These are the early impressions of the first X3s with early software by Axel Traun on JW Sound in May 2015

Hi, I promised to share my experience with Cantar X3:

I am working on a fast pace TV series with 12 main characters and switched to X3 from 788T last Tuesday YTOU CAN POST after a long weekend. I hope I never have to switch back.

First Impressions Of The Real Recording Experience:

    • it is a powerful machine (see the specs). My brain now needs a hardware upgrade to monitor so many tracks. But Cantar made it as easy as possible.
    • Haptics (communication) are outstanding, X3 feels very well built and engineered, although i miss the clicking of the scroll wheel of old Cantar X1.
    • Software feels like an early release. It  still lacks some promised features, like delay per channel, simultaneous play/rec , EQ and some more.  I experienced one freeze on REC on the last day of this first week, I emailed Aaton right away and they responded immediately. Lets see if they will work out the reason.  Plus the metadata entry could be done in a more streamlined and elegant way, but thats a mere question of programming. Aaton has been very responsive to my feedback this week 🙂

But now for the highlights:

Playback Monitoring ( A ‘Wow’ Experience):

In any mode (Test/Rec/Play) headphone output configs can be adjusted easily  and those configs can be switched through (like with any other top class recorder) with the big Crown on the left side of the machine.  Input or Channel prefade monitoring is accessible on dedicated buttons on both inputs and tracks.

But On Playback You Get Two More Factory Made Headphone Output Modes:

“B” Config,  which skips the mix tracks and puts the isos on the mixer faders again. When play/rec will work, I guess this will permit you to remix your Iso tracks, which is a nice option if you didn’t make it on the first attempt and got the time to try it again.  Until the play/rec feature is released  you can use the option to listen to a specific playback mix that you can change on the fly by only using your faders. It is basically ident with the unique “mix” monitoring option of Cantar X1/X2, which also worked in playback mode.

“A” Config sends only the mixtracks in mono mode to the phones. But also in this config the machine is responsive to pressing the solo buttons on the mixing panel to give you a pre fade track solo of any recorded ISO track in the instant, like it would do in recording mode. This allows for quick access of critical points, where any track can be soloed with just one dedicated button and listened to A/B  against the mix or other tracks.

Not enough with that, in any playback mode there is a timeline with the waveform displayed on the full length of the screen. If you listen to a mix of tracks, the waveform resembles the mix with an overlay of different colors, if you press any SOLO the waveform changes to show only the soloed track. It took me two days of working with the machine to realize this feature but now I find it is really striking. So better I should haver read the whole manual in advance.

Like with previous Cantars the playhead is not controlled by FFW or REW buttons, but can be moved by the jog wheel that sits inside the lefthand Crown wheel. It is big and responsive and gets the playhead  to the desired point on timeline in fractions of a second.

Cantar also recognises and marks the slate in the timeline, just press the “right” button to let Playback start from there.

So if there is a doubt about a rustling lave within a certain line, a distracting car sound on Boom B  or if a dialogue overlap could be worked out in post, it is a matter of seconds to start Playback from slate, press the respective track solo, see in the waveform where the character’s lines takes place and move the playhead there in just a second. And go back and forth moving over the spot again, do it on different tracks, on the whole mix. This takes NO time. Overwhelming experience :-))

Faders:

Working with the 10 smooth onboard faders feels like luxury, maybe because I’ve never owned one of the classic mixers. Those faders really outperform my old Cantar X1 or Sound Devices CL9 board in every way. X3 stays with the previous Cantar concept of logarithmic gain structure (versus the  linear concept of the CL9), plus you can chose whether a fully opened fader means 0 dB or +6 dB of gain compared to the ISO track level. The faders are smooth and quiet and ultra precise.

Because the faders can be assigned to more functions than just mixing ISOs, I find myself wanting more of them. Which maybe will result in the purchase of an additional “Cantarem2” fader panel, once it will be out and can afford.

Outputs:

So far I have used only the analogue outs, there is only one dB25 port for them, so make or buy your custom output snake (Tascam pin out). Output configs can be made in the same way like the monitoring and can be changed on the fly even during Recording, which is nice and easy without need to enter a menu. For the moment there is no “playout-mute” function if outs are routed to tracks (vs inputs) but I think that will come with some software update in the near future. I even forgot to ask about it.

Preamps:

From on location use I can say that preamps have a very wide range and are ultra quiet, a listening experience which in part could also be a result of the improved headphone driver. I am sure they are top notch, but  I’ve not listened to my X3 recordings on external high end devices yet, so I can give no real info about how good they sound.

Limiters:

I “grew up” with Nagra and Cantar Limiters, so I’ve always been using them as a mixing tool.

The limiters act in the same way they did with previous Cantars, which means they are non audible as Limiters. They cannot be adjusted, only turned on or off (now for line inputs too), which is great for me because I never managed to resemble a Cantar limiter with any adjustable limiting device.

Power:

After having seen some early IBC video I was a little scared about the power needs of X3, but they are within reasonable limits. On a normal 12-13 hs day without shutting down during  lunch break, X3 consumes an average of 3 NP1s, (rated 75 WHs,  new) plus one  of the 2 internal batteries, which makes a calculation total of max 275 WHs and will be less in fact. The internal batteries are rated 49 WHs each and power the machine for about 4 1/2 hours (about 2+ hs each). These values are for Dante and AES powered off and depend on the use. Aaton says they will improve power efficiency especially on STOP (no amplifiers work then) , but there is not much “STOP” position time in my current project anyway, except location moves and lunch break

Media:

For many the Poly file workarounds were a drawback of the former Cantar models. This has changed. Aaton still keeps it’s mono BWAV philosophy, but now only one drive (regardless which) has to be filled with mono files, the rest can be freely chosen between Mono WAV, Mono WAV with separate stereo mixdown, Poly WAV, Poly with duplicate stereo mixdown or mixdown only in WAV, OGG, or MP3 format. Even OGG Polys are an option. SSD and SD’s are working great in rec mode. In this project I deliver Polys but will hand in Monos later to sound post. So I record mono WAV to SSD, a Mono copy to #1 SD for my backup convenience and Polys on SD#2 for picture syncing.

Not one moment when I felt Cantar was challenged by the different formats. It behaves flawless, no matter  which options are combined.

The only thing is that I have not made it to get the media USB port to work, but I did not test it properly yet. The 500 mA available might be not suffice to power my USB drives.  A USB3 card reader failed to format a CF Card on Cantar. I did not go further in my testing, but I guess some time they will address that too.

On the SD cards the internal media format is still FAT 32.

Backup/Sound Reports:

X3 also provides a “COPY/BACKUP” section which is reliable and simple to use, but performs rather slow even on fast media. So better get your copies in real time during recording. COPY/BACKUP can also provide you with customizable sound reports (.pdf and .ale) to any drive in less than one minute.

Bag:

I managed to squeeze my X3 into my old KTS Cantar bag along with an Octopack, additional two 411’Rxs , one NP1, an RSM 191 matrix  and even two Senn G3 Tx with one additional KTS extension from another mixer bag.  Beware to carry that for the whole day, but the KTS Bag opens nicely on the cart providing access to all plugs and features. For locations that are non cart viable (car scenes, rooftop shots…) antennas and the small EQ/mixer unit get unplugged and the baby can be carried away maintaining its full functionality.  But make sure you find a place to put it down, the who thing including batteries comes up to 10,7 kgs total and you won’t be carrying that for long.

Screen:

Very very cool. Sunlight readable. It was mostly a rainy week, but yesterday on a night scene I found myself realizing, that even before in the afternoon sun I had not thought of adjusting  the brightness, but stayed with a backlight value of 25 out of 256 steps. (256 is max)

Cons:

As said, metadata entries offer great possibilities, but the whole process is not yet consistent and far from being intuitive. It absorbs too much of my brain power to type a simple comment and change a few track names. But Aaton promised they will work on it and I believe them 🙂

The metadata screen also seems to have a timeout, which means you lose your corrections if you let it stand for more than like a minute without closing it properly. Should be addressed too.

A pro within that: I first tested my X3 with the 2,1 GHZ wireless keyboard of my office PC and it worked seamlessly. So I got myself a small wireless keyboard with a tiny dongle, that fits right beside the headphone plug and it works like on a cable. With the big screen there is no need for an iPad or other devices.

More Cons:

The mic pots appear with an ugly plastic coating, plus they are violet colour, but they work splendid. Only thing is that maybe they move a little to easy so levels could be changed without intention in a bag.

But a drawback for me is that Aaton skipped the pots for line input gains. There are solo knobs for each of the 4 analog line inputs and with the Solo+Jogwheel you can adjust levels on the fly, but it is not the same like having a pot to control the gain. I use a small 4 channel direct out EQ to adjust the lavs of the 4 most important wired actors. It provides line level and I find myself wanting to adjust those levels within dynamic takes.

So I am trying try to talk the software engineers  into inventing some overlay for the Mic pots to address the line inputs, thats maybe just my thing, but I would really like to see that happen.

Overall:

X 3  is the coolest portable multitrack recorder out there at the moment, regardless of it’s early software stage.

At least if you think of a mighty multitrack unit with a miniature footprint compared to its handling, mixing and connection capabilities. Right at the moment inputwise I go analog only, with two wireless booms, up to 8 wired actors plus sometimes a stereo ambience apart of the mix.

I will keep my Cantar X1 for the demanding over the shoulder gigs, because it is 3 times more energy efficient and I love it’s amber eyes and the full metal retro haptics attached to my chest 😉 For less track count, second unit and no downmix needs, an early  Sonsosax SX-R4 model also stays concurring for my love. But I guess X3 will stay for long time on my cart.