PRO AUDIO
Taylor

Taylor
March 14, 2012

Tascam DR-40 Review

New portable digital recorders are coming out faster than I have time to demo them. They always seem to improve upon existing models with new internal menu functions, improvement to the built in condensor microphones, and overall construction. With that said, there is rarely any brand new and exciting features on new product lines. Instead what I have been noticing is a lot of companies that manufacture these portable digital recorders are trying to compete with one another. For this reason you see a lot of portable recorders coming out that try to match or slightly improve on existing technology.

This is the third review I have done for a portable digital audio recording device so I decided to take the time and look over some of the comments you guys have posted on the blog and in the accompanying YouTube video. Sometimes I get questions about specific applications and whether or not a portable recorder will work for their task. Most of the time though I get asked, “What is the quality of the recording,” and “How much does it cost.” You guys just want the facts and I can totally relate.

The Tascam DR-40 is the perfect recorder for giving those facts because it actually varies little from most recorders out there. With the exception of its incredible value when compared to similar devices, it has many of the same functions and is built in much the same fashion as the ever popular Zoom H4n. Now this is not to say that the DR-40 is a less expensive H4n in every respect. There are some things the H4n has that put it in a price range above the DR-40. To help explain, it will be best to go over some of the features on the H4n.

H4n

For years the ZOOM H4n has been the standard for independent filmmakers and audio guys on the go. Its combination inputs are what make it the go to recorder for most folks. Its also incredibly reliable and the internal microphones sound great. It is a 4 channel recorder and allows for internal effects as well as mix function so you can edit and mix your audio internally. All of these features are pretty standard on most recorders but it could be argued that the H4n was one of the first recorders to offer many of the features that are standard on portable digital recorders.

Tascam DR-40

The DR40 is almost identical in construction to the H4n. The combination inputs are what put this recorder and the H4n in a class all their own. No other recorder on the market has this essential feature to a portable recorder but be on the look out for more of these recorders as they will begin to emulate the H4n and DR40. The external feature which separates it from the H4n is the ability to position the built in microphones in an XY configuration as well as an AB configuration.

The internal features on the DR40 are what make it stand out in comparison to the H4n. The auto gain control features are great for field recording especially on the fly when you do not have the time to set all of these things up independently. Another great internal menu function is the Dual Record feature which allows for a separate mono recording which records simultaneously with your recording. You can set the level at a lower db so you can rest assured that your primary recording will have a back up in case things clip or peak.

External Features

  • Adjustable internal mics, Guard to protect: Great way to protect the microphones.
    • Allows for the peace of mind when taking the recorder out in the field.
  • XLR, 1/4in combination input: Neutrik inputs.
    • Well constructed and of a high audio quality.
  • Adjustable input level.
    • A rocker level input as opposed to a dial or knob.
  • Hold slider.
    • Used for locking the recorder in the on or off position.
  • External input selection
  • Headphone line out
  • USB 2.0 out.
    • Great for transferring your recordings. This also doubles as your power source because the Tascam DR-40 does not have an input for an AC adapter. It would have nice to have the option for both but I assume Tascam wants to limit the amount of accessories you have to purchase which is a nice welcome to other recorders which are less functional without the accessories.
  • SD Card slot
  • Transport (Stop, Play, Record)

Internal Features

  • Record Mode (all have source selection except 4CH).
    • Mono, Stereo, Dual Record w/ level control (Peak Reduction, Auto Lvl, Limiter), 4 CH
  • Mixer
    •  You can mix your audio recorders internally within the menu functions. I would always recommend that you do the majority of this in post-production and just try to keep your recording flat.
  • Quick Select (Delete, divide, level align, mixdown)
    • These are great features to make a quick clean up of an audio recording. Again this is something you should limit to your post production but it is a nice feature to have.
  • Solo Tracks 1/2 or 3/4
  • MENU
  • Record Setting
    • Format, Sample Rate, Low Cut Filter, Pre Record, Auto record (Mode, Level)
  • Play Setting
    • Area (playlist, folders, all files), Repeat (All Repeat, 1 Repeat, Single, Continuous), Play EQ (off, Bass + – Mid + – Treble + -), Jumpback (1-10 seconds, 20, 30 seconds)
  • Browse: files
  • Speaker
    • on/off

OTHERS in Menu

  • Information
    • For each recording. (db levels, file format, title, date, size) Card info (total music, total card size, space remaining) System (internal settings)
  • Tuner
  • Effects (hall 1, 2 room, studio, plate 1,2), source (set active during recording or in post)
  • Remote setup
    • This sort of thing is perfect for the bandmate who wants to position the recorder in a proper place and still be able to engage it when its ready to record. This is also great for the engineer working the board at your show because he can hook up the Tascam DR-40 to the board and place it out of the way. Then when he is ready to record he can engage it through the remote.
  • System
    • auto off, backlight length, contrast, battery type, phantom power selection

Disclaimer About Video

I wanted to take this space to make something clear about how the audio was recorded in the video. For the XLR inputs, I ran cables from the Master Line Out of the Presonus StudioLive into the two combination inputs on the Tascam DR-40. We set the Presonus StudioLive up as an external recording mixer so the sound you are hearing is not from the house sound board, but from the interface we used to record the bands.

It is important also to note how I recorded the bands after I got the inputs setup. The first thing to mention is that all of the audio used had no EQ or proper mixing done to it so what you are hearing is a flat recording of the bands. The second thing to mention is that the audio coming from the Presonus StudioLive was not how the house mix sounded. The Presonus StudioLive was setup to record the band with a flat EQ as well so their performance could be mixed post-show, in the studio.

Most of you audiophiles will recognize what I am talking about here but I figured it would be fair to mention the way in which this was recorded.


Tascam DR-40 Overview and Demo UniqueSquared

Review

Since the DR40 has been out for a while now, it is difficult for me to have any truly original thoughts on what I think about it. However there a few points about the Tascam DR40 which are worth regurgitating. The most important point being that this portable audio recorder is $100 less than its closest competitor the H4n. This is a great advantage for the independent filmmaker on a budget who needs one of these devices to capture proper audio. From a basic functional standpoint, there is little difference between the Tascam DR-40 and the ZOOM H4n.

There are some differences between these recorders which may influence your decision. First the inputs on the device look and feel of a lower quality than the H4n. Although they are Neutrik inputs, you can see where the plastic molding was ripped from a set of hundreds in a factory. This may be a purely aesthetic flaw and I may be nitpicking, but when I spend my hard earned money on something, I want it to look and feel perfect. It could be possible that this is specific to the recorder I am holding in my hand but I thought it is something you should know.

Another thing to mention are the auto level adjustment options in the internal menu. The Peak Reduction setting works great and is very useful in environments with fluctuating levels such as your rehearsal space or live show. The Auto Level and Limiter settings however are not quite as helpful in this regard. Auto Level will continually fluctuate to meet the needs of the audio source. This can be a problem when you listen to your recording in post because you will notice wildly fluctuating levels and the background noises will sound unnatural. This is true for the limiter as well. Both are useful features for scratch or throw away recordings, but for a quality recording you will be disappointed in how these automatic features affect your recording in post. The best advice I can give is to watch your levels and adjust your input gain manually. Base your settings on sight rather than having the dinky internal computer do that work for you.

The last fault to note is the output from certain external microphones. If you use a microphone with a relatively low volume output, then you will notice that the input gain on the DR-40 has to be turned up quite a bit to get any useful levels. When you do this however, you will begin to notice the abundance of static noise and a lower quality recording.

I wanted to make sure and familiarize everyone with the things that I find limiting and disappointing, but there are also some great features to note on this recorder. For instance the Dual Record feature has got to be one of my favorites and will quickly become the favorite amongst my fellow independent filmmakers. This way if you have an actor, interview subject, Teletubbie, whoever it is you are capturing audio from, and they are peaking out the levels some times and uncontrollably quiet in others, you have two tracks with different levels of audio to choose from. A really great fail-safe for the filmmaker or musician who needs to focus on other things beside the fidelity of the audio being recorded.

For those of you that make mumble core, this feature may not be as applicable. Kudos to anyone who knows what I am talking about.

Besides these few critical quirky disappointments, this is actually a solidly buit, fully functional portable digital recorder. It is reliable and provides quality recordings whether using the internal microphones or using an external microphone.

Conclusion

There aren’t many portable recorders available on the market that are built like this. The H4n and the DR-40 are the only two recorders on the market I know of that have the combination XLR and 1/4in inputs which are essential if you want to record for multiple applications. While the H4n may have better internal microphones and better overall construction, the DR-40 does all the same things an H4n does and is less expensive. In fact if you like the Auto Level and Peak Reduction functions then the DR-40 has the advantage over the H4n which only has a limiter.

It really depends on what you want to spend your money on. I own an H4n but if the DR-40 had been available at the time of my H4n purchase, I would have weighed the options more critically which is what I recommend you do.

This is just one audio enthusiasts opinion, please leave a comment below and let me know what you think about the Tascam DR-40.

Happy Recording

SLAM!!

Comments

  1. Juan says:

    Thank you Taylor for sharing this very detailed review/comparison. I’ve being debating between the H4n (who I rented a couple of times) and the DR-40. I think after your review and the prices on one of the mayor suppliers at $159, is a no brainer to go for the DR-40.
    I know, the H5n would be better (may be don’t even exist on the Zoom Lab), but it won’t be at $159.

    Thank you again!

    1. Taylor taylor says:

      Thanks for the comment Juan! I am looking forward to the new Zoom gear too. We will give you an update as soon as we find out more.

  2. Bolty says:

    Nice review. Tascam have come out with an update so you have independent audio controls for each input channel now which makes it even better value. Made my mind up to buy one in the end.
    Cheers Adam

    1. Taylor taylor says:

      Thanks Adam. I will check out the update and give it a spin. Hope you enjoy your DR-40.

  3. Great work! The board recording shows just how bad a board mix is in a small club for creating a recording mix.
    Setting up a separate mix with Aux sends would certainly help. Then, mixing the internal mic of the DR-40 with the board mix would give you a really nice live sound without being too diffuse…
    My clients record voiceover so it will be a nice combo with a LDC mic or shotgun.
    Do you know if the Peak Reduction circuit works when recording via USB? That could be really helpful for my VO talent recording animation or video game auditions so they don’t need to watch levels so closely on reads with wide dynamic range.
    Anywho, this would have changed my life I had this thing 10 years ago!!
    It’s on my “buy as soon as I have a little extra dough to blow” list.

    1. Taylor Taylor says:

      Great point George. For a more professional live mix, using the aux sends and a separate mix would have been much better. The goal here was to showcase features for those that may not have been familiar with the DR-40′s versatility.

      From what I can tell the USB input is only for transferring recordings and not for actual recordings. I will tell you the peak reduction is perfect for the scenario you are describing, just not always for live music or independent film production scenarios.