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There's something intrinsically spooky about pressing the record button on a Sound Devices 744T ($3,950). Even when it's recording up to four tracks of audio, it's not making any noise unless you stick your ear on the unit itself. The 744T records to both Compact Flash cards and to its 5400 RPM, 2.5 inch ATA-5, 40 GB hard drive simultaneously, or to either one. It addresses drives up to 2 TB and can record individual files up to 4 GB.
Fast Facts
Applications: Broadcast, field/location, studio

Key Features: Four-track; 16-bit/24-bit; 32 kHz - 192 kHz sample rates; buffer; 40 GB hard disk; Compact Flash media; SMPTE timecode; FireWire port; battery operable.

Price: $3,950

Contact: Sound Devices at 608-524-0625, www.sounddevices.com.

Features

We all know that hard drives are somewhat fragile. When I smack my fist repeatedly into the side of the 744T while it's recording those four tracks (anywhere from 32 kHz to 192 kHz at 16-bit or 24-bit) nothing bad happens. That's good engineering.

Many of the lesser, portable audio-to-hard drive recorders use a boatload of batteries when not tethered to an AC supply. The 744T uses Sony InfoLithium L or M Series NP-style rechargeable camera batteries, or others with the same mount, from 1500 mAh to 6000 mAh. No doors to open, no batteries to juggle. One "clunk" and the battery is securely latched on the back plate and you're ready to go.

What do you want to record today? Travel light. If two mic inputs are all you need, leave your bag mixer in the trunk and use the 744T's two built-in, phantom powered mic preamps. Each input has trim, high-pass filters, gain range, and its own very nice sounding limiter set at -6dB. The 744T is even smart enough to record in Mid-Side (M/S) and give you L/R stereo output tracks and headphone feed.

Analog inputs three and four, terminated with TA3 male connectors, are line level, as are the two balanced analog line outputs. But wait, there's more! At the flick of a switch, the two analog mic/line XLR inputs become two AES/EBU digital inputs. And if your source is S/PDIF, there are also two BNC connectors on the right side panel for inputting S/PDIF.

The 744T uses a switching matrix to let you determine what input goes to which of the four hard drive tracks. There are preset routings, or you may make your own and store them. The 744T has two discrete, two-channel output busses, named Master Output and Output 2, each of which can be configured to send separate feeds. The Master Output includes the two TA3 male balanced outputs, a 3.5 mm TRS stereo, unbalanced, analog tape out and an AES3id digital output that is compatible with most S/PDIF inputs. Output 2 can be used to route similar or different sources or tracks through its digital output.

When recording multitrack files, each file appears as one file when "poly" file type is selected. Pro Tools sees four-channel files as a single LCRS multitrack file that can be dragged to the region list. If "mono" file type is selected each track appears in its own file. Careful though, If Pro Tools is running while you connect the 744T via FireWire, it will put a Digidesign database directory on the 744T. You'll want to trash that or it may cause you problems later.

The headphone section is well-powered and has 24 different possibilities based on inputs, outputs and tracks. Should a hard drive problem occur, the 744T will generate a beep or bell in the headphones and display the details on the backlit LCD panel.

There are 15 separate indicators on the LCD panel. While that is a bit overwhelming at first, once you know what you're looking at, it's all right there for you. There are two lock modes for the front panel. Non-transport lock lets you operate the Record, Stop, Play, Rewind and Fast Forward controls. Lock All locks everything but the Record button. To get out of Record, you have to get out of Panel Lock and hit the Stop button.

The level displays are similar to those of the Sound Devices 442, which display levels five different ways, including my favorite, simultaneous RMS and peak.

The 744T uses RS232 jacks that allow multiple 744Ts or 722s to operate together as needed. The 744T has a crystal-locked clock that allows it to be used as a house clock and A/D converter. It can also slave to incoming word clock. The SMPTE timecode circuitry used in the 744T was developed by Ambient Recording. The 744T holds accurate timecode for up to two hours between battery changes by being powered by its own internal, rechargeable AA battery before reverting to time-of-day. Supported timecodes are 23.976. 24, 25, 29,97, 29.97DF, 30 and 30DF in Free Run, Record Run, Free Run Jam Once, 24 Hour Run, Ext TC, Ext TC/cont, Ext TC-Auto Record and Ext TC/cont Auto Record.

In Use

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You'll probably not want to unpack the 744T and rush out to use it that day. I found it took me a few days to become familiar with the main controls and longer to learn its more intricate settings. The manual is very well written. Phone and email support from Sound Devices has always been superior.

I took the 744T out on half a dozen jobs and it never disappointed. I got used to hitting record and not even worrying about looking for the red Record light. The sound quality is excellent. To test it I purposely recorded tracks that peaked at -35 dB. After I imported the files, I normalized them. While there is some hiss, the file is very usable.

If you have a camera with a timecode output, running in Ext TC-Auto Record or Ext TC/Cont-Auto Record puts the 744T into record when the camera rolls and stops it when the camera stops.

The rotating menus are easily navigated and with only two levels, you don't get lost. If you are in the menu and quickly need to record, just hit the Record button and you're recording. The Pre-Record Buffer can be built out to ten seconds at 48 kHz operation, in case you're slow on the Record button; less at higher sample rates.

Summary

Coming to market with both form and function (and looking good doing it) is not easy. Sound Devices has been able to capture the ears of its users with high quality audio, while capturing their eyes with intelligent and downright handsome design. In reality, the 744T is a combination of dedicated computer and audio recorder. Twice during its stay here I downloaded updates from the Sound Devices website (which also has a support and user forum) and upgraded the 744T. After using DATs for years, it's refreshing that the 744T can be upgraded in the field so easily. It has its own media repair utility with boot record check, FAT chain scan, lost chain recovery and RIFF (WAV/BWF) file check. The $3,950 price makes the 744T anything but a cheap date, but when you understand how much it brings to the party, it really is a great value. What did a Nagra D cost new with this much capability?