Test Drive: Panasonic SV-4100 Professional DAT Recorder

The location of the "instant start" can be fine-tuned with frame accuracy. Once the unit loads the five seconds of audio into the RAM buffer, the start position becomes the point where the Start ID begins. The start point can then be adjusted plus or minus 50 frames from this original starting point. There are 33 frames per second, so accuracy is to 1/33 second. While this isn't nearly as accurate as sample-accurate editing possible with most disk and RAM-based digital recorders and editors, it is certainly accurate enough to get a very precise "instant start" from the machine. Adjustment of the start point is accomplished by using the forward and backward Skip/Setting buttons or by using the Shutting Search dial. A single press of the forward or backward Skip/Setting button increments or decrements the start point by one frame. Using the dial enables making the adjustment while hearing the audio as well. Using the dial to increment or decrement the start point plays back the audio at speeds variable between 1/16 to 1x normal speed depending upon how far you turn the dial in either direction. Furthermore, the bargraph level indicators on the LED display are active when setting the start point. So, one could actually set the start point visually by locating the point immediately before that point at which levels are first indicated on the bargraph.

Once the buffer is loaded, pressing the Pause/Rehearsal button in the Quick Start mode engages the Rehearsal function. When pressed once and released, audio from the current start point to the end of the RAM buffer is played back. When pressed and held for more than one second, the unit enters the Repeat Rehearsal mode and plays the audio back repeatedly, starting with the current start point. The start point can then be adjusted using the Skip/Setting buttons or the Shuttle Search dial.

The Quick Start function works with Absolute Time searches as well as with searches using program numbers. To search a point on tape by Absolute Time, press the Time Input button. The Absolute Time on the LED display begins flashing. The REW/REV and FF/CUE transport controls also function as Time Mode Select buttons in this mode. They are used together with the Skip/Setting buttons or the Shuttle Search dial to set the Absolute Time to be searched. Once the time is set, pressing Play or Pause/Standby/Rehearsal begins the search.

Another really nice feature of the SV-4100 is the set of locate buttons on the bottom of the front panel. There are five buttons to the left of the Quick Start button. When Quick Start is active, these buttons function as Locate Last, Locate 1, Locate 2, Locate 3, and Locate 4. Locate Last searches one of the following: the most recent Absolute Time entered into one of the other locate points, the Absolute Time set using the time setting function, or the Absolute Time of the current start point when in Quick Start trim mode. The other four locate points store the current Absolute Time by pressing the button for more than 1.5 seconds. When the time is stored, the display reads "A1," "A2," etc. to designate that the current time is stored. This is handy for several everyday tasks. Let's say we have four tags to apply to a spot. Record the four tags to DAT to a single program number, or none at all for that matter. Then, cue to the beginning of each tag, using the Shuttle Search dial, and store its location to a locate point. With the Quick Start mode active, simply press the locate button for the desired tag, and you have a digital recording ready for "instant start" at the press of a button. Storing to the locate points can also be done on the fly.

When the SV-4100 is not in the Quick Start mode, these locate buttons have other functions. The Locate Last button becomes the PNO/Start ID Auto button which determines whether or not Start IDs will be recorded automatically when audio is detected. The Locate 1 button also functions as the Skip Play Cancel button. Locate 2 is also the Music Scan button which plays about fifteen seconds of each program, then fast forwards to the next. The Locate 3 and 4 buttons also function as the Fade Out and Fade In buttons. During recording, audio can be faded in over 2.5 seconds or faded out over 4 seconds by pressing one of these buttons.

The large LED display provides the usual information: bargraph level meters with peak hold indicators and "over" indicators; program number display (up to 99); indicators for Start ID, Skip ID, End, and Erase; and sampling frequency indicators for 48kHz, 44.1kHz, and 32kHz. (32kHz playback only. 32kHz recording is not available.) A Cleaning indicator warns of dirty heads and a Dew indicator warns that condensation has occurred. The time counter provides the usual displays of Absolute Time, Program Time, Remaining Time, and Tape Counter. The various modes are selected by pressing the Counter Mode button. The Counter Reset button does just that when in the Tape Counter mode.

When you press the Counter Mode, Counter Reset, and Pause buttons simultaneously, you get to yet another level of the SV-4100. This is where the unit's operating parameters are adjusted and displayed. Pressing the three buttons together replaces the program number and time counter display with readings for nine separate functions. The first two, Mode 0 and Mode 1, display and set the various digital I/O configurations. Mode 2 is a pretty nice treat. This display shows the error rate for the currently loaded tape. When the unit is new, error rates can be averaged to get an idea of how the unit functions at top performance levels. As time goes on, error rates can be checked to see if the unit needs cleaning long before you actually begin to get audible degradation of audio if not complete drop-outs. I suppose this also checks the quality of the tape itself. Mode 3 turns the Single Play mode on or off. When on, the SV-4100 will park in the pause mode after playing a program and reaching the next Start ID. Mode 4 determines how the unit operates in Program Play mode. Mode 5 sets the SCMS status. Mode 6 sets the output level. Used in conjunction with the +4/-10dB pad switch on the rear panel, this adjustment lets you vary the output level over a 28dB range. Mode 7 displays the number of hours that the heads have been rotating, helpful in determining when maintenance is due. And Mode 8 displays error codes used for determining causes of malfunctions.

One minor drawback to the SV-4100 is the lack of a numeric keypad on the front panel for direct input of program numbers. The wireless remote control is used for this. However, the SV-4100 did make one nice modification to the backward and forward program Skip buttons. With most decks lacking the keypad on the panel, you have to hit the Skip button fifty times if you want to go from the beginning of the tape to program 50. With the SV-4100, pressing the Skip button and holding it down will increment the counter quickly. This is much faster than pressing the button once for each program, but still not as quick as direct numeric input. The remote control is also necessary to use the Programmed Play function.

If you can keep from misplacing the remote control, the SV-4100 is an ideal DAT deck for radio production. The Quick Start function and the unit's ability to cue to frame accuracy give it the feel of working with a professional CD player. But, you do have to get used to the unit taking an additional 5 or 6 seconds to load the RAM buffer after it has located the desired program. Still, when weighed against the benefits, it's worth the wait. There are a lot of things you normally wouldn't do with a DAT deck that the SV-4100 makes possible. This deck is more of a production tool rather than just a mastering device. And for the money, it's hard to beat. If the success of the popular SV-3700 is any indication, the SV-4100 will find many homes in production rooms everywhere.

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