Watch the video review embedded at the foot of this article!
Tascam DR-60D review
In a world where technology changes at an ever increasing rate it is refreshing to discover something that’s “definitive” in its field of application. The good old Shure SM-58 vocal microphone is a classic example – and it’s pretty much the same today as it was in 1966 when it was first produced. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that Tascam have achieved this with the DR-60D audio recording solution.
Though aimed primarily at solving the audio issues facing DSLR users, what they’ve actually created with the DR-60D is professional audio recording solution that takes DSLR sound recording to a completely new level. Actually, it achieves a lot more than this and will provide anyone who is serious about audio with a neat and well-featured four-track field recorder/mixer – regardless of what you are shooting with or if you’re not shooting pictures at all.
Well thought out
I spotted the announcement by Proactive on the availability of the DR-60D and from the blurb I could tell that Tascam had thought through this product really well. With a street price that’s a shade under £300 including VAT the unit addresses all of the limitations of DSLR audio as well as providing the user with a range of additional features which should pretty much eradicate poor or missing audio. It’s everything I wanted it to be – and more.
I’m proof of the fact that you don’t have to be a mastermind to use it either. Even though we must all refer to them at some stage – I hate instruction manuals! But with a modicum of familiarity with professional audio connections and controls you’ll be making your first recording with the DR-60D almost as soon as you’ve taken it out of the box. If you are a total pro-audio newbie then reading the Quick Start Guide (a massive 4-page tome – with big pictures) will have you tweaking the levels and laying down tracks in minutes. Ease of use is another characteristic of an iconic product for which Tascam deserve a massive pat on the back.
Whilst you could simply describe the unit as being box-shaped that would do an injustice to the amount of design and engineering that must have gone into it. The conclusion, I suspect, was that the design guys realised that box-shaped is best when it comes to fitting in with the various cameras, rigs, mounts and shooting conditions of a DSLR videographer – so why complicate it? Every side of the box is employed without waste – with the separated controls, inputs and outputs together in groups positioned where they should be. For me the form factor is totally in-tune with the form factor of DSLRs.
Chiefly made from durable rigid plastic it weighs in at just over half a kilo. The touch and feel of the unit gives you the impression that it’s a tough little nut – and it has to be. Whilst the immediate urge is to mount the unit betwixt camera and tripod (or crane or slider…) like me you’ll soon be exploring the other mounting solutions as well as using the unit completely detached from the camera as an auxiliary sound recording device. The strap attachment bars are in fact bumper bars too and will give some protection to the control face of the DR-60D whilst in use and transit.
It’s hard to list the features of the DR-60D in any logical order because they’ll be valued differently by different users, but here are the things that have impressed me and how I see the unit improving my DSLR audio workflow.
1 – DSLR Integration
My current workflow is to attach my mics (radio or otherwise) directly to my 5DMkii via the mic input. I’m running ML (Magic Lantern) on the camera so I can turn off AGC and adjust the overall analogue level as well as digitally adjusting the L/R channels independently within ML. Whilst this is great, with ML giving me a visual indication of levels, getting the levels perfect can be a little hit and miss. I do use the ML headphone output facility but the signal is pretty thin without another in-line headphone booster and therefore far from perfect for setting up levels and monitoring.
On a straightforward single-handed shoot that’s pretty much what I’ve to rely on. There are of course situations where I prefer to have the comfort of a sound recordist creating an auxiliary recording on a separate device. When someone is purely thinking about sound it should result in a better soundtrack and at the same time give me more time to think about the pictures. I don’t see those situations changing much other than the device the sound recordist uses will be a DR-60D (mine or theirs).
Where the unit will really come into its own for me is on my single-handed shoots – giving me two XLR/TRS inputs (balanced analogue XLR/ ¼” Jack combo sockets) to connect powered mics, phantom-powered mics (+24V/+48V) or line-level feeds. In addition I have a stereo 3.5 mini jack input to which a stereo mic can be added – either self-powered or one which requires powering through the device (menu-selectable).
This obviously gives me a lot more options sound-wise and means I have the best possible control over each of those sound sources and can record them on the DR-60D’s SD/SDHC media drive in either WAV or BWF (Broadcast WAV Format) at up to 96kHz/24-bit. As the unit employs Tascam’s HDDA microphone pre-amps and clean D/A converters this will result in a very high quality recording.
I could stop there, of course, simply using the DR-60D as an auxiliary recording device and then syncing up this with the pictures in post. I’ve done that a few times and whilst it’s manageable it does give me an additional post job which I’d rather do without. However, the full benefit comes when you join the DR-60D and DSLR together through the ‘Camera in’ and ‘Camera out’ mini-jack connections.
The Camera Out connector feeds the DSLR’s external mic input with the mixed signal. The output level of this signal is adjustable so you can match it to the input of your camera. For me this means using one of the ML modifications which enables me to first switch off the camera’s AGC, switch the input to ‘external stereo’ and set the input gains (both analogue and digital) down to zero. I can then set about adjusting the levels of my mic and line inputs, reach a decent mixed level to ensure no peaking, and then finally adjust the Camera Out level until my ML meters are matching the levels on the DR-60D.
The ‘Camera In’ connector takes the headphone out signal from the camera and feeds it back into the DR-60D. The Monitor control on the face of the unit enables you analyse every step of the signal as it passes through the chain by assigning it to the DR-60D’s headphone output. In four channel recording mode you can monitor any of the four input channels separately, Ch.1/2 or Ch.3/4 pairs of channels, your Mix or the Camera In. As the 5DMkii has no headphone socket I use ML to switch the TSSR jack AV out over to a headphone level output – and I give it the maximum 6dB gain in order to feed something reasonable back to the DR-60D. I also have to use a special converter cable to change the 4-pole TRRS mini jack to a standard 3-pole TRS mini jack in order to make the connection back to the DR-60D. If your DSLR has a standard headphone socket you’ll not have to worry about this.
This workflow should result in a good quality synchronised recording being made in the DSLR and we could leave it like that – using the DR-60D purely as an in-line mixer. This will overcome most of the shortcomings of the DSLR but there are further benefits of recording on the unit and camera simultaneously apart from the comfort of knowing that you have a high quality back-up audio track on SD card.
Tascam have built in some really useful tools to reduce the risk of poor or no sound recording at all. Firstly, there are five different recording modes – Mono, Stereo, Dual-Mono, Dual-Stereo and 4-Channel. In either of the two ‘Dual’ modes the unit will record two files simultaneously. The first files will be at your main mix level whilst the second will be recorded at a lower level anywhere between 0dB and -12bB (menu selectable). As we all know, badly overloaded digital audio is impossible to correct, so this feature could well save the day for you. The default setting is -6dB which is fine for general use but it’s great to be able to vary this if you are filming in an environment where there’s the potential for the audio to raise suddenly. When in Dual mode the meter shows you the levels of both recordings – which is really handy.
The only drawback of the Dual settings is that you’ll be limited to using only two of the input sources (just one in the Dual-Mono mode). This can be set to either Ch.1/2 or Ch.3/4 so you’ll be back down to two mics/sources or just the stereo mini jack input to Ch.3/4. In Dual-Mono mode you can record any one of the four channels separately.
There are other features that will help you avoid missing a sound too. The full process of recording requires two presses of the record button. The first instigates the stand-by mode during which a constant buffer is being stored internally. It is not until you give a second press of the record button that the unit stars to record to the SD card. In Prerecord Mode, when you hit the record button, it actually saves the 2-seconds prior to final button press giving you a safety margin when something that needs to be recorded happens unexpectedly.
In Auto Recording Mode the unit is triggered into recording at the presence of pre-set audio levels being detected in the mixer (-6dB, -12dB, -24dB or -48dB). As well as varying the amount of time after the signal has faded that the recording is stopped, you can also set a base input level at which the recording is to be stopped too (-6dB, -12dB, -24dB or -48dB).
Once you are happy with all your input levels and adjustments – and set the unit into record mode (or not if you wish) you can engage the Hold switch. This recessed sliding switch locks out all of the controls and maintains the unit in its present state to prevent accidental operation.
Going forward I will be recording to both camera and DR-60D. I’m sure most of the time I’ll be using the synchronised sound recorded in camera, but I’m also sure that I’ll be reaching for the recording on the DR-60D’s SD card to solve a problem or take advantage of the superior recording quality. There are two features to that will subsequently help me to quickly re-sync the unit’s recordings with those made in the camera – Slate and Auto Tone.
The Slate button applies a tone to the recording at any point during the recording process. This tone is also sent as part of the signal being fed to the camera making it dead easy to line up the tone marks of both recordings on my editing timeline. This feature is really neat for me as a fair part of my work is recording interviews where we pretty much let the camera run. Being able to mark the audio each time a new question is asked, or at the end of a good answer, will speed up my timeline scrubbing quite considerably. If you’re worried about inadvertent Slates button presses you can disabled the button altogether in menu.
The Auto-tone feature will apply the same tone automatically at either the head of the recording or both head and tail. This will be handy on shorter takes enabling even speedier alignment with the camera’s soundtrack once on the editing timeline.
I really like the idea of the Dual recording mode for the safety net it provides, but I could also use the 4-track mode and then reduce the level being fed from Camera Out to my camera to avoid peaking issues. This way I would have the safety net of dual-level recording whilst still being able to input to all four channels.
As for mounting I’ve quickly overcome my initial reservations about attaching the unit under-camera. I thought the combined unit would be simply too tall to be stable on a tripod and too heavy to use handheld or even shoulder-rigged – but it isn’t. The base of the unit has the usual 1/4 “ tripod screw hole and an additional fixed-pin hole which utilised on better tripod head plates and eliminates any side-twist between plate and unit. The top ¼” screw for attaching to the camera doesn’t have this additional pin as most DSLRs do not have a corresponding pin hole – so there is the potential for some twist between the units. However, you can get a fair purchase on the DR-60D’s large tightening wheel to lock the two together.
Using a multi-battery hand grip on your DSLR will take things too far though – and in my case extends the height of the whole assemble by about 5cm. Configured like this it all becomes a bit unstable and unwieldy and certainly not something that I would like to put on a crane or operate handheld for any length of time. Without the battery grip I will have to resort to disconnecting the DR-60D in order to get to the base of the camera in order to change its battery. That’s obviously not a problem when running the camera on mains but that’s a rare occasion for me.
For occasions when I need to keep the battery grip connected I’ll be using the DR-60D mounted separately from the camera. For a tripod or shoulder rig I have a number of magic-arm options for doing this, but I’ve also commissioned Hague Camera Supports to produce a bespoke camera offset plate so that I can mount the DR-60D alongside the camera with battery grip attached. Either way I will try to avoid lengthening the cable run between the two units as stereo mini jacks have a habit of getting knocked out.
Powering & Final Smart Features
Using four standard Alkaline batteries you’ll get around 4.5 hours use. Understandably, this drops quite significantly (2.5 hours) when you are phantom-powering your mic. Using Ni-MH batteries this goes up quite considerably returning about 14.5 hours and 9.5 hours respectively. You can also use the USB input to supply power, either directly from a mains-USB supply or through a lap-top or any other standard USB device.
There are other features of the DR-60D that I will no doubt come to value over time. The Line Out connector will give me a line-level stereo mini jack output to feed to another device or audio chain to which I can apply further level adjustment and EQ. I can also add limiters (to avoid peaking) and Low Cut Filters (to help remove things like the low level hum of air con units). In a multi-mic set up I can also independently adjust the delay between each channel to remove echoes caused by microphones set different distances from the sound source.
There are some features that I’ll probably not be using immediately but it’s nice to know they are there. For instance, the unit can perform selectable mid-side decoding for use with stereo MS microphone setups. There’s also an optional RC-10 Remote control unit and, though I’ve not got my head around the advantage to me, the Broadcast Wave Format might also prove useful.
DR-60D Review Conclusion
I appreciate there are other solutions and combinations of products out there that will give me everything that the DR-60D gives me. However, they won’t be such a neat, well-put together and adaptable package as the DR-60D. Everything about the unit feels right to me, from the general build quality to the metal toggle line level switches and soft-touch knobs and control buttons (aiding silent operation).
The menus are all logically set out and easy to navigate and, when things get a bit more complex, the instruction manual is nice and easy to follow. The ability to add Slate marks is going to be an absolute godsend to me, as is the user-defined word or date file naming format that will enable me to identify files quickly in post.
I’m now looking forward to putting the DR-60D to use on my next film with a new level of confidence and a whole lot more options in my sound recording. I’m sure it will, in some cases, be the difference between hiring in another hand on a shoot or not so it won’t be long before it’s paid its way. But I’m even more confident that it will save lots of time in post and, on the odd occasion, save my reputation by having a clean and unbroken back-up sound recording to turn to.
A big “Well done” to Tascam for producing the DR-60D. In my mind it’s a definitive product if ever I’ve seen one.
Kevin Cook F.Inst.V. (Hon.)
Notes: More details and specifications on the DR-60D can be found on the Proactive website – www.proav.co.uk/Tascam-DR-60D-Linear-PCM-Recorder-Mixer-For-DSLR/p32972.aspx