Sound Devices 722 Digital Recorder Review
by Jeff Towne
The Sound Devices 722 is not the type of recorder we typically review here on Transom, it’s pricey (approximately $2,400 US) and complex, targeted firmly at the professional sound and film market. We usually prefer to point people to inexpensive, simple gear that will let new users achieve good results without requiring selling all one’s worldly possesions, or obtaining an engineering degree to operate.
The Sound Devices 722 is not on either extreme: it’s not insanely expensive, nor especially difficult to operate, but it does cost more and require deeper perusal of the manual than most recorders we’d normally recommend here. It’s just such a well-made machine, an almost ideal field recorder, that it’s worth consideration, especially for those who are out in the field day-in and day-out, or doing critical recordings, or require excellent sound quality. Sometimes it’s worth spending some extra money in order to get quality and reliability beyond what the more affordable options can offer.
Sound Devices has long been respected in the professional audio and film worlds as a manufacturer of durable, good-sounding, practical, portable mic preamps, mixers and headphone amps. More recently they made a USB audio interface for recording directly to a computer. Digital recorders are their latest offerings, and maintain the same sound-quality and durability standards for which they are renowned.
They offer a range of recorders: the 744T is the top of the line, with 4 simultaneous record channels to an internal hard drive and CF card, as well as timecode capability; the 722, which features 2 channels of audio recording to its internal hard drive and CF card; the 702 which is similar to the 722, but with no hard drive – it records to CF card only; the 702T which is identical to the 702, but with timecode capability.
The kinds of production that we discuss here on Transom.org rarely require 4-channel recording or timecode synchronization (crucial for staying frame-accurate with film or video) so we’ll ignore those models. The 702 offers an attractive alternative to the 722, selling for almost $500 less, but given that there are some advantages to having the internal hard drive, and that the machines are otherwise similar, we’ll focus on the 722.
The thing that is immediately obvious when first holding the machine is how solid and sturdy it feels. It actually weighs less than three pounds, but it gives the sense of being able to withstand some real-world bumps and thumps. I wouldn’t recommend dropping it, but it would probably fare better than the recorders cased in plastic. Although that does bring up one small down-side, that the 722 does not ship with any kind of protective case, or even a shoulder strap. It’s clearly meant to be carried in a Portabrace bag, or other such protective case, although a basic camera bag, or just careful handling would suffice. Solid construction extends to the buttons, knobs and switches, everything feels well-built and tight, durable and precise. It’s easy to feel button-pushes and dial-clicks, and nothing seems like it might wear-out.
Given all its controls and large display, the 722 is surprisingly small, about the size of a serious paperback book. It’s certainly larger and heavier than some of the new CF recorders, such as the Marantz PMD660 and the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96, but it’s smaller and lighter than the portable cassette decks and DAT recorders that were the standard reporter’s gear for years.
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is the amazingly readable display. Level meters are readable in all types of light, from bright sunshine to pitch darkness. And there are brightly-lit indicator lights for most important options, so one can see at a glance which inputs are active, which channels are recording and assigned to what tracks, whether a limiter is on, whether the input channels are linked as a stereo pair, whether phantom power is on, low cut filters are engaged, to what media the audio is recording, and even whether a special limiter is engaged on the headphone amp only, not the recorded tracks.
Similarly, the main display window gives more info than simply the recording time, giving quick indications of battery life, remaining record space on both the Compact Flash card and the internal hard drive, as well as the sample rate and bit depth of the current recording, and an indication of which channels the headphones are monitoring. Having all this information available at one glance is very helpful, there are so many options with this machine, it’s important to know that it’s set to do what you are intending.
And that might be another of the very few potential down-sides of this recorder, there are so many options, it could prove overwhelming to even experienced recordists. Most of the choices are fairly straightforward: picking a sample rate or bit depth for the recording; recording a stereo or mono file; turning limiters or filters on or off; routing the audio to record media, etc. And these choices are well-organized, in logical menus, accessible by a button-push or two and a few twists of a selector knob located on the side of the recorder. I have to admit that I was constantly turning the knob the wrong way or a while, but it quickly becomes natural. Simply paging-through the various menu choices is generally sufficient to find the right settings, and the printed manual is written clearly if you need to refer to it.
The good news is that once those choices are made, the 722 retains those settings until the operator changes them, so the machine can be set to one’s preferred sample rate and bit depth and file type, and those would not need to be tweaked each time. The Sound Devices 7 Series can record at common sample rates between 32khz and 192 khz. The analog-to-digital converters always work at 24 bit, but the machines can be set to record 16-bit audio, which saves disc space while still providing good quality sound, although with a smaller dynamic range than 24 bit allows.
It would be nice to be able to save preferred settings in templates, as some other recorders offer. There are 4 factory presets for input routings, and some basic pre-set templates for music or reporting, but no way to save custom groupings of system settings. But in practice, this is rarely a big problem, one tends to use the same general settings for most projects, and when desired, changes are easy to make.
In most cases, the recorder will be set correctly from its last use, and all you need to do is hit record, and you’re rolling. The machine boots up quickly, and when powered-up, can go into record mode almost instantaneously. Hitting “record” overrides most other functions, so no matter what you’re doing, you’re seconds away from recording. Pressing the record button again while rolling starts a new track, and tracks can be seamlessly rejoined in a digital editor.
Input gain is controlled from smooth-operating dials on the front panel, that extend and recess with a gentle push. The controls can be linked for stereo operation, in which case the top dial controls the gain for both channels and the bottom dial adjusts the left-right balance. Once set, press the dials back in and they practically disappear, and won’t get bumped accidentally.
One feature that can be amazingly powerful, but potentially confusing, is that the inputs are not hard-wired to specific record channels. On most recorders, whatever’s plugged into the left input gets recorded to the left track of the stereo recording, the right to the right, and that’s it. A few recorders had the ability to assign one input to both channels for mono recordings. The Sound Devices recorders take this to another level: inputs 1 and 2 can be assigned to either track A or track B; one input can be assigned to both record tracks; if doing Mid-Side stereo recording, inputs one and two can be decoded to stereo left and right. It can be dizzying, but again, there are helpful bright indicator lights right next to the input meters, so one can tell at a glance if things are assigned correctly.
Making things even more flexible, yet possibly troublesome, is that those same choices can be made for what the headphones are monitoring, independent of what is being recorded. So one can record from both inputs, but only listen to one of them. Or one can listen to both inputs, one in each ear, or both in both. Or if doing mid-side stereo recording, one can record the mid mic to track A and the side mic to track B, but listen to decoded stereo. All of these options are terrific, but one must pay close attention to be sure that one is hearing what one intended to hear. There is a visual indicator on the front display, one just needs to remember to check…
One of the most useful features of the 722 and 744 models is the ability to record to both a compact flash card and the internal hard drive simultaneously, creating automatic back-ups in the field. The very long record times that are possible with the internal 40 gigabyte drive are pretty compelling on their own, but being able to guard against drive failure, or other errors, by recording to both media, could save that day in the event of drive trouble or accidental file deletion or corruption.
Transferring soundfiles from the CF card can be best done by removing the card from that machine and loading it into one’s production computer by using a card reader. Or they can be accessed by connecting the recorder to a computer via a firewire cable. Data on the hard drive can only be accessed via firewire. That connection is currently a little slower than the datarate one gets with an external cardreader. Still, it’s not bad, I moved an approximately 120 megabyte file in a minute across the 722’s firewire connection. A USB2 card reader transferred a 150 megabyte file from the CF card in about a minute.
Battery life is usually a crucial aspect of a field recorder, but in this case, the Sound Devices recorders use standard Sony L-Series compatible camcorder batteries, and so when there’s a need for extended record times away from AC power, one can get a larger battery and/or additional batteries to swap-in. In tests, the standard battery that comes with the unit gave between 2 and 3 hours of record time, depending on sample-rate, mono vs. stereo recording, phantom power use, and other variables. The battery life indicator seemed to be fairly accurate. An external battery can be connected via the DC power jack, which also accepts the (supplied) power cord, with its compact in-line power transformer.
The box has unusual TA3 connectors for balanced line-level outputs, but in most circumstances one wouldn’t ever use those outputs. These recorders are made to have files transferred off of them as data, not to play analog audio out in real time. If one needs an informal monitor output, there is a line level output available on a stereo 1/8th inch mini jack. AES/EBU digital audio can be recorded via the first XLR input, with a simple flip of a hardware switch. There’s also an S/PDIF digital input available on a BNC connector next to the firewire connector, and that input is selectable via the system menu. There’s a full compliment of word-clock and synchronization jacks as well for integrating with larger digital systems or with other Sound Devices recorders. But most of those connectors will go unused in basic field recording.
Ok, so sure, it’s durable with many controls, but what does it sound like? On a purely subjective basis, it’s the best sounding recorder I’ve encountered so far. The mic preamps are clean, with plenty of headroom. With the limiters engaged, peaky sounds that engaged the circuit were effectively smoothed out in a fairly natural way, avoiding clips while not sounding too pumpy.
In an admittedly unscientific test, just a rough real-world estimate of a machine’s self-noise, I set the microphone gains to a good level for a spoken voice, then recorded some “silence” in a sound booth. While many of the new CF card recorders put noticeable hiss on the recording, the recording on the 722 shows negligible noise from the preamps or other input components, especially when using a condenser mic.
Even when using lowoutput mics such as dynamic omnis, the 722 provided plenty of gain. Those mics did require turning the inputs up pretty much all the way, which introduced a small amount of hiss, but nothing compared to the Marantz recorders.
The frequency plots don’t look dramatically better than other machines we’ve tested, but the subjective sound of the machine is noticeably cleaner. In the field, making real recordings, the 722 sounds spectacular, capturing small details with clarity and vividness, and rendering voices cleanly with almost any mic. One can hear a small amount of preamp hiss when using a dynamic omni, but the input gains were cranked all the way to the top, it would be pretty shocking if where weren’t a little residual noise. The difference is that the Sound Devices recorder made a useable recording, while most other CF recorders added unacceptable noise when using those low-output mics.
- Mic Test: Condenser Cardioid (mp3)
- Mic Test: Condenser Shotgun (mp3)
- Mic Test: Dynamic Omni (mp3)
- Mic Test: Condenser Stereo (mp3)
Soundfiles can be recorded into specific session folders, and each file is marked with the year, month and day, as well as a take number, making it fairly easy to keep track of files. A firmware upgrade has implemented an optional “retake” function which might be efficient, but strikes me as dangerous: I’d rather keep all takes from the field and sort it out later.
A great thing about many of these digital devices is that firmware fixes and upgrades can be made easily by users, and indeed Sound Devices has issued upgrades that have improved the functionality of the machine. It’s a simple process: download the file from the Sound Devices website, transfer it onto a CF card, or directly to the recorder’s hard drive, then choose “Update Software” from the setup menu.
The Sound Devices 722 is one of the most satisfying recorders I’ve had the opportunity to use. It’s well-built, logically laid-out, and offers an extremely informative display of record levels and system settings. And once those record parameters are set, they are retained until changed. Recording couldn’t be easier, hit the record button and you’re rolling. But most importantly, the machine sounds great, with high-quality mic preamps and good controls that make it easy to get a good recording.
There’s a healthy amount of gain on the headphone jack allowing for precise monitoring, and there’s even a limiter that can be switched on the headphones only, not the record tracks, allowing the recordist to protect his ears while recording a full dynamic range.
The only major downside to these recorders is the expense, but it’s hard to put a value on a reliable piece of equipment. If one is doing recordings that would be difficult or impossible to replicate, or if the sound quality is paramount, a machine like this might be exactly right. It’s certainly not necessary to have a machine this serious to get good quality sound, but it helps!
- Sound Devices 722 Product Page
- Sound Devices 722 User Manual
- Transom digital recorder
Many thanks to Buzz Turner at Turner Audio for his advice and expertise, and for generously loaning us a Sound Devices 722 to test.