Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Tascam DR-40

I talked about DSLR microphones in the past (check this link) and how they add extra quality to your video. We can take this a notch further and use a separate sound recorder instead of using the recorded audio from the camera. We have a Tascam DR-40 to our disposal so why not give it a quick review. We made a video about it so check that out first and then continue to read the article where we cover some extra ground compared to the video.

The video

Why use an external sound recorder?

Sound recorders have much more features than the built in recorder of a DSLR. Let's mention the most important ones and compare those to the Tascam DR-40.
  • Most DSLR's have limited input level control. It is done automatically or they have only a few settings. The Tascam can be finely tuned thanks to the graphical metering and the input level buttons.
  • Unless you use a stereomic on your DSLR you will get only one channel of sound on your video. The Tascam DR-40 has up to 4 channels of sound available (two of which are used by the internal condenser mics). They can be used to record separate mics but also for recording a duplicate of a single mic where the second channel can be lowered in volume. This way if your main channel peaks by accident the second channel will still be good.
  • The bit rate of the DSLR is usually set to a fixed value and is baked into the video. Most sound recorders allow you to record low quality as well as high quality and it is of course always a separate file. That allows you to use different types of compression like mp3. Even the sampling rate can be adjusted. The Tascam-DR40 goes from 44.1kHz to 96kHz and saves them as 16 bit or 24 bit. 
  • The Tascam DR-40 has 2 XLR input connectors which provide phantom power. This allows you to use high quality condenser mics like a boom mic or Lavalier mics. Phantom power allows you to use long cables so you don't have to set up the mic close to the recorder if you don't want to.
  • Since it is a separate recorder you aren't bound to the camera's location either. You can use a long lens and just leave the recorder close to the subject you are filming.

The Tascam DR-40

So now that we have seen some advantages of an external sound recorder it is time to look at the DR-40 a bit more closely.

The unit is made out of plastic. Only the protection bracers for the condenser mics are metal. Dropping it is not a good idea so handle it with care. It has an LCD screen with amber colored backlight and decent buttons for accessing its many features. The play, record and stop buttons are nicely centered and big so no worries pressing the wrong button with the fat fingers syndrome there.

You need 3 AA batteries for powering the unit. It allows you to use rechargeable batteries and even has a setting to change the type so the charge level is displayed correctly. The USB port can also be used to power the unit. This is really recommended when using phantom powered condenser mics as they will drain the batteries rather fast.

The sound is recorded to an SD/SDHC card. There is a 2GB card in the box when you buy it. That looks small for todays standard but it is enough for several hours of good quality sound. So far I haven't seen the necessity to upgrade the card. Your recordings can be uncompressed WAV files or compressed MP3 files. 

The built in condenser mics can be set in an A-B or X-Y configuration.

As mentioned before, you can record up to 4 channels simultaneously when using the two built in mics and two external mics.

The unit has a whole list of features which would take me too much into detail to explain here. Stuff like overdubbing, auto-record when a certain sound input is detected, pre-recording period of 2 seconds, limiter controls, tuner function for tuning your instruments and much more are available.

My experience with the unit

I use this unit mostly with 2 Shure Lavalier mics and so far I think it is a really good piece of equipment. I think it is one of the cheapest units around with powered XLR inputs. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and is lightweight.

The sound quality is great but I did notice that when I import the files into Adobe Premiere that they tend to sound really quiet. I always have to boost the volume quite a bit. Luckily this doesn't have an impact on the quality as the noise levels are equally as low.

Transferring the sound to disk is super easy. Just use the USB cable and plug the unit into your computer. It will show up as a USB drive for easy access. You can also take the SD card out but it is well protected by a sturdy cover which needs some skill to remove so using the USB port is more convenient.

I love the headphones jack for in the field monitoring. This is really missing on most DSLR's. The on screen metering and the peak warning LED are great but hearing your sound directly is way better. You can immediately identify a bad take due to non intended noise and redo the shot. I use good closed shell headphones so I can fully concentrate on the recording itself.


Check the official website to see the full feature list and some product stills.