Technology

Sound Devices 788T Multitrack Recorder Review

PORTABLE FIELD UNIT WITH EIGHT PREAMPS, TIMECODE, FLEXIBLE I/O 4/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern

The 788T’s front panel features 112-segment (8x14-inch) sunlight-viewable meters, gain control and a backlit LCD screen offering a variety of system information.

Since its founding in 1998, Sound Devices has specialized in manufacturing field-production audio recorders, mixers and accessories for film/video production, broadcasting, acoustical test/measurement, sound effects gathering and live music recording. The company's latest product is the 788T, a portable, 8-channel, hard disk/Flash-based location recorder with eight whisper-quiet preamps, 12 tracks, recording at sample rates up to 96 kHz, 160GB internal hard drive and an optional 8-channel mixing/control surface.

Off to the Races

I traveled to Crandon, Wis., to record location sound for a documentary about the year's biggest short-course, off-road truck race. I knew I'd need to be highly mobile while working from dawn till dusk with no access to AC — a perfect opportunity to use the 788T. The project unfolded very quickly, so I literally had to learn the 788T on-the-fly while on the three-hour plane trip to Green Bay, Wis. I was able to tuck the 1.8×10.1×6.4-inch recorder into the seat pocket in front of me. Although it's relatively light at less than four pounds, it feels extremely solid and durable.

On power up, the 788T reveals extremely bright LEDs and an easy-to-read LCD. The LCD is monochrome, but the backlight turns green during playback and radioactive-red when you press Record.

To navigate the 788T, there are a variety of multifunction buttons, toggle switches and rotary encoders. I found that getting around the recorder was surprisingly intuitive and fast. Pressing the Menu button reveals a long list of features that are accessible by turning the scroll knob, which reveals the 788T's extensive options and capabilities. Plus, the well-written manual cleared up anything that wasn't obvious on the interface. By the time I landed, I was very comfortable operating the unit. I walked off the plane confident that I would have a trouble-free weekend, and I'm pleased to say that I was right.

Upon arriving in Crandon, I met with the film's director, who had a Holophone H3D surround mic ready to meet its new mate. The 788T has eight balanced inputs configured as four XLRs and four smaller TA-3 connectors that are common with wireless receivers, so I used two adapters to wire in the Holophone's six XLR outputs. Each analog input has a wonderful-sounding mic preamp, complete with phantom power, polarity inversion, variable highpass filter and limiter. You can adjust these options by selecting the desired channel with one of four toggle switches that sit between the odd/even pair of input gain knobs, and then pressing the multipurpose buttons that surround the screen.

The unit's eight preamp knobs pop out for adjustment and press back in to minimize the risk of changing them inadvertently. Input gain is displayed numerically in the LCD, but trying to match the exact level for the five main mics of the H3D was difficult, as the knobs are just a bit larger than an eraser tip. A menu option lets users link odd/even inputs or any sequential series of inputs up to eight.

I loved the LED rings that encircle each of the preamp knobs. The rings glow green with the intensity of the signal, turn yellow when the limiter kicks on and show red for a clip. This made it easy to identify and fix level problems in an extremely dynamic environment.

Juicing It Up

Activating the preamps significantly impacts the 788T's battery life. With six preamps using phantom power, I could record three continuous hours using the included 4,600mAH battery. Having spare power is essential, so Sound Devices designed the 788T to use the commonly available Sony “L”-type video camera batteries. The battery compartment's open-back design accommodates a variety of different physical sizes with different capacities. Turning a preamp all the way down clicks it off to preserve power. Preamps draw a lot of power, so I'd like to have the ability to turn them all off without losing my gain settings. Alternatively, I could have simply turned off the 788T, but its 15-second power-up time proved to be too long for capturing the sound of those unexpected moments — like a multitruck pileup.

Making Tracks

Users can route each of eight inputs to any one of eight tracks labeled L, R, A, B, C, D, E and F. Inputs can be routed to multiple tracks and sum multiple inputs onto a single track to create reference audio files for dailies. Although there is limited ability to sum multiple inputs to tracks, it's important to understand that the knobs are preamp controls, not faders. A stock 788T lacks any true mixing capability; however, at press time, Sound Devices announced the new CL-8, an 8-fader knob expander that plugs into the 788T's USB jack for full mixing capability. The CL-8 also provides two additional aux tracks, effectively making the 788T a 12-track recorder.

The 788T's tracks can be recorded to its internal hard drive, Compact Flash or to an optional external bus-powered DVD-RAM. Flash is a great option for recording high-vibration situations like riding in an 850HP truck that spends equal time in the air and on the ground. For the paranoiac, you can record to all three destinations at the same time. Each track has dedicated LED metering that's super-bright and easily readable under direct sunlight.

The 788T records tracks as Broadcast WAV files, either as multiple mono files or as polyphonic interleaved files. Sound Devices provides various ways of indexing and naming files to suit almost anyone. Each file has a user-definable prefix appended by a three-digit number that automatically increments each time the user presses Record. Additional notes can be embedded into the file as metadata by connecting a USB keyboard.

Monitoring Options

A rotary encoder selects various monitor modes for headphone listening, allowing you to audition various combinations of channels, along with M/S decoding and even Ambisonic decoding for working with B-format mics. Unfortunately, there was no way to listen to a complete mixdown of my 5.1 source. I could configure the order in which I scrolled through the monitor modes and was also able to create a favorite monitor mode that was accessible by pressing the encoder like a button. This let me quickly switch between monitoring the front pair, rear pair or individual capsules on the Holophone, and proved to be a workable compromise.

At the end of each day, I put the 788T into a Transfer mode and connected my Mac via FireWire (USB 2 also works) to back up the day's recordings. Sound Devices also offers a free program called Wave Agent that lets you view and add metadata to the files. It even supports splitting and combining tracks to new files.

Because I couldn't hear my 5.1 recording all put together in the headphones, I couldn't wait to go into a studio and listen to it on a 5.1 system. The 6-channel polyphonic WAV files imported perfectly into Apple's Soundtrack Pro and lit up the M&K 5.1 playback system. I absolutely loved the way things sounded. In fact, the first person who walked in the room said he got a “tingly feeling” when he heard one of the 850HP trucks drive through the studio. Depth, image and transient detail were superb. The limiters worked well and saved what would otherwise have been clipped takes, without sounding overly compressed.

Timecode

It's also important to remember that the “T” in 788T stands for timecode. The 788T can transmit or receive timecode via the 5-pin Lemo connector, which allows you to lock it with multiple-camera shoots for film and TV. While video cameras are notorious for losing accurate timecode when they are powered off, the 788T can maintain accurate timecode for up to six hours after the unit is powered down. This makes the 788T a great option as a timecode master when jam-synching multiple cameras on location. In this scenario, I set the 788T to free-run mode with timecode set to time of day. This keeps the counter on the 788T running even when it's not recording; just press Record, and the time of day is stamped into the WAV file's metadata so that you can easily import it into the audio/video editor and align it with the camera footage.

Finish Line

The 788T performed admirably in the field. After four days in the dust and sun, the only signs of wear and tear were some scratches on the replaceable plastic that covers the main display. The 788T's display and meters were readable in any light conditions, its preamps were clean and reliable, and its I/O was flexible and solid. I felt the unit would never let me down, no matter where I set up. My only complaint is lack of configuration flexibility in some menu items — for instance, the inability to directly choose channels to monitor, instead of picking from a cumbersome list of preset options. Even so, the 788T did a great job during my off-road torture test and is one of the most satisfying pieces of gear I've worked with in a long time.


Robert Brock is an engineer, consultant, writer and educator.

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