Friday, July 23, 2010

Tascam DR-680 Review : UPDATED

DR-680 Hands on Review : Field and Sync Tests

UPDATED : Feb 14, 2012
 
The DR-680 from Tascam is being offered at a very irresistible price. It claims to be a full 8 track recorder for under $660 street price. The question is, it worth adding to your gear ?  Does it really perform or is it overspec'd and under performing in reality? Here is my take.
 
First you can check out my video review of the device. I used it to record my sound while shooting on a EOS T2I. I went a full 12 minutes so you can see how it starts, and how it ends. You can also get an idea of the sound quality of the unit as well. Video Review On Vimeo of DR-680
 
 

Review of the Tascam DR-680 8 Track Audio Recorder from Steve Oakley on Vimeo.

 

Specs:

Its really a 6 analog channel recorder with option to mix down 6 to 2 stereo. Yes it can record 4 digital channels on the TRSinputs making the total 8, but how many of us have stereo or even mono AES mics yet ?  or are connecting to AES/SPDIF 2 channel feeds ? not many. So lets count the inputs you can actually use: 4  dual XLR and 1/4" TRS Mic or Line Level inputs, 2 1/4" TRS  mic or line level inputs all with phantom power. You can use TRS->XLR adapters for powering mics that need power. The unit specs do not state what the total phantom power available is so I can't say if you can really plug 6 phantom power mics in at the 20ma max power spec and Be Happy™.  Since most mics only use about half of that, you might be ok. I don't have 6 phantom power mics to confirm or deny if the unit can power them. I had no problems powering up 2 mics. All inputs can take line level. Each input set to mic level also has a High-Low switch. As far as I can tell this is a -20db input pad which is handy to have when working with loud sounds. 

PreAmps:

Does anything get audio people more animated in a conversation besides the quality of preamps ? probably not. When I first powered the unit up out of the box, I was not thrilled. It seemed noisy, and some quick test recordings somewhat confirmed this. My first tests were done with a Sanken COS-11 powered via Emule XLR power module plugged directly into the unit. 
 
Now having been around gear for a long time, I wasn't ready to throw in the towel and send the DR-680 back. Instead, I put the unit into pause record over night. This forces the preamps to be on. The good news is that the unit will stay in pause record indefinitely which is great. I truly dislike gear that drops out of pause record after a certain amount of time, which is usually 30 seconds less then what you need. The DR-680 will go into record almost instantly by just hitting the record button. I will say the Pause button acts far more like a Record Cue then pause button. its a little bit weird how it works. Last, the unit does have a pre-record function you can engage in a menu for just in case.
 
So back on topic, despite all the digital parts, there is still an analog front end here. What I have found from many years of experience is that gear right out of the box often isn't quite hitting spec. It needs "on" time to burn the components in. Various parts settle into their ideal values, and suddenly the unit is hitting its specs. The DR-680 was no different. After an nearly 24 hour burn in, I redid my tests and got much better results. 
 
The preamps are really pretty quite. They aren't Sound Devices quite, but they are more then good enough for most people's needs if you aren't working ultra high end broadcast or film work. For web, corporate, cable TV type productions, its more then good enough to use direct. I'd say that its preamps are better then most cheaper cameras have which are shooting half of these shows in the first place, so you are ahead of the game here.
 
 


UPDATE

I've been using this unit for almost a year now. The 1.2 firmware update has helped a lot as noted throughout.  

In regards to the preamps, I'lm still sold they are great - quite, clean, warm, able to handle peaks gracefully with the limiters. I have on 2 occasions had an assistant  let levels record lower then the should of been. In both cases adding 12db of gain in Prem Pro  didn't add any noticeable noise from the preamps or the mic, a CMC-64. Here's a shot from that shoot.

tascam dr-680 recording dialog on video shoot with 60D dslr

 

if you want just a little bit better, Busman.com has a $300 mod for all 6 analog inputs and claims an extra 12db of goodness in noise reduction in the already clean preamps. Also add in buzzwords like "more transparent"  if you check them out. That said, since I haven't tried it so I'm not saying anything because I'm sure what they are doing probably helps ( hint, send me a review unit guys ! ). These days I'm almost always recording 48K 24bit for whatever extra bits I can get with limiters on and get very clean sound every single time. The DR-680 powers my Schoeps CMC-64 just fine with its built in phantom power in case you wanted to know. It always helps to have a great mic to start with, but I also have been using a couple of Sennheiser G3's also reviewed here with great results as well, except I'm using MIC level with the G3's because their line level really isn't that hot, literally its like 20db shy of real line level, so just use mic level. 

I do have a FP-33 I run on a a 28V custom battery system, but I've never paired the two up so far because my bag would just get too crowded. I'm sure that will happen at some point, or maybe I'll just break down an upgrade to a SD-552 at some point :).

 

tascam DR-680 front close up review  

 

One Knob, Many Channels:

 
 
It works. Ok, lets be clear here, it works fine for reasonably controlled shoots where you don't need continuous level fiddling on everything. You can certainly use the one knob to ride one channel without a problem. If you really need to ride the levels of 4-6 channels at once, then you need a mixer that lets you do so. With some practice, you could get a bit quick hitting the input channel selector ride levels if things aren't too crazy.
 
UPDATE: Firmware V1.2 lets you gang inputs together and run their levels via the one knob. This makes stereo pairs easier to deal with. The firmware update also adds M/S stereo support as well.
 

Limiters :

They are there, but don't work great. I could yell into the mic up close and clip input levels. It seems the limiters may stop a peak or two, but if you are hot on your overall levels, they won't save you. Then again, lets ask the question, how much does this thing cost ? perhaps some firmware update might make for better limiter handling.
 
UPDATE: Recording 24bit can buy you extra headroom by setting an overall lower record level to accommodate peaks while staying out of the noise floor. This unit is plenty clean in 16bit and I don't use 24 very often except in these cases.
 

Lowcuts

The low cuts are settable for 60/80/120hz. The LC can be enabled for each input, and seems to work ok. I left it at 80hz which seemed ok when using direct ins.
 

Firmware:

Out of the box I had 1.0 firmware. A quick trip to Tascam's web site had me downloading firmware 1.1, and updating the unit. Good to know its updateable, lets see what they might add going down the road to add value and functionality to the unit.
 

Stereo Mix:

You can mix a stereo output with a separate set of menu levels. This is something like a bus mix where you can adjust each input channel into the final mix level, then go to each channel adjust the somewhat mislabeled channel trim which is really input level. You can also disable the recording of the stereo output if you want.
 

Timecode :

There is none. This is the one single major flaw of the DR-680. You could feed timecode into one of the audio channels and use your NLE to read it, but I dearly wish the DR-680 had some sort of TC chase lock / read / record ability. Working with dSLR's this may be a moot point anyway since dSLR's don't have TC either, unless you feed it to them as an audio channel loosing the in camera sound as a scratch track to sync against. Either way its pretty abysmal that timecode support is such an after thought with lower priced gear when there is no good reason it should be. 
 
tascam DR-680 steve oakley review
 
 

Sync:

 
There is nothing like doing a simple slate clap to check sync at the end of a long roll to check sync. One frame at 24FPS is about .041 sec long. The drift I measured at about 72F between camera audio and the DR-680's recording was about 560-620 samples across several takes, or .012 - .013 sec. This is less then a 1/4 frame of drift. I'd say more then good enough for most of use. This would mean about 1 frame after 40 minutes or so. Pretty solid performance considering there is no timecode, word clock, or video sync locking the unit.
 
Interesting facts I found along the way with sync :>
 
The  audio  on the EOS 550D is a full frame early from the picture!  Put another way, the picture is one full frame late. This is most likely caused by processing of the image, but the delay hasn't been compensated for in the audio processing. Hopefully a firmware update will fix this. I confirmed this with many slate claps.
 
For comparison, I also ran a testing rolling my JVC HD100 in 720p24 mode. The HD100 shooting in 720p24 also has early audio as well, but only by about 118 samples which isn't enough to normally worry about. 
 
I used Premiere Pro CS5 for my analysis. The big reason for doing so is that if you toggle the timeline into audio samples, you can literally edit, measure, and even slip / slide / nudge edit audio down to the sample. This made things very simple for measuring drift and aligning things. In order even this out as best I could, I slipped the audio of the EOS 550D 1 frame forwards, and then nudged by samples to get the audio waveform lined up to the slate close on sample one of the slate close frame. I then aligned the DR-680 with the JVC perfectly.  Both cameras now had the slate closing in the same visual frame, and the audio as lined up  within a few samples for an even start.
 
Lets go to the 12 minute mark and see if sync is there. Drum roll please ! at 12 minutes,  both cameras closed the slate visually on the same frame.  What about the DR-680 ? it was 500-600 samples off from the slate close. That's a total drift of about no more then 600 samples in 12 minutes ! at 23.976, there are 2002.002 samples per frame, 2002 for quick math. That means a total drift of about 1/4th to 1/3rd of a frame, or way more then good enough for just about anyone.  
 
Ready for a shock ? Audio on both the JVC HD100 and EOS 550D where different ! they had actually drifted internally despite the expectation that once they were locked at the head, they should come out perfect at the end as well. The HD100 was 1009 samples early, the 550D was about 780 samples early. Remember I had locked the waveform together at the start to match the close frame. So the bottom line is the DR-680 is more accurate for for recording than the cameras ! No one has complained about the camera audio drifting around which it clearly does, so the DR-680 is safe for 12 minute takes for sure. I'd guess you'd probably be safe out to 30 minutes for a total drift of 1200 samples or so, this is  less than 1  frame at 24FPS. At 60i (48,000/59.94) its 800.8008 samples per frame, so your drift would be 1.5 frames which might become noticeable. Even if it was, it would be simple enough to make one or two edits in dead spots, slip the sound a few hundred samples and be back on. However this would only count with video cameras since none of the dslr's shoot this long. 
 

Conclusion:

 
Its a steal ! the DR-680 runs accurately enough for any dSLR user to be happy. Sound quality is respectable, and the overall ergonomics of the unit are tolerable. Please understand that there are differences between the DR-680 and something like the SD 788T or even 744T, but are they worth 5-10X the price ? That entirely depends on the project, your day rate, and the stakes at hand. In most cases, this is a great unit for  low to medium budget work unless timecode is critical. If you have to have BWAV files sync'd to external TC to get the gig, well then you don't have much choice unless you want to use one audio track to record TC and post can deal with that ( FCP + 3rd party plugin and Avid MC ). For the rest of us, the DR-680 should serve as a great audio recorder at a super reasonable price. 
 
 

User UPDATE

Rich Mays sent these comments that I'm reposting with permission : As Says Rich -

I bought the 680 to do "hit-and-run" small concerts but have gradually expanded its role. Since day one I was not thrilled with the metering (-10dBFS is difficult to estimate) but the sound makes up for the squinting.

The real test came last fall when I was doing a CD job consisting of 6 mechanical action organs in Nashville for an international CD label. My primary setup was to be a Prism Orpheus (I owned three at the time), a pair of Sennheiser 800 Twin mics, an Instasnake (CAT5 with balun) and my laptop-- a Macbook Pro 2.33-- all feeding Sequoia (my DAW of choice). The goal was quick setup/teardown and light weight but first-class sound.

At church #1 I could tell I had problems-- low-level clocking ticks that I was 95% sure could be removed-- but I needed to be 100% sure. The recording schedule (2 churches per day) left no room for "scratch-the-head and try THIS" activity.

Thank God I had brought the 680-- which was originally to serve as the data backup while recording. I really did not want to use it to actually record but had no choice. It was use it and ignore whatever sonic consequences there might be (probably inaudible to the client and other customers) or probably scratch the project, lose the client, and possibly face a lawsuit (there was a contract). Merely shifting things one day to sort it all out was a luxury the schedule did not permit. Recording times had been negotiated months before and HAD to happen when scheduled.

So into the 680 went the 4 channels from the Twins. I was not worried about noise as they are high-output mics. I continued to dislike the headphone output I am using the Sennheiser HD600) but that's life.

After post-production the results were most satisfying. I put this Dropbox link up on Gearslutz with the offer that the first person to identify which tracks were Orpheus and which were 680 would get a $100 check from me. So far no winners. No, there are not any tracks where both pieces of hardware were used-- the schedule did not allow time for that. But really-- the basic difference between the $4k Orpheus and the $600 680 should be apparent-- right?

Obviously not. The listening link is <http://dl.dropbox.com/u/15394297/SonareRec/051112JobyFINAL.mp3>  The link is for a 320k MP3 BTW.

Just thought that you and your readers might like to hear about this experience from someone doing high-end location music recording!

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Thanks for the input Rich confirming this recorder is not just very affordable but also sounds great too !