The new DR-44WL is a 4-channel handheld recorder that builds on the foundation of Tascam’s DR-40. While the DR-44WL features a number of modifications and improvements, none is as intriguing as the inclusion of WiFi technology for remote control and wireless data transfers. This allows users to place the DR-44WL in an optimal location and then meter and adjust levels using the iOS and Android-compatible DR Control software.
Nuts and Bolts
The DR-44WL chassis has aluminum sides with plastic top and bottom panels, as well as plastic ends at the front and back. The front features a pair of newly designed small-diaphragm electret condenser microphones; as on the DR-40, they are protected by sturdy brass rails that would absorb the blow if the unit were to be dropped on its front end. These rails also do a good job of preventing windscreens from rubbing up against the mics.
While the overall sound of the microphones on the DR-40 and DR-44WL are very similar, their designs differ greatly. The DR-40’s mics were mounted to the unit on two-position hinged mounts that could flip inward so that the mics could form an X/Y-like pattern, or flipped outward to approximate a 90-degree angle relative to one another, for a wider stereo pickup. Despite the fact that many users liked that flexibility, the DR-44’s mics are locked into a single position, which represents a much truer X/Y pattern, with the capsules stacked, overlapping each other slightly.
While the mics cannot change positions, they do feature one big improvement: Each mic is connected to a somewhat flexible rubber joint that serves as a shock-mount. In a concert setting, this would be effective in minimizing excessive bass from resonating through the unit into the mics. The new mounts don’t eliminate handling noise, although the included, screw-on plastic handle does seem to be of some benefit, as it minimizes direct contact with the unit. Readjusting your grip on the handle, however, will still make some noise, so pairing the recorder with a suspension kit is recommended.
The DR-44WL can record up to four simultaneous channels of audio. The most obvious configuration would be to record the built-in stereo mics plus the two channels of XLR input. However, alternate modes see the internal mics being recorded to two of the tracks, while the other two tracks are used to record an alternate version that is reduced in level by about -10 dB. This way, if a portion of the audio is clipped in the normal version, it can be replaced with the unclipped, lower-level version during editing. This would be useful when recording dialog with a boom and lavalier microphone feeding the XLR input jacks. When using the external input in dual mode, however, only one input can be recorded along with its attenuated counterpart, limiting operation to mono.
It seems that Tascam—makers of the original 4-track, cassette-based Portastudio—feels obligated to continually provide similar tools that allow songwriters to sketch out demos. The MTR mode on the DR-44WL does a fine job of giving songwriters a pocket-sized recording studio. In MTR mode, either four mono or one stereo and two mono tracks, can be recorded in an overdubbed fashion. In this mode, any of the four inputs can be selected to feed any of the four tracks, so one of the built-in mics can serve as the sound source for all four layers, or a single, outboard condenser can be recorded four times without having to switch connections.
The top panel features a very large, easy to read, backlit LCD display. The meters display level for the four record channels, and for the stereo mix of the four tracks in MTR mode. Other information that is immediately useful is displayed as well, such as filename, a counter, peak level and the like. As is common on Tascam devices, there is a main menu that provides access to primary functionality, and then a number of different pop-up menus that control other common functions.
Most functions are controlled using a data wheel and selection button similar to the first-generation iPod. The wheel is slightly detented so that it won’t slip past the desired selection too easily. The DR-40 had noisy spring-loaded buttons for performing these functions, so the DR-44WL’s slightly quieter alternative is an improvement.
Similarly, the input level control no longer uses spring-loaded buttons, and has been given a dedicated thumb-wheel similar to that found on the Sony PCM-100. Pressing the “Input Level” button on the side of the DR-44WL engages a pop-up menu with a meter displaying the level for each of the four inputs. Track-arm buttons numbered 1 to 4 sit right below the LCD display and blink with red LEDs when this menu is active. Pressing each of them will appropriate the level control to the corresponding channel. Pressing the “1” button and then pressing “2” will allow simultaneous level adjustment of this stereo pair. Likewise, pressing “3” then “4” will allow simultaneous level setting of those two channels. If either member of the stereo pair is set individually, and the stereo balance is offset, this relative balance will be maintained even when grouping them together again.
Pressing the button labeled Wi-Fi on the left side of the DR-44WL creates a wireless network and displays the network name and the password to join. After downloading the free DR Control app onto my iPhone, I simply went to the Wi-Fi settings menu on the phone and connected to the network as instructed. The DR-44WL creates its own LAN that directly connects to peripherals. The phone connected with no problems, and upon launching the app, I could now see the meters and other settings on my phone.
With a clear path between my iPhone 5s and the DR-44WL, I could stay connected up to about 25 feet away; beyond that distance, signal would drop out. Fortunately, reconnecting required no action from the unit itself and I could jump back on the network directly from my phone. This was also convenient in instances where I needed to access data during recording. I could disconnect from the DR-44WL, connect to my 4G network to check email, or look something up online, and then get back on the Wi-Fi connection to control the recorder again.
On the whole, wireless control is very slick and well executed. I only have two real complaints. One is with regard to the input level setting. From the iPhone app, input channels one and two can only be set as a pair, and cannot be unlinked for making individual adjustments. Conversely, the levels for three and four cannot be linked and have to be set individually. This means that making adjustments on the fly when actually using this pair in stereo will always result in wobbly teeter-tottering levels.
The other issue is that audio cannot be monitored in real time from the app. This is not entirely surprising, but recording audio without hearing it is always risky. The closest thing to a solution would be using the DR Control app to browse all of the files on the SD card mounted inside the unit. Supposedly, any file can be auditioned right off of the DR-44WL through the wireless connection. Even after updating to the latest software and firmware I was not able to accomplish this. However, the app also allows any file to be pulled through the wireless connection and then auditioned in the app. The file can then be uploaded directly to SoundCloud from the wireless device. This functionality also presents a workaround, where a test file can be recorded, auditioned through the app and be used to determine whether the mic placement and level settings are correct.
I was just getting into the sound design for a film project when the DR-44WL arrived. I needed to record some car tires, heavy footfalls and body falls on gritty desert terrain. Finding a quiet spot in any nearby park requires some hiking to a remote area among the buttes and mountains. I thought the DR-44WL would be a perfect companion because of its small, light build. I packed it up in a backpack with some different mics and wind protection and set out.
The park was unusually busy, so I tried out several trails before I found real isolation. I had to do a fair amount of hiking, so fortunately I didn’t have to carry a heavy, bagged recorder. The heaviest things in my recording complement were mic stands. I got the DR-44WL set up on a tripod and a stereo pair of pencil condensers on a stereo bracket and wired into the recorder. From there, I established a wireless connection to the recorder with my iPhone. I loved that I could run and jump around, toss things, and make all of the sounds that I needed all while remotely controlling the levels from the app. The only thing tethering me to the recorder was a long headphone extension cable so that I could monitor my work.
I packed up my rig and moved it to the roadside to record car drive-bys on the rocky terrain. I performed the drive-up and stops that I needed but also grabbed some other cars driving by. The overall rig was small and unassuming enough that there never seemed to be any raised eyebrows from the passing drivers. I also recorded some ambience of bugs and birds with the wind blowing through the waxy foliage. On the way back home I wound up recording vehicle interiors while driving on different surfaces, at different speeds, with different windows open.
I brought the files home to examine and catalog them. A lot of the louder vehicle sounds came out really nicely. There was a surprising amount of bottom end in the vehicle interiors, and a nice stereo image in all of the audio. Drive-bys and approaches from the left or right read really well. When listening to some of the quieter tracks, like footsteps or nature sounds, there was a fair amount of noise—if you’ve heard any Tascam portable recorder, you know what I’m talking about. Even the company’s higher-end products have a slight hiss when cranking the mic pre’s gain to capture lower-level signals.
While today’s noise removal technology can do a pretty good job of removing noise from speech, there’s always a bit more damage when pulling noise out of sound effects. In this case, the lower-level recordings were pretty much unusable and had to be re-recorded with a quieter recorder. This is not that surprising, as only rarely have I found handheld recorders that can meet these tasks. While the DR-44WL will not replace the Sony handhelds that have gained favor among nature recordists, the unit’s high SPL rating, full frequency response, and detailed sound will make it favorable for train, plane, artillery and other high-volume SFX recordings.
The DR-44WL really shined when it came to capturing sound supporting video. A friend was shooting an outdoor wedding with a combination of DSLR and GoPro cameras, none of which have good quality onboard sound. We thought the DR-44WL might fit the bill as an all-around sound recorder. At the event, he set it up on a tripod, with the built-in mics pointed toward the seated guests to capture ambience. A small choir mic hanging from the arch and a shotgun mic pointed toward the couple and the officiant captured the speech of the ceremony.
The foam windshield plus a Rycote windjammer on the built-in mics did well to keep wind noise to a minimum. The ambient sound, including music, clapping, etc., was all captured really well. While both mono mics required a bit of noise repair to remove wind sounds, the end result was a really nice documentation of the day’s events. The sonic picture that resulted from the choir mic and the ambient mics impressed me. I would definitely use that same combination when presented with a similar recording scenario.
The DR-44WL is lightweight, small and comes with a nice little padded carrying case. It can easily live in your backpack or laptop bag and always be there when you need it. The built-in mics do a good job of capturing everything from music to speech to sound effects. In a lot of cases, I went through the trouble of connecting external mics only to find that I preferred its built-in mics in the end. For music and for sound effects, if nothing else, it’s a great little sketchpad that allows you to grab sound in the moment, documenting ideas that can be revisited in more elaborate setups later on. The Wi-Fi control is really handy and is well worth the meager price difference between the DR-40 an DR-44WL. As far as bang for the buck goes, the DR-44WL is a perfect solution for weddings, indie films or everyday recording.
COMPANY: Tascam (TEAC)
PRICE: $299 (street)
PROS: Good overall sound. Wi-Fi control. Plenty of features.
CONS: Doesn’t record quiet sounds as well as it records louder ones.
There are a lot of plug-ins for futzing audio to sound like it is playing out of different speakers, but there’s nothing like the real thing. Try using MTR mode on the DR-44WL to futz audio through car or TV speakers in a very portable way. Put the mono or stereo audio onto one or two tracks in a new song (either record it in or cheat the file system with clever renaming; it works). Connect the headphone jack to the TV or vehicle’s Aux jack and play the original while “overdubbing” the futzed version onto the stereo track.
Brandon T. Hickey is a recording engineer based in Phoenix.