After a nearly two-month wait, I’ve finally taken delivery of the new Sound Devices 664 mixer/recorder. It’s a nice bit of kit, though it is naturally more complex than my standard 442 mixer. This unit will enable me to provide a number of additional services to my clients, mainly a) the ability to record iso tracks, and b) timecode audio files.
Iso tracks are a digital copy of all the signals that are coming into the mixer. These can save the day if you are in a noisy environment, or you experience hits on a wireless transmitter… you can load the isos into a DAW, and then go back and mute the individual channel where the hits occur. This sort of work is standard for film and scripted projects, but less common for certain productions where speed in post is essential. I’ve worked on both types of productions. It takes time and adds complexity to a project, but the option is there if a client wants it.
Timecode-stamped audio files can be a big help to the audio post process, and some post production workflows depend on it. I’ve had a limited ability to work in timecode for awhile now, but my current timecode setup is rather cumbersome, and completely impractical for quick work out of a bag… which is 80% of my business. Small timecode-capable recorders are not available, other than this unit from Zaxcom, which I’ve avoided buying because I knew I would be upgrading to the 664. It has an onboard timecode generator that can be jammed to a camera or other external timecode source.
These additional features come at a price, of course… not the least of which is the price, which is more than double the cost of my 442. (But to be fair, my 442 was bought used. That isn’t an option with the 664, and it’ll probably stay that way for quite some time.) And the expense doesn’t end with the mixer… the larger format means that I needed a new bag. The media requirements are very specific as well… it uses CF and SD cards, but there are just a handful that are approved for the 664. Using unapproved cards can cause the unit to lock up during use. None of my old cards work with this mixer, so I’ve had to buy all new cards.
It’s also rather power hungry as well. The normal Sound Devices battery tube is included, but others have said the internal batteries are only good for about 30 minutes of recording time. The manual hints at this, as it says “Internal batteries can be used as a back-up in the event that external power is removed or depleted.” Another indicator of large current draws is found in the specification for the AC power supply, which is rated at 3.75 amps… much larger than your standard wall-wart. An external battery supply is required. Fortunately I already own a BDS system from Remote Audio that I use with a pair of NP1 batteries. I normally get an entire day’s use from a single charge, powering a mixer and several Lectro receivers. That isn’t the case with the 664. I can drain an NP1 in about four hours, more or less depending on the age of the battery and the number of wireless receivers being used. I’ve since purchased the 664 power supply, which gets used whenever I’m stationary.
Using the 664 will take some getting used to as well, simply because there are so many different signal routing options available. For example, sending 48v phantom power to a microphone requires scrolling through a menu and finding the correct combination of multi-function button presses. Physical switches are always my preference, as they are on the 442. But I have found these knocked out of position before, and at least that shouldn’t happen with a menu-based system.
The 664 has an input for a USB keyboard, and this will be great for adding metadata notes to the recorded files. It isn’t something that I’ll be using much for bag work, but it’s a really nice option. The 664 can also store commonly used phrases for generating sound reports, so adding a note like “wind noise” or “clothing rustle” is a push-a-button affair, rather than typing out a note. But Sound Devices method of data entry without a keyboard is easy to figure out, and very quick to use. I don’t enter in long strings of info, but I can change a track name on the fly without a problem.
One of the changes that I would really like to see in “version 2” of the 664 is the ability to transfer data via the USB port. Currently, it’s only being used for the keyboard. But it would be extremely helpful to connect the 664 to the client’s laptop, and have the unit appear as a drive. Right now, you have to eject one of the cards and place it in a card reader. I don’t like to do this… the cards are tight, and I have a tough time gripping the CF card with my fingers… there isn’t enough room. And I’ve already experienced a bent pin on my card reader after only three or four insertions. My solution is to write the same data to both cards, then use the SD card for transferring the files as it’s easier to eject and seems a little more robust. I can get about 4 hours of recording time on a 16gb card, and I have yet to do a shoot requiring more than one card… but I bought three SD and three CF cards, just in case. I’m using the recommended Delkin cards, and (insert favorite superstitious ritual here) haven’t had a data issue so far. I believe Sound Devices put a lot of attention into their transport architecture to make it as robust as possible, because they understand that a corrupted file could be absolutely fatal to me AND to them.
Another “Version 2” change that I’d like would be the ability to use the BNC connectors on the unit for timecode in and out. Timecode is currently accessed via a Hirose connector, and you need to buy a rather expensive custom cable. These connectors are very high quality, but they are smaller and longer than a BNC, and are more likely to break from side pressure. The BNC AES digital ins and outs are a feature that isn’t going to be needed by me anytime soon, and even though the connectors are in an inconvenient spot, I’d rather have them available for timecode.
These are fairly small gripes, though, and I’d still buy this unit again without hesitation. I’ve used my 664 on almost every shoot I’ve done over the last six months, and overall, I love it. I’m not a big fan of menu-operated gear, but I’ve adapted. This recorder is doing a complex job, so there’s lots of info that has to be presented somehow. Sound Devices seem to have taken pains to make these menus as logical as possible, and with a little practice, it begins to make sense. I have gotten several jobs directly as a result of having this unit, so it is clearly earning its keep. About the only real downside is that some clients seem to think that there MUST be a wireless receiver connected to every input, so they are requiring more lavs in their spec sheets. I’m in the process of buying a couple more, but the FCC is posturing to take away MORE spectrum from us, so now isn’t the smartest time to be buying radios.