HHB PortaDrive Hard Disk Recorder

In the past two years, I have owned and used for feature film length projects, most of the major contenders except for this HHB and through the evolutionary process, have some observations about this class of product.
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In the past two years, I have owned and used for feature film length projects, most of the major contenders except for this HHB and through the evolutionary process, have some observations about this class of product.
Product PointsApplications: Field, broadcast

Key Features: 40 GB hard disk; 44.1 kHz - 96 kHz sample rates; 24-bit; SCSI, USB, Ethernet ports; BWF, SDII file formats; onboard 6 x 2 mixer

Price: $14,499

Contact:HHB/Sennheiser at 860-434-9190, Web Site.
They are all sophisticated devices and they all perform their promised basic functions and they all do so in unique and, to some degree, eccentric ways. Likewise, they all seem to come to market somewhat unfinished, with early adaptors making the adventurous journey with the manufacturers of finessing the software implementation. The HHB is no exception.

The PDR 2000 PortaDrive is HHB's entry into the dedicated non-linear recorder market. It spiritually reminds me of some of the British automobiles of old; good lines, firm foundation, idiosyncratic under the hood. Let me comment here that the sound quality of the machine is excellent, matching any peer in the market.

Features

The PortaDrive offers eight channels of uncompressed 24-bit/96 kHz recording. This is mastered onto a removable internal 2.5-inch hard drive mounted in a proprietary, hot-swappable caddy. The caddy is very well built and secured in the chassis but I really would prefer the interface to be FireWire or FireWire 800. But that is just me. HHB offers a separate device, a generic FireWire/USB docking chassis (approx. $350) for accessing the drive's contents. Or you can access the information on the hard drive via the Ethernet or USB ports (which emulates a Mass Storage Device.)

I think HHB looks at the caddy set up as a form of future proofing, with the idea that as Compact Flash memory becomes affordable, they will be able to install arrays inside the same caddy design without having to change the main device. Only time will tell if this plays out.

In addition to the caddy, data can be moved out of the PortaDrive via SCSI 2, USB 2 and Ethernet as well as real time transfer from the digital AES/EBU via 25-pin D-sub and analog outputs.

The PortaDrive employs three built in "6 into 2" digital mixers all utilizing the same six rotary pots:

1 - The input mixer, primarily used for creating a mono or stereo mix to disk. This is useful for dailies.

2 - The output mixer which is essentially an aux buss and you could use as a monitor feed to the director/script supervisor

3 - The headphone mixer for monitoring purposes.

All of these "mixers" can be routed to disk and/or any of the inputs or outputs.

All levels and pans are de-zippered and each mixer has delay, phase reverse, channel pairing, grouping and solo. M/S decode is available on all the inputs, outputs and monitoring. There is 48V phantom powering and gangable analog limiters on all the inputs, which have 20 dB of head room and very low distortion. This is all pre A/D, rightfully so.

An important feature, mixer parameters can be copied from one to the other with a couple of button commands and the metering can be switched from monitoring inputs, the mixers, track inputs or outputs.

There are six instant recall headphone presets which can be set up to monitor any source with the MS decode option if needed.

With 70db of gain, there is plenty of horsepower for a wide range of microphone sensitivity and the whole system is extremely low noise.

PortaDrive allows simultaneous burning of a dailies mix to an external DC-powered SCSI DVD-RAM drive. Well built, well implemented, I still am stunned that a new nonlinear recorder, hitting the market at this time is using SCSI 2 technology. Although obsolete is a bit extreme to describe SCSI, it is pretty darn close in the production and post world, especially for simple outboard burners and other external devices.

At the time of this writing, the SCSI drive will only write a dailies stereo mixdown but we are told that full mirroring capability of all eight tracks is on the way for the SCSI buss and may be in place by the time of this hits the news stands. (Now available in software version 1.4 - Ed.) In addition to DVD-RAM, there will be full support for DVD-R, DVD-RW, CD-R and CD-RW in the future. HHB also plans to fully support Blue Ray when it becomes viable.

The PortaDrive uses high quality balanced mic inputs that sound terrific and an intelligent power management scheme employing internal NP1 style lithium ion batteries along with an external power supply and auto switchover between the two if there is a power interruption. The PortaDrive has an internal battery charger and an accurate voltage meter plus audible/visible warnings if battery is low, or if there is a sync or disk error.

You can record up to eight analog inputs and eight digital inputs or a mixture of the two. There is also a prerecord buffer allowing for up to 10 seconds on all eight tracks. And get this, the PortaDrive can also record and playback simultaneously, very useful in music applications.

You might prefer to record six discreet inputs and provide a mix creating a six plus two arrangement as a regular way of working. This may explain the purpose for the six pots on the front panel instead of eight. These pots are fairly high profile, "endless" and stepped in nature. Although I have always been partial to rotary pots for field mixing, I am sorry to say that I am not a big fan of the pots used here. The stepped nature and multiple rotation resolution to reach the extremities of the range are problematic for me. [HHB says - 'This has been addressed with velocity sensitivity, i.e. turning the pot slowly will be for detailed changes, turning it faster will allow for quick access to the full range of the pot.'] If this rotation range is user definable, I missed it.

Also, the pots are plastic and seem very susceptible to damage, as does the main function selector which, likewise is high profile and on a very flexible shaft. At this price range, I want my main controls to close to military spec, i.e., able to survive a drop from a three-foot height onto a concrete surface. The chassis would do fine but the pots and knobs of the PDR 2000 probably wouldn't make it. This is an impression mind you, nothing has actually broken off.

Now, you might consider this quibbling considering how many capabilities the PortaDrive has, but the mixer side of any such device is the main interface and thus in effect, the personality we deal with. That being said, the majority of my usage would be on a sound cart interfaced with an external digital mixer (Yamaha in my case) where a lot of these issues become academic.

Importantly, the recording architecture allows you to change the track arming count and choices from take to take, something I consider to be essential for multi-track field recording.

On the front of the machine you have your level meters with meter/monitoring mode select keys, Bright high-res 18-segment meters, a slate mic, error LED, LCD display, Utility keys, Headphone control, faders/multipurpose encoders, solo keys, and the main transport control. Flashing red LEDs prominently displayed at the bottom of the front panel make it obvious which tracks are armed and recording. This is a good thing.

This is a 96 kHz/24-bit capable recorder. You can record anywhere from 44.1 kHz up to 96 kHz, including ±.1% pull up or pull down rates. You also can record at 16 or 24 bits. It isn't clear whether future provision is being made for 192 kHz sampling rates; I hope that HHB is considering this option.

HHB supplies a standard 40 GB drive and 80 GB drives are available as well. We are told that 100 GB drives are coming soon.

With a 40 GB drive, in two-channel mode (48 kHz/16-bit DAT-equivalent) you get about 60 hours. At full resolution of eight-track 96 kHz/24-bit you get about five hours. More typically, eight-track at 48 kHz/24-bit will give you 10 hours. These are all reasonable numbers and comparable with the competition. If you used an 80GB drive, that would give you about a week's work on one drive.

Currently the PortaDrive supports FAT32 and HFS disk formats and it will be supporting UDF as well when they implement the use of DVD-R and DVD-RW media.

File formats currently supported are SDII and BWF Mono files, PortaDrive will also be supporting BWF Polyphonic to accommodate AVID editing systems and may be doing so by the time this article is published (now implemented in software Version 1.4 - Ed.) These are user selectable options.

A unique feature of the PortaDrive is that it records session files on top of the disk format and audio format. The advantage of this is significant as you can take the session file and open it in a work station, which will automatically lay all the audio on the correct track in the correct position on the timeline without the need to import individual tracks, potentially a huge time saver.

AES-31 and ProTools V5 are the session formats supported. AES-31 is being utilized by many of the major manufacturers as well as several software utilities for OMF conversions.

HHB has also implemented ProTools version 5 since Digidesign is the only manufacturer that doesn't support AES-31. This means that PortaDrive files can directly get into any workstation without the need to drag and drop files.

PortaDrive's metadata capabilities are pretty extensive, allowing for naming of sessions, slates, takes, tracks and notes. This information is stored in the BWF itself, in the batch chunk, which is AVID compatible. Take metadata can be entered before or after recording, making corrections pretty painless. HHB intends to support automated sound logs. (I would like to hear more about their planning here.) Metadata can be entered from the machine via cursers and data wheel or from a PS2 keyboard plugged into the machine.

Pretty much standard connectors all around, eight analog inputs, six XLRs on the bottom, mic line switchable and a five-pin XLR is a two-channel return allowing two additional line inputs.

The DB25 connector gives eight channels of digital I/O and is wired TASCAM for simple off-the-shelf cable purchases as well as easy replacement for DA88 systems. Also, there are four balanced analog outputs, as well as additional digital I/O with coax and AES.

Sync I/O is provided on standard BNC connectors and time code I/O is on a standard "Nagra"-style Lemo connector so you can use your old cables. PortaDrive is a fully featured time code reader and generator with One PPM accuracy, limiting jam requirements to once a day. Also very good. Timecode is maintained during power down or battery change without accuracy loss and provision for comparing external and internal TC is built in if you want to check for drift. Nifty

PortaDrive will sync to most anything; word clock, PAL, NTSC, any HDTV trilevel specs. Jam function and chase function let's the machine do well in a post environment.

The build quality seems a bit mixed as the main structural features seem very tough and well made (frame, chassis, etc) but quite a few of the smaller knobs and buttons seem delicate. Right out of the box, two of the 39 "gummy bear" buttons on the front and top surfaces of the machine were partially dislodged from their sockets and on their way out.

I also am not crazy about having two main viewing screens on two different surfaces of the machine, one on top and one in front. Both display critical information and especially in "over the shoulder" mode you will have a difficult time seeing both panels simultaneously.

Summary

You get the idea, this thing is a particularly feature rich beast but if I have one concern or disappointment regarding the overall design of the PDR 2000, it is this "foot in the past, foot in the future" kind of design as evidenced by the use of SCSI. I would hope that future versions of the machine would migrate to FireWire as well as internal DVD disc burning capability. This feature-laden box is quite heavy as it is and this is without any internal burner and I don't like the feel of the pots. These are my main squawks about a remarkable device that is enriching the gene pool.