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December 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Review: Edirol R-09 Audio Recorder

A $300 handheld audio recorder is a hard sell to someone who isn't pretty crazy about sound gear. And frankly, for people who are audiophiles, it could still be a hard sell--why bother spending that kind of money on a single unit with built-in electret mikes, when it could buy a decent condenser and an SM57?

I bought the R-09 when I started at CQ, thinking that it would be useful for loaning to reporters. It's worked well for that--most journalists, when they buy a recorder, pick up one of the cheap voice/memo units, which sound awful and aren't terribly sensitive. For close-up work, that's fine, but it quickly becomes unusable in, say, a committee chamber. Reporters who borrowed the Edirol really appreciated its ability to capture quiet voices in poor acoustic spaces. One even bought his own after he found himself borrowing mine on a regular basis. It's also an easy device to use, which is important for non-technical people like the average journalist, and is sadly not true for all portable recorders these days.

Of course, the main goal for a unit like this--and the reason that you'd buy it over a set of separate microphones--is to use as a field recorder for quickly capturing sound without dragging a ton of equipment around. As such, a slight lack of fidelity is acceptable, since it's not like you'd be using a U47 to get a sample of street ambience anyway. That said, I don't have any complaints about the quality of the R-09's recordings. They seem relatively flat (EQ-wise) to me, the gain is adequate, there's not much self-noise or handling noise, and the stereo separation is surprisingly good. Recordings I did of union protesters on K Street a while back were clear and offered a great sense of space. More importantly, it's fast enough that I could capture something like a protest if I just ran into it--nothing to hook up, unless I want to plug a pair of headphones in to double-check the sound. Just pull it out of my bag, turn it on, hit record once to set the levels, then press it again to start recording.

That kind of convenience actually means that I've started using the R-09 for jobs where it probably wouldn't have been my first choice before. At CQ, unlike at the World Bank, I don't have the luxury of a studio with a selection of vocal mikes all set up and ready to go whenever I need them. While working on the debt explainer, I recorded Kerry with an ElectroVoice RE-20, which is a fantastic vocal mike, and myself with a Sony lapel mike. She sounded fine, I sounded awful, but I didn't want to drag all my recording gear down to the quiet room again to get a punch-in take. So instead, I carried the R-09 down to record a few lines, brought it back after each take, and imported the WAV files directly into Cubase. Because of the omni pattern, the resulting takes have a bit more room noise than Kerry does, but it holds up surprisingly well against the more expensive microphone, and the workflow was much more efficient and flexible.

Compared to the other prosumer field recorder I've used, the Marantz PMD-660, the Edirol unit is a lot smaller and a lot simpler. The Marantz was capable of doing rudimentary editing tasks, like tagging and file splitting, that the Edirol just doesn't do. It also boasted full-sized XLR jacks instead of the 3.5mm TRS minijack on the R-09, which was great if you wanted to use a external mike without an adapter, but if you didn't carry a mike, the internal microphones on the Marantz were genuinely terrible. So for certain applications--portable film recording, for example, or crewed radio production--the Marantz makes sense (and from its control layout, I suspect it's more aimed at those markets anyway). There's also a durability factor--the PMD-660 could probably be used to hammer nails between recording gigs. But for $300 less, the R-09 has been a really helpful tool that I'd recommend to anyone who either wants to step up from basic recorders, or needs to be able to capture sound at a moment's notice.

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