Intro from Jay Allison: Jeff Towne continues his evaluations of new digital recorders for radio work, this time putting the Tascam HDP2 through its paces. "The trend in flash-memory-based field recorders has been toward smaller, lighter, and simpler, but count Tascam as one of the few swimming against the current. The HD-P2 is an unabashedly old-school recorder: bulky and a little pricey, with broad flexibility and few concessions made to the consumer market. But with the bulk, and the $999 price tage, one gets XLR mic inputs, full phantom power, excellent mic preamps, flexible signal routing and headphone monitoring, a built-in speaker, and an informative, readable display." Come read another of Jeff's thorough reviews of the tools we use, and check out the comparison chart of all the recorders we've reviewed so far.
From Jeff Towne
The trend in flash-memory-based field recorders has been toward smaller, lighter, and simpler, but count Tascam as one of the few swimming against the current. The HD-P2 is an unabashedly old-school recorder: bulky and a little pricey, with broad flexibility and few concessions made to the consumer market. But with the bulk, and the $999 price tag, one gets XLR mic inputs, full phantom power, excellent quality mic preamps, flexible signal routing and headphone monitoring, a built-in speaker, and an informative, readable display.
The distinctive slanted display allows the main screen to be seen easily from both an over-the-shoulder position, and when placed on a table top. And that display shows lots of helpful information, clearly indicating record levels, the soundfile parameters, power levels, remaining record time, and more. That easy-to-read display is one advantage of the large design. In what could be seen as a pro or con, there’s a speaker installed in the HD-P2. This does allow for easy auditioning of audio without headphones, but it also adds weight and size to the machine. Additionally, the speaker is on by default if there are no headphones connected, creating an opportunity for feedback or at least unwanted audio while recording.
With so many of the new flash recorders fitting in a pocket, this one feels oddly cumbersome, but not long ago, most professional field recorders were this size and weight. The venerable Sony TCD5 and Marantz PMD 221 cassette recorders were about these dimensions, as were several portable DAT recorders, such as the popular Tascam DAP-1. The HD-P2 is a clear successor to that machine, but with a few noteworthy differences.
The HD in the name is for “High Definition” and the HD-P2 can record at sample rates up to 192 khz, at 16 or 24 bit. Recording at the maximum resolution will burn through memory six times as fast as the common standard of 44.1 khz, 16 bit, but if such high resolutions are required, the smaller, more consumer-oriented machines will not record at those sample rates.
Even at its most basic settings, the sound quality of the HD-P2 is quite good. The mic preamps are clean and smooth, not suffering from the hiss and crunch that plague many of the less-expensive machines. There’s not quite enough gain to bring a typical dynamic omni mic up to the ideal level during an average interview, but it gets close, and the preamps are quiet enough that making-up some gain at the editing and mixing stage does not add unpleasant noise.
There’s no automatic gain control, but there is an effective limiter that does a good job at controlling stray peaks. Input gain is controlled by large concentric dials on the front of the recorder, allowing fine control of record volume in real-time.
There is a single, mono, built-in mic, which is sufficient for non-critical dictation or interviewing, but, like the mics in the Marantz recorders, not suitable for high-quality recording.
There’s an effective 20dB pad on the mic inputs when confronting loud sources, and a low-cut switch does a good job at reducing rumble from wind or handling noise.
The recorder also includes Time Code options, it will sync to incoming SMTE time code for synchronizing with film and video productions and will accept word-clock input for syncing to other digital devices. This is of little use to most audio-only productions, and it’s easy enough to just turn-off and ignore, but if it’s needed, this is one of the least expensive recorders to offer this kind of interfacing. The HD-P2 does not generate time code, so it cannot be used as a time code source, but it will lock to most types of incoming time code.
The HD-P2 does not offer any space-saving compressed formats, no MP2 or MP3 recording on this machine. Its lowest setting is uncompressed .wav files at the standard 16-bit 44.1 khz. At that resolution, 13.5 hours of stereo recording will fit on an 8 gigabyte memory card, 3.3 hours on the more common 2 gig cards.
Although large cards can be used, there is a maximum size of 2 gigabytes for any individual file, so one must be sure to split long recordings into multiple “takes” if necessary. This is easily done: simply pressing the record button while recording starts a new take, and these takes can be reassembled in a digital editor without gaps or glitches at the transitions.
The HD-P2 uses Compact Flash media, and Tascam has a list of recommended brands and models on their website, but most standard cards should work fine. There is an internal speed check available through the system menu which will indicate whether the card that is currently mounted is capable of recording at the various supported sample rates and bit-depths. The manual cautions that this is an approximate test, and should only be used as a guideline, but even so, this is an incredibly valuable tool, especially if one is using high-resolution recording parameters, and is unsure of the write-speed of the CF card being used.
Similarly, there is a Scan Media option in the System Menu which will examine the CF card for problems and attempt to fix them. All of our media performed without error, so we were unable to test this function.
Hardware and Software Control
Operating the HD-P2 is a mix of obvious conventions and some less-easily-learned quirks. On the positive side, many important settings are controlled by hardware switches on the top of the unit. It’s great to not have to dig through menus to change inputs, turn-on phantom power, switch-in a limiter, or roll-off some bass. On the other hand, there are important settings that can only be adjusted by scrolling through a few menus, and pressing buttons in ways that take a bit of getting used-to. Additionally the hardware switches are hard to access if the recorder is safely stowed in a padded bag.
On the positive side, the machine powers-up quickly, and if the default record settings are correct, you can simply press record and be rolling in just over 10 seconds. One can save a default template with your preferred sample rate, bit-depth, channel configuration, and more, so recordings can be made without delving into menus.
There’s an amazing amount of adjustability provided in those menus, and although they are not especially intuitive, it’s not too hard to get used to what controls are where. After a short time, pressing the Menu button, spinning the scroll wheel and pressing the “select” button on the top of the unit becomes smooth and speedy.
Recordings are organized into “Projects” and each recording is saved as a “take” within that project. By entering the Project Menu, new projects can be named with up to 8 characters, using the scroll-wheel and the select button, or by using a standard PS2 computer keyboard. If one doesn’t like the files to be named “takes” even that can be customized with 8 characters of your choosing. This makes file navigation much easier when it comes time to audition audio or transfer it to a computer.
If the recording situation allows the space for connecting a standard PS2 computer keyboard, doing so can simplify naming functions, as well as allow quick access to some common functions through the use of keyboard shortcuts. The space-bar and function keys can be used to control the transport (F10 for record, F9 for pause, etc. A Complete list is included in the users manual.)
Project settings will determine the file attributes of any audio recorded into that project – sample rate, bit-depth, mono or stereo, etc. Those attributes can be changed from the Project Menu, so one can have mono and stereo files, or files of different bit-depths, in the same project, but unless actively changed, recordings made later in a project will have the same configuration as the previous soundfiles in that project.
Powering-up the machine will open a default project, but one can switch projects, or create a new one, from the project menu, which is accessible via a shortcut button on the top panel, or from the main menu. It’s slightly unintuitive to have to navigate a few menu pages to ensure that your record settings are correct, but after a couple of times, it becomes quick and easy.
Pressing record will put the machine into record-pause mode, unless it has been set to “Immediate Record” in the system menu. When in record pause, the record light will be lit, and the pause button will be flashing. When actually recording audio, the record light will be steady, there will be no pause light, and the time indicator on the front display will be rolling forward. There is a selectable pre-record buffer that can save up to ten seconds of audio before recording is started.
Each time the record button is pressed, a new “take” is created, which will be saved as a new file within the project folder, its filename automatically incremented up (take00, take01, take02, etc.) and marked with the elapsed time in the project. The word "take" can be changed as well, if it’s helpful to name each new soundfile something else. For this example I changed it to "seg." Even while rolling, pressing the record button again starts a new take, without interrupting the recording. Those takes can be reassembled into continuous audio in a digital editor without audible artifacts at the transitions, so these takes can be used as bookmarks within a long recording. Takes are also stamped with “real time” from the recorder’s internal clock, which can be set from the system menu, or can be stamped with external time code, if that option is enabled and a valid time code source is connected to the hardware input on the recorder.
There is a “Marker” function than can place time references within a single soundfile, which will allow easy navigation when playing-back from the HD-P2’s transport controls. But those markers are not saved as part of the .wav file, they are contained in a separate file saved as part of the project on the HD-P2, but will not be available once the .wav file is moved to your computer, and imported into your audio editing software.
The Project Menu also allows setting headphone monitoring to stereo or mono, very handy when recording with one mic. “Follow Record” mode is the most useful, automatically switching headphone monitoring from stereo to Left, channel only, Right channel only, or Mono Summed, depending on how the project is set.
One can set the recorder to send audible alerts to the headphones indicating low battery or low record space, if desired.
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Editing and Managing SoundFiles
Within the Project Menu, there’s a submenu called Files, that allows some useful, but dangerous file manipulations. Files can be auditioned, renamed, trimmed or deleted from this menu.
Long files with only a small amount of desired audio can be marked with IN and OUT points, by pressing the Locate buttons while auditioning the file: left-pointing locate to mark IN and right-pointing locate to mark OUT. Holding the Stop button allows the scroll wheel to be used to shuttle through the audio, making marking points easy. A file can be trimmed to a smaller size, retaining only the audio between the IN and OUT points, and permanently deleting extraneous audio. As with deleting files altogether, this can be very handy if one has made a long recording with only a small amount of useable audio, and one needs to recover space on the CF card. But the deleted audio is gone forever, and making selections of audio is clumsy compared to editing in a computer, and these manipulations are best done in the recorder only if absolutely necessary. The ability to trim a long recording down within the machine can be very helpful in some circumstances, just be careful!
There is one safety step: when a file is deleted, or the retake button is used to erase a take, the file is moved to a “trash” file within the project folder. Files are not immediately permanently erased. By exploring the trash folder within a project, files can be returned to the project, or deleted permanently. Files in the trash in other projects will not be deleted when choosing to “delete all files.” The parts of files “trimmed” off are deleted permanently with no option to return those sections of audio to the project, so make sure in and out points are correct before choosing to trim, there’s no undo for that!
There is a Media Cleanup Menu within the Media Management Menu, within the System menu, which will show the sizes of any files remaining in various projects’ trash folders, to help in deciding what files, if any, to permanently delete.
The HD-P2 can get power from 8 AA batteries, or from the provided power cord, or, uniquely, the firewire connection, which is handy if one needs to move files and batteries are dead. Alkaline AA batteries give 5-6 hours of operation with phantom power off, only a bit less with it on. Rechargeable batteries tend to give more like 3 hours of continuous record time, but are recommended, because those 8 batteries start to add up. The power cord does not recharge the batteries in the recorder, they must be charged in their own charger. Conveniently, when power reaches a low level, the unit saves and closes files and then shuts down.
Transferring audio from the recorder to a computer is done via a firewire connection, which is significantly faster than USB1, used by some recorders. In order to connect the recorder to the computer, the HD-P2 must be set to Firewire Dock Mode, accessible through the main menu. All Macintosh computers are equipped with firewire interfaces, but not all Windows computers are. If you’re using a computer without a firewire interface, simply remove the CF card from the recorder and use an external card reader, available for low-cost from computer-supply stores. In our tests, the firewire connection transferred a 1 gigabyte file in approximately 6 minutes. An external USB2 card reader moved that same data a little bit faster, but not significantly. (Transfer speed will be affected by the type of card used, and by the type of connection.)
The Tascam HD-P2 is placed solidly between the low-cost, small flash recorders, and the expensive pro recorders from companies such as Sound Devices, Nagra and Deva. Its sound quality, durability and ergonomics are not quite as impressive as the Sound Devices 700 series, but it costs about half as much as their least-expensive unit. The sound quality is quite good, but for those wanting to hot-rod the recorder a bit, modified units are available from Oade Brothers, with various upgrades to the input electronics.
The case is plastic, so might not do too well in a serious drop, but there is an optional case available for about $50 that does a good job of protecting it from scuffs, and minor bumps, and keeps the various input and output jacks covered. A padded bag might be a good choice, but keep in mind that some important controls are on the top panel, and must remain accessible.
The size and price of this unit might make it unattractive to beginning recordists, but the sound quality is noticibly better than any of the small pocket-sized machines. Those needing clean mic preamps, high-resolution soundfiles, or timecode, should give the HD-P2 a look. The Sound Devices 700-series offer slightly better sound quality, metering and durability of build, but cost significantly more. The Tascam is only slightly larger than the Marantz 670 and 671, and a few hundred dollars more, but sounds significantly better than either of those recorders. The HD-P2 is a solid performer that gives great audio results, if the size doesn’t get in the way.