Have you noticed the multitude of audio features currently available on consumer VCR equipment? It seems that everyone wants their own Dolby stereo digital surround sound hi-fi VCR; plain old mono sound just won’t cut it anymore.
Consumers are indeed tuning their ears to the soundtracks of their videotapes. TV monitors have better speakers. VCRs can play theater-style audio. The sometimes neglected soundtrack of videotape has come alive with crisp voices, realistic sound effects and carefully blended music.
Your videos can take on a whole new dimension with cleanly recorded audio and a rich mix of music and effects. You don’t need to be a Hollywood movie mogul or a New York music impresario to get good audio. Any video maker with a little knowledge, a good microphone and a good audio tape recorder can create the audio dimension that gives their video productions that added level of professionalism.
We discussed microphones in the July 1995 issue of Videomaker. In this article, we’ll show you how to choose and use an audio tape recorder, known in the field as an ATR. We’ll talk about portable ATRs, digital ATRs and multi-track ATRs. We’ll even show you how you can use your computer as an ATR when you edit your videos.
But even if you just use a portable audio recorder, one thing is certain: using an ATR can greatly improve the quality of your videos.
Using ATRs with Your Camcorder
Why use a separate audio tape recorder if your camcorder and microphone records audio just fine? Well, for one thing, this will give you a backup audio tape, just in case something happens to your camcorder audio. But the main reason is to have a separate audio track that you can mix with other audio tracks when you edit your videotape.
Another reason for a separate ATR is to record background sounds that take place at your taping locations. Your camcorder may not pick up a babbling brook, a tweeting bird or the din of conversations in a coffee shop. The ATR can get these sounds before, during or after your videotaping, so you can have them available in post-production.
You can also use an ATR to add foley sounds. These are live sound effects you record in your studio–punches, footsteps, crackling sounds, etc. Or you could record reaction sounds such as guests commenting on how lovely the bride looks. And you can add ambience or nat (natural) sounds such as engines revving or a clock ticking.
With all these sounds to work with, your final edited video can have a fuller, richer and more realistic sound than the flat audio your camcorder captures.
Getting Started–Portable Analog ATRs
A good way to record nat sound in the field is to use a high-quality portable cassette recorder and an external microphone. Just keep in mind that with a standard cassette ATR you’ll have some problems syncing your sound to video. However, analog ATRs are excellent for nat sound, background sounds and even off-camera dialog.
While you can get by with a low cost recording Walkman-type ATR, a slightly larger portable deck with heavier motors and a built-in loudspeaker will produce better quality and allow for more versatility. Sony makes the portable TCM-5000EV Pressman ($499) cassette deck for (you guessed it) radio reporters. The Pressman is a mono ATR that sports a professional VU meter and three heads so you can monitor playback during recording. This deck has a built-in loudspeaker and pitch control.
Marantz makes a similar ATR, the PMD-222 ($449). It has three heads, a VU meter, a loudspeaker and even a professional XLR microphone connector (the Sony has only a 1/8-inch mini phone plug mike connector). The Marantz unit also comes in a stereo version without XLRs, the PMD-430 ($619). Sony has a stereo portable, the TC-D5 Pro II ($889), that includes two XLR connectors, Dolby B and an audio limiter to avoid distortion.
Movin’ Up to DAT
The next step up in portable, on-location ATRs is the portable DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder. DAT has become a popular recording format among audio engineers, and affordable portables that work well for video production have recently come on the market. Since DAT is digital, digital bits control the speed. This means that fluctuations of the motors won’t affect the final product, as with analog ATRs. It also means that you can record dialog with a DAT and keep it in sync with your videotape.
You can get into a portable DAT for as little as $699 with Sony’s TCD-D7 DAT Walkman. Not much larger than a standard Walkman, this little DAT recorder has no loudspeaker, so you must use headphones when recording. But Sony left room for line inputs and outputs in addition to the mike input, so you can hook it up to your sound system back in the studio. As with other DATs, you can get up to two hours of recording in the SP speed (sound familiar?) and four hours in the LP speed.
Tascam makes a portable DAT, the model DA-P1 ($1799). Don’t let the price scare you, because this deck comes with such pro features as XLR inputs and outputs and phantom mike power. (Phantom power means your microphones get power from the ATR, so you don’t have to worry about mike batteries dying out during your shoot.) The P1 includes digital inputs and outputs so you can record directly from a digital keyboard or computer. The DA-P1 also operates without the recording restrictions of SCMS, which stands for Serial Copy Management System, an anti-piracy chip put in consumer DATs that prevents digital copying of original material.
JVC’s XD-P1 portable DAT recorder ($1849) is an ATR with a special microphone that can remain attached to the deck. This clever feature lets you operate the deck with one hand. The mike sends a clean, digital signal to the deck, and you can switch it from stereo to shotgun. The XD-P1 also accepts analog mike or line inputs through its 1/8-inch jack, and operates without SCMS.
Sony has a high-end portable DAT with features found in studio decks. The TCD-D10 ($3675) includes a feature called absolute time recording and playback. Absolute time is an accurate time reference used on pro DAT machines that translates to SMPTE time code. This deck operates much like a studio deck with mike/line XLR inputs and outputs with a low-cut filter, level attenuator and peak limiter. The deck offers index and search features and LCD status displays.
MiniDisc (MD) and Digital Compact Cassette (DCC)
Two other digital ATR formats are worth mentioning. These are newer, lower-cost digital recording formats that have not yet caught up with DAT’s popularity in the music recording world. One reason for this could be that MD and DCC use compression to record audio. Though designed to be inaudible, some claim they can hear the effects of the MD and DCC data compression schemes.
Sony invented the unique MiniDisc (MD) format. Instead of tape, the MiniDisc records on a 2 1/2-inch optical disk that holds 74 minutes of stereo audio and allows you to instantly find a particular recording as you would on a CD. You could view the MD format as a hybrid of a CD and an ATR.
Sony’s MZ-2 portable MD recorder ($749) has both digital and analog mike and line connectors.
The Sharp MD-M11 portable MD recorder ($800) includes analog or digital inputs and outputs and a 21-character track labeling feature.
JVC makes the XMD1 ($1299), a portable MD recorder with digital and analog inputs, 32-character track labeling, an LCD readout panel and four editing modes. The unit also features A/C or battery power from standard JVC camcorder batteries.
While MD uses a random-access disk, DCC uses special digital audio cassettes. It’s currently marketed for home audio recording and playback, but as we all know, high-end consumer gear quickly finds its way into the hands of creative professional videomakers. Developed jointly by Philips and Matsushita, DCC decks are compatible with standard audio cassettes for playback only; they will not record on a standard analog cassette.
The compression technique is a unique one that disregards sounds below the threshold of human hearing or those sounds masked by other, louder sounds. Philips engineers found they could discard nearly three-quarters of the data that would ordinarily end up in a non-compressed digital recording (for example, DAT).
The Philips portable DCC-170 ($449) is an 18-bit DCC recorder with mike- and line-level inputs, a fiber-optic digital output and a 14-character display. Another unit, the Technics RS-DC8 DCC deck, sells for $650.The Marantz DD-82 ($599) DCC deck has fixed and variable analog outputs and five programmable recording markers.
Multi-track Analog ATRs
While a good DAT or analog cassette portable will help you record nat soundtracks and effects, they have only two channels available–left and right. Multi-track ATRs have four or more tracks and usually have a built-in mike mixer. What’s more, a multi-track ATR allows you to record on one track while listening to others.
This ability to discretely record each track opens a new world of audio production to videomakers. For example, you can record ocean waves on track 1, then record a seagull on track 2 as you listen to the waves. Next, playback and listen to tracks 1 and 2 as you record the sound of feet walking through the tide on track 3. Finally, play those three tracks as you record music onto track 4.
Now plug the multi-track ATR into channel 1 on your editing VCR and plug the audio from your player VCR onto channel 2. Your audio mix of ocean sounds combines instantly with the dialog you recorded onto the videotape. And you can control the levels of any of the audio channels as you do your editing. The result is a rich soundtrack, full of realism and music.
A visit to your local music store or a look through musical equipment catalogs will reveal several 4-track or 8-track cassette decks designed for musicians. Entry level 4-track cassette decks include the Fostex XR-5 ($499) and the Tascam Porta-07 ($395).
Fostex also makes a six-track cassette deck, the XR-7 ($699), and Tascam has an eight-track cassette deck, the Model 424 ($559) that also records at the standard 1-7/8 IPS speed.
Multi-track Digital ATRs
Once you start working with multi-track ATRs, you’ll find that it’s a blast to create your own elaborate mixes of nat sound, sound effects, background music and maybe even foley sound. Sometimes you get so involved that you want to add more tracks after you’ve edited the video. In other cases, you may want to revise your whole videotape–audio included.
To perform revisions, you’ll probably need to copy your soundtrack to another tape, add a new track of audio and then copy the mix from the multi-track ATR back to your editing VCR. You probably already know about generation loss when copying videotapes; you also get generation loss when copying audio. The tape hiss becomes louder and music starts losing its clarity.
That’s where digital multi-track ATRs come in. You probably know by now that with digital, there’s virtually no generation loss as you copy from one digital deck to another. With digital multi-track ATRs, you can copy your mix to another digital multi-track or to a lower cost DAT with no generation loss. Then you can mix in more channels or even send the mix to a digital audio workstation.
One type of digital multi-track, called ADAT, records 40 minutes of CD-quality audio onto a standard T-120 S-VHS tape. Alesis makes an eight-track ADAT for $2995 that lets you overdub tracks repeatedly. For another $995, you can get an audio-video synchronization interface that lets the ADAT work with SMPTE time code. The interface synchronizes the ADAT to your editing VCR and works with RS-422, the nine-pin editing protocol found on most industrial editing VCRs.
The Fostex RD-8 ($4295) is another ADAT digital multi-track ATR. Its built-in SMPTE time code generator lets you record time code and sync it to a VCR.
Similar to ADAT is a new format called DTRS (Digital Tape Recording System). DTRS records 100 minutes on a Hi8 tape. One DTRS system, Tascam’s DA-88 digital multi-track ATR ($4499), records discrete digital audio on eight tracks. The optional SMPTE sync card allows for video sync input. The unit includes an RS-422 port for editing.
Sony also makes a DTRS, the model PCM-800 ($5995) with SMPTE time code, choice of sampling rates and digital and XLR analog inputs. Sony even came out with a special 8mm tape with a formula optimized for the DTRS format.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)
Computers are great ways to organize and process data. And when you have several tracks of audio that you want to access, modify, copy and file, you have data in need of organizing and processing.
Several manufacturers have come out with cards and software designed for recording and editing audio on computer hard drives. These have come to be known as digital audio workstations, or DAWs. With a DAW, you can record, mix and perform random access editing by cutting and pasting audio clips onto a timeline. You’ll need a hefty hard drive, though, because uncompressed audio generally takes about 5 MB per minute per track. This means that ten minutes of eight tracks quickly consumes 400 MB of hard drive space.
Another use of DAWs is with non-linear video editing. Most non-linear editors provide only two tracks of audio to play with. Incorporating a DAW sound card and software into non-linear video editing gives you the richness of a full-bodied soundtrack.
You can get started with limited audio editing on your PC, Mac or Amiga with a good sound board and audio editing software. For PC computers with Windows, you might consider Turtle Beach’s MultiSound Monterey card bundled with Wave SE 4.5 software ($399), Roland’s RAP-10 bundled with Roland Audio Tools software ($599) or Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster 16 ASP bundled with Creative Wave Studio ($449).
Turtle Beach’s Quad Studio ($499) is a four-track recording software package bundled with Wave SE software and the Tahiti sound card. This package lets you record two tracks to your hard drive and then record two more tracks while listening to the first two.
On the Mac side, you can edit two audio tracks with OSC’s Deck II software ($399) together with Raster Ops’ Media Time audio card.
If you want to edit four tracks of audio with Adobe’s Premiere non-linear video editing system, look into Digidesign’s Audio Media II ($1295).
For videomakers working on the Amiga platform, Sunrize offers the AD-516 ($1299), a 16-bit, eight-track system that handles real-time mixing and SMPTE time code. Also for the Amiga is Tocatta ($499) from NoahJi’s. This is a 16-bit, four-channel board with software. You can use the current version with MacroSystem’s VLab Motion non-linear video editing system.
The most popular full-featured DAW is Digidesign’s Pro Tools III for the Mac, available in four-track and eight-track systems. This system allows you to automate tracks, and includes such tools as Pro-Deck to record discrete multi-tracks and Pro-Edit to manipulate the audio on those tracks as you like. It works with SMPTE time code and is frame-accurate. A SMPTE slave driver board is available as an option for $1295.
Digidesign Session 8 ($2900 to $3900, depending on configuration) is an 8-track digital audio workstation designed to work with PC computers. It’s similar in design and function to Pro Tools for the Mac, and includes a routing window to patch various audio inputs. While not as powerful or flexible as Pro Tools, it is the only DAW that Digidesign currently makes for the PC platform.
Digital Audio in Your Future?
Just as computers seem to have taken over video editing, so too are computers and digital recording ubiquitous in the audio world. It’s easy to see why: rather than using the audio equivalent of a razor blade and scotch tape to edit audio, you can digitally cut and paste on an intuitive timeline interface.
DAWs are less costly than non-linear video editing systems. This is because digital audio requires less hard drive space than video.
You can copy recordings made with a portable DAT in the field onto a multi-track digital ATR. You can then add music and effects, as well as lip-sync dialog. You can also copy several tracks onto another track right on the digital ATR.
If you have a digital audio workstation at your studio, you can cut and paste to your heart’s content. The lower cost DAWs limit you to two or four tracks, but you can program cuts, fades and mixes, then revise it all with a few mouse clicks.
But to simply sweeten your audio track, you need not go to the expense of digital. Just get a Walkman recorder or another portable ATR, take a microphone, headphones, plenty of spare batteries, and (most importantly) your discerning ears. You’ll get great recordings of nat sound and sound effects without having to go digital. Mix them to one of the low-cost analog multitrack ATRs and you’ll have a robust, sweet sound that has the realism and dynamism of a rich movie soundtrack, all shot with your modest camcorder, your sharp eyes and your perky ears.
Audio Recorder Manufacturers
This list is only a sampling. It is not intended to be comprehensive.
3630 Holdrege Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
1901 McCarthy Blvd.
Milpitas, CA 95035
1360 Willow Rd. #101
Menlo Park, CA 94025
15431 Blackburn Ave.
Norwalk, CA 90650
41 Slater Dr.
Elmwood, NJ 07407
600 Townsend St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
1000 Corporate Blvd. Suite D
Aurora, IL 60504
3591 Nyland Way
Lafayette, CO 80026
P.O. Box 14810
Knoxville, TN 37914
600 E. Crescent Ave.
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
2500 Walsh Ave.
Santa Clara, CA 95051
7200 Dominion Circle
Los Angeles, CA 90040
1 Sony Dr.
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
2959 Winchester Ave.
Campbell, CA 95008
7733 Telegraph Rd.
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
York, PA 17404
The Audio-for-Video Alphabet Soup
Here is a list of terms and abbreviations the pros often use in the audio-for-video world:
- ADAT: Multitrack digital audiotape recorder that uses S-VHS tapes.
- DAT: Digital Audio Tape.
- SMPTE: Time code standard adopted by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.
- DCC: Digital Compact Cassette.
- MD: MiniDisc disk audio recorder.
- >ATR: Audio tape recorder.
- SCMS: Serial Copy Management System, a chip in digital recorders that prevents direct digital copying of originals.
- DTRS: Digital Tape Recording System. Digital multitrack ATR using Hi8 tape.
- MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface. The standard for copying music from instruments onto computers or digital audio tape recorders.