Test Drive: Akai DR8 Digital Multi-track Recorder

The Move and Move+Insert functions are the same as the Copy functions except the source audio is removed, leaving "erased" space in its place. The Insert function is the equivalent of placing leader tape onto a track. You don't have to set In and Out points for this function. Simply locate to the place where you want to start the "leader tape" then tell the DR8 how much leader tape to add. The Erase function removes audio from any number of tracks without altering the timing. This is good for removing breaths or other noise in voice tracks. The Delete function also removes audio, but it brings the In and Out points together after the marked audio is deleted. The Slip function lets you move audio forward or backward on a track without having to set an Out point, though all audio beyond the set In point is affected. After any edit, the UNDO key lets you undo the edit and compare it to the original state. Pressing UNDO again reverts back to the edited version. The ESCAPE key is much like the ESCAPE key on a computer keyboard--press to back out of or cancel whatever function you're in.

The REHEARSAL key is used with the punch-in/out function to practice punch-ins without actually recording. It is located at the bottom left of the front panel, quite a distance away from the AUTO PUNCH key which is used to perform the actual punch-in recording. The AUTO PUNCH key is below the transport controls and next to the REPEAT key. Pressing REPEAT plays back audio between the set In and Out points repeatedly--good for setting levels, EQ, pans, effects, etc. in a mix.

At the bottom center of the front panel are five TAKE keys (1 through 5) and the RESERVED, DISCARD, and COMMIT keys. These are all part of the DR8's Take functions, a very nice feature that enables storing up to five different takes of a recording and recalling them easily. In many cases, this is the equivalent of adding five tracks to your eight. Most workstations are designed for recording music, and this Take function is designed to give the musician the opportunity to record and store up to five shots at that tough guitar solo without having to use separate tracks for each. Convert this feature to radio production and you have five spare tracks to use for things such as copy updates ("Saturday," "tomorrow," "today"). Use these "extra tracks" for that donut jingle that has five different scripts to be inserted. Using the Take function eliminates having to arm and disarm individual tracks when recording as well as having to set levels and pans on each additional track during playback. After making a recording, press the RESERVED key followed by one of the TAKE keys to store that recording. The COMMIT key replaces the original track with your selected take. And the DISCARD key is used to delete takes. The Take function can also be applied to more than one track at a time, saving a set of tracks rather than just one. This might be used when using stereo effects on a voice-over or when you have a single voice track that needs five different music beds under it. Very nice feature. All workstations should incorporate it.

The DR8 comes with a slick auto-locator. All of the ten keys of the numeric keypad are auto-locate keys and set the DR8 to the stored position instantly when pressed except for the 0 key (actually the LAST 0/- key). Pressing this key alternately locates to the last two places the STOP key was pressed. Pressing any of the other numeric keys locates to whatever position is stored in that key's memory. To store a location, simply locate to that point, press the STORE/ENT key, the press the numeric key of your choice from 1 to 9. If this isn't enough locate points for you, the :/STACK key offers 99 more locate points, though these require a few more key presses to store and recall.

The PREROLL/TIME key turns on the Preroll function. When on, a green LED lights next to the key, and the DR8 will locate to a point a few seconds before the specified point. Use the SUB MENU key with the PREROLL/TIME key to set the preroll time anywhere from zero to 59 seconds.

Four of the number keys also have dual functions with the SUB MENU key. The 1/DISK key accesses several disk functions including disk formatting, disk erasing, and readouts of remaining recording time and total recording time. This is also where the DR8's DAT backup and restore functions are found. Sorry, you can't backup and restore portions of the drive. The entire drive must be backed up, and when you restore from DAT, the entire drive gets re-written. The DR8 also offers Cleanup and Minimize functions which free up unused disk space. The 2/DIGI key accesses several digital functions. Use this key to set the format of the digital output, set the sampling frequency (32kHz, 44.056kHz, 44.1kHz, or 48kHz), set the sync format, and set emphasis on or off. The 3/SET UP key adjusts display brightness, sets the sub-frame display on or off, accesses MIDI control parameters, and sets the record monitoring mode. The 4/UTILITY key accesses the DR8's Reload function used with external drives.

The front panel tour winds up at the bottom right where we find the SYNC key, used to sync the DR8 with an external device including other DR8s. To the right is the VARI/SPEED key. The DR8 offers variable speed playback at an approximate range of -41% to +58% depending upon the sampling frequency in use. Below this key are four keys used when the DR8 is in Song Mode. Create beat and tempo maps and sync using MIDI time code (with optional MIDI interface board). To the right is a connector for a footswitch used for punch-in/out operation. Above this is the REMOTE connector for connecting the optional MT8 Mixing Tab remote control due out later in the year. If you plan on using the DR8's internal mixer, plan on getting this option to make things faster.

The DR8 comes standard with a 1-gig internal drive good for 3 hours and 17 track minutes of recording at 44.1kHz. At broadcast quality recording (32kHz), you get over 4.5 track hours! A/D conversion is 18-bit with 64x oversampling. The D/A converter is an advanced 1-bit dual 20-bit with 8x oversampling. The recording format is 16-bit linear PCM. Frequency response is 30-22kHz at 48kHz sampling frequency. Dynamic range is >96dB. Channel crosstalk is >90dB. The DR8 weighs in at about 35 pounds with the internal drive and takes up four rack spaces.

For $4,995 list, this is one nice workstation. Having the option to use all eight outputs and bypass the internal mixer is a big plus for those wishing to do the mixing externally, but there's certainly nothing wrong with the DR8's versatile internal mixer. A nice option is the EQ8 Digital EQ board which adds digital EQ to the internal mixer for a modest $699. I was surprised at how quickly most functions of the DR8 are learned, and the others required only a few minutes in the manual. You get "instant start" with the DR8. Whether you cue to audio with the JOG/SHUTTLE wheel, by entering a time code, or by pressing one of the auto-locator keys, the audio is there instantly when you press PLAY.

What took the longest time to get used to (just a few days, actually) was the fact that this "workstation" acts more like a reel-to-reel deck in the sense that you cannot store and retrieve individual projects. All work is addressed by its Absolute Time, which you have to start thinking of as "tape time." And because all work remains on the same "tape" at all times, if you perform an edit on a track at the beginning of the "tape," this edit will affect the timing on ALL projects that have audio on that track on the rest of the "tape." What if you need to go back and revise a previous project? Must you ruin all subsequent projects in the process? Furthermore, any locate points stored to memory will retain their Absolute Time, but the audio on this time line will shift with each edit. So, if you stored a project to locate point 55 then made an edit on a previous project, locate point 55 may not take you back to the exact place again. All this can become a nightmare, but there is a fix. Once the light bulb turns on in your head and you realize exactly what the DR8 is doing, you quickly figure out how to use it in radio production.

As mentioned earlier, the DR8 has a maximum Absolute Time of 24 hours (actually 23:59:59:29.9 to be exact to the sub-frame; actual recording time depends upon the number of disks attached). You have to think of the DR8 as a reel-to-reel deck with a 24-hour tape on it. That's the equivalent of nearly fifty reels of the analog stuff at 15 ips. So, we're not talking about just a little work space here. If the DR8 were in my studio, I'd keep a log, on computer, noting Absolute Time for the beginning of every project. Since I have 24 hours of Absolute Time, I would always start a project at an exact minute on the time line for simplicity's sake. If all projects are a minute long or less, there's enough "Absolute Time" to store 1,440 projects--I'd run out of disk space long before I run out of Absolute Time. Maybe I'd start each project on even numbered minutes to insure space between projects. And I would always know where my "clean tape" starts. Now, if I have to go back and revise a spot done weeks ago, I go and mark the beginning and end of the entire spot and copy all eight tracks to the start of my "clean tape." Since this is a disk-based system, I'm not using up additional disk space. The same audio is just being referenced with two different sets of pointers. Now I can perform all the edits I want without affecting any other projects, because there are no other projects "further down the tape."

Eventually, you'll need to free up disk space and delete old projects. If you just mark and delete these projects, the Absolute Time will shift for everything after those projects, and this will screw up any log you're keeping. Rather than delete the projects, use the Erase function. This is not the equivalent of "cutting tape" and will not affect Absolute Times. On my computer log of projects, I'd simply delete the line indicating the Absolute Time and the name of the project (plus other info). This will prevent the log from becoming a long list with a lot of blank lines in between projects. Eventually, you'd probably run out of Absolute Time and would have to start from scratch. Hopefully, by then, Akai will have introduced software, either internal or for an external PC, that will provide cataloging functions for better handling of multiple projects on disk.

Aside from this necessary adjustment for radio production, the DR8 is a definite consideration for the cost conscious radio station or small production house. And you know the name Akai has been around for a while. During this Test Drive, I didn't encounter a single glitch or crash of any kind.

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