Roland R-26, Tascam DR-40, and Nagra SD Portable Handheld Recorders Review

Mar 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Brandon T. Hickey

VERSATILE, FEATURE-PACKED UNITS EXPERTLY CAPTURE AUDIO

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Roland R-26 Portable Recorder

I recently had the opportunity to engineer some interesting field recordings. The first was at the Arizona Railway Museum recording train sounds to be used for a new toy train from Lionel. The other was to record sounds for a stop-motion short for director Trevvor Riley in various large, abandoned spaces. In each case the client specifically wanted clean, direct sound recordings of specific elements, but also wanted to capture the context of the recording environment. Armed with a trio of slick, new handheld recorders from Roland, Tascam and Nagra, I was able to simultaneously record ambience and spot mics with great results.

The Roland R-26 and Tascam DR-40 really shined in their ability to record using a combination of onboard stereo mics, while also offering phantom-powered XLR inputs. The Nagra SD came in handy by offering a variety of high-performance modular microphones that could be attached to a tiny, lightweight unit. Coupled with Rycote’s Portable Recorder Kit, providing a shock-mounted pistol grip and fur windmuff, the Nagra SD became the perfect tool for moving, fast-to-follow action.

ROLAND R-26
In terms of features for the price, the Roland R-26 is astounding. The device includes four miniature electret condenser microphones. Two of them employ cardioid pickup patterns and are arrayed in an X-Y configuration. The other two are a widely spaced pair of omni-directional pickups. In addition, XLR/TRS combo jacks can be used to receive signals from dynamic microphones, phantom-powered condenser microphones or line-level signals. Alternatively, a 1/8-inch stereo miniature jack can be used for external input. At sample rates ranging from 44.1 kHz/16-bit all the way to 96 kHz/24-bit, six-channel recordings with all four internal mics plus a stereo input are possible.

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The build quality of the R-26 is sturdy. The large LCD touchscreen offers an onboard graphic waveform editor, allowing trims and fades to be performed in a way that will be pleasantly familiar to DAW users. The smooth rotating controls allowed me to make adjustments during recording without noticeable noise being picked up. Other features include a 1/8-inch mini jack for headphones, a built-in speaker, an SDHC card slot, and a 4-pin miniature B-Type USB connector, which can be used for transfers or to make the R-26 an interface. Using the included drivers, the R-26 acts as an I/O device compatible with Pro Tools 9, PreSonus StudioOne, Nuendo, Apple Logic and most other popular DAWs. A copy of SONAR LE is included.

I was truly impressed by the quality of the recorded sounds when using the onboard mics. Whether the low-end resonance of a train horn or the low-frequency waveforms that developed when stomping in an empty warehouse, the bottom end was excellent. The mic pre’s also worked very well with external mics.

I did a shootout sourcing a vocal through an Audio-Technica AT4071a into the R-26 pre’s, the DR-40 pre’s, and through a Sound Devices USBPre2 connected to the analog inputs of the R-26, and then the DR-40. The Sound Devices took the win, sounding remarkable through the A/D converters on either unit. The R-26 performed relatively similarly in the low to low-mid frequency range, however losing a slight amount of detail and sounding a bit muffled in the upper midrange. The DR-40 lost some low-end, performed respectably in the upper-midrange, but in the highest frequencies displayed a slightly “digital-sounding” garbling seeming to be the result of clocking and A/D inaccuracies. Also, in the top end, each device had varying degrees of slight hissy noise, but it seemed most pronounced in the R-26. When recording something as loud as a train, this was not noticeable at all. When recording nature ambience, this was apparent in recordings from both the built-in mics and the mic pre’s. Regardless, I still found the overall character of the analog front end to be superior in tonal quality to the DR-40, and in all ways preferable to what I’ve heard from the Zoom H4n.

Especially for the price, the analog front end was more than useable. With a rugged, professional look and feel, audio interface option, impressive sound quality and a mile-long list of features, the R-26 could easily sell at a much higher price tag. Given its retail price under $500, I could see the R-26 becoming a go-to recorder for serious professionals.

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