Test Drive: Panasonic SV-3800 Digital Tape Recorder

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by Dave Oliwa

We've all heard the old adage "...if it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Of course, that was before the term "upgrade" was invented. Even things that have been around for a long time are getting the now proverbial upgrade. Even things that set a standard. Take the telephone, for example. In the past, a telephone was a handset, a coiled cord, and a base with a dial (yes, I'm old). Along came the touchpad which not only made dialing easier, but allowed the phone to access services that could be controlled with tones (yes, tones made the curse of voice-mail possible—"...press one if you're sure about the choice you made by pressing the star key...if not, press pound..."). Once integrated circuits could be made for pennies, the standard "thing" that everyone knew as the telephone became a real tool—with number storage, redial, timers, caller ID, etc.. The point is, you can take something that is already a standard, and make it better—provided the improvements are well thought out.

Which brings us to Panasonic's new SV-3800 DAT machine, the successor to the tried and true radio production room standard, the SV-3700 (a moment of silence, please). The front panel of the 3800 is so similar to that of the 3700, I checked the number on the machine to make sure it was the new one! But inside, there are many new, nice improvements, including its sound quality and access to the deck's inner thoughts through a System Display Mode.

The beige front panel sports a smoked display above the DAT drawer. I'm happy to report the configuration of the readout remains the same, with the peak-indicator meter "bars" all the same color (some companies color anything above nominal level red). Of course, the Over indicator still glows red. Across the bottom of the front panel is the infrared Remote Sensor window (there is also a wired remote capability), a Sampling Rate switch (a choice of 44.1 or 48 kHz), the Start ID Auto/Manual button, with an LED indicator, a Skip Play Cancel button, with LED, a Music Scan button, Fade In and Out buttons (used only with digitally input signals), a Digital/Analog In button, with LED, and separate left/right Record Level knobs. The 3800 retains the large Shuttle/Search knob of its predecessor (thank you, Panasonic), surrounded by separate buttons for manual insertion of Start, Skip, and End IDs, ID Write, ID Erase, Renumber, End Search and Counter Mode/Reset (also used to access the System Display Mode). Transport controls are grouped together on the front panel's right side—with big Play and Stop buttons on top, Skip Forward, Skip Backwards, Pause below them, and Rewind/Review, Fast Forward/Cue, Record, and Record Mute (four seconds) below them. Power, Headphone Level, and a headphone jack sit by themselves to the left of the display and drawer.

Time for an ID

Panasonic DAT machines have always showed their "oneupsmanship" in the recording IDs department and the tradition continues with the their newest entry. Ever get a DAT tape from a client without absolute time, or Start IDs without numbers? Like the 3700, the 3800 can record absolute time and/or Start IDs on a tape that already has recorded audio. You can also Renumber a tape's prerecorded Start IDs. During recording, automatic Start IDs will be written when the audio stops for at least two seconds. In addition, the detection level for "silence" is adjustable in 10dB increments between -20 and -60dB in the System Menu. When in the manual mode, a Start ID is placed where the recording begins. A recorded Skip ID (that is one second long) will cause the deck to skip to the next Start ID on playback. Skip Play Cancel will ignore prerecorded Skip IDs on playback. End Search finds a prerecorded End ID and stops, or where the recorded absolute time stops. During digital cloning, all IDs are automatically transferred from the source tape.

The Counter Mode and Reset buttons toggle between absolute time, program time, program time remaining, a counter (how quaint!), and a number readout of the peak margin (the amount of headroom between the peak-hold display of the meter and digital no-mans land, Over). When the headroom is less than 3 dB, the readout displays in increments of tenths of a dB, just to let you know how close you came to starting over!

Music Scan plays the first 15 seconds of a PNO (program number/Start ID), then jumps to the next PNO—perfect for hearing what's on one of those tapes you didn't bother to log. What's that? You say you have hundreds of them? So do I.

During playback, pressing the Rewind/Review or FastForward/Cue buttons makes the transport go about 3 times normal speed with attenuated audio to save your speakers, or your ears when wearing headphones. From Stop the tape travels about 250 times normal speed.

The Shuttle/Search wheel increases the tape speed in four steps, each way. Although there are markings on the front panel to show these different speeds, there is no detent to "feel your way." No matter; the learning curve is literally seconds of experience. In Play, the Shuttle wheel ramps up 3, 5, 9, and 15 times normal speed in each direction. In Pause, the ramp factors are 1/2, 1, 2, and 3 times normal speed.

All of the functions of the front panel are duplicated on the infrared remote, except the Shuttle Wheel's and the System Display Mode's, as well as a few that aren't on the front panel—Repeat the whole tape or programmed cuts up to 16 times, Memory Play up to 32 cuts in any order, and a 0-9 Number Pad to enter cut numbers directly.

Rotate the pod, please HAL

As long as a microprocessor is controlling everything inside the machine, why not make those controls accessible to the user? That's just what Panasonic did with the 3800. They call it the System Display Mode, accessed by pressing the counter's Mode and Reset buttons, along with the Pause button. The PNO display shows which menu item you're in, with the time display indicating the settings.

Choose your weapon here—you can select which digital input and output you're using when the front panel Input switch is set to digital. Digital connections on the back panel include AES/EBU XLR-type, IEC-C RCA coaxial, and IEC-0 optical terminals. The choices should cover you for the next few years, no matter what you decide about digital ins and outs in the future (should you actually convince management to buy an all-digital console!).

Check your head's wear and tear individually or together by monitoring the error rate in the Error Rate Display. You can also take a look at the time your deck has been in use with the Head Cylinder Rotation Time display (on the 3700, this was displayed on a mechanical "odometer" on the back panel—hard to get to, harder to read).

Single Play Mode sets the deck to play PNOs one-at-a-time. When the next ID is sensed, the 3800 will "park" in Pause so the next cut is cued and ready to roll.

Blank Skip Mode detects a silence of 2 seconds, then cues up the next PNO.

Peak Level Mode lets you adjust the Peak Level readout.

The analog Output Level is set here as well. It's adjustable over a 14 dB range. If you've got problems with levels in your studio, dis is da box for you.

And last but certainly not least, the SCMS is determined by you. You decide whether your tapes are copy-free, copy-restricted, or copy-prohibited. Panasonic? I love you, man.


The press releases for the SV-3800 tout its new 20-bit ladder-type DACs and its linearity, improved grounding layout (better RF rejection), wider dynamic range, and lower noise. All the technical jargon aside, the second I plugged it in, it was clear—the 3800 sounds better than the 3700, or the 3900 for that matter. It was obvious, and worth hearing for yourself, if you can. I found myself pulling out tapes recorded by other machines, just to hear them. One word: wow. If this is the sound of the digital future, sign me up. For the techies, frequency response is 10-22kHz/0.5dB at 48, 10-20kHz/0.5dB at 44.1. Dynamic of 92dB plus, S/N at 92dB plus, THD less than .007% (+22dBu, 1kHz). In my humble opinion, it's the dual DACs Panasonic is using to process the left and right channel data separately that makes it sound so good.

The unit is shipped with a rack-mount drawer, the remote, and is list-priced at $1695. Street prices will be lower, so shop around.

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