First Look: Sound Devices 664 Field Mixer Recorder

The new Sound Devices 664 boasts a feature-set which aims to make it the standard for ENG-style production mixing and recording. On paper, it looks to be  Upon receiving our demo, we wanted to get it out into the hands of a professional mixer to see how it’s features fare in a real-world field production context. Jesse Flower-Ambroch is an Emmy-award nominated post-production sound designer and production sound mixer. He is the resident post-sound mixer at Endless Picnic Jesse took it out on on a shoot for a day, and gave us this feedback.

Sound Devices has been given the chance to respond to this review, and their comments are denoted in brackets.

- Cory Allen, Senior Technician, Gotham Sound and Communications

Jesse Flower-Ambroch with the Sound Devices 664I recently had the chance to take the 664, Sound Devices' hotly anticipated mixer/recorder out in the field for a field test to put it through its paces in a true production environment. The shoot was profiling Maurice Dinkins, a blind piano tuner and involved multi-tracking the piano as well as some basic interview setup. The cameras used were a Canon 5D and 7D, so I did not get a chance to test the mix-to-camera capability of the 664. What I found was a machine that has some amazing features, but some annoying and glaring issues. Some of these are things that may be worked out by the time the 664 reaches the shelves, but that you should probably know about before you plunk down four g’s of hard-earned cash.

Before I get too deep into my experience with the 664, I should make full-disclosure and say that I am a die-hard Sound Devices person. I own or have owned a 302, a 442 and a 788T and have loved them all for their smart design, intuitive layout, and bulletproof construction. That said I'll try to be as honest as possible and keep the fanboy zeal to a minimum.

Sound Devices 664 Four SidesFor Sound Devices users, the 664 is instantly familiar. Anyone who has used the 442 or 552 will feel right at home. The left side has six full-sized XLR inputs with TA3 direct outs, as well as a 1/4" headphones jack. The right side has all of your outputs, including two 10-pin Hirose connectors for feeding camera, and a multitude of connections over TA3 and XLR. Also the SD and CF slots are there, protected by a beefy magnetized flap, which is absurdly satisfying to open a close. The back side has word clock and comm I/O, neither of which I tested on this shoot. The front panel has all of your gain, faders, pan pots and high pass filters and of course the screen and interface buttons and knobs. The whole thing feels super solid and well-constructed, the only exception being the LCD screen, which feels just a touch too exposed and fragile for out in the field. It also loves fingerprints and gets dirty pretty much immediately. Hopefully a screen protector will be available soon. [Sound Devices has acknowledged the screen’s susceptibility to fingerprints, however stands by the durability of the stock screen cover against the rigors of field use.]

The 664 powers up very quickly, around five seconds by my count. This is a vast improvement over the 788T, which could take between ten and fifteen seconds. Anyone who has mixed for long enough knows that those moments can be critical on documentaries or when an entire set is staring, waiting for you to boot up.

The main screen of the 664 shows meters for the mix bus, aux tracks and the six isolated tracks. The meters are very crisp, fast and easy to read. There is a multitude of other information including battery indicator, sample rate, time code and absolute recording time. I think there are a few missing bits still: I miss seeing my frame rate on the main screen and I would love the option to see battery voltage instead of the cell-phone-style battery indicator.

Sound Devices 664The menu trees are very well designed and intuitive. I found it very easy to pick up and get to my settings even after just a few moments of playing around. It took me a moment to find the meta-data entry field, which is hidden in the "Take List" portion of the file menu, a departure from the 788T setup. Once there, entering track and take names is a joy as you get a full view of all the letters and characters to enter with an on-screen keyboard; much faster than the 788T's rotary setup.

As a mixer, the 664 performed well. My biggest complaint is that the faders are little slippery for my taste. I like a little drag on my faders and these glided so easily that they would move even if I grazed them with my shirt sleeve. There are some nice new features with the PFL switches. You can now PFL a single input (which also brings up its corresponding channel screen) by pushing the PFL switch to the right, or PFL multiple inputs by pushing them to the left. An indicator light blinks to show you which inputs are selected. I did notice that when using the pan pots they produced an audible click in the mix bus when going from center or soft panned to hard panned left or right. [Sound Devices is unable to reproduce this problem and is investigating it.] The headphones amp also produces zipper noise when you adjust it up or down, which I found terribly irritating. [This is a byproduct of using a multi-function digital encoder to control the headphone amplifier gain, and applies to all devices which use one. Sound Devices chose this design because it “offers greatly expanded control over headphone source selection and an always repeatable, accurate headphone level setting.”]

The recording function of the 664 worked as advertised, but also had some major flaws. The first, and most glaring, is that there appears to be no pre-record capability. That's right, hunt as I did, I could find an option to enable or control a pre-record buffer! I'm not sure if Sound Devices is using this to discern the 664 from their 7-series of recorders or if a fix is imminent, but it is a major bummer. I can't count the amount of times that pre-roll has saved me in the field. [Sound Devices recognizes the importance of pre-record, and it is under consideration for inclusion in a firmware update.] On the bright side, the 664 records to CF and SD cards simultaneously and can write multiple formats at once. So you could record full-resolution WAV POLY files to the CF card for editorial, while simultaneously making mix track MP3 recordings for transcription on the SD card. Genius! I did encounter a few recording bugs. When selecting time code at the start of the shoot, the unit was outputting 25 frames even though the frame rate was set to 23.976. After a minor heart attack followed by deselecting and reselecting 23.976 in the menu, the frame rate switched to its proper setting and stayed there for the rest of the shoot. [This bug has been corrected in the current firmware of the 664.] Also, halfway through the day, the pleasant recording bell changed to a deafening burst of static. Thankfully you can turn this alert off in the menu. [Sound Devices is unable to reproduce this problem and is investigating it.]

Sound Devices 664The 664 gets high marks for its battery features. The power consumption is much improved over the notoriously thirsty 788T and I was able to get through a full (albeit relatively relaxed) day running the 664 and a single Lectrosoincs UCR411A on one NP1 battery. I was still left with 14.7 volts by the time we wrapped. The ability to run the 664 off AA batteries is another huge advantage and gives peace of mind in the event that your NP system fouls-up. You can always find a gas station, hardware store, (or bodega for us New Yorkers) and pick up a giant pack of AA’s.

Lastly and maybe most obviously, the 664 sounds great. The preamps and limiters are clean, discreet and on par with what we've come to expect from Sound Devices products. It's easy to overlook this, but you have to give them credit for making great-sounding machines.

Jesse Flower-Ambroch with the Sound Devices 664The 664 definitely has a chance to be a… ahem… "game changer" in the world of production sound. There are some problems with it currently, some big and some small, but I'm hoping most can be fixed with firmware upgrades down the line. The real question is if Sound Devices will allow it to become the monolith it could be. With one "do-all" machine,  Sound Devices has the ability to become its own competitor. For now, I think there's plenty of reason to own other mixers and recorders, but in the future I'm hoping the 664 will grow into its own and become the mixer/recorder we've all been waiting for.

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