Our South African Love: The Sony PCM-M10

Part 1 of our series of articles on gear Fred used in his adventures across South Africa in Winter 2012

South Africa Travels 2012

Fred recording waterfall sounds with the PCM-M10 in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa

It’s no secret that I love field recording and especially handheld flash-based audio recorders. I’ve carried a Zoom H2 since they were introduced in 2007 and moved on to try out most of the rest of their line including the Zoom Q3, Zoom H4n and the Zoom H1. However, in preparation for my forthcoming trip to South Africa for five weeks it was time to take stock of my recording arsenal and ensure I had the right tool for the job.

The core requirement of my audio gear is that it had to fit into a single backpack along with all my other belongings for the full 5 weeks.  And of course, I need to collect fantastic audio.

I had recently purchased the Zoom H4n which served me well as a backup/supplementary recorder for sessions of The Cleansed, but when I took a hard look at it and my backpack, I felt it was time to shop outside my much beloved Zoom brand.

The Candidates

You can lose yourself for weeks in web research for these types of gadgets; I cut my search short by reading some of the fantastic audio gear reviews by Jeff Towne up at Transom.org. Towne’s review of the Marantz PMD-660 led me to buying that recorder back in 2006, which still serves me well today, and I highly appreciate his hands-on, practical approach to reviewing especially considering his public radio background (NPR freelancers, while very different from audio dramaturges, look for many of the same requirements as us).

It was there I first read about what was to be my new love – the Sony PCM-M10.

I’d never had the pleasure of owning a Sony portable recorder though I’d lusted over the PCM-D50 for years. The highly talked-up built-in mics, solid mic pre-amps, tough build quality and durability were all factors I liked. However, its $500 price tag, lack of XLR inputs, and just-a-little-too-bigness kept us away.

I found that the smaller cousin, the PCM-M10, had many of the features of the D50, as well as a few others that suited my needs as a lightweight, durable secondary field recorder:

  • Small form factor – Very close in size to the Zoom H2, about the smallest a recorder can be while still having a professional set of features.
  • Solid built-in mics – The omni mics on this recorder get a fair amount of (deserved) cricism for their limited stereo response, more important than stereo though is usable quality and for my type of work they fit the bill (mainly recording ambiences with occasional spot FX here and there).
  • Incredible battery life – This is truly legendary. I don’t know that I’ve ever had an electronic device that has performed as well on this front. I got through almost the entire 5-week trip on a single set of AA batteries. The only reason I needed to swap them out is that I once accidentally left the recorder on overnight and it recorded 8-hours straight of audio without putting up a fuss.
  • MicroSD Card Support – For about $30 I purchased a 16GB SD card which allowed me around 24 hrs of 24-bit/48Khz recordings.

There are a few other things I learned to love about this recorder which I’ll talk about momentarily. These were the features which sold me on it. Within a few days of reading Jeff’s reviews I had one on the way from BH Photo/Video.

Unboxing and Beyond

Sony PCM M10 vs. Zoom H2

The Zoom H2 and Sony PCM M10 are almost identical in size. The PCM M10 is a bit slimmer and heftier. It lacks the surround capability and computer interface of the Zoom, but offers robust professional features such as a manual input gain knob instead

My first impression with the recorder was that yes, this was in fact as small as it looked on the internet. It also feels like a professional piece of equipment; holding it side by side with my Zoom H2, the Zoom feels like a toy and the Sony like something for grown-ups.

When I first starting doing this in 2007 I probably wouldn’t have noticed (nor been able to appreciate) the differences, but at my current level of experience here are the features that really stuck out:

  • Manual recording level input knob – If I could name only one feature that makes this recorder a better buy that some of its competitors, this is it. Having the ability to really control your input levels (vs. the Low, Medium, High response on the Zoom) is what separates a mainstream device from that of the audio professional.
  • Mic Sensivitity Low/High – Related to the above issue. Mic sensitivity should be on high most-times, but gosh, having the option of ‘Low’ helps out a lot when an unexpected lightning storm comes rolling in overhead.
  • Built-in Limiter – One of those features that you hope you never to need to use. But when you do, you’re glad you have it.
  • Cross-memory Recording – This feature speaks to Sony’s thoughtfulness of the recordist. If you run out of memory on one of two sources on this recorder (built-in memory or memory card) the recorder can automatically keep recording on the other media to keep you from losing material. Less expensive recorders would just quit on you, or worse, lose the recording you were working on.

I felt pretty good about my decision. And then I packed on a plane and flew halfway across the world.

Arriving in South Africa

Sani Pass in Lesotho

Lesotho’s Sani Pass. Okay, so there weren’t any sound recording opportunities here but it sure was spellbinding

This was my first trip to the continent of Africa and though my wife had done a lot to prep me from her previous trips, there was still a lot of not-sure-what-to-expect-edness from my end. How remote would I really be? Would I be able to buy batteries? Would I be able to upload material to the internet while traveling? What would be my backup scenario if my recorder was stolen?

Not surprisingly a lot of what I thought going into the trip turned out to be wrong and several things I didn’t anticipate turned out to be headaches. South Africa is a modern country in many parts, but nowhere was internet really adequate for me to back up any source material onto the web. Batteries, on the other hand, were plentiful and I felt stupid for carrying 30 AA’s with me.

Perhaps the most useful feature of the PCM-M10 is its size. Not much larger than a smartphone, I could easily keep it in my pocket at all times as I wandered around in order to snag random audio recording opportunities you might otherwise miss. For example, this random ice cream truck on a street in Johannesberg:

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Busy Market in Maseru, Lesotho

The minibus taxi rank in Maseru, Lesotho. Busier than it looks!

I did bring my trusty RØDE NTG-2 mic and dead kitten with me, but found that I made many fewer recordings with it than I expected. While the shotgun mic is far cleaner and targeted than the wide open and airy sound of the Sony’s built-in omnis, it was just a lot more equipment to pull out of my bag.

Practically speaking, I wasn’t going on a 20k hike with the shotgun mic nor would I travel a city street with it. Yet I could very take the Sony and clandestinely stoop in a building awning and record a busy market in Lesotho without attracting attention. Well, without attracting any more attention than you already do as a white person traveling that mountain country:

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To the random passersby, the size and built of the Sony looks comparable to a Blackberry. Interesting, maybe, but not unheard of. A fuzzy shotgun mic and headphones make you look a lot more like an alien.

That being said, outside of the urban centers I was a lot more brave taking out the shotgun mic, and recorded some amazing tracks in the remote village of Malealea of their jingling-belled sheep headed out to pasture:

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Monitoring levels of an approaching thunderstorm in the Northern Drakensberg, South Africa

Monitoring levels of an approaching thunderstorm in the Northern Drakensberg, South Africa

And I did have the opportunity to pull out the RØDE to record this fantastic thunderstorm. This alone was worth bringing the mic the entire trip.

We don’t get storms like this in Maine; while I have a lot of thunder/lightning tracks in my library none were quite as clear, crisp, and missing rain as these ones.

Here’s a nice clean sound of a thunderclap (good use of the lowered mic sensitivity!)

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Why this is a Love Affair

Let’s be clear: the most important thing about any recorder is the material you come home with. You can wax and wane about this feature or that feature, but ultimately what matters is that you’re comfortable with the recorder, trust it, and can use it to do your work. In the field you need to know your recorder well enough to do basic troubleshooting if Google is 8,000 miles away. You need to know what you need to pack in order to feel confident you’ll get what you came for.

It’s for all these reasons that I love the Sony PCM-M10. It feels like it was made by someone who understands audio recording. There are lots of thoughtful small features that you don’t even realize you need at first. In some review I read somewhere they talked about Sony’s robust experience making recorders from the Minidisc days back to Beta – and let me affirm, this experience shows. I do still truly love the Zoom recorders, they are fantastic for what they are, but comparing the H2 to the PCM-M10 is like comparing a point-and-shoot camera to a SLR.

Sani Top Chalet Toasting Yuri Rasovsky

Fred toasts Yuri Rasovsky at the Sani Top Chalet, the highest pub in Africa. I learned of Yuri’s passing the 2nd week of my travels.

Like all love affairs, my tendency to gush shouldn’t overlook the flaws. The recorder is, after all, only $200 and cannot be perfect.

The built-in mics, while usable, are less useful than the X-Y cardioid inputs you see on most recorders of this size and, indeed, on its bigger cousin the D50.

Getting a windscreen to cover these mics is a nightmare. It’s pretty much a must to purchase a $50 windscreen to go with this recorder, but even so (at least the one I have, a Rycote) they don’t even stay on the recorder adequately without reinforcement. My solution was ultimately to hold the windscreen on using a rubber band. Surprisingly, this worked very well – but not exactly what you hope for when you spend 25% of the cost of the recorder on a windscreen.

Ultimately, what I don’t like about this recorder comes down to quibbles. For the cost, I feel I got an incredible value and can honestly say this recorder has changed my life in a small way: I’ll never be found anywhere without a portable audio recorder again. I’ve wanted a recorder that was small enough and good enough to go everywhere with me for years, and now I have it. Thank you Sony.

This is an unbiased review with no compensation offered to its writer. RØDE Microphones is an in-kind sponsor of FinalRune Productions. The author does profit for any products sold through product links embedded in this review.

Afterword

A few ‘notes for next time’ from field recording in South Africa – in case this comes in any for any other recordists out there:

  • Big game animals don’t really make any noise in their natural environment, and it’s practically impossible to capture usable sound while on safari. Go to a private reserve or refuge for a particular animal instead. South Africa has plenty of rescue centers for elephants and big cats, for example.
  • AA batteries really are everywhere, don’t bring too many. Only bother with specialty batteries, and even those seemed to be fairly common in South Africa (especially the touristy areas). Tourists with big digital SLR cameras have really changed everything.
  • Cables and connectors on the other hand, are practically impossible to find. Make sure you have every concievable one you want before you get on the plane. And maybe some extras.
  • Zip-lock bags are wonderful for packing. You don’t need any super special expensive gear bags.
  • My wife laughed at me but the Cocoon organizers are a great tool for organizing cables and electronic parts.
  • I did bring a Netbook with us which was a real treat to have. You would probably get a lot more battery life out of an iPad but I can’t imagine trying to do real work on one. I was worried about battery life but truth-be-told Ivhad enough access to grid power that I never needed the computer and found it impossible to get a charge. If you’re in the bush for 3 months that may be a different story.
  • Bring your recorder with you everywhere. Really. The one time I left it in our tent and ran to town I missed something really special.
  • Don’t let the fact that you’re recording something keep you from enjoying the place that you are. Remember that you’re a tiny fleck of dust on a gigantically massive universe and that this may be the only time in your life that you’re going to be able to record this very special moment. And then check to make sure your meters are good.
  • http://slbradio.org emay

    What do you do with the final pieces? I’d love to see your work – is it on the web somewhere?

  • http://www.finalrune.com Fred

    Emay… thanks! Look around, under “Audio Stories” there are over a dozen original, field recorded audio drama produced by FinalRune – everything from sci fi, mystery, fantasy and drama

  • Robert

    Dear Fred, how did you connected M10 with NTG2? Did the recorder made a mono track and then you split it in postproduction? Did it effected quality of wave file?
    Robert

  • finalrune

    Hi Robert, I use a cable like this to connect the two: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/XVM105F/

    The PCM-M10 records in stereo – twin tracks L/R so not ‘true’ mono. Sounds fine though of course uses twice as much storage space. You will need to use a AA-battery on the NTG-2 as the PCM-M10 does not provide phantom power. Other than that, however, it works great!

  • finophile

    Hi

    just wondering, you say “The core requirement of my audio gear is that it had to fit into a single backpack along with all my other belongings for the full 5 weeks” and yet you did not mention why you dismissed the Zoom H1 (which is very compact and light).

    I would also liked to have heard why it was you agreed with the criticism of the Sony mics and still picked it? I ask this because I record ambient sounds too and use the H1.

    Battery life and build quality would of course be a factor in favour of the PCM-M10

  • finalrune

    Hi Finophile… As it happens I have a Zoom H1 too. In fact I brought it as WELL as my PCM-M10 to South Africa with me. I did not use it beyond the 2nd day. It is a decent recorder for what it is (simple, press red button and record) but it is not nearly as professional in terms of build quality, control over your audio input levels, speed to boot up (which is critical when you hear something cool that is only making sound for a short period of time), and battery life. The Zoom H1, frankly, has failed me a few times out in the field where I thought I had good set of batteries and then it has no juice and dies before I can do a recording. The PCM-M10 is legendary, it has never run out of batteries once, I even accidentally left it on OVERNIGHT and it was still recording in the morning. Amazing. Anyways, I don’t want to knock the H1 too much (as I said I have one and have used it for some things here and there) but for a recorder that I take with me everywhere that I feel is trustworthy to just turn on and do what I need it to do when I need it to… the PCM-M10 wins hands-down.

    Sometimes the ‘trust factor’ you have with your recorder is more important than any specific feature

  • Finophile

    Hi

    thanks for the clarification. I agree with what you have said. I often leave my recorder on for many hours because I then go through the recordings to find what I wanted. The Audio version of ‘trapping’ game. I get over the recording time issue with 2800mAh NiMH batteries. These give me over 17 straight hours.

    Frankly the build quality of the Zoom is poor, and buttons (like the power switch) have already been lost in the wilderness. This makes the Sony seem attractive to me.

    However what I have been stunned with is the strength of the sound quality of the Zoom H1. It tolerates post processing quite well. (try this recording https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8jO_PPJsttfLVpLSXc2ZlFmR1k/edit?usp=sharing )

    I was initially drawn to the zoom as a “dip my toe in” as the price was very competitive. I appreciate that you get what you pay for, but personally I’m uncertain if the things I wish to have are more significant POST capture than adjustment at capture. Thus I’m not sure if the PCM offers more than its build quality.

    However as you say the robustness of the PCM is attractive. I will perhaps end up buying one and doing side by side comparisons. Do you have any opinion to voice on say “mic amp noise” which I find a little high on the Zoom when cranked up to 80 or so on the input hiss is a bit annoying for ambient sound recordings. I am able to pull it out in post and minimise its effects.

    Thanks for your review.

  • finalrune

    Finophile – well, I own almost every Zoom device they’ve made (H2, still going since 2007, the H4n, Q3, and H1) and can’t said anything bad about them. I feel like that company has almost single-handedly created a new market of pocket, inexpensive but high quality sounding audio recorders that have empowered people like me to create great recordings even back when I had no idea what I was doing (one might suggest I still don’t, but that’s another post…).

    However, all those good things said, my first reaction upon seeing the PCM-M10 was “Oh, this was made for a pro.” It’s little things, like the durability of the recorder, the types of options they include in the menus, the hard gain knob (and headphone out adjustment), etc… You can clearly see that Sony leverages their decades of experience with pro recorders, minidiscs, etc. in the design of their modern recorders.

    What this means is that the PCM-M10 has become my daily ‘go-to’ recorder, I keep the H2 in my backpack when I head to work, the H1 bombs around the house (or gets mailed to actors who send me lines in remotely) and the Q3 is for catching precious moments with my baby.

    I happen to like lots of different tools for various uses, and at the end of the day what matters more is the quality of your recordings, not what tool you use. What I’ve found is that I can depend on the PCM-M10 and if I am rushing out the door and want to snag some coverage real quick it is the recorder I trust the most.

  • finophile

    thanks :-)

  • Singer

    Thank you for a comprehensive overview.

    I am an opera singer, and have also used H1,H2, and Sony gear.

    Sony is a strange company….some of their stuff is consumer-level, and some of it exceeds a lot of pro gear. I still have an old TC-D5M tape recorder and ecm-989 mid-side pro microphone, and the preamps on the deck and sound quality are still amazing, even compared with today’s stuff.

    I like the H1 for making backstage recordings where you do not want to lose an expensive piece of gear, and still get a decent recording.

    I find the most important factor on equipment is actually the microphone placement.

    I will give the Sony you mention a go, as it sounds like a contender to its big brother the 50.

  • finalrune

    Singer, thanks for writing in – hope you have good results with the PCM-M10. Yeah, I really stand by my comments here, I recently did a test comparing all my Zoom Devices, the Sony, and now a new gadget the Rode iXY which is a great stereo X-Y mic add-on for your iPhone, kind of a cool thing. But, of all of them the Zooms feel the most chincy – you can absolutely get good results on them, but they feel plasticy and a bit more consumer-oriented when compared with some of the other gear I work with.

    – Fred