The Fostex PD-4 Timecode DAT Recorder and Settings

The Fostex PD-4 Timecode DAT Recorder and Settings

Evan T. Chen
Head of Post-Production
The Los Angeles Film School
Revised March 5, 2001

Certain menu items in the Fostex PD-4 Timecode DAT should be set differently than what initially was set at the factory upon shipping. Before any recording begins, verify that the menu items are set according to the chart below, my recommended settings for film school students. To access the menu items, simultaneously press both the ↑ (Up) and ↓ (Down) keys. Then use the ↑ (Up) and ↓ (Down) keys in conjunction with the MARK/SET key to select the menu item: the menu item number will be the first three digits on the left of the screen. Pressing the MARK/SET key while in a particular menu item number will cause the value of that particular menu item setting to start blinking and allow you to change its value: the value of the menu item number is the last two digits on the right of the screen. Use the ↑ (Up) and ↓ (Down) keys to change the value of the menu item setting, and press the MARK/SET key to stop the value of the menu item setting from blinking, saving the present setting. Use the ↑ (Up) and ↓ (Down) keys to navigate to the next menu item and continue verifying and modifying menu item settings if necessary until all menu items have been completely checked. Once finished, press the DISP/QUIT key to exit the menu. The following table below lists the various menu items, a description for each menu item, and my recommended settings. The (*) mark in the third column indicates that this is the factory default setting upon the unit's shipping.

Menu Item #Description Recommended Setting
001Display the present ROM (software) version for the PD-4 00 (off)*
104PAUSE mode release time 01 (1 minute)
105Digital output format AES/EBU or S/PDIF 00 (AES/EBU)*
106Auto S-ID/P-NO (Start ID/Program Number) record 01 (whenever recording starts)
110Error tone for low battery, tape remain, peak, external TC, PCM error, and variations thereof 00 (off)
111LCD display contrast 07 (maximum)*
112Peak hold time on the digital audio level meters 03 (3 seconds)*
113PAUSE key function alternates between PAUSE and STOP 00 (PAUSE only)*
114LIMITER effects MIC and/or LINE signals 00 (MIC signal only)*
116Speaker mute while recording 01 (mute ON)
117PCM error light 01 (3% errors)*
118Confidence monitor through XLR outputs 00 (off)*
119Low battery level warning 01 (NiCad batteries)*
201Threshold level for Auto-ID based on level and duration 03 (-40dB)*
202Duration setting for Auto-ID based on level and duration 02 (900msec)*
401Playback timecode type output from the TC OUT specified from tape or from FRAME RATE switch 00 (tape)*
403Output stationary timecode while in PAUSE mode 00 (off)*
408Output timecode switches to generator in PAUSE/STOP mode 00 (on)*
411Month, Day, Year, Reel #; (10 11 00 01) [October 11, 2000 Reel #1] 02 (MM/DD/YY/R#)
412JAM internal TC and/or UBIT to external signal 00 (both TC and UBIT)*
801Reset all DO NOT CHANGE THIS!!!

Resetting the DAT.

With a completely disconnected PD-4, begin by turning down (fully counter-clockwise) the front-panel MONITOR knob, MASTER knob, and Volume 1, 2, & 3 knobs. Note that the MONITOR knob is a push-lock type. Press the knob in to raise it, adjust the level, and press it back in to prevent accidental adjustment.

Connecting the power source.

Connect the appropriate power source to the PD-4. If it's a NiCad battery (the green ones that physically insert into the PD-4), insert it into the PD-4 until it locks into place, set the side POWER SEL switch to INT, and turn on the PD-4 by the front panel POWER switch. If you're using the Eco-Charge batteries or plugging the PD-4 into a regular power outlet with the AC-to-DC converter, connect these power sources to the side DC IN:12V jack, set the side POWER SEL switch to EXT, and turn on the PD-4 by the front panel POWER switch. Note that the Eco-Charge batteries take a full day to recharge each (but they also last longer than the NiCads) so allow adequate recharging time.

Recording from the analog inputs.

Set the top-panel INPUT switch to ANA. This tells the PD-4 to record from its analog inputs versus its digital inputs. For microphones (99% of the time), set this to ANA.

Adjusting the headphones and alignment tones.

Turn on the S.TONE (it stands for "sine tone") by flipping the front-panel LIMITER/OFF/S.TONE switch to the right. Adjust the front panel MASTER knob so that the tone reads -20dB on the audio meters (the MASTER knob should be around 12 o'clock). Next, plug in and put on your headphones and adjust the front panel MONITOR knob so that this tone sounds just annoyingly loud, like a loud telephone conversation that makes you want to pull the headset away from your ear. To turn off the sine tone, change the LIMITER/OFF/S.TONE switch from S.TONE to OFF and NEVER touch the MASTER and MONITOR knobs again! These have now been aligned properly!

Connecting and adjusting microphones.

The Fostex PD-4 has three analog inputs on the side labeled CH.1 IN, CH2 IN, and CH3 IN. Each of these inputs has their own set of LINE/MIC, ATT(dB), PHANTOM power, and LCR switches, as well as a high-pass FILTER(Hz) rotary knob. Changing these parameters will effect the audio from whatever sources are connected to the side inputs. Each of these three analog inputs also has PEAK LED indicators.

Connect your microphone(s) to these side inputs respectively. For each mic connected, set its respective LINE/MIC switch to MIC, its ATT(dB) switch to 15, its PHANTOM power switch to P48, and its high-pass FILTER(kHz) rotary knob to 80Hz (approximately 11 o'clock).

If you are using only ONE microphone, set its respective front panel LCR pan switch to C (for "center"). This is the only time you should use the Center setting: when using one and only one microphone. If you have TWO mics attached, set one to L and another to R ("left" and "right" respectively). If you're using three mics (livin' large, you!), you must decide which two mics will be grouped together -- two left and one right, or two right and one left -- but remember never to pan any mics to the center if you have more than one mic connected! The reason is if the center mic is busted and buzzes, then both tracks on the DAT are now ruined, instead of just one.

The top panel LINE/MIC switch is only set to LINE when the source connected to the PD-4's analog inputs is a line-level source, such as professional CD players, DAT players, video cameras, etc...

The top-panel ATT(dB) switches are attenuators used to help reduce the level of audio entering the PD-4. It's helpful for matching the different sensitivities to different microphones, and the settings also depend on how loud your subject is. A typical setting for one of our overhead boom mics is 15dB. Louder passages may require an ATT(dB) setting of 30dB. Higher settings should be used when the PEAK LEDs (see below) on the front panel light up.

The top-panel PHANTOM switch turns phantom power (+48V) on or off for the respective inputs. Set this to P48 (on) whenever there is a microphone connected to the respective input that requires phantom powering. Otherwise set it to OFF to conserve battery power.

The top-panel, high-pass rotary FILTERs reduce low frequencies, which is particularly useful when recording in rumbly environments like metropolitan cities, freeways, beaches, and windy exteriors, and even interiors where A/C rumble is a problem. Typical settings should be about 11 o'clock, with even higher settings for the noisiest surroundings. Experiment, listen, and adjust, but don't go crazy! Use sparingly as extreme settings will have an undesirable effect on dialogue, difficult to fix later.

The front-panel LCR switch allows you to record the respective [microphone] signal to the Left track, the Right track, or both tracks (Centered). When using one and only one microphone, set its respective LCR switch to "C". When using two mics, pan them "L" and "R". When using three mics, pan two "L" and one "R", but never "C".

For each mic, attach necessary wind accessories, point it towards your mouth at a FULLY-EXTENDED arm's length, and while giving out a big yell (don't be timid -- yell as loud as the actors are possibly going to yell in the upcoming scene), slowly turn up (clockwise) its respective front-panel volume knob until the loudest passage is just below "0" on the audio meters. NEVER EVER ALLOW THE AUDIO METERS TO HIT "0" WHILE RECORDING CRITICAL SOUND! This is guaranteed distortion! Typical volume settings (with 15dB of attenuation) are around "5" (approximately 12 o'clock). You must do this separately for each microphone connected to the PD-4. When adjusting levels, only one front panel volume knob should be turned up at any one time, so once you have one properly set, remember what value it was at because you'll need to turn it fully off to set the next mic!

The front panel PEAK indicator LED's light when there is analog distortion (as opposed to digital distortion). These LED's can turn on even when the volume knob is turned completely off! These PEAK LED's should NEVER light up. If so, set the ATT(dB) switch on the top panel to a higher setting, the highest being 30dB. If the ATT(dB) switch is already at its maximum (30dB), then your microphone is too close to the actor, and your boom operator has to compensate. Once your microphone levels have been adjusted, set the LIMITER/OFF/S.TONE switch to LIMITER. The limiter on the PD-4 tries to prevent loud sounds from distorting.

Additional front panel settings:

GEN (CONT or OFF): OFF (down position). Setting this function to CONTinuous allows the PD-4's internal timecode generator to continue generating timecode even when the PD-4 is turned off or when the primary battery or power source is removed (like when you're changing batteries), as long as the generator's backup battery is installed (pretty cool feature, eh?).

JAM (JAM or down position): (down position). Setting this to JAM forces (aka "jams") the PD-4's internal timecode generator to "re-sync" itself to external incoming timecode.

CONFIDENCE MONITOR (ON or OFF): OFF most of the time (down position); switching this to ON while recording allows you to listen to what was JUST recorded onto the DAT tape hence the term "confidence" as opposed to the signal coming into the DAT. For example, if you used a bad DAT tape, you won't notice bad sound until you set confidence monitor ON. You should periodically switch this to ON to make sure everything's OK, but recordists tend not to leave it ON, as there is a slight delay in the sound due to the playback head being located after the record head. Nevertheless, you should try it just for the cool effect.

PCM ERROR (LED): When playing a DAT, the Fostex PD-4 -- as most DAT players -- will try to correct errors it encounters on the DAT tape. As it does so, the PCM ERROR LED will light. Lighting occasionally is NORMAL! Do not fret! However, if the PCM ERROR LED is frequently and continuously on, then there may be more serious problems, but first try the following tips. Remember to always tape tension the DAT (see Sound Roll Reports and Production Sound Logistics) before recording with a new DAT tape. As with VCR's the DAT machine occasionally needs cleaning of its playback and record mechanisms. Using a DAT cleaning tape may help with PCM ERROR problems. Perhaps the playback mechanism is faulty, but the recording mechanism is fine. Try the DAT in another DAT machine and see if you get the same problems. It may just be the DAT tape that has problems. Try ejecting the DAT tape and re-inserting. Also try a new DAT tape, or see if other pre-recorded DAT tapes play fine. If none of these suggestions work, return the PD-4 to be serviced.

Additional top panel settings:

FRAME RATE: This sets the timecode type and rate in conjunction with the Fs(kHz) switch. The settings are 30, 30DF, 29.97DF, 25, and 24. The "DF" designation stands for "drop-frame" timecode, which is primarily used on productions with an eventual broadcast television release. If "DF" does not follow the FRAME RATE, it is "non-drop frame" timecode. Film productions finishing in areas using the NTSC television standard (North America and Japan, for example) typically use either 30 or 29.97, while those finishing in the PAL television standard (Europe, Russia, China, India, Australia, et al) typically use 25. DO NOT SET TO 24! 24 IS RARELY USED, EVEN ON 24P HD SHOOTS! Set the FRAME RATE according to the chart below.

TC GEN MODE: This sets how the PD-4 records and outputs timecode. Set this to REC RUN if you are NOT using a timecode/smart slate. If you ARE using a timecode/smart slate set this to either REC RUN or FREE RUN, depending on how you plan on using the timecode slate. In REC RUN mode, the PD-4's timecode generator will run where it left off when you start recording, thereby resulting in a sound roll with continuous timecode. In FREE RUN mode, the PD-4's timecode generator is always running, whether you're recording or not, thereby resulting in a sound roll with discontinuous timecode between every take. Hence, if you use a smart slate in REC RUN mode, you must jam the smart slate before every recording. In FREE RUN, you only need to occasionally jam the smart slate before recording, as the smart slate's internal timecode generator hasn't drifted too far out of sync from the last time it was jammed.

TC OUT (switch): This switch, along with TC GEN MODE and certain menu item settings, tells the PD-4 how to manage the timecode sent out its TC OUT XLR jack (side panel). You only have to worry about this if you are using a timecode/smart slate. Set this to GEN.

Fs(kHz) (switch): This sets the sampling rate of the PD-4. Set the SAMPLING RATE according to the chart below.

Set timecode frame rate and sampling rates as follows:

  • Shooting film, MOS dailies, finishing film via Media Composer 24fps Film Mode: 30ndf & 44.1kHz.
  • Shooting film, MOS dailies, finishing film via Media Composer Matchback Mode: 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz.
  • Shooting film, MOS dailies, finishing DVCAM or online Beta-SP or online Digital Betacam via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz.
  • Shooting Canon XL-1, finishing DVCAM via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 44.1kHz.
  • Shooting HD 29.97P, 59.94I, finishing DVCAM or online HD via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 44.1kHz.
  • Shooting HD 30P or 60I, finishing DVCAM or online HD 30P or 60I via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz.
  • Shooting HD 24P, finishing DVCAM or online HD 24P via Media Composer 24fps Film Mode: 30ndf & 44.1kHz.
  • Shooting HD 24P, finishing DVCAM or online HD 24P via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz.
  • Shooting HD 23.976P, finishing DVCAM or online HD 23.976P via Media Composer Video Mode: 29.97ndf & 44.1kHz.
  • Shooting film, sync-sound dailies, finishing film or video: 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz. To avoid any confusing sync problems in telecine, make sure you include the following note with all sound rolls (this particular scenario only):

"Dear Telecine Operator,

The timecode and sampling rate switches on the Fostex PD-4 was set to 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz. Confusingly, this actually means that the PD-4 was running at 29.97ndf & 48.000kHz PULLED-UP by 0.1%, or equivalently 30ndf & 48.048kHz! Hence, to compensate for the slight slow-down when transferring from film to NTSC video, or equivalently to do a pull-down for NTSC sync-sound dailies, please set your DAT machine to 29.97ndf & 48.000kHz referenced to an appropriate external house sync (typically NTSC video blackburst, or a variable word clock set to 48.000kHz), without any sort of pull up or down. If transferring to Digi-Beta, please use its AES/EBU inputs to record the audio digitally from the DAT's AES/EBU outputs -- the timecode and sampling rates under these specific circumstances will match.

This procedure differs from the more popular approach in sync-sound telecine where the location DAT is set at 30ndf & 48.000kHz, and where telecine operators then set their DAT machine to 30ndf & 48.000kHz pull down ("sync wide" referenced to external video on the Sony models, or equivalently 29.97ndf & 47.952kHz) to compensate for the film-to-tape slow down. The disadvantage with this is that the pulled-down sampling rate (approximately 47.952kHz) does not match the Digi-Beta's sampling rate (48.000kHz), and therefore a digital audio AES/EBU transfer cannot technically be achieved.

Thank you for your attention in this matter."

Some important notes:
  • When you begin a new Media Composer project without selecting 24fps Film Mode or Matchback Mode, you are in Media Composer "Video" Mode.
  • The 48.000kHz sampling rate is presently NEVER used on the Fostex PD-4 under ANY circumstances. Although current industry standards dictate otherwise, by taking in the broader picture of workflow and post issues, our techniques are actually better and more on the cutting edge than current standards.
  • "ndf" stands for non-drop frame, as in non-drop frame timecode.
  • We almost never, ever use 24fps timecode! DON'T SET THE FOSTEX PD-4 TO 24FPS TIMECODE!!!
  • The actual timecode rate and sampling rate on the Fostex PD-4 when set to 29.97ndf & 48.048kHz is really 30ndf & 48.048kHz! This is poor labeling on Fostex' part. Be careful when using other location DAT machines as each manufacturer has its own labeling convention and means of achieving the same thing.

Copyright © 2010 by Evan T. Chen. All rights reserved.