I'm a musician well acquainted with the F-word. No—wait! Not that one; the other F-word. "Folk," as in folk music—real, pre-industrial music like you used to find before radios and phonographs came along and standardized everything. Old-time fiddle and banjo tunes, Hawaiian slack key, Galician bagpipes, Greek bouzoukis, village brass bands—it's all folk music to me.
We folk musicians learn our music the old-fashioned way, from recordings. Preferably from field recordings made on the front porch of a crazy-quilt cabin down in some inhospitable holler. Nothing beats grabbing a tune off the bow of a good fiddler or hearing the vocal nuances of a great traditional singer.
That's why I jumped at the chance to look at Edirol's new R-09 digital recorder. Here's a field recorder that fits in the palm of your hand, has built-in stereo mics, records to inexpensive (and sturdy!) SD memory cards, records both uncompressed WAV files and MP3s, connects to your computer via USB, and runs off AA batteries. I was particularly curious to see how it stacked up against the M-Audio MicroTrack, which I reviewed late last year. Based on the barrage of emails I've received, you're curious, too. So let's jump in.
Even at six ounces and barely over four inches tall, the Edirol R-09 offers big-league features such as 24-bit stereo WAV recording and outstanding battery life.
Edirol (a division of music-industry monolith Roland) rocked the recording world last year with the release of the R-1, a portable flash-RAM recorder with some surprisingly sophisticated features, such as onboard effects and editing. However, some recordists balked at the R-1's size and price tag. So Edirol did the obvious thing: it took the best features of the R-1 and stuck them in a unit that can easily slip into a shirt pocket, simultaneously shaving a hundred bucks off the R-1's $549 list price. (The R-09 lists for $450; its street price is around $399.)
The R-09 makes good use of its limited footprint. Thanks to a large rocker switch mounted front and center, one-handed recording is a snap. A single press on the record button arms the recorder so you can set levels, while a red LED flashes brightly. Press Rec a second time, and the LED glows steady as you begin recording.
Metering is accomplished via the small display; there's also a peak LED. Setting levels can be tricky, as the input buttons mounted on the recorder's left side are quite small. A mic gain switch on the rear panel adds 24dB of boost when you switch it from Low to Hi, which is handy for quiet sources.
Speaking of small, I needed reading glasses to make out the legends for the various controls. To make matters worse, components on each side—the power switch, input level buttons, DC power jack on the left and the hold switch, output level buttons, and headphone/optical out jack on the right—are labeled with tiny black letters embossed on black plastic. Once I got used to the layout, I could work by touch, but those first few days were frustrating!
The R-09 is smaller than you might imagine; here my sandal acts as a mic stand.
The display is also tiny, but it packs in a lot of info. Most of the real estate is devoted to horizontal input meters and a large counter. (Despite the hours-minutes-seconds display, the R-09 does not read or record time code—though neither does anything else near this price.) You do get a readout of the audio filename and type. You can edit filenames after the fact, a most welcome feature. There's also an indication of battery life and time remaining on the card.
You can record both WAV and MP3s at multiple sample rates and resolutions on the same card. Currently, SD cards of up to 2GB are supported; recording times vary depending on the type of recording. (See the Recording Time chart.) According to Edirol, upcoming firmware will support cards up to 4GB.
The R-09 can handle external mics (a switch on the back selects mono or stereo operation) and supplies phantom power for mini mics at its 1/8-inch input. Alternatively, you can use its 1/8-inch stereo line input. The mini headphone jack doubles as an optical digital line out.
According to Edirol, battery life is around four hours when recording. As a test, I popped in newly charged batteries, dialed up the lowest MP3 setting to maximize recording time, and hit Record. After six solid hours, the batteries still had enough life to handle routine file maintenance! Your mileage may vary. You can also run off the included AC power adaptor.
Changing batteries is a snap: pop open an ingenious trap door on the bottom and Bob's your uncle! Open the door halfway to access the USB port and memory card. A flick of the wrist and it fully opens, revealing the battery compartment. One caveat: the hinges are flimsy and the door can easily get off its track when fully opened. At one point, I was afraid I'd broken it off.
The lightweight battery hatch gives access to the USB connector as well—as long as the R-09 isn't in its optional case.