Nagra-VI Review

June 10, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Nagra. For those of us with more than a few years in this business, the word conjures up a solemn air of reverence. They’re back.

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PREFACE

1)The goal of this review is to give the professional location recording engineer an accurate preview of what their own findings will be with the Nagra-VI. Therefore, the perspective is mostly from an operator’s point of view, rather than that of an electronics technician. Detailed technical specifications not contained in this review may be seen in the Operating Instructions and Reference Manual(s): http://www.nagraaudio.com/files/Manual_V1_5.zip (for version 1.5) and here: http://www.nagraaudio.com/files/NAGRA+VI+USER+MANUAL+2_0.zip (for version 2.0)

2)Reviewing products as a moving target: As is customary with a Trew Audio review, comments about features and characteristics that are considered to be in need of improvement are included, hopefully with alternatives constructively suggested. Like all items reviewed by Trew Audio, the Nagra-VI did not escape such discoveries and suggestions. However, during the course of the review process (done with then current firmware version 1.5) Nagra devised solutions for some of the deficiencies discovered. These solutions are in the form of firmware revision 2.0, to be available for previously purchased Nagra-VI recorders, and standard in new Nagra-VI recorders. Even though it was known that these improvements were to be made available soon, the original findings of this review were left in tact, with the related revision also described. This was done for three reasons: 1) For the benefit of those who may already have or may be familiar with the Nagra-VI, 2) To show the ability of the Nagra-VI to adapt to evolving needs and trends, and 3) To show the willing responsiveness of Nagra in considering market feedback.

 For those who already have the Nagra-VI, I encourage upgrading for v2.0, which is available here: http://www.nagraaudio.com/files/NVI_0100_200.nbu. Upgrading the Nagra-VI firmware may be the easiest in the industry. Download the file to a computer, drag the file onto a Compact Flash card, place the CF card in the Nagra-VI, and choose “Yes”. Have a nice day.

3) For all of the above reasons, it is impractical for a review to cover every detail of a product (even in the 6000 words that follow). Therefore, questions and discussions related to the Nagra-VI are encouraged in the “comments” area at the end of this review.

-gt

THE REVIEW

Nagra’s reputation began fifty years ago with strict but creative engineering and design practices that produced no-compromise, purpose-built tape recorders, which is why the sonic quality and mechanical elegance of their products from years ago remains legendary. After always leading the industry in advanced technology – scoffing at the DAT era with their own better sounding, more capable, Nagra-D (open reel ¼” 4-track digital recorder) – it’s probably fair to say that Nagra was caught off-guard by the industry’s mass exodus to nonlinear hard drive portable machines with multiple tracks and data ports – produced by other manufacturers. It is also fair to say and important to note that Nagra was the first on the nonlinear scene with their Ares-C recorder which used PCMCIA flash memory in dual slots, but their innovative prowess caused them to arrive too early, before technology and the market were ready (flash memory capacity/cost and postproduction). The 2-track Nagra-V hard drive recorder that followed was a notable entry, but it was too little too late to win back the pole position, at least for the mainstream film/video market in North America that was demanding four or more tracks, internal hard drives, and external drive ports.

Now the Nagra-VI (pronounced “Nagra Six”) – a beautifully well-made, great sounding, multi-track, multi-media, timecode, portable recorder with unique features of its own – puts Nagra back in the game. With its combination of features and price placing it in a point currently vacant in the market, the Nagra-VI may well find a place both on the film set and acoustical music venues.

The exterior of the Nagra-VI is an artful blend of legacy and modern craftsmanship. Just as Nagra wisely stayed connected to their audio roots – even in the midst of their NagraVision division’s enormous growth – several design elements from their earlier recorders are clearly recognizable, such as in the main selector switch and printed metal side panels. The elegant satin-finished aluminum retaining nut on the headphone connector – that I suspect is still machined in their Lausanne, Switzerland factory – is undoubtedly the same that was used on their analog tape recorders decades ago. These small touches of style are a familiar and unrivaled touch of class.

A prime example of Nagra’s renowned “form follows function” approach to design can be seen in the front panel of this newest Nagra. The panel serves three primary purposes: 1) it protects the controls, 2) it labels the controls, and 3) it shades the display and LED indicators. But with those functions accomplished, Nagra added some very subtle details: contoured cutouts that flow around the pots to define the mixer section, curved raised sections over certain switches to help reduce accidental activation and to help locate them by feel, and tiny bumps around the headphone knob to confirm what you are about to turn. The texture of the panel is ultra flat so there is no glare. The panel is a rugged synthetic material, easily replaceable, and even available in different color choices (skins, baby!); in a snap you can have a brand new panel. Chamfered corners compliment the elegant lines (another signature flashback to some of its predecessors). The yellow position indicators on the knobs draw your attention naturally to the business end of the mixer, literally making it easy on the eyes. The unsightly hole for the slate mic – the one all such devices must endure – is hidden from view by the main selector when in the STOP position. In short, the Nagra-VI, in addition to having a very natural flowing layout to work with, is sweet to look at and a pleasure to touch. It is a work of art.

Are these details that make it nice to run our eyes and hands over it something we should care about as audio recordists? Yes. The quality, look, and feel of the exterior effect our approach to operating any machine, and they are often an accurate representation of the experience one can expect in its use and ownership. It is universally accepted that this was the case with Nagra recorders in the past, and all indications are that it still is.

General Description

The Nagra-VI is a portable, nonlinear, timecode, audio recorder that can record its six inputs (4 mic/line, 2 line/AES) to six tracks of its internal hard drive. It can also record onto Compact Flash card via a built-in slot, and/or onto an external device via its fully comprehensive USB-2.0 ports, which can also facilitate file transfers from its CF slot and internal hard drive to Mac or PC. Can it…..? Yes.

The mixer section is fully microprocessor driven, using menu options to configure the four knobs to be either input gain trims, mixer faders, or inactive. There are two analog and two digital (AES-31) mixer outputs for sending signals to external devices. Comprehensive monitoring of six channels is by ¼” stereo headphone output and internal speaker.

Powering is via standard 4-pin XLR (12VDC) or removable rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery with built-in charger. Battery life is either  4 hours (standard battery, included) or 12 hours (optional battery) with recharge times of 4 hours or 5 hours, respectively.

Physical

It is probably no coincidence that the Nagra-VI is exactly the same footprint as the renowned Nagra IV-STC analog ¼” recorder (though much lighter) from the 1990’s. The IV-STC was considered quite portable at the time, and though the new Nagra-VI is considerably thinner and lighter, some are still surprised at first glance that it is as large as it is. This reaction is probably due the number of very compact portable recorders now on the market, but some of these recorders can be more difficult to use because of their small size.

Same footprint as the Nagra-IVSTC, but thinner and lighter

Same footprint as the Nagra-IVSTC, but thinner and lighter

The Nagra-VI uses its space very well. Some smaller recorders save space by using multi-function buttons that are bunched closely together and require a lot of memorization. Some recorders also achieve smallness by using tiny displays that reduce the amount of information shown. When sitting in front of the Nagra-VI, actually mixing and recording, it is realized that for most situations many sound professionals work in, the Nagra-VI has a very comfortable balance of control layout, displayed information, and size. The layout and user interface are intuitive enough that the Nagra-VI can be used without opening the printed color manual (included!), which, by the way, is nicely clamped and protected in a transparent folder.

The color display is the same size as an iPhone’s. It is bright enough to be read in sunlight, and can be dimmed enough for very dark sets. At a glance, the home screen displays most of the pertinent recorder information such as timecode, scene/take, levels, etc., but also includes information relating to the mixer portion such as phantom power, line/mic, filters, etc. There are four home screen presets intended to display information optimized for “Cinema” or  “Music”, an arrangement to allow larger metering, and a fourth preset called “Default” that shows nearly everything you could want to know. My normal preference would be the “Default” screen. With so many functions requiring quite a few menus, it is good to know that, no matter where you are, you can instantly return to the homescreen by pressing the left arrow. Similarly, pressing the right arrow will momentarily display the meter screen.

Controls

To select the menu options, to the right of the screen is a joystick type navigation pad. Above the navigation pad are three user keys – U1, U2, U3 – that can be easily programmed to jump to any of your most needed menus. The menus I chose to preset into the user keys were INPUT (for selecting line/mic, 48p, limiters, phase, and track assignment), POT ASSIGN (for making the knobs input trim, mixer faders, or inactive), and METADATA (for entering scene, take, and notes text). To the right of the keypad area is a traditional mixer and transport section, with real switches and knobs. At the far right of the panel is the iconic Nagra main selector switch that has roots all the way back to the Nagra-III of the 1950’s.

Nagra-VI homescreen display and joystick navigator pad

Nagra-VI homescreen display and joystick navigator pad

Thankfully for the operator, the Nagra-VI has all of its controls on the front, and all of its connectors are on the sides, allowing it to be easily mount in a bag or between closely spaced shelves of an enclosed cart. In fact, this layout allows the Nagra-VI to require less space than some smaller recorders because additional space is not needed for access to the top and back.

The Nagra-VI has a speaker! The fact that hindsight is 20-20 may explain why Nagra knew to include a speaker. Anyone who remembers using the famous 3 and 4-series Nagra tape recorders also remembers using the speaker, and often. The usefulness of a built-in speaker has not diminished at all over the years, yet for some reason it is no longer found most modern recorders. Not only is it nice to hear playback without having to wear headphones, but the Nagra-VI also allows the speaker to be used during STOP, TEST, or RECORD, allowing the operator to listen to the set while giving their ears a break from the headphones. Since Nagra-VI users will not need an external speaker, the built-in speaker is yet another feature that saves space somewhere else, essentially making the Nagra-VI smaller than it looks.

User Templates

The Nagra-VI can store six configurations (called Templates) of user settings that can be recalled instantly. Common settings that come to mind for this use include mic/line level, analog/AES, timecode rate, sampling freq, pre-record, mixer knob configuration, monitoring, etc. The stored templates can be named anyway the user likes, such as “CART”, “RED CAM”, “CAR RIG”, “MID/SIDE”, “SURROUND”, or whatever comes to mind. Because the complex capabilities of modern recorders allow hundreds of combination possibilities that often need to be changed quickly, this feature is more important than some manufactures have realized. More kudos to Nagra for their Template feature

Using the Nagra-VI “a-la cart” with an external mixer

When the Nagra-VI is used in a cart arrangement with an external mixer, its menu system for controlling input levels is very functional for the accepted convention of “mix track(s) plus prefader iso’s on remaining tracks”. It allows the recorder’s inputs to be calibrated to an external mixer’s outputs, and once the levels are set, the knobs can be rendered inactive to prevent unintentional adjustment. A remote-roll connection (locking 1/8” TRS) can interface with any mixer’s remote roll function or a simple switch box.The Nagra-VI’s monitor options are well suited for my preferred method of return monitoring and playback through an external mixer.  Above the headphone connector and volume control are six small 3-position switches for OFF, ON, and SOLO. For return monitoring, I connect the headphone output of the recorder to the return input(s) of the mixer. Not only does this facilitate confidence monitoring while recording (usually the mix track), but it also allows the solo functions of the Nagra-VI to be used while keeping your headphones plugged into the external mixer. (Using a recorder’s line output would not allow use of the recorder’s solo function.) For playback, the same thing applies; with your headphones still connected to your external mixer, select return monitoring on the mixer and turn on the Nagra-VI tracks you want to hear. When playing back your mono mix, the Nagra-VI also allows the operator to instantly solo any of the isolation tracks as well. I’ve found this method to be very helpful for convincing the director (or myself) that an isolation track is OK when there may have been a problem heard in the mix. Keep in mind that this method only requires a simple cable to go between the headphone connection and one return input on your mixer (two inputs if you do a 2-channel mix).

Mixer and "transport" section of Nagra-VI

Mixer and "transport" section of Nagra-VI

Going portable on the film/video set

When changing from a cart to be more portable for a car scene (for example), the Nagra-VI will do very well. It is self-contained enough that an external portable mixer would not usually be needed whenever four [or five**] inputs, four[or five**] isolation tracks, plus a mono mix are all that is needed (95% of car scenes, in my estimation). Just load the template you pre-configured for car work, and all the settings you want are changed instantly. In a typical car scene configuration, the two analog outputs could be used to feed Comteks and video assist. For insert car and towing scenes, the driver will also appreciate the built-in speaker, which can be used to help with dialog cues for braking, accelerating, etc.

[**NOTE: With v2.0 firmware the Nagra-VI can now use its internal mixer to record five analog inputs to five isolation tracks plus a postfader mix track. Kudos to Nagra for quickly adding this feature]

Going portable for music recording

Nagra recorders have always had a strong appeal to professionals who record live acoustical music; jazz, symphony orchestras, bluegrass, wind ensembles, etc. Lead by its four pristine microphone preamps and comprehensive monitoring ability, the Nagra-VI will no doubt become a top pick as a self-contained acoustical music recorder. The tracking options of “four prefader iso tracks plus a 2-track mix” or “six isolation tracks” [and now, with v2.0, “five prefader iso tracks plus a mono mix”] facilitates a number of stereo and surround recording techniques. Possibly for this reason, extra effort was put into the Nagra-VI microphone preamps…

Transformers or transformerless? The best of both worlds.

While there will always be the esoteric debate about whether the distortion added by transformers is “warm” and “musical” or “dull” and “muddy”, it is a given that the most accurate way to reproduce a condenser microphone signal is with a well-designed transformerless preamp. However, when a low-output dynamic microphone is used with a transformerless preamp designed for high-output condenser microphones, the transfer of power is less efficient, resulting in more noise than necessary. So, Nagra took an extra step in their preamp design: When selecting “Condenser Mic”, the preamp is transformerless, but when selecting “Dynamic Mic”, a high quality 200-ohm transformer is put in line for more efficient transfer of power, resulting in a better signal-to-noise ratio. This might seem like an unexpected use of resources for film and video production sound (since dynamic mics are almost never used on the set any more). But keep in mind that acoustical music recording engineers are often fond of dynamic ribbon mics, and ribbon mics stand to benefit with better signal to noise ratios from the transformers used when “Dynamic Mic” is selected.

Going portable over-the-shoulder

For working with a traditional bag and shoulder strap arrangement, the physical dimensions of the Nagra-VI may often be considered larger than ideal, especially when compared to super-compact recorders. But, keeping in mind that the Nagra-VI takes up less space and is much lighter weight than one of the most loved portable recorders ever – the Nagra 4 series – the size and shape are proven to be manageable. Also, since the Nagra-VI has two 12-volt outlets that can be used to power items such as wireless receivers, the traditional external battery and distribution system can be eliminated, freeing up additional space and weight. Once again, it becomes smaller than it looks. The Nagra-VI comes with detachable handles, strap, and a rugged ENG bag.

Once the Nagra-VI and accessory gear are configured in a bag, the control panel layout makes it easy to operate, even blindfolded. All you have to do is feel and listen. With a single hand it is easy to mix, select monitoring options, and control record, stop, and play functions, without ever looking down. Turn the main selector fully clockwise, and a subtle BEEP tone is heard in the headphones to confirm that you have begun recording. One click down and you have stopped recording but continue to monitor. Turn the switch fully counter-clockwise and you instantly playback the previous take. The raised bumps around the headphone knob let you keep the monitoring levels to your predetermined volume. When studying the physical layout of this machine, it is clear that a lot of detailed thought was devoted to its use in the field.

Knobs, prefader, and postfader  [NOTE: This section of the review includes notated addendums]

A set of menu options that Nagra should improve is the potentiometer configuration choices of the four knobs on the front panel. These knobs can be configured to control any and all inputs, and can be configured as input trims to the iso tracks or post-trim faders to the mix track(s).

For the following explanation, let’s assume a typical setup of four inputs that are assigned prefader individually to tracks 1-4 and also assigned post fader to track 5 for a mono mix, or tracks 5 and 6 for a 2-track mix.

The problem is that once an input is configured to be controlled post-trim by a knob (fader) to the mix, an input trim adjustment cannot happen quickly (10 seconds, minimum, in my tests)***. This is because, to adjust the input trim, a knob has to be programmed to do it, but if knob-1 is being used for postfader mixing to the mix track, then knob-1 cannot adjust the input trim until it has been reassigned to do so. In other words, both of these functions – input trim and post trim mixing – would typically be done by one knob, but at not the same time. To make the transition from “trim control” to “fader” as fast as possible, I programmed one of the user buttons to jump to the Pot Assign screen instantly. But even then, the fastest I was able to go through this procedure was 10 seconds, and that was with it on my desk, right in front of me. In run-and-gun field production, while holding a boom pole in the air with sweat running in the eyes and the director screaming to roll sound, it’s fair to estimate that this commonly needed adjustment would take even longer.

Of course, it’s true that all four knobs could be configured as input trim knobs, and the four isolation tracks can then be assigned directly to the mix, with the mix achieved by riding gain on the input trims. But in this configuration you no longer have prefader isolation tracks; i.e. as a microphone is altered or removed from the mix, it is also altered or removed from the isolation track, eliminating the benefit of prefader iso tracks.

I did find that I was able to assign one knob to an input for trim and assign a second knob to the same input for post trim mixing. But since this requires two knobs per input, this trick can only be done with two microphones before running out of knobs. An adequate fix would involve a single menu screen where each input trim could be selected and adjusted while maintaining control of the postfader mix, without having to reconfigure the knobs. Adding such a menu function would reduce the time needed to make a prefader trim adjustment to just a couple of seconds.

[***NOTE: Nagra has plans to address this concern in the upcoming revision 2.1, which will allow quick access to menu operated trim control while maintaining the fader function of the knobs.]

To be fair, we have to acknowledge that, for decades, we managed just fine without having trim and post-trim controls on portable recorders, but those were before the days of prefader isolation tracks plus a mix track. Not only is input trim needed to optimize gain structure within the mixer, but input trim also determines the level of the prefader isolation track. The only way to facilitate the currently accepted field multitrack convention of “mix-track plus prefader iso’s on remaining tracks” is with input trim and postfader mixing. Multifunction knobs can suffice, but quick access to both functions is important.

Another limitation to be aware of when working with the Nagra-VI portably (without an external mixer) is that, when using it’s own mixer to produce a mix track, it is limited to four inputs [NOTE: This has now been corrected with v2.0]****. With v1.5, for some reason the options for inputs 5 & 6 are “LINE, AES A, AES B, or MIX”. When input 6 is selected as “MIX” (as would be required to do a mono mix track), input 5 is automatically selected to be a mix track also, eliminating its ability to be a 5th input. Presumably this could be because analog inputs 5 & 6 must follow the AES inputs which are always switched in pairs, in which case this will not likely change. However, since a single track for the dialog mix is usually all that is needed (if not preferred), it would be very useful to be able to select only track 6 as the mix track, and still keep input 5 available for a 5th analog line level source (5 inputs in portable mode is very common these days).

[****NOTE: In revision 2.0 (proposed availability June 9, 2009), Nagra has added the mixer option of choosing input 5 and 6 independently, allowing five isolation tracks (1-5) plus a mono mix on track 6]

One final oddity that I discovered [to be corrected in v2.1]: Using the internal mixer of the Nagra-VI, it is impossible to mix levels to the mix track hotter than the isolation track. For example, if an input is set with the input trim low enough that an actor’s loudest voice is just below maximum (as it should be), then, when using a knob to adjust the level of that input to the mix track, the mixed level cannot be made any hotter than the input, such as might be needed when the actor is speaking softly. An argument for this structure could be that we should allow the actors to set their own dynamics, but that would be a losing argument. As all of us who record dramatic dialog know, some degree of gain riding is necessary, both for technical and artistic reasons. In fact, since part of the reason for isolation tracks is to preserve the original dynamics of an actor’s voice for later use if needed, the isolation tracks should always average lower than the mix track. This is one reason a traditional fader control usually has 12dB of gain beyond its “0” (unity gain) marking. Currently, when using the Nagra-VI internal mixer this extra “reach” beyond unity is not possible.

[NOTE: In communications with Nagra, it is my understanding that a “mixer gain control” function is now planned for revision 2.1. This feature, when selected, will convert the headphone level knob into a “master fader”, essentially adding needed gain to the post fader mix.]

Metadata

Metadata is helpful text that accompanies a recorded file. Much of this text, including scene number, take number, general comments, track names, etc, can be entered or altered manually by the operator. Once argued as being impractical in the real world of production sound, the use of metadata is now commonplace and has come to be expected to aid in postproduction. With that fact now established, the challenge for portable recorder manufactures is to come up with ways for the operator to quickly enter this text.

The Nagra-VI has an advantage of its fully functional USB-2.0 port that allows common QWERTY keyboards to, in addition to other functions, quickly enter metadata. But a keyboard is a practical accessory only when operating from a tabletop or an appropriately laid out cart. When in a more portable scenario, entering metadata in the Nagra-VI must be done with its navigator pad, which is relatively slow and cumbersome. In this case, metadata entries will often be limited to simple changes in scene number, which, fortunately, automatically resets the take number to “1”. Nagra has done an admirable job of making the most of their navigator pad system, particularly now that the programmable user keys are functional. But when on the run, I estimate that there will often be times that changes in metadata that involve fields such as track names, notes, etc, will be missed. However, while complex scene changes such as “105C” to “212” will often have to be missed, the more often encountered scene changes, such as from “105B” to “105C” could usually be done. Understanding that distractions in the field will sometimes mean that metadata entry will have to be ignored, Nagra has included the ability to modify metadata at any time after recording. When things calm down, or after wrap is called, using a keyboard to modify the metadata can be very quick.

Summary

After close scrutiny from the perspective of a sound mixer, when considering its quality, design, abilities, and price, the Nagra-VI is a remarkable achievement and a valid option for the mainstream.

For those who need up to six tracks, and primarily work from a cart or desktop, plus occasional treks into the more portable world, at under US$8000, a significant part of the market may find the Nagra-VI to be their best choice.

Glen Trew Signature

 

Ps:

Firmware revision 2.0 is to be posted June 10, 2009, which, in addition to the refinements discussed in this review, has a host of changes that were not discussed here. The list of 2.0 revisions is posted here:http://www.nagraaudio.com/files/TIS_32-07.pdf

Download the Nagra VI Manual 2.0 (4.73MB PDF)

More information about the Nagra VI