An Amazing Value In A True Multichannel Recorder!
Sugg. Retail: $999CAD/USD (Street $699 - $899USD)
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw advance notice of the DR-680 online, especially after seeing the price of its stable-mate, the $5000 HS-P82, for which you pay a helluva lot for timecode. Though the former’s list is just a thousand bucks, the feature and spec sheets read like a dream. And, just to clear things up, I call the 680 a 6-channel recorder because to achieve the claimed 8 simultaneous recording channels, you have to add an outboard ADC and DAC (more below). And while I’m in that space, it is not a “layering” multitrack, either, as we know them from right back to the analog days. With this TASCAM, you have to record your channels, 2, 4, 6, or 8 (augmented as noted) tracks all at once, creating a stereo WAV file, or linked ones for more channels. You cannot go back and add tracks, though, if you had two 680 s, you could do lossless track bouncing between them, as well as 12 simultaneous tracks, something I am currently considering as an option.
The key positive info about this recorder is that it will record 6 tracks at 96/24 resolution, and 2 at 192/24, if you’re feeling especially hair-shirt purist. This high resolution capability for 6 was what sold me on this machine. It’s just about the same size as my Edirol R-4 (now shakin’ in Shanghai, thanks to eBay), which served me well for a few years, but more versatile, not locked to a 40 GB hard disc, and allowing up to 32 GB SDHC cards, which I mainly used for outdoor recording at the cottage, along with a couple of 16 GB cards. All must be Class 4 or better, and, I’m told, data integrity is best assured by Class 10 cards, which better handle high speed/resolution data streams (see further thoughts below). In effect, it’s like having a small removable hard disc, but here we’re dealing with solid-state storage with no moving parts and selectable record lock against accidental erasure, so it’s altogether quite a bit better and safer than a hard disc mechanism, as well as more versatile for archival purposes. The only better portable storage medium might be a USB drive (I have a 250 GB that works on my new whiz-bang quadcore i7 PC), but they stick out rather than fitting right in, so we’ll be happy here with SDHC, and hope it will someday handle a 64 GB card. The DR-680 has 6 balanced microphone/line inputs, 4 of them XLR, and the other 2 TRS for space reasons on the left side panel. The switching of these is on top at left, an array of tiny toggles for input, Mic Gain, and Phantom. Transport controls can be a bit confusing, and even redundant, split between top right and front left panels - a careful reading of the manual is required here. Transport record controls are at front right, with play at top right, with Data and Value controls, placed respectively, interacting for settings of sampling rate, bit depth, and other important functions. The The large, illuminated Record and Pause buttons are at front panel right. In general, this is not an especially intuitive device, and may cause some user frustration during constant consultation with the excellent manual before mastery is achieved (and I’m stating this politely).
One special quirk I initially stumbled on (literally) was the Hold switch, just above the Standby/On button on top, which is also identical to the large array of function toggles at right, and beside the Input ones. Therefore, if you accidentally trigger the Hold toggle while setting inputs or trying to turn the recorder on or off, you immediately and completely (and inexplicably to a klutz like me) freeze all functions, which can be very frustrating when trying to quickly organize a recording session or live event setup. Functionally, I’ll take my NAGRA IV-S any day, but it doesn’t do what this baby can. Who ever thought you could put a high-resolution multichannel recording studio into a small camera case? But this is just what we’ve got in this little TASCAM wonder. It dices, it slices, it surrounds you with sound, and I have been doing just that at home since I came back from my island way up north. There, with stereo microphones on the south front rock, farther back from the lakeshore, in the woods, and behind the cottage on the north shore, with a shotgun on the roof also facing south like the 2 pairs out front, I had 9 channels to mix into 6, which I did with a handy dandy portable Behringer 1002B mixer (review imminent) taking 4 into the 680’s XLRs, and adding the 2 TRS inputs through an additional outboard 9-volt driven stereo mike preamp. It sounds a little complicated, perhaps, but once set up and tested for inter-channel coherence and naturalness by selecting various track configurations through the headphones, all ultimately worked out well. Unfortunately, the resulting recordings had more crows than loons, a pair of the former nesting near the cottage driving away most other birds, including our usually resident loons, for much of our just over 6 weeks there. A baby crow is much less interesting in its bleats than a pair or two of calling loons with their own young. But I will cull some good things from the 3 32 GB and 3 16 GB cards, though as I write, I’m not sure if it will be before Christmas of this year (2012).
Getting back to description, the DR-680 offers internal level and pan controls for each input, so you can mix in the recorder, though it is neither as easy nor quick as with a mixer, especially on the fly, and the controls are very small and complicated, which discourages shoulder-bag style recording of the sort many have done over the years with NAGRAs and other portable recorders. And with all these channels, it may be a portable studio, but not quite a peripatetic one. That’s what your ZOOM H2n is for.
It will also offer mid-side microphone encoding/decoding if you so wish, but I preferred to use the directly decoded stereo signal from my MS Shure VP-88 on the front channels, so all channels remained in symmetrical pairs for 6-channel surround. The recorder is powered by 8 AA batteries, which can be supplemented by 12 volts of clean DC, or with the provided AC power supply. Battery life is about 4 hours, and I used alkalines, first, because they’re cheap as borscht, and second, they are less fuss than rechargeables, which, frankly, I found a pain in the ass in this application, even with 8 excellent new Sanyo enerloop types. I do recycle my alkalines, of course (Thank you, Kenora, ON Walmart!). I also used my solar-sourced 12-volt DC power, as long as an AC inverter was not on in the cottage power system to cause buzz.
The line outs for the DR-680 are all RCAs, including the S/PDIF digital out for channels 7 and 8, which I did not use. I may do so at some point (and have a neat little portable ADC/DAC box), but encoding is limited to 48/24, so I thought, “Why bother?” I was also a bit concerned about latency, wondering if the timing of the different digital conversion chains might cause ultimate phase errors. That’s another reason that I call it a “6-channel” recorder. It is also theoretically possible that this digital input/output could be used with an outboard timecode generator, but all I can say to you film folks is, “Try it.”
This recorder also offers a 2-second pre-record feature (I’d prefer 5), has a single quick-monitoring speaker, and there are low-cut and limiting toggles provided for each input. Your SDHC cards can be shuttled to and from a computer for editing and assembly purposes, so i’ts a good idea to record the generated file numbers when recording and auditioning individual files, as a standard operational ID and safety procedure. The carrying strap is included, but a custom case is optional, and I chose to use my two favourite shoulder-carrying bags (the other for the mixer), made of “Corinthian leather”, as Ricardo Montalban used to say in those old Chrysler commercials. That’s my 6-channel studio (forgetting the also-necessary microphones, stands, and cables) in a pair of camera bags.
Returning to operational matters, there is a lot to digest from one of the most complete and informative operating manuals I have yet encountered. Among all the functional steps and details are charts that provide precise information about recording times with various capacity SDHC cards relative to the multitude of sampling frequencies, bit rates, and number of tracks. This is very helpful, information that would require a math PhD to calculate otherwise. But this full-page chart makes it all relatively easy to figure out for those of us who just want to know when we’ll run out of time on a particular card. And, I have found, it is possible to lose your whole card’s recordings (if in a single track) by letting it run out of time, so I recommend careful, frequent referrals to this guide when planning recordings, especially live ones where you may have to make a card swap at intermission.
Naturally, there is a clear inverse ratio between number of tracks, sampling/bit rates, and card capacity. One quickly realizes that 1, 2, and 4 GB cards are pretty much worth ignoring unless you’re into low resolution MP3 recording (but, then, why would you buy this recorder?), or doing commercial tracks for mixdown, something more suitable to an assembly-style multitrack (and TASCAM makes lots of these), most of which seldom surpass a 48 kHz sampling rate. And even there, sampling rate and bit depth are inevitably balanced with numbers of tracks and recording time, too.
Therefore, working with the DR-680 in its natural mode of recording high resolution multitrack really starts with 8 GB cards, which will give the recordist just over an hour of 96/24 6-track recording, with a 15-minute-or-so cushion. That usually handles each half of a classical music concert. The whole thing, however can be dealt with using a 16 GB card, which allows about 2 1/2 hours at the same recording settings. And a 32 GB card simply doubles these numbers, allowing for long studio sessions to be contained on one card, great for storage and reference purposes. And dropping the bit rate to 16 adds even more time with all these variously sized cards. Of course, don’t forget, these tiny SDHC cards are as easy to lose as to use, so when you go to store them, be careful to attach documentation, and precise time-logging, for later editing and other use. Consistent computer copying of each recorded card is an excellent and easy backup option for serious and professional recordists to consider, and will certainly smoothly pave the way for editing.
Another feature of the recorder which also affects recording time is the ability to simultaneously record on channels 7 & 8 an ad-hoc mix (which can be set up via its own internal mixing controls, and is done digitally, thus not needing the outboard ADC/DAC stages). Frankly, I’d rather have even the extra tracks, time, or resolution than a mix that is just as likely as not to be useless, but for live events it’s perhaps worth consideration as a safety, though, again, I’d judge the extra recording time to be more critical in just such situations.
And all these complex considerations bring us to the nub of the functionality of the TASCAM DR-680: it is a complex machine capable well beyond what its size and cost suggest. This means that it is also versatile with the potential of uses most of us will never imagine. For example, those who study bird, mammal, and undersea sounds will perhaps find the wide frequency response of this deck a prime consideration, with 48 kHz response available at the 96 K rate, and perhaps see the 96 K response extension at 192 kHz more valuable than all the extra channels might be. I invite scientifically inclined readers to offer us other such unusual uses for such a remarkable documentation tool as this.
And for those who practice such rigour, there is also a chart than can be downloaded from the web site that lists the operationally guaranteed SDHC cards that can be used without concern in the DR-680. As I noted earlier, we are dealing with fast transfer of high speed/resolution data, and the faster the card’s capabilities, the safer and more precise the data transfer (record/play process) will be. I’m sure this chart is regularly updated, and given the recent appearance of cards with speeds up to Class 10 and the concomitant progressive reduction in price of all such cards, my recommendation to any users of this (and other SDHC-based recorders like the aforementioned ZOOMs)), is to buy the fastest major brand name cards you can afford to ensure longterm data integrity. That said, I’ve had no problems with any cards above Class 4, (including such brands as SanDisk, Toshiba, Transcend, Kingston, Acumen, and Voigon), but the correlation between data rates and card speed cannot be ignored. You are warned.
If the DR-680 wasn’t quite a piece of cake operationally, sonically, it is superb, with all the detail and nuance you expect from a high resolution recorder, with dynamics to burn, and a noise floor you’ll never find. The microphone preamps are certainly quiet enough for outdoor use, but for music recording in a quiet place, the quietest outboard preamp or mixer available is necessary to get the best from this recorder. I wasn’t bothered by the unbalanced outs, though other pros might be, but then I’m used to working with a Stellavox AMI-48 at the front end, and its outputs to the the recorder aren’t balanced, either, though superbly quiet, clean, and musical. But my new, cheap Behringer 1002B is no slouch either with balanced outs in either XLR or TRS connection, and I used it all Summer, the AMI-48 needing (and waiting for) its periodic complete internal cleanup. I’ll say more in my 1002B review elsewhere, but 4 nearly discrete balanced channels can be coaxed out of the Behringer, while 5 fully discrete unbalanced tracks are available from the Stellavox, these also bypassing the additional output gain section of the latter mixer for greater sonic purity from its historically exceptional microphone preamps.
I also spent some time before going up North, copying 5-channel SACD audio material onto the DR-680 directly from the analog outputs of my player, a superb-sounding OPPO DV-980H, with what I can only call spectacular results. In this instance, I employed channel 3 as the centre, and 4 and 5 for surround, though with 6-channe live recording I’ve tended to the greater symmetry of 1/2 front, 3/4 sides, and 5/6 rear. All playback requires is a little jigging of the output cables, though some purists may huff a little at this.
With recordings having a fully discrete centre, like James Taylor’s Hourglass, released only briefly in SACD surround, and probably now a collector’s item (or should be), the superb separation, clarity and enormous dynamics (hear the rear-panned drum sequence on Little More Time With You, or the huge similar blast from behind in the climactic sequence of Gaia, and you’ll literally jump out of the listening chair, and it’s all transferred with utter faithfulness from SACD to SDHC audio format. I made up a very nice demo card (a good use for an 8 GB one), that also included some Brubeck, Take Five (discrete across front, rear too echoey and better heard in matrix mode), a tune from Michael McDonald’s Motown, some posthumously surround-mixed Ray Charles (Ray Sings - Basie Swings), also going to other hi-res surround formats, specifically, DVD-Audio for Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now), and to DTS HDS audio for Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth album. And, just to further pummel my captive surround audience into submission, I added more SACD slaughter in some amazing tracks with Bela Fleck and his digitally-gifted picker friends in a circle, only to be followed with finality by Dire Straits’ Money For Nothin’ in all its dynamically pounding fury. After that, I suppose, most listeners will want their MTV!
Through it all, the little TASCAM did its thing in a big way with utter clarity and fidelity. There was no need to ride levels or worry about compression or anything else - the complete dynamic and frequency range of all the music was completely conveyed, with no noise and fully accurate dynamics. No analog format can achieve this level of fidelity, and I doubt that any other $1000 recorder could either, regardless of the greater or lesser number of tracks. In sum, this 96/24 multitrack starts my audio engine and revs it to redline! And this was only underlined by a subsequent Classical compilation I put together on a 4 GB card, with the DOGMA Chamber Orchestra of Bremen, Germany’s performance of David Diamond’s Rounds For String Orchestra and the glorious and rousing An Orkney Wedding by Peter Maxwell Davies on a collection from the late TELARC label called, Britannia (all recordings details below).
I still haven’t had the opportunity to use the TASCAM DR-680 with live music yet, but that will come as we progress through the end of 2012 into a new year, and I hopefully get moved into my new home and studio premises. By then, my companion TASCAM 34B will have its new motor installed, and I’ll be able to get into some creative assembly mixes as well, taking advantage of the not-to-be-forgotten felicities of analog recording as well. But until then, I will enjoy exploring further uses of this very fine and incredibly affordable, and unsurpassed digital toolbox that is the DR-680 6-channel high-resolution recorder.
Recordings Mentioned In The Above Review
James Taylor/Hourglass Columbia CS67912 SACD Line ‘Em Up, Little More Time With You, Gaia
David Diamond: Rounds For String Orchestra (3 mvts), do.gma String Orchestra, Mikhail Gurewitsch conducting/DO.GMA#2 Audiomax 912 1717-6 SACD,
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