Scoring a Hi-8?
Tascam enter the budget digital multitrack market - let battle commence...
Despite securing Fostex's allegiance to their new S-VHS format, it's been known for some time now that Alesis weren't going to have things all their own way in the battle to establish a standard for affordable digital multitrack recording. Tascam, arch-enemies of Fostex, have been waiting in the wings with their own 8-track digital format, and since its debut - in the form of the DA-88 - at last year's AES show, the world has been awaiting a verdict on which system, if any, is superior.
While the S-VHS format has the advantage of greater tape width and, consequently, the ability to place more data onto tape, it has the disadvantage of slow fast forward/rewind times (a maximum of 20 times play speed on ADAT) and relative high cost: forty minutes recording time on a suitable S-VHS tape will cost you about £18.
By contrast, the Tascam DA-88 uses Hi-8 tape - an 8mm format which, by virtue of its restricted width, could theoretically impose restrictions on sound quality. Maximum winding speeds of 100 times standard playback speed are possible, however, and the unit cost - about £10 for a 90-minute tape (which should run to around 113 minutes on the DA88), makes it significantly cheaper than its ADAT rival. But clearly, the major question is that of sound quality, so let's take a closer look at Tascam's new machine.
As you'll see, the front panel has a number of buttons, but most of these are self-explanatory - especially if you've used a Tascam multitrack recorder before. Functions like Auto Play and Repeat should be familiar, and the transport controls (Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop, Play, Record) are quite standard. The other obvious thing that strikes you about the DA-88 is its exceptional build. From the ruggedness of the casing to the sureness of the transport controls (positive but neither clunky nor spongy), this is one very substantial machine.
Output connections are via unbalanced phono sockets on the rear, though there is also a pair of 25-pin connectors for balanced lines. With inputs and outputs connected to a mixing desk, you need to route the audio for the first track you want to record to, and press the Record Function button at the bottom of the 15-segment vertical level meter. A red LED then tells you that the track is in a 'Record-ready' state and recording is as easy as holding down the Play button and pressing Record at the relevant moment.
As you may be aware, punching-in and punching-out is something which is harder for a digital recorder to achieve than an analogue one. And indeed, this has been a focal point at ADAT demonstrations, where punch-ins have been made at lightning speed to show that the crossfade used is inaudible. During a recording of stereo piano, I tried the same trick on the DA-88. The system Tascam have used to enter and leave Record mode is just about as easy as it can be: hit Play to start up, press Record to punch-in and Play to punch-out. Using this method on the recorded piano piece, the results were exemplary, with not a trace of a glitch.
While on the subject of punch-in recording, the DA-88 has various useful features including an excellent Rehearsal mode which again will be familiar to users of Tascam analogue decks. After you've selected the track you wish to record to (via the usual Record Function buttons), pressing the Insert and Rehearsal buttons consecutively sets the DA-88 into punch-in/out Rehearsal mode, in which the audio and meter monitoring switches from tape to input and back again at the punch-in and punch-out points you select.
Hitting Play sets the DA-88 into motion. When you reach the punch-in point, press the Record button; the red LED on the meter changes from flashing to on and the Record LED starts to flash. At the punch-out point, hitting Play makes the DA-88 stop some three seconds later and rewind to a little before the punch-in point (you can set this 'pre-roll' time from one second upwards). To start the 'rehearsal', simply press Play and the DA-88 follows through the points you've set, changes the monitoring from tape to line and back, and automatically rewinds at the end.
Once you're happy with your punch-in and punch-out points, pressing the Auto In/Out button makes the DA-88 carry out the procedure for real and again rewind at the end, ready for you to hear the result.
The DA-88 automatically blends the information already on tape with the incoming audio as it starts to record and the overlap, or crossfade time, is preset to 10 milliseconds. This can be reset, in steps of 10, up to a maximum of 90 milliseconds. If the material being recorded is speech-based, the chances are you'll leave this at the default value, but if you're recording a mellow string part, then you're likely to increase the crossfade value to 80 or 90milliseconds.
Few users will expect to be able to hit punch-in/out points perfectly from a front-panel button every time, so a facility exists to fine tune them. While you're in Rehearsal mode, a couple of presses on the Display button show the current values in Memories 1 and 2 which are used to hold the punch-in and punch-out times respectively. Incidentally, if you don't fancy the idea of having to hit buttons to enter and exit Record mode, the DA-88 also has a standard punch-in/out footswitch socket on the rear panel.
Individual track delays can be set; at 44.1kHz, the maximum delay is about 160 milliseconds. While this is mainly provided to allow you to set an offset between tracks on separate machines, it could be used creatively as a single-repeat delay line by recording the same audio onto two tracks and setting the delay time to taste.
As you might expect, the DA-88 includes a varispeed function which will handle a variation of 16% in steps of 0.1%. The current pitch setting can always be viewed by pressing the display button, and you can happily leave a preset value; settings for this, the memories, punch-in/out points, pre-roll time and track delay times are battery backed-up when you turn the machine off.
The two memories can be 'written to' via the Loc 1 and 2 buttons and the DA-88 has a standard Repeat function where, upon reaching the second locator, It rewinds to the first. If the Auto Play function is active, playback starts automatically.
A standard DA-88 has Sync In and Out ports which allow you to link together up to 16 machines - one as master, the others as slaves. To this end, there's a small rotary switch with which you select the unit ID number. With the Slave switch on each of the slaves turned on, you can have up to 128 tracks of synchronised digital audio without any additional hardware!
So how is the DA-88 equipped to tackle the competition, taking into consideration the pros and cons of both systems? Well, the dilemma would be easier to resolve if there was a significant difference in sound quality between the two, but there isn't. During the review period, the immediate reaction of people coming into my studio and hearing the Tascam was that it was much the same as listening to a top-flight CD player or DAT recorder: the top end jumps out at you without being harsh in any sense, while the bottom end packs an extraordinary amount of punch.
Both of these observations are down to the dynamic range that a digital recorder affords you - no matter what the format. So, if you're going to be hard-pressed to tell Hi-8 from S-VHS in terms of sound, where do the differences make themselves felt? Well, there are two aspects of the Hi-8 system which are going to make the DA-88 a firm favourite with many people: shuttling and sync. Being able to reverse tape direction and home in on a particular part of the program material, especially with vocals and speech, is of great advantage - particularly to those who work in audio visual situations - and ADAT simply can't do that.
In terms of pure music recording, the differences are less clear-cut. Having used both ADAT and the DA-88 on a number of important sessions, I would have no hesitation in recommending either: the recording quality was fine and tape drop-out problems were nil. What will happen after each machine has been subject to six months of continuous use, however, could be quite a different story. We shall see...
Prices: DA-88: £3999; RC-808: £129; RC-848: £999 (All inc. VAT)
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