Me and My (MicroTrack II) 424

October 1, 2008

One of my favorite John Vanderslice songs is titled “Me and My 424“. The song is all about his love and attachment to his Tascam 424, which is a 4 track recorder. This song was the first thing that popped into my head when I sat down to write this post and it was too perfect of a connection to ignore. For those of you that got this reference, congratulations on your good taste. For those of you that didn’t, you should really brush up on your bay area indie artists.

Anyway…

This last weekend I attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival and sadly two of my best friends couldn’t attend the festivities. So I figured the next best thing to being there is getting to hear live recordings from some of the sets. I’d never done any recording so I knew the chances of me getting something of quality wasn’t likely but worth a shot. Plus, the endless string of shows over three days would allow me to cram a ton of learning into a short time frame.

Before making my purchase, I did some research online. I managed to find this fantastic article by Mark Nelson on the O’Reilly Digital Media site comparing the M-Audio MicroTrack II to the Edirol R-09HR. Mark leaves it up to you to decide which recorder best fits your needs and it was the 48 volt phantom power on the MicroTrack II that sealed the deal for me. That and the fact that I found a brand new recorder on CraigsList for only $225.

Shure SM57 with TRS cable

Shure SM57 with TRS cable

The MicroTrack II came with a simple stereo microphone that seems to be of good enough quality for unplanned recordings, but my desire for better quality required the use of a nicer mic. A few weeks prior I had purchased a Shure SM57 dynamic mic to play around with and I wondered what kinds of results it would produce. So I picked up a TRS to XLR cable to go from the MicroTrack to the SM57 and did some test runs using my home stereo. Right off the bat I noticed that the mic that came with the MicroTrack was much more sensitive than the Shure. I wasn’t sure which one would do a better job at the festival so I decided to take both and experiment.

Ideally in this situation I’d have a nice condenser mic but I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy making the recordings and I didn’t want to dump more money into this if it wasn’t going to yield any pleasure. Fortunately I found out quite quickly that the stages at the festival were loud enough to drive my dynamic mic and I left the small clip on mic in my bag for the rest of the weekend.

Austin Texas tends to be fairly hot this time of year and while recording, the MicroTrack actually generates a little bit of heat on its own. The first set I recorded was Yeasayer and things went off without a hitch. I kept an eye on my levels throughout the show keeping them low enough not to clip. After the set I wanted to listen to the recording in a bit quieter setting to get some immediate feedback. I started playing the track back but to my surprise, I couldn’t adjust the volume on the headphone output. This had me a bit worried so I decided to power cycle the recorder.

The combination of the heat from the sun and the internal heat that the recorder generates was clearly upsetting my new device because after turning it back on, it immediately turned itself off. After biting a couple fingernails I decided to let it sit in the shade for a while to cool off with the hopes that it would come back to life. It did.

For the rest of the afternoon I continued to play around with various settings and was quickly finding myself very comfortable with the layout of the device. It’s operation is really straightforward with a minimal amount of buttons and only the ones you need quick access to. My first real complaint was the fact that when recording from a mono source (left channel only) you only get audio in the left channel of the headphone output, even when setting the recorder to mono mode. This seems like an oversight on M-Audio’s part, making it slightly annoying.

The last set I saw on Friday was Donavon Frankenreiter and I so desperately wanted to get a good recording of what I knew would be a fantastic show. I managed to get a great spot on the right hand side of the stage and it felt like a pretty good place to setup shop. At the end of the set we headed back to the hotel and I got my first chance to hear what I had captured in detail.

It was amazing, I could hardly contain myself. The last time I felt this type of magical experience was making prints in a dark room. The recording didn’t have the same quality as a sound board recording but for such a simple and portable setup I’m truly shocked at the results. Here’s a video that Will shot, I replaced the audio from the camera with my recording.

Encouraged by Friday’s results, I went into Saturday with a lot of enthusiasm especially because Iron & Wine was playing in the evening. Once again, the recording went off without a hitch but I’m discovering that it would be nice to roll off the bass a bit before the signal hits the MicroTrack. I want to do this because some of these shows have so much bass that it’s difficult to keep the input from clipping like crazy and still capture the rest of the detail. In photographic terms, it’s a lot like trying to take a picture of something in the shadows while staring at the sun.

Sunday was a big day. I wanted to get a recording of Tristan Prettyman, Neko Case and The Raconteurs. All was going well with the Tristan set when I realized that twenty minutes into the set I ran out of space on my CF card. This was confusing to me at first because I had removed all the old recordings from the previous day and my 4GB card should have had enough space for over three hours of recording. Being a geek, I had a theory for what went wrong.

When deleting the files I didn’t use the delete button on the MicroTrack, instead I deleted them via the Finder on my Mac and it seems as though the files weren’t actually deleted, just hidden. The file browser on the MicroTrack only shows you audio files that it can read which in normal situations is nice. But when you’re out of space because of clutter it would be great to be able to remove that clutter while in the field. So I’d highly recommend that M-Audio adds a feature to allow you to browse all of the files on the device for these kind of emergencies.

Because this feature isn’t present, I found myself running around the festival looking for a usb cable so I could hook my recorder up to one of the computers that Dell had at its tent. This was a fruitless task and I was left with no option but to reformat my CF card, loosing what I had of the Tristan set. But thankfully the reformatting worked and I was able to grab the other two.

So the bottom line is that I love my new toy and I highly recommend it. It’s friendly to use, affordable, portable and produces amazing results. The only reliability problem I had was when it got excessively hot. As for features, I’d love to monitor a mono signal in both ears and be able to manage the non-audio files on the device.

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3 Responses to “Me and My (MicroTrack II) 424”

  1. Meyrick Kaminski Says:

    Hi Ryan, thanks for the excellent article.

    I’m in a similar position to you, having recently bought an SM57 to use in conjunction with the Microtrack. However, I’ve got the earlier version of this, where phantom power is only up to 30v, and some problems are associated with it.

    Was wondering if you had to use phantom power to work the SM57 in your recordings or not? What did they sound like without phantom power? I’m mainly going to be recording unplugged, acoustic musicians, and for ease and flexibility I’d like to do this with the Microtrack.

    Any tips, tricks, wisdom you’d like to share much appreciated.

    Thanks

    Meyrick

  2. Ryan Grimm Says:

    Hi Meyrick,

    Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    Because the SM57 is a dynamic microphone it doesn’t require any power to operate so you should probably leave the phantom power off. Typically the phantom power is needed when using condenser mics. The wikipedia article on microphones has a good explanation of how various types differ and what their strong points are.

    The video that’s in this post actually uses the audio that I recorded so that should give you a good idea of the results that I had with the SM57. However, the reason that it turned out at all is because I was quite close to a very loud source. For recording unplugged acoustic sets you’ll get much better results with a condenser mic. Maybe take a look at the AKG C1000S, you can get them used for around $100 and they operate on phantom power between 9 and 52 volts.

    Best of luck and I hope that helps.

  3. Mark van Mechelen Says:

    Hey cool article! Came across it because I’m also having the problem with the Shure SM57’s sensitivity when wired into my Microtrack II — i’m trying to use it for things like voice and acoustic sound effects. Good to know that my Microtrack isn’t faulty.

    The microtrack’s a quirky little thing. Like, if you have the hold switch active the battery drains, but it won’t otherwise. I find it weird that there is so little information on the Microtrack in a consolidated place. Anyway, thanks for the suggestion about the akg C1000S, although at $200 it’s a little pricey for me right now.

    Thanks again!


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