Tech That I Do # 7

DR-40I have a small hobby that can sometimes be classified as a side profession (defined as “I get paid to do it”) that consists of shooting and editing video and audio.  I use a fairly middle of the road Canon Ti4 DSLR for the video part and much of the time the built-in mics on the camera are fine because all I’m capturing is background ambiance that’s going to end up as a minor part of the sound track.

But, often, of course, really decent audio needs to be recorded.  Sure, plugging a good microphone in to the Canon yields good results, but there is a certain lack of flexibility there.  So, I often use a simple basic digital recorder, the Tascam DR-40, and one or two of a collection of mics to capture separate sound files as I shoot.  Being a four track recorder, the DR-40 can be set in a number of modes and can be set up to use exclusively external mics, exclusively internal or a combination.  It provides phantom power for condenser mics and will accept XLR or 1/4″ TRS connections via the Neutrik Combi jacks on the bottom of the unit.  It has all the basic limiters, bandpass filters and auto-level / limiter functions that you might need to ensure a clean field recording.  It even has a dual record “safety” mode that automatically records a safety track at a reduced level just in case things get loud and you haven’t estimated well enough up front when you set levels.  Audio is recorded in one of 12 preset file/bitrate/frequency presets in MP3, WAV or BWF formats.

For what I do, this unit is plenty powerful and the audio quality is excellent.  I move files to my iMac by pulling the SD card out and pulling the files off directly with the computer.  But the DR-40 can also transfer via USB 2.0 as well.  For really long recordings (lets say you want to record street sounds or a rain storm or wind in a forest for example) it has a handy 1/4-20 tripod socket on the back.  Set it up, start recording and never have any handling noise at all.

I like this unit for a number of reasons.  It’s small and lightweight.  It runs seemingly forever on a set of batteries – as an experiment back when I first got it, I set it up on  a tripod on the porch outside my apartment before I left for work one morning.  It was still recording, with no battery alarm, when I returned home 11-1/2 hours later.  That was an interesting file to listen to … or not.  It’s fairly cheap for what it does as well.

On the down side, I’ve gotten caught a couple of times with it not actually recording when I thought it was.  This is totally operator error on my part, not verifying that the record counter is actually incrementing, but that’s a somewhat easy mistake to make on this unit if you’re in a rush and working by yourself.  I rarely make that goof anymore though.  Some would say that the lack of an uncompressed format other than WAV is a downside – same for the lack of a compressed lossless format like FLAC.  But let’s be real for a moment – for less than 300 bucks, and given the vast majority of the sound recorded for the type of work that I do, for instance, the available formats are plenty.  Recorders exist that will record in more formats and with a wider range of bitrates and such, and if I’m the Production Sound Mixer or Sound Designer for the next Hollywood blockbuster, I ain’t using a Tascam DR-40 to capture primary audio.

For me, for what I do, this unit is far and away sufficient and fits perfectly my desire for reasonably simple, predictable technology that just plain works.


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