TASCAM DR-1 Portable Digital Recorder

TASCAM has loaded the 44.1/48kHz DR-1 with features particularly useful to the recording musician.
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(click thumbnail)The DR-1 is TASCAM’s entry into the burgeoning field of handheld 44.1/48kHz (dare I say, “standard speed”?) digital recorders. It offers all the common features: built-in stereo microphones, external mic and line inputs, headphone/line outputs, 16- and 24-bit PCM and MP3 formats from 32 to 320 kbps, and records to SD flash memory. A 1GB SD card is supplied with the unit, with SD-HC cards as large as 32GB accommodated when they become available, a nice bit of future-resistance (nothing is really “future-proof”). The DR-1 is more than a typical field recorder, however. Drawing on 20+ years experience with Portastudios and Trainers, TASCAM has loaded the DR-1 with features particularly useful to the recording musician.

Features

The DR-1 is a comfortable handful with all controls within easy reach. Bumpers on the back of the case offer a bit of vibration isolation with the recorder flat on a table, but it doesn’t stand well vertically nor is there a tripod socket or stand. Though we didn’t have one for this review, an accessory kit, which includes a snap-on cradle with a tripod socket, a desktop tripod with a swivel joint, and a windscreen. Since the recorder is just a bit too large to slip in a pocket, I’d like to have seen belt loops on its nicely padded slip case.

In addition to the built-in mics, there’s the usual 1/8-inch stereo jack for an external mic (Mic 1) which, when connected, overrides the internal mics. A ?-inch mono jack provides an alternate external (Mic 2) input. Stereo line input is via yet another 1/8-inch jack. A dedicated menu selects the input source, engages Plug-In power for external Mic 1, switches Mic 1 (external or internal) to mono, and selects low, medium, or high mic gain. A thumbwheel provides continuous record level adjustment for the mics, however the line input level is fixed, requiring adjustment at the source to optimize the record level and prevent clipping.

The external mic inputs don’t have much gain, yielding rather noisy recordings with many mics. With the high gain setting and the record level thumbwheel at maximum, Mic 1 input requires -41dBu to reach 0dBFS. Quiescent noise with inputs terminated with 150 ohms is around -57dBFS. Mic 2 input is about 8dB less sensitive than Mic 1, however noise under the same conditions is substantially lower, about ?72dBFS. TASCAM recommends using an impedance-matching transformer with the ?-inch mic input. This provides about 12dB of gain as well as a better load for a typical dynamic mic.

There’s a 40, 80, or 120Hz low-cut filter, limiter or automatic record level control, and channel swap for maintaining proper left/right perspective whether the mics are pointing away from the front or back of the recorder.

Power is from a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack or optional AC adapter. Charging is via the USB port or AC adapter. A charging station isn’t available (at least at this time) so spare batteries must be charged in the recorder. Battery life is estimated at 7 hours when recording in the MP3 mode with the built-in mics. I got a bit more than 3 hours out of a charge at 16-bit 44.1kHz, which is a good match to a 2GB memory card.

So far this sounds pretty much like any other recorder in its class. What distinguishes the DR-1 is a plethora of musician-oriented features including a metronome, tuner, effects which can be applied to either playback or input, speed and pitch adjustment, loop playback, part (usually vocal) canceling, and sound-on-sound recording. With some care and patience, one could produce release-quality music with just the DR-1.
Fast FactsApplications
Field recording, demo recording, woodshedding

Key Features
Self-contained, sound-on-sound recording, 44.1/48kHz, 16- or 24-bit PCM, MP3 recording, accommodates SD memory card up to 32GB

Price
$399 list

Contact
TASCAM | 323-726-0303 | www.tascam.com
In Use

The DR-1 works just fine as a field recorder using its built-in mics. The mics swing through a 90-degree arc to aid in positioning. They’re a little on the bright side, reasonably “tame-able” with EQ. The stereo image is realistic, though the center gets weak at distances greater than about 30 feet. The recorder can handle a pretty loud source without clipping, so don’t be afraid to get close enough for good stereo.

The limiter is on the output side of the mic preamp so it can only prevent A/D converter clipping, not preamp clipping. It’s effective for high level sources, but when dealing with material with a wide dynamic range, depend on your ears (monitor with headphones), not the meters, to assure a clean recording. The meter scale has no numbers (major divisions appear to be ?1, ?4, ?10, ?20, and ?40dBFS) so it’s difficult to tell when you’re getting into the danger zone. There’s an automatic record level mode, but I never found an effective use for it.

The overdub capability is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it; hey, even Les Paul blew a few lacquers while learning his system. With a little practice I was able to sing a trio with myself. The only control over panning of an overdub is which direction you point the mics. The process is non-destructive, though, so you can revert to the previous good take if you don’t like the balance, position, or talent. The best position for recording yourself is with the recorder on its back on a table with the mics pointing toward you, and aimed slightly upward. This means operating the controls upside down, not difficult with a little practice.

The reverbs are usable; the effects are so-so. “Detune” sounds like a bad case of wow, “Emphasis” sounds like an exaggerated SM58 presence peak. The tuner in the Chromatic mode displays the note played and relative deviation from true pitch. In Osc mode, you set the pitch and it generates a tone. Reference pitch is adjustable from A = 435 to 445Hz. The metronome is a basic tick with the number of beats after the accent adjustable between 2 and 8. The metronome and recording are mutually exclusive so it won’t work as a click when tracking.
Product PointsPlus

  • Good sound with built-in mics
  • Easy-to-read display
  • Sound-on-sound

Minus

  • Too many things optional at extra cost (tripod mount, AC power supply)
  • Menu operation somewhat awkward
  • Requires unusually sensitive external mics for quiet recordings
  • No built-in means to rename recorded files

Score
The DR-1 offers good sound and becomes easier to use over time.
Playback speed can be changed while maintaining pitch, pitch can be changed while maintaining tempo, or they can both change together, tape deck style. It gets glitchy when going too far off speed or pitch, but it’s a handy learning tool, particularly when combined with the loop-repeat function. The effectiveness of the part canceller depends on how “mono” the part you’re trying to remove is. Rather than simply canceling the center, you can “aim” the canceller left or right of center, which may improve results.

File transfer via the 4-pin mini USB port is pretty speedy. It took one minute and 40 seconds to transfer the contents of a full 1GB card to my computer, about 13 times as fast as my Zoom H2. The trapdoor covering the USB port and memory card slot feels flimsy when opened, and is likely to be the first thing to break.

I’m a real fussbudget when it comes to user interfaces, and the DR-1’s, though designed with good intentions, came close to driving me batty. There are four different menu buttons: Menu, PB Control, FX, and Setting. The Setting menu selects the input and its related settings (HP Filter, Limiter, Gain), PB Control contains variable speed and pitch controls and part canceling, FX has the effect processors, and Menu manages the file library, selects the record mode, tuner and metronome, manages setup such as date/time and flash card formatting. There’s an I/O button (which I kept hitting when I wanted to change input sources), but this selects the loop start and end points.

The FX and PB Control buttons have two modes. Hold one for a second and the menu comes up, but tap it briefly and the currently selected effect or process toggles on or off. More than once I suppose I inadvertently hit the PB button and was greeted with off-speed playback. There are indicators in the LCD that show when a process is engaged, but you have to look for them. Curiously absent from any menu is the capability to rename recorded files, though they can be renamed with a computer via the USB port.

What’s annoying about menu navigation is that there’s a scroll wheel to browse through the menu, but once you find what you’re looking for, it’s necessary to press another button to move the cursor from the selected parameter to another column, from which you can then scroll through the options for that parameter, then press another button to get back to the parameter list to make another adjustment. Nearly everything is a two-handed, three-button plus scroll wheel operation.

The DR-1 comes with a printed quick start guide with the full manual as a PDF file loaded on the memory card supplied with the recorder. If you don’t read the quick-start, you won’t know where to find the manual (though it can also be downloaded from the TASCAM web site). As manuals go, it’s adequate, but not very tutorial.

Conclusion

Like most of these devices, the DR-1 gets easier to operate with experience. Once set up, most of the time all I needed to do was press the Record button to bring home a perfectly reasonable recording from the built-in mics. As a field recorder, I’d prefer something with more mounting options than hand-held or tabletop (the cradle and tripod should solve this problem), but the DR-1 would be great for a songwriter or arranger to take to the beach or on a family vacation just in case an idea came up.