Audio and Video Recorders – An Introduction
As you have no doubt noticed that moving up the equipment hierarchy in both the audio and video disciplines quickly develops a pattern of dedicated standalone equipment versus integrated multipurpose products. Everything gets broken down into their individual elements where capture devices like microphones and cameras are connected to dedicated recorders, which in turn are connected to dedicated storage and monitor systems.
Budgeting: Seeing the Bigger Picture
The most important distinction to make in production budgets is the difference between products you need and products that you want. This article approaches purchases from the perspective of first time buyers in each category and helps to walk the fine line between your current needs and anticipating future growth.
This article will focus mainly on HDD and SSD derived storage solutions. There will some audio and video recorders that use flash media. The main limitations of flash media are storage capacity, transfer rate and cost-per-gigabyte. Personally, I tend to prefer storage solutions that are also a little easier to visually keep track of, a small SD card can easily find itself somewhere it’s not supposed to be; you are also paying a premium on for its portability. The sidebar features a more detailed breakdown of available storage solutions and configurations.
The most important distinction to make in production budgets is the difference between products you need and products that you want.
This section will explore a variety of video recorders that cater to both DSLR video and high end 4K productions and will cover the gamut from enthusiast, to prosumer and professional level users.
The Sub $1000 Range
There are quite a few products in this price range that each offer their own set of competitive features. The two forerunners in this category are Atomos and Blackmagic Design, with the former focusing more on integrated features that focus strictly on recording rather than including built-in displays.
Atomos – Ninja Star: $295
The Ninja Star is a great entry-level recorder and is quite honestly a nifty little device that weighs about as much as a smartphone. It provides 4:2:2 color sampling, 8 or 10-bit recording in Apple ProRes HQ, 422, and LT at a maximum resolution of 1080p at 30 FPS. Video input is through a Micro HDMI port. Its small size and lightweight construction make it portable enough to mount on a drone attached camera rig, which opens a host of exciting opportunities. The features you won’t find in this model are video outputs, Avid DNxHD support, a built-in screen, DC power and adjustable analogue audio gain. The Ninja Star uses CFast 1.0 cards that limit its maximum storage to 128 GB.
Overall the Ninja Star is a great first recorder for those seeking to bypass their DSLR’s compression and to record directly from the sensor.
Blackmagic Design – HyperDeck Studio: $995
The more affordable entry in the HyperDeck Studio range includes dual SSD docks and a host of 3G SDI and HDMI inputs, transport controls via Ethernet, RS-422 and USB 2.0. The HyperDeck Studio includes support for Apple ProRes 422 HQ, LT, Proxy and Avid DNxHD MXF. Video sampling is 4:2:2, with 10-bit color accuracy and REC 601 and REC 709 color space support, with the resolution topping out at 1080p at 30 FPS. This might be the entry level HyperDeck Studio model, but by no means skimps on providing professional level features. Compared to its bigger brother this model achieves its price point by excluding 4K support and cutting down on the number of inputs and outputs.
You would be hard-pressed to find a product in this price range with a similar set of options. The HyperDeck Studio is aimed at enthusiast users seeking to upgrade or for prosumer first time buyers.
Moving Up: $1000 – $2000
At this price point we are starting to see increased feature density in the areas of dual HDMI and SDI Inputs/Outputs, audio capacity, built in monitors and 4K support.
Convergent Design – Odyssey 7: $1,295
The Odyssey 7 is the introductory model to the Odyssey range and provides both HDMI and HD-SDI support, 4:2:2 video sampling, 10-bit color accuracy over SDI and 8-bit over HDMI. Input and output are available over HDMI and HD SDI/3G SDI. Video capture is supported up to 1080p at 60 FPS over HD SDI and 1080p at 30 FPS over HDMI. The 7 records to Convergent Design manufactured SSDs that are available in 256 GB, 512 GB and 1 TB variants. Included is a 7.7-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen sporting a resolution of 1280×800. Audio Input/Output capabilities come in the flavor of two channels of embedded audio at 48KHz 24-bit and 1/8th inch unbalanced -10 dB input and stereo headphone output. The 7 can be remotely triggered via SDI and an optional remote control cable.
When factoring in the price and features on offer, the Odyssey 7 is a capable companion to prosumers looking for an integrated monitor and SSD recorder solution that features both HDMI and SDI connectors and a form factor designed for DSLR cameras.
Atomos – Shogun: $1,995
The Shogun is one of the best DSLR video and audio recorders currently available on the market. First and foremost, it supports 4K video at 30 fps and does so over HDMI and 12G SDI inputs and outputs. The Shogun’s video sampling is 4:2:2, 8 or 10-bit color accuracy, and REC 709 color space. 4K encoding is done in Apple ProRes HQ, 422, and LT. 1080p encoding is handled in Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD 220/220x, 145, and 36. A variety of frame rate conversion options are also included. The Shogun uses both SSD and HDD drives, with SSDs being recommended for 4K projects. So far these features are fairly standard across the board. What really excites me about this product is the combination of monitoring via the excellent 1920 x 1200 capacitive IPS panel, on board color calibration through a vectorscope, false color, waveform analyzer, zebra, focusing tools and the Lemo XLR breakout cable. The Lemo cable allows for two XLR inputs and two XLR outputs to be connected to the Shogun, which is capable of supplying phantom power.
Suddenly $1,995 does not seem like a lot of money considering the fact that you are getting three products rolled into one, well-built package. Atomos is constantly upgrading the firmware to add new features and functionality to the Shogun and it only seems to get better with age. The unit can be powered through battery and DC power. This is absolutely the right product for prosumers and professionals alike that are considering an upgrade or making a first time purchase.
The Finer Things: $2000 and Beyond
These devices focus on high-end stand alone units designed to be connected to dedicated capture and monitoring systems. Video Devices has a reputation for building rugged devices that focus on high-end production and broadcast settings, while AJA solidified its reputation in the industry through its video capture and playback cards.
Datavideo HRS-30: $2,500
Datavideo offers a broadcast-geared solution in their HRS-30 video recorder and player. The unit, which includes a built-in 10.1″ monitor, is protected by a durable carrying case and can be used as a field recorder, playback system and confidence monitor. Inputs include HD/SD-SDI. 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 576i, 480i video formats are supported. It records in MPEG-II Long-GOP or intra-frame with 4:2:2 color sampling. Other features include time code input/loop thru, skip forward or back button, slow motion playback, and a skip clip button.
AJA – Ki Pro Quad: $3,995
A SSD based 4K capable recorder that support Apple ProRes 422, HQ, LT, Proxy and 4444. The Ki Pro Quad supports HDMI and 3G HD SDI, LCD display, gigabit ethernet interface, Thunderbolt, 4:4:2 and 4:4:4 video sampling, 10 and 12 bit color accuracy at input and 10-bit on output, 1D LUT support and timecode. Audio input is 8 channels at 48 KHz 24-bit and 2 channels of analogue audio via XLR. Audio output is 8 channels at 48KHz 24-bit over HDMI and SDI and an ?-inch headphone jack. The Ki Pro Quad can be mounted to cameras since it only weighs 2.2 lbs and can drive simultaneous monitor connections.
Despite its small footprint this is device is not to be taken lightly and makes a serious addition to a professional’s inventory.
Video Devices – PIX 270i: $5,799
The 270i is made with multi-camera setups in mind and is equally at home at studios and live events. The immediate standout features include the ability to network multiple 270i, 260i and 250i units into a single setup and the ability to control them through the PixNet interface. Recordings are saved to four exFAT formatted SSDs either simultaneously or sequentially offering flexibility between storage capacity and redundancy. The 270i stores two 2.5-inch drives internally with the other two being accessed over eSATA. Video sampling is 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 with color accuracy of 8, 10 and 12-bit over 3G SDI on both input and output. HDMI supports 8 and 10-bit color accuracy at input and 8-bit at output. The maximum supported resolution is 1080p at 30 FPS. Video can be previewed on the 270i’s five-inch monitor. Dare I mention that timecode support is included in what is essentially a veritable buffet of features? Audio wise, the offering gets even richer with up to 64 channels of 24-bit audio supported over both coaxial BNC and optical MADI and Dante formats at 48 KHz or 32 channels at 96 KHz. Analogue and digital audio streams can be simultaneously routed with eight balanced analogue connections via a DB-25 connection with channels one and two mirrored via XLR connections or eight channels of digital audio Input/Output being routed through an AES/EBU DB-25 connection. Audio routing over SDI is limited to 16 channels and HDMI to 8 channels. Managing data is made easy by plugging in a third party USB keyboard to help with all the metadata editing and navigation.
In my professional opinion, the PIX 270i is a monster in all the best ways possible. Barring the lack of 4K support, this box comes close to being a near perfect piece of professional AV equipment to own and operate.
As in the previous section, we will cover a variety of recorders ranging from DSLR oriented devices to more robust portable recorders and finally studio grade recorders designed to handle large format recording situations.
The Sub $1000 Range
This is a good price point to buy equipment that will increase the capability to capture good audio along with your DSLR video recordings. These recorders are most relevant to video productions since music production often requires large number of analogue inputs.
Zoom – H5: $269.99
A good starting point if you are interested in a product that can be attached to a DSLR or used as a standalone recorder. The H5 accepts external XLR microphones in addition to supporting several interchangeable capsules. It supports sampling rates of up to 96 KHz at 24-bit and even functions as an audio interface when connected to a computer via USB. The built in LCD screen allows for basic navigation and file management. Storage comes in the form of SDHC cards.
All in all, the H5 is a reputable and dependable recorder that doesn’t break the bank while providing ease of use and a boost to your audio quality.
Fostex – DC-R302: $499.99
Specifically designed as a DSLR mixer and recorder the DC-R302 and caters to a specific model range of cameras via an optional adapter, I recommend visiting the product site for the most up-to-date list of supported cameras. The unit includes remote start/stop functions, 3 XLR inputs with independent phantom power, limiters and high pass filters, 96 KHz sampling frequency at 24-bit and SDHC card storage. The recorder is powered by four AA batteries and an optional AC adapter. Finally, stereo mixes can be monitored over headphones or sent back to the camera.
The overall package is designed for the sole purpose of DSLR audio and will offer all around better quality since it does not have to accommodate any built in microphones. This is a sensible choice if you have a dedicated video recorder with limited audio capabilities.
May Contain Options: $1000 – $3000
This range is ideal for finding more specialized equipment for the purpose of portable and stationary recording solutions. Sound Devices offers an excellent product that has stood up to the test of time with the functional, yet user-friendly 722.
Sound Devices – 722: $2,679
Despite being nearly 10 years old, this bit of kit comes across as the last portable recorder you will need to buy on account of its durability and flexibility. The 722 is built like a tank, can simultaneously record to its onboard HD, Compact Flash and an external HD via Firewire. This means that it has plenty of storage for files with sample rates up to 192 KHz at 24-bit. On offer are clear sounding preamps, phantom power, Word Clock Input/Output and configurable AES/EBU and SPDIF digital inputs. The unit uses standard Sony M or L type batteries and also accepts an external battery pack via the DC power port.
You get the feeling that this unit just wants to keep going. Just make sure to have a bag to carry it around since it does not have a shoulder strap or external case and you will have the perfect on set audio recorder companion.
The Kitchen Sink: $3000 and Above
Any equipment at this price range does not belong anywhere else but broadcast studios and high budget productions where 64 channels of audio over MADI and Dante are actually required and network file transfers are common.
Sound Devices – 970: $4,629
The 970 shares a lot in common with PIX 270i except for its lack of video capability, mainly because the 970 is not a video recorder. Otherwise the 970 retains its ability to record 64 channels of audio over a combination of coaxial BNC and optical MADI, Dante, analogue DB-25 and AES/EBI DB-25 connections. The 970 can record 64 channels at 48KHz and 32 channels at 96KHz all in 24-bit. Files are recorded to exFAT formatted SSDs, two of which are internal and two accessed through eSATA with the drives offering either sequential or simultaneous recordings. Files are stored as Broadcast Wave Files (BWF) and offer extensive metadata tagging. The 970 can function as timecode generator and can also accept external word clock signals. As with the 270i the 970 can be accessed and controlled over a network interface. Information can be navigated an edited with a third party USB keyboard.
Should you buy it? If you work in a studio that requires the ability to record up to 64 channels in BWF then the answer is an unequivocal yes.
As the adoption rate of 4K production and viewing continues to rise, so do the demands placed on storage media both in terms of capacity and access speeds.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
At present, this is the most cost effective solution with 2.5-inch drives offering more than 1 TB of space. A 7,200-RPM drive offers the best blend of reliability, performance, noise and power consumption. A Seagate Constellation.2 is an enterprise level 7,200-RPM, 1 TB hard drive with a 64 MB cache and is designed with intensive read/writes in mind. It retails in the $200 range and is designed for reliability, performance and efficiency.
Solid State Drive (SSD)
While less cost efficient per gigabyte, these drives do offer dramatic performance increases in terms of access speeds, lower power consumption and durability due to the lack of moving parts. The current gold standard in consumer SSDs is the Samsung 850 Pro with the 1 TB version retailing for $615, which offers read and write speeds of more than 500 MB/s.
Flash memory cards have made significant progress in improving access speeds, but still face limitations in terms of their capacities. The SanDisk Extreme PRO card can hold 512GB and provides speeds of 85 MB/s and costs $800, making it a less cost-effective solution.
Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID)
A RAID array would be most applicable for high-resolution video capture. An array involving HDDs could be set to RAID 1* which would mirror both drives and allow two identical sources for data to be accessed. This will improve drive performance.
A SSD-based array would be most suitable for combining the storage capacity of multiple drives. A RAID 0* array combines the drives into a single spanned volume that can store several hours of high quality 4K footage.
*RAID configurations are only meant as examples, selecting a RAID configuration will depend on your needs and available hardware.
Blag Ivanov has a B.A. in Recording Arts from California State University Chico. He is a freelance media and web professional who loves working on music and classic cars in his spare time.