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by David Fox
Location sound recordists are under increasing pressure to record more sources. Smaller wireless microphones mean that all the talent can have their own. Add to that the growing use of surround sound for transmission and presentation, and current portable audio recorders fall short. That is about to end.
Portable solution for high-end audio
Paul Isaacs, HHB's technical development manager, has designed a new portable location multitrack hard disk recorder. "It is a total, all-in-one solution because it includes two independently controlled, fully featured 6:2 mixers. [This] means users don't need to have both a recorder and an external mixer. It weighs a lot less than two separate units," he said.
The new eight-channel Portadrive, which was shown as a prototype at IBC 2002, will cost about 11,000 Euros when it is available early 2003, and is just what freelance sound recordist Simon Bishop was asking for in our article about location recording for HDTV.
"It can record six radio microphones on to discrete tracks, which is great for audio post," said Isaacs. It can also record a stereo mix of those six, on tracks seven and eight, which is useful for backing up rushes for the picture editor.
It has a removable hard drive in a "really rugged caddy", which will be a minimum of 20GB (perhaps 30GB) when it goes into production - 30GB will record more than five hours on eight tracks at 24-bit/96kHz quality.
"We have been thinking about this concept for many years, but the technology wasn't right until now," as it required the development of small, fast hard disks, he explained. Previously, sound recordists have had to use DAT tapes or two- or four-track hard disk recorders. Although Aaton has also now developed an eight-track disk recorder, the Portadrive is the only combined recorder/mixer package.
The mixers can be ganged in pairs, and even six-way ganged, which is useful for surround sound recording. "I don't know of any other box which allows you to do that," he added.
"It has a simple, immediate user interface. The user should be able to operate it without reading the manual." There are no hierarchical menus, every function is just one or two buttons away. All functions can be run from the front panel, for off the shoulder use. In that situation, the top panel wouldn't need to be powered, so can be switched off to extend battery time. Besides doing everything the front panel can, the top panel also offers many more functions, but these are easy to access via a large, clear screen and function buttons.
It has accurate eight-channel metering, which can monitor input, track, buss, mixer and output levels. It also has comprehensive monitoring, with six, user-configurable headphone presets, each of which can have its own decode option (mono, stereo, M/S, etc.). There are solos on every channel. "You are always in control," he added.
IDE docking station
To make the recordings readily available to editing and post-production, HHB has also designed a five-and-a-quarter inch (computer bay-sized) IDE docking station, which will fit into any computer (or a wide range of cheap housings with FireWire or other outputs). This allows the Portadrive's removable hard drive to be slotted directly into an editing system. There are also SCSI (for backing up to DVD, Magneto Optical or other disks), USB 2.0 and Ethernet ports. An RS-422 keyboard port allows users to type in details such as session names. All of that information can be stored with the audio files and exported as metadata. Audio can be stored as FAT32 (AES 31 session files with BWAV [BWF]) for use with Windows PCs, or as Mac HFS format for use with ProTools version 5.0, with SDII audio files. This means that any professional digital audio workstation can access the audio directly. "This machine [the Portadrive] would be happy in post too, so you can just plug it into your edit suite and you can control it externally," added Isaacs.
The Portadrive has XLR microphone connectors for analogue input and 25-pin AES digital i/o. It has very high gain, low-noise microphone connectors, with high quality limiters, high-pass filters, delay and phase reverse, on each, and M/S encoding/decoding. It has full timecode support, including the ability to synchronise to an HDTV tri-level synch. Using the supplied NP-L50 battery gives a minimum of two hours continuous recording.