An Essential — and Inexpensive — Tool to Address a Variety of Sound Situations
Recently, I was called in to record radio commercials for a number of different stations. The agency handed me a first-generation digital recorder that was about a decade old. It was archaic. It had 1/8-inch inputs, one VU meter for both channels, and no markings to tell you what the level actually is. It was almost like flying blind, even while listening to it. Most of what I recorded turned out to be a bit low in volume, but I was able to bring it up in editing. I told the agency guy I never wanted to use it again and looked for a new device. Having used and reviewed the Tascam DR-100 a couple of years back, I knew that one was good, but the newer DR-40 looked to have more features than the DR-100 at a much lower price. For the next month's commercials, I had the DR-40. It was like going from a Ford Pinto to a Boss Mustang.
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Let's take a look at whats on the outside of the DR-40. Starting at the bottom, there are two combo XLR 1/4-inch pro audio jacks. Moving up on the front there is a “navigation wheel,” made up of 9 buttons, that allows you to move through the extensive menus to change system settings. Above that are the transport controls, and solo buttons for channels 1–2 and 3–4, along with a record mode button. On the left side there is a 1/8-inch jack for headphones or line out. Next to it is a switch that sets the XLR inputs for line, mic, or mic + phantom power. To the right of that is the “hold” switch that, when set, will keep you from accidentally stopping the recording. At the far right is the manual input level, in the form of up and down buttons. On the right side there is a door for loading an SD card (a 2 GB card is included in the box), and a USB 2 port for connecting to a computer for power or file transfers. On the back, there is a compartment for installing three AA batteries. And on top are two built-in high-quality microphones that can be moved to an X or Y pattern.
My first test for the DR-40 was another Toyota commercial for L.A.'s “world famous” KROQ alternative rock station. While I probably could have gotten away with using the DR-40's internal microphones, it would have been to difficult to hold between the two people speaking and control the audio levels. To maintain better control over the situation, I used a couple of vocal mics on table stands, going into a Samson Mixpad-4 compact four-channel mixer and then into the DR-40. By going into the mixer first, you have more tactile control over the record levels. The controls on the unit, while responsive, aren't the same as the control you get with a mixer. Considering I was working with one professional voice actress and a car sales manager, I needed as much control as possible. Because the take's levels varied so much, I was glad I was using the dual record with the lower level set at -12 dB. Everything turned out great. Not only was I happy but, after looking over the DR-40, the voice actress and the radio station rep said they were going to buy it for their own projects.
My next test was a musical performance. There was a cantor/opera singer putting on a performance for a local synagogue. In this case, I took the XLR feed off the board and placed the unit so the built-in mics would pick up the instruments. I mixed the DR-40 four-channel recording with the mic feed I recorded in the camera and the camera's mic. The sound quality was astounding. I was so impressed I was inspired to mix a CD from the mix I did for the video, and threw it in to the grateful client.
The next test was a lecture where the venue's audio system was not reliable. As a backup, I placed the DR-40 on the podium using the on-board microphones. The sound was predictably wonderful. In editing, after having gotten the camera sound and the DR-40 in perfect sync, I noticed the audio drifting out of sync again around the 30-minute mark. I solved the problem by snipping a few frames of “dead air” out of the DR-40's audio and re-syncing to the camera. This happened again 30 minutes later. Needing to get to the bottom of this, I checked in with Tascam. They said that it had to do with the DR-40's timing crystal, which would keep sync up to a point but ultimately drift. That's a common shortcoming of most digital recorders on the market, with the exception of units that can take an external time sync, like Tascam's HS-P82 8-channel field recorder ($3600). The DR-40 was designed for short takes on film projects where you stop every few minutes. In cases like that, it will keep perfect sync. For recording music or radio, keeping in sync is obviously not a problem. If it is a problem for you as a DSLR user, Tascam recommended the newer and more expensive DR-60D ($350), which was made to connect to DSLRs and stay in sync with video of much longer lengths.
In conclusion, I love the DR-40. It is an amazingly rugged, flexible, and high quality audio recorder that should be in every videographer or audio tech's tool box. With a street price under $200, there is no excuse not to have one. The features blow away all of the competition at the same price. If high quality audio and flexibility are important to you, the DR-40 audio recorder was made for you. I highly recommend it.