Test Drive: The Otari RADAR Random Access Digital Audio Recorder

The Chase key and the Offset/Sync key round out the ten keys in the upper right hand portion of the RE-8 and are used for syncing to external devices. Below these keys is a group of twelve keys. Most of these keys' functions are available through menu choices, but since they are the RADAR's most used editing functions, they each have a dedicated key. The Auto Play key is used with the Auto Locate functions of the RADAR to put the unit into playback whenever a locate point is recalled. This is really nice when recording and you want to quickly hear what you've recorded after your through with the take. Simply set a locate point at the start of recording, let's say locate point 5, then begin recording. When through, simply press the 5 key, and the RADAR stops recording and immediately begins playing back what you recorded. The Auto Punch key activates the RADAR's automatic punch-in/out function. The in/out points are set using the Mark In and Mark Out keys next to the data wheel. Pressing the Cycle key enables continuous playback from the Mark In point to the Mark Out point, ideal for "rehearsals" and making multiple dubs to tape, though you cannot set the number of times the system will cycle. The Pre Roll function adjusts the pre-roll and post-roll times when using locate points and works with the Cycle function to add time to the front and back side of the "cycled" segment.

The remaining eight keys are the audio editing keys and are what make the RADAR more than a fancy 24-track recorder. There are seven editing functions, and each of them uses the Mark In and Mark Out keys to set edit points. The Cut function removes audio between the in/out points and joins the two ends together -- your basic splice job in the analog world. The Copy function copies the audio between the in/out points into the RADAR's "clipboard." You can then use the Paste function to put the clipboard's audio anywhere on any of the twenty-four tracks within the current project or any other project in the system. (Use the Shift key with the Paste key to audition whatever is in the clipboard.) You get the option of overwriting the audio at the destination or inserting the audio at the destination and moving everything else on that track (or tracks) down. The Erase function removes the audio between the in/out points but does not join the two ends together - the equivalent of inserting leader tape between the in/out points. The Move function combines the Erase, Copy, and Paste functions. It leaves silence between the in/out points, copies the audio into the clipboard (something the Erase function does not do), and pastes it to the destination point in either overwrite or insert mode. The Slide function is much like the Move function, only you must enter a value in milliseconds for the amount you wish to "slide" the selected audio on the track. This function is okay, if you know how many milliseconds you want to move something. The Loop function works like a charm. Mark your in/out points, press Loop, arm the tracks you want to loop, select overwrite or insert mode, and tell the RADAR how many repeats you want, up to 999. Finally, the Modify Edit key lets you change any of the parameters of the most recent edit. This is handy when the last edit was something like the loop just described. If your in-time was a little off, you could press Undo and re-enter everything, or just press Modify Edit and adjust only the in-time!

Finally, we come to the transport controls on the RE-8. They duplicate the controls on the front panel of the RADAR. You get Rewind, Fast Forward, Play, Stop, and Record. Pressing Fast Forward once moves the "tape" forward at six times normal speed. Pressing it twice within one second fast forwards at twenty times normal speed. Same for rewind. There is no playback of audio during fast forward and rewind modes. The system utilizes a small RAM buffer to allow for "instant start" of audio when Play is pressed.

The back panel of the RADAR provides twenty-four analog ins and outs (1/4-inch TRS balanced or unbalanced). Two switches let you adjust input and output levels to 10dB or +4dB. There's a video reference/Word Clock input and a SMPTE Time Code input. The SMPTE Time Code output will be available in January. There are AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/Os and MIDI IN/OUT/THRU connectors. The MIDI I/O will be available in the new software version in January. Other rear panel connectors include a PC keyboard connector which is not utilized at this time. The RADARLINK connector allows connecting another RADAR to create a 48-track system. This is another feature due in January. The external SCSI port allows connection of up to three additional drives. Finally, there is a connector for the back-up device and for the RE-8.

The back of the RE-8 has an "AUX" port which is not in use yet. The same goes for the "Mouse Port." However, there are three footswitch inputs that do work. Footswitch 1 toggles between Play and Stop. Footswitch 2 cues to the current Auto Locate point, and Footswitch 3 puts the unit into Record mode from the Play mode.

And that completes the grand tour. But, wait! Isn't there something missing? Where's the video monitor for this digital workstation? That was my first reaction. Initially, I felt a little lost without a video monitor, fumbling around those twenty-four tracks without eyes. But within hours, I felt perfectly comfortable moving audio around the RADAR without visual aid. Indeed, mistakes were made because I didn't have the extra help of the visuals, but the Undo button quickly fixed these.

I only had five days to really work with the RADAR, but by the third day, the RADAR was showing its speed. One of its more useful features is the ability to use the numeric keypad as ten individual locate points. Let's say you have one spot that needs eight different tags. Arm a track, press Play and Record, and put one finger on the Mark Locate button. Press it as you begin reading each tag. The RADAR will automatically assign the tags to a locate point starting with locate number 1. When done, cuing to each tag is a one-key operation -- fast, friendly, and digital! (There is one drawback to using multiple locate points: if you edit a point in front of other points, particularly with a Cut operation, the locate points down the "tape" lose their place with respect to the audio they once pointed to. However, this is a function of the software and probably something one can look forward to as a small fix or user option in a future software update.)

I found it handy to have one project designated for recording "temporary" voice tracks -- you're in the middle of one project, and someone walks in to record the voice track for another. In the analog world, this can be bothersome. With the RADAR, simply press Project, select your "temporary" project, press Enter, and bam! You're ready to record the voice track and can quickly get back to your previous project when done. Then, when time comes to begin the next project with that new voice track, simply go to the "temporary" project, copy the track to the clipboard, go to the new project, and paste it where you want it.

Many workstations offer a "library" of sorts where sound effects, jingles, etc. can be stored and retrieved. The RADAR doesn't specifically provide a "library" function, but there's no reason why you can't assign Project 99, let's say, to Sound Effects. Then, use the 99 available locate points to store the location of up to 99 sounds. Since the locate points can have names, short descriptions of the sounds can be stored with the locate point. Project 98 could be used exclusively for station IDs often used in promos, etc.. Project 97 could be used exclusively to store often used music beds. It would be necessary to keep a log on paper (or computer) of what sounds are in what project at what locate point if you don't want to spend a lot of time scrolling.

The Otari RADAR is loaded with pluses. A major one is its incredibly short learning curve made possible with the help of the RE-8 Session Controller. Most of the keys on the RE-8 speak for themselves, and even the most digital-shy producer feels at home quickly. The multiple sampling frequencies make the system ideal for broadcast because you can use 32kHz sampling, maintain "broadcast quality," and use recording time efficiently. And the availability of the higher sampling frequencies doesn't limit your studio from doing serious recording jobs requiring higher sampling frequencies. The RE-8 comes standard with a 30-foot cord which lets you put the RADAR at a distance from the work area, leaving the small RE-8 as the only item needed to do some serious digital 24-track work. The digital I/O is easy to use and provides an ideal interface for studios that continue to employ more and more digital devices. However, the fact that the twenty-four outputs are analog will prevent one from staying entirely in the digital domain with this system -- if you master to DAT, you'll have to master to the analog inputs.

The system software version of the unit used for this Test Drive is version 1.02. While writing this review, version 1.05 became available, and yet another upgrade is due in January. One major advantage of the new software is in the way the drives can be configured. An 8-track RADAR using version 1.02 comes standard with one internal drive, even though the system will house three drives. To expand recording time, you had to add an external drive. With the new software version, the two additional internal drive slots can now be used to create what Otari calls the "Mondo 8" configuration -- an 8-track RADAR with three internal 1-gigabyte drives. This is a major plus for radio because most stations would probably opt for the 8-track version with three times the recording and storage time rather than the 24-track version with shorter record times.

There are several other new features of the software upgrades I was unable to check out, but they sound exciting nevertheless. Some of them include the ability to play audio between the Mark In and Out points, programmable peak and clip hold times, cue to next/previous audio segment, reverse play and "reverse clipboard" which lets you reverse the audio in the clipboard and paste it that way. There's a .WAV file import utility, user defined fast forward and rewind rates, and "jog nudge" which probably allows for even more accurate cuing with the jog wheel.

New hardware options include the ADATLINK Card which allows optical digital connection between the RADAR and the Alesis ADAT and Fostex RD-8, a parallel interface card which allows the RADAR to be controlled from Otari remote controllers as well as automation systems, and the RADAR Back-up Station, an off-line system designed for back-up of RADAR to removable hard disks. The system uses a standard PC computer with supplied software and hardware interface card.

List price on the 24-track RADAR is $21,300. The RE-8's price tag is $1,100. The optional Exabyte back-up system is $3,500. Order the 16-track version with just two 1-gigabyte drives for just $15,725, or the 8-track with one 1-gig drive for $10,164. 2-gigabyte drives are available, though the pricing structure with these drives was not. Up to three additional drives can be added externally to the SCSI bus. At 32kHz sampling, you get almost 4.5 HOURS of track recording time with each gigabyte! My choice would be an 8-track configuration with three internal 2-gig drives.

There's no doubt about it; the Otari RADAR is one serious workstation, loaded with features and incredibly easy to learn and use. For radio production, it is certainly worth considering.

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