Test Drive: Sony PCM-800 Digital Audio Recorder

This Test Drive was done with the optional RM-D800 Remote Control Unit installed. The remote control is highly recommended for the radio production studio primarily for its 99-point autolocator and ability to enter locate times with a numeric keypad. A "jog" function is added to the Shuttle dial which aids in locating exact points on tape, though it is not as smooth as scrubbing in RAM.

There are two time displays on the remote control: the Tape Time display and the Locate Time display. Pressing the LOC button locates to whatever time is displayed in the Locate Time display. On the PCM-800, only Absolute Time can be displayed. On the remote control, both Absolute Time and Relative Time can be displayed. This is helpful when you need to keep track of the length of a production. Your tape time might be 01:18:44:33. That's one hour, eighteen minutes, forty-four seconds, and thirty-three frames into your tape. If you start a production from this point, it's difficult to glance at the display and see how long your production is at any point. Using the Relative Time function, this point in the tape can be set to zero Relative Time. Furthermore, the time displays on the remote control can be set to display only hours, minutes, and seconds, leaving off the frames display and making it even easier to read at a glance. However, the frames display is helpful when cuing to precise points with the Jog/Shuttle dial.

Storing and recalling any of the 99 locate points is as simple as can be. Press the STR key followed by the number of the desired memory location using the numeric keypad; whatever time is displayed in the Locate Time display will be stored in that memory location. The Tape Time display is above the Locate Time display. Pressing the  key on the remote control (different from the  key on front panel of the main unit) "drops" the Tape Time down into the Locate Time display. Now the current Tape Time can be stored to a memory location with a minimum of key presses. Or, if you don't care what memory location the current Tape Time is stored into, simply press the CUE STR key, on the fly if you wish. The current Tape Time drops to the Locate Time display, and that time is stored into the next "empty" memory location. The Memory Number LED display to the left of the Locate Time display shows the memory location stored to or selected when recalling locate points with the RCL key.

Several other menu-selectable functions are accessed from the remote control using the 2-line x 16-character LCD display to the left of the red LED time displays. A set of keys below the LCD display select options from four menu groups. In radio production, most of these options would be seldom used, but you do get access to more useful things such as Locate Pre-roll Time, Pitch Control, Frame Display On/Off, Crossfade Time, and more.

The top of the remote control is filled with forty-eight track REC FUNCTION keys, each with its own red LED. Obviously, this is the remote control used to operate six PCM-800s in a 48-track setup. It might be overkill for an 8-track setup, but a smaller remote with all the other features isn't available, at least not yet. There are no meters on the remote control, and it is helpful to be able to see what track has what audio on it at any given point. Therefore, it's a good idea to install the PCM-800 within eyesight when the remote control is going to be used. Otherwise, there's no reason to touch the main unit except to load and eject tapes.

Overall, I found the PCM-800 wonderful to work with. The transport mechanism feels solid and relatively fast, considering how complex and delicate the mechanism is. There is no learning curve. If you know how to use an analog multi-track, you know how to use the PCM-800. If you want to access features such as the auto punch-in/out function, you'll spend a few short minutes in the manual, then you'll have it mastered. What is really exciting about this format is that on a small Hi-8mm tape you get 116 minutes of digital 8-track recording. That's the equivalent of nearly four large reels of ½-inch or 1-inch analog 8-track tape. The storage advantage is tremendous. And the price is right. List price on the PCM-800 is $5,995. Add the RM-D800 remote for $1,500.

Specs include dynamic range more than 92dB, THD less than 0.007%, and channel separation more than 92dB, all at 1kHz. Frequency response is 20-20kHz and quantization is 16-bit linear. The PCM-800 takes up four rack spaces and weighs a hefty thirty pounds.

Tape-based multi-track versus disk-based multi-track? That's another article and an ongoing debate. There are advantages and weaknesses on both sides. Sure, there's a lot to be said for cut and paste editing on disk-based systems. But there's a lot to be said for the affordable storage advantages of tape-based systems. And for the price of the PCM-800, your options in disk-based systems is quite limited. And nobody can dispute the ease with which one can convert their studio and personnel from analog 8-track to tape-based digital 8-track. Personally, I think a combination of both formats is ideal for the radio production department. For those long programs like holiday specials, pre-recorded talk shows, or even weekend music programs, the tape-based format is perfect and doesn't use up valuable disk space. If there are producers on staff that can't get the hang of the disk-based system, the PCM-800 keeps them in a familiar format, yet provides digital quality. The PCM-800 can also serve as a very affordable back-up system to a more expensive disk-based system, keeping you in the digital multi-track world, even when your workstation needs work. Or you could use the PCM-800 in a way it was never intended to be used...as a stereo mastering deck. Take your stereo master bus and send the left channel to tracks 1, 3, 5, and 7; and the right channel to tracks 2, 4, 6, and 8. When you fill up tracks 1 and 2, rewind and start on tracks 3 and 4. Now you have a deck that provides almost eight hours of digital stereo audio on one Hi-8mm tape! That's four times as much as you can get on the longest DAT!

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