Quality mic preamps, 24-bit/192kHz operation, timecode sync... Tascam's upwardly-mobile new recorder is going places.
Over the years, manufacturers have used a variety of different media to make portable recording possible, from magnetic tape reels and cassettes to DAT tapes and Minidiscs. These formats are all but obsolete these days, and hard disk drives and solid-state memory cards are quickly becoming the 'standard' formats for all manner of data acquisition, whether in digital cameras, PDAs or specialist audio recorders. Compact Flash media now seems to be the most widely adopted format, as it offers very workable capacities at reasonable prices, together with ease of use and exceptional ruggedness and reliability.
The Fostex FR2 is amongst the better known of the high-end professional machines to provide high-quality two-track audio recording to a Compact Flash card, although there were a few more specialised recorders aimed at the broadcast journalist market before it, and several more cost-effective models have emerged since. The subject of this review is a new offering from Tascam (in conjunction with Frontier Design) which is designed to compete directly with the Fostex machine and to meet the needs of much the same market — the high-end enthusiast and the budget-conscious professional.
The HDP2 is a neat, compact machine, weighing under 2kg including batteries (eight 'AA' cells), and measuring 245 x 188 x 60 mm (WHD). The unit comes with an in-line mains power supply, a Firewire cable, a carry bag and a shoulder strap, but not a Compact Flash card. This omission is understandable, but could be frustrating if you get your shiny new machine home only to find you can't use it because you don't have any fast Compact Flash cards. I suggest you barter with your dealer to include at least one suitable card with your purchase. You'll want to make sure the HDP2's carry bag is included too (pictured on page 188), since this will help protect the machine if you plan to use it outside (and why else would you buy a portable machine?).
Battery life is estimated at up to five hours with Alkaline 'AA' batteries, and about three hours with rechargeable NiCad or NiMH batteries, but the actual time depends on how often the LCD backlight is used, how loud the headphones are, and whether phantom power is on, amongst other factors. I achieved well over four hours of running time with Duracell Ultra Power batteries when using phantom-powered mics, so the manufacturer's estimated times appear reasonable.
The machine is laid out much like most other similarly-sized portable recorders. The top panel contains various input and menu configuration buttons and controls, while the front carries a large backlit LCD display, the main transport controls and the record level knob. The left-hand side contains various ancillary connectors and the right-hand side has the analogue audio inputs and outputs, plus the Compact Flash card slot. Batteries are loaded in a tray underneath the machine. Everything seems familiar and fairly intuitive on first sight, and most people will be able to get up and running at a basic level without needing to refer to the well-written handbook, which is relatively modest in size at only 26 pages.
The HDP2 records linear PCM audio files using the Broadcast Wave (BWF) file format. No data-reduced formats (MP3, for example) are supported at all. Audio can be recorded in mono or stereo, the word length can be switched between 16 and 24 bits, and all the standard sample rates between 44.1 and 192 kHz are supported. The HDP2 also has a pre-record buffer, with up to 10 seconds of memory at base sample rates. External clocking options include the S/PDIF input, video syncs (NTSC, PAL and HD tri-level syncs), word clock and Longitudinal Timecode (LTC) — the latter accepting 23.976, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 frames per second, the last two rates in both drop- and non-drop frame versions.
The HDP2's audio specifications are all quite good, although not exceptional — total harmonic distortion is below 0.01 percent at 1kHz, for example. The converter delay between analogue input and output is a fairly typical 1.5ms at 44.1kHz sample rates (lower for higher sample rates), and crosstalk from mic input to line output is below -80dB.
The two microphone inputs are on electronically balanced XLRs, with globally switchable 48V phantom power. Each channel has an independent -20dB pad switch to accommodate high-level signals, and there is about 46dB of gain available from the dual-concentric level control. In practice, signal levels ranging between about -52 and +14dBu can be accommodated, which should satisfy most demands. A switchable peak limiter is also available. A second switch allows it to operate on each channel independently or in a stereo-linked mode, and there is also a global high-pass filter (18dB-per-octave below 100Hz).
In addition to the microphone input XLRs, the right-hand side panel also carries two pairs of phono connectors for unbalanced line-level analogue inputs and outputs. The inputs accept signals between -46 and 0dBu. The pad switches cannot be used to enable higher signal levels here as they only affect the balanced mic inputs, but normal line-level signals — from a CD player or hi-fi, for example — are not a problem.
The external power supply also plugs into the right-hand panel using a non-latching coaxial connector. Any 12V DC supply could be used, including an external battery pack, providing it is capable of supplying 6W of power with a 0.6A maximum current limit. The final facility on this side panel is the Compact Flash card slot and its integral eject button. There is no slot cover to prevent dirt or moisture getting in, but perhaps Tascam assume users will always keep a card in the slot.
The left-hand panel carries a quarter-inch TRS headphone socket (a recessed volume control is on the front panel), another pair of phono connectors for S/PDIF digital audio in and out, a BNC socket for word clock and video sync signals, another XLR for a timecode input, a six-pin 400Mbps Firewire socket, and a PS2 keyboard socket. The latter allows a standard keyboard to be attached for easier file naming as well as surprisingly comprehensive remote control functions — not just of the transport commands, but also to access and configure the menus and other machine attributes. The headphone output provides up to 55mW per channel into 32Ω headphones, which is sufficient for most applications, though it may not be quite enough when working in very noisy locations. If headphones are not plugged in, audio can be auditioned via an internal speaker mounted on the top panel behind the LCD screen. A single internal electret microphone is also built into the top panel for convenient low-quality mono recording purposes.
The top panel is neatly laid out with clear white and blue legending. Nine recessed toggle switches provide separate input source selection for the right and left channels (balanced mic or unbalanced line) and individual pad on/off switching, with global switches for phantom power, internal or external mic selection, low cut filter, limiter and limiter stereo linking. Five recessed push buttons on the top panel are used to navigate and configure the machine's menu structure, labelled Select, Cancel, Menu, Project and Display. The Display button provides direct access to a menu page for adjusting the contrast and brightness of the LCD screen, along with the backlight duration, and the Project button leads to the Current Project menu. Two-button shortcuts provide access to some of the other menus too (Menu-Project for the New Project window, Menu-Display for the System menu, Menu-Timecode for the Timecode settings menu, and so on). A data wheel is also provided to scroll around the menus, adjust values and move through the audio timeline when selecting edit points.
Along the front edge of the top panel are four transport buttons — Rewind, Forward, Stop and Play. Pressing Rewind and Stop together forces the cue point to the very beginning of the file. Over on the left-hand side is a non-latching power slide switch to turn the unit on or off.
The front panel is laid out in an equally simple manner. To the left is the recessed headphone/speaker volume control, with the large LCD screen dominating the left-hand side of the panel. This display is conveniently angled back slightly to make it easy to read both when the machine is placed on a table and when slung over the shoulder.
To the right of the display are six more recessed buttons. Timecode switches the timecode chase mode on or off, Retake deletes the last recording made, the backwards and forwards Locate buttons jump to the previous or next marker point, and Marker inserts a marker in the file. Finally, the Hold button is a sturdy slide switch that locks out all the other keys to prevent accidental operation. Sensibly, pressing the Retake button brings up a dialogue box asking if you are sure you want to delete the last take. This gets very tedious if you need to do a lot of retakes, but the dialogue box can be circumvented by pressing the Stop button at the same time as the Retake button, which is a thoughtful feature. Set back into a separate recessed section are the transport Pause and Record buttons, each with bright LEDs to confirm their current status, and, last but not least, a dual-concentric input level control.
In normal operation, the LCD screen carries all the essential information required when recording or playing back a file. There is a horizontal stereo recording level meter, a timeline display, the current project and file names and last marker number, the capacity of the pre-record buffer (if active), the recording settings (sample rate, wordlength, mono/stereo and sync reference), locator time value, and various icons to indicate the transport and connection status — external or internal power, Hold lock on/off, transport mode, Firewire connection, and remaining Compact Flash card capacity. This last item is one of the more critical bits of information on display, so it seems odd that it should be consigned to a small graphic in the bottom right-hand corner. However, in practice, I found it easy enough to read.
By pressing the Menu key on the top panel, the display changes to show the main menu structure. Submenus are selected using the data wheel and Select button. As with most other aspects of this machine, the menu structure is intuitive and largely self-explanatory, and the handbook quickly clarifies the few slightly less obvious aspects. For example, one slightly unusual facility tucked away in the Project Settings menu is that the headphone output can be set to provide stereo, summed mono, mono from left or mono from right signals or to 'Follow Record Mode'. The last option is probably the most sensible, otherwise there is the possibility of ending up monitoring something other than what is being recorded without realising it!
A more useful option in this submenu is that markers can be inserted automatically whenever the input is overloaded and/or if the timecode input disappears. The meter decay rate, peak hold time and clip indicator duration can also be set here, as can the default file name, the timecode and chase settings, input (analogue or digital) and clock sources, sample rate and word length. Another useful facility is that project templates can be set up, allowing the user's preferred settings for different applications to be established and recalled quickly when preparing the machine for a new recording session.
The Systems menu allows the real-time clock, date and time stamp to be set and provides the option of audible beep alerts for low battery and memory capacity, media management tools (Get Info, Clean Up, Scan, Erase and Format), and the means to install firmware updates. A very handy facility here is the Media Speed Check function, which writes and then reads some test files to assess the speed of the Compact Flash card. It then displays a table showing the expected status for the full range of sample rates and file formats (mono/stereo and 16/24 bits). Using 1GB 80x Lexar cards the test claimed that all modes were acceptable, but with slower cards it is likely that the high sample rate modes would be unreliable or even unworkable. Firmware updates are performed simply by copying the appropriate upgrade file to a blank Compact Flash card, and then booting the machine with the card installed.
The timecode facilities are more than adequate for most applications, with a comprehensive selection of frame rates and pull-up/down modes. The internal sample rate can be synchronised to an external timecode feed if required, and when chasing timecode for playback, an offset value can be entered or a specific timecode frame can be set to trigger playback. The freewheel period can also be specified to determine how long the machine will continue in play or record once timecode disappears. The HDP2 will automatically stop if the timecode value exceeds a 24-hour time period after the default start time of 01:00:00:00. So, for example, if you were recording after midnight, the machine would stop automatically at 00:59:59:29! To overcome this limitation, the Timecode Origin time can be set to something more appropriate to ensure the actual recording time falls within the 24-hour window allowed by the machine.
The HDP2 is equipped with a Firewire interface and is recognised by Windows XP and Mac OS X v10.3 as an external Firewire drive. Unlike USB 2 Plug and Play interfaces, the Firewire connection has to be 'undocked' through the computer's software before unplugging. Once undocked, the HDP2 reboots automatically and then functions normally. If the host Firewire port provides power, then the HDP2 will select this in preference to internal batteries or even its own power supply, depending on the voltage.
An alternative to using Firewire is simply to remove the Compact Flash card and insert it in a standard card reader. This was the way I made most transfers, simply because that is the way I generally work when accessing digital camera pictures. Using a USB 2 card reader the download time is minimal, though obviously dependent on size and number of files.
Whether accessed via Firewire or directly from the Compact Flash card, the file structure is clear, with individual mono or stereo audio files appearing within separate Project folders, all with the appropriate default or user-defined names. Maximum file sizes are determined by the card's formatting — the FAT16 or FAT32 file systems can be used — but if a recording exceeds the file size limit, the first file is closed and a new one started seamlessly. When imported into a DAW, the files are placed automatically according to their time stamp and join together with sample accuracy. If your DAW software can't handle this arrangement, Tascam also supply a stand-alone software application for Mac and PC that will automatically conform a number of files contained within a project into a single contiguous file. Various reformatting options are also provided such as changing the word length and channel format.
I found the HDP2 a delight to use, and the more I used it the more I liked it. There are a few little operational traps for the unwary, but overall it is a well-designed, straightforward tool that does exactly what it is supposed to.
Synchronising the unit to external references and recording from digital sources is very simple and I couldn't fault the performance or quality at all. When recording analogue sources, the line-level inputs performed very well, indicating the presence of good-quality converters and electronics. However, the real test is what happens when decent mics are plugged in and I'm pleased to report that the quality of the HDP2's mic preamps is surprisingly good. I was able to make very creditable location recordings using an M&S pair of Sennheiser MKH mics, and recorded a couple of indoor interviews using cheaper electret mics — both relying on the machine's own phantom power supply.
I had no problems setting levels to optimise noise and headroom, and the preamps are of a similar standard to those of a decent compact mixer, which is pretty good for a device at this price. Of course, with 24-bit converters, you can afford to leave a significant amount of headroom and still acquire very usable material, so the limited gain range of the preamp isn't a problem in practice.
Although there is no M&S decoder facility in the input or monitoring chains, you can at least select to monitor only the left input on both ears, which makes working with an M&S mic array much easier than it otherwise would have been. I didn't use the limiter in earnest since I prefer to allow sensible headroom margins, but on testing it seemed effective and reasonably benign in action. The high-pass filter is perhaps a little heavy-handed, but very effective in reducing rumbles and wind noise.
I was reassured by the large and obvious warning displays when the batteries are running low or the Compact Flash card is nearly full — it's embarrassing to say the least if the machine stops halfway through an unrepeatable take! Similarly, another important feature to note is that the HDP2 continuously rewrites the file header as a recording is being made. This means that should there be a break in the power, the entire file isn't lost — only the last tiny portion captured after the last file header update will be lost. Having worked with a lot of Minidisc and first generation card recorders in the past, I can vouch for just what a life saver this can be!
The only real disappointment is that the internal editing functions are too basic to be a lot of use. Files can only have their start or end trimmed. It is not possible to delete portions within a file, or to split a file into two to trim the ends and then rejoin. Of course, most people would prefer to load the files on to a computer and use the far more effective editing facilities of their DAW software, but sometimes you have to fix the recording while out on the road, and the options are severely limited with the HDP2 as it stands.
All in all, this is a well-thought-out recorder that provides very serious competition not only for the Fostex FR2, but also some of the more upmarket professional offerings from the likes of Sound Devices and Nagra. Although a little more expensive than some broadly similar units from Marantz and others, the margin is not that great and many potential purchasers may feel the HDP2's more comprehensive feature set and better analogue electronics more than justify the difference too.
The HDP2 is easy to use, well specified, and flexible to configure. The inclusion of the timecode record and chase facilities expands its potential uses and market considerably, and the adoption of the Broadcast Wave file format makes its data files universally accessible. For the time being, this neat Tascam machine sets the benchmark in terms of features at this price, and will sit at the top of my wish list!