Rich buys a Tascam DP-008
This is a review... sort of. Actually it's more of a combination of the pros/cons of the DP-008, and why we're literally forced to seek out means of different ways of recording compared to how we used to do it.
With that said, here we go.
(Note: If you want to skip directly to "My review of the DP-008" below, scroll down or click here.)
I bought a new laptop recently, and like with most laptops, all the input audio functions are condensed into what's called a "combo port", where it can serve as either an input or an output. But of course, "Line In" and "Stereo Mix" (sometimes labeled as "What You Hear") are not available recording options. The reason? Blame the RIAA for that one; they don't want you recording anything with your laptop at all, so unless you're willing to perform dangerous registry hacking (which most of the time does not work), you are, summed up in a word, screwed. Said in a nicer way, you will have to seek out alternative means of recording your stuff.
At that point, if you are intent on using your laptop as the recording device, you will have to use USB, but then you encounter the absolutely (and this is putting it mildly) enraging fact that when you use USB, there is always latency, commonly known as "lag".
Lag. Frickin'. Sucks. And everyone hates it. Everyone.
How to defeat the lag?
You need zero-latency monitoring hardware, as in hardware that completely bypasses the software buffers so you get true "as-it's-played" monitoring, such as the Tascam US-1800, or the lower-cost Tascam US-122MKII...
...but that of course adds in additional crap you have to buy just to defeat the lag and will cost you a minimum of $100 just to do it.
What I find ironic is that the way zero-latency monitoring hardware works is by - you guessed it - analog.
That Tascam US-1800 I mentioned above? It lists itself as having independent monitoring outputs. Think those are digital? They're not; both are analog. Don't believe me? See the manual (PDF), page 20. So even when you buy pro-level gear, you're still diving back into the world of analog just to defeat the lag; an ancient technology. Progress!
We've got all this wonderful digital crapola, yet USB still has the exact same lag problem it did back when USB 2.0 spec was released in April 2000. And if you thought USB 3.0 was going to save you, it won't. The two things USB 3.0 has as improvements are better data throughput and more power available to powered ports, but the audio latency is still exactly the same as it was in 2.0 spec. Progress!
Let's say for the moment you didn't get the zero-latency hardware and tried to exclusively use USB 2.0 or 3.0 in an attempt to be lag-free to save a few bucks. Well, that's going to be a challenge at best and an outright want-to-throw-your-laptop-in-the-dumpster feeling at the worst. No matter what USB interface you get, it's lag, lag, lag and more frickin' lag. And by the way, have a full cup of coffee ready before reading that linked article, because you're literally going to be reading flowcharts about "optimization" techniques that's enough to drive anyone up a wall. USB bus clock buffers, ASIO input and output buffers, USB clock back buffers, blah blah blah freakin' blah. And oh yeah, all this stuff is billed as being "easy to understand". Uh-huh. Sure, pal. I've got a bridge to sell you, too. Progress!
Remember, a $50 piece-of-crap decade-old PC with Windows XP that you can buy at a yard sale that has a sound card with that little blue "LINE IN" port on the back can provide you with an audio recording environment that has no lag. At all. Progress!
Don't hate me. Hate the technology. Any time you have to listen to a sound that's generated by the computer, there will be a delay [and] the best way to get around this delay is to have a real analog sound that you can listen to while you're playing. Progress!
When you're sick of the lag and at your wit's end...
...you get a standalone multitrack recorder.
My review of the DP-008
Instead of doing the traditional pros-and-cons, I'm going to flip that around and actually list the cons first.
Con: Center-indentation for pan knobs could be a little bit better
When you adjust any pan knob for its center position for an equal amount of volume on both the left and right, this indentation should be a bit more stiff; it's a bit too easy to roll over the center mark. This is nothing you can't get used to, but I noticed it.
Con: Finding the contrast adjustment for the screen is too buried
This should be something that can be found without the use of the manual, but instead its buried in a submenu: MENU > PREFERENCE > CONTRAST; this should have been made a lot more obvious.
Con: ABAB default input assignment for a new song is stupid
The way input assignments are made for any new song is that the odd-numbered tracks are set to A input, and even-numbered tracks are B input. I think this is dumb, and that all tracks should be A by default.
The workaround is that the first thing you do when you create a new song is press the ASSIGN button, then set all the even-numbered tracks to A.
Con: Metronome could be louder, and there is only one metronome sound type
This is admittedly a nitpick since you can just turn down the output levels when recording, but even when the metronome is set to 100 volume, it's not loud enough. And the fact there is only one type of metronome click sound is a bit annoying. Yes, it can be worked with, but I would have appreciated beeps over clicks.
Con: Proprietary partitioning of SD card storage is dumb
(This is the last con, and a bit long. You might want to skip this one and scroll down to the pros.)
Because I'm geeky, I know the workaround for this, but most wouldn't. And to note, this has absolutely nothing to do with how it records but rather how it handles media storage.
Okay, so the DP-008 will take a fresh SD card and partition it into either 2 or 4GB partitions, your choice; that's not the problem. The problem is when you, say, upgrade to a bigger SD card and want to use the old card normally in your laptop, PC or digital camera as it won't be used in the DP-008 anymore.
In order to get that SD card "normal" again, you have to blow away its partitions. And the absolute easiest way to do that is with HDD LLF Low Level Format Tool; the free version of this will work fine here and no, you don't have to use the low-level format function.
Quick explanation on how to do that with screenshots.
Assuming you want to totally blow away the card and format it new, you do it like this:
1. Pop in the card to your laptop.
2. Run the Low Level Format Tool.
3. Select the card and hit Continue:
Note on above: Make DAMNED SURE you selected your SD card here and not your primary hard drive or any other USB cards/sticks/whatever you have connected, because it's a little too easy to blow away the wrong storage media here.
4. Select the tab "LOW-LEVEL FORMAT" at top, check the box "Perform quick wipe (just remove partitions and MBR)" at bottom, and click "FORMAT THIS DEVICE".
5. When done, close the program.
6. Launch Windows Explorer (as in "My Computer"), Windows will ask if you want to format the card, do so. At that point you've got a "normal" card again ready for use in the PC, laptop, digital camera or whatever.
This is really handy information to know if you have any SD card that will not format in Windows no matter what you do, or if you installed a live Linux distribution to one or whatever and need those partitions (particularly for blowing away things like Linux's grub) gone. The HDD Low Level Format Tool is without a doubt the absolute easiest way to blow away a memory card and format the frickin' thing so it can get working normally again 100%.
On a final note here: Is this utility worth paying for? Only if you use it for actual low-level formatting. The free version purposely throttles the low-level format speed, while the paid version opens up and low-level formats as quickly as possible. But for quick partition blow-aways, no, you don't need the paid version.
Pro: Excellent sound quality
I hear nothing "washy" whatsoever in the way the DP-008 records.
Pro: Ridiculously easy-to-use (once you know the ASSIGN trick)
As listed in a con above, the ABAB thing with input assignments is dumb. But once you're around that, recording stuff in the DP-008 is so easy it's not funny.
Pro: Reverb knobs
I love the fact that adding reverb in the DP-008 is so easy and has its own dedicated knob for it on each track.
Pro: Stereo reverb even with mono-recorded tracks
This I did not expect, but wow what a cool feature.
Take any recorded track, and add in some reverb. Then pan the track hard to one side (right or left, your choice). On the other side of the track, you'll hear "distant" reverb, just as in the track was in stereo, even though it's mono. VERY COOL that this exists on a simple recorder like the DP-008.
What I thought would happen is that a panned track would carry both its signal and the reverb effect along with it to the panned side, but that didn't happen. Instead, this wickedly awesome stereo effect happened instead. Like I said, that's a very trick feature because it essentially converts a mono track into stereo.
I'll try to explain further how cool this is. Ordinarily when you want to route a stereo reverb, there's a bit of legwork involved. Not so on the DP-008. Just turn the knob and it's there; it doesn't get any easier.
If you happen to get a DP-008, try doing this. You will freakin' love it. If you want to hear an example, check out this video I did where I hard-panned each guitar about 80% in either direction. Listen closely when only one guitar is heard, but pay attention to the side the guitar is not on. That's the stereo reverb in effect; it's just plain cool.
Pro: 6 types of reverb
Again, a nice surprise here.
The reverbs are Hall 1, Hall 2, Room, Studio, Plate 1 and Plate 2. And I seriously dig the fact there are little "pictures" specifically telling you what each type of reverb is used for.
For example, plate reverbs suck for guitars, but work great for vocals. When you're on a plate setting, that's exactly what the DP-008 is trying to tell you:
That little image of a person singing is actually quite helpful for someone who wouldn't know any better what a particular reverb type would be used for.
Other reverbs show other little images similar to the one above. "Room" shows an image of someone playing a guitar, "Studio" shows a little studio environment, etc.
Pro: Very easy to set levels, and easy to know when your signal is too hot
On inputs A and B is an "OL" red light, which I'm pretty sure means either "Over Limit" or "Overload".
Simply put, if you see this red light start to pulsate or give solid illumination, your signal is too hot. Roll the trim down a bit until the red goes away and you're good to go.
To note: TRIM is not the same as LEVEL. With LEVEL, that refers to the level of volume in the mix and not the level of the incoming audio signal. In other words, TRIM is for input, LEVEL is for output.
Pro: The chromatic tuner is really frickin' good!
You can totally tell Tascam had guitar players in mind when they designed this thing, as it has a built-in tuner.
The tuner function is easy to get to. Just press the TUNER button.
Ah, but it's not just any old chromatic tuner as it has some advanced features. You can actually calibrate it if you want (anywhere from 435Hz to 445Hz), and in addition you can also have it output notes to tune with as a simple tone.
I'll tell you why the output note matters. Let's say there's you playing guitar and your friend is sitting next to you with his guitar. Instead of both of you having to plug in to the thing just to tune, have the DP-008 output a tone instead and just tune to that. The DP-008 can output a tone anywhere from C3 to B5, meaning it can cover everything from bass guitars to electrics and everywhere in between.
Pro: "UNDO" works great
With a digital recorder, its undo function is totally hit-or-miss, and it's a hit on the DP-008 for the following reasons:
- It executes very quickly. Very little (if any) wait time for it to finish undoing.
- It can also REDO, so you can do the exact in reverse and is not a Point Of No Return button.
- The button for it is positioned in a place that totally makes sense, but at the same time is difficult to press on accident.
Pro: HISTORY button
The HISTORY button is probably something you wouldn't pay any attention to at first, but believe me, it's a cool thing.
HISTORY button explained: A list of every single thing you've done on the DP-008 since you booted it up.
Yes, the history clears when you shut it down, but that's fine because otherwise the list would get way too long and unmanageable.
When you really start working with this thing, loading and saving songs and so on, you can lose track of where you were - but only if you don't know to use the HISTORY feature.
Pro: LOW, MED and HIGH input level options
I was so, so happy to see this included in the DP-008 because I was legitimately concerned about this before I bought it.
The consistency of output level from one thing to another when plugged into a mixer varies wildly. An electric guitar with passive electronics for example has no amplification, while a digital drum machine on the other hand does have its own amplification. And trying to get the levels just right for each specific thing you plug in is a pain in the ass.
Sure, mixers have adjustable levels as they all do, but the DP-008 has an additional section where you can set the input level as LOW, MED or HIGH even before you have to do anything via TRIM.
In other words, if you have something like an old analog synth with a really hot output, you can purposely set the DP-008's incoming input setting to LOW so the synth won't overload the crap out of the signal when plugged in.
These settings are accessed via the INPUT SETTING button at the top left of the DP-008.
Pro: Beveled power button
You'll notice on the DP-008 that the power button is the only one with an upraised plastic ring around it. This is so you don't hit that button by mistake and power the unit off accidentally.
I sincerely appreciate little touches like that because it shows attention to detail, and the fact the Tascam design team knew whom they were building this unit for.
You'd be surprised how many electronic devices are made that don't feature any built-in countermeasure to prevent accidental shutoff.
Pro: Easy EQ, easy mastering
Each track has a 2-band EQ, split into 4 parts. Hi-F, Hi-G, Low-F and Low-G. F is for frequency range and G is for gain.
The first thing I appreciated about the EQ is the on/off toggle on an individual track basis. Ordinarily when EQ is on in most small setups like this, it's global and there's not a damned thing you can do about it. Not so on the DP-008. Each track can have EQ on or off, and the frequency range and gain is also individual to each track.
That's actually a pretty powerful setup even though it's only a 2-band. If it were not for the fact you could select the freq range, it would totally suck. But you can, and it does the job it's supposed to.
Mastering is also really easy. Once you get your tracks done and levels set, you hit REC MODE, go into MASTER REC mode from there and record the whole finished thing.
After that when you want to export a lossless WAV, you hit REC MODE, go back to MULTI TRACK, then MENU > IMPORT/EXPORT > EXPORT MASTER. The DP-008 generates the master WAV, you connect the DP-008 to USB to the laptop, grab the file, done deal.
I honestly thought generating a master WAV would take a lot more steps, but it's only a few button presses. And yeah, I did wonder if it was slower or faster compared to the software way of doing it. In reality, the speed of the operator (you) performing this function takes the same amount of time whether on the DP-008 or software. The only way to get this done faster via software means would have to be done with a macro. But that's assuming you know how to set up a macro. 🙂
Pro: Individual lossless WAV exports of each track (if desired)
This is actually a really cool feature if you needed to bring the audio into a computer later on an individual track level.
Let's say for the moment the mix you got out of the DP-008 was good, but you needed some extra tweaking that you weren't able to accomplish on the unit. No problem. Just export each track as an individual WAV, connect up the USB, copy over to the laptop and throw 'em all into an audio editor with multitrack capability like Audacity.
"Wouldn't sync be an issue?"
Nope. Just export each WAV from beginning to end and they'll all match up perfectly when you bring them into the audio editor.
"Can I re-import back to the 008?"
Of course you can. It would be pointless to offer an export feature without an import feature.
It's also cool you can do the export thing if you were to hand off your project to a studio guy for post-production work. Aaaaaand, if you happened to use the metronome while recording (which I strongly recommend using), you can even tell your studio guy exactly what beat-per-minute timing you were using, making it easier for him when be brings the WAVs into his software because that makes for much easier synchronization where necessary.
Can you record anything "pro" with the DP-008?
"Pro" in the context of recording quality is a totally subjective term, but even so, I'll tackle this question anyway.
Ultimately, the difference between "amateur" and "pro" all depends on operator technique.
Give a guy a $20,000 digital rig who has no recording experience, and his recordings will sound like crap. Give a guy a DP-008 (which is under $250) who knows proper recording techniques and creative ways to get around technology limitations, and his recordings will sing.
Put another way, ritzy recording gear does not magically grant creativity. Never has and never will. There is something to be said for purposely working in a restrictive recording environment, because it separates the truly creative from the fakers.
The entire point of the DP-008 even existing is to allow you to get your ideas into the machine in a fast, easy way - and that it does. It's not made for studio rats; it's made for musicians.
If that sounds good to you (pun intended), buy one.
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