If you're looking for 8‑track hard disk recording in a hardware unit that behaves just like a tape recorder, but with all the benefits of digital recording, you owe it to yourself to check out the Vestax HDRV8. Paul Wiffen reminds that you should never judge a book by its title.
Several years back, when I first encountered a Vestax hard disk recorder at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, I was as sceptical as the next man about the possibility of anything bearing the Vestax name being a viable example of state‑of‑the‑art digital technology. But the HDR6 was a very pleasant surprise, both technologically and price‑wise. It taught me a lesson I should already have learnt. After all, I can remember a group of cynical journalists (including yours truly) sneering quietly in the corner back in 1984 while attending the launch of the first musical instruments from a second‑division Japanese hi‑fi manufacturer at Syco Systems. "They'll never achieve anything in this field", we opined confidently over our champagne and canapés. We were talking about Akai (apparently, there was a saying in Israel pre‑Christ: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). By assembling a team of Westerners (British, to boot) to design their samplers, Akai not only broke into the hi‑tech market, but are now the industry standard by which other samplers are judged.
When I followed the trail of the HDR6, it led me to Jean‑Paul, its Canadian designer, who explained that he had taken his original design to the American Vestax office, who had adopted the project for manufacture in Japan under the Vestax name. So any associations with previous analogue multitrack recorders are purely coincidental: the HDR series is designed in North America. I chased down a unit for review and when I sat down to look at it, I was very impressed indeed. It was the first rackmount hard disk recorder I had seen which behaved like a tape recorder without sacrificing all the benefits of random access recording that you always seem to get from computer‑based systems but all too rarely, even today, from stand‑alone units.
Dedicated Followers Of Fashion
Unfortunately, most people did not share my willingness to suspend their disbelief. A few hardy souls read my HDR6 review, found their way to one of the few stores who were prepared to stock a Vestax hard disk recorder, checked it out and found that it out‑performed more established makes. But the vast majority went ahead and bought the name‑brand product anyway, despite the fact that it cost more, had two tracks less and performed all edits destructively (and time‑consumingly) and that the MIDI board for MTC and/or a tempo track was an option, not standard. As a result, the majority of HDR6s entering this country languished in Vestax's warehouse until recently, when they were sold off at a loss to clear. Some people got a very good deal indeed.
An attempt to update the basic HDR6's hardware early last year to a pseudo 8‑track (called, imaginatively, the HDR8) failed to excite anyone's interest. I would like to think that this was because it didn't have eight inputs and eight outputs and couldn't record eight tracks at once, but I suspect it was more to do with the fact that, once again, it had Vestax on the front panel. It reminds me of a former colleague, always complaining he was broke, who wouldn't buy any jeans or T‑shirts which didn't have large labels saying 'Calvin Klein' and 'Armani' on them. I tried to explain to him that normally companies pay to advertise and he shouldn't fork out several times the normal price to do it for them, but to no avail. He also preferred Apple computers back in the days when they didn't do the job better than anything else, they just cost more (unlike now, when Cubase VST on a Power Mac outperforms anything else at the same price by a factor of at least two). By now he's probably gone on to a Silicon Graphics machine because Macs are far too affordable!
Sometimes I really think I know how John the Baptist must have felt, a lone voice crying in the wilderness (the second biblical reference in this review; comes of having a minister for a father), but then that's probably just my ego justifying the fact that few people pay any attention to what I say. And here I go again, urging people who know the only choice for them is Akai, Fostex or Roland to at least look at the new Vestax machine, if they can find a dealer prepared to stock it (anyone who thinks the buyers for most hi‑tech stores are any less conservative than the consumers of such technology is wrong — they're even more brand‑name conscious!). But enough preaching. What makes the HDRV8 a serious competitor in the 8‑track stakes?
Not Just 8‑Track Playback
Perhaps the most important thing is the ability to record eight tracks at once. The HDRV8 is not just a modified HDR8 (which was a virtual 8‑track in that the disk could play back eight tracks at once but they had to be mixed internally with effects send/returns, as it was really just a modified HDR6). The HDRV8 is actually an all‑new hardware design. The first evidence of this is in the case design, which moves away from the gunmetal grey of the earlier units to a cream front panel with bluey metallic rack ears and walnut transport controls (see the photo if you're confused). The reaction of my colleagues to the HDRV8's cosmetic upgrade was actually quite encouraging, in that it seemed to stimulate them to want to check the machine out. The more astute of them were even more excited when they looked at the back panel, to discover eight separate inputs, eight separate outputs, three stereo Aux Returns, S/PDIF in and out, and MIDI In, Out and Thru, in addition to the Master Stereo output.
This is the really important part of the HDRV8's all‑new hardware, as so many of the buyers of stand‑alone hard disk recorders are looking first and foremost for a tape recorder substitute. Unlike those adding digital audio capability to their computer sequencing setups, they do not consider the ability to cut and paste audio around, bounce tracks together without quality loss, perform audio manipulations digitally in real time, or any of the other 1001 advantages of hard disk recording compensate for losing the ability to record eight tracks at once and the access to instantaneous hardware transport control. Those people who fall into this category will be happy to know that the HDRV8 fulfils all these criteria. The eight balanced TRS quarter‑inch jack inputs can be connected to a conventional 8‑buss desk at line level for full 8‑channel simultaneous recording. You could actually record a drummer or live band on the HDRV8 for later mixdown. Similarly, if you want to mix the HDRV8 through a conventional mixing desk, you're in luck: the eight direct outputs are also on balanced TRS quarter‑inch jacks. So those of you with analogue mixers won't have to change your recording practices one iota. Indeed, the only difference you'll notice is an amazing improvement in quality from an analogue tape machine (thanks to the HDRV8's 18‑bit A/D and 20‑bit D/A converters), the total disappearance of tape hiss and the fact that you don't have to hang around waiting for a tape mechanism to shuttle backwards and forwards (which always used to be the way New England Digital sold the Synclavier to analogue engineers and producers!).
The sound of the HDRV8 is amongst the best of the digital multitracks or computer‑controlled hardware systems I have heard. With an excellent low‑end response (often lacking in digital) and the crispest vocal sound I have heard in many a long year, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it in the most demanding applications. You need have no fear of using the built‑in converters to record classical music or extremely dynamic percussion. Clearly Jean‑Paul has his act together on A/D conversion.
Those of you who have already made it into the digital domain (or who are thinking that the time may be ripe for the move) will be pleased to know that the internal MIDI‑automatable digital mixing of the HDR6 and HDR8 has been retained, and the last three direct outs can be switched to act as aux sends to the three stereo aux returns if the HDRV8 is to be used as its own mixer. The final stereo mix can then be sent direct to DAT via the S/PDIF ouput for a true all‑digital production (no analogue mixer hiding between a digital multitrack and the S/PDIF output on the back — unlike in some hard disk or MiniDisc recorders I could mention).
No Mixer, Sir? Then Have A Mic Preamp!
Those whose budget only extends to the HDRV8 will be pleased to see a useful addition to the original Vestax hardware. On the right of the front panel is a mic preamp, complete with XLR input and level control. This means that the HDRV8 can be used without any external mixing capabilities whatsoever, to record and mix an entire project.
There's a hard‑wired rotary knob for setting the Mic Level, a Clip LED, and a Gain switch which changes the input gain from ‑10dB to +4dB. This means that the HDRV8 can take the input from any dynamic microphone or condenser with battery (no phantom power, unfortunately) and record it direct to the hard drive without the need for a mixer or preamp. Of course, a more professional setup would probably use a compressor combined with a mic preamp (something like the Joe Meek Voice Channel, or similar), but the fact of the matter is that with the HDRV8 you can at least get started on recording vocals without the additional cost of a mic preamp. Maybe the optional effects board will offer digital compression, although the one analogue device I recommend to anyone recording vocals and other acoustic sources is a damn good valve compressor. This allows you to simultaneously warm up the sound and make sure the A/D converter is being continously driven good and hard (you can't get the bits you lose on low‑level signals back once you are in digital, however good your normalising algorithm!).
Although the internal 1Gb IDE hard drive supplied as standard for the HDRV8's £2300 asking price allows 25 minutes of uncompressed 8‑track recording (over 200 track‑minutes), the first thing you discover about random access recording is that no hard drive is big enough. Fortunately, the HDRV8 (like its predecessors) has all the internal connections for another IDE hard drive. This makes it pretty cheap to add a second hard drive, which can record contiguously from the first to more than double the recording capacity, larger IDE drives being available (alternatively, this second drive can be used as a backup device, something particularly relevant for the devices discussed below).
The sound of the HDRV8 is amongst the best of the digital multitracks I have heard. You need have no fear of using the built‑in converters to record classical music or dynamic percussion.
However, in 10 years of hard disk recording I have discovered that there is really only one answer to the problem of the largest hard drives never being big enough: removables. Apart from anything else, keeping track of songs and moving them between different machines as easily as with tape recorders is only possible with removable devices. Fortunately, below the mic preamp, the HDRV8 has another innovation from the HDR6 and HDR8 — a screw‑on plate which covers a slot designed for removable drives. This will apparently accommodate Syquest drives (including the new 1.5Gb Syjet) but experiments with the Jaz drives have proved unreliable due to unannounced firmware changes which Iomega keep making (something some Roland VS880 purchasers have discovered to their cost). As a result, these are not recommended for use with the HDRV8. It may also be possible to use the new Nomaï 540Mb removable (which is 270 Syquest compatible). Again, all these removable drives can be used either to record eight tracks directly, or to to back up the internal IDE hard drive.
Once you have all this recording time on‑line (either on fixed or removable hard drives), you can divide the available space on the internal 1Gb and any second drive that is set for recording (rather than backup) into Songs — unlike some other stand‑alone hard disk recorders, where you have to do the housekeeping for different projects. You set the time length for each song and assign it a number for quick recall. Obviously, the total number of songs is determined by the size of your hard drive, but each individual song can be as long (up to the maximum available) or as short as you want. So someone working on lots of little projects can keep them all spearate and quickly move from one to another.
One word of warning: song length cannot be changed once recording has started, so you should always allow more time for your song than you think you might need. The only way to make a song longer once you've started recording is to back it up and re‑load it into a new, longer song slot. If you do this to a second drive it's reasonably quick, but if DAT is your only backup, this is going to take a long time.
Songs can be created, recalled and deleted in Song Mode. However, deleting a Song does not erase the audio data, merely the playback references, so you can get it back by creating a new song with the same number and length. To delete audio data you must actually record new audio over it (sounds nice and safe to me).
Once you've created a song, you can stripe MIDI Time Code or MIDI Clock from a sequencer Tempo Map onto a special track, so you don't lose an audio track like you would on an analogue tape machine. This means that the HDRV8 can be used with any sequencer on the market (they can all sync to one or the other). If you stripe MTC, the display shows hours, minutes, seconds and frames, whereas MIDI Clock shows a beat counter to confirm the striping. Any tempo changes set up on the sequencer will be recorded and then, when the HDR is put into playback, the MIDI Clock will be sent out; provided the sequencer is set to sync to MIDI, it will follow the recorded tempo changes.
Those of you who took the trouble to look at the HDR6 will have discovered how easy it is to use and the HDRV8, whilst adding to the hardware spec of its predecessor, retains exactly the same method of operation. For those of you who have not seen an HDR6 and don't have my review to hand (see the February 1995 issue of SOS), I'll quickly recap on how easy the design is to use and understand.
Anyone who's ever used a tape recorder will instantly be able to use the transport controls. Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop, Play — all work in standard fashion, and Record in conjunction with Play will start recording on any track whose red Record Ready LED is lit below the main display. The smaller Counter display keeps you abreast of your exact location in the current song in absolute time. In Shuttle mode, the jog wheel lets you finely adjust the current position with audio scrubbing, so that you can set the A and B points which are used for all punch in/out, looping, copying and moving operations.
All these operations are very simple, and if you use them to their fullest capacity you can carry out any edit that you could achieve on a computer‑based system, although you might need to keep a handwritten log of your song structure in bars, beats and ticks (or mins, secs and frames if you have not recorded to a MIDI Tempo Map striped from a sequencer). I sometimes think that the whole process of editing MIDI data and digital audio has become so visual that we forget we're working with sound. It's all too easy to make an edit that looks right, when sometimes we should stop and listen to check that it sounds right. With the HDRV8, there's no danger of falling into this trap. Using A‑B Repeat Play, for example, you can check that a drum loop has been accurately marked before you copy it as many times as you need. As the loop replays, you get a very accurate idea of how it will sound when you move or copy it, especially if you use the Copy Repeat function.
As far as editing goes, the HDRV8 is better than most of its stand‑alone rivals, simply because all such edits are non‑destructive. This means that when you perform an edit, no data is moved on the hard disk. Instead, flags are memorised at the specified edit positions, and from then on the audio data is played in the new order you've given. This is the beauty of random access recording, but many stand‑alone hard disk recorders actually move the data around on the hard drive. This means that the edit takes a long time, and even if there is an undo function, that it will take as long to undo as the edit, because all the data has to be moved back again. Another problem with this approach is that if the power is cut for any reason during the edit, your audio data will be scrambled.
The Advantages Of Playlisting
The HDRV8 keeps the flags for all the edits you do in a 'playlist', a set of instructions for the order of playback of the audio material. This means that you can always revert to the original, unedited audio recordings as they were first made. It also means that an Edit or Undo operation is instantaneous.
However, there may come a time when you are completely happy with the edited version of a song. It is then possible to Reduce Playlist, which makes all the edits permanent by actually moving data on the hard drive (so you'd better be sure you never want to change anything). Alternatively, you may change your mind about the entire edit and want to revert to original audio recordings. There is a Delete Playlist function as well. Needless to say, both functions have a 'Sure?' message which needs confirming before you keep or throw away your edits forever!
Just like its predecessors, the HDRV8 lets you make all mix and EQ changes in real time. You simply select the parameter — Vol, Pan, Pre‑EQ level (to compensate for EQ boost/cut), Hi Cut/Boost, Mid Cut/Boost, Freq & Q, Low Cut/Boost, Aux 1, 2 and 3 Send for each track, plus Aux and Master levels — and adjust it using the jog wheel. When you're doing this, the track‑level LEDs show you that parameter setting for all eight tracks, and the selected track's parameter value is shown in the Counter window.
At any point you can go to the Save function in the main menu and save a mixer snapshot under one of the 128 MIDI Program Change numbers. These can then be instantly recalled at any time, via MIDI or from the Pro function in the Main Menu. For those who like their automation dynamic, the HDRV8 sends and receives MIDI Continuous Controllers for each parameter movement in the mixer. This means that you can record all mixer parameter changes into a MIDI sequencer and replay them, or use external devices to control the mixer (Jean‑Paul uses both a Cubase Mixer Map and a hardware MIDI fader panel to demonstrate this at trade shows). With the FX1 internal effects board fitted, the HDRV8 should be able to have all the DSP effects under MIDI control as well, for total recall at a budget price.
I've taken to using Cubase Audio for all my digital audio recording/editing projects, but that really ties you to working in a fixed location. The HDRV8 makes me remember what I always used to say: that hardware solutions are best. With an HDRV8 I could get out more and record some live music, or at least some real musicians, even if I then brought the project home and transferred it onto the computer in one pass, via the optional ADAT optical I/O for editing. The HDRV8 is certainly the best way I have seen of doing that sort of thing. If you want your hard disk recording in a compact stand‑alone format, the HDRV8 is my recommendation, not just from the price point of view, but for speed of operation, sound quality and flexibility. And if you don't own a computer or one that is capable of supporting digital audio editing, the V8 won't let you miss one! Just sync your sequencer via MIDI and you're away.
Merging (Aka Bouncing Down)
Even a full complement of eight tracks gets used up eventually, and you may want to bounce down to mono or stereo and record another seven or six tracks respectively. All you need to know to do this on the HDRV8 is that the Merge button is the one you press. This lets you select one or two tracks as the destination for the bounce. Then all you do is mute the tracks you don't want to appear in the bounced result and go into record as normal. Any mix/EQ settings on the tracks playing back will be reflected in the result (including any MIDI‑automated changes), as the recording is taken from the Master Out(s) just before the D/A converter (so that the bounce is of the degradation‑free all‑digital variety).
Digital Domain Hardware Expansion
If your mixing needs outstrip the capabilities of the HDRV8, you'll still be able to use it with digital mixers, entirely in the digital domain, as Vestax have announced an ADAT optical interface, due in April, as one of the options for the two expansion slots on the back of the unit. For those who have missed me banging on about this excellent interface for the last year, let me mention once again that you do not need to have an ADAT to use this interface, just eight digital audio channels which you want to send down one electrically‑isolated cable (say goodbye to earth loops). This means that you could connect the HDRV8 bi‑directionally to one of the two ADAT I/Os standard on the Korg 168RC 8‑buss digital mixer in order to simultaneously record all eight channels from digital. The same can be achieved using the optional ADAT I/O boards for the established Yamaha 02R, the imminent Yamaha 03D or the Mackie Digital 8‑buss premiered at NAMM (although you'll have to wait till the autumn for this last alternative).
Another option for digital expansion is the Tascam TDIF interface on a D‑connector. Though it is less likely that anyone will use this to interface to the increasing number of digital mixers available, it is the only option if you want to connect digitally to the Tascam DA88 and DA38 multitrack recorders, to edit recordings made in this tape format. This should also be available around April.
Of more interest to those who don't have external mixing and effects devices to which they want to connect the HDRV8 is the FX1 digital effects board option mentioned in the manual's preamble. Although details of exactly what effects it will offer are sketchy at the moment, at around £300 this will be another way to expand the HDRV8's mixdown capabilities while remaining in the digital domain. Other options include SCSI for external drives and SMPTE for sync to analogue audio or video tape.
We've also just heard of a hardware control surface, the MX1, from Vestax, which is MMC‑compatible and ideally suited to controlling the functions of the whole HDR range. Watch our news pages for more information as soon as we have it.
- Excellent sound quality.
- Eight channels of automatable mixing/EQ.
- Uses fixed or removable drives for recording and backup; optional SCSI interface for external drives.
- Non‑destructive Playlist for fast, intuitive and safe audio editing.
- Built‑in mic preamp.
- Excellent digital compatibility.
- Song length cannot be easily changed once recording has started.
- No phantom power on mic preamp.
The HDRV8 builds on the excellent facilities of its predecessors. The mic preamp, MIDI and S/PDIF as standard mean that it is ready to use on its own or with just a MIDI sequencer. In an analogue studio you have the necessary balanced ins and outs for mixing externally and if you want to stay all‑digital, the options mean that it can handle its own effects processing internally or interface digitally with the most exclusive company. A real gem which won't turn you into a pauper.