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Recording In The Field: The Tascam DR680

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A Review of the Tascam DR680 8-Track Digital Field Recorder and Its Application to Filming

This past summer, good friend, CS4D producer, Joint Custody Productions associate and owner of Filmerica Kenneth Garner enlisted me to help with the filming of a reality show pilot down in Louisiana. Kenny and I have worked together on various projects for a long time – from small films to commercials to our own productions. Over the years I’d proved my worth as a cost-effective and dedicated sound guy, so it was natural that he would call me up and ask for help with capturing audio on this reality project.

But this was going to be a little bit different from the kinds of recording I’d done before. In the past, I was in charge of handling and placing the boom microphone, as well as monitoring recording and ensuring that the sound coming through our audio recording device (in most cases a Zoom H4n, which I’ve reviewed previously) was better than usable, and cataloging and reviewing takes – a process that often-times had me insisting that we redo certain shots so that I could get better audio and better placement. The thing about recording audio on-set is that the placement of the audio guy is often thought of as the “last piece” of the setup. The problem with this, however, is that more often than not it’s darn near impossible to get the microphone where you need it, whilst also keeping it and the shadows it creates out of the shot.

With this project, everything was going to be different. I didn’t have to worry about placement (as long as I personally stayed out of the way) and I didn’t need to worry about room tone and takes. It would be “reality”, after all. On the other hand, I would have to ensure that I picked up everything, was listening in to at least four subjects at once, (including ensuring that all four of these subjects were being captured with pristine audio), and do all of this on-the-fly. There’s no second takes. When something happens, you get it or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re done.

The question was, how would we do this? We thought about various things, from utilizing a standard mixer and computer/desk apparatus (something that may or may not have provided us with the ability to capture separate tracks of audio – which I consider crucial if you want to be able to fix things in post), to working with one or two Zoom H4n’s (we love this device, honestly, but we were seriously concerned about some of its limitations for a reality show in-the-field application).

In the end, we decided on using a Tascam DR680 8-track Portable Digital Field Audio Recorder, which we paired with four Sennheiser wireless lavalier microphones similar to these.

Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to learn how to use the thing on the go – Kenny brought the device over a few days before we were set to head south, which gave me more than enough time to go over the instructions, test the system’s capability and ensure that I understood the product well enough to make changes on the fly. The great thing is that, in the end, I really didn’t need the instructions that much – the Tascam was very much an intuitive piece of equipment (provided you’ve worked with digital recorders before). In fact, this digital field recorder is really not that much different from most other digital recording devices in general, especially if you’re familiar with multitrack digital recorders. And, like many other similar devices that tout themselves as being “8-“, “16-” or “24-” track, you have to really keep in mind what is meant by that number. In this case, the “8 tracks” that the device is referring to are 4 XLR inputs, 2 Line inputs (essentially 1/4″ jacks) and the two tracks left over for the stereo “output”. So, really, you have to think about the fact that this is really a 6-track, and for our application it was really a 4-track (which was completely fine).

One of my favorite things about this device is that it had a strap that allowed me to sling it over my shoulder. As you can see in the included featured image, I not only had the recorder on me, but I had four of the Sennheiser wireless receivers clipped to my belt, each with an XLR cable that was wrapped around and going to the Tascam. It wasn’t heavy, just awkward. I will note, however, that part of why the load felt so light is because the Tascam is all plastic – it’s not a heavy-duty device. So if you’re out in the field with it you have to ensure that you treat it delicately. Strangely enough, for a “field” recorder it’s not built for “field” work. But that’s really my only “con”.

Meanwhile, I was surprised at the amount of usage we got out of just one set of batteries (it takes 8 AA batteries). I’m pretty sure we shot almost non-stop for a good three or four hours before we had to swap them out, which in my book is not half bad at all. Some reviews on the linked Amazon page state that this device eats batteries right up, but that wasn’t my experience. I suppose it just depends on what you do with it. The great thing is that it takes your typical SD Card, so if you get something anywhere from 8-16GB, you will probably be able to use that pretty much all day – even at the highest quality of WAV file (Up to 96kHz/24-bit Broadcast). You also have the capability to record directly to MP3 if you prefer.

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My favorite feature – which should really be typical of any multitrack recording device – was the ability to solo any given channel at any time. So if I was getting something too hot from one of the subjects that we’d miked up, I could solo each track until I found out which one it was and fix the sound (which in itself is also extremely easy to do). I was also able to pan each track live, so that I could keep track of who was who in my audio space by spreading them out across my hearing spectrum – hard left all the way through to hard right (I highly recommend this if you want to keep track of all the clutter).

A couple extra things: The pre-mics are pretty good. I never had a problem with sound being too quiet. And in certain cases you’ve got the ability to utilize phantom power for 6 of the tracks, if need be (keep in mind though that, based on reviews, phantom power is utilized in pairs – I never had need of this feature on this particular shoot). Also, and I think this is a really cool bonus, if you get a second one of these devices you can actually link them together for, reportedly, up to 14 tracks of live recording at once!

In the end, we got exactly what we wanted out of the Tascam DR680 – it gave us great audio, never overheated and was simply – for me anyway – easy to use. I felt I understood the product well enough that once we were out in the field and time was of the essence, I could get it to do what I wanted within minutes. To me, that’s worth every penny and more.

Here’s the specs from the Tascam website:

Features:

  • 8-track portable recording
  • Record eight individual inputs or six inputs plus a stereo mixdown
  • Up to 96kHz/24-bit Broadcast WAV file resolution for 8 channels
  • Stereo 192kHz/24-bit recording mode
  • 4-channel MP3 recording
  • Digital monitor mixing (level and pan) with recordable stereo mixdown
  • Mid-side microphone decoding, either during recording or monitor/mixdown
  • Ganged input option for use with stereo microphones
  • Ideal for surround music and effects recording
  • Cascade function for running two units together
  • Pre-recording feature
  • Auto-recording mode begins recording when the input reaches a certain level
  • Mark function during recording/playback
  • Edit functions such as divide and delete
  • 128×64 backlit LCD display
  • Powered through (8x) AA batteries or (included) PS-1225L adapter
  • Records to SD/SDHC card media (not included)
  • Premium AKM Audio4Pro™ 192kHz A/D converters with over 100dB signal to noise ratio

Physical specifications:

  • (6) mic pres with 60dB of gain and phantom power
  • (4) XLR/1/4″ (combi) mic/line inputs and (2) TRS 1/4″ mic/line inputs
  • Low cut filter and limiter on each input
  • (6) RCA unbalanced line outputs
  • S/PDIF digital in and out
  • USB 2.0 (mini B) connection for computer
  • Built-in speaker
  • 1/4″ stereo headphone output
  • Included accessories: PS-1225L power supply, shoulder strap
  • Dimensions: 7.95″ W x 2.12″ H x 6.93″ D (202mm x 54mm x 176mm)
  • Weight 2.65 lbs (1.2kg) without batteries

Thanks so much for reading! I highly recommend getting your hands on this, if you’re a smaller studio.

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