Test Drive: Darwin Digital Audio Disk Recorder from E-mu Systems, Inc.

emu-systems-darwin

by Jerry Vigil

Some of the best features of today’s digital recording technology come together in the Darwin from E-mu Systems.  And the icing on the cake is the affordable price tag.  For under $2,000, you can arm your studio with an 8-track digital recorder with full editing capabilities, a user interface that is as friendly as they get, and features that let the Darwin grow with your studio.  If you’ve been looking for a digital workstation that moves you smoothly from analog tape-based multitracks into the digital world of random access, or if you’re looking for the perfect compliment to your ADAT setup, take a look at the Darwin.

To the Rear

The fully self-contained system resides in a 3 rack-space unit.  The rear panel provides balanced analog output of all eight tracks on 1/4-inch TRS connectors.  There are four analog TRS balanced inputs with eight available using the optional Analog Input Expander card.  Input and output levels are switchable between -10dBu or +4dB.  RCA connectors provide stereo S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital I/O.  MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU ports supply remote control of the Darwin and the ability to sync the Darwin with external MIDI sequencers and computers using MIDI Time Code.  Other rear panel connectors include the Audio HD SCSI port for connecting external SCSI drives, and a footswitch input enables remote punch-in/out control.

There are five “option” ports on the rear panel.  One is for the Analog Input Expander.  The Host Computer SCSI port is for a hardware/software combo that will allow the Darwin to be connected to a computer to enable graphic waveform display, editing, and more.  This is currently still in development.  The other three option ports can be used for a number of things.  The unit shipped for this review included the ADAT sync card and ADAT optical I/O card.  The ADAT Sync card allows connecting up to sixteen digital recorders using the same sync format (including the Fostex RD-8), and the ADAT optical I/O option permits transferring up to eight tracks of audio between machines.

Up Front

The attractive front panel is dark gray with large, easy to hit buttons.  The transport controls are especially large.  You get the usual REW, FFWD, STOP, PLAY, REC, and RTZ (return to zero).  To the far left of the panel are the power on/off switch, a headphone jack, and headphone level control.  Next to these are the 10-segment peak holding bargraph level meters.  Below each of these is the corresponding track record enable button.  The INPUT MODE button toggles between Auto Input mode and Normal mode.  In Auto mode, playback of record enabled tracks is monitored until recording begins, at which time monitoring switches automatically to input signals.  The REHEARSE button permits practicing punch-ins without actually recording.

There are two ASSIGNABLE KEYS that the user can assign various functions to.  Use these keys to audition the selected audio or the clipboard audio with one press of the button, or use for quick access to various screens without stepping through menus. 

At the far right is a numeric keypad used for data input and for naming projects.  It is most handy as ten autolocate points.  Press the STO LOC key followed by any of the ten numeric keys to quickly store a locate point.  Pressing the number key again at any time instantly locates to that point.  Press the GOTO button to enter a location in the time display and instantly locate anywhere within a project.  The Darwin features four banks of ten autolocate points. 

The heart of the user interface is the large graphical display at the top center.  Measuring approximately 5 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches high, the display is surprisingly easy to read and understand.  Six function keys below the display act as soft keys to perform various functions as shown directly above them in the display.  Four arrow keys and the large Jog/Shuttle wheel are used for navigation throughout the various screens.