Superscope PMR61: An Unexpected Surprise
In just the past few years, professional quality portable audio recorders have continued to evolve and improve. I am the director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in the University of Kentucky Libraries where we loan dozens of professional-level recording kits to our interview project partners. In so doing over the years, I have noticed that the more professional recorders can sometimes prove too complex for both novice and seasoned oral historians to comfortably operate, especially for those who only use their recording kits intermittently. That said, I usually insist that Nunn Center project partners are using professional quality recorders and microphones to ensure the best possible recordings out of their oral history interviews. Unfortunately, the consequences of choosing the more professional-level recorder for recording oral history can mean a level of greater complexity and a higher learning curve, which can sometimes result in technical failures and frustration.
When I look for portable audio recorders that the Nunn Center will provide our project partners, I am always on the lookout for the optimal combination of recording quality and simplicity. In this post I am looking at the Superscope PMR61 which is a recorder that was not on my radar. In various forms, the Superscope company has been around since the 1950s making portable recording equipment. For a period of time, Superscope was making the Marantz portable recorders that were so popular in the oral history market. Now split from Marantz, Superscope LLC is back with the PMR61. To be completely honest, I was a bit skeptical when I first received this recorder for testing. While no audio recorders are actually designed with oral historians in mind (sorry if I dashing your dreams), Superscope actually imprints their functional and market intentions on the face of this recorder labeling the PMR61 as a “Meeting Recorder.” To me the label “meeting recorder” implies a recorder with pinhole omnidirectional microphones that is designed to record meetings around a long table for the primary purpose of drafting meeting minute, not necessarily a recorder to be used for creating professional quality recordings of oral history interviews. However, the PMR61 can be much more than simply a “meeting recorder.” Despite my initial skepticism, I must say that I have loved testing this recorder and I feel like it has proven itself a worthy option for recording oral history.
The PMR61 is a 2-channel stereo recorder that has 2 xlr microphone inputs for your more professional-level recordings (with phantom power) as well as 2 1/8″ (mono) microphone inputs. Superscope calls the 1/8″ inputs the “conference microphone” inputs. The recorder also has two internal microphones, but as is typical with internal pinhole microphones, they don’t perform as well as two high quality external microphones.
I tend to recommend using xlr microphone inputs for recording oral history so that you can utilize the more professional microphones. Here is a sample recording of my daughter Eleanor with the PMR61 using two Sennheiser ME 64 cardioid microphones sitting at our kitchen table.
CLIP 1: XLR Inputs (2 Shotgun microphones)
Using the internal microphones did a decent job recording a table top interview with my daughter Kathleen, but the quality was much lower than when recording with the XLR inputs and high quality microphones.
CLIP 2: Internal Microphones
Two professional quality microphones (cardioid / shotgun style) that are placed close to the two participants in an oral history interview and plugged in to professional quality micr0phone inputs (xlr inputs) will always yield a far better recording than when utilizing the lower quality onboard (omni-directional) pin hole microphones. For oral history interviewing, I definitely recommend the setup in Clip 1 above.
This recorder has the capability to record both .wav files and .mp3 files. For uncompressed recording, the PMR61 is limited to a maximum sample rate of 44.1 kHz and a maximum bit depth of 16-bit. While this is “CD-quality” audio, most professional portable recorders on the market today have the option to record higher sample rates and bit depths (24-bit / 96 kHz). If you are using the PMR61 for recording oral history interviews, record at the highest setting .wav file you can (16 bit / 44.1 kHz). I generally recommend the 24-bit setting, even when combined with a 44.1 kHz sample rate).
The PMR 61 has 16 gb of internal memory, it has a USB-A and a USB-B connection for recording to an external USB device such as a thumb drive, and it allows you to record to both internal memory and to your external device simultaneously. This is an extremely useful feature for backing up your recordings, and for quickly and efficiently moving the audio files from the recorder to the computer. There is no need for SD, SCHC or compact flash cards when using this recorder.
This recorder was clearly designed for simplicity. There are only four buttons on the front of the recorder: Power, Play, Stop, and a very large Record button right there in the middle. It does not get any simpler.
The PMR61 has a very large touch screen, which makes it quite easy to visually monitor recording levels and adjust recording settings (or your device settings). This huge screen makes it extremely simple to play back, rename, or move your files from the internal memory to the USB device.
This recorder takes user-friendliness to the granular level. For example, most recorder menus have a bad habit of placing the delete function too close to the play function in the menu. With little screens, other recorders make it far too easy to accidentally delete a recording when a user is simply trying to play a recording. The PMR61 recorder actually put the delete function at the bottom of the playback portion of the menu, requiring you to scroll further down to even access this function. While this is a small detail, these are the types of details that Superscope thought of when they put simplicity at the center of the user experience.
Also, this recorder will automatically detect your microphone source. If you have no microphones plugged in, it will default to the internal mics. When you plug in XLR microphones, the PMR61 will automatically switch to those inputs. Many other recorders on the market require you to manually switch the input source.
Speaking of other recorders, professional-level recorders typically have physical buttons or a wheel to manually control recording levels. Good recording levels are essential to high quality professional-level recording. Normally, I would not dream of recommending a recorder that does not have easily accessible buttons or wheels to optimize these recording levels when needed. There are no buttons or wheels on this recorder for adjusting the recording levels. In general, I recommend against using “automatic level or gain control” that comes as an option with many portable recorders: the resulting recording is typically subpar. The PMR61 does allow you to manually control your levels while recording; however, you may not have to.
The most interesting and central feature of this recorder (which is literally front and center on the touch screen) is the “Record Check” feature. This feature is a 15-second process you go through prior to recording. During this countdown, the speaker speaks the number that is counting down into the microphone in their normal/natural speaking voice. When there are two speakers, as is the case with most oral history interviews you simply alternate speaking the numbers as the recorder counts you down.
The “Record Check” feature scans each input while the speakers speak into the microhpones, it analyzes these inputs, and it automatically chooses the correct sensitivities, attenuation, and record levels for that particular voice, using that particular microphone. When recording oral history, there are always major variables when trying to optimize your recording. While this is not how I envision typically beginning an oral history interview, it does eliminate the guesswork when trying to achieving optimal recording levels. While this is an automated process, it is unlike the built-in automatic level or gain control that is included on most recorders. Superscope’s “Record Check” is a process that intelligently analyzes your variables and cutomizes the record settings accordingly. You do still have the ability to adjust the input levels during the recording: you do so via the touch screen. Here is the “Record Check” feature in action:
“Record Check” on the PMR61 seems to work effectively. Listen to clip 1 (Eleanor’s clip) above and you can hear that our interview levels are solid. I consistently found that conducting “Record Check” prior to a recording session nearly eliminated the need for a physical button or wheel to control levels, or even a limiter for that matter. While the “countdown” is slightly out of the norm for beginning an interview session, the final results are usually worthwhile.
The battery life on the PMR61 is decent, especially when using rechargeable NiMH batteries. Using phantom power on the XLR inputs will be a heavier drain on the batteries. However, this recorder does something that other recorders do not: it actually recharges your NiMH batteries while the recorder is plugged in. This will be an extremely useful feature for many.
I really wish this recorder could record 24-bit/96 kHz .wav files (or at the least 24-bit/44.1 kHz). I generally recommend higher settings as best practice. That said, this recorder still records CD-quality audio and the recordings sound good.
On their website, Superscope claims that the PMR61 is possibly “the world’s smartest digital audio recorder.” I must say that for recording spoken word (such as an oral history interview), the Superscope’s PMR61 combines simplicity and quality like no other recorder on the market. This will not be the recorder for everyone. The PMR61 is a very big recorder; however, the touch screen is perfect for those who do not like tiny displays on portable recorders (myself included). It is a very comfortable screen that never feels cramped. While the touchscreen worked well for my fingers, it was not as responsive to my 10-year-old’s fingers until she really got the feel for the sensitivity. This recorder will not fit in your pocket, but the touch screen feels like a tablet computer compared with the displays on other recorders.
Finally, the price point of this recorder ($899) is higher than most other professional-level recorders in its class. Yes, you can get a professional portable recorder that has better quality recording capabilities for less money, but with the higher price on the PMR61 comes, quite possibly, the simplest professional quality recorder I have ever used. There is a sense of safety and reliability in the simplicity that this recorder provides and the PMR61 recorder makes high-quality recording a worry-free process. It will be an excellent choice for both novices and professionals when the complexities of audio recording technologies are a potential barrier to conducting a high-quality oral history interview.