Akai DR16

Hard Disk Multitrack Recorder

Published in SOS May 1996
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Reviews : Multitrack Recorder

Though hard disk recording offers possibilities far beyond those achievable with magnetic tape, it often sports a vastly more complex user interface, which can alienate the tape-based faithful. But Akai's new 16-track hard disk recorder seeks to meet the tapeheads halfway. DAVID MELLOR plays ambassador...

 

I don't think any recording musician can complain of a lack of choice when it comes to picking a new digital multitrack recorder. If you've decided analogue is old-fashioned and not worth considering, you can still choose from a wide range of Alesis ADAT-compatible machines, Tascam or Sony Hi-8 digital 8-tracks, Fostex, Roland and Vestax hard disk multitrackers -- and, of course, the Akai DR4d and DR8. If none of these take your fancy, you could even consider a computer-based multitrack recorder such as Digidesign Session, Pro Tools Project, OSC Deck, or one of the 'MIDI plus Audio' sequencing packages... the list could go on.

Two distinct advantages tape-based systems have had over hard disk systems, until now, are the quantity of tracks available, and quantity of inputs and outputs. The purchase of two ADATs to give 16 tracks is an affordable option for many -- if not for the masses. However, similarly affordable hard disk systems have found it difficult to get beyond the 8-track barrier, and most of those who use the power of a personal computer to achieve more tracks have to go through the computer's inadequate stereo inputs and outputs -- a severe limitation.

But now we can include the Akai DR16 on our multitrack shortlist. It provides 16 tracks of hard disk recording at a value-for-money price. What's more, it has 16 individual outputs, so mixing can be achieved in the analogue domain using the console of your choice. Inputs are only eight in number, but you can record from any input onto any track, and the only limitation is that you can't record more than eight signals at once, which isn't a factor for most styles of recording. The DR16 is, in fact, amazingly similar to the DR8 in appearance and operation. If you turn to the DR8 review in SOS August '95, you will find it very hard to spot the difference between the two in the photographs. There is only one button with a different label and function (and, of course, metering for all 16 tracks). Furthermore, if you already know how to operate a DR8, you'll understand the DR16 in about five minutes. If you read this in conjunction with the DR8 review, then be assured that the DR16 is everything the DR8 ever was, and more.

REPLACING THE TAPE?

The DR16 is a replacement for a digital or analogue multitrack recorder in the studio. It isn't as versatile at editing as some computer-based hard disk recording systems, but that isn't really its function. Where a system like Pro Tools almost invites you to record in a non-sequential way and build up a project from building-block elements, rearranging to taste as you go along, the DR16 is best viewed as a very slick and fast multitrack recorder, with extra editing capabilities.

An instructive comparison is with analogue multitrack. Not a lot of people know this, but in professional 24-track analogue studios it's still common for 2-inch tape to be cut and edited. It happens even at the top end of the music recording business; either to join the best parts of two or more takes, or to restructure a song before mixing. In either of these situations, no-one really starts out with the intention of editing, but it is done as and when necessary. You can do this with modular digital multitracks, but it isn't by any means an intuitive procedure, and you need more than one unit, with the appropriate editing controller. It is for this reason that in many studios, the digital revolution has come unstuck.

 

"If you're one of those engineers that regards winding and autolocation time as thinking time, you're going to have to think more quickly to keep pace with the DR16."

 

The DR16 has an imaginative solution to this editing conundrum. If you want to repeat a section, all you do is mark the start and end times, select all the tracks you want to copy, locate to the point where you want to insert the section, and press the button. Likewise, to copy only certain tracks, say to use the backing vocals of one chorus several times, is a quick and simple procedure. But you do need to view the song as a whole entity that you are snipping chunks out of, rather than as an assembly of building blocks, as you would with a computer hard disk editing system, or an audio sequencer. This is an important point to understand. Akai are offering a fast multitrack recorder with editing facilities in a self-contained unit. It won't do all the tricks that some computer-based systems will, but the computer systems will find it hard to compete with the DR16's combination of speed, price, ease of use, and the ability to slot easily into a pro environment.

Connection to your mixing console is exactly the same as any multitrack recorder, except that there are only half as many inputs as outputs. If you only have an 8-buss console, or never record more than eight tracks at a time, then this won't make the slightest bit of difference. Connections are on balanced jacks rather than XLRs, which would probably take up too much room, or multipin connectors, some of which have a tendency to become unreliable after repeated use. Sensitivity switches optimise the levels for connection to pro or semi-pro gear. Unfortunately, Akai do not have a remote control available at the moment, although one is promised for later this year, so the DR16 itself will have to be positioned conveniently close to your console, and angled appropriately. Otherwise, you will find that operation isn't quite as easy as you would probably like it to be. Fortunately, Akai have either found a source of hard disk drives which are quieter than that fitted to the DR8 I reviewed last year, or they are using a resilient mounting of some kind. Some hard disk drives are very noisy in operation, but the one in the review model is very much better. I still wouldn't be entirely happy to record through a mic in the control room though.

GETTING STARTED

Once your main connections to the DR16 and its location are sorted out, you're ready to start using it straight away. There's no need to slot in a tape of course; just power up and you're ready to go. If you have provided your own hard disk then you will need to format it, which takes a short while. Once this is done, you should have a minute's worth of single-channel recording at your disposal for every five megabytes of hard disk capacity. A 1Gb disk would therefore provide about 12 or so minutes of 16-track recording, or more if not all the tracks are recorded for the entire duration of the material.

Amazingly enough, all you have to do to start recording is arm the tracks, and press Record and Play -- a simple concept still largely unexplored by some computer-based hard disk system designers. To arm tracks 9 to 16, and to edit them as well, you have to press the '9-16' button, since there are only eight Record Ready buttons and indicators. If you think about this a little, you might start to worry that it could be possible to set one or more of tracks 1 to 8 to Record Ready status, then press the 9-16 button, and at some later time hit Record and accidentally erase those tracks without being aware of it. It certainly is possible to do this, but if you always fill up the first eight tracks before switching over, then it shouldn't happen to you. The DR16's instant copying facilities will allow you to group your tracks in any logical order at any time after recording, so I doubt if this would be a problem in practice. There's always an Undo button if the worst comes to the worst!

It is only when you have made your first recording and you are ready to play it back that you will fully appreciate the operating speed of hard disk systems. Rewind time is as close to zero as makes no difference, no matter how long the recording. And when you start to take advantage of the 100-point integral autolocator, you will be flying around the song as though you had just hitched a ride on a rocket! Your musicians won't be able to keep up with you. Having said that, if you're one of those engineers that regards winding and autolocation time as thinking time, you're going to have to think more quickly to keep pace with the DR16. I have also heard it said that with a tape machine, particularly a reel-to-reel, when you just want to wind back a bit without going to the bother of setting locate points, you can tell how far it has gone by listening to the swish of the reels -- so much so that you don't even think about it consciously. The DR16 doesn't imitate this of course, but there are fast forward and rewind buttons which scroll through the audio at a moderate pace, with an audio cue facility, if you hold Play while pressing the wind key. You may find you don't need to use these buttons once you've made the mental adjustment away from tape.

An automatic punch-in facility is provided, which is actually useful -- unlike some recorders where auto punch is far too complicated to be worth bothering to set up. All you do is perform the operation manually, in time-honoured fashion by holding Play and pressing Record to punch in, and pressing Play to punch out. The DR16 will remember the punch in and out points without you having to do anything, and you can redo the punch as many times as you need, simply by selecting 'Auto Punch' before hitting Play, each time, until (for example) the singer has hit the right note. Like the DR8, the DR16 also has a 'take' facility, where you can easily store up to five versions of a performance, and audition them all before committing to the best of the bunch.

EDITING FUNCTIONS

As I said earlier, the DR16 doesn't use the building block style of editing that you would find in a computer-based hard disk recording system, or with some of the more upmarket stand-alone hard disk recorders. Segment-based editing can be very useful, and almost vital for spotting sound effects to picture, but it isn't the only way of working. One thing the DR16 doesn't have is an LCD display of any kind. All you get are flashing LEDs, timecode displays and level metering. From this seemingly sparse information, you can do virtually everything you could possibly need in the natural course of multitrack recording. You can't pitch-shift or timestretch a dodgy note of a vocal, but the DR16 is so easy to use that you are more likely to encourage the singer to have 'just one more try'. Getting the recording right is infinitely preferable to fixing a bad performance later.

 

"The DR16 encourages positive decision-making, and when it comes to the mix, your recording will be perfect, because all the decisions you made were carefully thought out at the appropriate time."

 

When it does come to editing, the DR16 has a very good range of functions. You can mark out the start and end of a section, and copy it with up to 99 repeats to any other track at any point in time, overwriting the material on the destination track. Alternatively, you can make a space in the destination track by shunting subsequent audio further down the line if you wish. If you didn't want to retain the audio in its original position, then the Move function works in a similar way. You can create a section of silence in a track using the Insert function, erase a section, or delete it and close up the gap. Slip moves the section you have marked forward or backward to the edit point. Slip Track moves the entire track forward or backward to the edit point. Any of these operations can be performed on a single track, or a number of tracks simultaneously.

The essential thing to note is that with the DR16, you decide what you want to do, you do it, undo it if necessary and try again, but once it is right you just get on with the next thing. With some systems it is very tempting to keep every option open absolutely as long as possible until the last moment before mixdown, and even beyond, creating not only vast quantities of data but a continuing air of uncertainty over every element of the project. The DR16 encourages positive decision-making, and when it comes to the mix, your recording will be perfect, because all the decisions you made were carefully thought out at the appropriate time, rather than put off until some mythical 'later'. And if there really is an option that you want to keep open, you can just make a copy of the segment and leave it in abeyance somewhere on the disk, until you are able to make up your mind.

Finding and marking the start and end of segments is done with the assistance of a jog/shuttle wheel. Believe it or not, audio editing can be done without a waveform display, and the DR16 gives you the appropriate tools. I remember complaining about the DR8 that the jog/shuttle wheel wasn't as precise as I would have liked, and the DR16 is the same. However, there are 'To', 'From', 'Over' and 'In to Out' buttons which allow you to check your edit points very quickly from just about every angle, so you would never be in any doubt whether you were in the right place.

PERFORMANCE

The Akai DR16 manages to record and replay 16 tracks from one hard disk, and this is no mean achievement. This level of performance demands a fast hard disk, and an awareness that if you edit a recording really intensively using a lot of very short segments, then tracks may be dropped on playback. This is something which is inherent to all hard disk systems, and if you really push the DR16 hard you will get muting. Although there are activity lights for each track which go out if a track is muted, I would have liked alarm bells and flashing beacons, because it's easy to miss a problem like this during the mix, and only become aware of it some time later when nothing can be done about it.

In normal use, and even under quite extreme degrees of editing, all will be okay. Akai mention one limitation concerning how many tracks you can record and play at the same time. The DR16 has 32 'voices', and so can record or play a maximum of 32 tracks at a time. Although this would seem to be more than enough, edits are performed using quick real-time crossfades, which take up two voices while they are being performed. Also, to make instant drop-in available, the DR16 continues to 'play' each track inaudibly in the background, while recording on that track using another part of the disk. This means that three voices could be in use for each track, which at some point, in theory, could exceed the 32-voice limit. An interesting problem, but if the experience of Akai's DD1500-users is anything to go by, an entirely theoretical one. This upmarket workstation has been in use in top pro circles for around 18 months now, and the number of complaints to Akai has been nil [so, you didn't read last November's 'Sounding Off', then, David? -- Ed].

I had absolutely no quibbles with the DR16's sound quality. Bat-eared users may wonder whether there is a difference between outputs 13-16 which have 20-bit convertors, and outputs 1-12 which are 'only' 18-bit, but I'll be damned if I can hear it. These last four outputs can also be used for the mixed stereo output and auxiliary sends, hence the difference.

SWEET SIXTEEN?

In conclusion, the DR16 is very slick and professional in operation, and it sounds great. With hard disk recorders like this available, and truly practical removable hard disk storage on the point of becoming a reality, I'm starting to wonder whether cassette-based modular digital multitracks have much of a future.

 

SYSTEM INTEGRATION

One of the strong points of the DR16, besides its excellent recording and editing facilities, is its ability to integrate with a wide range of other equipment, through optional interfaces where necessary. As standard, the DR16 has AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital inputs and outputs, so you can source material from DAT, and use the internal digital mixer to lay it back to DAT without ever leaving the digital domain. An optional ADAT optical interface is also available, so that whatever you can achieve with DAT, you can achieve four times faster with the DR16, including backup and restore.

Synchronisation options are many and varied if you're prepared to expand on the standard DR16; it has options for sync to SMPTE/EBU timecode, MIDI Time Code (MTC) and Machine Control (MMC), and also MIDI clocks and song position pointers. It can slave to one source of sync while generating another, for instance locking to SMPTE/EBU timecode while generating MTC, or responding to MMC commands from a MIDI sequencer and converting these commands into the 9-pin protocol to control a professional video recorder. Timecode is always referenced to the clock rate of the digital audio, so that the 44,100 samples of audio always correspond exactly to 25 frames of video, which is important.

• EXPANDABILITY

There is a compromise to be made by manufacturers between providing equipment with enough functions to do the job, and allowing flexibility for future expansion. You don't need to expand anything in the DR16 (like you are often virtually forced to do with samplers, for instance), but if you have special requirements, then there is an interface with your name on it. Options include (see the pricing at the end of this review for a full list):

• MIDI Time Code synchronisation and MIDI Machine Control (see above).

• SMPTE/EBU timecode synchronisation (see above).

• Additional SCSI interface.

• ADAT optical interface (see above).

• RS422 and bi-phase interfaces (used in professional post-production applications).

• Additional buffer memory for use with optical disks.

• Digital EQ board (see below).

• MT8 mix controller (see below).

• Video display option.

• DIGITAL MIXING & EQ

The DR16 incorporates a 16-channel digital mixer with two analogue auxiliary sends and snapshot automation, which is certainly useful, but a little bit fiddly on account of having to access each parameter before adjusting it. The MT8 mixing accessory provides real knobs and faders, and makes the digital mixer almost as easy to use as an analogue one! Only eight channels are provided, but the MT8 can be switched to channels 9-16 quite easily. To use the digital EQ controls, the DR16 itself must be fitted with the optional EQ card. The MT8 is surprisingly easy to use, but since each channel can control two tracks, you will often find that the position of the knobs and faders, which are not motorised, don't correspond to what is happening audibly. If you see this as a drawback, and have the money to spare, you could always dip into your pockets and buy another -- the DR16 will support it.

 

pros & cons

AKAI DR16 £3999

PROS
• Slick to operate.
• All the editing facilities you need for multitrack recording.
• 16 tracks from one hard disk.
• Full range of synchronisation interfaces available.

CONS
• Panel layout not as simple as it could be.
• Internal hard disk still audible.

SUMMARY
A thoroughly professional piece of equipment. It might take some time to learn how to use all of its facilities, but it will speed up your multitrack recording from the first day out of the box.

 

info

£ DR16 £3999 (without disk drive; Akai can supply DR16s with a 2Gb drive pre-installed for about £4600); IB801S SCSI interface board £199; IB802T SMPTE interface board £249; IB803M MIDI interface board £199; IB804A ADAT interface board £249; IB805R RS422 interface board £249; IB806B bi-phase interface board £249; IB807V VGA monitor interface board £TBA -- expected to be around £600; EQ16 16-channel digital EQ board £699; EQ8 8-channel digital EQ board £449; DL16 remote and mixing controller £TBA -- expected to be around £1500; MT8 mixing controller £499; ALX50 remote cable (50cm) £24.99. All prices include VAT.

A Akai UK, Haslemere Heathrow Estate, The Parkway, Hounslow, Middlesex TW4 6NQ.

T 0181 897 6388.

F 0181 759 8268.

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