Recording on the Go

A guide to portable multitracks
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Sometimes a computer running DAW software is too much aggravation, especially when you step outside the controlled environment of a recording studio. For field or live recording, you need the ability to plug in and press record—not to worry about routing tracks, navigating a rat’s nest of cable, or running a 50-foot AC cable through the bathroom window. Electronic Musician surveyed audio manufacturers for the latest in multitrack recording on the go and divided them into two categories: field units and “tabletop” models designed for plug, arm, and record—no stereo recorders, no handheld ‘point and shoots,’ and no recorders with built-in mixers.

HOW FAST CAN YOU RUN?

When shopping for a dedicated recorder, look for a device that records audio at no less than the two “standard” sample rates of 44.1 and 48 kHz, with either 16- or 24-bit resolution. It’d be nice if the recorder runs at sample rates up to 192 kHz but in reality, you probably won’t need to record at 192 much, if at all. Note that some recorders sacrifice track count at higher sample rates so do your homework to find out if that is the case.

If your plans include capturing audio for video you may not need a high track count, but you will need to make sure that your recordings can sync to picture. Look for SMPTE timecode compatibility at a variety of frame rates and word clock I/O. A prerecord buffer that stores a few seconds of audio before you actually press Record can help make sure you don’t miss the start of a take. Most field recorders have at least two XLR mic inputs; it’d also be a good idea to have AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O because you don’t know what might come up in the field. Add bonus points for field recorders that employ more than one type of power supply and accommodate a backup.

I/O options on these devices vary wildly, ranging from a few XLR mic inputs to networking cards accommodating dozens of tracks. At least one or two multitrackers do not feature analog I/O of any kind. Knowing which console you plan to interface and whether it has compatible I/O helps ensure they’ll play nicely together in the sandbox. A headphone output is a must for auditioning tracks.

Almost all of these machines store data as WAV files and may provide the option to write “monophonic” or “polyphonic” WAVs. A monophonic WAV is the traditional WAV: one track of audio. A polyphonic WAV combines multiple audio tracks into a single file, making it easier to transport and share—but that file will need to be split out to the individual tracks if you want to import the tracks to a DAW. You may need file conversion software so find out if there is any hidden cost involved.

A very useful feature is the ability for the unit to function as a USB or FireWire DAW interface, allowing the recorder to do double duty when you are home. Other pluses include the ability to sync multiple units for increased track count, Ethernet connectivity, and access to iOS apps for remote operation.

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Field Recorders

ROLAND R-44

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Roland’s R-44 4-channel field recorder has onboard stereo microphones as well as locking Combo inputs with independent level control. The R-44 writes BWFs to SD or SDHC cards at a variety of sample rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz, with 16- or 24-bit depth (stereo only at 192 kHz). A pre-record function buffers audio input, so audio is actually written for a few seconds prior to pressing the Record button.

In addition to its mic/line inputs, the R-44 features S/PDIF I/O and four RCA line outputs. A variety of effects are built into the R-44, such as compression, limiting, lowcut filter and EQ. A USB port (Mini, type B) allows the R-44 to be connected to a computer for file transfer, and the unit may be powered using an external power supply or four AA batteries. Street price is $795.

ROLAND R-88

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Designed specifically with location recording and sound design in mind, Roland’s R-88 records eight tracks plus a stereo mix, with the ability to route the stereo output back to a camera for recording reference audio. Files are written as BWFs, with the option of recording poly WAV files. Supported sample rates range up to 96 kHz (four tracks at 192kHz/24-bit resolution).

Eight balanced XLR mic inputs have individually switched phantom power, and each input features a delay that is variable from 0.05 to 20 ms for surround mic applications. The R-88 can record to SDHC while simultaneously serving as a 10x8 USB interface for backup recording to a DAW, and provides AES/EBU digital and timecode I/O, and DC power input. It weighs less than six pounds, including eight AA batteries. Street price around $2,000.

SOUND DEVICES 633

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A six-input mixer with a 10-track recorder, the 633 from Sound Devices records mono or poly BWFs or MP3s with timecode metadata, and stores files to SD or CF cards. The 633 has three high-bandwidth mic/line inputs on XLRs with phantom power, highpass filter and input limiter, plus three line-level inputs on TA-3 connectors. The 633 features a unique Quad Power supply with PowerSafe technology: It can be powered via external DC (12-18 V), two removable lithium ion cells or six internal AA batteries, and automatically switches from one power supply to another when one is exhausted or removed. When all power sources are removed or depleted, the 633’s PowerSafe circuitry keeps it operating for up to 10 seconds to ensure a safe shutdown. Street price is $3,995 including CS-633 Bag, 3x XL-2F Cable, 2x XL-2 Cable, XL-LB2 Cable, 2x XL-B2 batteries, and 16GB CF/SD Card.

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SOUND DEVICES 744T AND 788T

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The 744T and 788T are portable multitrack machines designed for production audio. Both units store files to internal hard drive, external FireWire drive, or CF card. Powered by standard camcorder batteries, the 744T and 788T write uncompressed mono or poly BWFs at sample rates from 32 to 192 kHz with 16- or 24-bit resolution. Sync capabilities include word clock I/O from 32 to 200 kHz, timecode reader/generator with rates of 23.976, 24, 25, 29.97DF, 29.97, 30, and 30DF, an ultra-stable crystal clock generator, and Broadcast Wave and iXML metadata TC stamp in WAV and FLAC file formats. Files may also be recorded as MP3 stereo files at 64, 128, 192, 256, or 320 kb/s.

The 744T records four tracks via two XLR inputs that may be switched to accept analog mic or AES/EBU digital signals, plus two line-level inputs on balanced TA-3s. Mic inputs feature Sound Devices’ high performance, low-noise preamp with 48-volt phantom, adjustable highpass filter, peak limiter, and polarity reverse. Two BNC jacks accept S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital input. Analog audio output is available via a pair of balanced TA-3s, or from a 3.5mm headphone jack with level control.

Designed for similar applications, the 788T is a 12-track recorder with eight analog mic/line inputs (four XLR, four TA-3). AES3 inputs are provided via DB15, and clock input may be accepted from any pair of AES inputs. Four TA-3 balanced analog line and two unbalanced analog outputs (1/8-inch TRS) enable a user to route individual tracks when necessary. For critical applications, the 788T has the ability to record to any or all of the media simultaneously. The 788T does not record MP3, but has the ability to play MP3 files at a variety of rates. Street prices: 744T: $4,549; 788T: $6,589 or $6,849 with internal 250GB SSD.

TASCAM HS-P82

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Tascam’s HS-P82 is capable of recording eight individual tracks plus a stereo mix track. Intended for use in TV and film production, the HSP82’ s eight XLR mic inputs feature phantom power, highpass filter, analog limiting, and a very low noise rating (-125 dB, EIN). A DB25 port carrying eight AES/EBU digital I/Os may also be used for audio I/O. Audio files are written onto two CF cards as BWFs up to 192 kHz/24-bit (8 tracks at 96 kHz/24-bit; 4 tracks at 192 kHz/24-bit), and may be simultaneously recorded to both cards for redundancy. Stored files embed iXML metadata for easy transfer to a wide variety of audio or video editing systems, and files may be transferred using the HS-P82’s USB port.

Power options include an AC adapter (included), external DC, or an optional V-Mount battery adapter. A battery tray holding ten AAs is included for emergency operation. Additional features include a TFT color touchscreen, five-second prerecord buffer, Mid-Side decoding, SMPTE and word clock I/O, and an internal slate microphone. Street price: $2,399.

ZOOM F8

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The F8 from Zoom is an 8-track field recorder intended for sound design and film use. Audio is recorded as 16- or 24-bit BWAVs at standard sample rates up to 192 kHz. The F8 can also record MP3 files with bit rates of 128, 192, or 320 kbps. Two SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots are provided, and the F8 can write simultaneously to both cards for redundancy or split recordings. A pre-record function allows capturing six seconds of audio prior to pressing the Record button.

Analog inputs are eight locking combo jacks with preamps providing up to 75 dB of gain. Phantom power (24 or 48 V) can be individually switched for each input. Main stereo outs are on TA-3s along with 1/4-inch and 1/8-inch stereo headphone jacks. The F8 can be powered using eight internal AA batteries, 9-16 volt DC external battery packs, or a 12-volt AC adapter (included). The F8 is the first field recorder to employ Bluetooth LE protocol, enabling it to run the Zoom F8 Control iOS app for comprehensive wireless remote control via iOS devices. Street price is around $1,100.

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ALLEN & HEATH ICE-16

As its name implies, Allen and Heath’s ICE-16 records 16 tracks of audio to USB flash or hard drive. The ICE-16’s front panel includes dedicated transport controls, signal present and peak LED indicators per channel, and monitor select buttons for quick eavesdropping on any of the 16 channels via the unit’s front-panel headphone output. Audio is recorded as WAVs at 44.1/48 kHz with 16- or 24-bit resolution.

Rear-panel analog I/O is via RCA and 1/4-inch TRS, with the option for D-Sub I/O connectors (ICE-16D). The unit performs double duty as a USB or FireWire audio interface for your DAW; ASIO and WDM compliance ensures communication with the major DAW programs. Sync jacks permit daisy-chaining of multiple units for increased track count, and virtual sound checks are possible by patching the ICE-16’s outputs back to the analog inputs of a mixing console. Street price is $995 for the ICE-16 and $1,199 for the ICE-16D.

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CYMATIC AUDIO UTRAC K 24

Packaged in a single rack space, Cymatic’s uTrack 24 functions as a standalone 24-track recorder and doubles as a 24x24 DAW interface. Audio is stored onto external drives (Cymatic recommends traditional hard drives for best results) in multichannel WAVs at samples rates up to 96 kHz with 16-or 24-bit resolution. Cymatic offers a free application called uTool which converts these files into separate mono WAVs. Rear-panel analog audio I/O is on DB25s wired to the Tascam pinout standard. A separate stereo monitor output can be used to feed a pair of monitors when the uTrack 24 is used as a 24x24 USB audio interface for your DAW.

Front-panel features include 24 three-color LEDs indicating signal level per channel, and the display can be switched to show a single channel across all LEDs for fine resolution metering. An internal mixer provides a stereo mix via front-panel headphone jack as well as the aforementioned monitor outs. Word clock I/O, USB, and network and MIDI output (for SMF playback) are standard, and Cymatic offers a MADI option card with co-ax and optical connectors. Street price: $1,000.

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CYMATIC AUDIO LR-16

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Cymatic Audio’s LR-16 is a 16-track recorder built for fast, easy use. Sixteen analog line inputs are provided on 1/4-inch TRS insert-style jacks, enabling the LR-16 to be patched into the TRS channel inserts of any mixer without interrupting the default signal flow of the mixer channels. The LR-16’s tabletop chassis includes transport controls, navigation buttons and an LCD display. Sample rates are 44.1 or 48 kHz with 16- or 24-bit resolution.

A USB port allows the LR-16 to function as a 16x2 USB audio interface with zero-latency hardware monitoring, compliant with Mac OSX, Windows or iOS 5 or higher. As a bonus it can function as a Mackie Control and MMC Transport Control for your DAW. The LR-16 records to USB flash drives or USB 2.0 hard drives, in which case the LR-16 can furnish power for the external drive.

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JAMHUB TRACKER MT16

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Reviewed in the November 2014 issue of Electronic Musician, the Tracker MT16 from JamHub is a very compact device that records 16 tracks of WAV or MP3 audio to SD card or USB hard drive. The Tracker MT16 accepts audio through its TRS inputs or JamHub port, allowing direct connection to a JamHub studio. An interesting feature of the Tracker MT16 is onboard WiFi and Ethernet which—along with enabling the unit to automatically download firmware updates—facilitates file sharing via TrackerConnect.com. Once the files have been transported they can be shared by musicians or imported into a DAW. The Tracker MT16 can record 16 tracks at 96 kHz to an external drive but there is a six-track limit when recording at 96 kHz onto SD card. The Tracker MT16 sells for $400.

JOECO BLACKBOX BBR1

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Several years ago the JoeCo Blackbox recorder sort of ignited renewed interest in standalone, digital multitrack recorders. The Blackbox can record 24 tracks of audio at sample rates up to 96 kHz/24-bit, and multiple Blackbox units can be linked for applications requiring a higher track count. Audio is recorded to external USB2 hard drive or USB2 flash drive. The BBR1 is available with a variety of I/O configurations including balanced or unbalanced DB25s, Lightpipe or AES/EBU digital I/O. Recently JoeCo announced two new variants of the BBR1: the BBR64 Dante and BBR64 MADI recorders, both of which are capable of recording and playing 64 channels of audio via Dante network or MADI interface, respectively. Street prices range from $1,995 for the BBR1 to $3,995 for the BBR MADI.

TASCAM DA-6400 AND HS4000

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Packing more tracks into a single rackspace than you can shake a drumstick at, the DA-6400 from Tascam writes BWAVs (64 tracks at 44.1 or 48 kHz/24-bit, or 32 tracks at 88.2 or 96 kHz/24-bit) to an internal 240 GB SSD held in a removable, hot-swappable drive carrier. This drive caddy (AK-CC25) includes a USB3 jack for standalone use, facilitating file transfer to DAWs. A color LCD on the front panel provides track metering with peak indication, and shows timecode and clock status, and elapsed and remaining recording time.

Two rear-panel expansion slots accept a variety of audio I/O cards including a MADI card with optical and co-ax I/O, and a Dante networking card. Other than a headphone jack, there is no analog I/O built into the DA-6400. Sync connections include video/word clock I/O, SMPTE time code I/O, RS-422 and Ethernet ports. For critical applications the DA-6400 is available with dual redundant power supplies. Street prices start around $3,500.

Tascam’s HS4000 is a rackmount 4-track recorder capable of simultaneous recording to two CF cards for redundancy. The HS4000 writes up to four tracks at 96 kHz/24-bit, and can provide confidence monitoring (file playback while recording) when recording in stereo. Files are stored as BWAVs and can include a timestamp derived from a SMPTE source through the rear-panel time code I/O.

Analog I/O is via balanced XLRs with an extra set of outputs for monitoring. Four channels of audio may also be input via AES/EBU digital I/O. Additional rear-panel facilities include video/word clock I/O, Ethernet, remote transport control, RS-422 and parallel ports. Street price is around $5,400.