There are times in your life when a basic voice recorder just won't cut it. For example, let's say you want to capture a professional recording of your kid's piano recital, or a live concert, or an important academic lecture--you'll need a portable recorder that's discreet, but also packs some real muscle.
The Yamaha Pocketrak CX ($399 retail, $299 street) is made specifically for these special sonic occasions, but makes a point to keep things simple when it comes to features and design. Demanding audio professionals might turn up their nose at the Pocketrak's lack of full-size-mic connections and minimal onboard audio settings, but musicians and laymen will appreciate the recorder's point-and-shoot approach.
For better or worse, the Yamaha Pocketrak CX is designed like a typical handheld voice recorder you'd pick up at an office supply store. On the upside, the design is compact, intuitive, and familiar (remember those microcassette recorders from college?). The downside, though, is that you're not going to find the full-size instrument, RCA, or XLR mic inputs that are used on larger competitors such as the M-Audio MicroTrack II, or the Zoom H4N. You're also a little hampered by the Pocketrak's relatively small 1.25-inch screen (think postage stamp).
The recorder weighs just 92 grams, and measures 5 inches long, 1.75 inches wide, and just 0.6 inch thick. The left side includes the Pocketrak's headphone jack, along with switches for automatic mic level adjustment and mic sensitivity (high/low). On the opposite side, you'll find buttons for power, folder, track list, edit, and delete, as well as a 3.5mm mic and line input and a hinged door that conceals the recorder's Mini-USB port and microSD card slot.
Yamaha placed a hold switch on the back of the Pocketrak to prevent the buttons on each side of the recorder from triggering accidentally when the player is gripped. At first, the hold-switch position felt a little out of the way, but we eventually appreciated how it falls naturally under the index finger while holding the recorder. Below the switch is an internal speaker that allows you to listen back to your recordings without using headphones.
Compared with recorders such as the Zoom H2 or the Edirol R-09HR, the Pocketrak CX's feature set looks short, as it doesn't include advanced features such as 24-bit recording, multiple compressor/limiter settings, or audio effects. It also lacks support for SDHC memory cards, opting instead for microSD memory, which currently tops out at 8GB (maximum recordable file length is 2GB).
In spite of its shortcomings, there are some unique advantages to using the Pocketrak CX. For one, it runs off a single AA battery, capable of 22 hours of continuous WAV recording or 50 hours of MP3 recording. A rechargeable Eneloop-brand battery is included with the Pocketrak CX, which recharges whenever the Pocketrak is plugged into a computer over USB. Unfortunately, there's no power adapter input for people who prefer to keep the recorder active without worrying about battery life.
Another advantage of the Pocketrak CX that shouldn't be overlooked is the inclusion of Steinberg's Cubase AI4 audio software. Cubase AI4 is a full-featured multitrack audio-production suite (Mac/PC) that allows you to edit, arrange, mix, and export your recordings with professional results. Considering that none of the Pocketrak's competitors bundle recording software with their recorders, the inclusion of Cubase is a great asset for musicians who haven't already invested in digital-audio software.
The Pocketrak CX can be set to record 44kHz or 48kHz WAV files, or stereo MP3 files ranging from 320Kbps to 32Kbps. Standard recording features, such as high-pass filtering, auto-level control, and peak limiting are included, but don't offer much in the way of fine-tuning.
Some nifty extras on the Pocketrak CX include the capability to add volume fades to the beginning and end of a recording, and a VARS function that triggers recording once a minimum volume level has been reached. The Pocketrak can also be used as an MP3 player, complete with EQ settings, A-B looping, and playback-speed control.
Demo of guitar recorded from Fender Twin Reverb:
Demo of close-range music box recording:
During a test field recording in front of the CNET offices in San Francisco, we used the microphone on the widest stereo setting, switched on the low-pass filter, and used the included windscreen to prevent breeze from distorting the recording. The result was very realistic; however, we did pick up some unwanted handling noise while we were walking around.
Demo of outdoor recording:
In our experience, the Pocketrack CX did its best work when it was placed on a nearby table and left untouched. The recordings we made while holding or walking with the Pocketrak CX often included an intermittent prickly clipping sound when the mics were being jostled. The prickly sound was minimized when the built-in limiter was switched off, but it's an artifact we haven't heard on comparable recorders. Knowing this, we wouldn't particularly recommend the Pocketrak for field recording, voice memos, or journalists who enjoy waving recorders in people faces.
Demo of distortion caused by shaking: