With the increasing use of DSLRs—with their substandard audio capabilities—as video cameras, it has become more important than ever to record good outboard audio. There are now many high-quality digital audio recorders trying to fill the void of DSLR audio and add to a conventional video camera package for external audio. Some work better than others in different jobs. In this article, we’ll take a look at the TASCAM DR-100 (MSRP $429; street price $320).
I happened upon the TASCAM booth at NAB this year when I was wandering the halls on the last day of the show. TASCAM’s DR2D Audio Recorder made our “Winners’ Circle” best-of-show list because of its ability to record two versions of the same stereo audio simultaneously, the second at a lower level in case the main audio clipped. When I asked about doing a full review on the product, TASCAM suggested doing the review on the DR-100 because it’s a more professional model, even though it doesn’t have the dual recording mode.
The DR-100 features two unidirectional mics, two omnidirectional mics, two XLR inputs with 48v phantom power, and a stereo 1/8" line level input. It can record 44.1 KHz to 96 KHz audio as WAV or MP3 files to the supplied 2GB SDHC card. It comes supplied with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack and also can be powered with AA batteries that go in a second compartment.
In the menu you can program the DR-100 to switch automatically from one power source to the other when one goes low. The menu is easy to navigate using the “shuttle knob” on the front of the unit and the 1" x 2" screen, which also has the unit’s VU meters. The DR-100 also comes with a remote that can be used wired or wirelessly. There is a USB 2.0 connection that allows for direct transfer of files without taking the SD card out of the unit. It comes with a soft padded storage case that would be a lot more useful if it had a belt loop. The unit itself is not supercompact. It’s about the size of a portable cassette player/Walkman from the 1990s.
TESTING THE TASCAM
My first opportunity to use the DR-100 in the field arose when I was doing an article on Peter Himmelman’s Furious Worldlive-streamed music show for EventDVLive (look for it in the fall issue on www.eventdvlive.com in late September). There were a number of musical sets where it seemed appropriate to try it out. I was sitting at a table about 20'–25' from the stage and tried just laying it down on the table and hitting record to see what kind of sound quality I’d get.
The DR-100’s USB 2.0 connection allows direct transfer of files to your computer without removing the SD card from the unit. First note to self: As with the Samson Zoom units, you must hit Record twice to start recording. When you hit Record once, it goes into a “record pause” that makes the VU meters kick, but nothing records. This allows you to set your levels before recording. This goofed me up a couple times, but I got the hang of it. The audio recordings were very good.
My next few field-tests occurred at my weekly chamber of commerce networking meeting. Each week, one or two members give a presentation about their business. I tried both types of built-in mics with the unit there. As this was a lunch meeting, I engaged the unidirectional mics to try and avoid the clinking of silverware. It did a fairly decent job of minimizing it.
Using the omnidirectional mics seems to work a bit better for Q&A sessions if you’re unable to move the DR-100 when the speaker changes. But in my tests, I got a bit more background noise. For most of these talks, I was sitting 4'–10' from the presenter. In order to get a decent level, I needed to put the mic gain on high and turn the input levels up to 10. The sound recorded by the DR-100 was very clean on the unidirectional mics but on the soft side without any boost in postproduction. That may not necessarily be a bad thing—better on the low side than clipping. Importing the recorded signals into my audio editor of choice, Adobe Audition 3, I found it easy to bring up the levels to where I like them. Most of us are going to do that in post—even if we’re making only minor adjustments—before distributing the product anyway.
While the recording quality is very good, there are a few areas where the DR-100 can use some improvements. One minor issue: I found the tiny built-in speaker utterly useless; even in a quiet room at full blast I couldn’t hear it well. Camcorder speakers are not known for their quality, but the speaker on the Sony S270 camcorder is 20 times better. You should definitely use headphones.
The second minor issue is the omnidirectional mics. While the unidirectional mic capsules look serious, the omnidirectional mics are two small holes, about the size of a pen point, just above the left and right corners of the LCD. While they do have a wide pickup pattern, there aren’t too many places where you wouldn’t choose the unidirectional mics first.
The third minor issue with the DR-100 is that it’s a wee bit bulky. It’s actually the same footprint as my Sony HC7 HDV camcorder that I use for home movies. Mounting it on a DSLR or onto small to mid-sized camcorders would create balancing issues.
On the other hand, it is rugged. It bounced around in my camera bag and briefcase and was accidentally pushed off a desk a few times with no damage. The only major gripe I have with the DR-100 is input flexibility. On every professional camera I’ve seen, you have the ability to choose the audio inputs for the left and right channels independently. On the DR-100 you need to use both unidirectional, both omnidirectional, both XLRs, or line inputs at once. You can’t select input channels independently. On my camera I generally have the on-camera shotgun in left and the wireless in right. I would have liked to use one of the DR-100’s unidirectional mics at the Furious World taping and then take a feed from the board using an XLR input. The good news is that when I spoke to TASCAM about this issue, a rep said, “That’s a good idea. We’re going to write that down and include that feature on a future model.” Hopefully, they weren’t just humoring me.
If you can get past the bulkiness and the fact that you need to use the same types of input or mics for multiple input sources at one time, you have a really solid-performing audio recorder. The quality of the recordings from my tests was great. If you need something more compact, you can look at TASCAM’s DR2D Audio Recorder that made our Winner’s Circle at NAB.
Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in the Hollywood Reporter,Forbes, and TV Technology and has written for Studio Monthly, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.