Test Drive: The Roland DM-80 Multi-Track Disk Recorder

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by Jerry Vigil

Trying to find the right digital workstation these days is like trying to find the right breakfast cereal. There are fifteen bazillion brands to choose from, and they're all "exactly what you need." The vast majority of digital multi-track systems available are disk based. Basically, what makes them different from each other is software. Most systems run on an IBM or MacIntosh platform and provide a computer keyboard, monitor, and a mouse for the user interface. Many of these systems range in price from the low to upper four figures and meet the demands of many who are looking for digital recording/editing at a low price. Then there are a few systems that go the extra mile and provide a dedicated controller, bringing many "keyboard" and "mouse" functions, and even a mixer, to an easy to use control panel. This, of course, comes at a price. But the advantages in the broadcast field are worth it. This next level of disk based systems is where the DM-80 resides. Just barely into the five figure price range, the DM-80, with its remote controller and optional fader unit, serve up a digital 8-track workstation that's very hard to beat, both in price and features. Add to this a short learning curve, and you've got the right recipe for a digital workstation that will work in the production room.

The photo below shows, from left to right, the DM-80-F Fader Unit, the DM-80 Multi-Track Disk Recorder, and the DM-80-R Remote Controller. The recorder unit houses the hardware, software, and disk drives. The front panel features an LED meter display for each of the eight tracks as well as the stereo master. There are clip indicators for each track; track "status" indicators to show play, mute or record modes; hard disk indicators that flash to show disk activity; and sampling rate indicators. The rear panel is where all audio connections are made. There are eight analog balanced or unbalanced TRS inputs and eight analog TRS outputs. The DM-80 features an internal, digital mixer and sends the stereo output to two more TRS jacks on the rear panel for an analog mix and to a digital out as well. The digital connections are switchable between coaxial and AES/EBU standard XLR. Other rear panel jacks include connections for SMPTE and video sync, MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU, and SCSI connectors for adding additional drives and for tape backup. As with other disk based systems, it is this rack-mount unit, housing the drives and a motorized fan, that can create considerable noise. However, the DM-80 is by far one of the quietest systems we've played with. In fact, the fan and drives are quiet enough to permanently place the unit near a mike with no more noise than the soft whir of a reel-to-reel deck in stand-by mode.

The DM-80's remote controller is actually an option. The DM-80 can be run using a Macintosh computer and the Roland Track Manager software, thereby eliminating both the remote controller and fader unit. However, this review will examine the DM-80 using the DM-80-R remote controller, which we found extremely easy to use. The remote controller is where all the work is done. The only reason to access the record unit itself is to turn the DM-80 on and off and to get a glance at levels and clip indicators. The DM-80 records "takes" which remain, in their entirety, on the hard drives until you delete them. These takes are used in your session or "project" and are referred to as "phrases" in the project. A phrase may consist of the entire take or just a portion of it. In other words, a project is a collection of phrases, and phrases are edited portions of takes (or entire takes). Because these takes remain on disk in their entirety until deleted, any editing you do is non-destructive.

The 5 x 1½-inch LCD display on the remote controller surprisingly provides better-than-adequate graphics in the various graphics modes, and the numerous text screens are easy to read and work with. However, it does not show all eight tracks at once. You can only see tracks one through four, or tracks five through eight. This provides only a minor inconvenience -- having to move the cursor to see the other tracks -- but is hardly an obstacle, especially when you remember that in the analog world, you can't even see tracks.

To the left of the LCD display are four cursor keys used for positioning the cursor in the display. Below them are two Phrase Locate keys labeled Previous and Next. These are used to skip to the start and end points of phrases. Below these keys are eight Marker/Autolocator keys. Press one to store the current time. Press it again to return to that time from anywhere in the project. Use the Delete key below to clear it. A Shift key, next to the Delete key, is used together with a few of the Marker/Autolocator keys to access the DM-80's looping and automatic punch-in/punch-out functions. The loop function is intended more for rehearsing punch-ins and is not seamless.

Just below the LCD display is the Execute key, much like the "Enter" key of a computer. The Function key accesses various functions available by pressing the neighboring five "soft" Function keys, F1 through F5. To the right of these is the Menu key. This accesses the Level Check screen which displays peak-reading bar-graph meters for inputs and outputs. Clipping is also displayed. In fact, this display recreates the level meters on the front panel of the record unit. Other functions of the Menu mode include autolocator Marker editing, time display setting (SMPTE, minute/second, measure/beat), a project Save command, and a Revert command which is somewhat like an "undo" command. Pressing Revert reloads the last saved version of the current project. If you don't regularly save your project while working, this Revert function can quickly become a "start from scratch" function. To the right of the Menu key is the Exit key which returns you to the last screen.

Below this first row of buttons are the DM-80's seven mode keys: Record, Playlist, Mixer, Tempo, Trigger, Catalog, and System. More on these modes in a moment. Below the mode keys are the eight track status keys. Each key has a bi-colored LED which turns red when in Record mode, green in the Play mode, orange in the Trigger mode, and is off when the track is muted. At the bottom center of the control panel are the transport keys: Zero (for zero return), Rewind, Play, Fast-Forward, Stop, and Record. Audio does not playback at fast speed during Fast-Forward and Rewind modes, but the display jumps ahead or backwards to show how far you're going in either direction.

To the right of the front panel is a large data wheel. This is used for data entry and for scrolling through the audio in a project. The DM-80 does not "scrub" audio like many systems. However, a Preview button below the wheel engages playback of audio in segments up to five seconds long and loops this audio as long as the button is pressed. Using this Preview function, together with the data wheel, is how "cuing" is done on the DM-80. It's not as familiar as scrubbing audio (in either the analog or digital world), but locating exact edit points is still rather easy. A numeric keypad below the data wheel is also used for data entry. Finally, the Jump key engages another locate function. Press Jump, enter the desired time, then press Execute.

To record a take, press the Record mode key. The record screen appears in the display. Assuming you've set levels and routed the inputs to the proper tracks (using the DM-80's versatile, digital patch-bay), the next step is to press the Track Status key for the track(s) you want to record. That track's LED will flash red. Press the Record button, then the Play button. As the take is being recorded, a graphic display of the recording scrolls by on the screen. Press Stop to end the recording. At this point, you are given the choice of deleting that take or keeping it. All elements of your project can be recorded first, in any order, at any point in time you wish. Or, you can cue up to the desired point where you want a recording to begin and record from there, just as you would with an analog multi-track. When you've recorded everything you're going to use in your production, you then fine tune, edit, and basically play with your production in the Playlist mode.

Pressing Playlist engages the DM-80's easy-to-use editing functions. The recorded takes/phrases are displayed as pieces of "tape" on their respective tracks as opposed to waveforms. If a take is stereo, taking up two tracks, the "tape" is double-wide. Most of your time assembling production pieces is spent in the Playlist mode. There are several functions available using the "soft" function keys. The first is the Move function. Let's say you have a voice track on track 3 which needs to be moved to the beginning of the music bed in a donut jingle on tracks 1 and 2. First select the voice track or phrase using the cursor keys and Previous/Next Phrase locate keys. Then press Move. Use the data wheel or a Marker location (if one is set) to move to the beginning of the donut bed. Press Execute, and you're done. Other available functions under the Move command include Offset, Trim In, and Trim Out which enable editing the in and out points of the phrase, without actually moving it relative to the other phrases or tracks.

The next function in the Playlist mode is Phrase Edit. This screen lets you edit the name of the phrase, the In Time, Out Time, Offset time, Fade In and Out times (up to 1 second), and even lets you adjust the level of the phrase (downward only). The Copy function is as easy to use as the Move function. Select a phrase, position the Current Time cursor to where you want the copy to end up, then press Execute. The New Phrase function lets you bring new phrases from other existing takes into your current project. The Take Change function replaces the take being used by a phrase with a different take.

Cut and splice functions of the Playlist mode include the Insert Time function. This is the equivalent of inserting leader tape, but you get the luxury of inserting "time" on specific tracks or all of them. The Cut/Erase function is a dual function. In the Cut mode, two points are marked, the Execute key is pressed, and the two ends are brought together, just like in the old days of splicing analog tape. This is a function many digital systems don't provide -- you can cut the piece out, but you have to perform a second step to bring to the ends together. This is what the Erase function does. There is no cutting, to use tape terms, but only erasing of tape. All timing aspects remain the same.

The Split Phrase function is pretty handy. Let's say you've got a voice track from somebody who is just one voice in a two-voice spot. He gives you three segments, but you've recorded them as one take and pulled them into your project as one phrase. The Split Phrase function quickly "cuts" the phrase at the desired points and separates the segments into independent phrases. This is splitting phrases "time-wise." You can also split a phrase "track-wise." Two final functions of the Playlist mode are the Overlap Change function which enables assigning priorities to phrases that overlap other phrases, and the Phrase Delete function which deletes the phrase from the project, but doesn't delete the take from which it came.

The Mixer mode accesses the DM-80's internal, digital mixer. This is an eight-input, two-output mixer that not only creates an analog stereo mix at the back panel, but a digital stereo mix as well. The mixer offers faders, pan pots, and EQ. Furthermore, this automated mixer lets you perform a mix on a production piece - complete with fader movements, EQ adjustments, and pan adjustments -- and record these movements. Upon playback, the level, pan and EQ changes occur precisely as recorded, and the actual faders and pots on the fader unit remain still while those in the graphic display of the DM-80-R move accordingly. Why is the DM-80-F Fader Unit worth getting? Two main reasons: adjusting EQ, pan, and levels is FASTER on the fader unit than with the cursor and data wheel, and the learning curve is noticeably shortened. Is it necessary in a home studio or recording studio environment where turnaround time isn't so critical? No. In fact, the DM-80-S Macintosh software, at $650.00 (assuming you have the computer), along with the recording unit are probably ideal for these situations, without adding the remote controller or fader unit.

The Tempo Mode of the DM-80 is designed for music production and won't be dealt with in this review. However, the Trigger Play mode is worth examination. This mode enables MIDI notes to trigger playback of individual phrases. The function is monophonic and is also triggered with the numeric keypad (numbers 1 through 8). Recordings can play back in either "one-shot" (play to end) or "note on" (play while button pressed) mode. This function is handy in radio production for setting up a standard collection of sound effects and/or music elements often used in daily production of promos, sweepers, and some spots. When it's time to do a "winner" promo...boom! Load up the Winner Promo Project and have cash registers, zips and zaps, fanfare, your jingle, and whatever else you might need, at your fingertips.

The Catalog Mode is the DM-80's filing system. Projects are selected, saved, loaded, backed up, created, deleted, etc. in this mode. This is also where you can select a sampling frequency of 32kHz, 44.1kHz or 48kHz. The 32kHz mode sounds great, is perfect for radio broadcast, and saves a ton of disk space. The final button, the System Mode key, accesses the time display mode, the SMPTE rate/format, shut down and restart functions, MIDI and SCSI parameters, and more.

We mentioned the $650 price tag on the DM-80-S software for the Macintosh. If you own the computer, that gives you a DM-80 8-track system for a list price of $11,400. Add the DM-80-R Remote Controller and the DM-80-F Fader Unit at $1,995 and $1,295 respectively, for a broadcast environment, and the price tag of roughly $14,000 list is very attractive.

Drawbacks to the DM-80? There are very few. The lack of a "scrub" feature was a surprise, but it didn't really hamper fast radio production. The structure of the system is such that it operates as two 4-track systems (since the unit is also available as a 4-track) which function independently of each other. As a result, data from tracks 1 through 4 cannot be moved to tracks 5 through 8. This is not a problem if you plan your track usage ahead of time and maintain a standard, i.e. stereo tracks on tracks 1 through 4, and mono tracks on tracks 5 through 8, or some other configuration that doesn't encourage movement of tracks beyond the 4/5 border. There is no actual amplitude waveform editing available. However, the Macintosh software does support this function. The DM-80 is disk based, so there are delays when loading and unloading projects, and when performing routine functions. These delays are typical with disk based systems, but they still give one the feeling that time is being wasted, waiting for the event to take place. Take this software and shove the whole works into RAM, if you've got enough, and you've got a truly "high speed" production system.

The pluses far outweigh the shortcomings. The price tag is within reach of many. The learning curve is short enough to make the unit accessible to several people at your station. The 8-input, 8-output configuration lets you connect the unit directly to your existing console in the same slots your analog 8-track is plugged into, or you can conserve console space and utilize the unit's internal mixer, or better yet, invest in the fader unit. The DM-80 is compact. The recorder unit consumes only four rack spaces and can go anywhere, in or out of the production room. The footprint of the remote controller is just 17 x 10½ inches -- your typewriter takes up more room. Finally, it bears the name Roland, a company with undisputed success in the world of digital technology.

Software updates of the DM-80 occur with the replacement of ROM chips. The new version 2.0 update has just been announced and is expected to be available in the next month or two. Included among the 30+ changes to the operating system are amplitude waveform display on the remote controller, "group" phrase movement and copy, enhanced transport control, enhanced back-up options, enhanced memory usage/conservation, 32 more autolocate markers, and, of course, more.

There were no corners cut on data processing. The DM-80 has two 100 meg drives, delivering 18 track-minutes each at 44.1kHz. Of course, this is expandable to several hours depending upon the size of hard drives added. The recording format is 16-bit linear. Signal processing is 24-bit. A/D conversion is 16-bit, and D/A conversion is 20-bit. Frequency response is 10Hz to 22kHz, S/N is greater than 96dB, THD at <0.02%, crosstalk is >-93dB.

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