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Why I Love... My Nagra VI

Hugh Robjohns By Hugh Robjohns
Published October 2023

My Nagra VI

Swiss manufacturers Nagra‑Kudelski are famed for their beautifully engineered audio recorders. When I joined the TV industry in the early 1980s, the mono Nagra III tape machine was still the industry standard for TV location recording. The stereo model IV‑S has had been around for a decade or more by then too, while the Nagra V (introduced in 2002) was the stereo digital hard‑disk descendent. However, while I’ve used many different Nagra recorders over the years, the only one I’ve ever owned is the glorious Nagra VI. This is an 8‑track digital hard‑disk recorder, built and sold for an entire decade between 2008 and 2018.

There’s no menu‑diving or fiddly touchscreens to worry about during normal operation. Just chunky switches and knobs. How can you not love that?

By modern standards it’s big and bulky (although not heavy), with lots of physical controls, all nicely spaced out, and the large display screen is easy to read even without glasses! There’s a comprehensive configuration menu, of course, but there’s no menu‑diving or fiddly touchscreens to worry about during normal operation. Just chunky switches and knobs. How can you not love that?

The Nagra VI is a visually stunning, operationally simple, and a technologically versatile 8‑track digital audio recorder, derived from a long genealogy of superb‑sounding and beautifully engineered machines. But what I really love about the Nagra VI is its unique and utterly brilliant ‘fuel gauge’.

Now you’re probably thinking that’s some kind of battery life indicator... but you’d be wrong! The ‘fuel gauge’ is a horizontal bar graph which appears when the gain of any mic input is adjusted, and it indicates the audio sensitivity in dB SPL — the acoustic Sound Pressure Level needed to hit 0dBFS. This clever magic is calculated from the current preamp gain and the sensitivity of the specific mic(s) in use — information obtained from the mic manufacturers’ spec sheets and selected in the Nagra’s menu (in mV/Pa).

Why is this “utterly brilliant”? Because if you’re setting up to record something without a rehearsal, all you need is a rough idea of the peak SPL the source is likely to reach and you can adjust the mic gain accordingly. So, moderate orchestra: 120dB SPL at the mics is a good guess. Gentle interview: 90dB SPL should be plenty. Birdsong in a forest: 70dB SPL is a safe bet.

I have really come to rely on this magnificent feature when setting up for recordings, as it provides enormous confidence when using different mic types. Perhaps 32‑bit floating‑point recording makes gain setting redundant these days, but I really like knowing the relationship between the real‑world sound level and my recordings — not least because it makes it easy to adjust my playback system to the exact same level if I want to.

Oddly, no other manufacturer seems to have adopted this ingenious and practical feature, and so the Nagra VI remains my most loved audio recorder!