First impressions from the Non Linear frontier, February 2005

I cannot be the only recordist who has experienced that sickening, cold sweat inducing, feeling of horror when you pull your rushes tape out of the DAT recorder only to find that the tape is well and truly spaghetied around every capstan, drum and roller in sight. It happened to me once when I was working on a Digibeta shoot. Luckily I had recorded onto the camera as well so all was not lost. However, the thought of that happening on a film shoot filled me with dread.

Since then I have been watching the development of the next generation of location recorders with great interest and for once, we location recordists are almost spoilt for choice with offerings from, amongst others, HHB, Aaton, Fostex and Zaxcom. Earlier this year I judged that the brave early adopters had done their selfless work and ironed out the inevitable new machine teething problems and a few weeks ago I took delivery of one of Zaxcom's new range of hard disk recorders, the Deva IV.

Deva IV in Portabrace case!
Deva IV in Portabrace case!

I was by now into the third week of a new drama series for Granada ("Vincent", starring Ray Winstone if you are interested!) which I had started shooting on DAT. The new Deva arrived in the middle of the morning and within half an hour was set up and recording on set. Most of that half hour was spent working out how to fit it into its Portabrace case! That evening I sent both DAT and DVD rushes to telecine and was delighted to find out the next morning that they had used the DVD rushes straight away. For one more day I sent both DAT and DVD rushes and since then, with telecine blessing, I have just recorded on the Deva and delivered DVD-RAM rushes.

At this stage I should confess that I am not a complete hard disk virgin. I had a chance to dip my toe into non linear waters last year when I was asked to provide some limited multitrack recording facility on a location drama. I chose to record the series on a hired in Deva II machine, a recorder that had already been around for 3 or 4 years. In fact I took the opportunity to go "all digital" and used a digital desk. Unfortunately, the desk and I never really saw eye to eye and recently we parted company. However I was impressed by how reliably the Deva II performed.

I had quite a steep learning curve at the beginning of that shoot while I got my head round the Zaxcom philosophy of recording to internal hard drive while at the same time "mirroring" to DVD-RAM for daily rushes. (When "mirroring" is enabled as soon as you hit the stop button at the end of a take that take is copied, in this case, to an external DVD burner.) The Deva II could output the DVD rushes in a number of different file formats and despite my best efforts there were a few hiccups early on while Telecine and myself agreed on the most appropriate file format for delivery. In this case broadcast WAV Mono which gives each track of each recording (or "Segment") its own discrete file.

On trolley based shoots it was easy enough to mount the external DVD burner alongside the Deva II and mirror either throughout the day or, say, an hour before WRAP. Either way, the rushes would be ready within seconds of the last take. Of course one of the first laws of filming is that if there is a low loader scene then it will be the last scene of the day! As I tend to just take portable gear (i.e. no room for a separate DVD burner) for these scenes it meant that I had to mirror the DVD-RAM after WRAP. This would usually happen within the 15 minutes we were tidying our gear off the low loader so while we never really had to wait for the rushes I couldn't help feeling that there had to be a better way.

And there is! The new Devas (Deva IV & V) can be supplied with a DVD burner built in. This makes it even easier to mirror straight away after a take and of course, makes it practical to keep up to date with the mirroring even when perched on a low loader or crammed into the footwell of the action van! Another benefit of this almost instant copy is that it negates the need for a separate safety backup machine. Should the hard disk fail (an extremely rare event) you have an up to date DVD and likewise should there be a problem with the DVD then another can be burnt using data from the hard drive. I have two 80GB hard drives (always have a spare!) and these can store rushes from the last 36 shoot days. I find that kind of reassuring.

Deva Day 3 and I'm off my trolley (not for the first time!) and very portable - someone being thrown out of the back of a van today. On DAT I would have rigged up my trusty 4 channel Cooper Sound mixer but the Deva claims to be able to handle many mixing duties so I decide to give it a go. In the event I found it easy to decode an MS pair to Left/Right stereo, to mix boom and radio mics and to quickly send radio mic channels to Tracks 1 or 2. Previously, while trolley based, I had decided to feed the Directors/Production headphones from the Deva Output 1 so this didn't need changing. (Any input can be quickly assigned to any output via the touch sensitive screen).

Since I have 8 inputs to play with I have the luxury of setting a couple of inputs for Line Level trolley use and the others set to Mic/48volts or Radio Mic inputs for portable use. This is just for tidiness as it is really very easy to change input requirements.

Deva fader assign page

The Deva has 4 large rotary faders on the front. These can be assigned to any input or combination of inputs. In addition, the latest version of software has just gifted us four smart "softfaders". These are surprisingly easy to use with the touch screen and like their rotary siblings can be assigned to any inputs. The assignment of inputs to disk tracks, inputs to outputs (like the Dir/Production headphone feed) and inputs to faders can all be stored in user presets.

I haven't got round to weighing this portable rig of Deva and Micron 2 channel radio receiver rack but it does seem lighter than the DAT + mixer + radio mic rack alternative. An added bonus. Again I haven't got round to scientific comparisons of DAT versus Deva power consumption but first impressions are that I am not paying a noticeable power premium for all my Deva benefits.

I think it's important to make sure that you provide the sort of sound rushes that your production and its post production chain want and can deal with. Just because the Deva IV can record to 8 separate tracks doesn't mean that you should feel obliged to supply a separate feed of every microphone. I started "Vincent" on 2 track DAT and was keen that the switchover to DVD-RAM rushes should be as seamless as possible. So I am only delivering 2 track DVD rushes. Telecine benefit from being able to load my rushes quicker than real time but at the moment they are the only ones who notice a difference. They still produce a "Day" DAT with timecode to match the sunc up pictures on Digibeta and this, as on a DAT shoot, is what is used by the sound post production team. Everything they need (including any wildtracks I have managed to acquire) should be on the Day DAT. That's the system they are geared up to and that is the system I am feeding.

With my Deva I will soon be able to mirror to both the internal DVD and a separate portable pocket sized firewire drive simultaneously. A whole production on one drive. Amazing! But there is no point in doing that until you have a post production chain that can make good use of it. All these new recorders are capable of amazing things. Don't feel you have to utilise them all at once. KISS!

Similarly, Metadata. Just the sound of the word makes my eyes glaze over. Deva, along with other new hard disk recorders, gives you the ability to store additional information with each take. This can be as straightforward as Scene or Take number or more involved text comments. I thankfully can steer clear for the time being. The post production workflow on this job makes no provision for Metadata and anyway, I have yet to be weaned off my handwritten sound sheets!

A lot of thought has gone into this machine - even little things like the civilised way the tone fades itself out when you switch it off rather than a sudden click off. A lot of this is due to the very lively and open Deva User Group which provides a permanent route for feedback to and from Zaxcom Towers as well as mutual support for users. It has been fascinating watching the new Devas develop over the last six months in response to the experiences and suggestions of initial users. I can't think of many manufacturers who are this open with their R&D. This openness was an important influence on my decision to choose a Deva and is reassuring once you become a user yourself.

So likes and dislikes.
Dislikes? At the moment I can't just plug it into a PC and see the Deva as another drive and copy files directly. File transfer is done via DVD mirroring. I understand why this is so. Deva uses its own proprietary operating system (MARF) to record on the hard drive. This gives it greater reliability. For example if you lose power during a take then it is possible to recover that take right up to the point where power was lost. Maybe in the future it will be possible to produce a software utility that enables a Windows machine or MAC to see the Deva and transfer files directly.
I wonder whether the ouput level of "-10" may cause a few problems in some situations. For instance there is not enough level from the outputs to line up correctly to the tape returns of my Audio Developments desk. I am currently using the headphone output which lines up ok and gives the benefit of the Solo facility (see below). Power is a precious commodity in a portable machine and it must be rationed, hence the lower output. Again, perhaps in the future it will be possible to adjust this.

And what do I like about my Deva?
I love the large, reassuring pool of red light that indicates I'm in record.
I love the touch screen. It seems much easier to navigate than a series of button presses (like the Deva II).
I love the ability to solo a track, whether in play or record, simply by touching the appropriate meter bar on that touch sensitive screen.
I love the fact that all the controls are on the front panel so that I can happily park my portable radio rack on top.
I love the ability to instantly play back previous takes.
I love the robust aluminium case.
I love the fact that I'm recording before I even hit record - no excuse for missing slates now!
I love the fact that I can't hit rewind by mistake and delete the first take of the day - or double click a Pause button and not record it in the first place! (Tell me I'm not the only one who's done that!).
I love the fact that it does most of what I want it to do already but it is destined to get even better with each software upgrade.

I don't usually get this enthusiastic about my kit but I'm in love - with my Deva!

In the UK excellent advice and support is provided by Roger at Everything Audio.

Stop Press

Trolley with Deva on set of Vincent

Yesterday I found another use for the Deva's mixing functions. As well as recording my usual two tracks I had to provide on set playback to a small speaker as well as a separate feed to a pair of in vision headphones and a bank of spectrum analysers. (Quite what our "Private Investigators" where going to discover from the analysers was beyond me but all the flashing coloured lights in sync with the audio looked pretty!)

I needed to be able to fade the loudspeaker up and down independently from the feed to the spectrum analysers. Again, this was a job I usually delegated to my Cooper Sound CS104. It suddenly dawned on me that it should be possible to do this without adding another mixer to the trolley - using the Deva.

Where practical I like to use my Laptop for playback using a Tascam US122 USB audio interface. I fed the two line outputs to inputs 3 and 4 of the Deva. Then using the touch screen I assigned 2 of the large rotary faders to the two inputs (see picture a few paragraphs above) and assigned input 3 to output 5 (and 6 for no real reason!) and input 4 to outputs 3 & 4 (spectrum analysers and headphones).

Deva Output assign page

Input 1 to output 1 is my mixed sound being fed to the Director/Production headphone TX.

Independent control of the two playback feeds, right in front of my nose, without effecting the 2 track recording. Zaxcom promise simultaneous playback and record sometime in the future. Perhaps then I won't even need the laptop.

February 2005    DH

Update August 2005

So those were my initial thoughts just over six months ago and I am still just as delighted with my Deva. However technology and working practices evolve so I thought a brief update might be helpful.

Deva can now produce both FAT32 and UDF formatted DVD RAMs. The Telecine suite which regularly handles my rushes has found that things run much smoother with FAT32 formatted discs. They have a relatively antiquated audio workstation so I have to be a little careful what file format I send them. Currently Telecine Nirvana is being attained by Polyphonic Broadcast Wav files (BWFp) for simple 2 track recordings and Monophonic Broadcast Wav files (BWFm) for those extremely rare occasions when I send more than 2 tracks. Both types are ingested into the telecine workstation system in a fraction of real time.

For those wishing to connect their Deva directly to a PC Zaxcom has now brought out a firewire adaptor box which allows you to copy the entire Deva hard drive to the PC in one shot. Personally, I periodically mirror previous days' rushes to a Lacie 80GB bus powered Pocket Drive. It is then easy to copy these to any other laptop or PC should I want to keep a backup. I never used to be so organised keeping backups but am finding it both reassuring (I can say with confidence "It was alright leaving me") and educational.

Metadata. Ah yes! I have been experimenting with using the Scene Take Note function to keep track of slates and it is definitely keeping me more organised with my report sheets. The latest version of Deva software has enabled keyboard entry of this STN info. In the interest of science I treated myself to a cheap and cheerful roll up USB keyboard on Ebay and this works a treat. Quite where I put it on the trolley is another matter! I guess one day I will make the leap to electronic soundsheets, particularly as more third party software becomes available to extract and format the relevant data. Like most of the other non linear location recorder manufacturers Zaxcom will be implementing the new IBS facilitated metadata transfer protocol iXML. This is designed to ease the audio journey through the Post Production chain.

And finally, not a technical improvement but a penny dropping realisation. Just as the Pre-Record function can save your Front Slate should you turnover a little late, I now realise that it can save you from those End Board moments when you instinctively hit Stop when the Director shouts "Cut". If you hit record again within the duration you have set for Pre-Record then a new file will be created which will run on seamlessly from the previously truncated file. Run the two files consecutively and you have a complete take and sync accurate End Board. I wish I'd realised that earlier!

August 2005    DH
© David Hall 2005-6

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