A few years back most folks were completely content with the sound emanating from the tiny speaker on the front of their TV. Times have changed.

Now, five-speaker surround sound, with booming sub-woofers and more, transform ordinary homes into high-tech movie houses. These powerful new systems make the tiniest audio transgression painfully obvious. As a result, we videographers must pay careful attention to the audio quality of our video productions. After all, audio communicates a large part of our message.

In this article, we’ll explore equipment that gives you the creative flexibility to produce quality audio–audio that stands up to the challenge of today’s sophisticated audio systems. We’ll look at audio recorders–both analog and digital–and discover how to use them to improve your videos.

Beyond Your Camcorder’s Mike

Say you’re shooting a video about model trains. You want an image of the entire track system, so you set up the camcorder several feet away. Then it hits you. You’re too far from the tracks for the camcorder’s mike to pick up the smooth sounds of the train’s meshing metal. Your camcorder can’t be in two places at once. What to do?

No need to compromise your image by moving the camcorder; simply position a mike attached to a separate audio recorder near the tracks. The sound isn’t synchronized with the camcorder, but don’t worry. Unsynchronized audio is perfectly acceptable for ambient sounds like a babbling creek, the noise of a busy street corner, or the sound of the model train. During the editing process you’ll simply add this audio to your images–the timing is not critical.

Let’s explore how the different types of audio recorders allow you to tackle this situation in particular, and to produce better audio in general.

Format Battles

Much like the Beta-versus-VHS contest of the 1980s, a format war rages on today on the audio-recording front. The dear old analog cassette–officially called the compact cassette–still lives on, but several rival digital formats are gaining ground.

The big story throughout analog tape history is the fight against dreaded tape hiss. The latest tool in the eradication of noise is Dolby S. Unlike the earlier Dolby B and C, which reduced high-frequency noise, the new system reduces noise in all parts of the frequency spectrum–a significant improvement.

Another innovation by Dolby is HX Pro. This system continuously monitors and optimizes the recording process throughout the recording. Unlike other Dolby systems, HX Pro operates only in the record mode–not the playback mode. This eliminates compatibility problems with decks that don’t have this special circuit.

Several digital formats poise themselves as successors to the analog compact cassette. None is truly dominant yet because higher prices and uncertainty continue to deter consumers.

One such format is the digital MiniDisc (MD), originally developed by Sony. This cousin of the CD writes 74 minutes of compressed digital audio data to a tiny 2.5-inch enclosed optical disc. The technological advantages of disc storage position this format for continued growth among consumers who produce audio.

Other digital systems like Digital Audio Tape (DAT) record audio data to tape. This format records two hours of uncompressed audio on special tapes. DAT has found favor among pros but hasn’t caught on as a consumer format.

Yet another tape-based digital contender is the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). These decks record on special cassettes but will also play standard analog cassettes. The tape stores track and time-code information, which, combined with auto-reverse, make automated track access possible on either side of the tape. This format held great promise when introduced early this decade, but it has not found favor among consumers.

Consumers and pros alike prefer producing audio on disc-based recording systems that don’t use tape. Optical and magnetic discs provide speedy access to any part of the audio data. Any tape-based system must go through the time consuming process of shuttling the tape to the desired location. Nonetheless, analog cassette decks remain widely popular as a distribution format, probably because there are so many of them out there.

Cassette Decks Everywhere

Pause a moment to take inventory of the audio cassette machines you already own. Cassette decks are common in home stereo systems, boom boxes, car stereos, personal stereos (Walkman-type), answering machines and more. Quite possibly you own a cassette recorder you can use in your productions.

Videographers looking to purchase an audio cassette recorder can choose among a plethora of feature-laden decks. Since a lot of video production takes place in the field away from AC power, battery-operated gear enjoys a decided advantage.

Marantz’s PMD201 ($379) is a portable mono recorder with built-in condenser mike and external speaker. The deck runs at the standard 1-7/8 inches per second and 15/16 IPS. The slower speed sacrifices audio quality but doubles recording time. Other features include: mini-jack mike input; adjustable pitch control; auto and manual record level; volume-unit (VU) meter; and tone control.

Sony’s TC-D5 Pro II ($889) portable stereo recorder offers a professional recording solution with twin XLR inputs and VU meters. It’s powered by two D-size batteries with optional adapters for AC and car-battery power. The TC-D5 Pro II weighs 3-3/4 pounds with batteries.

If you are staying closer to home and AC power, there are literally hundreds of decks to choose from. Dual-well cassette decks are very popular because they make copying an easy task.

A few dual-well examples are Pioneer’s CT W103 ($150), the Technics RSTR272 ($209), Sherwood’s DD-4050C ($279), the JVC TDW318BK ($220), and Kenwood’s KX-W6080 ($300). For single-well decks, check out JVC’s TDR272BK ($150), the Denon DRM-550 ($250) and Rotel’s RD960 ($399).

Dolby S

Dolby S analog cassette decks are a bit pricey, but their superior recording quality makes them worth a serious look. Most Dolby S decks have HX Pro circuitry and are single-cassette, one-direction (non auto-reverse) machines. (Most professional decks are like this, too.)

A few of the Dolby S contenders are Sony’s TC-KE400S ($250), the Denon DRM-650S ($300) and Yamaha’s KX-690 ($599). Sony also makes a dual-well auto-reverse Dolby S deck: the TC-WE605S ($250).

Most consumer decks have two heads: an erase head and a combination record/playback head. But three heads are better than two. Three-head decks divvy up the tasks of erase, record and playback to separate heads; this is standard equipment on pro decks. The result: better recordings. A few examples are the Denon DRM-740 ($400), Sony’s TC-KE500S ($360) with Dolby S and a perennial pro workhorse, the Tascam 122 MKII ($1349).

MD Prescriptions for Audio
Sony’s MZ-R3 ($649) portable MD recorder is one example. The MZ-R3 features an LCD display that shows disc name, track names and position on the disc. With weight under a pound, the MZ-R3 packs a lot of punch into a tiny recorder.

Sharp’s MD-MS100 ($700) portable MD unit records for three and a half hours and plays for four and a half hours using its lithium-ion battery. A shock-resistant circuit handles the inevitable bumps of field production. The MD-MS100 weighs just over half a pound with battery, and comes with a multi-function remote control. Other features include: 100-character titling, LCD display, digital input terminal and lightweight stereo headphones.

Home units like the Sony MDS-JE500 ($600) add to the great MD features of the portable units. The MDS-JE500’s playback features include shuffle play, 25-track programming, and three-way repeat. It displays a music calendar, total recorded time, plus disc and user-defined track titling.

Another home unit is the Sharp MD-R1 ($699) recorder with multi-function jog control for convenient track access, date recording system, fluorescent display and remote control. Yet another is Denon’s feature-packed DMD-1300 ($799) MD recorder.

Does a complete home-music system with integrated MD recorder sound interesting? Check out Sharp’s MD-X3 ($1199) home component system with built-in MD recorder, three-CD changer, and auto-reverse cassette deck. This all-in-one system gives you the flexibility to copy from one format to another, and you won’t have cables running all over your edit suite.

Another compact home system with an integrated MD recorder is Sony’s PMC-M2 ($1199). It offers one-touch digital CD-to-MD duplication, AM/FM stereo digital tuner and remote control with jog/shuttle dial.

What’s DAT?

Sony’s SBM-1 ($549) DAT Walkman Personal Stereo offers two hours of operation with four AA batteries. This compact and lightweight recorder provides full digital input/output capability and manual recording-level control.

The step-up Sony TCD-D8 ($899) DAT recorder offers an automatic date function for fast identification of recording segments. Other features include an anti-shock mechanism for uninterrupted recording and playback; large backlit display; 100X high-speed automatic music search; two-speed cue/review; and auto/manual recording level.

If you want more from a portable DAT machine, check out Tascam’s DA-P1 ($1899) or Sony’s professional TCD-D10 Pro II ($4000), which offer high-end professional features like balanced XLR jacks.

Home- and studio-type DAT recorders add to the features of their portable cousins. A few examples are Tascam’s rack-mountable DA-20 ($1099), the Sony DTC-790 ($1000) and Fostex’s D-5 ($1195) studio recorders. Tascam, Fostex and others also make exotic and pricey multitrack recorders that record on Hi8 and S-VHS video tapes.

The Compatible DCC

Philips was a pioneer in DCC development in the early 1990s. Their DCC 170 ($449) portable recorder ships with a rechargeable NiCad battery and offers inputs for digital, microphone and line sources. The DCC system offers track selection by title and plays analog cassettes with Dolby B.

For home use, Philips makes the DCC 951 ($549). The deck plays conventional audio cassettes with Dolby B/C, has a multi-function display that shows user-defined titles, an append function that automatically finds the end of the last recording and a remote control.

Audio Roadblocks

Too often the video editing gear we use just doesnÕt give us the flexibility we need to create the audio we desire. Say you want to add background music to a VHS or S-VHS tape that already has an announcer’s voice. Sounds simple, but the limitations of VHS audio tracks make it difficult.

The vast majority of VHS VCRs have a single linear (standard) track that is mono. Our goal is to add background music to our tape, but the solitary audio track already contains the announcer’s voice. Our only choice is to make a copy of the original tape and add music during the dubbing process. Since we are working in the analog realm, we know that a copy means generation loss and thus degradation of the original images and sound. Not pretty.

What about the stereo hi-fi VHS system? Does it give the videomaker more audio editing flexibility? Not much. Even though the hi-fi VHS system has separate left and right tracks, it’s not possible to add to one track while leaving the other track undisturbed. Again, the only solution is to make a copy and add music during the dubbing process.

Except for the PCM audio tracks found on some Hi8 VCRs, there are audio roadblocks inherent in this format, too. If it seems as if the cards are stacked against audio flexibility in consumer and entry-level professional gear, you’re right. But there is hope.

Multitrack Advantage

Enter the personal four-track recorder. These devices give the audio flexibility you need through multitrack technology. The advantage of the multitrack recorder is its ability to record a single track while simultaneously playing other tracks. Multitrack recorders are the staple of the music-recording industry.

Reductions in the price and complexity of multitrack recording equipment now put them well within the reach of amateur videographers. The Fostex X-18 ($369) is one example. The compact and portable X-18 uses a standard analog cassette to record four separate tracks of audio. It records at standard and high speeds–higher tape speed means better audio quality.

Since the X-18 uses the full width of the tape and records in only one direction, a 90-minute tape yields 22-1/2 minutes of record time–more than enough for most situations. The X-18 operates on AA batteries, has four inputs and employs Dolby B noise reduction. The step-up Fostex XR-7 ($579) has six inputs, advanced equalizer controls and adjustable pitch. Other cassette-based machines share similar features, like Tascam’s Porta 03 MKII ($259).

The MD format has also found a home in personal four-track recording. These units use a special MD disc and offer all the nifty MD editing features. Examples include Sony’s MDM-X4 ($1250) and Tascams 564 ($1499).

Other multitrack recorders store audio data on an internal hard disk, just like a computer. One example is Fostex’s DMT-8VL ($1395) which records eight tracks for 60 minutes of uncompressed recording. This deck offers all the great nonlinear editing capabilities like cut, copy and paste we love about computer-based gear.

Want even more audio power and control? Full-blown, computer-based audio workstations are available for the Macintosh and PC platforms. Look for other Videomaker articles devoted to these systems.

By paying closer attention to the audio portion of your video work, you can transform an otherwise mediocre production into something truly fun to watch–and listen to. Whether you just want to add a little background music or layer multiple sound effects in your next production, using an audio recorder will give you the creative power you desire.

David Welton is a college instructor, freelance writer and video producer.

SIDEBAR

Move Over MTV: How to Produce Music For an Original Music Video

With a personal four-track recorder and video editing gear you can produce both the music and the video for a quality music video. Here’s how to do it, track-by-track and step-by-step.

Let’s say you know someone who plays guitar and sings–it could even be you! First lay down the rhythm-guitar music on track one. This track forms the musical “time code” for the rest of the tracks.

Now it’s time for the lead-guitar track. Through the magic of multitrack, you can listen to the rhythm track while simultaneously recording new lead-guitar riffs. How, you ask? Set up the four-track to play back track one (rhythm guitar) and record the lead guitar on track two.

Ready for some vocals? Play back the guitar recordings on tracks one and two while singing into a mike attached to track three. There is one track left, what to do? You can sing backup vocals to yourself–the pros do it all the time. Just listen along to the guitar and lead vocal tracks while recording backup vocals on track four.

Make a mistake? No problem. Remember, you can record each track individually. Just go back and fix the offending track while monitoring the others.

Once the music is complete, you’re ready to add images to the music. First, transfer your musical masterpiece to videotape. Then use the video insert mode on your edit controller to record images that interpret the song. You can even use shots of the musician; just be careful of the synchronization. Nothing is worse than a bad lip sync.

—D.W.

[SIDEBAR]

Audio Recorder Manufacturers

Denon Electronics

222 New Road

Parsippany, NJ 07054

1-201-882-7456

Fostex

15431 Blackburn Avenue

Norwalk, CA 90650

1-310-921-1112

JVC

41 Slater Drive

Elmwood Park, NJ 07407

1-800-252-5722

Kenwood Communications Corp.

P.O. Box 22745

Long Beach, CA 90801-5745

1-310-639-5300

Marantz/Superscope Technologies

1000 Corporate Blvd.

Aurora, IL 60504

630-820-4800

Philips Consumer

1 Philips Dr.

P.O. Box 14810

Knoxville, TN 37914-1810

1-800-531-0039

Pioneer Electronics

2265 E 220th St

Long Beach, CA 90801

1-800-421-1404

Rotel of America

54 Concord Street

North Reading, MA 01864-2699

1-800-370-3741

Sharp Electronics

Sharp Plaza

Mahwah, NJ 07430

1-800-237-4277

Sherwood

21056 Forbes Street

Hayward, CA 94545

1-510-266-5600

Sony

Sony Drive

Park Ridge, NJ 07656

1-800-282-2848

Tascam

7733 Telegraph Road

Montebello, CA 90640

1-213-726-0303

Technics

One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

1-800-222-4214

Yamaha

P.O. Box 6600

Buena Park, CA 90622-6600

1-714-522-9105

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