Nagra BB+ solid state recorder
(This review by Phil Riddett appeared in the Autumn 2005 WSRS Journal)
Not so long ago there was a feeling amongst some recordists not far short of panic. DAT machines were dropping out the catalogues and there were no obvious replacements. What many recordists needed was a machine that was as good as DAT or better, avoided some of the problems to which DAT seemed heir, as well as being portable and reasonably robust. The Nagra BB+ may be that machine. It is small, light, easy to use, is generally well laid out, but above all gives excellent results.
Apart from the front panel, the body is mostly aluminium. The input controls are on the left, with addition of the USB output, and the outputs and the card slot are on the right, again with an exception - a software update socket. Microphone/line inputs are XLR, as is the 10 to 14.8 volt DC input (four pin). There is a coaxial DC input for mains unit input and the Li-ion charger. Above the Mic/line XLRs are the selectors for mic and line level. The outputs are similarly on XLRs and behind them is the 6.3 mm headphone outlet. Below that is the headphone level fader, the only movable fader on the entire machine. This gives a mono signal if pushed in. There is also a remote start/stop control on a 3.5 mm mono jack socket. This may be useful if working with a mixer . the BB+ could be put somewhere out of the way. The front panel is black with a 47 by 26 mm liquid crystal display on the left and all other control buttons from the centre to the right. The LCD has a scale running from -21 to +9 dB, under which is the status display, whether the machine is stopped, playing, recording etc, which uses conventional symbols. To its right is a take number display, which updates every time you go into record, or shows the take number being replayed. Next is the duration of the recorded take as it is being made, or the position in a replayed take. On the far right is the record level display, which shows a vertical bar when the record level is adjusted and the new level under the take time part of the display. This disappears after an adjustment is made. About three-quarters of the way down the display there is a horizontal bar which gradually blackens as the card is filled up. Under that is a counter of the total number of takes on the card and a numerical display of the remaining time available on the card. Both this and the bar display automatically change with the selected sample rate, word length and stereo or mono mode being used. There is no constraint on mixing formats on a card. Whether or not the display is illuminated, off, or responds to key presses, can be set in the menu system.
The menu system controls all the functions not mentioned above. The first position is Directory, which allows access to recorded takes for replay, deletion or renumbering. Second is Loudspeaker which allows you to turn the small (16 mm) loudspeaker on or off. Third is Tools which allows file naming, date and time setting, card formatting, setting battery type, program select if the data reduction software has been installed, and display contrast to be changed. Fourth is Templates, which is used to store and recall different settings on the machine. Fifth is Settings for selection of the input filter, automatic level control and its parameters, headphone beep on or off, file format - mono or stereo, sample rate and word length, display light on or off, output mode, output level and MS decoder. This works not only on the headphone output but also on the line out. The sixth position controls the auto record function, including on/off, trigger level, trigger delay and stop delay. Lastly Input allows mono or stereo to be selected and 48 volt phantom power on or off.
One of the advantages of having so much of the machine under software control is that it can be updated. This can be downloaded from the Nagra website and takes about two to three minutes. Previously the first three characters of file names could be set by the user but the most recent version allows longer file names to be used. Recording can be done in two main ways. either with or without data compression. Since card capacities are now good enough for practical purposes, and data compression is not liked by academic users of wildlife sounds, I did not pay the extra for the software needed. Production of uncompressed BWF files can be done over a number of sample rates and word lengths. The best, and in terms of file size the most expensive, is 48 kHz 24 bit. If you record stereo you'll get just under an hour on a 1 Gig card. At 44.1 kHz and 16 bit that stretches to just over one and a half hours, while going mono on either doubles the time available. At the lowest sample rate, 16 kHz and 16-bit mono you get nearly nine hours on a card. Obviously that would limit the upper frequency response, but I can think of applications where that would be acceptable. Unlike some card based recorders the Nagra's batteries will last that long.
There are a number of options for powering the BB+. You could simply run it off the small, neat mains unit plugged into the coaxial input. For wildlife sound this is somewhat impractical, though those used to recording from a vehicle may find the XLR input acceptable. The voltage range fits what you.d expect from a vehicle DC output. More practically there are three battery options. You can use either dry cells or rechargables in a battery box or a Li-Ion power pack. I haven.t tried this and I would not want to give an opinion but I have little doubt it would work very well. Both the mains unit and the Li-Ion charger will work on European and American mains.
Coming from DAT one of the most welcome improvements is battery life. The claimed life of dry cells or the Li-ion battery pack is twelve and a half hours. I chose the battery box option, since I had plenty of NiMH cells. Using 2100mAh cells gives me enough power for a least the best day's recording I'm likely to get, maybe two or three normal days.
So much for the description - how does it, and how well does it work? The first thing I noticed was that even with the battery pack it was smaller, lighter and quieter that my DAT machine. There is no transport mechanism so no transport noise. The BB+ weighs just over 980 grams, and is only 185 mm wide, as opposed to 1550 grams and 260 mm. Other dimensions are about the same. Clearly it's not pocket sized, but the reduction in weight is welcome. On powering it up the recorder allows you to hear the input. This is unlike DAT and some other formats, where it's necessary to tell the machine that you want to hear what's incoming. I assume that Nagra thought that since power use was so low there was no point in not doing this. Of course, it is possible to believe you're recording when you.re not, and vice versa. This is not as rare as you might think. I've even known experienced professionals make that mistake. With the BB+ if you press record and you're not recording it will start. If you are, all the machine does is to generate another file which runs on from the previous one without any break that I can detect. This could be useful to subdivide long recordings, if you wish, and very useful if you're blind, or can't see the display for some other reason.
The layout is generally good but there are a few things that I feel are not as good as they could be. The front panel buttons might have been better set out, and changing mic/line input is not very convenient. Ideally the front panel buttons should allow you to have an easily identifiable home position for your hand without your having to look at the machine. Since field recording is mostly controlled with five buttons - power, record and stop, with two for level, I would have been happier if they were grouped in a way that allowed a more intuitive access rather than being somewhat spread. This is especially important at night, when it may not be possible to use a torch, or for blind recordists. Blind recordists may also have problems with the menu system. To change from one template to another takes at least five key presses. It's easy to get lost if you're not watching the display or you miscount the key presses. It would be better if there was a headphone bleep at each stage through the menu. While input filter, ALC settings, headphone beep, file format, display light output mode and level and MS decoder can all be pre-set, phantom has to set separately. The mic/line setting switches (one each for left and right) are flush with side panel. They can be a bit difficult to operate in daylight, but outdoors at night with gloved fingers impossible. A biro does the job. While the display illumination is fine at night I do have trouble with the series of lights that respond to record level. At night they are far too bright. When I work at night I allow my eyes to adapt to the light level, but these lights ruin that. There are two solutions. Either Nagra could make them dim when the display light is on, or give the option of switching them off, like the loud speaker. For the moment I have disabled mine with a piece of gaffer tape. The built in low frequency filter appears from the figures to work at about 6 dB per octave, which is preferable to steeper cuts, but seems to have its 3 dB down point at about 230 Hz, which may be a bit high for some uses. The latest version of the software now puts a small indicator in the display to show that the filter has been selected.
I use 1 Gig cards, and carry two. This is enough for most sessions, but if I think I'm going to need more I also carry a battery powered hard drive. I can use it to take the contents of a card, which I can then wipe and reuse. Copying a 1 Gig card to the drive takes about 15 minutes. The use of an external drive is necessary if I'm away from home for a while. The USB connection on the BB+ can be used to download direct from the Nagra to a PC, but why, when the file format has been updated to allow unlimited card size, is it still USB 1? To download a 1 Gig card takes over twenty-five minutes, as opposed to just over three and a half using a USB 2 connection.
Finally, to the question of sound quality. There's a lot that can go wrong between microphone and ears, not the least in the design of mic pre-amps and analogue to digital conversion. Here Nagra have done an excellent job. The sound is both musical and accurate, and is an improvement on anything I've used before. I'd not had the machine too long when I went on a two week trip to Hungary, quickly followed by a week in the New Forest. I deliberately timed getting the machine so that I'd have time to get used to it, but I found it very quick to learn. On the two trips the BB+ worked extremely well. Despite my quibbles it is an easy machine to use, gives excellent results and is a worthy addition to the Nagra range.
The prices (2005) are: BB+ £1650, Flash Card £88.12, Battery box £121.03, Mains power unit £52.86, Lithium ion unit £242.
Review date: 2005
(This review appeared in the WSRS Journal)