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Nagra SD solid state recorder

Richard Mudhar

The Nagra SD recorder is a solid state field recorder, recording onto removable SD cards. When used with the Nagra plug-in microphone on the top, it functions as an all-in one handheld recorder. In that mode it's a fabulous little recorder, showing some of the legendary Nagra performance compared to typical all-in one recorders like the Olympus LS10/11 or the Zoom H4n. Some of this engineering precision is in the attention to detail. For instance, unlike many recorders you don't have to worry about overloading the input on the SD - if you can get the signal within full-scale (ie the peak indicator doesn't light) then the preamp stages aren't overloading. The tactile feel of this product is also much more in keeping with the Nagra of the precision tape recorders. The metal case, the density, the quality of the switches on that back, all add up to the jewel-like Nagra feel. Nagra quality does, of course, also come at somewhat of a premium. The RRP of the SD is £599 excl VAT and the green band mic is £160 excl VAT, prices as of Summer 2011.

By detaching the microphone the Nagra SD also works as a fine SD card recorder, with the line and microphone inputs revealed at the top where the microphone fitted beforehand.

Nagra Kudelski has a long and distinguished history of manufacturing fine tape recorders which were coveted by previous WSRS generations.  A solid-state recorder has no moving parts so it does not demand the precision mechanical engineering that earned the company its reputation in the past, but the heritage shows in other ways. As a handheld go-anywhere, when used with Nagra's green band stereo microphone the results were very noticeably clearer in stereo definition, more discriminating against off-axis and rearward sound and very much lower noise than my Olympus LS-10 using the internal microphones.   

Nagra SD recorder
Nagra SD  Photo: Nagra

The recorder is small, and fits easily into the palm of the hand. The overall feel of the recorder is better than some of Nagra's earlier small solid-state recorders, and the case has a metal shell. A large monochrome LED display shows the key parameters of the recording, and as one would expect from Nagra the metering is responsive and well-designed. Record level control is via the up-down buttons at the left, monitor volume is by the up/down controls at the right. As supplied the Nagra is exceptionally sensitive and set up for dynamic mics. The electret or capacitor mics used by most wildlife sound recordists would typically be better suited to the Mic-Low sensitivity setting

The control structure is typically Nagra - better than many in that  the stop recording button is a different button from the start recording. This recorder has a 3 second preroll buffer than can be selected from the menu, which is a very useful feature for wildlife sound recordists, particularly when using an external microphone.

Another feature that may have uses in wildlife sound recording is the voice-activated recording, where the machine can be set to start recording for a predetermined period after the input signal has exceeded a defined threshold.

Reducing the record sensitivity showing an increasing number on the control display, which is opposite to the way most other recorders display this (it is indicating the level for recording 0dBFS, which corresponds to the highest sound pressure level at the lowest gain sensitivity.)

A new touch is a range of switches on the back of the machine, which can be used to quickly select AGC or manual gain, high or low recording quality templates, LF filter on and hold. The parameters setting high or low quality can be set in the menu structure - wildlife sound recordists might select WAV 44.1kHz stereo as low and 96kHz stereo as high, for instance. A range of MP3 compressions is available if desired. Most wildlife sound recordists will stick with manual gain and WAV file formats.

This generally tightens up the ergonomics and makes the recorder easier to use in the field, provided the LED display is set to display at all times - unlike a back lit LCD display once the display has dimmed there is nothing on the display. Pressing any of the buttons brings the display back, and the dimming time can be controlled from the menu, or switched to permanently on.

Sound Quality

Nagra SD with mic and foam windshield
Nagra SD with foam windshield

The Nagra SD plus the Nagra green band microphone is an excellent handheld mic/recorder combination, the performance is a cut above most fully integrated solid state recorders with internal microphones, particularly in the aspects of clarity and low noise, the latter of particular interest to wildlife sound recordists. 

The supplied foam windshield was adequate for a very low breeze (<5mph), but for typical outdoor conditions it would need to be augmented by some sort of Rycote fur. The Rycote mini windjammer is reported as being a good match, though this combination was not tested.

This outstanding performance is of course a combination of both the recorder and the Nagra green band plug in microphone. If used on its own with a separate microphone than the SD is of course a very good low-noise recorder with 3.5mm unbalanced inputs, however other machines can also perform well with 3.5mm unbalanced external mics. 

Features

The machine starts up quickly (about 5 seconds) and has a good mix of features for the wildlife sound recordist using unbalanced microphones that are self-powered or can use the 3V plug-in-power. The input is via a 3.5mm stereo unbalanced jack, though Nagra can supply an adaptor cable to XLRs. Note that the XLR adapter cable is a straight connector interface, it will not provide P48 powering, though a separate P48 battery power unit can of course be used with the adapter cable.

The mic preamps have a low enough noise and plenty of headroom  (if the signal doesn't light the peak LED the preamps haven't clipped, which is more than can be said for some solid-sate recorders) to work well with capacitor mics of the type typically used by wildlife sound recordists, like the Sennheiser ME series. A low frequency rolloff can be set to improve resistance to wind noise. A one or three-second preroll buffer can be set, which is invaluable to capture the start of a call.

Data is transferred off the machine via the mini-USB connector on the side - when connected to a PC it acts as removeable storage containing the recordings. When a USB cable is plugged in, the Nagra SD asks whether this is to be used for power of for data access. This was tested using a 12V laptop inverter with a USB 5V iPod charge outlet, it is possible to power the Nagra SD externally while recording. It might be possible to assemble a external battery pack, though the 10hr battery life from a pair of AA cells is respectable enough for most people's needs.

Like many solid-state recorders the Nagra is menu driven, the display has good visibility except in bright sunlight. Operational controls are button-accessible once the machine has been set up using the menu system.

The machine itself has no integral tripod socket, however the leatherette case supplied has a tripod thread plate on the back that takes a regular photographic tripod 1/4" Whitworth screw.

I found that hand muscle noises got through to the recording at high gains if holding the machine bare, but using the leatherette case vastly improved this, and hand-held recordings were acceptable with this. This probably varies from person to person. With the case fitted, some of the switches at the back panel are covered up, though a flap on the case makes an acceptable compromise.

Recordings


Dunwich Forest July morning birdsong

These aren't to the standard of entries to the Sound Magazine, they are of open fields of the Fynn Valley in Suffolk in July, with some birds hawking insects. A diesel train first passes behind the recorder, which was placed on a rise next to an Olympus LS10 recording at the same time, using its internal microphones

The first recording shows the Nagra with green band mic.


Nagra SD, green band microphone.


Olympus LS10, internal microphones


Grasshoppers or similar insects. Recorded @96kHz The MP3 doesn't support that bit-rate so you would need to listen to the WAV, on a sonogram there seems to be some response above 20kHz from the internal mic, and some residual HF tones.

Technical Measurements

Settings - Microphone input, gain 74 (max) sampling rate 44.1kHz Source impedance 150Ω accuracy +/- 1.5dB

Unit serial no. 7000515859082
Hardware Ver 1.2
Software Ver 1.2.128.2

Sensitivity

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -71dBu  (mic sens set to High)

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -54dBu  (mic sens set to Low)

Noise

Ein = -103dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW, mic sens set to High)

Ein (A) = -105dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, mic sens set to High)

Ein = -105dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW, mic sens set to Low)

Ein (A) = -109dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, , mic sens set to Low)

Overload (Mic input, 1000Hz tone)

At mic sens set to High Vmax = 30mVrms (corresponds to 0dBFS at the lowest gain of 118)

At mic sens set to Low Vmax = 230mVrms (corresponds to 0dBFS at the lowest gain of 118)

This is an exemplary result - if the peak LED isn't on you aren't overloading the preamps,

Plug-In-Power

Switchable from switch on back

Open-circuit voltage = 3V

Source resistance = 2.2k (inferred from PiP drops to 1.5V into 2.2k)

Dimensions

(W x H x D), 63 x 102 x 25 mm (without case and ext mic)

Weight incl batteries and SD card 254g

Conclusion

This is a lovely little recorder/mic pairing for sound recordists who do not require P48 power or balanced inputs, the Nagra has a good noise performance and operational convenience. The detachable mic makes this more versatile than the more usual fixed internal mic configuration. Wind protection is always an issue with integral mics, and some sort of Rycote furry windshield would help, as otherwise successful performance seems limited to light breezes of less than about 5mph. You really have to use this recorder with the Nagra green band mic to get the full advantage of this as an all-in-one handy recorder.

If you're mainly using the recorder with external microphones, then you probably want to compare the Nagra with other 3.5mm unbalanced recorders like the Edirol R09Hr, Olympus LS10/11/7 or the Zoom H4n But if you want a superlative handheld recorder with integral microphone (although detachable) then the Nagra SD is hard to beat, and the quality of the green band microphone sets this combination  apart from the typical integral microphones on solid state card recorders.

Review date: July 2011

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