Hands-On Review:Korg MR-1 and MR-1000 Mobile Recorders
What was lost is now found
By Darius Van Rheuhl
We define music as sound organized in time. Kind of hard to hold onto—random noises evaporating in time, yet our music defines us. It brings order to chaos by marking out the significant events in our lives, walks us through the hard times, and grants us direct access to thoughts and feelings we may have forgotten—kind of magical, really. It’s unfortunate that we trust moments that will never come again to the short-lived and ever-changing whims of technology. If you stored music in a PC in 1998, chances are it’s already lost to a downed hard drive, CD rot, or saved to a medium that your present or next computer couldn’t read with bifocals and a magnifying glass.
What does any of this have to do with the Korg MR-1 and MR-1000? As Sylvester Stallone once said, "Yo … you’re the disease, and I’m the cure." (Well said, Sly.) Korg’s MR series digital recorders take advantage of a technology that grants your music much longer life and greater accuracy than any other recording device presently available. I’m talking about super-high-resolution 1-bit recording. Only the Korg MR series recorders have it—and your last name doesn’t have to start with "G" and end with "ates" in order to afford one. In fact, due to its expense, DSD recording and archiving was the sole province of record companies and world-class mastering studios—until now.
One bit of theory
It sounds odd that 1-bit recording is the cutting edge, especially since 24-bit is touted as Hollywood’s latest "bit girl." But before we discuss what makes the MR-1/1000 so extraordinary, it’s vital to understand that in digital audio, nothing is more important than data conversion. Once an audio waveform has been converted into a digital word, the sonic quality and character of that sound are set forever. A digital word is a fixed number of binary digits (1, 0) or bits and once written into memory, nothing can change the sound of a digital word. Therefore, accuracy in A/D conversion is the ultimate defining factor of sound quality. Everything else is just math—and the less arithmetic in-between input, conversion, and output, the better the sound.
It’s okay to cut math
In sampling to a 24-bit format, most quality converters start with a 1-bit data stream and then convert to the 24-bit format. A number of filters and mathematical processes are employed between A/D and D/A conversion, not to mention the additional sample-rate and bit-depth conversion, dropped bits, filters, and added noise (dither) when downsampling to the 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution of CDs. The 1-bit/2.8Mhz and 1-bit/5.6Mhz resolution of the MR-1 and MR-1000 respectively, eliminate the need for all of those filters (which do have an effect on sound quality). In short, what goes into an MR is precisely what comes out.
With the MR-1, Korg has made it easy and affordable to engage in super high-quality mobile recording or archiving. It can operate on rechargeable batteries with a settable energy save mode, or via a provided power supply. An internal 20GB hard drive gives you six hours of 1-bit recording (using AC power) and up to 20 hours at 16-bit/44.1kHZ. The MR-1 also allows you to record at 16/24-bits with sample rates of 48kHz, 96kHz, or 192kHz. File formats include WAV, BWF, and three types of 1-bit formats. Moving on, the MR-1 features play list operation, as well as an onboard limiter and an auto record-level function that compensates for dramatic changes in dynamics. (Electronic news gatherers [ENG] will love that one.) A truly nice touch for ENG or recording long programs is the ability to insert up to 100 locate points during the recording.
Editing and format conversion are accomplished via the included AudioGate software for Mac and PC, which allows you to play back 1-bit files using your computer’s audio hardware. It also does DC offset removal, gain control, and fade in/out. Just connect via the supplied USB cable (USB 2.0) and the MR-1 appears on your desktop as a hard drive. From there, it’s just drag and drop.
With the MR-1’s internal organs and nervous system pretty well mapped out, let’s talk about what’s on the surface. Apart from its sleek silver exterior’s good looks, mobile recordists will be happy to know that the controls of the MR-1 pass the pudgy-finger test. For all who wrestle with the increasingly diminutive incarnations of electronics, you’ll be relieved to know that there’s plenty of space between transport buttons, which are stylish little half-moons (flat side down of course), plus, the on-off, menu, and volume buttons are cleverly designed to be accessible when needed and out of harm’s way when not. I/O includes dual-balanced mini plug inputs, a stereo mini plug output, and a mini plug headphone out. Visual feedback comes by way of a backlit LCD screen, and all functions of the MR-1 are accessible while it’s housed in an included carrying case.
I’ll see your MR-1 and raise you a grand
The MR-1000 Mobile Recorder ups the ante with 1-bit/5.6MHz resolution (twice the Direct Stream Digital standard), which preserves all the transients, nuances, and "air" from your original recording. As opposed to the dual, balanced mini-jacks of the MR-1, you’ll find balanced XLR/TRS input combo jacks plus balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA on the way out. There’s also a USB 2.0 port, +48V phantom power, and limiter and gain switches on the back panel (set via the menu on the MR-1). In contrast to the MR-1, the MR-1000’s front panel offers standard-size transport buttons, peak LEDs, plus record and headphone output level controls. A 40GB internal drive delivers six hours of 1-bit/5.6448MHz recording and up to 60 hours at CD quality.
Worthy of special note are the converters taking up residence in the MR-1000. On the way in, you have the 1-bit-capable Burr-Brown PCM4202, which is highly respected in the audio community as a performance leader (also used in high-quality audio analyzers), and on the way out, digital words pass through a Cirrus Logic CS4398 stereo DAC. The CS4398 defines a new standard for sound quality in the industry. It features a Direct Stream Digital (DSD) processor that includes a volume control engine that does not decimate the data stream. The native sampling rate and integrity of the DSD data format are therefore preserved. Like we said, the less arithmetic the better.
Personally, I’m hooked on the MR-1000. Whether it’s for archiving your music precisely as mixed, audiophile stereo recording in and out of the studio, or two-track mixdown prior to mastering, no studio should be without one. In case I didn’t make myself quite clear enough, let me repeat that: NO STUDIO SHOULD BE WITHOUT ONE! Here’s why: You get the best possible two-track mastering available at a stupid cheap price; you can mix direct from your DAW or through an analog summing mixer without having to worry if you can’t afford high-end converters in order to get superb fidelity; you can archive to the best available digital format and convert to any multibit format for mastering, or simply send the 1-bit file to a mastering studio and let them have at it with their Genex, Sonoma, or Pyramix workstations. As a stereo tracking device, you can’t go wrong—and you’ll be stunned by the sound quality. Did I mention how much you’ll enjoy listening to your music, as will others should you release your music on SACD? I know I should save all that for my conclusion, but I have a hard time containing my enthusiasm for this machine. (Call me a Korg lackey all you want. My vindication will come after you hear one.)
Testing 1, 1, 1 …
While the MR-1 offers a number of sampling and playback options, I decided to limit myself to the 1-bit format. Also, since I didn’t have the ability to go out and record a live concert, I devised a couple of tests that would tell me the whole story. I have two sets of professional monitors in my studio. Both are made by very well-respected manufacturers. Basically, I played different types of program material through the different monitors and recorded with the MR-1’s included stereo electret condenser mic placed in various locations around the room. The mic is remarkably sensitive. It had no trouble picking up the fan noise of my computer, which happens to be in an iso-box.
The program material was a song I’m working on with a lot of dynamic variation and a television show with a noisy soundtrack and lots of sound effects moving in the stereo field. In a nutshell, with the mic placed between the speakers, I found myself constantly checking the computer monitor to see if the song-sequence or show was running. It was that accurate. In fact, I had no problem telling which monitors were used in any given test. I hope you understand the implications of that. If not, I’ll spell it out. That little condenser managed to preserve the overall timbral quality of my monitors as well as the stereo imaging. Guitars that were hard-panned left and right on the sequence came out hard-panned left and right on the MR-1. Footsteps moving left to right on the television show moved left to right in the MR-1’s playback. The only time I heard an obvious difference was in changing the mic’s placement. At that point, I could easily hear the effects of the room.
Next, I recorded direct. The MR-1 lets you switch between line and mic (which has +3V phantom power). I was a little dubious, since I had to use adapters to go from my interface to the mini-jack I/O of the MR-1. Moment of truth: Upon playback of the direct recording, I could hear no difference between what came out of my interface and the MR-1. There was no way to tell which was running at any given time other than knowing which one I had turned on (before you protest, these ears were trained at Juilliard and that should count for something). I honestly don’t have enough exclamation points in stock to tell you how impressed I am with this unit and its sound quality. In fact, I brought it into work and made everybody listen. Meanwhile, I’ll be asking Korg for a commission—I’ve sold at least three of them (actually, the MR-1 pretty much sold itself).
It’s essentially this …
Having to wade through a sea of me-too products in order to find the one piece of gold is part and parcel of pro audio. However, every once in a while, gold washes up on the shore, glistening in the sun, announcing itself as an indispensable studio tool—and the Korg MR series is just that, essential for anyone that has or wants to have anything to do with recording ranging from amateur to professional. Whether you’re recording junior’s first recital; a lecture; band rehearsal; podcast; sketching a song; or field recording, the MR-1 is your best bet. The same holds true if you’re a broadcast journalist for a major network or conducting the New York Philharmonic and want a stunning reference recording of a recent performance at Avery Fisher Hall.
For those engaged in audiophile recording who follow Mr. Rupert Neve’s philosophy (excellent mics going direct as possible into the highest-quality capture device), make no mistake, the MR-1 and MR-1000 Mobile Recorders fill the bill. In fact, for those whose music comprises singing and or playing an instrument, forget about paying for a $2000-a-day studio. Just make sure you’ve got excellent mics, a good room, and you’re all set—ready for the majors. Meanwhile, if Korg comes out with a multitrack version, it’ll do to DAWs what the ADAT did to analog tape recorders.
If your credits read like a who’s who of music and you want a ridiculously affordable way of archiving your work for mastering, posterity, or eventual re-release in other formats, you’ll want the MR-1000, no question. (When the record label sends degraded master tapes, you can wow them with your forensic genius and charge more.) Even if you’re a hobbyist, band, project studio, or do-it-yourselfer, this is the best way to archive your music. In fact, Sony Music is using the DSD format to archive their extensive catalog of historic recordings, plus, the Producers and Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy acknowledges DSD’s high resolution as "future-proof."
As I said, for anyone and everyone who has anything to do with recorded music, either the Korg MR-1 or MR-1000 are essential possessions—and the price? No extra math there either.