Test Drive: The Otari DTR-8S Professional DAT Recorder

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by Jerry Vigil

DAT is alive and well. This format remains an affordable and reliable way to record, master, and archive digital audio. As the years pass, manufacturers continue to serve up decks with new features and improvements, and the price continues to drop within the reach of more and more serious audio pros. Brand new from Otari is the DTR-8S, a 2-head professional deck which incorporates all the features of the DTR-8 (March 1996 RAP Test Drive) and comes in at an appealing list price of just $1,395.

Balanced XLR connectors provide the analog I/O with switchable +4dB and -10dB operating levels. AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O is available on XLR and RCA/coaxial connectors. The AC power connector and parallel remote interface wrap up the rear panel.

The attractive front panel is gray with black buttons and knobs. Above the power on/off button at the far left are the SAMPLING FREQUENCY and INPUT select switches. The DTR-8S supports 48kHz, 44.1kHz, and 32kHz/Long Play mode sampling. (Recording times double in Long Play mode.) The DTR-8S will record 32kHz in Standard Play mode when a 32kHz signal is fed to the digital inputs and the SAMPLING FREQUENCY switch is set to 44.1 or 48kHz. The INPUT switch selects between Analog, Coaxial or AES/EBU.

The tape drawer is above the display just left of center. When closed, the door can be opened with your fingers to display either of the labels that might be on the tape. To the right are the transport controls. You get the usual STOP, REWIND, PLAY, FAST FORWARD, RECORD, PAUSE, RECORD MUTE, and OPEN/CLOSE buttons. The STOP, PLAY, REWIND, and FAST FORWARD buttons are twice the size of the others. During playback, pressing the FAST FORWARD or REWIND button plays the audio back at three times normal speed. A nice touch to this cue/review mode is that you don't have to keep your finger on the FAST FORWARD or REWIND button. Pressing it once and letting go engages the 3x playback speed. And, if you do hold the button down, the DTR-8S plays back the audio at five times normal speed. Press the PAUSE button first, then press either the FAST FORWARD or REWIND buttons, and the audio plays back at half normal speed. The pitch remains the same at all three speeds.

There is no instant start function on the DTR-8S, so "cuing" is more a process of auditioning rather than cuing the tape to a point at which you want playback to begin once the PLAY button is hit. Cuing a DAT without instant start is like cuing an analog cassette. Good luck! I'm surprised the instant start function has not become a standard feature in most professional DAT decks by now. RAM is cheap, the technical aspect has already been developed and proven, and the benefits, especially in audio production, are well worth any reasonable increase in the price.

Getting back to what the DTR-8S has, we come to a feature not found on many DAT decks. A Table Of Contents (TOC) can be written to the beginning of the tape which, among other things, enables a high speed search mode that locates programs at 300 times normal playback speed! The normal search speed is about 200 times normal playback speed. The TOC can only hold data for the first fifty programs, so the high speed search only works for the first fifty programs. To use the high speed search, the unit must first read the TOC, which takes about twenty seconds. As it does, the locations of the first forty programs are stored in memory, probably using the Absolute Time of each. Accessing programs by Absolute Time would be faster than by Program Number because the machine knows how far it is from 00:00:00 to, let's say, 00:35:33 and can calculate how long it can engage the super fast speed. With program numbers, it has no way of knowing if the programs are each sixty seconds long or ten minutes long, and trying to adjust the speed based upon when it thinks the correct program number will arrive is guesswork.

Aside from high speed search, the TOC also provides a display of the total number of programs and total playing time of a tape. Start times and playing times of individual programs can also be displayed using the remote control. Recording the TOC is done by pressing the TOC/RENUMBER button. The DTR-8S rewinds to the beginning of the tape and performs the standard Renumber function. When done, it returns to the beginning of the tape and writes the TOC information. Any renumbering of programs that is needed is done automatically, and the new numbers are recorded to the TOC. Once again, only information for the first fifty programs can be stored in the TOC. If you use DAT to master commercials, promos, and other short length items, you probably use more than fifty programs on a DAT. For you, the TOC might not offer any very useful features, but for recording music or program length shows, the TOC info can be useful.

Another nice feature of the DTR-8S is the ability to attach text to each Start ID which will scroll across the display when the ID is read. Up to sixty characters (alphanumeric, including punctuation) can be assigned to each Start ID. You could use this to name each cut, add a production date, VO talent, your initials, etc.. If you compile tapes of songs from various artists, this is a great way to record artist information so you'll always know who did that song! Of course, you'll need a machine that can read the character data. Characters are entered from the front panel using the CHARACTER button and a few of the transport controls for cursor movement and character selection.

Other front panel controls include the AUTO ID button which engages the automatic Start ID recording function. When in playback mode, the AUTO ID button enables/disables the Skip ID operation. The COUNTER MODE button selects the various time displays. You get Absolute Time, Program Time, Remaining Time, and a tape counter (used with the COUNTER RESET button). If you have a TOC on the tape and it has been read, the time display can also show Absolute Remaining time, Program Remaining Time, and Total Time.

The Program Number area of the display also doubles as a Peak Margin indicator, a useful real-time dB display of how much headroom is available at the input. Press the PEAK RESET button to activate this feature. Press the ERROR button to show the error rate on each channel--handy for indicating when it's time to clean the heads. Press the RECORD MUTE and COUNTER RESET buttons simultaneously to get a readout of the Drum Rotation Time, the total number of hours the unit has been in Play, Record, Pause, Fast Forward, Rewind, and Cue/Review modes.

The ID MODE and ENTER buttons are used to perform various sub-code functions. Press ID MODE to scroll through the choices between writing and erasing Start IDs, Skip IDs, and End IDs. Pressing ENTER performs the function.

Last on the front panel tour are three knobs. The two large ones at the far right are the INPUT LEVEL and BALANCE controls. Below the transport controls are the headphone jack and PHONES LEVEL control. Otari put some extra juice in the headphone amp. There's enough volume, even for radio people.

Another nice touch on the features list is the ability to monitor the inputs when there is no cassette in the tray by pressing the RECORD button. Not only can you monitor the inputs and get a nice readout on the sixteen-segment level indicators, but this makes it handy to use the DTR-8S as an A/D or D/A converter, should you need one. Plug your analog signal to the inputs and grab the digital out. The unit uses pulse flow 1-bit D/A converters and 1-bit wide range linear A/D converters.

The wireless remote control is necessary since there is no keypad on the front panel. The remote control also adds a button to shut the display off as well as a One Point Memory function which is an easy to set locate point using Absolute time. The remote can also be used to enter character information for titling programs. The wired remote connector on the rear panel supports the Play, Stop, Record, Pause, Fast Forward, Rewind, Next, and Previous functions.

Specs on the DTR-8S include frequency response at 20-22kHz at 48kHz sampling, 20-20kHz at 44.1kHz sampling, and 20-14.5kHz at 32kHz sampling. Dynamic range is 90dB, S/N is 89dB, and THD is 0.007% at 48kHz sampling. SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) is not supported, so digital recordings made of SCMS coded material do not record the SCMS codes. The DTR-8S takes three rack spaces and weights about eight kilos.

All things considered, the Otari DTR-8S looks like a good workhorse for the broadcast market. Its low price tag and professional I/O make it a good choice for on-air studios as well as production rooms. The mechanical aspects of the unit appear sturdy and function smoothly and quietly. And your engineering staff will welcome the name Otari, as they have for years.

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