With the introduction of the DA-98HR, TASCAM sets a new high watermark for MDM-style digital recorders. In the midst of the DAW revolution, the company offers one of the most advanced tape-based modular digital eight-track recorders ever made. While its high price ($6,995; IF-AD98HR analog I/O $799) may put it out of the reach of some potential customers, its virtues warrant a serious look by high-end users who crave a DTRS machine with uncompromising quality and features.
The most notable advance in the DA-98HR is the ability to record and play at very high resolutions (the “HR” in DA-98HR). In addition to eight tracks at 16-bit 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling frequencies, the DA-98HR can also record and play eight simultaneous tracks at 24-bit 44.1 or 48 kHz, four tracks at 24-bit 88.2 or 96 kHz, or two tracks at 24-bit 176.4 or 192 kHz rates. This outdoes the DA-78HR (reviewed in PAR 11/00, p. 46), TASCAM’s other high-resolution MDM by a factor of four. The highest resolutions are only available with third-party A/D-D/A converters. TASCAM’s optional IF-AD98HR analog I/O plug-in expansion card set is limited to 24-bit/96 kHz and lower rates.
An unusual feature is the ability to simultaneously record on multiple tracks with two different sampling frequencies. When mixing rates (they can only be of a family, e.g. the 44.1/88.2 family or the 48/96 family) one can choose to have two higher-rate tracks (88.2 /96) and four lower (44.1/ 48) for a total of six tracks, or three higher and two lower for a total of five tracks.
This ability could be handy in multiple DA-98HR rigs for mixing – e.g. a 24-bit/88.2 kHz multitrack master with two tracks designated on the last machine for a 44.1 mix. All tracks would still be 24-bit, but dithering the mix to 16-bit for CD production would be simpler than down sampling from 88.2 kHz.
Speaking of mixing, another unique feature is the ability to mix all eight tracks down to two internally within a single machine using the built-in digital mixer. This 8×2 internal mixer gives you control over level and pan per track. This mix can be sent to track outputs 7&8 via the AES/EBU, TDIF and analog simultaneously (if the IF-AN98HR is installed). This allows you to send a simple two-track mix to another device. You can also bounce this mix to tracks 7&8. This seeming bit of magic does require permanently recording over the target track(s), but the information that was on them can be included in the mix due to the fact that the DA-98HR reads before it writes.
Confidence monitoring allows you to monitor the signal after it has been recorded to tape as opposed to the standard method of monitoring the inputs. While not useful in most studio tracking applications due to the delay involved, it is invaluable for live recordings, where errors could be immediately detected, allowing the crew to know when the backup recording will be needed. It is also a time-saver for mixing, enabling mixes to be checked as they are printed. This feature is extremely useful to machine room operators in post production facilities where dubs are made all day long. Without confidence monitoring it is possible to waste over an hour on a transfer only to realize after the fact that there was a problem with the recording.
The DA-98HR includes extensive onboard synchronization capabilities. It will lock to SMPTE, MTC and Sony 9-pin protocols, as well as other DTRS machines, via standard TASCAM sync cables. The Sony 9-pin mode includes emulation settings for many older machines; using the DA-98HR with existing synchronizers should not be a problem. Eight channels of AES/EBU I/O are provided on a 25-pin D-sub connector in addition to TASCAM’s TDIF connector.
A 4×20-segment LCD window provides menus for nearly all settings on the machine. There are 15 separate menu windows, each containing between four and six editable fields. When you select it with the cursor keys, a root menu showing 0-9 and A-F (as the 15 submenu names) displays abbreviated names of the contents of each one along the bottom of the LCD. If you have forgotten which number or letter you need, you can still find it quickly.
For anyone who has delved deep into the submenus on the one-line display of a DA-88, this will be a breath of fresh air, even though the total number of parameters here is much greater. Another nice touch is that all the settings can be saved to built-in RAM (three setups can be retained) or by printing the setup data to tape.
Analog I/O is optional on the DA-98HR, so users of digital consoles or DAWs can choose to go without it, connect via AES/EBU or TDIF directly or use the third-party analog I/O of their choice. Alternatively, TASCAM offers its optional IF-AN98HR eight-channel analog I/O plug-in card set for the extraordinarily low list price of $799. It does not support rates above 88.2/96 kHz, however, so third-party converters, such as the Genex GXA8/GXD8, are required if 176.4 or 192 kHz capabilities are needed.
The machine I tested was equipped with TASCAM’s I/O cards, and I did some controlled listening tests to evaluate their quality.
I compared the DA-98HR/IFAN98HR to a Digidesign 888/24 and an Apogee PSX-100, with all set to 24-bit/48kHz and internal clocks. The units were level-matched with a 1 kHz tone from the source. I used various mixed stereo music/vocal tracks especially chosen for their wide frequency range and/or stereo imaging (depth and width), monitoring through my custom console and Genelec 1030A’s.
The DA-98HR/IF-AN98HR, to my amazement, sounded the best, even better than the Apogee PSX-100. To my ears, TASCAM’s I/O had a clearer, airier, more extended top end and gave away nothing to the Apogee in terms of imaging (one of the Apogee’s strongest attributes). Slaving the DA-98HR from the excellent word clock of the Apogee also produced no meaningful sonic benefit.
Next I upped the ante and switched the TASCAM and Apogee units to 24/96. Again, the TASCAM was superior in HF bandwidth and as good in imaging – impressive.
The DA-98HR’s ability to simultaneously have two different sampling frequencies also provided an ideal opportunity to evaluate the difference between 48 and 96 kHz sampling rates, something I have previously been unable to do in a true A-B test with all other factors being the same, in real time.
My conclusion is that yes, a 96 kHz sampling frequency sounds superior to 48 kHz. A subtle extension of the top end was evident along with a sense of slightly less HF distortion – results in keeping with what one might expect from these settings. Whether the added fidelity would survive the trip back down to a 16-bit CD, or if it is worth a 50 percent track count reduction is open to discussion.
With the DA-98HR set to 24/96, I mixed a pop song from an analog 2-inch, 24-track machine. Two tracks were used for the full mix and the other two for a simultaneous instrumental mix. It sounded great – big, clear and clean; having the four tracks to print both versions simultaneously was a nice time saver. Then I tried it again with the DA-98HR locked to the SMPTE timecode coming straight off the 2-inch machine, unreshaped. While lockup is not usually necessary for mixing pop records, it is a likely situation in film and TV post production. The DA-98HR chased quickly, and remained locked rock-steady for the duration – no small feat considering that any analog tape machine will have small speed fluctuations that the MDM must follow to remain in sync.
Lastly, I connected the DA-98HR to my Pro Tools rig and mixed parts of a film score via the AES/EBU I/O, recording at 16-bit 48 kHz (the source track settings) simultaneously to all eight tracks, splitting the various parts of the orchestra into stereo pairs so the mix could be fine-tuned in the final post mix. The results were flawless, with no discernible change to the sound quality whatsoever.
For high-end film and TV post production and live recording, the excellent lock up performance, rich feature set and high-resolution recording capability – along with the easy transportability and archiving characteristics of all MDM machines – make the DA-98HR an excellent choice.
For music recording studios, the outstanding sound of the bargain-priced analog converter option offsets some of the basic machine’s high price, and its unique applications in high-resolution mixing and tracking make it an intriguing alternative.
Applications: Post production, studio, production audio, live recording
Key Features: 24-bit/96kHz recording on 8MM DTRS tape; confidence monitoring; comprehensive onboard synchronization; improved menu-driven interface
Price: $6,995 IF-AD98HR analog I/O: $799.
Contact: TASCAM at 323-726-0303; Web Site
+ Excellent sound from inexpensive A/D-D/A option
+ Tight, fast lockup
+ Unique and clever features
– High basic price
– No analog I/O included
The Score: Excellent lock up performance, rich feature set and high-resolution recording capability make the TASCAM DA-98HR an excellent choice for music and post applications.