Test Drive: The Akai DR4d Hard Disk Recorder

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by Dave Oliwa

Unless you're a big, fat corporation with piles of cash and a tremendous need to capitalize before the end of your fiscal year, you're going to be "going digital" one step at a time with the rest of us. That means making some choices that can stick with you for some time! Granted, there are a number of formats, or "platforms" to choose from, but today, let's look at hard disk recording.

The first thing associated with the term "hard disk" is a computer. You gotta have one to run the program that runs the hard drive or you have to buy a stand alone studio in a box which, in reality, is a computer that's dedicated to processing audio. The computer, a program, and the circuits to run the audio, when put together, manufacturers call "workstations."

Leave it to the sampling pros at Akai to break the rules. In a creative approach to low cost, digital recording, Akai has taken its knowledge of building boxes like the DD 1000 and applied it to the Akai DR4d hard disk recorder, combining the readily available technology of computer hard disks with four channels of audio electronics into one, sampler sized, three rack space box.

It's got a jog/shuttle wheel, independent control over the four tracks, and one hundred and eight locate points, accessible from a keypad.

A 36 and a half minute, four channel sampler with editing capabilities is what we've got here!

Let's tour the front panel.

A barrier protected power switch in the upper left hand corner sits atop a headphone jack with a level control and a foot switch jack (for punch ins). The headphones receive channels one and three on the left and channels two and four on the right. Four, 20 segment LED bargraphs show VU levels from behind a smoked panel. The LEDs operate with a peak "hold" indication. Each channel has its own record/safe button and operates just like its analog counterpart. Directly under them are the input select keys that choose digital or analog by channel pairs (1 and 2, or 3 and 4). The front panel also sports an Auto Monitor switch and a Rehearsal switch for use during recording.

The display, eight LED digits, toggles between Absolute time (the total time available on the hard disk), Relative time (from where the user set 00:00:00), and BBC (bar, beat, clock). The ABS/REL button, with LEDs on each side to indicate the mode, and a reset button work the display. The BBC button and its LED are primarily for the musician using the DR4d as a MIDI Clock master with an optional interface. The display is also used for locate points and error messages from the unit itself.

The In, In/Out Play, Out, Auto Punch, and Repeat buttons are between the main display and the transport style controls, which use buttons designed for the thumbs. More on these functions later.

A Zero Return resets to either absolute zero or the 00:00 you choose, depending on how the ABS/REL button is set.

And here's something sweet: a Play To Out button that, when pressed, plays a programmable number of seconds BEFORE the displayed time, then stops at the displayed time a great way to hear where an edit point will be placed before an edit is made.

Of course, there's an Undo button. Although mistakes can only be corrected one deep, the Undo can toggle between before and after for comparing your edit with the original.

The Jog wheel, and its Shuttle sleeve, are the key components to editing. This is, after all, an "ear" box no computer screen needed.

An Edit button toggles between all of the editing functions: Copy, Copy/Insert, Move, Move/Insert, Insert, Erase, and Delete.

A numeric keypad allows direct entry of a time "address" or one of eight "instant" locate points. The other 100 locate points are reached by pressing the Stack button first, then entering the desired locator number. Yes, you can store a locate point "on the fly."

Other buttons include a Sub Menu key to access the double functions of most of the buttons, Sync (used with an optional MIDI or SMPTE card to lock to external boxes), Vari (a variable pitch control with 64 steps between the 32 and 48 kHz sampling rate, allowing the user at 44.1kHz sampling to pitch down 27.5% and up 8.8%), Tempo (when using the DR4d as a MIDI Clock master), PreRoll (user programmable), Escape, Store/Enter, and a personal favorite, Last 0/ (where you can call up the last two points Stop was pressed).

The back panel does look like a computer. There's a 50 pin Amphenol SCSI port (for connecting outboard disk drives), four "expansion slots" to hold MIDI or SMPTE cards, and the audio inputs and outputs, which are tip/ring/sleeve, balanced/unbalanced, ¼ inch phone plugs. Digital I/O is by AES/EBU XLRs or by RCA phono plugs.

When it comes to editing, the DR4d is user friendly. All of the audio is referenced to Absolute time, so any place you choose to edit has an "address." Who needs a waveform picture? You haven't forgotten how to edit with your ears, have you?

The beauty of this box is measured by the way it cues with the shuttle and jog, and by the 6 or 7 keystrokes it takes to make a complete edit. Compared to a razor blade, there's no contest. And when was the last time you moved tracks around or offset the timing of a multi-track tape?

As we mentioned earlier, a set of buttons just above the "transport" controls are used to mark the Start/Stop points of Edits and/or Inserts, Deletes, and Erasures. The In/Out Play key plays what you've marked, just in case the phone rings, or a momentary lapse of confidence sets in. An Autopunch button uses the same In/Out markers, as does the continuous, and seamless Repeat function.

We made a copy on the same track by marking the In and Out edit points and toggling the Edit button to Copy. Simple. Copy to another track? Just enable the record on the track you're going to and punch in the address. We could move edits in the same way. Copy and Insert, or Move and Insert manages the audio after your edit as if you spliced in more tape and simply made your program a little longer.

And of course, pressing play means instant audio.

The newest version of the DR4d (3.0) will merge tracks internally as well, including "phantom track" merges of all four tracks into one! Track levels during this procedure are adjusted with the shuttle wheel.

The total amount of recording time available is dependent on the amount of disk space you buy and which of the three sampling frequencies (32, 44.1, 48) you choose to work with (the higher the sampling rate, the higher the quality, the more storage space is needed). Digital material sent to the unit from a source with SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) is recorded without the SCMS signal.

The DR4d we tested came with Akai's 200 megabyte internal hard disk, giving a track time of 36 minutes, 57 seconds at 48kHz. [Compute track time by adding ALL recorded material on ALL four tracks together.] Adding disk drives will increase the total time available, up to 24 track-hours. Standard SCSI disk drives available anywhere will work, as manufacturers like Akai have realized the consumer's need to shop around and to not be locked in to buying specially designed gear. This also frees the manufacturer from research and development costs which, theoretically, are passed on to us in lower overall cost.

Up to four DR4ds can be linked together with cables purchased from Akai, giving a total of 16 tracks that lock up without additional cards.

Like the big dogs, the DR4d will back up all four tracks to DAT using the digital in/outs. Backup to an external optical disk is possible as well but requires the purchase of a SCSI card (about $200).

This unit's specs are nice and clean 18 bit filters, in and out; channel crosstalk more than 96 dB.

On a one to ten scale of bang for the buck, the DR4d is a nine. Why not a 10? The Store/Enter button is used for just about everything, yet it's the same size as the keypad buttons and a little small for such a major button, although Akai has placed it in the lower right hand corner of the front panel without a button above it. Also, there is no "global" control for locate points. Once you change the position of your audio in reference to absolute time, locate points are no longer "in sync" with your recorded material. (Hey, what do you want? "10" is very difficult to reach!)

Which brings us to bucks. The Akai DR4d without a disk drive lists for $1995.00. With a 200 megabyte drive, it's $2495.00 list. Street prices are obviously less and you could probably find a disk drive cheaper, provided you don't mind installing it yourself. A remote control is available at a steep $849.00.

If you want to move into the digital age without spending a lot more on a recording platform, this is a nice box. No, it's not a "workstation," but for the price of one of them, you can outfit four studios with eight tracks each, and that's a great alternative.

Comments (2)

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me interesa deseo saber el precio Test Drive: The Akai DR4d Hard Disk Recorder

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

This is a product review from 1994. It is not for sale.

Jerry Vigil
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