Notes about video and audio equipment that I use... that others might find useful.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Edirol R-4

This isn't a technical review, but a user review. It comes from the first shoot I used the Edirol on - one week shooting single camera. We did 22 interviews, recording 7 seminars and one mini advertising piece to camera.


The Edirol R-4 worked faultlessly throughout the shooting. There were features lacking compared to a regular mixer like the Shure FP33, SQN 2S or similar [noteably stereo pan controls in the case of the Shure, which I have used quite a bit]. The quality of the audio was excellent, with one exception - the noise on the mic amps when using high gain was poor.

Break away cable
I made a 'break away' cable for the R4 to go to the Canon XL1 we were shooting on. Using a break away cable made it quick and easy to connect the XL1 and the R4. Since we were doing quite a lot of interviews [22 in 5 days] this was essential.

The break away cable took the audio output from the R4 [using the phono ouputs - if you're American you'll call them RCA outputs] to the XL1. It took the headphone output from the XL1 to an extension headphone jack at the end of the breakaway cable.

It also took the L-terminal [called LAN-C by other manufacturers] from the XL1 to the R4. Because we use a Manfrotto zoom demand, the signal was split in the breakout box between the R4 and the zoom demand. Of note is that the L-terminal signal has tip as serial data, ring as power and then earth. Because the zoom demand need power the power is sent to the Manfrotto but not to the R4.

The break-away system used a cheaper multi-way connector, rather than the industry standard Hirose connector. The break away cable worked very well except on one occasion when the XL1 would not control the R4. We think it was probably because the connector quality was not as good as the Hirose. It worked again within a few minutes.

Noise on the mic amps
We were shooting some seminars - this involved taking a line feed from the PA mixer plus suspending a couple of Shure SM57s over the audience for audience effects. I would have preferred to use condencer mics, but I was borrowing from the PA people. When I wound in enough gain for the audience effects the mics appeared to be a little noisy. What that shows is the signal-to-noise ratio on the R4 is not as good as it could be.

However if I was using condencer mics with a higher sensitivity and higher output I don't think I would have noticed it. When I used the Rode NTG1 or the AKG lapel mics which are all condencer mics there was no noticeable noise on the mic amps.

Having said that, when I mixed the audio back at the dubbing suite using our ProTools system and the noise was not noticeable, it was only noticeable during times the audience was relatively quiet while recording. So in a real programme making situation it's not a problem.

Signal routing
Recording the seminars showed up a limitation of the firmware of the R4. What I would have liked to do is send the PA output [coming in on channel 1] to the left output and the effects mics to the right output. If I had the effects mics on channels 2 and 4 I could have done that, but because input 1 was set to line level input I could not use input 2 for a mic.

So I put the effects mics into inputs 3 & 4 and then didn't route them to output at all, but just recorded them onto the R4. This meant that everything was on the R4 but the camera recording [standard backup when you are using a separate recorder] only had the main PA output.

A simple upgrade to the firmware would help a lot for this sort of thing.

Firmware improvements
What would be good is to be able to select Left, Right or Both for each input independently. The selection of which output each input went to was rather strange and looked like it was thought through by an engineer not an operator! I realise this is version 1 of the firmware and these sort of limitations are common in version 1 releases. We have a version 1 XL1 too but there are no firmware upgrades for it!

Another little gripe, probably not fixable in firmware, but would be REALLY useful is to be able to change the monitor settings when in record pause.

One thing that was somewhat irritating is that the R4 doesn't go E-to-E when in stop. What I mean is that in stop you hear nothing at all... What I would like is that in stop you hear the input, so levels can be set etc. What this means is that you have to press Record/Pause to hear the audio inputs for setting up levels. Not a problem in some ways, but it means you alwasy record a small amount of audio when you start up.

Final firmware improvement that I would like is to have a mode for recording each shot as a separate file. This is actually the most important one from a user point of view. At the moment the R4 sets markers in the file - treating each scene as a separate file with markers for each shot. However, we use a Matrox RT system for editing and each shot is a separate file, so matching shots is a pain with the R4.

I know they are talking of Time Code for version 2, and that would be interesting for some filming, but not generally helpful for us. We use ProTools for the sound mix after the video edit, and although ProTools can use embedded time code within broadcast wav files for placement on the time line, it would not help in this instance as the time code is related to finished programme not original shoot.

Location of controls
Sadly its obvious none of the design team actually tried out pre-production models doing live shoots using the carry case. There are a number of controls placed in really irritating positions:
  • Power On/Off
  • Limiter On/Off
  • Phantom Power On/Off

I want the Power and Limiter controls on the front panel not the top. Reaching in when the R4 is in its operational carry bag to turn it on is a pain!

Similarly I want the Phantom power switches above the mic/line switches so I can get at them easily.

Which brings me on to the operational carry bag - I had to cut it to enable the break-away cable to work, so that I could connect in the phono outputs to the cable and so the cable could sit at the bottom of the R4. This also had the effect of pushing the R4 up by about 1 cm which meant that the headphone jack was not so easily accessible as was the mic/line switch for inputs 1 and 2. I will think further about this, but probably eventually buy a Portabrace case for it, having designed the case to do what I want.

The meters are strange on the R4. They are like no other meters I have seen in my life. They are sort of peak reading VU meters. I say 'sort of' as the scale is wierd and the behaviour wierd. That having been said, I am used to swapping between all sorts of equipment and it didn't take me long to get used to them. So although they are decidedly wierd, they are not a hindrance to use of the equipment.

I would really like standard PPMs as meters. Since this is all firmware it shouldn't be difficult. In fact I don't know why the meters are so strange considering they are firmware.

The meters were easily visible in bright sunlight, but I was somewhat concerned about the effect bright sunlight might have on the LCD screen after a problem a few years back when I damaged a notebook computer by leaving it near a window over lunch and as the sun moved it caught the bottom corner of the screen and it was never the same again!

We were using rechargeable NiMH batteries and the R4 behaved well. I had bought 2 complete sets expecting problems, but we easily good a whole day of filming out of each set. We didn't have the R4 on continually, but in a real life situation it used batteries conservatively.

You cannot 'hot swap' between external power and batteries. It crashes the R4 as we found out the hard way!

The L-terminal connection works well, allowing hot plugging. What this means is that if you want to you can bring camera and R4 together, press the start on the camera so both start recording together than unplug to film away from the R4 and reconnect and stop both in sync. Thus it sort of works like an electronic clapper-board. Now of course if there's some way to send the signals over a radio mic channel...

The limiter appeared to work well, I haven't seen the specification, but it did generally stop 'going into the red'. The only problem was the location of the control. It was difficult to turn it off for taking levels and on for recording. If the R4 was sitting alone that would not have been a problem, but in the carry case it was.

I never used any of the effects. There were two reasons for this. Firstly I normally do any corrections to the sound on our ProTools system after editing and secondly, trying to set them up in the carry case was impossible!

USB transfer worked faultlessly to my Sony Viao notebook while on location. And... for those of people like us who use Linux, it worked perfectly on Ubuntu Linux, with the OS recognising the connection and opening the folder with no problems.

File formats
The BWF wave files that were recorded on the project imported into ProTools easily, however the 'markers' that are supposed to show start of shot were not displayed. Because I had recorded the audio on the camera as well it was a reasonably easy task to match audio in Adobe Premiere, but it really would improve things no end for the R4 to record each shot as a separate file.

Interal speakers and mics
The internal speakers seemed a little quiet, so not really useable. Why, oh why, would anyone ever want internal mics [omni-directional] in something like the R4?

Apart from the layout changes and firmware upgrades, the main addition I would make is a return audio monitor and switch so I could integrate the 'off tape' feed from the camera. I'd change the phono [RCA] output connectors for XLR, so we could feed the output to line if needed, and I'd add a Hirose connector so the break-away can come straight in without a messy cable spider!

Overall I would highly recommend the R4. If you want to compare it to the Nagra V or the DEVA II I am sure you would find limitations - but in 'bang for the buck', as the Americans put it, the R4 wins hands down.

Oh, and I'd love to be on the design team for the R4 mk 2.

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