Review: JuicedLink's Innovative Little DARling Distributed Audio Recorder
I went hands-on with the JuicedLink Little DARling, a forward-thinking audio solution for videographers and filmmakers.
Ever since the Little DARling was announced at NAB 2014, I immediately knew I wanted to get my hands on several of them. Its small form factor, high quality recording and long battery life made me excited about the possibilities of the unit when applied to guerrilla and micro-budget filmmaking.
After nearly two years of waiting, I've finally gotten the chance to familiarize myself with these units and test them in a real world application. This summer, I decided to use the DARling—formally called the DAR124RX01 Little DARling Distributed Audio Recorder with DARlink—as the main lavalier recorders on my second feature-length narrative film, Shadow of a Gun.
Little DARling at a glance:
- 24/48hz 16-bit audio recorder
- Records two simultaneous channels, one of which has a -16db pad (a backup in case you blow out on a take)
- 12 hour battery life off single AA
- Locking connectors on top of unit
JuicedLink is able to pack so much power into a small unit at an affordable price (currently $265 US) by forgoing some of the "consumer friendly" features in favor of raw power. This is a way of saying: you need to read the user manual. Thankfully, it is clearly written and should quickly demystify the complexities of the unit. I had never flipped a DIP switch in my life until working with the wireless DAR124RX01, and I was able to get the whole thing set up and configured in a couple hours. Once you start customizing the .config file on each of your units, you really start unleashing the power of the unit.
You can customize a bevy of features on the DARs through the config file: toggle an audible beep when you start/stop, disable wireless stopping or starting, and control over how many tones the slates produce. I chose a set of extremely vanilla settings to start off:
The unit is well designed with a lot of subtle features that will make filmmakers happy.
First, the recessed power/stop button prevents any possibility of your recording getting accidentally stopped. The locking connector comes out of the top (unlike on the Zoom H1, for example) so it can be better concealed in a pocket. The DARling is so tiny and lightweight that it can fit in places even the Sennheiser G3 cannot fir comfortably (strapped to the back of a bra, for example). The battery compartment also features a locking cradle.
The Little DARling remote is what makes the whole wireless system work. It's a small controller with dip-switches in the back and buttons that are configurable through your loaded .bin file. A thin piece of plastic goes over the existing buttons to remind you what the functions are. It can be a little confusing at first glance, with the red and green buttons being intuitively backwards (in terms of color and in the position of the OFF/ON button). Left to right, the first and second buttons are used for REC and STOP, and three-six are configurable for slating purposes.
I highly recommend securing this controller to your kit via a clip or tie, as during the course of shooting it can become hard to keep track of. Once, after hiking down a mountain, our sound man realized that the clip had fallen off somewhere on the trail. I had to run back up the mountain and search for it (I found it). Another time, it came off his rig when moving through an orange grove. Later, we found it clipped onto a branch. My solution to this is a T-REIGN Small Retractable Gear Tether, which keeps the controller secured and accessible on your rig.
Simply put, the audio captured on these things sounds great. I'm often surprised by the quality of audio when I play them back. Of course, so much about getting great lav audio depends on the microphone placement and the type of clothing your actors are wearing. As always, make sure you're using best practices when placing your microphones. With my Sanken COS11-D lavs, I use LMC vampire clips and Rycote stickies and Overcovers to reduce clothing rub.
Some argue that 24-bit recording is necessary, but Robert Rozak from JuicedLink argues that it's overkill. I personally don't mind recording at 16-bit for the pure efficiency it allows, both in terms of battery life and write times. Robert Rozak lays out this reasoning in the manual:
"Acknowledging that marketing of audio recorders has pushed higher sample rates on consumers, we base this specification on the Meyer/Moran paper published by the Audio Engineering Society that demonstrates that humans can not perceive the difference between CD quality (16b/44.1KHz) and higher bit rates (such as what is used with SACD or DVD-A). As an example, even the highest quality lav microphone (which may, at best, provide 70dB SNR for a lav with an unrealistically high 1Pa signal input) can not come close to utilizing the 144dB of dynamic range from even an ideal 24bit A/D, and is serviced with plenty of margin by 16bits."
"I would send crew home and just want to work one-on-one with actors. In this situation, the DARs are my best friend."
The Little DARling bodies are lightweight aluminum and can take a beating. The (optional) metal clips that come with the units are a bit too tight for my taste, and are tough to clip onto most clothing and fabrics without a little struggle. However, the benefit of a tight clip means that once you've secured it, it's not going anywhere.
The DARs come with a tiny shield that goes over the micro SD card slot, which, in my case, has already broken off after moderate use. It doesn't really affect anything in terms of recording, but the micro SD card is now exposed. The locking connectors on the top of the unit are built well and are essential for securing your microphone to the pack. The battery and SD card compartments are accessed by unscrewing the top screw. A tiny locking pin at the bottom of the shield holds it firmly in place. It's very quick to take on and off and keeps the battery protected.
The biggest issue that I found is that, after a couple weeks banging around in an actor’s pocket, the antenna twisted off. Without the antenna, activating the units becomes difficult, requiring you to be within five feet of the unit to activate it (and multiple button presses). To my knowledge, there’s no easy way to reattach the antenna once it’s been damaged.
JuicedLink is addressing this issue on all production models (and will be offering a fix to existing users) with the addition of a strain relief:
There are so many possible workflows with these units that can be customized based on your application. I’ve only tried one of many workflows, based on what made sense to me. In many ways, they are designed to be continuously rolling and then slated to the camera. In this setup, you would have DARs on your actors and one DAR on your camera. You hit record once and then, as takes progress, you use your custom slating buttons (3-6) to insert a slate tone across all (or some) units.
My workflow was more traditional (essentially using them against the way they were meant), stopping/starting in tandem with the camera. This posed a couple of challenges: listening for confirmation beeps on each start from the recorders, and taking multiple presses on the REC button to activate a unit (the technology is the same as locking/unlocking a car from a key fob).
Where the Little DARlings sing is in their potential for creative application. This unit allowed me much more flexibility than a traditional recorder with exposed controls like the Zoom H1 or even the new Tascam DR-10L. On my films, sometimes we're shooting a live location and suddenly a new player enters the scene. I can have an easily applicable standalone unit ready for that additional person. Other times, I would send crew home and just want to work one-on-one with actors. In this situation, the DARs are my best friend. I can set mics on my actors and in key positions in the scene and then forget about them while I operate camera.
Here are a numbers of other ways we creatively utilized the DARlings in Shadow of a Gun:
- To mic up extras at a party scene and gather additional background noise/conversation
- Capturing guerrilla audio (w/ dialogue) inside a shooting range, a bar and a live concert
- Ambient audio at a 4th of July parade that the actor was marching in, starting 300+ yards from camera
"I still see the DARlings primarily as a tool for independent filmmakers and videographers, but I think even top level sound professionals should keep a few in their kit for niche applications."
For me, the ephemeral joy that comes from using a tool, or a proclivity to actually use that tool on set, sometimes outweighs ease of use. There are many situations where I anticipate wanting to use a DAR over a traditional recording methods: guerrilla situations, solo-shooting, long interviews, weddings, or any kind of mobile, fast moving documentary work. Sometimes I just want great audio without having to monitor. When I "set and forget" the DARs, the results have really impressed me.
That being said, I think some people will be turned off by their somewhat clunky user-experience, and production sound people will need more time to understand how to integrate them into their existing systems. In general, sound professionals want to be able to monitor their audio no matter what. You'll miss some of the luxuries we're used to, like a display for optional monitoring and changing settings. Most importantly, the gain control is imprecise because there's no way to visually see what level you're set to.
I still see the DARlings primarily as a tool for independent filmmakers and videographers, but I think even top level sound professionals should keep a few in their kit for niche applications.
- Countless creative applications
- Great sound (w/ -16dm pad)
- Great battery life
- No wireless frequency dropouts
- No live monitoring
- No formatting in the device
- Wireless stop/start/slating isn't foolproof
All in all, I really do like having these in my kit, as I can deploy them instantaneously as a stand-alone unit and capture great dialogue in close range. There are just so many applications and I'm only beginning to understand the possibilities. I'm excited to try more multi-cam and continuous recording workflows with 4+ DARs going at once.
Ultimately, there's a reason why I've been so excited about the Little DARlings—there's a lot of potential here. The product might need some polish or a friendlier user-experience before it really catches on, but I see this tool as a good step towards the future of low-budget audio recording for film.