by Craig Anderton
Portable recording has come a long way. There are now a zillion inexpensive, portable stereo recorders, with enough choices to cover you whether your needs are long battery life, small size, bells and whistles, storage capacity, musician-oriented features, or various combinations thereof.
But if you want to go portable multitrack for serious production work – anything from recording a live concert, to doing location sound, to field recordings – the story changes. You can use a laptop, carry some kind of interface, and hope your hard drive and the computer fan don’t make too much noise. Or you can use a stand-alone hard disk recorder, or all-in-one studio. Or, you can check out TASCAM’s DR-680, which is an elegant, and surprisingly full-featured, option for 8-track portable recording that can also occupy a useful place in your regular studio. It can run off eight AA batteries (with approximately four hours recording time) or the included AC adapter, and is compact enough to carry around with you – dimensions are 7.95"W x 2.12"H x 6.93"D, and it weighs 2.65 lbs. without batteries.
The battery compartment on the DR-680’s underside is readily accessible, so you can change batteries within seconds.
Nope, no hard drive; recording is to SD or SDHC cards, formatted to FAT16 (or FAT32 for cards larger than 4GB). This means you can pop the card into a computer’s card reader when you want to transfer files (you can also do so via USB 2.0).
Pulling back a protective rubber cover reveals the SD card slot and mini-USB 2.0 connector. Also note the Kensington security lock option, and the jack for the included AC adapter.
WAV or BWF recording (BWF embeds time-of-day data into the recording - not quite the same as SMPTE, but knowing when a take was recorded can be helpful) is 16- or 24-bit, 44.1/48/96/192kHz. There’s no 88.2kHz sampling rate – a curious omission – but today’s sample rate converters are up to the task of downsampling 96kHz to 44.1kHz if you’re planning to make a CD. However, note that you’re limited to stereo recording/playback at 192kHz. I’m not a huge fan of anything higher than 96kHz, but I assume that TASCAM wanted to add an “archiving” type of option.
You can record 8 simultaneous tracks (other than at 192kHz), but there are different ways to use these eight tracks, and it took me a while to wrap my head around them. One option is to record the six analog ins and the digital in (via an RCA connector that automatically senses S/PDIF or AES/EBU format) to yield six individual tracks and a stereo track pair. Of course, this assumes you have a stereo signal source that can connect to the digital input. Another is to record six analog ins as mono tracks, and use the stereo track to record a mix of these inputs (with level and pan). Yet another option is to record four pairs of stereo tracks – 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and the digital in.
These also interact with the “record format” options. The mono format is most like conventional multitrack recording, where each track stores a mono signal. The stereo format creates a stereo file for each track pair. The final mode, 6ch, records a six-channel file for tracks 1-6. In case you’re thinking “Hey, this would work for location surround recording,” you’d be right.
If you want to record for a really long time, you can also record up to four MP3 tracks at 96/128/192/320kbps (four individual tracks, or two individual tracks and a stereo mix). However, unless you really have recording time issues, it’s worth going with WAV or BWF files. For example, with a 32GB card you can record almost four hours with eight tracks at 24/96, or 12.5 hours with eight tracks at 16/44. On the other hand with MP3, four tracks and 320kbps resolution, you can record for 111 hours – that should pretty much cover any hardcore rave you might ever attend. At the other end of the resolution scale, you could record 7.75 hours of stereo material at 24/192.
One other aspect of recording to a card: The DR-680 makes no noise. None. There’s no fan, no whirring hard drive, nothing. The only clue it’s on is the bright orange backlighting on the display.
The 128 x 64 pixel backlit display is informative, and easy to read under bright or dark lighting.
The analog ins are all along the unit’s left side. There are four XLR+1/4” balanced combination jacks, and two TRS 1/4” jacks.
All analog ins are grouped together on the DR-680’s side.
You have a fair amount of control over each input. All six jacks are switchable between mic and line, with switchable phantom power available for input pairs (1-2, 3-4, 5-6 - yes, that includes the TRS ins). I measured phantom power as 47.1V, so this is not one of those portable units that “gets by” with a lower voltage. There are no physical gain controls for the inputs, but each input has a high-gain/low-gain switch that comes into play when the input is set to mic, and you can also trim levels electronically, as shown on the display.
A bunch of switches on the top of the DR-680 set input characteristics for the six analog inputs.
The six line outs - unbalanced, RCA connectors – are located on the right side, opposite the input connectors. These not only carry output signals when playing back, but are “thru” connections for the inputs when recording. This is also where you’ll find the S/PDIF-AES/EBU I/O, and the cutout for the card slot and USB connector. Other outputs include a front-panel headphone jack with volume control, and – surprise – a small built-in mono speaker for “instant monitoring.”
The analog outs and S/PDIF I/O are located opposite to the input connectors.
However, I also wanted to show a close-up of these output jacks because this lets you see the screws holding the jackplates in place (there are equivalent screws on the input jacks). This isn’t one of those units where they mount on the jacks on a circuit board, then have the jacks poke through a hole in the case – these babies are secure, and you could plug and unplug jacks all day long without worrying about compromising the jack mountings. This is probably something most people wouldn’t notice, but I did, so kudos to TASCAM for spending the extra few bucks needed to make the unit more reliable.
Those little screws nested in the jack field may not look important, but they indicate a degree of sturdiness that’s welcome for a portable unit.
Further evidence of solid construction came courtesy of UPS. When I unpacked the unit, the data wheel ring had worked loose from the unit. My initial reaction was a diss of TASCAM’s quality control, because really, there’s no excuse to have a knob fall off. So I snapped it back in place, and that’s when I noticed it was almost impossible to get it back off again. The DR-680 must have taken a massive shock or drop on the way here to knock that ring out of place, yet the unit still worked perfectly. Frankly, that’s impressive.
If what we described so far was all there was – input, output, display, and navigation – you’d have a pretty cool recorder. But dig into the menu, and you’ll find some extra goodies.
You can enable a limiter for each analog input, which is the kind of feature that can save a recording and therefore gets a major thumbs-up. Also, just in case your mics don’t have low cut filters, you can choose a low cut filter at 40, 80, or 120Hz for each input. With location recording, this is useful for minimizing wind and air noise, although it’s not a substitute for adding proper acoustical filtering at the mics themselves.
Some features scream “portable recorder.” One is a 2-second pre-record buffer that’s always recording, so if you hit record a second late – no problem. I don’t understand why the default for this is “off,” but it’s easy enough to turn it on. Another is trigger-based recording, where you can specify recording to begin only when a certain level is exceeded. These two work together, because when the sound is triggered, you still have the record buffer to draw from to guarantee you didn’t miss some kind of initial transient. It’s also easy to insert markers so you can quickly locate particular takes, and you can initiate a new take at any time, even in the middle of recording, and continue within the same take when re-starting a recording (or create a new take). For a field recording situation where you may be recording something like different takes of dialog, being able to identify and name takes comes in handy when you get back to your post-production facility. Couple this with the ability to organize takes in folders, and you have a recording medium that makes it easier to find the material you want.
As noted previously, there’s even a basic mixer built in with level and pan controls. And if you need more tracks, it’s possible to cascade two units and control both of them from one one transport. Although they don't share word clock, if you're willing to give up a S/PDIF in you can at least sync the slave to the master S/PDIF clock. And speaking of control, the navigation/transport section is obvious, and you can even do scrubbing with the data wheel.
The transport and navigation controls are what you’d expect from a multitrack recorder.
Of course, there are more details like file and folder operations, naming takes based on the time or key words, and typical front panel controls like solo, record, and pause.
You can access the most-needed controls for real-time operation from the front panel.
We haven’t gone into much detail about USB file transfers because they’re totally standard – the DR-680 appears to the computer as an external drive, and you can drag and drop files to and from the computer.
So, any complaints? Well, I wasn’t too thrilled to see RCA audio output jacks until I realized that the DR-680 is primarily a capture medium, and TASCAM put the bucks where it’s most important. In most cases you’d be pulling files out of the DR-680 for editing or duplication, but nonetheless, the unbalanced output sound quality is fine as is.
Oddly for TASCAM, the unit doesn’t come with an SD card, unlike most of their portable recorders. But thinking about for a bit, a multitrack unit really wants a high-capacity card, not the usual 1 or 2GB card found in a typical stereo recorder – and a 16 or 32GB card isn’t exactly a throw-away item you could bundle in without raising the price. (Also note there’s no internal memory, so you have to use a card.) There are no internal mics; I think TASCAM expects you to use higher-quality, external mics but if there was an internal mic you could use the DR-680 as an “instant scratchpad.” Finally, given that there’s USB 2.0, some might wonder why the DR-680 doesn’t include at least primitive audio interface capabilities.
But really, none of those are deal-breakers or for that matter, “deal-benders.” Even the documentation (which you can download) is clear and complete, and despite being sturdy, the unit is very portable. There's even the optional-at-extra-cost CS-DR680 soft case to help protect the DR-680 from the rigors of the road, and Portabrace offers the AR-DR680 if you need something waterproofed and with optional pouches to carry more stuff. (Of course, you could always just carve out the foam insides of an attache case to make room for mics, the AC adapter, and some spare batteries.) What's more, there have been recent updates; now the DR-680 can do recording with mid-side decoding. The updating procedure simply involves downloading a small firmware file, copying it to the DR-680, and following instructions on how to load the firmware.
Overall, I must say the DR-680 surprised me. If this had been around when Nagra field recorders ruled the world, they wouldn’t have ruled the world much longer. However, field recording is a pretty esoteric field (no pun intended) and if people think of the DR-680 solely as something for recording dialog or effects in the middle of nowhere, that misses out on a lot of the unit’s potential.
For example, while pocket stereo recorders are useful for recording a band, with the DR-680 you could feed a stereo monitor mix from the PA without the singer to the stereo track, feed the lead singer's mic into a separate input in case something needs to be re-cut later in the studio (I won’t tell it’s not 100\\\% live), and you could even add a couple mics to pick up the audience applause. For small jazz and classical ensembles, having six mic ins may be all you need – ditto theater groups. And of course, this isn’t only a recorder, but a multitrack playback unit as well. For solo musicians who need a “backing track” machine, theater groups that need to play back sound effects, or a dance company that wants to play back music in surround, the DR-680 is compact, offers excellent fidelity and ease of use, and apparently, you can beat it up and it will still survive if my UPS experience is any indication.
Looking at all these applications makes the DR-680 far more desirable than being “just a field recorder,” but the price is right, too. With the current street price hovering just over $800, that’s a lot of value. Those who are willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a quality portable stereo recorder should consider the pros and cons of stretching the extra bucks to go multitrack; it only takes a few live recording situations to demonstrate the usefulness of multitrack portable recording.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
I couldn't find any definition for "multi-track recording" that required the ability to overdub. It seems multi-channel and multi-track are used interchangeably.
However, it's important to note that TASCAM classifies this as a field recorder designed for live and location recording, and surround. I don't think the intended purpose can be made much clearer than that. I mentioned field recording in the sub-head, and in the second paragraph, specified "recording a live concert, to doing location sound, to field recordings." In all of those contexts, you do multitrack recording without overdubbing.