Test Drive: Roland DM-800 Digital Audio Workstation

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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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