Tascam DR-40

Wait a minute. I thought this blog was supposed to discuss/review cinematography gear..?

Yes, well, there comes a time, in a young cameraperson’s life, where he or she might need to.. you know.. record audio.

To me, the DR-40 was a necessary evil. Running with a 7D rig, I had to find some way of overcoming the crippling audio inadequacies that come with DSLR shooting (on the 7D especially). Of course, I’m not a sound guy. I was looking for something cheap, with two XLR inputs, that I could attach to my rig and pretend that I was using some kind of “normal” video camera. Specs-wise, the Tascam looked perfect. You can record each XLR input twice at two different volumes simultaneously, you can record 24-bit, 48khz sound (or 96khz if you were so inclined). It was compact, and visually it appealed to me more than the Zoom H4N.. I wanted to keep my rig nice and dark and intimidating. Go figure.

So anyway. On paper, the DR-40 was exactly what I needed, and at a lower price than a Zoom. But there’s always a catch. I think you could sum up this entire blog with the phrase “there’s always a catch”.

In every sound file I recorded, I could hear faint but rapid ticking. It was like the noise a film camera makes as it pulls film through the gate. Perfectly rhythmic, high in frequency. At first I dismissed the problem. I’d been using radio mics, and assumed that the ticking was coming from some electronic device, or that the radio frequency I was using was sub-optimal, corrupted by some subtle interference. Or maybe it was something to do with the poor quality earphones I was using to monitor the audio.. Last night I decided to get to the bottom of this problem, and was shocked to find that even after unplugging all external microphones from the XLR inputs, the ticking still remained, as clear as ever. I unplugged earphones, recorded some blank audio and listened to it on the computer. Still there. I noticed that in addition to the rapid “film camera” ticking, there was also a slower, clock-like tick. Weirder still, if I pressed the “menu” button while recording, the film-camera ticking would stop, but the clock-like rhythm remained present.

Like I said, I’m not a sound person. But it seems fairly clear to me that the Tascam must be recording its own internal “heartbeat” so to speak. The rapid ticking sounds like a film camera, I believe, because I was recording at 48khz – the Tascam’s internal clock was running at a pace similar to a 24fps film camera. And again, the slower, clock-like tick perfectly coincided with each second on the Tascam’s timecode display. Fantastic.

I’ve contacted support on Tascam’s website, and received a generic email that did nothing to acknowledge the specific nature of my complaint, and basically said “if you want the item repaired, do X. Note that our LA Factory only repairs items sold and purchased in the USA. blah”. Since I bought the item through Electronic Bazaar (I think) who shipped it in from who knows where, it’s probably going to be an ordeal and a half to get it “repaired” — assuming this is an electronic problem that can be physically fixed.

Ultimately, I’m still using the Tascam DR-40 for a lot of work, and I now copy/paste an EQ filter on top of my audio tracks, cutting out the highest frequencies, eliminating 90% of the ticking, while leaving most human voices fairly unscathed (to my ears at least). I guess I just find this such an irritating flaw because otherwise, the DR-40 *would* be perfect, and it would have been an unquestionably great decision for me to buy one rather than a Zoom or whatever. But alas. I’ll most likely continue to use this flawed recorder, EQ it in post and achieve semi-reasonable sound quality.. all the while monitoring with an omnipotent and relentless ticking — reminding me that (at least for DSLR shooting) there’s always a catch.

Perfect GGS 3x DSLR Viewfinder/Loupe

Sometimes I think external monitors are more trouble than they’re worth for DSLR shooting. You’ve got to mess around with magic arms, the HDMI cable is always temperamental, and whenever the shutter flips down (not talking about EVIL cameras here) and you flip it back up again there’s that extra second of delay where the monitor figures out what image dimensions you’re sending it.

Don’t get me wrong — most of the time, I want an external monitor — for sure. When you need to share what you’re shooting with a director or focus puller, it’s a necessity on DSLR shoots — the LCD on the back won’t cut it. But there are other times, for me at least, where I’m shooting solo, there’s no need to share with anyone, and every shot is handheld. In these cases I find it lighter, faster, simpler, better to use a loupe.

And this is where the “Perfect” GGS 3x LCD viewfinder comes in. I went to my favourite site: http://www.cinegearpro.com (I’m only half-joking) and took a gamble on their 2nd most expensive (also 2nd cheapest) LCD loupe they stocked. As usual with a lot of these non-Zacuto, non-Redrock products, there’s very little unbiased information out there about them. Google them and you’ll find all manner of sites selling them, and maybe a glowing video “review” by someone affiliated with the product.. but nothing all that honest. Anyway. I figured it was only 55 pounds, the shipping was cheap, and I needed a quick fix. I’d read horror stories about various other viewfinders with terrible vignetting, or terrible optical quality.. But the “Perfect” viewfinder wasn’t mentioned anywhere, so I gave it a shot.

All I can say is that so far, after a couple of months of use, this viewfinder *has* worked perfectly. There’s no vignetting, the optics seem sufficiently clear to me, and the build quality is reasonably solid. I’ve been using it over the summer, so as temperatures drop I might find there’s more of a problem with the eyepiece fogging up (there’s no mention of anti-fog coating, which doesn’t surprise me at this price) due to body heat and condensation. Still, on frosty morning shoots, I’ve found that even a Zacuto Z-finder, which is theoretically coated with anti-fog, fogs like a bitch. Go figure.

So why is this viewfinder so cheap? Well, there is one catch to the “Perfect” viewfinder. You’ve got to stick a chunk of thick, clear plastic (included with the viewfinder) over your DSLR’s LCD screen so that the loupe will snap onto the back of your camera. It’s not the most elegant solution. Especially when you read the installation instructions: “Stick the screen protector on the frame of the LCD screen and make sure it is align correctly. Then stick it firmly by pressing the four sides of the LCD screen. … Put one plane object of 1kg on the screen protector about 24 hours so that the LCD window can stick with the screen protector completely.”

Wordsmiths of the highest quality down at the “Perfect” GGS factory. Oh yes.

Jokes aside, it felt a bit ghetto sticking my 7D underneath two large dictionaries overnight and waiting for the adhesive to fix in place. But it works. Maybe it’s a shocking thing to do to a DSLR, maybe I should’ve spent more money on a Z-finder with its own support bracket (a baseplate system, no sticky stuff required). Truth be told, it doesn’t bother me. It might, if I ever decide to remove the plastic from the back of my 7D, but I know I won’t. I’ll go so far as to say that although it’s messy, it’s *better* than Zacuto’s support bracket system because the viewfinder is 100% sealed. On shoots where I’ve rented a Zacuto rig, I’d often get light leaking through slim gaps between the support bracket and the camera body. Not an issue with the Perfect’s adhesive plastic block. Absolutely no extraneous light enters.

One thing I’ll flag: despite following the instructions and trapping my 7D under dictionaries for 24 hours, it’s still possible for the clear plastic block to come loose — you can’t leave the loupe permanently attached to the back of the DSLR, as the continual weight (not that it’s at all heavy) slowly wrenches the adhesive away from the camera body.. not great. After panicking slightly and applying pressure to the plastic block for a few minutes, I got it firmly attached again. And now that I detach the loupe from the back of the camera when it’s not in use, I haven’t had any problems with it coming loose again.

Can I recommend this viewfinder? Yes indeed. It’s cheap, messy and ghetto, but it does exactly what you need it to do.

Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate”

You’d think it would be easy enough to find a decent DSLR baseplate. I mean, what can go wrong? Essentially you’re buying a chunk of metal that attaches your DSLR to a pair of rods. Well, in the case of my camera rig, I’ve had more trouble with baseplates than with any other rig component. I still don’t have one that I’m completely satisfied with.

The first baseplate I bought was a Redrock Micro “microSupport baseplate”. Really solid. Designed for much physically longer cameras than a DSLR, so I could adapt my rig for an FS100, C300, F3, whatever. It’s a great baseplate, and I’m still glad that I bought it. What, then, prompted me to subsequently buy a Cinegear pro baseplate, which I now use on the majority of my shoots?

Two main problems. First, the Redrock baseplate has a lot of weight to it. Much more than the tiny setups out there designed exclusively for DSLRs. Long days of shooting music videos handheld with a considerably front-heavy rig definitely made me question my choice of baseplate. Second, it takes up so much real estate on your rods that it can be hard to position other rig components where you’d otherwise want them to be. I was using 18″ rods, and I wanted to attach a Zacuto arm with a SmallHD DP4 monitor to my rig. Well, getting the magic arm into a postion where the DP4 eyecup could reach my eye was extremely difficult, given that so much space was taken up by the vast aluminium expanses of my Redrock plate. I don’t know if you’d even have enough space at all with shorter rod lengths either.

Anyway. You can see why I looked for a DSLR baseplate with a smaller and lighter presence on my rig. Hence the Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate”. I couldn’t find any reviews of this baseplate… no info anywhere. I ended up making a judgement based on pictures alone, which is never a great idea. (this is why I’m going to write about it here)

So, you could argue that I deserved it when my Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate” arrived and I discovered that it was the most poorly-machined piece of kit I’d ever seen. I tried to slide it onto a set of rods, and came up against heavy resistance. “Hmm, it’s a bit snug” I was thinking at first. I managed to get the baseplate onto the rods, but in the process of getting them back off, I ended up shredding the glossy coating off the end of each carbon fibre rod. To make matters worse, one of the wingnuts used to tighten the baseplate onto your rig didn’t actually tighten at all, and turning the wingnut made awful crunching noises.

This sounds like a horror story, and it sounds like I’m telling you to never, ever buy one of these baseplates. But it’s not as bad as that. After jamming a rusty pair of scissors into the snug rod-holes (is there a proper name for these holes?)and twisting repeatedly, I managed to scrape off the excess metal that was shredding my rods, and the baseplate slid onto the rig with comparative ease. I never got the left wingnut to tighten properly, but the wingnut on the right was enough to secure my baseplate in position without any danger of it sliding around. The baseplate still wasn’t what I’d imagined based on the pictures, but it worked, and it was much lighter and more flexible than my hulking Redrock plate.

And here’s the best part: the day after I “fixed” this baseplate enough to make it usable, Cinegearpro accidentally sent me another one — which worked perfectly straight out of the box. (Well it was still a bit snug, but I fixed this in under 5 minutes with some violent scissor-work). So now I have one perfectly functional baseplate for my 7D, and another slightly deformed baseplate that I use to mount my Tascam DR-40 sound recorder. Brilliant. (I’ve no qualms with keeping both baseplates, especially given the shocking quality of the first one).

I should quickly say that even my “perfectly functional baseplate” isn’t perfect — screwing the camera onto this baseplate can be a frustrating process as it’s very hard to line up the screw with the thread. It’s easier to do this if you take the baseplate off your rig and attach it to the camera in your lap, but this requires you to disassemble your rig since there’s no quick release plate. You can easily spend 5 minutes on set trying to align the thread, and it’s the most maddening process. Also, make sure you figure out which end is the “front” of your baseplate. There’s nothing obvious to distinguish “front” from “back”, but if you put your camera on backwards, the battery compartment won’t fully open and you’ll need to unscrew the camera to swing batteries.

So there. Now no one can complain that there was no information out there on Cinegearpro’s well-designed but horribly manufactured and dicey DSLR baseplate! It’s light, compact, fairly solid, and it’s the core of my current handheld 7D rig. I have no regrets about getting one.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.