Sound Devices 788T 8-Track Digital Audio Recorder

The 788T is a very good, totally pro-quality multitrack location recorder packed full of useful features.
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The Sound Devices 788T is (over)simply described by Sound Devices as "a high-resolution digital audio recorder with time code." That's sort of like saying the Hummer H1 is an off-road vehicle.

This is a 4-pound, $5,995, feature-rich, 8-track recorder with 160 GB SATA internal drive, rechargeable Li-Ion battery and external power supply/charger. In other words, this is not a pro-sumer hard-drive recorder; this is a very professional audio recorder specifically designed for film and video sound applications.

Features

The 788T is a second-generation device. Lessons learned from its predecessor, the 744T, have been applied. While viewed as a near-perfect recorder by some, the 744T reduced the range of wireless mic receivers at certain frequencies when packed next to those receivers. That problem has been remedied in the 788T. Also, the rechargeable battery is a lot easier to remove. Although fairly straightforward, I would suggest reading the manual before using it on your first shoot.

With the 788T, you can record up to eight tracks with very nice-sounding preamps, line or AES/EBU digital sources to 16- or 24-bit WAV mono or WAV poly files (an interleaved multichannel file format. See http://www.sounddevices.com/notes /recorders/mono-poly/ for details) to the internal HD (up to 2 TB), internal CF card and/or external DVD-RAM drive attached via either the 400 or 800 FireWire ports. Unlike the 744T, there are only seven sample rate choices between 32 kHz and 48.048 F.

The 788T generates highly accurate time code and recognizes composite NTSC, PAL, and Tri-level sync. The 788T supports 23.976, 24, 25, 29.97, 29.97 DF, 30, 30 DF, and 30+ frame rates via a fivepin LEMO connector on the right panel. It can be operated without time code or in free run, record run, free run jam once or 24-hour modes. The 788T also has its own sample clock with PLL circuitry and ignores external word clock, AES clock, and video sync during playback.

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The left side of the 788T sports four female XLRs, four TA3M, a headphone jack and rotary headphone control. The preamps in the 788T are new to Sound Devices. They are extremely quiet and very nice-sounding. The 788T came with firmware version 1.06 installed. I thought the input limiters sounded a bit grungy, but after downloading and updating the firmware to 1.07, they sounded a lot better.

The front panel is very straightforward: eight retractable input gain knobs separated by four toggle switches. Each switch instantly brings up the Input Settings Window, which allows access to each input's mic/line/digital, phantom power, input gain, high-pass filter (mic only), input limiter, track routing, and polarity settings. In this mode, the audio from the particular input selected will be soloed to the headphones. A separate input delay window allows each input to be digitally delayed in 10th-of-a-millisecond increments up to 30 milliseconds.

The rotary control on the right side of the chassis controls the selectable knee positions of the high-pass filter and through the main menus. At the bottom of the input window, a block of letters — LRABCDEF — are used to show track assignment for that particular input — very easy to read and very cool. Any input can be routed to any track.

Multiple inputs can be routed to a single track or any combination of tracks via four female XLR inputs and four TA3 inputs for balanced or unbalanced mic or line-level analog audio. The eight digital inputs enter through a single DE-15 (DSub) connector.

Each input gain pot is surrounded by an exceptionally cool and innovative LED light ring that glows green to indicate signal activity, red for the approach of clipping, yellow to indicate input limiter activity, and flashing yellow to indicate an unlocked digital input. The green and yellow LEDs increase in intensity as the level increases.

The six analog and digital outputs are parallel, so whatever goes to analog output 1 also goes to digital output 1. On the right panel, there are four male TA3 active, balanced analog outputs, and a 3.5mm unbalanced stereo analog output for outputs 5 and 6. In addition, there are two male TA3 connectors for digital outputs 1- 4. Digital outputs 5 and 6 exit through the DE-15 connector on the back panel.

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The 13-segment green, orange, and red output meters, which also operate when recording, have nonlinear resolution and are small. The three red output LEDs fire between -3.0 dBFS to 0 dBFS. Personally, I think it would be better if red meant "over." The brightness of the LEDs is continuously adjustable for operation from full sun to total darkness.

Headphone amp gain is more than sufficient and also has a peak light of its own. Monitoring multiple inputs and outputs with one set of stereo headphones can be challenging. The 788T headphone output control supports the monitoring of each input and output, various selections or all, regardless of input and output routing assignments. In addition, the headphone circuit can also decode Mid- Side inputs to L/R and derives a stereo signal from the W, X, and Y channels when working with the 4-channel Soundfield B-Format.

Recording starts manually by pressing the REC button or from External TC-Auto Record or External TC/cont-Auto Record. The REC button stays red, so you can quickly see that you're still rolling. If you're wandering around the menus when the director calls "action," just hit the REC button and you're recording. One very nice touch, the 788T Pre-Record Buffer can be set to record a full 10 seconds before the Record button is pushed, except when in Record Run mode or in any of the four external time code operation modes.

In Use

During recording, I found that once in Record, subsequent presses of the Record button can be programmed to do nothing, or add a cue marker to the file being recorded, or to start a new file. The 788T records both Broadcast Wave and Poly-Wave files with additional metadata in the file's header, BEXT (Broadcast Audio Extension) and iXML data chunks. Poly Wave files are recognized by some nonlinear editing systems and for those that don't, Sound Devices offers free Wave Agent software, its file conversion utility for Windows-based computers, that will convert WAV files between monophonic and polyphonic formats [quoted from Sound Devices website].

A navigable file directory system allows files to be stored in different folders. Scene and take numbers can be changed with a USB keyboard via a separate USB jack on the back panel. False takes can be deleted.

Maybe you don't need eight tracks? How about six tracks of iso'd mics and two tracks for a stereo mix? If you get lucky, you might get a good stereo mix, but if you are really paying attention to your audio in post, pulling out unneeded sections can really tidy up your mix. Then there's surround; with the 788T, you are 5.1- and 7.1-ready. And with the Poly Wave file format, all eight tracks are seen and imported as one icon on the drives. As more and more post-production shops begin to use surround, you can have the production tracks for it.

Summary

Whether you're running as a highly mobile "bag" operator or have the 788T on a cart, this is a seriously good-sounding and stable recorder. In its design, Sound Devices has managed to reduce menu levels, increase comprehension and ease of operation. (They should get an award for just that.) Even when I purposely under-recorded and used normalization in an editing program to bring the levels up, the sound was excellent. $6k for this 8-track recorder is a no-brainer. Nicely done, Sound Devices.

Ty Ford has been writing for Pro Audio Review since issue number one. You can find him at www.tyford.com.