Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gear: Review of the TASCAM DP-01 Digital Recorder

The TASCAM DP-01 is an inexpensive digital hard disk recorder; it was my first DAW. I used it to record dozens of songs, and the results I got were mostly excellent. I strongly recommend it to others as an entry-level multi-track recorder. If you’ve been wanting to get that demo recorded, this is just the ticket. It makes beautiful recordings, as long as you navigate around its low-budget challenges.

The DP-01 comes in three flavors, 1) basic, 2) with FX, and 3) with a CD burner. The version I had was the basic no-frills unit, but it has everything you need to capture great recordings and none of the things you don’t need if you are handy with a computer. The TASCAM DP-01 is set up similar to a mixer, with a vertical column of knobs for each of the eight recording channels. The knobs control low and high EQ, effects send, and left-right pan. A big, smooth slider controls the levels for each channel, as well as the master output.

The inputs are on the front of the unit, with two ¼ - inch TRS phone plugs and trim knob adjustments. Therein lie two of the weaknesses of the basic DP-01: It is limited to two simultaneous recording channels, and it does not have XLR inputs. But most recorders in this price range (say, under $500) have only two simultaneous recording inputs, and inexpensive XLR to TRS adapters can solve the second problem.

The two-channel recording limit becomes a problem when you begin a session by recording stereo drums (through a drum mixer of some kind). Since both input channels are used, there is no room to put down a scratch track for reference. For example, you might want to have a bass player record along with the drums to give aural cues to the changes in the song, but you can’t do that if the drums take both inputs. And compromising with mono drums is just not an option. The risk is that you may return to this recording a few days later and have trouble deciding exactly what the drummer was doing, especially if the drummer is not there to remind you.

The solution, of course, is to lay down the bass line right after the drummer finishes his recording. That way, the groove is still fresh in the bass players mind, and any tricks the drummer threw in will be easily remembered. After that, you can layer the other tracks, which in our case were usually two guitar tracks, harp, and one or two vocal tracks.

Since the TASCAM DP-01 has no CD burner, you need a way to get the WAV files out of the box. This is done with a USB connection to your computer. However, the hard drive in the DP-01 has a proprietary operating system and does not mount as a drive when connected. You must use a function on the TASCAM’s small screen to export the WAV files, one at a time, to an area from which they can be copied via the USB to your computer’s disk. It is a bit tedious but it works fine.

I used the DP-01 as a capture device, and did all my music editing and mastering on the computer. Audacity is a very powerful – yet free – music software package that will allow you to do amazing things with the music you record on the DP-01, and it complements the recorder perfectly. I did not need the CD burner because I did that on my PC. I did not need the effects, because that, too, was all done in the mixdown on the computer. I used a cheap recorder and free software to make some pretty impressive recordings.

The TASCAM DP-01 is a terrific product for what it is: a no-frills entry-level Digital Audio Workstation. It sells for $299 everywhere. If you want to make good recordings and learn a lot about studio techniques along the way, I recommend it highly.

* 8-track recording at uncompressed CD quality into a built-in 40GB hard drive
* 2-track simultaneous recording
* Dedicated stereo mixdown track
* Dedicated controls on each channel for volume, pan, EFX send, EQ high & EQ low
* Two-band semi-parametric EQ per track
* Two 1/4 " TRS mic/line inputs
* Guitar level input
* Effects send and stereo return
* RCA line output
* S/PDIF digital optical output
* Headphone output w/level control
* MIDI Timecode 0utput
* USB 2.0 port for computer backup
* Track editing: copy, paste, move, erase, silence
* Dimensions: 17.8"W x 12.1"D x 4.3"H
* Weight: 9lbs