The Fifth Element #10 Page 2

Seeking a more affordable alternative to the Schoeps, I asked Jerry's advice. His recommendation, the Audio-Technica AT-825 stereo microphone, has the practical advantages of comparatively affordable price (list $595, Markertek $389), slim design (it's the size and shape we usually associate with a microphone), and internal battery power. The AT-825 is designed to be pointed straight along its length at the sound source (unlike a side-address mike, the body of which is intended to be positioned vertically). Clipping the AT-825 into the provided stand clamp so that its legend is visible at the upper side guarantees that its left and right capsules will be properly oriented. The provided 15' cable has a single five-pin XLR connector at the mike end and two three-pin XLR connectors at the preamp end, one banded red for "right."

The AT-825 uses two cardioid capsules in one housing, arrayed in X/Y fashion at 110 degrees. Meister Bruck asserts that X/Y's sometimes spotty reputation should be blamed on recordists who insist on 90 degrees orientation of the capsules. In his opinion, 110 degrees or even 120 degrees capsule orientation gives superior results. (The exceptions are figure-8-pattern microphones, which require 90 degrees for X/Y.) The AT-825's build quality is very good.

I used the AT-825/AD-20 mike and preamp-A/D setup to record a variety of sound sources, starting with Wallis Warfield Simpson, our female African Green Singing Finch. On playback, the spatial specificity of her hopping from perch to perch, and then singing a phrase, was simply arresting. The timbre of the sound on playback admittedly lacked some of the keen plangency of the live original, but that's why first-class professional microphones cost so much.

Next, some solo classical guitar, recorded during a thunderstorm. We were not trying for the Mystic Moods Orchestra effect—it was a matter of when my friend the guitarist could get here. I recorded him in our living room, which I now discern is a trifle too well-damped to be an optimal live recording venue. Microphone to instrument distance: about 7'.

On the guitar tracks, the rain is a constant sheen in the background, at times punctuated by thunder. As shown by the finch-song track, the AT-825 and AD-20 are enviably quiet. Enough of the tonal complexity of the classical guitar was conveyed to allow for an emotionally engaging experience. But you can't have everything at a bargain price. Treble extension and musical continuity and liquidity were not competitive with the best, and the thunderstorm highlighted another drawback: The thunder lacked ultimate heft. The AT-825's literature claims that it's flat to 30Hz, which is perhaps a dubious proposition in field use as opposed to nearfield testing. We can leave it that there is an obvious rolloff of very low frequencies, but both pipe organ and orchestra-with-chorus test recordings were impressive nonetheless.

You may wish to transfer your recordings to recordable CDs (CD-Rs), because most people don't own DAT decks. CD recorder prices have been falling steadily, with some good semi-pro machines now below $700. However, some less-expensive "consumer" CD recorders still require the use of special blank discs that cost more, because a copyright fee has been tacked on. In the long run, you'll be better off with a professional machine that can record on blank computer-data CD-ROM discs, which are cheaper. The Sony CDR-W33 (list $715, Markertek $575) has a good balance of features, performance, and price.

However, Marantz Professional has just introduced a new product, the PSD-300, which combines internal microphone and speaker, stereo microphone preamp and phantom power supply, line inputs and outputs, headphone amp, a CDR recorder, and a CD-RW player for "cloning," all in one compact chassis that is a miracle of packaging (if not quite miniaturization), for about $1100. With it, one can use professional microphones, even ones that need 48V phantom power, record to CD-Rs, and then use the CD-RW player and CD-R recorder to compile the tracks or replicate the discs.

Marantz has designed the PSD-300 with music education in mind, so it also has independently variable pitch and tempo on playback (admittedly with fairly conspicuous DSP artifacts). It should catch on like wildfire. Given the cost of music lessons, especially at an advanced level, and the trivial cost of CD-Rs, this is a real no-brainer. I hope all the music teachers who read this start using the PSD-300s to record their lessons and let their students take home a copy for study.

In field testing (my daughter's violin lesson), the PSD-300 impressed me with its practicality and value for money. Whether it's the right solution for you will depend first on whether you would prefer to record to DAT or CD-R, and then on how critical your recording activities will be (footnote 1). It doesn't make a huge amount of sense to buy a Nagra-D to record a youth orchestra in a noisy environment. On the other hand, I do think that the incremental expenditure over the PSD-300 to get a separate ADC such as the Denecke, a DAT deck, and a CD recorder is not a case of diminishing returns; you do get what you pay for. As another point of reference, the PSD-300 is priced about 30% below the level of the industry-standard Tascam DA-P1 portable DAT recorder (street price about $1500), which has internal phantom power, mike preamps, and ADCs.

With only a DAT recorder and/or a CD recorder, your "editing" will be limited to compiling sequences of complete takes. Real editing requires a digital soundcard and dedicated computer software, as well as a substantial investment of your time to learn how to use the software. If you're heading in that direction, you can save some money by adding a CD-ROM burner to your computer instead of getting a standalone CD recorder. The people at Sweetwater Sound can help you there. If you want to turn your recording hobby into a cottage industry, small-batch CD-R replication equipment is available from Mediastore.

Two vital words of advice: Streicher and Everest's The New Stereo Soundbook, in its second edition, is the stereo recording encyclopedia. It should be read by everyone who needs to know or do anything about stereo recording. Also, your recordist's kit should include a builder's tape measure, a camera, and a notebook, so that you can document your setups and not have to rely on fallible memory. Repeatability of setups and predictability of results are what enable experience to contribute to improvement.

Questions or Comments.

Footnote 1: Concerning the PSD-300's audio playback quality on commercial CDs: The PSD-300 is not a case of getting $1100 worth of CD-playback quality with a lot of other capabilities thrown in, as it were, for free. As Pliny the Elder might have written, had he been semiliterate in Latin: Nunquam prandium liberum (Never a free lunch).