If you're in a situation where your DAT machine gets heavy use, it's probably worth considering a pro model rather than a domestic one. Hugh Robjohns studio‑tests a new, moderately priced professional DAT from Sony.
Sony seem to be producing a new DAT machine almost every month, and now have an extensive collection to meet every possible requirement, from Walkman models to all‑encompassing professional monsters.
The PCMR500 reviewed here sits midway between those extremes and, together with its four‑headed sibling, the R700, has been designed to meet the specific needs of the low‑end professional market. Both machines feature the familiar four‑motor, direct‑drive transport mechanism, switchable Super Bit Mapping A‑D conversion [for an explanation of Super Bit Mapping, see the review of the Sony DTCA9 DAT recorder in the June 1997 issue of SOS], and sampling at 48kHz or 44.1kHz (or at 32kHz in the long‑play mode).
The R500 is designed for rack use (rackmount bolts are even supplied), and is equipped with both balanced XLRs and unbalanced phono connectors for inputs and outputs. Digital interfacing is via AES/EBU and the IEC958 domestic format. An infra‑red remote control is supplied, and there are also provisions for serial and parallel wired remotes (the serial is not the universal Sony P2 9‑pin protocol, unfortunately, but a bespoke 3.5mm mini‑jack connection).
Although the PCMR500 incorporates permanent rackmount ears as part of the front panel, it also has feet for desktop use. However, if the feet are removed the unit will fit neatly into a 3U slot.
The rear panel is clearly laid out and, on the left‑hand side, has two pairs of XLRs for the balanced inputs and outputs. Above each connector, independent level controls allow matching of operating levels to a house standard. The factory calibration aligns input and output signals of +4dBu with ‑20dBfs on the DAT machine (ie. puts the peak level at +24dBu), but the level adjusters allow the sensitivity to be increased to put 0dBfs peak level at +8dBu. This seems to be a very practical working range and should cater for every professional requirement.
In the centre of the rear panel, a clutch of phono connectors provides unbalanced inputs and outputs. The outputs are active at all times, as are the balanced outputs, but the inputs have to be selected via a front‑panel toggle switch.
Below these analogue connectors, another pair of phono sockets carries the co‑axial IEC958 digital data in and out. The R500 supports both the widely adopted domestic S/PDIF data format, and also the much rarer 'Broadcast' data format which can be found on Sony's PCM2300 and 2700 DAT machines. A small slide switch adjacent to these sockets selects the input between IEC958 and AES/EBU (the AES/EBU XLR interfaces being just to the right of the phono connectors). Again, as with the analogue outputs, both flavours of digital output are available simultaneously.
On the right‑hand side of the rear panel there's an IEC mains socket (no mains or DC fuses are accessible from outside the unit) and two remote control sockets. The first of these is an 8‑pin DIN socket for a parallel remote, and the second is a 3.5mm mini‑jack socket for the special serial remote, which requires the optional RMD750 'commander'. The parallel control can be configured in one of two ways: either as a totally 'safe' Stop/Play/Rewind/Wind combination (with provision for fader‑start), or as a Stop/Write‑ID/Play/Pause/Record combination. A front‑panel switch activates the remote control operations and selects between no remote control at all, the infra‑red system only, or both wired systems.
The front panel is very intuitive and should not present any problems to seasoned DAT machine users. Below the chunky guarded power switch on the left‑hand side is a three‑position toggle switch which determines the remote control operation, and below that is a headphone socket and level control.
The tape transport cover looks rather like a drawer, but is actually hinged at the bottom, and the tape is presented at a slight angle, like most other Sony DAT machines. Below the tape drawer are two blocks of square push‑buttons. The set on the left are concerned with the writing, erasing, re‑numbering and rehearsing of Start and Skip ID functions, and those on the right deal with marking and locating to a specific A‑time point on the tape, activating the Skip‑play function (the machine will fast‑wind to the next Start ID following a detected Skip ID), and initiating the Repeat‑play mode, where either the current track or all tracks (depending on the selected mode) will be repeated up to five times.
The PCMR500 is a joy to use.
The centre portion of the control panel is raised above its surround and houses the display module, transport controls and shuttle/data wheel. All the expected transport functions are here, including record mute and ID searches. A pair of small push‑buttons next to the data wheel call up the menu display and store the selected parameters. The wheel itself is a two‑part design where the outer ring acts as the Shuttle control or alters the menu parameters, and the inner part dials through the menu list. The Shuttle wheel is permanently 'live', so that nudging the wheel when playing instantly shuttles the tape in the appropriate direction. Whilst this is useful, it is also potentially dangerous in a broadcast situation!
Above the wheel, three small push buttons reset the margin (headroom) display, zero the tape counter and cycle through the display modes. The last include A‑time, track‑time, remaining tape time and the tape‑time counter. If selected on a menu page, a host of current and recorded date and time functions can also be included in the cycle.
The display itself is a very clear dot‑matrix fluorescent type, with a fast‑acting stereo bargraph meter calibrated down to ‑60dBfs and an automatic peak hold. The time, program number and margin displays are all very readable, even from the far end of a control room, and only the sample‑rate flags are a little on the small side.
To the right of the display section, four toggle switches select analogue or digital input; unbalanced or balanced analogue source; standard or long‑play recording mode (the former with a choice of 48kHz or 44.1kHz sampling); and the Super Bit Mapping option. Below these, a pair of rotary knobs set the analogue input level and have a strong detent at the 12 o'clock position to mark the factory‑calibrated input sensitivity.
Like much Sony equipment these days, the R500's operation can be customised via a series of setup menus. The menu mode is accessed by pressing the Menu button and then using the Shuttle part of the wheel to find the required menu function (there are 17 options on the R500 and 19 on the R700).
Two menu items allow the Copy‑ID status recorded on the tape to be observed or determined. The options are copying permitted (default), copying prohibited, or one generation copy only (SCMS mode). Other menus set the record mute duration (0.5 up to 9.5 seconds), the level threshold needed to activate the automatic Start ID mode (from ‑12 to ‑60dBfs), and how long the signal must have remained below the threshold before the Start ID will be written. There are a number of menu pages concerned with setting the date and clock displays, date order (American or European formats), 12‑ or 24‑hour clock format, and whether to include the time displays in the display cycle. Three menus are concerned with the detection of Start‑ID data in the IEC and AES/EBU digital data streams from external digital sources. Start or Skip IDs from DAT machines or the Q‑subcode from CD players can be detected and translated into Start IDs on the new recording, when connected via the IEC958 digital interface. A third mode looks for Start or Skip IDs on the AES/EBU interface in a similar manner.
The first ID number written on the tape when recording IDs or re‑numbering can be set in another menu, and there is a facility to create a blank lead‑in area at the start of new tapes automatically, with a user‑selectable sample rate. The final menu displays the number of hours that the rotary‑head drum has been operating.
The remote control 'commander' supplied with the R500 is an infra‑red type called the RMD757. It's a slimline unit with three columns of buttons providing all the usual transport functions, including Start ID searching and direct ID number access.
However, the optional RMD750 commander is an altogether more elaborate affair, which can be used either as an infra‑red system or as a wired remote using the serial mini‑jack connector. In either operational mode, this remote performs a number of functions that are not directly accessible from the machine's own front panel, and under certain circumstances it would be a rather handy tool.
The RMD750 allows the user to program a specific selection of tracks in a particular replay order (the so‑called 'Random Music Sensor' or RMS mode). There is also a music scan function which plays the first eight seconds following each Start ID, and the unit can also activate the writing or erasing of End IDs (including a rehearsal mode to ensure that it is accurately positioned).
The PCMR500 is a joy to use. The transport is a little clunky when switching between pause and play, perhaps, but is otherwise very quiet and fast. Operation is total simplicity, and only the menu modes will make you reach for the manual, to help decipher the cryptic messages and parameters.
The inclusion of the direct‑acting shuttle wheel is excellent if you want to be able to re‑cue the tape quickly, but could be a liability in a live replay environment — I would have liked to see a menu mode to disable it. The adjustable analogue input and output trimmers are worthwhile, and make matching operating levels very straightforward.
I was disappointed to find that End ID writing and searches could only be performed with the optional RMD750 remote control unit. I would personally have preferred to have End ID facilities on the front panel in place of the Skip IDs.
From a audio quality standpoint, the R500 is a very fine‑sounding machine, and the Super Bit Mapping system can extend the dynamic range beyond the theoretical limits of 16‑bit quantisation, should you feel the need! Certainly the converters performed very well indeed, and direct comparisons with a high‑quality CD source were very favourable.
On the whole, this is another strong machine in the Sony DAT fleet, though it falls in with very strong competition from the likes of the Panasonic SV3800, the Fostex D15 and the Tascam DA30, and even faces a stiff challenge from its own semi‑pro sibling, the DTCA9, which costs significantly less. The R500 has many strengths and only a few weaknesses, but, as always, you should weigh those carefully against the price and facilities offered by similar machines from other manufacturers.
- Stunningly intuitive to operate.
- Very good sound quality, plus SBM implementation.
- Flexible analogue and digital interfacing.
- Needs an optional remote for End‑ID operation.
- Live Shuttle wheel could cause embarrassment.
- Lots of very strong competition, most of which is cheaper!
A simple to use DAT machine, optimised for the broadcast and budget‑conscious professional markets. Good range of facilities and customisation potential.