Multitrack Disk Recorder
Roland's S750 and S770 amply demonstrated their pro digital expertise; now the DM80 offers four or eight tracks of truly cost-effective hard disk recording. Wilf Smarties welcomes Roland's newest techno tool.
Roland's DM80 is the first of what is likely to be a clutch of sub-£10k hard disk 4 and 8-track recorders to be released in the coming 12 months. These are set to undermine the reel-to-reel digital market, as their sonic integrity will be beyond doubt, per track capital cost much lower, and, crucially, they will offer editing facilities that are simply not available to tape-based systems. Furthermore, if they can hook up to an optical drive, data storage will be relatively cheap, easy, and very reliable. And backing up will not require you to have two Mitsubishi 32-track tape recorders in the same room!
Non-linear recording is a concept well understood by sampler/sequencer users. So is a hard disk recorder just a sampler with a bigger memory? Well... unfortunately not. Though it does have some important advantages over the former, most notably vast potential memory (up to 12 hours at 48K in this case), and the ability to play a file from anywhere in the middle (unlike MIDI-note-fired samples).
A sampler is capable of responding the instant you play a chord, or trigger a vocal sample, via a keyboard or sequencer. The sound files must, however, be stored in RAM in order to be primed for action. Hard disks in this context are used merely for archiving. A hard disk recorder treats disk memory as if it were RAM. However, access to soundfiles stored on disk can never be instantaneous: the head requires time to find and read the file from disk. This means that MIDI triggering of files is no longer straightforward. SMPTE cue lists are usually used instead, and not just because hard disk recording was initially adopted by the film industry, where MIDI is still anathema. Adopting SMPTE (or MTC) time to cue in a soundfile allows your hard disk recorder to see into the future, giving it a chance to prepare to play a file. If a hard disk recorder is to give instantaneous playback, and therefore be capable of being treated like any other MIDI instrument, it must contain sufficient RAM and processing power to be able to play the leading portion of the requested file(s) until the play head has had a chance to begin to read the remainder from the disk. The DM80-8 (the 8-track version of the system) can play eight files in this way (one for each track), in Trigger mode.
The audio hardware of the DM80 is housed in a 4U 19" chassis, nicely finished in something you might call metallic cream. The front panel sports an array of 10 7-segment green LED meters corresponding to the (up to) eight audio channels, together with a pair for the stereo mix output. All have red clip LEDs. These meters can monitor either input or output levels, in the same way as any multitrack tape recorder. (In fact, in use the DM80 feels and acts like a tape recorder much more than a sampler — forget this at your peril!). There are various global status LED indicators, corresponding to sampling frequency, disk activity and sync, as well as tri-coloured LED channel status indicators (duplicated on the corresponding buttons on the DM80-R controller), which glow red when in record mode, green for playback, and yellow for 'trigger' mode, about which not much more will be said here.
The rear is jam packed with a selection of balanced analogue and digital interfaces. There are eight inputs and 10 outputs on 1/4" jacks (on the DM80-8, that is; the DM80-4 has half the number of channel ins, outs, and it has three SCSI ports). A pair of digital inputs and one digital output are offered via RCA phono-type connectors and 3-pin XLRs. There are no less than four SCSI ports, a pair of 1/4" jack sockets carrying SMPTE (LTC) in and out of the machine, video sync, metronome click output, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and an IEC mains inlet.
Those of you with fond memories of Roland's DCB buss will be pleased to note the inclusion here of a DM buss, which can hook up to the DM80-R remote controller directly, or via the (also optional) DM80-F fader controller. There is no provision for optical digital ins or outs. See box for the full spec, but here is a round up of the more interesting facilities on board.
The cheaper version of the DM80 offers four simultaneous audio input channels and four outputs, addressing a 100MB internal hard drive. This capacity — both tracks and disk size — may be doubled by the addition of the DM80-E expansion kit. The good news here is that there is no great cash penalty to pay for not having purchased a full-blown 8-track system from the outset, and I'm told that an upgraded 4-track system will be physically indistinguishable from an 8-track.
Special mention should be made of the fact that the DM80-8 sports a real time sample rate convertor. This would normally set you back a couple of grand to purchase separately.
In order to get audio in and out of the DM80, however, you will be compelled to purchase one of the two controller options offered: you can either use Roland's bespoke DM80 editing work surface, the DM80-R (reviewed here), or Track Manager software for use on any Apple Mac (well, any Mac with 2MB of RAM). There are distinct advantages to each option, but unfortunately it is not possible to run both front ends simultaneously.
Under Mac control only, you can cascade up to four DM80s to provide 32 channels of recording. This means that the price of 32-track non-linear digital audio is now comparable to professional (which means 2" tape width) 24-track analogue tape — a crucial price/performance threshold which must surely herald a new era in studio recording practices and standards. Total recording time (DM80-8) can be expanded up to a not insubstantial 720 track minutes (max) with the addition of up to six external hard drives, connected via SCSI as per usual. The manual advises you to check that third party drives have fast enough access times, though if sluggish optical devices are acceptable (and they are, though it may not be possible to write more than three tracks simultaneously to one drive), most HDs should be OK. (There is, by the way, a disk activity meter.) You will need some form of external storage device if you intend to make backup copies of your work. Both 4mm and 8mm SCSI tape devices are supported, if you can't afford optical.
The DM80-R controller is a flattish work surface with narrow rectangular buttons under a 40 X 8 character backlit LCD, with the ubiquitous alpha dial to the right of it. Roland have learned from the mistake made on their not dissimilar S770 display, where a shiny clear plastic cover precluded legibility in all but the darkest of rooms. This non-reflective surface is much more satisfactory, and can cope with daylight provided the contrast and viewing angle are correct. Buttons are grouped in three areas: to the left there is a dual column of 12 buttons, surmounted by four arrow cursors in a diamond array. Among the 12 are eight Markers (autolocate points), two Phrase Locate switches, Delete and Shift. Shift accesses Loop Start, Loop End, Capture, Punch In and Punch Out.
Under the LCD are four rows of buttons, the topmost containing five soft function keys (an echo of the S770), plus Execute, Function, Menu and Exit. Second on the grid are seven Mode switches — more on these later. Below that lie the track status select buttons, propped up by the transport controls. The latter are reminiscent of those found on budget multitracks. To the right there is an alphanumeric keypad, which is very MC50, Preview, Jump, and the parameter/time wheel.
Above the LCD is an LED time display, LCD contrast control, and LED indicators for sampling frequency, sync mode, and display mode. The Markers, Record, Mode, Preview, Jump, Execute and Rec all have integral LEDs, while that for Play has one immediately above it. Track status buttons have integral 3-colour LEDs — very neat. Right. Now let's plug the beast in and see how it performs.
Your first step is to create a Project, the highest level in the DM80's organisational hierarchy. First off, it is likely that most potential users reading this review will be MIDI sequencer users. If you are dealing with music, rather than recording the next Inspector Morse soundtrack, you will want to work in bars ('measures' in Roland speak). The DM80 allows this, via the Tempo mode menu. The Insert function lets you define a tempo and time signature, and Copy (times) stripes the project. If you want to create a more complex Tempo Map, you can do so in a number of ways. The system responds to manual Tap Teach, useful for following live music, and it can also create a map from incoming MIDI clocks. The latter is notoriously difficult to achieve on many SMPTE-to-MIDI reader/writers. With the tempo map in place, choose 44(.1)kHz sampling frequency under System, set the time base to Internal and engage MIDI clock output. Set the display for measures. The DM80 will now output MIDI clocks with song pointers when in play mode (though not when in fast wind or rewind, which is a minor pity). A major problem, however, lies in the MIDI implementation. There is no soft Thru, therefore it is not possible to slave a sequencer to the DM80 via MIDI Clock and program the sequencer from a keyboard without recourse to a MIDI merger. Tedious.
The DM80 can slave to MTC, but catch-up time is typically a mammoth six seconds. This is quick when compared with a tape recorder, but around 20 times slower than when it follows its own internal clock. As with most recorders, the DM80 likes being the master. For the record, the DM80 slaves to 'house' video sync, a feature which means as little to me as it will to you.
Any input can be assigned to any output, and vice versa (for internal bouncing down of tracks). One problem that I encountered was that of input sensitivity. There are no gain amplifiers on the inputs, merely attenuators, and when driving them from a typical 'semi-pro' output such as a Sony DTC750 DAT or Tascam MM-1 mixer (-10dB, unbalanced), I could not push the DM80's input meters much above -20dB. Since they only show from -24dB upwards this was hardly reassuring, though the manual does suggest you aim for -18dB, advice which reflects the vast headroom available, and the horrible noise that results if you exceed a maximum digital level threshold. However, if you intend to match this unit to other than the professional (+4dB) line operating level, you could be well advised to purchase a suitable pre-amp. Needless to say there are no mic inputs. Balancing is standard throughout.
The default Mixer mode settings have pans centered. If you choose to monitor the DM80 from the Mix output, and are recording in stereo, you will have some panning to do.
After you have prepared the machine, recording a Take is relatively easy. Just punch in when you want to start recording, and out when the singer coughs. You may Delete the Take, otherwise it will remain on the hard disk until you do so. If you rewind and record another Take onto the same track(s), it will appear as though the former has been wiped. On an analogue machine, that would be the case, but here...
For capturing a performance, rather than tracklaying work, you will probably want to enter loop recording mode, which is accessed by Punch. You can enter Loop Start, Record Start, Record End and Loop End in mins/secs or measures/beats, but a groovier way to do this is on the fly using the Shift + Marker keys (four of the latter double up as loop definition keys). You can then rehearse and record a series of Takes.
The newest Take will be the one which by default plays back. However, all previous unerased Takes are still accessible. Scrolling through the Overlap menu will uncover them, but only when the transport is stopped, an annoying prerequisite of many of the tasks asked of the DM80.
You can Solo Audition any of the (up to) 128 takes (DM80-4) by scrolling around in New Phrase under the Playlist menu. Take editing is available in both Playlist and record. (Similarly you can solo or select any of up to 300 Phrases, which can be created across four recording tracks; see later.)
If you treat the DM80 like an analogue tape recorder with an extremely fast wind time, you won't go far wrong. Audio quality is pristine, and the marker/locators, track status (record, play, mute) buttons and transport controls all function well. You can see where a recording has been, or is being made, as the track(s) scroll(s) past the Now time marker in the centre of the LCD. (Only four tracks are visible at once, however). Operating the rather basic mixer is cumbersome (one parameter at a time), but the simple 4-parameter EQ sounds fine. It's only when you get round to naming tracks, editing them, and generally moving into territory beyond that accessible by a tape based recording system, that the DM80 shows signs of getting in the way.
Most things are possible, but the ergonomics are simply not always up to '90s standards. Roland point out that this machine is due for software revision, though even this is going to be unnecessarily tedious, since there is no provision for importing software via floppy disk. It's back to the dealer for a new bag of chips. On the other hand, the V.2 software for the S750 made a massive difference to that product. (The Mac Track Manager front end might solve many of the current problems, but I have not yet seen it. When I have, you will be told).
Roland call their recording system 'non-destructive'. Once you have recorded a Take, no amount of editing will alter it. It cannot even be truncated, something which the company are looking into. (You can 'bounce record' a portion of a Take to create a new one, then delete the former, but all the Phrases associated with it will be lost. See below for an explanation of Phrases).
Since you might record many takes of a performance, you would expect to be able to name and audition them quickly. I'm afraid quickly does not come into it here. The former necessitates stopping, hitting Take Listen, and then Edit, before entering a name, a tedious process in itself unless you have a suitable ASCII keyboard (optional) connected to the DM80 for text work. In order to scroll onto another track you have to exit this window, select a new take, then re-enter the window. Meanwhile you have lost some recording momentum. As well as offering Keep or Delete upon ending a Take, why could not the DM80 offer Name as an option? And why hide the Track display while awaiting an answer? For ease of sequential naming Roland need look no further than, yes, you've guessed, their own S750.
You could go on recording and dropping in and out using Rec, just as you would on any tape based system, except that it is not possible to change the status of an individual track while the transport is running. (But be careful not to clog your hard drive with unwanted takes.) However, if you want to move/copy/advance/retard/splice, or undertake any editing functions on the audio, you will have to get your head around what Roland call a Phrase.
Phrases are 'windows' which look at all or part of a Take. Many Phrases can look at a single Take. When you create a new Take, a matching Phrase is created. Unlike the Take, this Phrase can be Split (but not joined — Roland take note), truncated in a number of ways, moved, and given up to one second fades top or tail. New Phrases can be created to play all or part of existing Takes.
Here is some good news: crossfades of up to one second can be achieved on a single track (or pair). Since this is the sort of thing that goes on in A/V work all the time, in this context the DM80-8 starts to behave more like a 16 than an 8-track. (By playing around with Trim In and Trim Out it is actually possible to get two overlapping phrases to play simultaneously on the same track: a big plus when you are looking to maintain continuity over an edit). Also, timecodes don't eat into your audio track capacity.
For example, let's say you have recorded backing vocals for the first chorus. You want to copy them into all other choruses. Move onto the start of the first measure (or beat if the Phrase lies entirely within one measure) within that Phrase. The Jump key provides a short cut for this. When you subsequently copy that Phrase to the start of another measure, its relative position in the bar will be retained. Very neat. Think of it as being like a 'snap' function in sequencer editing.
Multiple sequential copies (of, say, a drum loop) can be done in much the same way. The thing to remember is the importance of the Now time in all operations. (It is where the scroll cursor always lies). Copying from/to depends on the start and destination Now times, not the length or position of the selected Phrase. (This is different from the way that sequencers such as Cubase work, and is confusing at first). It works.
Other Phrase editing functions include Move, Trim, Insert, Cut/Erase, Split, Overlap, and Delete. All are accessed via Playlist. Phrases can also be attenuated individually for mix level matching. Not all the editing possibilities could be discussed in any detail here.
These keys offer ways of finding suitable edit points for Phrase manipulation. Jump was used in the above example to locate the start of a measure. Previous and Next lock on to the starts and ends of Phrases. Markers work particularly well, and can be entered on the fly. (Note that it is all too easy to spend time finding an edit point, only to lose it by forgetting to allocate a marker to it. You have been warned!) Hitting a marker inputs the Now time. A subsequent hit will return to that time, unless the marker has been cleared by hitting it while holding down Delete.
Delete and Shift work with Preview and Play to give a comprehensive method for homing in on an edit point. Hitting Preview + Play repeatedly plays from the Now time (very quickly when the Now time is being nudged in small increments by the alpha dial — a trick I found to be especially useful). Shift, or Delete, with Preview allows preview across, and up to, respectively, the Now time. (The same keys with Play will repeat the selected Preview loop, as before.) The Preview length can be adjusted from 0.1-5.0s under the System menu.
With the addition of the DM80-F fader unit this might become a viable, though quite basic, totally dynamically automated mixer. However, I found Compu-Mix difficult to control from the DM80-R because you can only access one parameter at a time. Recording snapshots could be useful, but why has no-one thought of using the track status select buttons as programmable mutes during mix mode? These would be invaluable when programming a bounce-down of, say, three vocal takes onto track 4, a routine particularly suited to the DM80 with its glitch-free cross-faded splices. I can't wait to try that some day soon. No more impossible drop-ins!
You will have been through the sampler/sequencer route before you even consider forking out for one of these babies. What in particular does the DM80 have to offer you?
Broadly speaking, it has three principal benefits. Firstly, it can make digital recordings of long audio files that a sampler cannot cope with, such as vocal takes. (We have yet to see deliveries of affordable 8-track digital tape multitracks, with which many people will perhaps compare the DM80-8, which will also offer this facility). Secondly, these files will 'follow you around' as you change your song structure. You can cut, topy, paste, and crossfade between them, which is something that digital tape machines don't allow. Thirdly, you have a great tool for recording sub-mixes of, say, a percussion or backing vocal group, and having them available for the kind of editing I've just described, possibly freeing up sampler polyphony in the process.
Full mix editing is also possible, though the lack of any waveform display makes the DM80 less suitable for this purpose than the likes of Digidesign's Sound Tools. Butt editing requires repeated updating of the Fade parameters, which is tedious. The default setting in the DM80 makes for a very smooth, undramatic edit. Far too sensible for a 12" megamix.
Roland have failed to capitalise fully on their own R&D in respect of this product. The way forward had already been established with their excellent S750 and S770 (and earlier) samplers, which featured an alternative to the LCD in the form of either RGB or composite video TV monitoring of the action. (The S750 can be very successfully mouse-driven, a massive advantage when working with a computer sequencer in front of you.) This proved such a boon that I cannot believe that Roland failed to include it on the DM80. Perhaps the Apple Mac front end option will offer similar ease of editing.
At present it is not possible to hold a reservoir of Takes in the DM80 from which you can construct a Project. You could, however, hold a list of library Projects which can be used as the basis for new ones, since Projects can be copied and edited.
The DM80 has provision for digital bouncing, allowing for unlimited bounces with no signal degradation. Some mega-expensive units lack this high value feature.
In order to identify an edit point, most old hands like to rock the reels back and forth slowly (the digital equivalent is 'scrubbing'). Limited by the fixed sample rate basis of the system, Roland have come up with their own idiosyncratic solution to finding the perfect beat. While the Preview method (as described in this review) might become accepted in time (it has its merits, not the least of which is saving your loudspeakers from terminal cone excursion), it is likely to encounter some consumer resistance among hardened professionals in A/V. Despite having had strong initial reservations about Preview myself, I was just getting to like it when the DM80 was whisked away, to re-appear at the APRS the following day.
The alpha dial has the interesting feature of being velocity sensitive. Move it slowly and it ticks over; flick it and values change dramatically. I could get used to this.
I particularly liked the fact that, when Disk playback was selected while recording, monitoring returned to input on stopping as well as when in record. Like all good things in life, living in Now time takes some getting used to. Understanding it is the key to the DM80.
Not so long ago you would have paid £30,000 for a system that offered considerably less than the DM80. Audio quality is impeccable, and interfacing professional (perhaps too much so for some users: +4dB level matching only and no optical digital inputs). The hierarchy is not as elegantly organised as it could be, however; there is still too much menu searching, and stopping and starting during editing and recording. If Roland want to make the most of the excellent sound and exciting editing potential of the DM80, they have some more work to do.
In its relatively short life the DM80 has already undergone some welcome improvements. An addendum to the manual points to the implementation of 'quick keys' for sync mode switching (a fat lot of use that will be to our musical bretheren) and (more interestingly) a Shift + Jump function which makes an already useful feature much nippier. Whilst one gets the feeling that we are dealing with a product that has not yet fully matured, even the present imperfection will be coveted by many.
The jury is out. If, like me, you are a potential buyer, you might want to hold off at least until the Track Manager software surfaces in a few weeks time. Though I have taken it to task for some of its ergonomic bottlenecks, I have a really good feeling about the DM80. The basic concept behind it is sound. My experience with Roland, coupled with the importance that they must attach to this seminal product, tells me that they will be putting every effort into getting it absolutely right. And don't you just love that concept of Now time? Somehow I don't think I'm going to be able to live without this for long.
DM80-4 £4,775 inc VAT.
DM80-8 £7,455 inc VAT.
DM80-E (4 to 8-track upgrade) £2,715 inc VAT.
DM80-F £787 inc VAT.
DM80-R £1,215 inc VAT.
Track Manager software £428 inc VAT.
IB1 (MIDI/DM80 interlace far above) £62. inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Wilf Smarties
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