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Anarchy and the Amateur Recordist

Listener Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 4, Autumn 1996

What's the best source you can buy? A turntable? A CD player? Open-reel tape?

As Art Dudley suggests, for some, the answer may be none of the above.

 

     
 

Sony TCD-D8 portable DAT recorder: $899.
Distributed by Sony Electronics Incorporated, One Sony Drive, Park Ridge, NJ 07656-9940 (201)930-1000

Sonic Studios DSM-6S stereo microphone kit: $400.
Manufactured by Sonic Studios, 1311 Sunny Court, Sutherlin, OR 97479 (541)459-8839

Digital Audio Tape is like the adult child who can't hold a job and who's maybe even had a couple of scrapes with the law—and yet is essentially a good if ungrounded soul.  What kind of crank would saunter up to the poor guy's folks on the eighteenth green and ask if their child isn't a big disappointment to them? No one, that's who.  No good child could ever disappoint a loving mother or father.

So it goes in the big house at the end of Sony Drive.  Ten years after the technology's commercial debut and six years after its delayed release to American shoppers, home DAT decks are seldom seen in homes, and pre-recorded DAT releases in general have stiffed so bad that MicroSoft's BOB, by comparison, seems a whopping success.  What am I going to do—call up Sony and ask 'em to rate on a scale on one to ten how embarrassed they are (one is George Bush throwing up at a State dinner in Japan, ten is the Sex Pistols reunion tour), and then follow up by requesting a review sample?  Yes, I can see it now:  "Art Dudley, not content with ruining other people's magazines..."

The good news, of course, is that DAT has found its niche.  And if that niche isn't as big as Sony once had in mind—well, hell, most people would take genuine if finite success over infinite hope-n'-hype any old day.  And let's say it out loud:  What the DAT is good at, it's really, really good at.  For the semi-pro and, to an increasing extent, professional user (including television sound engineers and foley artists), DAT is the sound recording technology to beat.

Arguably the first inkling that this might be so came when Canadian country-rockers the Cowboy Junkies released their debut album The Trinity Sessions in 1988. The Trinity Sessions was recorded completely (and in situ) on a Sony portable DAT machine—and, actually, it sounded really, really good.  Great, almost.  And that was eight years ago, with eight-year-old DAT technology...

Sony's consumer DAT technology has evolved through a couple of incarnations, each of which has had, um, legs.  (Nothing speaks of a design department's lack of substance—or, for that matter, the subjugation of real design innovation and quality to all things marketing—more than a company that scraps and revamps its product line every single year.  I'm happy to observe that Sony has taken a higher road.)  The Sony TCD-D7 portable, for example, was introduced almost three years ago, and has proved a popular and dependable machine throughout that time—little more than a hamster's existence, I know, but really an eternity in the world of mass-market electronics.

Today there's a new portable DAT machine for the recording enthusiast.  This past Spring, Sony replaced the TCD-D7 with the TCD-D8—an outwardly similar if not identical machine, but sporting a few refinements: Its DC-to-DC circuitry is more efficient, so batteries tend to last appreciably longer; the new machine can record direct-to-digital at the compact disc's 44.1K sampling rate (barring copy protection, of course); and, unlike its predecessor, the D8 is supplied with the appropriate AC adaptor.

Okay, Art, that's all very nice. But what did you have in mind to do with this thing? Play prerecorded tapes? Tape your CDs and tell us what it's like to, um, tape your CDs?  Go jogging?

Actually, what I had in mind was to make and enjoy my own recordings.  And that's where another new product comes in...

Ever since the launch of that first Sony portable DAT machine, a cottage industry of enthusiasts has sprung up around it.  One of those companies—quite possibly the most significant of the bunch—is Sonic Studios of Sutherlin, Oregon, a design and manufacturing firm headed by recording engineer Leonard Lombardo.

The centerpiece of Sonic Studios' line is a concept called DSM, for Dimensional Stereo Microphones.  As created by Lombardo, DSM series microphones are tiny (pencil eraser sized) electret condensers designed to attach to the user's eyeglasses, just ahead of his or her ears.  The left-channel mic fastens to the left temple piece and the...well, you get the idea.

Like any such mic, the Sonic Studios DSM needs a low-voltage power supply.  And while the microphone input jack on all Sony machines also provides "phantom" DC power for such uses, it's a little shy of the required voltage, and so an in-line, AA-battery supply is also required. (Sonic Studios can perform a modification on any Sony D7 or D8 portable DAT machine so that it does supply the right voltage, obviating the need for an extra supply; contact them for pricing.)

The DSM kit is available in a couple of versions, with the differences between them mostly pertaining to selection/calibration for sensitivity, and thus channel-to-channel balance.  Our review samples were the pro series DSM-6S, which are gain- and phase-matched to within .25dB; the less expensive ($300) DSM-6 set has mics that are matched to within 1dB.

Considering the ostensible design of the DSM system, veteran recordists might see in the Sonic Studios approach a similarity to binaural audio—which uses two discrete mics, typically mounted on specially constructed baffle intended to emulate (some say exaggerate) the effect the human skull has in keeping left- or right-side information specific to that ear.  But Lombardo describes his approach as something very different. Binaural recording, though an interesting and often convincing approach to stereo sound, intends that the end product be listened to on stereo headphones; played back through loudspeakers, the spatial effect is lost.

In an effort to make possible a good reproduction of the original sonic experience, as heard in situ, Lombardo has simply designed his microphones to pick up sound just before it reaches the outer ear. So there is still some (natural) blending between the two channels—and, yes, without meaning to give away the ending, recordings made with the DSM system do indeed throw a (remarkably) believable stereo soundfield when played back through a pair of loudspeakers.

And, again:  Considering the ostensible design of the DSM system, veteran recordists might see in this a sort of ultimate stealth system.  In other words, a bootlegger's dream come true.

And while acknowledging that that is so, Lombardo sticks to his conceptual guns.  Yes, this is a great way to make sneaky recordings (at your own legal risk, assuming that's your bag)—but this capability is really just a by-product of the DSM's real design brief: a recording system that hears what the listener hears, the way the listener hears it.  "The goal is to let the user make a personal acoustic record," Lombardo says.  "This system recreates what you've heard in an emotionally based context."

And, lawzamussie, I am here to tell you that it works.

Let's cut right to the chase.  When I first received our DAT-man review sample, I spent the first few days doing nothing more challenging than, yeah, recording a few CDs and then later on listening to a prerecorded Sibelius symphony.  And as far as all that goes, yes, the D8 really is a fun-to-use and pleasantly musical machine.  As to the former, it shows the door to any home cassette deck I'd ever owned (not to mention my own Sony Walkman Pro recorder) in terms of noiseless, faithful reproduction.  And as to the latter, I was pleased and surprised (say, I could've said 'pleasantly surprised' there, couldn't I?) by how musically enjoyable the medium is.  It was, you'll pardon the cliche, good enough to let me forget I was reviewing and simply concentrate, happily, on the music.

But none of that sounds too terribly Earth-shattering, does it? Modern, ultra-high-quality cassette decks (Nakamichi and Arcam come to mind) do a lot of that, too.  I wanted something special...

Then the Sonic Studios microphones came, and it was time to play with them.  This I did over the course of several evenings, amusing the other members of Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids at our semi-weekly rehearsals.  (I say amusing because, I'm told, with the DSMs in place I looked a little buggy. Thanks, Rebecca.)

Well, there was lesson number one:  Don't record with DSMs if you're also a performer.  No sir, things will sound wackily out of balance—like a bootleg record made by someone in the audience who's standing next to someone who wants to sing along with all the songs.  (Don't laugh—I actually bought such a thing once, when I took a chance on a Blue Oyster Cult bootleg I hadn't heard yet.)

No, the D8 and DSM wouldn't show their stuff until a live recording opportunity came about--as in a real concert.

Luckily, a local Summer music program was just getting underway for the season.  The Honest Brook Music Festival of Meredith, New York attracts world-class solo and chamber performers to our neck of the woods—which ain't exactly 57th and 7th.  Next on the bill were the Blachman-Klibonoff-Meyer trio, performing a program of Beethoven, Brahms, and a favorite of mine (and Janet's, and Pat Meanor's), the Mendelssohn D minor.

I decided to do this right, rather than stealth, and phoned for permission.  That was granted, graciously, by one of the Honest Brook principals.  But then I was also informed:  There had been a change in plans, and the cellist performing with the trio would not be Meyer, but rather Evan Drachman.  Who is Gregor Piatigorsky's grandson.  Wow.

Cut to the chase again:  We arrived early enough for a comfortable setup period, selecting the two front-est and center-est seats.  Our thinking:  Who wants to fumble around with dweebware in front of a presumably classy audience (not to mention performers)?  Even though I suspected I'd be fooling no one, I decided to make things as subtle as possible, and so I snaked the mic cord from the DSMs down my collar to the battery pack on my belt.  From there, another cable finished the trip to the Sony. I was ready.

The concert was superb—so much so that at times I forgot where I was and what I was doing, and at one point almost dumped the DAT machine from my lap to the floor (something else that doesn't go over well on Sony Drive, I'd imagine).  These people played with more heart and skill than I'd ever heard from a live trio—and, yes, Drachman's tone gave new meaning to the word lyrical.  After exchanging pleasantries with the members of the group (all of whom said they would want a copy—and I don't mean Listener), I dashed home to hear what I'd done.

The results were astounding.  Shockingly real sounding and as musically involving as any recording on any source I've ever had at home.

Let me repeat that, 'cause frankly I'm not even sure it's sunk in with me yet:  This music—this particular source component and particular recording—have had no better in my home.

First, it was sonically convincing.  I mean, jeez, we'd just heard this trio live, from ten feet away, and what we were hearing now in my hi-fi room was, while certainly not identical, a spookily realistic reproduction.

If I had to point to any sonic shortcomings, I'd mention that (surprise) the top end lacked all the sparkle and natural detail of the real thing. The sound of the Sony/Sonic Studios recordings were a little soft up there.

I also discovered that this system is really picky about how the recording is made. With insufficient input gain, the problem described above is exacerbated. With too much, sounds in the midrange and highs take on a grainy, opaque quality that, while not ear-shattering, is difficult to hear around. To find the right gain setting with this combo is to tread a thin line. (For my purposes, the best results were achieved by setting the Sony's two-position gain selector switch to Low, and then adjusting the gain dial for fairly high gain—say about 7 or 8—within that Low range.)

Regardless, the recording we made that day was musically convincing.  There was no straining to make musical sense of what we were hearing, none of the "translating as we go" that characterized so much early digital as it tried to reproduce notes and not just sounds.  Nope: After recovering from the shock of how realistic it sounded, Janet and I just relaxed with the music the way we did with—well, with the original.

Okay, this was really cool.

But as of now, that makes a world-class DAT recording collection of one. By what leaps and bounds could such a library ever hope to grow?

Now there's a question that only prospective DAT buyers can answer for themselves. Hell, 25 years ago this college town of ours attracted talent like the Byrds, Traffic, Bruce Springsteen—and those were just the pop groups. Although today we still get a few major classical players in town (Gyorgy Sandor, Peter Schickele, and the above mentioned trio to name a few), this is not the cultural hotbed it was before the local beer distributor and consequently the college bar industry took over the city's entertainment needs.

But if you live in a town with a great indie scene like Dayton or Seattle or Winston-Salem; or if you follow the seasonal bluegrass festivals or Lollapalooza or whatever else as those things skirt your area; or, hey, let's be obvious—if you're a classical music fan in Philadelphia or New York or San Francisco or Cleveland...

That's the thing: Given a steady input of good live music, a Sony TCD-D8 and a Sonic Studios DSM kit could be the highest fidelity musical source in your home. At retail, that means the ultimate front end costs between $1100 and $1200, plus tape expense and a regular diet of batteries. And let's not be coy: If you shop around, the deck itself can be found for less.

Gripes? My only substantive ones have to do with the instructions, applying to both products.

First, the DSM system. As with the Disc Doctor products reviewed elsewhere in this issue, Sonic Studios includes with their products a generous amount of literature. This collection includes interesting recording tips; some testimonials from professional users; order forms for other products; and use and maintenance instructions. There is a tremendous wealth of useful information in this stuff (no kidding!), but it's awfully hard to find what you want in the way of instructions when you want it. Please, Mr. Lombardo—take just a little time and write out all the instructions and tips in a separate piece, and mark it as such.

As to the Sony, the instructions are generally okay if not effusively helpful, but weak areas remain. No, this is not your typical low-budget translation from the Japanese, as found with other, cheaper products ("not to be putting direct sun in beautiful music tapes comes WARNING blame doesn't guarantee"), but nor is it as clear, unambiguous, or pleasantly colloquial as it should be. Notably murky are the instructions on how to add index points to the music tape while recording—and, especially, how to reliably find them during playback.  Yes, pressing the record button again while recording seems to do the trick on the fly. But I still don't know under what circumstances indexes are added automatically.  And, if you don't mind my saying so, I'm not stupid.

Still, I'm very impressed by the build quality and finish level of this Sony machine. Notwithstanding its (perhaps unavoidably) complex controls, it was always a pleasure to use. The D8 has a pleasantly solid, chunky feel for a portable stereo; it gives the impression that it will last for years. And, yes, the buttery soft leather wrapper is a lovely touch.

And I'll tell you flat out: The next time I have 700 or so dollars that aren't earmarked for the plumber or the exterminator or the vet, that cash will have Sony Dat-man written all over it: I'm really looking forward to experimenting with more live recordings, especially something bigger and louder (no, I'm thinking orchestra, not Al Sharpton). The next 300 after that are bound for Sutherlin, Oregon.

You know, it seems to me that audio enthusiasts only turn to surround-sound decoders and other twinky effects when the realization comes knocking that, hey, they're not getting the same kicks out of their corporate rock or big-budget soundtracks that they used to. So what can be done about it—that is, apart from suggesting that these guys ditch their sound-is-everything approach to record buying and seek out some real music?

Nothing. In fact, that's just it: Seek out more and better music.  Try getting into that instead of just sound.  And here are a couple of brilliantly good tools to bring along.

 
     

 

What's on Sonic Studios Web Site? (Click underlined text, and navigation photos)
DSM™
Patented Stereo-Surround Microphone Technology
Passive DSM™ Mic Powering/Bass Filters
 
 
 
 
Eyegear/Headband/HRTF Baffle mountable matched omni mics
Stops wind blast noise; transparent acoustic design; records real wind sounds
for MD, DAT, CF, HD, and Video Field/Event/Studio Recording
HRTF RECORDING
Stereo-Surround Omni Mic Baffle for Stand, Fishpole, Studio Boom, and Ceiling
RECORDING ACCESSORIES

Portable Deck Power Solutions

Patch/Adapter Cables

Field/Studio Monitoring Headphones, Reviews

 

High-definition, low noise, very wide bandwidth preamp designs to fit any field/event/studio application using DSM™ stereo-surround mics.

MONO ONLY 'Lombardo' Lapel Mic for interview, Narration, Lecture, and clip-on acoustic instrument Recording

DSM™ Magazine Reviews
   
 
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