Sound Devices 722 Digital Audio Recorder
Reviewed by Simon Elliott
As an NHS radiologist I use computers and related equipment all day at work; in the evening I come home and prepare lectures and research papers on my PC; I have a digital camera; I use the Internet a lot. The last thing I want is to spend more time in front of a computer screen, so I've put off going down the totally digital route for sound recording for as long as possible. But in March 2005 my hand was forced when my portable DAT machine started to chew up tapes (to be honest I've never really liked DAT technology anyway). I took the plunge, and after much research I spent quite a lot of back pay on a Sound Devices 722 recorder. Since April 2005 I have had the opportunity to put over 1500 tracks through it, in circumstances ranging from very wet tropical rainforest to sub-zero snowy Northumberland.
Sound Devices LLC is a small US company formed, I believe, from former Shure engineers in 1998. They have built up a reputation for making high-quality rugged portable recording equipment, notably their field mixers. The 2-track 722 and 4-track 744, the latter with Time Code, are their first foray into digital recording systems. If you buy either, I think it is fair to say that like a computer you are buying an unfinished product. They are subject to continuous development and improvement via downloaded firmware, which on purchase in April 2005 was version 1.24, and at the time of writing is now 1.60 for the 722. There is a support service on the website, where users can post details of problems or 'niggles', and the company does indeed respond. Each firmware upgrade is easy, and it takes no more than 5 minutes to download a small file and upgrade the system.
The 722 is small and extremely robust, with an aluminium and steel chassis and not a bit of wobbly plastic to be seen. I haven't tried standing on it but I'm sure I could. The front panel is uppermost when over the shoulder, featuring all the transport buttons and an LCD screen, the latter dominated by a large time display. The LCD and transport buttons have a switchable backlight. Other buttons on the front panel provide access to set-up menu parameters, input track assignment and reference tone. To the left of the LCD, two rotary pots control input gain. The two inputs can be ganged to CH1 pot, with CH2 pot then controlling L/R balance. In MS mode, CH2 pot controls 'width'. When operating at line level from a mixer, the input gain can be fixed to a user defined level. Record function (REC) overrides all other functions, disabling other transport buttons. A recent upgrade has solved a problem that I experienced, whereby I inadvertently pressed the track assignment button and started recording in mono instead of stereo for a few tracks - that is no longer possible. Side panels feature an array of input/output sockets, most of which you won't use, plus headphone level adjustment. On the right side panel is the Menu Select switch. This provides rapid scroll for menu selection and set-up parameters. The rear panel houses an unprotected Compact Flash (CF) card slot and the Li-ion battery.
Back to the front panel, and to the machine's sexiest feature. I've said before how much I miss watching the spools going round on a reel-to-reel recorder, but one look at the glorious display of multicoloured LEDs on the front of the 722 and I am happy again. These indicate a variety of selected functions including mic powering, filtering, mic and headphone limiter, disc activity, track assignment and of course metering of record and playback levels. The LEDs have adjustable brightness, so that they can even be read in full sunlight. And if your torch battery goes, as happened to me in the rainforest at night, I assure you that by turning the LEDs up full and holding the tone key down, you can even use this recorder to find your way back to the car! To avoid unnecessary illumination or reduce power consumption, the LEDs and the panel backlight can be disabled by selecting 'stealth mode'.
The user has access to a huge choice of setup parameters through the menu navigation, and this is not a recorder for the faint hearted, in that unless one only uses one set of mics or one recording set up, it is difficult to just plug in and start recording, A thorough knowledge of the menus and what they mean is essential. However a favourite set up can be saved as a User Preset on HDD and/or CF, in addition to the four factory presets. These presets are instantly recalled via 'Quick Setup'. The directory structure can be set up in several ways. I use the system by which 'day folders' are created - very handy for wildlife recording by providing direct association with my written daily diary notes. Indeed I archive my recordings under these day directories.
In the field I've used the 722 with a wide range of dynamic and P48 powered mics, both directly into mic inputs and at line level through SQN mixers. The mic preamps are exceptionally quiet and can be used at full gain with acceptable results. One touch on the REC button drops you straight into record as the A/D converters are running if the machine is on. It takes about 4 seconds to go from cold start (power off) to record, compared with 0.5 seconds on a Nagra open spool and about 9 seconds on a DAT machine. A preroll buffer is user variable from 1 to 10 seconds, and I really don't know how I lived without it, particularly with my love of nest-site recording - I'll never miss a feeding visit again. A rather difficult feature of the gain control is that much of the useful gain range is in the final few degrees of rotation. It feels almost logarithmic in its response, and a more linear feel would be preferable for wildlife work. This is not a problem when working at fixed line level through a mixer.
Power consumption is quite good. The unit uses standard camcorder batteries; the supplied 1500mAh Li-ion battery just lasts a typical morning's work, but P48V mic powering and writing direct to HDD significantly increase consumption so I now use a 3700mAh battery. When static I use external 12V or in-car powering. The Li-ion battery charges on the recorder when it is connected to an external supply.
In the studio, the 722 is connected to a PC via Firewire, whereupon the recorder HDD appears as a new FAT 32 drive in Explorer. At present there is no direct access to the CF card, so CF files need to be transferred to the HDD or, as I do, read separately via a card reader. I understand that direct access to an external HDD is a planned development.
Key Specifications include:
- 16 or 24 bit depth (+/- dither
- 32 - 192kHz sampling rates
- wav/bwf file format, uncompressed PCM including metadata
- mp3 encoding/decoding
- selectable track assignmen
- records to Compact Flash (CF) and/or internal 40GB disc drive (HDD)
- balanced mic/line level inputs and outputs
- 48V phantom mic powering
- MS decoding
- pre-roll buffer adjustable from 1 - 10 seconds
- peak limiter and adjustable high-pass input filters
- PPM, VU or combined PPM/VU metering (LED)
- powering: removable standard camcorder Li-ion
- battery or external 10-18V DC
- Mac OS X or Windows 2000/XP compatible
- user-upgradeable firmware (v1.60 at time of writing)
- IEEE1394a Firewire port for file transfer
- weight 1.2kg without battery
- size 45 x 209 x 125mm
retail price US$2650 (744T US$4250)
This is a great addition to the range of portable digital recorders for wildlife work. It is expensive but it offers very high quality, a wide range of features and as much future-proofing as one can expect. The beginner might be overwhelmed by the infinite and intricate variety of setup options but the experienced recordist will enjoy using the 722. Go to the website to read further details and the full operation manual.
I use: Kingston Elite Pro 1GB CF card (c. £45 Internet). The recorder has an internal facility that tests a new CF card for adequate transfer speed. Energiser 3700mAh Li-ion camcorder battery (c. £35 Internet) I like: Size, build quality, low input noise, CF or HDD recording, 24-bit and up to 192kHz recording, pre-roll buffer, connectivity, upgradeability, and of course that glorious LED display!
I don't like: Lack of fixed headphone output level, logarithmic feel to gain control, position of REC LED when recorder over shoulder.
Problems:Very few. Earlier problems fixed by firmware upgrades. I have only experienced two system problems in the field, both in the extreme conditions of tropical rainforest: a total lockup when selecting 24-bit (requiring a scary but non-destructive HDD repair) and a 'sticky' REC button.
Sound Devices LLC
300 Wengel Drive
PO Box 576
This review was published in the Spring 2006 issue of the WSRS Journal