Musings of a Sound Mixer

March 16, 2020

Sound Devices 888 – A Zaxcom User’s Perspective

I’m a Zaxcom user. Just take a cursory look at my Gear Page and you’ll see that brand pop up quite a bit. The Nomad has been my primary recorder since I purchased it in 2012, having been released in late 2011. In those days, a sound mixer would have a mixer such as the Sound Devices 552 or 442 that would feed a separate recorder. Nomad streamlined the the process by integrating a mixer with six XLR inputs and a multitrack recorder into a single unit that was about the size of the 552 mixer without sacrificing anything, and in fact adding quite a few features. As of 2020, Nomad has been in production for almost nine years, far longer than any other digital file based recorder save for the venerable Sound Devices 788T.

And that segue brings me to the reason for today’s blog post. A few weeks ago, DVE Store was kind enough to loan me the 788T’s intended successor, the Sound Devices 888, released late 2019. Of course one could argue the 688 was the successor released in 2015 and recently discontinued, though I distinctly remember Sound Devices continuing to sell the 788T for quite some time. Then again, 8 is a higher number than 7 or 6. Or maybe their flagship Scorpio (the eighth sign on the zodiac) is the new successor? I’m getting sidetracked.

I spent a few days playing around with the 888 and then going back to my trusty Nomad. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Sound Devices users trying out Zaxcom gear or their hurdles with switching, but never the other way around. As a long time Zaxcom user, this overview will be incredibly biased. But then, that is the title, right?

Please note that this is not a review so much as a series of impressions. Sound Devices and Zaxcom recorders both sound phenomenal and deliver world class results every time. There is a reason professionals in the United States overwhelmingly choose these two brands, and trust them to deliver the best results to their clients. The 888 is reliable and sounds fantastic. Therefore, I’m going to be focusing on the differences in how the recorders are laid out and their overall design philosophies. Now that I got that out of the way…

First Impressions

Pulling it out of the box, I noticed Sound Devices was kind enough to include an AC power adaptor. Bag mixers are designed to be operated by battery, but it was still a nice accessory to include.

A lot of attention was put into the fit and finish of the unit, notably the contoured edges on the body frame compared to Zaxcom’s much sharper lines. I especially liked that the AES connector port had a small magnetic plate to seamlessly hide the port when not in use. When in use, there’s a cutout on the bottom of the unit for the user to stash it. Very nice touch. The custom chrome rings around all the IO gives it a very classy look, as does the solid magnetic door hiding the SD media slots.

Note: the manual and all other documentation refers to the port on the top as the AES port, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s more of an accessory port, though most accessories expand AES capabilities. However, you cannot connect more AES sources without accessories such as the SL-2 or XL-AES. But since they call it the AES port, that is what I’ll call it.

I suspect the door is there to prevent accidentally ejecting the media while recording as well as protecting the slots from dust, but otherwise all the little refinements make the unit feel like it was crafted with a lot of care. Of course most of these aesthetic considerations go out the window once you bury it in your bag and slap a few cables in, but they are appreciated.

Overall size is about the same as my Nomad and weight is pretty close. The 888 has plenty of output options, with six balanced analog outputs and four unbalanced, giving it a total of ten analog outputs over ten busses, though two of them can be used as AES output pairs, giving the machine a total of four AES outs. That is a lot to put in a machine designed to fit in a small audio bag and weighing a mere 4 pounds (1.82 kg). In fact, that many outputs on such a small unit was unthinkable back in 2011, which is why Nomad included it, and that device only weighs 3.7 pounds (1.68 kg)!

 

888 Outputs

The outputs and media slots on the 888, with the nice chrome rings around all the outputs. Picture courtesy of Sound Devices.

In fact, Nomad has 3 AES output pairs that don’t require you to sacrifice any analog outputs, and Outputs 1 through 4 have two mirrored analog outs. Basically, if I want to send a mix through Output 1, that signal will go out over the TA5 and an XLR output. All told, Nomad has ten total output busses (Out 1-6, IFB, Mono, HP2 L and R) over fourteen total analog outputs (ten balanced) and six AES outputs, and that machine has nine years on the 888. I warned you I was biased.

Right side of the Nomad showing the outputs.

Nomad’s outputs. A few more, different aesthetic. Photo courtesy of Zaxcom.

To be fair, Zaxcom’s new Nova did away with all the analog unbalanced outputs entirely, which I would only use for IFB anyway. Their new unit has eight analog outputs and six AES over six busses. I suspect the reduction is due to the smaller size of the Nova and for a machine that prioritizes size and weight, outputs are less of a concern.

Nova Outputs

The new Nova’s outputs. Fewer than either machine, but optimized for size and weight. Photo by Zaxcom.

Moving on to the inputs, all eight are on the left side of the machine for fast access to all the connectors, but it does effectively increase the overall width of the machine. Nomad’s design was to put all the XLR inputs on a cutout in the back, which meant that six XLRs would not increase the machine’s dimensions one bit. It was a great design, and in practice you do not disconnect microphones very often as your wireless receivers tend to live in the bag. However for quickly swapping boom mics, I had to add a short XLR jumper cable as the connector would otherwise be buried in my bag. Putting all the inputs on one side eliminates that issue, and Sound Devices was able to add a pair of L-Mount battery inputs on the back instead, meant to be an auxiliary power source that can be charged from the bag’s main battery so there is never a need to change them.

Nomad XLR Inputs

The rear cutout of the Nomad where XLRs can be plugged in while conserving space, but at the cost of fast access. Photo by Zaxcom.

Nomad Audio Bag

My Nomad in its bag with all the wireless hooked up. Note the XLR jumper cable for my boom tucked on the left side just above the mixer. Hard to access the cutout with all the other stuff in the way. Photo by me!

Sound Devices has always put the inputs on the side of the machine as did most bag mixers before it, which I suspect became standard so sound mixers could rapidly swap out their mics. In practice, wireless systems tend to live in the bag permanently and do not need to be swapped out very often. A typical bag layout is a ton of wireless receivers and single boom, so burying it using Zaxcom’s space saving design made sense back in 2011, and adding a short XLR jumper for the boom was trivial. Since I upgraded to all Zaxcom wireless, I haven’t even been using those XLR inputs, instead opting for AES through a single DB-15 plug, which eliminates one level of gain staging and those bulky XLR connectors entirely.

888 XLR Inputs

The inputs on the 888, on the left side of the machine so they can be quickly accessed. No jumper cables necessary. Photo by Sound Devices.

However, their recently released Nova put the XLR inputs back on the side. Why is that? You’ll always need analog XLR inputs, but wireless receivers are moving towards AES as the standard, and Zaxcom has always put their AES I/O through a breakout cable. But since wireless receivers are meant to live in the bag full time, Zaxcom did one better by adding slot receivers in the back of the Nova. I can simply install two of their proprietary MRX modules for up to eight wireless channels. No cables necessary. Because I will not be swapping out wireless receivers, this is buried on the back of the machine, and the XLRs are placed on the side.

Sound Devices is aware that machines are becoming more integrated, and sound mixers like having fewer cables, so they released the SL-2. SL-2 is an add-on that plugs into the AES port on the top of the 888 (or 833 or Scorpio) with a pair of slots for up to four channels of wireless, all through a single connection, and not using a single XLR input on the 888. Personally, I think having the slots integrated into the recorder itself is far more elegant, but I am biased.

Why did I put so much attention on XLR placement? It seems mundane, but to me it’s a good microcosm of the differences between the two companies. The only reason to put something in the back of a bag recorder is if you’re not going to have to touch it and don’t want to see it. Sound Devices has always put the inputs on the left, the outputs on the right, and batteries on the back, sticking with what works and never breaking from convention. They did put the CF card slot on the back of the 7 series recorders, which they mercifully changed with the 6 and 8 series so you don’t have to rummage through your bag to hand clients the media. Zaxcom realized you don’t change what goes into the XLR inputs very often and came up with a space saving design, and when they found a better use for the machine’s back, they changed their convention yet again.

There is something to be said about continuity between generations, not changing what works fine as Sound Devices has done. You also have to respect when companies are willing to change everything about their products because they think they have a better idea, and just looking at XLR placement is a great microcosm of all that.

Using The 888

Mixing on the 888 is very intuitive, and the recessed smaller faders for Inputs 5-8 are unobtrusive and comfortable to use, a fine way to supplement the four full sized faders. This allows control over eight inputs while maintaining a small overall footprint. A trend in mixer/recorders since, well Nomad, has been increasing the number of inputs while reducing the overall size of the machine. This is a welcome trend, but it reduces the space to put usable physical faders. The venerable 788T for example was difficult to use without the CL-8 fader accessory. The 888’s solution was to have four of it’s eight faders be much smaller and on push pots. This way, the smaller faders can be recessed when not in use. While the larger four primary faders are certainly easier to use, I found the smaller secondary faders quite comfortable. Still, I like Zaxcom’s solution to this problem with the Nova, replacing the faders with digital encoders and allowing bank switching, so those five faders can control up to twenty mic sources, which is impressive since Nova has only eighteen inputs.

The trim pots on all inputs were easy to use and can be recessed when not in use, though I did miss Auto Trim from my Nomad. Auto Trim allows the Menu encoder to be used as a universal trim pot, so if I need to adjust the trim on any input, I can simply touch the fader associated with the mic source, then use the Menu encoder to adjust the trim. This enabled quick trim adjustments while keeping the front panel very clean, instead of burying those settings in menus. Sound Devices has used physical pots for years, and I found this approach very fast and intuitive, though I find Auto Trim much faster and more precise. That might be due to my familiarity more than anything, and I imagine different mixers will have their own preferences. However, I like that I can simply shut off any input and the 888 will power down the input and disarm the associated iso track very quickly, something that makes no sense on a Zaxcom recorder given their design architecture.

I like that the 8 series brought back the LED rings from the 788T that were conspicuously absent in the 6 series. The rings around the trim pots will glow green, yellow, or red to indicate the input level, but it also allows me to tell at a glance which fader I need to bring up into the mix. This is an invaluable feature in reality or conference settings where you have six or more talent chatting unscripted, and you want to put together a decent mix track for IFB and post. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Zaxcom added a similar feature on their Nova.

888 Front

The 888 front panel with all its regular sized faders, recessed faders, and trim pots. Note how the Menu button is next to the Headphone encoder, and the transport controller is now in red! Photo by Sound Devices.

The Nova front panel, showcasing Zaxcom’s philosophy of getting rid of stuff you don’t need if you can do it better. No trim pots, faders are now multifunction encoders. Most of what’s there is multifunction. Photo by Zaxcom.

Busses

In the old days, Sound Devices was quite rigid about what could be routed to each track. There were two dedicated mix busses for L and R respectively, two extra mix tracks labeled X1 and X2 that any input could be routed to, and the rest would be dedicated iso tracks, and you could decide if they were pre or post fade. With the new 8 series, Sound Devices has proudly proclaimed much greater routing flexibility, and every Zaxcom user said, “Really? You’re adding this now?” That’s always been a feature of Zaxcom recorders.

I’d expected to see some Zaxcom style routing, but that is not the case. 888 has four dedicated mix tracks and isos for all the inputs. You can change the source for each iso channel to any input, and Busses 1 and 2 will always be recorded as auxiliary mix tracks in addition to Busses L and R, and that’s it. However, I can route anything to any output I want, in addition to routing any bus to any output. Is this confusing?

Basically, I can send any input to Bus L and R, and they will be output through Out L and R and by default, recorded to media. If I want to send Channels 1 and 2 through Output X1, I have two options: I can route the inputs through X1, or I can route them through a bus and output that bus to X1. Why would I do it the latter way? Well if I also want to route that bus through another output, say X3 and X5, this automates a lot of that. However, if I want that recorded as a mix, I have to route the inputs through either Bus 1 or Bus 2. Busses  3-8 can not be recorded.

Definitions:

A Mix Track refers to where multiple mic sources are mixed together, hence the name. In practice, it is usually where the most important audio source is brought up. In the old days, this would be the primary audio track, but in modern productions it tends to serve as a guide to post and IFB for clients and directors to listen to what is being recorded.

An Iso Track is short for Isolated Track, where a single mic source is isolated and recorded, hence the name. This provides the post team sources the option of creating their own mix.

A typical setup is a one or two channel mix with the boom and all wireless lavs on their individual isos.

Contrast this with Zaxcom’s system. There are no separate busses, all the outputs are treated as their own bus. So for the same scenario, I would assign my L and R mix to Out 1 and 2 respectively, and instead of X1, I’d assign that mix to Out 3. What if I want to record it? I just route Out 3 to any track I want. With Zaxcom, I can route any input to any track, or any output. So I can have three iso tracks and six mix tracks for some reason, compared to Sound Devices that only allows four recorded mix busses. I can also order the tracks any way I want with my Nomad whereas the 888 has everything locked in, and I just decide what I want to switch on.

Sound mixers often find Sound Devices to be far more intuitive, but this is one area where I find that’s completely false. Maybe it’s because I’ve been using the Nomad daily for eight years, but I did say this would be a biased look. Zaxcom recorders are straightforward – any track can be a mix or an iso, simply route the output to the desired track and there’s your mix, set whatever track to the pre-fade for whatever input you want and there’s an iso. Or you can make a mix that isn’t routed by simply routing the desired inputs post fade to a single track. This is far more flexible and in my opinion, a much better system and there’s no need to add any separate busses to complicate the operation. I will say the addition of the bus routing does allow for a bit more automation which many mixers will find useful for automating a lot of output sends.

Because Sound Devices locks in and automates quite a bit, I think this is why people find things simpler. L and R mix are already preset by default, whereas I have to set that up on my Nomad. Need to enable an iso? Turn it on and it’s taken care of, versus going into the bus setup to make sure the iso is properly routed and checking the Record Enables sub-menu. More steps, but much more flexibility and it’s very intuitive once you acclimate. When I’ve trained new Zaxcom users on their Nomads, setting up the mix tracks and isos is the number one area newcomers choke, but once you get used to is it’s far superior.

All that said, Sound Devices recorders are locked into the track setup that most Zaxcom users end up configuring anyway, but it’s nice to be in control of all that.

Random Stuff That Bothers Me

Navigating the menus was very intuitive, but also has one of the most baffling designs from a user interface perspective. I can enter the menus by pressing the Menu button located directly above the Headphone encoder, scroll through my options using either the Headphone or Select encoders, though I instinctively go for the Headphone since it’s right next to the Menu button while the Select encoder is on the other side of the screen. However, when I select certain menu options, suddenly the Headphone encoder changes the volume and I have to move over to the Select encoder. Basically, I can use the encoder closest to the Menu button to navigate the menu, but I cannot use it when I want to actually change some settings, and have to move to a different encoder. This, in my opinion, is really awful design. On Zaxcom recorders, there is a Menu encoder that works as a trim pot on the home screen, I can press it to enter the menus, and I can rotate the same encoder to select my menu options and make whatever changes, all from the same control. I only need to press the Back button when I want to go back. Why is it on the 888, sometimes the encoder closest to the Menu button scrolls menus, but doesn’t work in sub menus? This is just baffling to me. I will say it makes sense for changing headphone matrices, but that’s it. I hope they address this in a future software update.

Then there are the transport controls. Sound Devices opted for their space saving four way control they pioneered in their 552 mixer and 6 series recorders, though now it’s red. Pressing it up to go into record feels solid enough, but depressing the button to stop felt way too sensitive for me. In my opinion, it should take a concerted effort to stop a recording to reduce accidental button presses, and I feel like if my hand slips, I could accidentally bump the Stop button. They did add a post record buffer, where the 888 will continue to record for a few seconds after hitting Stop during which I can cancel the stop to keep the roll going, and I suspect this was added in part to combat this possibility. Still, I hope in some software update, Sound Devices adds a delay between pressing Stop and the input registering to reduce the chances of accidental record termination. (Yes, Zaxcom’s Stop button takes some effort to push, and that’s the way I like it!)

I did get a chance to play with a Nova recently, which changed the transport buttons from the membrane switches on Nomad. I was a little nervous about that, but I found they have more than sufficient resistance and a user configurable delay, so I can choose to hold the button between 300 and 800 milliseconds. This, in my opinion, is how it should be done, and I hope Sound Devices steals that design in a software update.

I should also mention that many Sound Devices users have told me this has never been an issue for them, so it may just be my paranoid imagination worrying about ruining a take because the Stop button has little resistance.

Things I Wish Zaxcom Would Steal

I like that when I press PFL, not only will the 888 solo the track but it will also take you to the associated channel setup screen. I would love it if Zaxcom added an option where going into the setups would automatically solo the associated input.

I like the ability to arm tracks while recording. On my Nomad, if a new talent suddenly shows up and I need to wire them and I don’t have their iso enabled, I have to stop the recording, go into Record Enables, enable the track (assuming my routing is in order), then hit record again. This only takes a few seconds, but on shoots where you’re constantly rolling, this is not ideal. On the 888, I simply enable the new track and the recorder will stop and then immediately roll, so I don’t lose any audio. It’s a really awesome feature that I would love it if Zaxcom would implement in some form with a future software update to Nova and Nomad.

Things I Wish They’d Steal From Zaxcom

I’ve mentioned most of them in previous sections, but to recap, make it harder to accidentally press Stop, and don’t needlessly overcomplicate menu navigation. Also, the recorder is capable of twenty tracks and built around a 64-bit CPU that’s far more powerful than what is required to drive this recorder. If I’m only recording say, four isos, let me route any bus to one of the unused tracks if I want. This has always been a feature of Zaxcom recorders.

I feel these can be accomplished with a software update and without infringing on any patents. Hardware wise, the Headphone encoder should not be next to the Menu button if I can’t use it to fully navigate and operate the menus. Maybe they’ll move things around on the 988.

Cool Things People Will Bug Me About If I Don’t Mention Them

The following doesn’t really fit in any other section, but it’s worth mentioning.

The 888 has a built in 256GB SSD which is fantastic for storing weeks of recordings, and has dual SD slots to deliver to clients. This ensures there is always a backup. Only the high end Zaxcom Deva has this feature, though in practice it has never been necessary, but nice nonetheless.

The 888 has Dante IO, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in a bag but when used on a cart, it is a very nice feature to have.

The 888 has two automixer options, their MixAssist and the Dugan Automixer. There was no mention of the difference in the manual, and I had to look it up in the 688 manual. Until Sound Devices corrects that, the short version is Dugan uses a proprietary algorithm to blend the tracks together which generally sounds a lot nicer, but is lacking in options. MixAssist uses a noise gate to activate mics and is a lot more configurable. I can see why Sound Devices offered two options since one might be better in certain conditions, but they need to spell out the difference in the manual.

Final Thoughts

What is interesting to me is the design approach that is obvious from both manufacturers’ latest offerings and earlier units. The 888 feels like a refinement from its immediate predecessor, the 688. It has a lot of similar design cues and operates much the same way, but with a smaller footprint. It is still a digital mixer / recorder with a strong attachment to its previous recorders and analog roots. The key differences on the front panel are more usable trim pots and the lack of pan pots, which aren’t really necessary in field recording anymore.

Zaxcom however has never been shy about shaking up their own paradigm. When the Nomad came out, the idea of combining a mixer and recorder in such a small footprint was inconceivable, now even prosumer gear follows that trend. I already talked about how they were willing to change up the XLR placement when looking at how people use their recorders, and how they eliminated trim pots to declutter the recorder’s face. On the new Nova, they’ve eliminated traditional faders to get around the problem of having more inputs than you can physically fit controls for while still making a usable machine, and they even ditched AutoTrim because they think they’ve found a better solution. I haven’t even mentioned their innovations in the wireless space, that’s another blog post.

Sound Devices on the other hand seems hesitant to make any radical changes to their products. Yes, there is something to be said for focusing on refinement, and it’s certainly easier to transition from older analog mixers as a lot of the design logic will feel very familiar. For me though, even small things like maintaining trim pots feel very dated, though I know many colleagues who prefer this setup. They only seem to make changes when it’s very clear their design choices would be utterly nonsensical going forward (looking at you SVEN).

Sound Devices set up the 8 series as a new platform, putting more or less the same components in all three recorders and far more CPU power than necessary to drive their current functions. That was the approach Zaxcom took with the Nomad, and it allowed them to make changes including adding more tracks through software updates, and I’m glad Sound Devices is taking that approach now. I look forward to seeing what capabilities these recorders gain over the next decade.

Will I Buy An 888?

No, I’ve already ordered a Nova. Nobody goes back from Zaxcom.

Would I Recommend An 888?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a great recorder with a few quirks that bug only me, and I know a lot of people who prefer Sound Devices’ workflow. It’s a solid recorder and I would trust any pro who chooses it as their daily workhorse.

In fact, you can order one from DVE Store, who were kind enough to lend me one to try out. Located about forty minutes north of Seattle in Everett, they are the best video equipment vendor in the Greater Seattle Area, and I go in there regularly for small expendables, cables, and I even just bought a hard drive from them. Check them out, they ship worldwide and they are a local business to me.

October 9, 2019

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September 10, 2019

32-Bit Audio Recording – Do You Need It?

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February 1, 2019

How I Approach New Jobs

As a Freelance Sound Mixer, I get many calls every year from new clients. I need to quickly know the scope of the job and recommend the best practice, and these four questions help me do that.

January 22, 2019

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November 6, 2016

Lectrosonics’ New PDR Recorder

Lectrosonics announced their new PDR recorder today. The company is best known for their line of excellent wireless systems and is the current industry leader in that regard. The PDR is new territory for them, and it looks like a good first entry. According to the press release, it’s not much bigger than two or Read More…

November 5, 2016

Max Futterman Blog

In the coming weeks, I’ll be using this blog to discuss everything related to location sound mixing, including technologies, tutorials, and product reviews.  If you have a request for something you’d like me to cover, email me and let me know!