This is no ordinary portable digital recorder…
Text: Alistair McGhee
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” or so the saying goes. It’s right up there in the top 10 most un-PC expressions in the English language, I must admit, but it remains one that’s lost none of its truthful insight.
Let’s say you want to design a portable digital recorder… I know you probably don’t, but let’s entertain the idea just for a moment for the purposes of this intro. If you’re designing a portable recorder from scratch, what features will you need? Typically the thing to decide on first is what recording medium (or mediums) you’ll be using. From there it’s a matter of working out how many tracks you’ll need to record, adding a screen and some buttons, sticking a port on the side to enable transfer to your computer – and viola! You’ve just designed yourself a portable recorder! Sounds easy doesn’t it?
Of course, some manufacturers garnish their basic offerings with some added extras: in the case of Zoom, it’s usually built-in effects, with Sound Devices it’s timecode, and for Korg it’s incorporating a DSD recording format. So what does Nagra – one of the most famous of all location recorder manufacturers – bring to the party with its new LB?
Well, firstly – and it’s been so for many decades – Nagra brings build quality to the table like no other. These guys know their aluminium, and the new Nagra LB is a delight in the hand. Its predecessor, the BB, was a very competent machine, but it suffered somewhat in the aesthetics department, looking very much like a stolen car radio.
The LB dodges this bullet well. For starters it proudly preserves the famous Nagra selector – the rotary transport control that has graced so many Nagra machines over several decades. This iconic control device offers ‘Rec’ (at 11 o’clock on the dial), ‘Test’ (at 10 o’clock), ‘Off’ (at nine o’clock), ‘Stop’ (at eight o’clock), and ‘Play’ (at seven o’clock).
You’d be pretty pleased with yourself if you’d designed your first portable recorder and come up with the Nagra LB’s front plate. Nice aluminium, knurled easy-to-grasp gain pots (mine had a little mechanical grunginess), traffic light level LEDs, a built-in electret mic, headphones and level control, alongside that famous rotary selector and a decent colour screen. Money well spent.
Ah, but referencing our cat analogy once more… on the LB’s top plate, there’s also another screen, a jog dial, navigation buttons, custom keys, and a speaker! Something interesting is definitely going on in the world of Nagra. And what’s this on the side panel… USB A and B sockets and an Ethernet port? This unit just gets curiouser and curiouser. Let’s cover the mundane features first shall we before delving into the functionality of these not-so-hidden extras.
BEGINNING WITH A FLASH
The Nagra LB records to a Compact Flash card, internal Flash memory, USB stick, or independently powered USB drives (bus powered USB drives don’t work). I even stuck a USB card reader into the side of the LB and plugged in an SD card without the unit so much as batting an eyelid. The Nagra LB also has a very clever feature that allows you to ‘hot swap’ your Compact Flash card, provided you’re dexterous enough to swap the cards over in time – 30 seconds when you’re recording at 48k. And if you thought that time constraint was tight, this figure halves to a paltry 15 seconds at 96k, and a sweat inducing, pit-stop-inspired seven seconds at a 192k! There’s a nerve tester for you – pop the CF card while you’re recording at this critical audio resolution to test your wits and nerve. It’s like being in a shoot out… a real one!
The LB also has a pre-rec buffer of about three seconds, which sounds a bit stingy perhaps but should be enough for most situations. Power is drawn from a NimH battery that lasts for hours, or you can stump up for an eight AA cell battery box that promises over seven hours of useful life.
The LB records WAVs, BWAVs, MP3s, and MP2s: the latter ones being very handy for direct import into RadioMan and other compressed file format playout systems.
The LB has two XLR inputs for mic or line with phantom power. There are two mic settings labelled in milli-volts per Pascal. Just flick the switch to see which works best, unless you’re the kind of operator who knows how many milli-volts per Pascal your mics pump out. In which case I apologise, and yes, you look great in that anorak. The LB also has an AES digital input on XLR.
ALL DAY UP FRONT
Nagra has obviously decided to put all the day-to-day stuff on the front panel of the LB – including the headphone socket and volume control – hurray! There’s even a built-in electret mic for note taking. It’s a little thin sounding and has a deal of zip in the upper midrange compared to a $300 hand-held dynamic, but it will certainly get you out of jail when someone makes off with said interview mic. The colour screen is bright, well laid out, and a model of readability. You also get fast forward/rewind and a separate ‘Prev/Next’ switch, and a nice ‘Cue’ toggle for dropping in markers on-the-fly.
You can also use the Prev/Next switch to seamlessly make new tracks during recording. There are switches for the onboard tone generator and input channel link that complete the switch complement, which brings us to the mini menu joystick…
Pressing and holding brings up the menu on the front panel screen. And here things get a little complicated. You see the Nagra LB’s working status is defined by the position of the rotary selector. As mentioned previously, nine o’clock is ‘Off’. Above this line lies the ‘Test’ and ‘Rec’ modes, where in Test mode you’re preparing to record so you’ll want the front screen, which has a cut down version of the menus appropriate to the business of recording.
South of the nine o’clock position you get ‘Stop’ and ‘Play’. In these modes you get the front screen in playback, but when you press the joystick to enter the menu system, the screen on the front is switched off and the one on the top plate springs into life. The joke was on me as I first used it, having neglected to read the manual, so the first time it did this I thought I’d broken it.
MENUS MENUS MENUS
Menus divide us at a deep level it would seem and the Nagra LB is no different. Some will like the LB’s approach to menu surfing, others will not. Consider this exchange: “Waiter, why isn’t this menu in Spanish?”
“Because this is a French restaurant sir.”
What do you do, and how do you please everyone in this regard? Put all the menus in one enormous list, perhaps? Sound Devices goes down this route, and trust me it’s a long haul down to the bottom – half way down you feel a little like you’re lost in the forest.
Alternatively, if you group the menu options like Nagra has done, the alternative problem is that you then face the potential to be struck down by menu memory paralysis, where you can’t remember whether ‘Format’ lies under Directory, Settings or Miscellaneous.
You might also take issue with the record file type settings only being available in the full menu on top of the machine, as opposed to the limited menu on the front panel. On the other hand, I might argue that I’ve set the record settings at the start of the gig and don’t want to mess about while I’m WAV gathering. Take your pick. Like I said, when it comes to location recorders and their menus, you can’t please everybody.
One thing’s for sure, everyone wants their recorder of choice to sound good, and as you might expect from a Nagra, the sound quality of the recordings from the LB is very good indeed. I tried a variety of very high quality mics, and the transparency of the LB is such that I had no difficulty hearing the subtle sonic characteristics of some of Germany’s finest. But of course, being a discerning reader, you’ll probably want to hear this ability for yourself, and I’d urge you to do so before buying something, regardless of the brand.
Nagra has really gone to town on the options for getting stuff out of your LB. Play it out via balanced XLR outputs in analogue or AES digital; pop the CF card and take it away; plug the LB into your PC or Mac via USB and copy directly; copy the files from CF card to a USB pen drive and remove the USB stick; record them to a USB stick in the first place; Bluetooth the file to your mobile phone using a Bluetooth USB dongle… even better, Bluetooth the file to someone else’s mobile phone!
A quick interjection about speed here: the CF-card-to-USB-stick transfer takes about five megabytes a second; over Bluetooth it’s about five megabytes a minute. To that end, Nagra also includes a built-in speed tester for your CF cards to check it will run fast enough for high sample rate recording.
Now where was I? Oh yes, getting the audio out. How about FTP over the built-in Ethernet port? How geeky is that? File your piece direct from the machine via FTP. Swiss journalists must be a cut above the rest is all I can say about that. The rest of us might want to remove all the drivel we’ve recorded in between the significant moments before we upload it to home base. If and when that’s required, the Nagra LB also has you covered – to a limited extent – allowing you cut up your files via on-board editing software. Admittedly, I don’t think anyone will be rushing out to buy the LB primarily for its strength as an editor. Firstly, you can only really edit 48k files (no high sample rates or 44.1k) and 16-bit only. Secondly, editing audio files is a bit fiddly on the LB and let’s just say I wouldn’t want to edit a radio drama on it. But if you need to simply top and tail a piece, for instance, or build a simple package, this will certainly do the job.
The Nagra LB is unlike any other recorder I’ve come across. It undoubtedly has its idiosyncratic features like Bluetooth, dual screens, FTP, and on-board editing, but in a sense these are simply joyous extras that accompany a solid professional feature set that includes hot swapping the CF card, USB storage, and (two) nice colour display(s). No-one should buy a decent portable recorder without first trying an LB. It not only has A-grade looks, feel and sound, it retains engineering dignity and sophistication in this often-so-shoddy world. And best of all, when your local Apple lemming gets out his iPad and starts fiddling with it, you can flash your LB and remark, “Only one screen? How quaint.”