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.