Intro from Jay Allison
Transom is always searching for the ideal field recording devices at the lowest cost. Our TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne just reviewed the new Tascam DR-40 and says, “At last! The recorder we’ve been waiting for! Well, almost…”
Here is the full review—including audio samples with various microphones, comparisons to similar units, a full dissection of the menus and features, and all of Jeff’s typically thorough testing.
From Jeff Towne
At last! The recorder we’ve been waiting for! Well, almost…
Over the years, reviewing portable flash-memory-based audio recorders has required a lot of equivocation: there seems to always be a “but” lurking somewhere, even for the recorders we like. One machine might be versatile, but confusing to operate; another sounds great, but it’s heavy and expensive; this one is small and affordable, but is noisy when used with some microphones; that one has great sound quality, but lacks professional connectors. We’ve been developing a wish-list for an ideal recorder, and it’s not all that long or rigorous: we want a small, affordable device with XLR connectors for external mics, that sounds good and is easy to use.
The Tascam DR-40 comes pretty close, by combining a compelling array of features. It’s small – not as tiny as some, but still compact enough to be carried in a coat pocket. It’s affordable (street price of about $200.) It has built-in stereo mics that can be swiveled to create different pickup patterns. It has two XLR mic jacks for use with professional microphones. And in most circumstances, it sounds good.
We’ve found several small, affordable recorders lately that offer good sound quality and intuitive functionality, but we’ve always been disappointed by the lack of professional XLR connectors for connecting external microphones. It’s understandable: those jacks are physically large, which makes it impractical to include them on a compact device, and they’re probably more expensive than a single stereo minijack. But XLR connectors offer some major advantages over the minijacks that are more common on smaller machines:
- The connection itself is more solid and secure, especially if the jacks have latches.
- You can use an easily-found standard XLR cable to connect a microphone to the recorder, rather than a specially-wired adapter cable to convert XLR to mini.
- Balanced XLR cables offer better shielding against noise, and are generally more reliable than converter cables.
- XLR connectors can transmit phantom power from the recorder to condenser mics that need it.
That last attribute, the phantom power issue, is kind of a big deal. One of the major caveats about the small recorders that have minijack mic inputs is that some mics will not work with them. Our tests have shown that these little recorders usually sound much better with microphones with a louder output, such as condenser mics. All condenser mics require a small charge, known as phantom power, in order to operate at all. Some condenser mics have battery compartments built-in to provide that phantom power internally, but others require that current to be transmitted down the mic cable from the recorder (or a mixer, or preamp, or some other source.) Phantom power requires a three-conductor balanced cable, such as an XLR cable; it cannot be transmitted by a cable that converts the XLR jack to a mini connector on the recorder end. There are professional-quality microphones that have internal batteries, and therefore are compatible with either kind of cable and input jack, but there are many more condenser mics that require external phantom power, and there’s a real advantage to having a recorder that can provide phantom power and be able to use a wider range of microphones.
It’s worth noting that turning on phantom power on the recorder will reduce the recorder’s battery life, so it might still be more practical to use microphones that can provide their own phantom power via internal batteries. It’s also possible to damage this recorder and/or microphones if phantom power is on when plugging and unplugging microphones, line inputs or power cords, so be attentive to whether phantom power is switched on or not. It’s engaged with a hardware slider on the side of the unit, the same switch that chooses the source for the external inputs. Additionally, a message on the main display will appear asking to confirm that you want to turn phantom power on or off. The voltage for phantom power can be adjusted in a menu, but it’s generally suggested to use the default 48-volt setting, unless your mics are designed to operate at 24 volts.
The Tascam DR-40 is not the only small recorder with XLR inputs: the Tascam DR-100 and Zoom H4n have them, and are only a little bit larger, but both of those machines are significantly more expensive. The Zoom H4n is the most directly comparable recorder, in fact it’s hard to imagine that the DR-40 wasn’t designed as a direct response to the H4n – it has many of the same functions, and even looks a little like it. The most obvious function that seems modeled after the H4n is the ability to record from the built-in microphones and the external inputs at the same time. Recordings made this way are saved onto two separate stereo tracks – one for internal mics, one for external inputs. This has a lot of possible uses: close-micing an interview with external mics, while using the built-in stereo mics to pick up the general ambience of the scene; taking a feed from a mixer or press-box through the external inputs while recording stereo crowd sounds with the built-ins; using an external mic to capture a singer while the built-in stereo mics are pointed at a guitar or piano; there are many potential uses for the 4-channel mode.
There’s also an overdub mode that allows layering of recordings. That functionality is of more interest to musicians than to radio producers, but it still could be useful for creating special effects.
The DR-40 can also employ its ability to record two simultaneous stereo files in another useful way. By using “Dual Record” mode, you can make a normal stereo recording (from any of the inputs) while simultaneously making a duplicate recording at a lower volume. That second file can be recorded between 6 and 12 dB lower than the original, as set by the user. This is a great way to record an event with unpredictable levels without resorting to limiting or automatic gain control. Set your level as you think will be ideal, and if something louder than you expected happens and causes distortion on your main recording, you have a safety version recorded at a lower level which hopefully registered a clean version of that unexpectedly loud event.
The DR-40 provides three other ways to approach unpredictable levels: while in record-pause, press the “Quick” button on the face of the recorder, then select Level CNTRL. From there, you can choose Peak Reduction, Auto Level, or Limiter. Peak reduction mode is a clever way of setting levels: you set your input gain manually, using the up-down rocker switch on the left side of the recorder, but if a loud sound that would overload the input is registered, the input gain is automatically turned down to a safe level. The input gain remains at that lower level. This mode will not raise the input gain automatically, it only reduces the level in response to incoming audio levels. It can be raised again manually if desired, but this is an easy way to set maximum levels without any of the artifacts of the Auto Level or the Limiter, which adjust the gain dynamically in response to the input, but can create an unpleasant pumping effect because the input gain is being automatically adjusted up and down.
The Auto Level is helpful for non-critical recordings, like documenting a meeting or lecture, or recording dictation, but the continual changes in gain make background sounds change unnaturally, so it’s not advisable to use this for important recordings intended for broadcast or other attentive listening. The Limiter is subtler in its action than the AGC, reducing only loud peaks that are likely to distort, but there can still be artifacts from its action, so the Peak Reduction or Dual Recording modes are preferred when making important recordings. The Level Control functions are not active when in Dual Record mode, but you could use Peak Reduction to set a level while checking levels in record pause, and then switch to Dual mode. That way the recorder has set a safe level based on the test of incoming audio level, and is also making a back-up recording at a lower level, just in case.
Of course, professional connectors and fancy record modes don’t mean much if the basic sound quality isn’t good. The news here is mixed, but mostly positive. When using the built-in microphones, or when using high-output external mics, the audio quality is pretty clean. The DR-40′s mic preamps may not rival those in top-end professional recorders, but they’re good enough to make broadcast quality recordings. The downside is that when using lower-output external microphones, like the reporters’ favorite Electrovoice RE-50, the input gain needs to be turned WAY up, which results in hissy, unpleasant background noise. This phenomenon is not unique to this model; in fact we’ve discovered that many of these small, affordable recorders work best with louder microphones, such as condenser mics, when recording relatively quiet things, such as a conversational interview in a quiet room.
Luckily, the DR-40 can send phantom power to condenser mics without internal batteries, so there are many options for mics. External Dynamic mics will work fine when recording louder sources, and given that the primary market for these affordable recorders is that of musicians recording amplified music, it’s not surprising that these devices are geared toward recording loud things. And high-quality mic preamps surely cost more, so it may be asking too much to have lots of clean gain at this low of a price. That said Sony seems to be able to put quiet, powerful preamps into their devices, even the low-cost ones, so perhaps it’s not too much to hope for.
The DR-40 has a few other downsides. It’s more menu-driven than its big brother the DR-100. Hardware knobs and switches cost more, and take up more space than having functions controlled by software, so it’s no surprise that a small, inexpensive machine might go that route, but compared to the DR-100, the user will spend more time poking around menus to make adjustments. Thankfully, the menus are well organized, and navigating and selecting is fairly straightforward. There’s even a hot-key for the most-often accessed adjustment: Record Mode. That dedicated button directly under the display brings you to a screen that allows you to choose between Overdub, 4-Channel, Dual, Stereo, and Mono recording.
Overdub allows you to layer sounds over previously recorded material; 4-Channel activates both the internal and external inputs, recording to two stereo channels simultaneously; Dual also records to two stereo channels, one at a lower level than the other by a user-selected amount; Stereo records from either the built-in mics or the external inputs, making a single stereo file; Mono can record from either both internal mics or one external input. When using the built-in mics, both microphones are active; they’re summed to one mono file. When recording from external inputs, only input 1 is active. Oddly, neither external input is labeled as number 1 as is indicated in the menu, but by convention, the left input is number 1. The right external input is turned off in mono mode.
Mono mode is a quick and easy way to record from only one microphone, such as in a typical interview situation, something that’s not always so smooth on all makes and models. And what’s more, the DR-40 is actually recording a mono file, using only half of the disc space of a stereo file.
While needing to delve into menus is always more tedious than just grabbing a knob or flipping a switch, the DR-40 is fairly easy to operate, once one gets used to navigating the menus. Common adjustments are usually readily accessible within a few clicks, not buried in sub-sub-sub-menus. The input gain is on an Up/Down rocker switch, which is inherently inferior to a large hardware knob, as is implemented on the DR-100, but as Up/Down switches go, this one is not too bad – it’s fairly quiet, it will continue to increment up or down when the rocker is held, and it’s in a relatively good location under your thumb if you hold the recorder in your left hand.
Adjusting the input gain for the internal and external microphones when in 4 Channel mode is simple: press the 1/2 Solo button under the main display to assign the rocker switch to the internal mics, or the 3/4 Solo button to adjust the external input level. In each case, a stereo level indicator will appear on the screen to indicate the gain settings for each set of inputs as you adjust them. There’s a 4-bar-meter indicating input levels when in 4-Channel or Dual mode, only two bars when in Stereo Mode, only one when in Mono.
Unfortunately, all input gain adjustments are made to the left and right channels as a pair, there’s no way to apply more gain to one mic than the other. That’s not too common of a problem, but if you’re using two external microphones to record very different sound sources, or even just two people who speak at different volumes, you’ll have to set the levels for the louder of the two channels and fix it in the mix. This is unlikely to be a frequent headache, but if it’s a scenario that you encounter frequently, you might want to consider the Tascam DR-100, which has separate gain controls for the left and right XLR inputs.
There is a built-in playback mixer that can set playback levels for each channel of a 4-track recording, set stereo pan position, even add effects, and mix down to a stereo file. In most cases that’s better done in a computer audio workstation, but if you ever need to mix down in the recorder, the option is there. Similarly, there’s an option to add a delay to one pair of microphones when recording in 4-Channel mode, to compensate for the time lag that can occur between close and distant microphones. As with mixing tracks, fixing time delay problems can probably be done more elegantly and precisely at the mix stage in your computer, but it’s pretty slick that the recorder can do it if needed.
The built-in microphones can swivel from near-coincident XY stereo recording pattern, to a wide pattern that will create a wider, more vivid stereo image. When the mics are swiveled outward, the recorder asks if you’d like to change the mic direction, which means that the mics will be assigned to the opposite channels compared to how they would function if they were pointing inward. Because the mic capsules point in opposite directions depending on which position they are in, switching the left-right channel assignment can maintain a consistent stereo relationship regardless of the position of the mics. Or you can ignore that option if the absolute left-right position of the sounds is not important.
Selecting the input source for the external jacks is on a hardware slider on the side of the recorder. This will switch between the quarter-inch line-level inputs (for recording from a mixer, or another recorder, a stand-alone mic preamp, or some other device that outputs a line-level signal) and the XLR mic-level jacks. A third position selects the mic inputs and turns on phantom power. The inputs on the bottom of the recorder are space-saving combo jacks: one can plug in a standard XLR mic cable, or insert a quarter-inch jack into the center of the socket. The XLRs will latch for a secure connection that can’t be accidentally pulled-out. The quarter-inch jacks do not latch.
There’s a socket for an optional wired remote control, but the recorder does not ship with one. Nor does it ship with a power cord. There’s not even a power port on it: external power is supplied via the mini USB jack. The recorder can be powered by USB bus power from most computers (some computers do not provide enough current to run phantom power while on USB bus power) or an optional AC power supply is available that transforms 110 volts AC from the wall into USB power. When you plug-in a USB cable, a dialog appears on the main display asking if you’d like to use USB power or make a data connection to transfer files to a computer.
Without an AC cord, power is provided by three AA batteries. It can use standard Alkaline batteries or rechargeable Ni-MH. A menu item should be set to indicate the type of battery, in order for the main display to indicate accurate battery life information. Battery life will vary based on the kind of recording being done. Good alkaline batteries should last close to 16 hours when doing basic stereo .wav recordings using the internal mics. Recording as MP3 will use more battery power, as will high bit-depth recording, shortening battery life by a few hours. Using the recorder’s internal phantom power will drain the batteries more quickly, depending on the microphone.
A stereo mini jack doubles as a line out and a headphone output. The small connector is understandable given the size of the recorder, but we always prefer the robustness of quarter-inch jacks. Output volume is not controlled by a dial or switch near the jack, instead it’s controlled by the + and – buttons on the face of the recorder, where one navigates the menus. That works fine, provided you are not in the midst of navigating a menu at the same time as you want to change the playback volume.
Recordings are stored on a standard SD card. The DR-40 can take up to a 2-GB SD card, or up to a 32-GB SDHC card.
So, in the final analysis, is this the recorder we’ve been waiting for? Yes and no. It DOES have most of the attributes we want: convenient size, good price, XLR inputs, good built-in mics, decent construction quality, reasonably simple operation, and overall good sound quality. And there are a few unexpected bonuses: the 4-track and dual recording modes are very useful improvements over standard recorders, the Peak Reduction mode is a very clever level-setting aid, true mono recording saves memory space, it can record WAV files at up to 24 bit and 96khz, or several rates of MP3 files if desired. But there are also a few negatives: it’s unacceptably noisy with dynamic mics for recording quiet sources, such as interviews, too many of the controls are buried in menus, the input gain is on an up/down rocker switch rather than a dial, the headphone jack is a fragile mini, the built-in mics are very wind-sensitive and no wind screen is provided.
Tascam makes an optional furry windscreen that will fit several Tascam recorders including the DR-40: the Tascam WS-DR2. At $50, it represents a fairly expensive accessory, but one that is pretty crucial if you’re planning on using the built-in mics anywhere there might be a breeze. There are third-party windscreens available as well, some of which are less expensive. Check out Redhead Windscreens, GigWig, Rycote, and others.
Balancing all of these pros and cons, the DR-40 still comes out looking like a pretty great recorder, especially for the price. Making changes in the record settings via menus becomes second nature pretty quickly, and the sound-quality issues are only serious with low-output external mics. All of the built-in mics on these kinds of recorders need wind protection, and are susceptible to handling noise, that’s nothing unique to this model. Ultimately, we wish it had a large input gain knob (with separate left and right controls), a quarter-inch headphone jack, and more settings controlled by hardware switches, like the DR-100, but in many ways the DR-40 is more capable than the more expensive DR-100. The sound quality is very similar. We wish it had cleaner mic preamps with more gain, like the Sony PCM-D50, but we have always wished the D50 had XLRs and used standard SD memory cards. Given that all recorders have strong and weak points, the DR-40 is looking pretty good, especially for the price (commonly seen selling for $200, or even less, at the time this review was posted.)
If you’re really in love with your RE-50 microphone, or some other low-output mic, you’ll likely be disappointed in the sound quality of the DR-40. But if you intend to use its internal mics, or high-output condenser mics, the DR-40 has a lot to recommend it. In a world where smartphones are encroaching on portable recorders’ domain, the DR-40 underlines the value of a dedicated recorder. In addition to larger storage capacity and longer battery times, the DR-40 can use XLR mics, can record 4 channels at once, and can record a safety track a few dB down from the master recording. Lets see your smartphone do that!