Mixing it up. A Tascam Digital Audio Recorder enters service at the VSL studio. And beyond.

Of the 60+ projects we undertook in 2015 about eight of them were video assignments. Just video with no still photography component. I shot them either on a Nikon D750 or D810 in the earlier part of the year and then tossed the Olympus EM5.2 cameras into the mix in the second half of the year. All of the video projects worked out pretty well so I have a reasonable expectation that we'll continue to see growth in this area in 2016. While the ratio between still and video jobs seems large it's good to remember that video has more "moving parts" takes longer to complete and comes, almost automatically, with more billable hours. Bonus if you can also write scripts!

One tool that I kept missing for video production was a good set of preamplifiers to use with various microphones. Some microphones, when used directly into the cameras, have some electrical and level mismatches that cause problems with noise. We have a passive Beachtek unit that allows me to moderate levels and to use microphones that require XLR connectors but I didn't have an elegant way to really match the microphones to the cameras when I needed to boost lower signals. I have a Zoom HN4 that works well but the levels are not controlled by discreet, physical knobs and it's a barebones solution for getting decent audio. 

I did a little research at the end of the year and found this low cost option. It's the Tascam DR-60 version 2. It can work in a multitude of capacities, including:  a digital audio recorder, microphone preamplifier and field mixer. It's small enough to bolt under a camera but big enough to handle lots of wiring interfaces without feeling cramped. The product has one major flaw that everyone knows about --- it sucks down battery power like crazy. It'll go through four double A batteries in less than three hours of use. Quicker if you are using phantom power for your microphones. But the reckless power consumption seems to be the device's only major flaw. At least the only one I know about right now...

My work around is to find a USB auxiliary batter unit with an internal, rechargeable battery to plug into the USB slot. Either that or find an endless supply of batteries. A small price to pay for microphone preamplifiers with less noise that those in my older Zoom HN4. 

I like this unit for the way I work, which, as you may have guessed, is a bit eccentric. I am partial to a set of inexpensive, Audio-Technica, hardwired lavaliere microphones. Specifically, the Pro 70 model which is a cardioid condenser model that handles voice very well. Yes, I do have a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones but for some strange reason I like the security and visual presence of dedicated wires. Go figure. 

The only issue I've had with the Pro 70's is that they do not put out a very big signal. If they are plugged into the Beachtek D2A or directly into the camera they require a lot of gain and, with camera pre-amps, that means a lot of noise and hiss. The Tascam DR-60 version 2 has four master levels of gain as well as the front mounted knobs that allow one to "ride the signal" as necessary. At the second highest gain setting in the master menu the microphones just come alive and the DR-60 keeps the noise to a much, much lower level than my cameras. 

The other advantage is that with all my cameras gain control of external (and internal) microphones calls for "menu diving" and menu control, as opposed to external, physical controls. There are some other nice features like being able to bring a signal back out of the camera in order to monitor what is being written (sound-wise) to the internal memory cards of the camera. I also like the "slate" button that allows me to generate a tone with which to set the initial camera levels in manual. Once set I don't have to use the camera controls to ride audio; I can use the physical knobs on the Tascam digital audio recorder to do so, and have a certain level of assurance that I won't overload the camera. 

The unit also has a feature which will record one set of tracks at regular levels and one set of tracks at a level about 20 db down. This means that if someone starts shouting into their microphones and overloads the normal audio tracks we have a quieter second track to fall back on. That's nice. 

I'm certain that there are better built units all over the market. This one has a plastic battery compartment door, for example. But I'm equally sure that this unit is an amazing bargain for people who are careful not to use their gear to hammer nails into walls or use their audio units gaffer taped to skateboards, etc. 

Why am I writing about this unit here? Because, like it or not, we're going to be doing more and more video along with our still photography and I think people are interested in how we make our video productions work for the mid-tier projects we keep taking on. 

Last words, Nagra and Sound Devices are the two most professional producers of this kind of product and have equivalent products (at much higher build standards and with much cleaner audio) that sell for between two and three thousand dollars each. If you want a nice, eight channel Nagra you can spend between nine and eleven thousand dollars. I paid less than $200 for the Tascam and it already sounds (to my ears) at least twice as good as anything I was getting directly into the cameras. Seems like a good choice for me. YMMV, depending upon your needs. And your budgets.


Gato said...

Yes, people are interested. Please do keep writing about your video solutions - especially cost-effective location setups.

I have only had a couple of calls for video, but I expect to see more. In fact, I've even suggested video to a couple of clients. I'm still on my learner's permit, but so far I have been able to pull off what folks needed -- thanks in part to tips from your posts. So keep 'em coming.

Ivan Singer said...

Thanks, Kirk, for that review..I have the same Zoom H4N, and am constantly flummoxed by it and can never get good sound out of a soundboard (my suspicion is always the sound guy who throws me an unmatched signal, never the Zoom unit with the funk controls, go figure). Then, I kept seeing this Tascam unit on Amazon and wondered if it would help. Your review article is very helpful in that regard, I'll pick one up before my next video project.

Richard Leacock said...

Yes, ditto on the video


Wally said...

Nice post. Suggestion for an articles; sifting throught the maze of functionality when selecting Monitors for post processing. On the same vein much like you show lighting setups how about stepping through sound design, planning and execution of sound recording for video. Thanks for another great blogging year.

Joe V said...

A very timely article, Kirk. It does startle neophytes to video when they first discover (as you've known all along) that audio is at least as important as the visuals with video production.

My needs were a bit more humble than yours, I got the Sony PCM-M10, which doesn't have XLR inputs but does have a manual record level knob and really clean-sounding onboard mics.

Great job, looking forward to your coming article this new year.

Brian Keairns said...

I was curious about the Tascam but I ended up getting a Sound Devices MixPre-D for around $900. It has the expected SD quality with DSLR friendly output. Most DSLR style cameras don't have good enough internal recorders to make the MixPre-D worthwhile but the GH4 does.

I shoot with both the GH4 and the EM5 II. The internal recorder on the GH4 is higher quality so it makes in-camera recording viable even for high end productions.

With the EM5 II I'm either doing b-roll or using dual audio. I use the Marantz PMD661 MKII with XLR inputs as a recorder for dual audio. It has pre-amps on par with the Sounds Devices and the highest recording quality of anything under $1,000. For $379 it's a bargain.

If you haven't tried them you might want to check out the Sanyo 1500 Eneloop AA Ni-MH Rechargeable Batteries. They work well combined with Sony BCG34HRE4KN Refresh Charger. Saves a fortune with battery hungry devices.

Looking forward to hearing more about your experience with the Tascam.