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Akai DR8

Hard Disk Recorder By David Mellor
Published August 1995

Random access recording offers many benefits over tape for the creative recordist. David Mellor samples this 8‑track offering from Akai.

The next wave in recording is undoubtedly hard disk (tapeless) recording. Although I feel sure that tape will be with us for a long time to come, in both its analogue and digital varieties, for most people disk‑based recording will eventually become a major part of our working lives. The Akai DR8 is one of a small but growing band of standalone multitrack hard disk recorders, following in the tradition of the company's 4‑track machine, the DR4d. You don't need a computer to operate it and it works pretty much as you would want a multitrack recorder to work. There are no windows, icons, mice or pull‑down menus, and plenty of people will say that when you are recording, who needs them? Recording is a painstaking business and your full attention should be on the music and the sound, not on the visual and operational demands of a computer. Akai have made a bold decision not even to provide LCD graphics on the DR8. The only information this machine will give you is a timecode readout and the occasional couple of words in its fluorescent display. Anyone who criticises this machine for not having a 'better' display has probably missed the point.

Advantage Hard Disk

First of all I should recap on the basic advantage of hard disk recording over tape, because this is vastly more important than however many detailed features an individual piece of equipment provides. Hard disk recording offers virtually instant access to any of the audio on the disk; there is no forward or rewind time. The value of this cannot be underestimated. In the studio, so much time is wasted simply locating from one point of the audio to another. If this time could be bundled up and sold at an hourly rate, it would be a resource of considerable value. Hard disk recording gives you this time for free.

The other advantage of hard disk recording is that it can be non‑destructive. In other words, you don't have to erase something to record something else — an edit or drop‑in, for example. You can always go back and change your mind. In some systems, this 'infinite undo' capability is actually counter productive, because you end up putting off all the major decisions until some unspecified later time, and the disk quickly becomes full of takes that are no good, and you haven't been able to bring yourself to throw them away. Sorting them all out later will, of course, be a total nightmare. Akai have arrived at a very reasonable compromise for this, as we shall see shortly. But before I move on, let me stress that these advantages are huge, and everything else is just icing on the cake.

The DR8 may be supplied with or without hard disk(s). Of course you'll need one to begin recording, but you may want to source your own drive rather than buying it from your audio retailer. The DR8 I tested had a Micropolis 1 Gigabyte AV drive fitted internally. To date, Micropolis are still the only hard disk manufacturer who can be seen to be making efforts to satisfy the needs of the audio and video community, although other drives may be equally suitable. The usual equation of roughly 10 Megabytes storage per stereo minute applies, so a 1 Gigabyte drive will give around 200 track minutes, or 25 minutes of 8‑track operation. Some of the rated capacity is taken up by the disk formatting, so you should anticipate a little less. Since the DR8 can work with drives up to 4 Gigabytes in size, then duration of recording for most purposes should be reasonably adequate. The DR8 is a normal SCSI device, so you can connect up to six disks in series, plus another six if the (optional) additional SCSI bus is fitted (and you can afford it!). As yet, 'overflow' recording is not possible, so when one disk is full, you must manually select another disk and recommence recording.


You can connect the Akai DR8 to a mixing console in the normal way, but it can just as easily be treated as a sort of 'ultra‑portastudio'. The jack inputs on the rear panel have a sensitivity switch and you can even connect a dynamic microphone, although you wouldn't expect to get the same performance as on a mixing console mic input. There are eight level controls on the front panel, which are actually a bit of a pain in a normal studio configuration since you don't need them. Even if they are not required, you still have to be aware of the levels to which they are set, and it's not all that easy to tell unless you look very closely at the tiny dot that shows which way the knob is pointing.

As with a normal multitrack, recording is done by arming channels and pressing Rec and Play buttons simultaneously. Like ordinary tape recorders, but unlike a number of hard disk recording systems, the DR8 has instant, on‑the‑fly, punch‑in capability so you don't have to go through the rigmarole of setting up an auto punch‑in just to fix the end of a vocal line (although you can do so if you wish). When you execute a manual punch‑in, the in and out points are automatically stored, so you can repeat the operation quite easily as many times as you need to. Punch in and out are both silent and gap‑free, by the way, and there is a jack for footswitch operation of the punch‑in function.

One feature of the DR8 which most tape multitracks don't have is the ability to assign any input to any track, which you may find useful depending upon the nature of your studio set‑up. This includes the digital inputs, which the DR8 has as standard. Stereo digital input and output is available on both SPDIF phonos and AES/EBU XLR connectors, which should keep both semi‑pro and pro users very happy. There is also a house sync input, so the DR8 can keep pace with any digital system, no matter how big. Sampling rates are selectable from 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and 44.056kHz for NTSC video synchronisation.

I said that recording with the DR8 is similar to tape multitrack recording, but we must not overlook those important hard disk advantages. Who, for instance, hasn't screwed up a punch‑in and erased part of the good bit along with the bad? With the DR8, all you have to do is press Undo and no‑one but you will ever know it happened. If you wish, you can even use the Undo button to compare your new take with the old one very easily. The other main advantage is in the DR8's Take function; this lets you record up to five takes, compare them at leisure, and then select the best. This would be ideal for recording a difficult vocal track line by line, or for punching in a particularly difficult section. However, I did find that if only part of a take was good, it was a rather more troublesome procedure to keep it and junk the rest, although it is certainly possible to do this.

The Take facility demonstrates very well the compromise Akai have reached between totally non‑destructive recording and editing, and the morass of takes and out‑takes that can build up when everything is kept. With the DR8 you record something, check it, and then commit to it. You quickly find that you don't keep material that isn't up to standard, and you never regret getting rid of it. In many ways it's the perfect compromise between tape and infinite‑undo hard disk recording.


The instant access provided by a hard disk recorder is a dream come true for overdubbing. Adding extra tracks to what is there already is a process of shuttling backwards and forwards through the track, a verse here, a chorus there. What you need is an autolocator, which comes as an accessory to most multitracks. Not here — the Akai DR8 has a 100‑point autolocator built in. Numeric keys 1 to 9 offer direct locate functions. Press two keys to store the current time as a locate position, press one key to get back to it. If you need more locate points then the curiously named Stack key becomes involved, but it's still pretty easy. Locate points can be set on‑the‑fly and you can set a pre‑roll time so that the DR8 will play from a point slightly earlier than the locate time, as any pro would expect.

One of the things we have become used to with previous hard disk recorders is that they take a little time to respond. Amazingly, the DR8 offers instant start, even from an optical disk (which typically has a slower access time than most hard disks), so you can hit Play and be off straight away, with no time spent waiting for the machine to fill its buffer memory from the disk. I imagine that a short section of audio must be loaded into RAM whenever possible. The DR8 does take a little longer to start up if you fast wind, rewind (yes, an optional throwback to the days of tape!) or locate and suddenly hit Play, but I can almost forgive Akai for not giving the DR8 clairvoyant capabilities. It's still very quick off the mark.


The DR8 is so quick and efficient as a multitrack recorder that I would still like it even if it didn't offer any editing capabilities — but it does, and they are good. In multitrack recording it is common to want to use the same section of audio in several places throughout a song (eg. chorus). These days this is usually done with a sampler, but it's much quicker to achieve using the DR8. Simply mark the in and out points, then use the Copy function to repeat the audio as many times as you like. Naturally, copying identical audio data doesn't take up any extra disk space.

Finding the in and out points of a desired section of audio is done with the DR8's jog/shuttle wheel. You can scrub the audio in the same way as you would on an analogue reel‑to‑reel tape recorder, or a top of the range megabuck hard disk recorder like a DAR SoundStation or AMS Neve AudioFile. Unfortunately, Akai haven't quite got it right in the scrub department yet, since duplicating reel‑to‑reel style scrubbing in a software environment is a far from trivial task. The scrub function does work, but I found that each time I rocked the jog wheel back and forth, its position would change with respect to the audio. This is precisely what you don't want to happen, and I found that I was never quite sure I was hitting the right spot. Perhaps I've been spoilt by my experiences with the top systems? Despite this, it is still very easy to audition and adjust the in and out points, so I don't want to seem too critical. It's a lot better than some equipment I have tried, and there is almost certainly some scope for Akai to improve it in the next software update.

The DR8 is so quick and efficient as a multitrack recorder that I would still like it even if it didn't offer any editing capabilities — but it does, and they are good.

Checking that your in and out points are in the correct place is straightforward. Once you think you have your mark, press the To key to listen to the few seconds of audio leading up to the mark, or the From key to hear from the mark. You can scrub and audition any combination of tracks, by the way. Once you have marked out a section, press the In to Out key to hear it in isolation.

When you have the section you want precisely located between the in and out points, there are several things you might want to do. It could be a vocal, for instance, with some breaths or other noises you want to silence. Select the Erase function and it's done, leaving everything else in place as it was before. Suppose you wanted to get rid of some audio and close up the gap, then choose Delete. What if you want to copy the backing vocal of the first chorus to all subsequent choruses, but it is spread over four tracks? No problem, just choose the Copy function and select the tracks you want to operate on. You can move audio in a similar way (using the Move function), and there are other useful options, as follows:

  • Copy the specified section to any track. Material at the destination is overwritten.
  • Copy and Insert the section to any track. Subsequent material is moved back.
  • Move the section to any track. Material at the destination is overwritten.
  • Move and Insert the section to any track. Subsequent material is moved back.
  • Insert a blank section of a specified length and move the subsequent material backward.
  • Erase the specified section.
  • Delete the specified section and move subsequent material forward.
  • Slip the material forward or backward to the edit point. Slip would be used, for example, if the guitarist played ahead of the beat for a few bars. You could simply slip the offending section back in time.

One option that isn't present (but I bet Akai will have it ready by the next software update) is Copy and Append. One thing the DR8 isn't all that good at, compared to a computer‑based system like Digidesign's Sound Designer and Audiomedia II card, is stereo editing. Snipping out sections of audio to compile a finished master, perhaps a CD master or an extended version of a song, is a slow and painstaking process on the DR8. I would like to be able to mark out a section of audio on two tracks, and copy it to a new pair of tracks, placing it exactly at the end of any audio already on those tracks, or with a definable silent period in between. I know you're going to do it Akai, but how long will it take?

During overdubbing and editing there is an important accessory that doesn't appear in the Akai catalogue — a notebook. When you work with a computer system you don't need to take notes, because the software will allow you to enter any information you need directly onto the screen. But since the DR8 doesn't have a screen, you will have to improvise. As I said earlier, I don't mind at all not having to look at a computer monitor for hours on end. Keeping a note of locate points is a small price to pay.


There are a number of potential applications for a hard disk recorder:

  • Stereo recording and editing.
  • Audio‑for‑video.
  • Multitrack recording.
  • Use with a MIDI sequencer system.

As I have said already, I don't feel that the DR8 is quite ready to be an effective stereo editing system, although you could manage it if you had to. Aside from lacking the one editing command that I think I would need most, there is no crossfade function on the DR8. The butt splices it provides are very clean, but variable crossfades are a necessity for all but the simplest stereo editing work.

The DR8 could be used for audio‑for‑video work. An optional SMPTE sync card is available, and it will indeed slave to timecode of all varieties very satisfactorily, with or without an offset. It will also output timecode, allowing it to function as a code‑only master. Whether you would want to use the DR8 in preference to a computer‑based system would be up to you and whatever working methods that you can devise. For recording music to picture I would say yes, it will do the job very well, and once again you are freed from the distraction of a computer monitor (and how many computer‑based hard disk recording systems offer a drop‑in footswitch?). For synchronising dialogue, I would also give it the thumbs up, and the Take function could be a real advantage, although you will have to consider that out‑takes are discarded, which is something you would probably not want to do when recording an expensive voice‑over artist. For spotting sound effects to picture, I am not so happy. This type of work almost demands that you can see audio segments on a screen, moving past a virtual playback head in time with the picture. Yes you can do it with the DR8, but other equipment will do it better.

The raison d'etre of the DR8 is, I feel, multitrack recording, and it is so good at this that you can entirely forgive its perceived limitations in other areas. You could have one (or more — you can synchronise up to seven) of these machines in addition to a computer hard disk editor, which you would use when appropriate.

You will also be very happy with the DR8 as an accessory to your MIDI sequencer system. If I have been thinking of the DR8 as an alternative means of multitrack recording, I am guilty of forgetting that many modern musicians don't even have a multitrack recorder, and probably don't really want one. A sequenced MIDI system has a lot of advantages as a means of music production, not least of which is zero rewind time. Link up a multitrack and you are immediately reduced to working at the pace of the slowest, and usually you will have to perform all the locate functions on the multitrack and use the sequencer as a slave. The DR8 puts an end to all this; MIDI sequencer users will find that they can dump tracks to the DR8 and free up their synths, samplers and effects for yet more wondrous sounds. And even when the DR8 has been brought into play, they will experience none of the slow down effect that working with tape brings. The DR8 will spring into action almost as quickly as the most responsive sound module. What's more, you don't have to move away from your sequencer to operate the DR8, since it will respond to MIDI Machine Control (MMC) commands, and with the right sequencer you will be able to arm tracks for record and punch‑in/out from the screen of the computer. You can forget it's there, and you don't even have to feed it with tape!


Are there any drawbacks to the Akai DR8? Well yes, with all its undoubted advantages comes a distinct disadvantage. Since the recording medium is fixed within the machine, no matter how big a hard disk you have there is a definite limit on the amount of audio you can record. With an ADAT or DA88, when you have filled one tape you just slot in another, and if you had infinitely deep pockets you could have infinite storage. With the DR8, even a thousand pounds worth of AV drive with 4 Gigabytes of storage would only give you around 45 to 50 minutes of 8‑track audio, as compared to an ADAT tape costing around £10. Of course you could always back up the contents of your hard disk to DAT, and with the latest software you can back up to multiple DAT tapes, but that takes time — an immense amount of time. Undoubtedly when the planned ADAT card becomes available, you will be able to back up all eight tracks much more quickly to ADAT — but what if you didn't want the expense of one of those as well? The alternative is to use optical disk as the recording medium (instead of hard disk), and Akai specify 4‑track simultaneous record and 8‑track playback with an additional memory card and a suitable optical disk drive (see the side‑panel on optical disks). Three 1.3 Gigabyte optical disks could hold enough material for a CD project, at a cost of around £150 for the blank disks. It's still a high price to pay compared to tape, but we are now talking about a practical compromise, depending on the nature of your application.

In the end it comes down to a similar argument to the great ADAT/DA88 debate: if you want compatibility with other musicians, you buy an ADAT; if you want to record for more than an hour on one tape, then you must buy a DA88; other factors weigh much less than these simple points. If you want cheap and limitless storage, then you have to buy a conventional digital multitrack. But if you want the immense advantages of 8‑track random access recording that the DR8 offers, in a standalone unit, then at the moment there are very few alternatives.

Mixing And EQ

The DR8 incorporates a digital mixer which can accept an additional eight channel inputs on top of what you have already recorded. An optional card, which I didn't have for testing, provides EQ as well. Although the built‑in digital mixer is fairly easy to use and offers snapshot automation, I can't say that I am all that interested in a mixer that can't perform fades, and this one can't. Having said that, the mixer would be very useful for monitoring if the DR8 was being used as a standalone recorder (as mentioned in the main text), perhaps on location. The mixer can also be used for internal bouncing down of, say, six tracks to two.

Two auxiliary sends are also available and could be used to add reverb or other effects. If some of this comment sounds negative, don't let it put you off the DR8, because it has so much to offer in every other department.


With the optional IB‑802T SMPTE reader/generator card installed, the DR8 can synchronise to timecode and operate as a slave or code‑only master. ('Code‑only master' is where transport commands are not issued to slave machines, so a tape recorder or VCR would take some time to catch up.) All timecode types are available, including drop frame at both 29.97 and 30 frames per second. I synchronised the DR8 as a slave to my Fostex RD8 ADAT multitrack and sync, although not phase accurate, was excellent with a very fast response. I would have liked to see a VITC reader included, so that the DR8 could lock to a video in still frame mode, but perhaps I'm just being greedy?

With the optional IB‑803M MIDI interface card installed, the DR8 will synchronise to MTC (MIDI Time Code) and will respond to MMC (MIDI Machine Control) commands. It is also possible in Song mode to create a tempo map and have the DR8 output a MIDI Clock signal and Song Position Pointers (for people who haven't discovered MTC yet!).

A Small Problem...

There is no relationship between the time shown on the DR8's display and the position of the audio stored on the disk. You can start recording at 23:00:00:00 quite happily if you wish. If you record a number of songs on the same disk, which is very easy to do with the relative/absolute time feature, you might record audio anywhere between 00:00:00:00 and 23:59:59:29 — in a notional 24‑hour period in other words. So what happens if you forget the start time? How do you find the audio on the disk? There is no answer as yet, except to make sure that you use the locate facilities while recording, which will remember the start time for you, or get a notebook and write them down!

Using Optical Disks

If you are doing dialogue recording to picture with your DR8, then you will probably only be recording on a single channel. In this situation you have a very good chance of being able to play back the other seven tracks when recording on optical disk. Try this in stereo however and you may be disappointed, even with the (optional) additional memory card. An optical disk is probably best thought of as a fairly quick and convenient backup medium, rather than for primary recording. It might be better to think of the DR8 as 'optical ready', because a new generation of bigger and faster optical disks will be with us in the not too distant future, which should more closely resemble hard disk in terms of access times.

With the right hard disk, of course, you can record and play back any number and any combination of the eight tracks.

Three Irritations...

  • The legend around the fluorescent meter display is so hard to read. The eight meters corresponding to the eight tracks (on the far left) do not line up with the Record Ready buttons, so it is difficult to see which is which without squinting.
  • Suppose you have more than one disk: you record some audio on a disk with one of the higher SCSI addresses, you finish work and switch the machine off for the night. Early next morning, you switch on the machine in a bleary‑eyed state and select the drive you had recorded onto, hit Play and... nothing! The audio is still on the disk and there is a simple procedure available to reload the directory from the disk into the DR8, but should you really have to? Shouldn't the DR8 do this automatically when you select
    a disk?
  • The size of some of the buttons doesn't always correspond to their relative importance. For instance, you will be using the Edit button a lot on the DR8, yet it isn't made any more distinctive than a number of less significant functions. Still, I don't think this will hinder anyone's operation of the DR8 once they have become used to it.

What A Din!!!

Without a doubt the DR8 is the noisiest piece of equipment that has ever entered my studio, excepting the loudspeakers of course! (I refer to extraneous noise here, not recording quality, which was perfectly fine.) I suppose it depends on the hard disk drive you use, but the one in the review sample rattled nearly as much as a small child rummaging through my latin percussion collection. The low frequency vibration also penetrated the two layers (each of chipboard, carpet, and underlay) on top of my floorboards into the bathroom below. So don't expect to use the DR8 in the same room as a microphone!


  • Far too many to mention!
  • Impressive varispeed range (‑41.3% to +58.3%).


  • Some 'early version' software niggles.
  • Backup takes a long time (as with other systems).


Multitrack recording made easy. A possible ADAT killer?