Test Drive: Roland DM-800 Digital Audio Workstation

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by Jerry Vigil

Over the years, I've had the wonderful opportunity to Test Drive a number of workstations. Some were big and bulky, others more compact. Some required fairly complex installation procedures, others were a piece of cake to hook up. After a day of using the DM-800 in the studio, I decided to take the unit home to play some more. As I walked out to the car, it hit me. I was carrying a totally complete 8-track digital workstation under one arm like I might carry a CD player or cassette deck. No monitor, no external drives, no remote control, no long cables. There was a sense of having stepped into a new generation of workstations. The DM-800 weighs only twelve pounds, and if it were battery operated, you could do some serious multi-track digital production on your lap, in a car, on a plane, in the park....

So, I took the DM-800 home. I had some record spots to produce -lots of song hooks, lots of edits. I had all the hooks and voice tracks already recorded to the internal drives. At home, I actually sat on the couch, placed the DM-800 on my lap, and finished producing these spots with a pair of headphones on. The headphones and the AC power cord were the only connections necessary. There is much more to say about the DM-800 than its stunning portability, but it's indeed remarkable how much power is packed into such a small and portable box.

The DM-800 uses a lot of the technology applied to the DM-80. So, if you're familiar with the DM-80, your pretty familiar with the DM-800, though there are some differences. The rear panel provides both digital and analog I/O. There are four balanced analog inputs and four balanced outputs (¼-inch TRS). The digital I/O connectors are RCA type. There's one RCA input and two stereo digital RCA outs. The format is S/PDIF. There's also a 30-pin RMDB connector, an 8-channel I/O, for interfacing the DM-800 with other digital recorders such as the ADAT and DA-88. An internal, digital patch-bay enables a wide variety of input and output configurations. The patch-bay can also assign tracks to an internal mixdown buss enabling six tracks to be mixed to the other two tracks. A typical analog installation would use outputs 1 and 2 as the L/R master outs. Outputs 3 and 4 could be used as effect sends with inputs 3 and 4 as the stereo return.

There are SMPTE I/O ports as well as MIDI in and out. There's a connector for a standard AT ASCII keyboard. The keyboard is helpful for naming projects and recordings, although it is not necessary. Almost all functions on the top panel of the DM-800 are duplicated on the keyboard. A big surprise on the back panel are the three video connectors. You get standard RCA composite video, S-video, and digital RGB video outs enabling you to hook the unit up to a computer monitor or even your television set! Hook up a monitor! The LCD display on the top panel is duplicated on the monitor, but you also get an overview display that lets you see the entire project and all eight tracks at once. The LCD only displays tracks 1 through 4, or tracks 5 through 8.

There's a footswitch input which can be used to trigger the record mode or for entering tempo in the Tap Tempo mode. Next to this output is the headphone out. Two SCSI ports used for external drives and the power on/off button above the AC power input complete the rear panel.

The top panel provides the large 5-inch by 1½-inch LCD display. At the top left of the panel are four input gains for the analog inputs (+20dB gain). To the right is the headphone level control. The mixer section is at the bottom left portion of the panel. There is a fader, Status Select key, and pan pot for each of the eight tracks. A multi-colored LED above each Status Select key indicates which mode is active: red for Record, green for Play, orange for Trigger mode, and off for Mute. There are two stereo faders for analog inputs next to the master stereo output fader. The DM-800 also provides automated mixing by pressing the COMPU/MANUAL button. Got a tough mix? Go to COMPU Mix mode and record the fader, pan, and EQ movements. Then go back and fine tune individual settings on individual tracks until it's perfect. Upon playback, the internal digital mixer takes over and performs all the mixer functions. Take a "snapshot" of mixer settings at any point in time. Several channels can be "grouped" together in the digital mixer for easier level control, like the two channels of a music bed, for example.

In the center of the top panel are four cursor keys used for moving the cursor to various parameters in the display. Below these keys are two Phrase Locate keys. The DM-800 records "Takes" which are then edited into "Phrases" which are placed within "Projects." The Phrase Locate Previous and Next keys enable instant location to the previous or next phrase on the selected track. Below these keys are eight Auto Locator Marker buttons. Pressing one of these stores the current "now" time and lights the LED on that button to indicate that a location is stored there. The DM-800 provides five Marker Groups for a total of 40 possible autolocate points. The five Marker Groups are accessed by pressing the Shift key along with the respective number (1-5) on the numeric keypad at the far right. Press the Delete key below the Marker keys along with an active Marker key to erase the stored locate point.

When used with the Shift key, the eight Marker keys have other functions. Shift plus Marker 1, 3 and 4 access time code functions. Shift plus Marker 2 is the Capture function which takes the current "now" time and transfers it to the selected time parameter in the display. Shift plus 5, 6, 7, and 8 set the Loop Start, Loop End, Punch In, and Punch Out times used in the Loop and Auto Punch modes. You can't beat punch ins and outs in the digital domain. Set Loop Start and End points if you want to rehearse the punch in several times without having to manually operate the transport controls. Otherwise, find the punch in point, press Shift plus 7. Then find the punch out point, press Shift plus 8, and you're ready to record with precise and consistent punch in/out points.

Transport controls are below the LCD display. You get Rewind, Play, Fast Forward, Stop, Record, and Zero which is simply a return-to-zero function. When pressed, Fast Forward and Rewind move through a project in set increments of time. This value can be adjusted, the equivalent of being able to adjust the "speed" of Fast Forward and Rewind.

The Mode Select keys are above the transport controls. There are seven operating modes of the DM-800. When a mode is selected, the display changes to provide various functions for that mode. There are five "soft keys" below the display labeled F1 through F5 which access various functions depending upon the mode selected. To record, first press the Record Mode key (not the Record transport key). The display changes to the record screen where you have options to set up the I/O configuration, set or adjust punch in/out points, set the record mode (Auto, Manual, or Loop), and other things. Once your I/O configuration is set up, press the Track Status keys for the tracks you want to record on. The Track Status LEDs will turn red and blink indicating the track is armed. Next, press Record and Play. As audio is being recorded, the display begins drawing a graphic representation of "tape" on the selected track(s); the longer the recording, the longer the graphic. Press Stop when through. A new screen comes up on the display that offers the option to accept the default name for this "take" or enter a new one. You also have the option to delete the take. If the take is kept, the display returns to the previous screen where the recording is represented on the track. As mentioned, the DM-800 records "takes" and these entire takes or portions of these takes are referred to as "phrases" in our project. So, you don't actually see the "take" on the display; what you see is the newly created "phrase" which just happens to be exactly identical to the take, until any edits are done to the phrase. Once edited, the take remains the same on the disk; it is the phrase that retains the edits. As a result, all editing is non-destructive.

When you're finished recording, press the Playlist key to enter the Playlist mode. Here is where all cut and paste editing is done. The lower part of the display shows five new functions for the five function keys, and the Function button to the left of the display scrolls through two more pages of additional functions. To edit a phrase, first select it with the Phrase Select keys. When selected, the phrase is highlighted on the display. The first function is Move which lets you move the phrase anywhere along the current track, or you can move it to another track. (The DM-800 uses two disk drives, one for tracks 1 through 4, and the other for tracks 5 through 8. You cannot move tracks from one drive to another.) When Move is pressed, you get the option to adjust the Trim In, Trim Out, and Offset points. This is where the DM-800's Scrub function comes in. The Scrub function was a welcome surprise because the DM-800's predecessor, the DM-80, did not have this function. It still doesn't, but will probably be a software upgrade in the future. Below the data wheel are three Scrub/Preview keys. The To key plays a few seconds of audio up to the edit point. The Thru key plays audio before and after the edit point. The From key plays audio starting at the edit point and for an adjustable amount of time after. Pressing one of these keys and moving the data wheel adjusts the edit point while continuously playing back a short segment of the audio. This is just like cuing to a precise point on a CD player only easier and more accurate, to one millisecond. The Scrub functions work like a charm. Another nice feature is the Wave Window. When in Playlist mode, pressing the Playlist mode key again brings up a small window on the display that has an audio waveform of the selected track. In this mode, keys on the numeric keypad double as zoom adjustments for the waveform; it can be zoomed vertically and horizontally.

The Edit function lets you edit the name of the phrase, the in and out times, and fade in and out times (up to one second). You can even adjust the level of the phrase (downward only). The Copy function lets you copy a phrase to another location on the same track or to another track as long as you don't cross the border between tracks 4 and 5.

The New Phrase function lets you make new phrases from existing phrases. Take Change replaces the take currently in use by the selected phrase. Insert Time is like adding leader tape. You can use the Insert Time on a single track or all of them simultaneously. Cut/Erase lets you mark an in point and an out point. Cut deletes the audio between the two points and joins the two points together. Erase deletes the audio between the points but does not bring them together. The Split function splits a single phrase at any point to make two phrases. If you're recording five drops, you might just roll "tape" and record all five as one phrase. Use the Split function to make them each a separate phrase which can then be moved around and edited without affecting the other phrases. This is splitting phrases "time-wise." The Split function can also split stereo phrases "track-wise." Say you want to put a little delay on the left channel of a voice track to give it a stereo spread effect. Record the voice track on two tracks, then split them track-wise and move one track slightly to create the delay. (You could also use the Copy function on a mono recording to do the same thing.)

You can overlap phrases on the same track(s), but the DM-800 will not "mix" the phrases where they overlap. It will play only one of them. You can choose which one gets priority with the Overlap function. This function is also handy if you're recording several takes of, let's say, voice-over in a donut jingle. If you like a take, but want to do another one, just record right over the first. You can literally stack three hundred takes on top of each other. Then, use the Overlap function to go through the various takes and determine which one you want to use. You can do all this on one track. That's something impossible in the analog world. In effect, this is like having three-hundred tracks. This is a big plus for situations where a donut jingle needs three different scripts applied, or a spot needs ten different tags attached. Using the same track lets you deal with just one fader, one EQ setting, etc. as opposed to having to set levels and such on several tracks. And, obviously, you have more tracks left over to play with.

The Phrase Delete function does just that, and you get the option to listen to it before deleting. Remember, deleting the phrase does NOT delete the take that it is derived from. The Group function performs group functions on phrases. You get Group Move, Group Delete, and Group Copy. The Stretch function is the DM-800's time stretch/squeeze function. Since pitch-shifting is involved in digital time stretch/squeeze, the DM-800 also offers digital pitch shifting over a one-octave range. The options are Time Stretch (squeeze or stretch), Time Stretch With Pitch Change, and Pitch Change. In the digital world, these functions required bit by bit analysis of the audio file, then the entire file has to be rewritten. The bottom line is, it is a very time consuming function. The Pitch Change function took almost eleven minutes to shift a thirty second mono voice track down 500 cents in the "medium quality" mode. The Time Stretch function took almost three minutes to shrink the same phrase from thirty seconds down to twenty-nine seconds. The larger the file, the more time it takes to process. If you have the time, if it's a "must do" situation--the voice talent is gone on vacation and the voice track HAS to be shrunk to fit in the donut jingle--the Time Stretch function is there; but in the fast paced radio production room, it might be quicker to recut or edit the VO. The last function available in the Playlist mode is the X-Fade function, used to alter the transition from one phrase to another when the two phrases are joined together (as with an edit for example). The crossfade can be set up to one second in length and there are four options for how the phrases will overlap at the point where they meet.

Press the Mixer mode key to access the DM-800's internal, digital, 8x2 mixer. As mentioned, the DM-800 offers automated mixing. There are four Mixer Control Pages that display levels, pan settings, EQ settings, and Auxiliary Input and Master Output levels. An In/Out Assign function brings up the DM-800's versatile digital patch bay. The EQ in the DM-800 is a 2-band parametric. Get to it from the Mixer mode or by pressing the EQ key on the panel above the master faders. Above this key are the cut/boost and frequency controls for each band. To add EQ to a track, press the EQ key, then use the cursor keys to select the track you wish to EQ. Use the large Value/Time data wheel at the top right to make adjustments, or use the four EQ controls on the panel.

The Trigger mode lets you trigger the playback of phrases by MIDI notes or by pressing the numbers 1 through 8 on the numeric keypad. This is a monophonic function, so stereo sounds won't work. This mode has more value for live performances where sounds need to be dropped in on the fly. This would be very useful if a DM-800 were in the on-air studio, but not a likely place for a digital workstation of this caliber. In production, the Trigger mode is useful only if the audio you're triggering doesn't have to be recorded into the DM-800. One use in production would be to record up to eight tags onto individual tracks, then use the Trigger mode to play them back while dubbing to cart or whatever your medium is.

The Catalog mode is the DM-800's filing system. Here is where projects are selected, loaded, backed up, named, copied, etc.. A Clean Up function removes phrases in a project that are covered up by other phrases. As mentioned earlier, up to 300 phrases can be recorded one on top of the other. Use the Overlap function to select the one you like and bring it to the top. The Clean Up function removes all the others, saving you a time consuming task of individually deleting phrases one by one. This does not delete the takes. They remain on the disks. The Delete Take function is like Clean Up. However, the Delete Take function is destructive. Takes can be marked for deletion manually or automatically. All takes can be deleted, or just those not in use. A Recover option examines a take in use and deletes only the audio of the take not being used by a phrase. These clean-up functions are handy ways to recover valuable disk space. The DM-800 backs up to audio DAT or SCSI data DAT. All information is saved including all editing information and COMPU MIX data. Projects are also initialized in the Catalog mode. The Initialize function creates new projects. This is where you name the project and select the sampling frequency. The DM-800 records at 48kHz, 44.1kHz, and 32kHz. The Catalog mode also offers some disk and tape back-up utilities and a Normalize Take function. The Normalize Take function examines a take, looks for the loudest point in the take, raises that level to the highest level (digital zero), and rewrites the file, raising everything else up by the same amount. Like the time squeeze/stretch functions, this is also time consuming and probably not of much value in radio production.

The System mode sets the system parameters such as screen colors (when using a monitor), MIDI and SMPTE settings, lengths for the Preview and Scrub functions, and more. The Shut Down function is used to un-mount the drives and park the heads before power down. Finally, the last mode of the DM-800 is the Tempo mode. This is used for music production and creating tempo maps. Unless you're a radio producer who is also producing your own production music, you'll probably never access this mode.

The DM-800 packs a ton of features for a very modest price. List on the DM-800 is $6,295. The unit used for this review came with two 520 meg internal drives providing over four hours of track time at 32kHz sampling and just under three track hours at 48kHz. External drives can be added to provide up to twenty-four track hours. Specs include 18-bit A/D with 128x oversampling, 18-bit D/A with 8x oversampling, and 24-bit internal processing. The DM-800 takes up very little space with its small footprint of approximately 2 ft. x 1 ft..

Because the DM-800 is loaded with features, the learning curve is not extremely short. Recording and mixing is a no-brainer because the mixer is on the panel. Even using the EQ is a cinch without the manual. But if you're going to get into editing, automated mixing, and most of the other features, you'll need to check out a good part of the 166 page manual. Once you understand where everything is and how it works, it all becomes very intuitive.

The DM-800 does so much, does it so well, and is priced so low, that it's difficult to say there are any drawbacks at all. Nevertheless, I found the unit to be a little sluggish in the Playlist mode while editing. Once I got up to speed, I found myself ready to hit the next key, but the unit was still processing the last key press, and it does not accept another key press until it's through with the last one. This may only be a function of the internal drives because the only time things slowed down a bit were when audio was being read or written from/to the drives. Faster drives, internal or external, might eliminate this sluggishness.

Is this a workstation for a radio production room. Absolutely. If you're looking for lots of power, lots of features, and a friendly user interface at a price ANY station can afford, take a long look at the DM-800. This is an ideal workstation for the "home" studio, too. And it is the perfect workstation for the radio producer who wants to take his work home with him, under his arm, like a small stack of notebooks. The DM-800 is to workstations what the laptop is to PCs.

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