher rates for better fidelity. A 32MB PC card will store about 1.5 hours of AM-quality recording. That same card will yield only five minutes of true PCM audio. A 32MB card costs approximately $100. Of course, larger capacity cards can be purchased with a larger price tag. An 880MB card costs about $2,000. The PMD680 supports cards up to 2.15GB.

The edit decision list marks (EDL marks) provide a very basic means of editing sequential cuts together. An edit marker, including a time and date stamp, is recorded at the beginning of each cut. Up to 255 EDL marks can be logged for easy segment identification and location. EDLs can be used for looping playback or searching for a particular point in the recording. One limitation to the EDL system is that it can only play tracks in sequential order.

The unit is powered three ways: AC adapter, eight alkaline AA batteries or a rechargeable Ni-Cad battery pack. Battery life is indicated on the front panel and is preserved with an auto power-off feature. I recommend purchasing the optional Ni-Cad pack. During testing, I consumed a set of alkaline batteries in less than thirty minutes. A Ni-Cad pack charges within the case and is fully recharged within three hours.

Pros and cons

The lack of moving parts should prove to be a time saver. No moving parts mean less maintenance time. Direct file reading will also save time in transferring files to a DAW or on-air playback system.

The overall audio quality is amazingly good at low recording rates. Input connections include ΒΌ" and XLR mic and RCA phono line. Analog audio output is available on an RCA phono jack and a digital S/PDIF output is provided. Also provided is a remote control jack for pause control. An optional telephone jack connection allows audio to be sent down or recorded from a POTS line.

The sample frequency is fixed at 48kHz. Some stations use different sampling rates as house sandards, and sample-rate conversion will be required to use the audio files. As I mentioned before, the unit draws considerable power from alkaline batteries. The AC adapter or the optional Ni-Cad batteries are recommended for sessions longer than 30 minutes.

The PMD680 fits a special niche for radio news or any type of field production requiring quality speech reproduction. This recorder will become increasingly practical in days to come, particularly as the cost of the media decreases. Historically, computer storage capacity goes up while pricing comes down. I also expect that the next generation of tapeless recorders will include direct computer interfaces or a network connection.

J. Kirk Chestnut is an engineer at Entercom Kansas City, Westwood, KS.

Editor's note: Field Reports are an exclusive BE Radio feature for radio broadcasters. Each report is prepared by well-qualified staff at a radio station, production facility or consulting company.

These reports are performed by the industry, for the industry. Manufacturer support is limited to providing loan equipment and to aiding the author if requested.

It is the responsibility of BE Radio to publish the results of any device tested, positive or negative. No report should be considered an endorsement or disapproval by BE Radio.

Performance at a glance
  • Built-in microphone and speaker
  • Multiple file formats
  • Solid-state media
  • Pre-record memory buffer
  • Basic file editing
  • Lightweight

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