Review: Tentacle Sync Standard Timecode System Set

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“Oh, that’s the timecode box? Don’t you have anything smaller? We’re flying Steadicam all day.” If you work in the sound department for any production, from feature films to reality TV, you’ve most likely heard this question from the camera team more times than you can count. And though there are a plethora of options for timecode sync boxes, the task is no longer just finding a reliable system that will solely keep consistent timecode all day. The camera department wants that same reliability for timecode systems — but in a much smaller and lighter package, because if the timecode drifts throughout the day, both departments will suffer. Standard camera sizes have decreased overall, yet the complexity of the camera rig has increased exponentially. Wireless follow focus systems must be attached to the camera properly and there are often two to three monitors mounted for the assistant camera and the operator, along with various cables and batteries. Basically, the amount of space on the camera for the sound department seems to shrink more every day, and the sound department has no choice but to adapt.

I have been using the Ambient ACN-TL Tiny Lockit for every shooting situation in feature films and television for years, but I still get requests from camera for something smaller. With the Ambient TL weighing in at only ­­­­­­­­­­­4.2 oz. (118g) without batteries and measuring just 2.8 x 2.2 x 0.79 in. (71.5 x 56 x 20mm), it seemed ridiculous that yet another solution needed to be found. Yet the larger conundrum remained, that many reality shows, on-the-go news coverage, and independent film projects primarily shoot on DSLR cameras because of their light weight, high-quality video recording capabilities, and low price point. Unfortunately, the Ambient TL, despite its small size, couldn’t properly run timecode into DSLR cameras, as it was meant for larger cinema cameras such as the Arri ALEXA, RED Epic, various editions of the Canon C Series, and Sony FS7.

Nonetheless, DSLRs are not going anywhere and producers still need the ability to effectively run timecode into these small cameras while not compromising their lightweight factor. Enter the Tentacle Sync Standard Set: the smallest, most dependable, and most lightweight timecode generator box and audio feed on the market for mainstream cinema cameras and DSLRs. Timecode will never be the same.

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To be completely honest, when I picked up the Tentacle timecode box for the first time, it was very hard to believe a device this small and compact would be dependable for handling timecode all day long. Not only that, but any sound mixer knows that breaking away from a brand of equipment that they’ve found to be reliable for years is almost as difficult as a breakup. Our work depends immensely on our equipment’s ability to handle all types of shooting situations, from the extreme cold, to ridiculous heat, to high altitudes. These factors are particularly true with timecode boxes because if timecode sync is off, there can be very large delays for post-production. No sound mixer, or anyone in the entertainment business for that matter, wants to hear you’re costing the production more money. But with more and more producers requesting a timecode solution for their DSLR shoots, I had to give the Tentacle system a shot.

When searching for a timecode generator box, there are many factors one must consider: size, battery life, durability, versatility, and price point. With the best combination of these factors you have one dynamite timecode box, and though the product is not absolutely bulletproof, Tentacle Sync sure comes close to perfection with its latest creation. Obviously, the lightweight form factor and size of the Tentacle box was appealing off the bat, as it weighs only 4.0 oz. with the rechargeable battery inside and measures just 1.3 x 2 x 0.6 in. (34 x 50 x 16mm). That is close to half the size of its Ambient TL competitor and Moze Gear TIG Q28 timecode generator!

I’ve found over the years that even the smallest difference in size and weight makes a world of difference to camera operators, and they will be extremely thankful for any help, especially if they are running handheld or Steadicam all day. With the Tentacle’s small size and integrated hook surface on the back, I’ve found camera operators have a very easy time finding a position and mounting it on their camera rig, which is oftentimes easier said than done. Also, because of its size and weight, the Tentacle box can be easily placed almost anywhere on a DSLR without weighing down the camera or getting in the way of any important camera accessories.

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Another impressive feature of the Tentacle box is its ability to easily embed timecode into a DSLR camera through the camera’s 1/8” audio port, while simultaneously recording a reference audio feed. Connecting the Tentacle box to a standard DSLR with the provided TRS cable makes it possible to record highly accurate timecode onto Channel 1 of the camera while simultaneously recording reference sound on Channel 2 through the built-in microphone located on the front of the device. This feature has become instrumental for me on my shoots with NBC4 LA, where we are limited on time and cannot always properly slate each take. An important factor to acknowledge is that this capability to use the Tentacle box as a reference microphone is meant solely for use with DSLRs. Unlike mainstream production cameras, DSLRs have no timecode port. Tentacle Sync developed a simple and easy way to embed timecode through the DSLR’s 1/8” port, therefore unlocking the use of DSLRs in many different facets of production. And yet, the Tentacle box can do so much more.

With such a small size, one would assume the battery life of the Tentacle box to be quite short, and yet, after extensive trials, I was very pleasantly surprised. The thought of a timecode box dying before the end of a production day truly scares me, and therefore, when testing the Tentacle, I had to make sure it could live up to the challenge. But unlike similarly sized timecode boxes such as the Ambient TL and Moze Gear Q28, which run on Alkaline AAAs and AAs, the Tentacle possesses a built-in rechargeable lithium polymer battery that can last over 40 hours on a single charge and can charge itself in only 1.5 hours! I thoroughly believed this could not possibly be true, and thought the overall battery life would be lessened by extreme weather conditions. I proceeded to use the Tentacle on a feature film in scorching Tucson, Arizona, a news coverage shoot in frigid Lake Tahoe, and on a humid reality TV shoot in South Carolina. Not only did the battery life of the Tentacles hold up, but I found it slightly longer than described. The Tentacle manual describes its temperature range as -22° to +185° F (-30° to +85° C). Tentacles also have a remarkable high-precision TCXO, with inaccuracy of only 1 frame per 24 hours, and that inaccuracy stayed consistent throughout the harsh conditions of each shoot. Quite a feat indeed!

Taking the Tentacles into these challenging settings allowed me to put them through the gauntlet and substantially test their durability as well. I can’t depend on a timecode generator box if wear-and-tear begins to set in after only a couple of uses. Though I’ve only worked with them for two years, I can attest to the Tentacle’s dependability in situations that are far from ideal.

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Of course, like many timecode generator boxes, the Tentacles cannot withstand a drop or hard impact without losing sync. Occasionally while on a shoot, I will see an AC drop the Tentacle but continue to attach it to camera anyways. I know immediately to have myself or my boom operator quickly check the box and if needed, retrieve it for a fast rejamming from either my Sound Devices 664 or my Denecke TS-C smart slate. Again, this rejamming is only necessary when the Tentacle falls onto a hard surface. Despite these dreadful falls, no scuffs of any kind can be found on a single one of my Tentacles. Despite losing sync at certain moments, their exteriors can really survive the most drastic situations, or ACs.

Tentacle boxes are the ideal size and weight, have superb battery life, and can take a beating like none other in various temperatures, but how compatible are they with the most widely used cameras in the  industry? As discussed before, the Tentacle works flawlessly with DSLRs across the board, including the Canon 5D, 7D, and Sony A7. An important factor to understand about Tentacle boxes, though, is that they must be initially set up using the Tentacle Setup App with any smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer with the supplied iPhone or Android setup cable, and then jammed separately by your external recorder. From this application, every aspect of the Tentacle box can be altered, such as the settings for all SMPTE LTC timecode rates, an auto power-off function from 2 to 12 hours, and even the ability to adjust gain levels for custom camera setups from line to mic level output.

Initially, I was hesitant to accept the requirement of using my smart device to set up the Tentacle boxes, but the Tentacle Setup App makes it very easy to quickly check sync and customize settings for all widely used cameras, such as the Arri ALEXA, RED Epic, Canon C500, and many others across the market. Of course, you must invest in more adapter cables, but those costs are minor compared to the easy functionality and improvements to your timecode workflow. After a couple of repetitions, proper setup of the Tentacles became second nature.

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Tentacle boxes truly have passed a variety of tests to become a near-perfect addition to the timecode family, but price can sometimes be the true deciding factor in a purchase. Investing in quality gear that will represent you and your product is essential, but can often be quite expensive, especially when it comes to purchasing quality timecode generator boxes. As discussed before, the Ambient ACN-TL became my timecode staple for all shoots for years, but it certainly wasn’t cheap. Just one of them will set you back $852.00 USD before taxes, and ultimately you’ll need at least two for most jobs. For many up-and-coming mixers, that expense looms outside of their price range, but they’re still asked to bring acceptable timecode generator boxes to most sets. I found it remarkable when I found out the Tentacles were only $489.95 USD for two or $275.95 for one! Whether or not you’ve been using Ambient, Moze Gear, Denecke, or any other timecode synchronizers in your career, Tentacle Sync has created a cost-effective solution for many film professionals who just don’t have the capital to invest in other brands.

Again, when sound mixers or any other industry professionals become set in their ways with dependable equipment, little may change their workflow, except for equipment failure or a near-death experience. But I can tell you that after substantial testing in the field through almost every obstacle I could throw at them, the Tentacle boxes stayed strong and performed seamlessly.

Tentacle Sync has only been around for less than three years, but from my experience during that time, they will continue to create new and innovative products, and will become one of the most well-known companies in the industry.

Please stay tuned for the next review of the new Tentacle Sync Studio for an in-depth look at Tentacle Sync’s first venture into the realm of post-production.

Learn more: http://www.tentaclesync.com

-S&P-

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