For those wanting to record and mix multiple sound sources on location, could the DR-680 MkII be the best tool for the job?
For recording gigs or capturing audio for small-budget films, a handheld digital recorder is sometimes all that’s needed. The best designs include XLR inputs and phantom power, and quite a number of them now are capable of multitrack recording too, but a significant drawback of such small devices is that they can only comfortably accommodate a few inputs, outputs and hardware controls. By way of example, Zoom’s H6 just about qualifies as a ‘handheld’ recorder, and it manages to include as many as six XLRs inputs (when an optional pair are attached in place of microphones). But when fully connected it becomes an unwieldy object at the centre of a mass of leads, and there’s simply no room in its casing for channel outs or very many hardware controls. So while it’s a very capable device, it probably isn’t going to be suitable for regular multitrack location recording.
Tascam’s DR-680 MkII, on the other hand, is too large to qualify as ‘handheld’. What it loses in compact convenience for less demanding tasks, though, it gains in other areas: in particular, it has plenty of room to accommodate inputs, outputs and function-specific buttons and switches. It’s still very portable, however, and can be worn quite comfortably using the supplied shoulder strap.
The DR-680 MkII sports four balanced XLR/TRS ‘combi’ sockets, plus two quarter-inch jack sockets, all of which are routed to dedicated recorder tracks. A further two tracks provide the user with the chance to record either a stereo mix of the six inputs, or an additional stereo signal received by a S/PDIF or AES3 input connector. Alternatively, the digital input can be used to run the recorder as a ‘slave’ unit, in conjunction with a cascade option, plus there’s a digital output for when it is set as ‘master’ and in control of a second ‘slave’ recorder.
In terms of outputs, there are six phono sockets, which are quite logically positioned on the opposite edge to the inputs alongside a USB socket, a memory card slot accepting SD/SDHC/SDXC media, plus the aforementioned digital/sync I/O. Signals can be monitored using a headphone jack on the front panel, just to the left of the small back-lit screen, or played back through a monaural speaker that’s hidden behind a grille on the top surface.
Near the speaker grille is an impressive-looking mass of 15 switches: six toggle the inputs between line and mic level; six switch the preamps’ mic gain between low and high; and the final three turn 48V phantom power on or off for input pairs 1+2, 3+4 and 5+6.
Fine adjustment of the input levels is achieved by pressing a Rec Trim button on the front, and then adjusting a set of on-screen virtual knobs one at a time, using the Value/Matrix continuous controller knob/button. The level and pan position of the recorded tracks are adjusted in the same way, using the same controller, but this time in combination with the Mix Pan and Mix Level select buttons. Although the screen is only 45 by 25 mm, the virtual trim, pan and level knobs are not unreasonably small, and the universal Value/Mark knob is an effective tool for adjusting them — Tascam have struck about the right balance between dedicated switches and virtual knobs for different functions.
Curiously, the functions of the Value/Mark knob (which include scrolling through menus and selecting settings) are partly duplicated by the combined functions of the data wheel and Enter/Mark button, which are both found on the top of the recorder. It’s easier to look at the screen and operate the controls on the front than it is to see both the screen and top-panel controls at the same time, so Tascam’s logic here is a bit lost on me — still, having a choice of controls is hardly a bad thing.
When the recorder is worn over the shoulder using its strap (or is cradled in the CS-DR680 weather-resistant padded case accessory), the front panel faces upwards where the incumbent engineer can see it clearly, so this is where the designers have quite rightly placed the Pause and Record buttons and their associated LEDs. Also included here is a row of buttons relating to the channels, which solo their feed when held down and can also be used to arm/disarm tracks, or ‘gang’ together controls. However, the transport buttons for playback are all on the top panel next to the 15 switches and data wheel, thereby making it a little less convenient to check takes when using the recorder in the shoulder-strap position.
Recording at 192kHz/24-bit comes at the expense of all but two of the record tracks, but if the sample rate is reduced to a more-than-acceptable 96kHz you can record to the full eight tracks, and there are plenty of other word lengths and sample rates to choose from.
To power the recorder, you can either connect it to the mains via the supplied adaptor, or insert eight AA batteries in a compartment on the underside. The review model came with a couple of two-pin plugs which attach to the adaptor, but as neither were compatible with UK plug sockets and I didn’t have a suitable adapter handy I used Eneloop rechargeable batteries for the review. Rechargeables were definitely a good idea because, very early on, I left the recorder in Standby mode by accident, and the next time I tried to do some work I found that it had drained the batteries despite lying idle!
Physically, the recorder loosely resembles the SQN range of portable mixers, and I’d wager that this is no coincidence — for over 30 years, the SQN-4 and its siblings have been regarded as industry-standard location mixers, valued by engineers for their rugged build, flexible features and tried, tested and refined layout. While the DR-680 MkII looks the part, and is certainly capable of carrying out similar functions to the SQN family, it’s not engineered to the same exacting standards. For example, the SQN mixers are designed to work at temperatures of -20 to +60 degrees Celsius, whereas Tascam’s design has an operating range of 0 to +40 degrees Celsius — clearly only one of these devices is suitable for those David Attenborough gigs in the jungle and arctic! But for most jobs, it’s fair to say that the DR-680 MkII’s limitations in this respect won’t be tested. Though falling short of SQN’s lofty standards, the build quality is not bad, and it’s far more convenient to have the Tascam’s preamp/mixer, additional channels and on-board recording facility all in the one box.
As its name indicates, the MkII is a modified version of the original DR-680, which went on sale back in 2010. visual comparison of the two reveals hardly any differences, though, because almost all the alterations are to the internal functionality. (This suggests that both the Tascam designers and owners of the MkI are already reasonably happy with the ergonomic side of things.)
Perhaps the most significant update is the introduction of a new preamp design, featuring Tascam’s High Definition Discrete Architecture (HDDA). The release notes state that the preamps are an improvement on the old ones and that a new op-amp and capacitor combination is one of the key design modifications. Similarly, the designers have changed the built-in clock oscillator so that synchronisation with other digital devices is improved. The ability to record to high-capacity SDXC cards is another addition, as is compatibility with lithium-ion batteries (the latter offering a 150-percent increase in operating times).
The remaining changes are OS-related, and will already be familiar to those who have used the latest generation of Tascam’s handheld recorders. One is the introduction of dual-recording functionality, whereby duplicate recordings of the input can be made, with one version 12dB quieter than the level you set —so if your recording suffers from distortion generated by unexpectedly loud peak signals, you have a perfectly captured backup. The only real downside is that the ‘safe’ quieter versions have to be stored on the other tracks, thus reducing the number of unique tracks. Ideally, I’d like to see analogue limiters on-board (rather than the current post-A-D digital ones) as an alternative means of prevention, for those times when it’s desirable to preserve the track count — but no doubt the hardware cost would greatly increase as a consequence.
The final improvement makes it possible to import multitrack files for playback. Given that the recorder has six outputs, this makes it possible to use the recorder as a portable playback source of pre-prepared mixes and sound files, perhaps as part of a stage setup or presentation.
Navigating the DR-680 MkII’s menus is a very intuitive process and doesn’t really require help from the manual. Admittedly, I’m very familiar with the Tascam approach, having used a number of their handheld recorders in recent years. Nonetheless, one of the USPs of the current Tascam product range is the ease of use that’s achieved via the provision of as many dedicated controls as possible (rather than lots of nested menus and multi-function controls) and by not including extraneous headline-grabbing features.
I’m not totally convinced that all the controls are in the ideal location, but the overall layout is pretty good — and to be honest, I’m not sure how it could be improved, given that certain features have to be positioned alongside the screen to keep them in view when the recorder’s hanging from a shoulder strap. So I think a good practical balance has been struck here.
What I would like to see, though, is a little more information included on the main record screen — for example, an indication of when a track has a limiter or low-cut filter applied, and also perhaps some more detail in the level metering, so that peaks between -16 and 0dB can be more precisely calibrated. As it is, the metering is no more than a very rough guide and things like track limiters are only shown when the Function screen is called up. (If there are any Tascam engineers reading this, it’s something a firmware update could easily sort out...).
I didn’t have access to a MkI to enable a preamp comparison, but I was pretty impressed with the quality of those of the MkII. Slightly disconcertingly, the headphone preamp is a little noisy when turned up high, but the actual recordings I made using a (very decent) large-diaphragm condenser were very crisp, detailed and not at all lacking in bottom end, as is sometimes the case with slightly cheaper handheld devices.
For me, the name Tascam is synonymous with decent-sounding, easy-to-use, straightforward gear, and it’s a view that has only been fortified by my time with the DR-680 MkII. Sure I’d have liked it to run on fewer batteries, have been given a cleaner headphone amp, and to have one or two more hardware controls, but these are minor issues; they’re by no means deal-breakers. I’m confident that good-quality recordings can be made with this product, thanks in part to the improved preamp design, and that surely has to be the most important factor of all. And, with a street price just a touch over £500, it’s not bad value for money, either.
Despite the proliferation of both lower-priced handheld recorders and high-end professional devices, there aren’t many direct competitors around the DR-680 MkII’s price. Until recently Fostex were a significant competitor but at the time of writing, their only current offering is the DC-R302, which features just three channels and is aimed squarely at DSLR users. From Roland there’s the R-44E, which has only four tracks but is elegant, compact, has built-in mics and uses just four batteries. Otherwise there’s the more professional Roland R88, with its eight channels,very impressive specification, and commensurately higher price.
There is the very affordable Zoom F8, which is packed with features and offers eight tracks (plus the stereo mix) and eight XLR/TRS ‘combi’ sockets. In particular, it benefits from a highly-detailed colour screen and a useful remote app control. And as we were going to press, Zoom announced a new model, the six-input, eight-track F4.