This latest multitracker from Boss boasts powerful effects processing and built-in USB facilities.
Boss have been developing their BR range of multitrack recorders for several years, every so often replacing aging models with improved versions. At present, the BR1600 (reviewed in SOS May 2004) sits at the top of the range, the BR1180 v2 in the middle, and the BR864 at the bottom. The BR1200 reviewed here seems to be a replacement for the BR1180 v2, and its release coincides with that of the BR900, which I suspect will supersede the BR864.
The biggest reason for the upgrade must surely be to introduce a USB interface, which is now a feature we've come to expect from a modern digital multitracker. Being able to make computer backups of Song files or stereo mixes via USB is welcome, but there are other advantages too, not least the prospect of being able to shift samples back and forth when using a complementary computer-based software editing program. Nevertheless, a 'stand-alone' multitracker, by definition, should single-handedly provide all the tools necessary to finish an album or demo. Many people spend their days working on a computer, so when they begin recording music they don't want to be faced with more of the same.
The BR1200 has 12 tracks, each with its own set of 15 virtual tracks that can be used for storing alternative takes. That makes a total of 192 tracks, which should be enough for even the most indecisive performer. There isn't a fader for every track, though, just 10 plus a master level fader controlling the output signal. This is because tracks 9+10 and 11+12 are fixed as stereo pairs, and therefore require just one level control each. The first pair is intended to record stereo sound sources such as keyboards, sound modules, and drum machines, whereas tracks 11+12 need to be reserved for stereo mixdowns.
The large 40GB drive means that compressing audio files to a small size is not necessary, so the BR1200 operates at the commercial CD playback standard of 16-bit, 44.1kHz. Arguably, the most significant limitation of the product is that it only records two tracks simultaneously. There are no hardware opportunities for adding input expansion cards, so anyone wanting to multi-mike a drum kit or band, for example, will be unable to do so. To help matters, Boss have included a stereo drum machine with its own pattern sequencer and song arrangement facility, and you can also program in bass sounds from an onboard synth.
Boss seem to be targeting musicians who build their tracks bit by bit, perhaps using loops and samples as a foundation for overdubbing vocals and guitars. To this end, the multitracker has its own sampler, which makes it possible to cut audio into segments or Phrases, so that they can be sequenced and looped in time with a composition. Phrases can be taken from an audio track, loaded from CD-ROM using the onboard CD-RW drive, or imported via the USB connection.
When it comes to recording guitar and vocals, the Roland/Boss COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) effects offer a selection of amplifier, cabinet, and preamp simulations, as well as a good collection of standard reverb, modulation, and distortion effects. There's even an in-built tuner, so that a guitarist will require nothing other than their six-string and a jack lead to get started. Having replaced most of the band and their equipment, the BR1200 courts the solo performer further by providing a three-part vocal harmony generator in its Vocal Tool Box, which also includes a pitch-correction program for tuning wayward singing.
Although I/O is not one of the BR1200's strong points, the CD-RW drive and USB connector lessen the need for multiple hardware connector formats. Firstly, proprietary Song file backups can be saved onto both CD-RW media and computer hard drive. It is also possible to save individual tracks, regions of audio or stereo mixes as WAV or AIFF files for use in other audio programs. Alternatively, the CD drive allows the creation of normal stereo audio CDs for playback on domestic CD players. Usefully, the CD-RW drive doubles as a vehicle for loading Standard MIDI Files and drum and loop sample files into the recorder. For ease of use, Boss have provided three dedicated hardware CD-RW buttons labelled Audio CD Write/Play, Data Save/Load, and Loop Phrase Import. As for USB, the BR1200 is compatible with any Mac running OS 9.1 and upwards, or any PC running Windows ME, 2000, or XP.
On the front is a high-impedance instrument input and a headphone jack with its own volume knob, but it's round the back that all the rest of the connectors live. To the far left is the power input which, unfortunately, requires an ungainly power adaptor. Past the on/off switch is the aforementioned USB port, plus a pair of MIDI sockets labelled In and Out (there is no Thru). These make it possible to control things like the internal drum sounds from an external keyboard, and allow MIDI instruments to be run in sync with the recorder using MIDI Clock or MTC. Next is an optical S/PDIF output, offering a method of recording to digital media such as DAT without subjecting the signal to the D-A conversion process. In the centre are two jack sockets, one for connecting an expression pedal and the other for a footswitch. The former works with the Wah, Vibrato, and Pitch Shifter effects, and acts as a volume control in the effects loop, while the footswitch can be used for punching in and out when recording.
The main audio output is served by a pair of unbalanced RCA phono jacks, which are accompanied by a pair of line inputs. Lastly, there are two XLR input sockets which can be supplied with 48V phantom power by activating a software switch in the Utility menu. Unbalanced inputs are also catered for by two quarter-inch jack sockets.
When it comes to effects and processing, the BR1200 has a lot to offer. Firstly, there are the COSM insert effects, which can be applied to the two input channels during recording. The effect algorithms are divided into fairly self-explanatory categories labelled Guitar/Bass, Vocal, and Line, each with its own button. Algorithms are made up of a combination of effects, carefully chosen, arranged, and named for specific recording tasks.
Having selected a category, a press of the conspicuous COSM Effects button opens an on-screen menu page from which a new preset or user patch is chosen. Pressing the F1 key (Edit) summons a diagram to the display, showing the arrangement of the current algorithm's effects blocks. The Cursor keys are used to select an effect, and the Time/value wheel turns it on/off. If an effects block is highlighted, pressing F3 calls up its editable parameters for adjustment.
Once audio has been recorded to tracks, EQ and compression can be applied, along with a selection of loop effects. Pressing the Compressor button brings up a screen showing the threshold, attack, and release settings for each of the 12 tracks. It's possible to pair tracks (for stereo processing), and channel compression can be bypassed where necessary. The EQ page is much the same, offering high and low shelving bands and a mid-range peak. The bands can be swept over 40-1500Hz, 200Hz-4kHz, and 500Hz-18kHz respectively, the mid-band's Q value adjustable over a 0.3-16 range. Each band offers up to 12dB of cut or boost.
One of the more unusual processing tools offered by the BR1200 is the Speaker Modelling Kit, designed to allow mixes to be heard through an emulation of a well-known studio monitor. It is wishful thinking that a little software trickery can turn a budget pair of boom boxes into a set of expensive studio monitors, but at least the facility provides a way to demo a mix through approximations of TV speakers, small radios, professional nearfields, and so on. Unfortunately, the settings are optimised on the understanding that Roland's own DS-series digital monitors are connected, so anyone using a different variety of monitor is likely to get unpredictable results!
The choice of loop effects is limited to three reverbs, two delays, and a chorus. The first delay is pretty standard, with a time value ranging from 10ms to 1s. The second is designed to emulate double-tracking by having a short 0.5-50ms range. The chorus and delay live on the same send/return loop and cannot be used together, but the reverb has its own send and may be used simultaneously with any one of the other effects. Reverb options have been kept simple so that there is a pick of just Hall, Room, and Plate patches. Listening to a long reverb tail revealed that the algorithms are not of the highest quality, although in practice they're still very usable. Each reverb type has quite a number of controls, so tailoring the sound can be done quickly and easily. I particularly like the way you can adjust the reverb's high-frequency damping in terms of 'Dark', 'Norm', and 'Bright' labels, instead of having to juggle percentage figures.
Because many multitracker owners want to produce finished CDs straight from their recorder, it is becoming common to find onboard mastering tools including multi-band compressors, stereo limiters, and wide-band EQ controls. Indeed, the BR1200 does have just that in its Mastering Tool Kit, so creating a commercial release is a possibility, although there is no facility for adding CD sub-code information.
Although the various Tool Kits, effects, and dynamics controls form an impressive array of processing options, only a few can actually be used at any one time! For example, neither the individual track EQ or the loop effects can be used when the Mastering Tool Kit is in play, and if the channel compressors are active then the Vocal Tool Box, Speaker Modelling, and Mastering Tool Kit are out of action! Thankfully, Boss have programmed each section so that it automatically switches off if a conflicting one is called into use by the press of another button. Although such no-fuss measures are welcome, they don't change the fact that the multitracker has limitations. For example, before using the Mastering Tool Kit on a stereo mix it is necessary to mix down using the active channel EQ, send effects, and compressors. Only then can the Mastering Tool Kit be turned on, at which point the mix will need to be bounced again to a spare pair of virtual tracks.
Setting the practicalities of operation aside for a second, it's worth noting that the various effects and processors do sound very good, albeit after a little customisation in most cases. As for the insert effects, there is something for all occasions, including all the usual modulation, delay, and distortion effects one would expect to find in a dedicated effects processor. Guitarists and bassists have a variety of speaker and amplifier simulations to choose from, and enough control to make most budget outboard obsolete. The choice of insert effects is impressive, and it could well take a lifetime to try them all out during the normal course of recording!
Although there isn't an internal sequencer for recording fader moves or EQ adjustments, it is possible to save up to 100 Scenes per Song, and then to recall them using associated Marker points placed in key positions. Furthermore, a certain degree of remote automation is possible if a MIDI sequencer is connected, including the playback of fader moves and effects patch switching.
The BR1200 does offer a set of digital editing tools, although they are hidden in the Utilities menu. Unfortunately, audio can't be examined with a waveform display, and there are no processing tools for such things as time-stretching or reversing audio. It is, however, possible to Copy, Move, Exchange, Insert, Normalise, Delete, and Erase.
One of the things that sets the BR1200 apart from many multitrack recorders is its comprehensive programmable rhythm section, comprising a bass, drum, and percussion sequencer, plus a sample loop arranger. Such facilities allow solo composers to build up entire compositions without a band, and therefore suit the bedroom studio owner very well.
Running the show is a basic step sequencer with a drum grid in which drum or percussion notes can be entered. It's also possible to record a performance in real time by using the track selection buttons as drum pads, or by triggering the internal sounds from an external keyboard connected to the MIDI input. As with any sequencer, there is an event list function for precise performance editing, and there are some quantising options for adding a particular feel to the pattern, or for sorting out wayward playing. Sadly, though, as with the Roland VS2000 I reviewed last year, there is no way to pan drum sounds, even though the drum track is a stereo one.
Standard MIDI File (SMF) patterns can be loaded via the CD-RW drive, and so can drum sounds themselves. The onboard sounds are actually reasonably good, though, and are divided into kits labelled STD1, STD2, Room, Heavy, Jazz, Hip Hop, House, Reggae, and 808. There is also a selection of synth bass sounds to choose from, which can, again, be programmed into patterns using the track buttons.
Loop phrases can either be taken from a performance, or imported from a CD-ROM sample collection. Up to 400 phrases can be stored in eight banks, and as many as 190 are pre-installed. Loop phrases can be assigned to the track buttons and triggered just like a drum sound, and are arranged in the same way. To a certain extent, the BR1200 can tempo-match phrases, although real-time audio stretching requires a lot of processing, so it is better to adjust them off line, effectively resampling the loop to the correct timing.
Potential buyers of the BR1200 will be keen to know if the product is as immediate to use as it claims. The manual introduces its subject as having been designed for beginners, and compares its ease of use to that of a tape recorder. Nevertheless, with its 362 pages of fairly economically-written text, the handbook itself will worry some beginners!
It is certainly true that making a basic recording is extremely easy. Given that there are only a couple of inputs, it's just a matter of arming the destination track. The array of dedicated hardware buttons also makes it pretty simple to access and apply processing. The screen is perhaps a little small, making it hard to judge meter levels, but it does attempt to provide as much information as it can in a small space. Nevertheless, when adjusting an effects algorithm, for example, scrolling from one page to another to access the various parameters becomes a little bit tiresome, even though the software-assignable function keys and knobs are assigned cleverly to each on-screen effect.
The rhythm section is one of the least intuitive bits of the BR1200, mainly because of the inherent complexity of the process of building drum samples into patterns, editing and synchronising loop phrases, programming bass lines in a musical way, and then arranging the whole lot into a cohesive song structure. Although it is possible to record to a metronome and then fill in the arrangement afterwards, anyone wanting their overdubs to interact with the rhythm part will need to sort out their arrangement straight away.
The multitracker's biggest design fault (one which it shares with other BR products) is the way that the undeniably useful rhythm facilities can only be used at the expense of the playback of three of the audio tracks. If, for example, at some stage during recording it becomes desirable to use the onboard bass synth or drum loop sequencer, then anything which has already been recorded on tracks eight or 9+10 becomes unavailable for mixing, although the audio on those tracks still remains intact. What's more, as mentioned above, tracks 11+12 need to be kept free for mixdowns, further reducing the practical track count. A further compromise is that loop phrases share the same mixer channels as the drum track, and therefore have to be balanced on screen. Although the adjustment can be made quickly, it's not quite the same as having dedicated mixer channels.
Despite all this, the various hardware controls and on-screen menus work well together, so that once the principles of operation are understood, the rhythm section becomes quick to use. There's also an EZ Compose function which offers a limited menu of settings so that arrangements of drum and bass patterns can be constructed more rapidly.
The BR1200 is a little slow in some areas, and starting up takes a whole minute. The USB implementation is the worst offender though. Converting files into WAV or AIFF format and then porting them into the computer is fast enough, but I nearly choked on my tea when I saw how long it was going to take to back up a Song file to my PC's drive. Even after optimising the Song file, it looked set to take an hour and a half! Thankfully, backups to CDs can be made in only a few minutes. There are also lengthy delays following every command, making USB use in general rather frustrating.
Operating noise is very low, although the hard drive managed to vibrate my desk, creating a significant low-frequency drone! A block of foam between the two rendered the machine almost silent, however. I also found the line outputs noisy, but at least the problem did not affect the recorded audio itself. One final niggle is that, as with too many budget multitrackers, there is no track solo function — only mute buttons. This means, for example, that there is no quick way to check a mixdown recorded to tracks 11/12.
Although the BR1200 is designed to allow its users to get on with recording without becoming bogged down in engineering issues, there is so much sophisticated technology on board that it remains quite a complex bit of kit. This fact aside, anyone who takes the time to get their head around its basic rationale will find the BR1200 pretty straightforward. Fulfilling its brief, the BR1200 does stand alone without needing much external hardware. I didn't experience any nasty computer-style glitches or crashes during use, which is sadly becoming a rarer quality in digital hardware these days.
Creating a rough rhythm track, bass line, and loop sequence takes no time at all, and recording is just a matter of plugging in, pressing a button or two, and playing the part. Building a detailed rhythm arrangement does take a little longer and requires some planning, but it's still a reasonably straightforward process.
As with most budget digital multitrackers built for speed and simplicity, the mixer is basic, lacking most of the flexible bussing found on more expensive digital mixers. Then again, without much in the way of I/O, and with no expansion options, the mixer doesn't really need to be any more complex. However, the lack of a solo function is certainly one cut too far in the mixer department, and the fact that the bass, drum, and loop facilities take up valuable tracks is a very bad idea. The powerful effects and processing options are really the jewel in this particular crown, even though the multitracker has to juggle them around a bit.
To sum up, this is not the most powerful product in terms of features, tracks, and processing allocation, but it performs extremely well and efficiently, making it possible to create high-quality demos or reasonably competent album and single releases using very little outboard equipment.
Going by the number of record tracks, the most obvious competition comes from Korg's D1200 MkII, which is similarly priced in the UK. Although Korg's multitracker lacks the sophisticated rhythm features of the Boss, it can record four tracks simultaneously, has a slightly larger mixer, and offers 24-bit recording. It also challenges the COSM effects by employing Korg's own REMS modelling system. Yamaha's aging AW16G and Tascam's 2488 also present serious competition due to their low retail prices, although both concentrate more on serious mixing facilities and less on the hands-on Boss/Zoom-style rhythm sequencer tools.
However, it is Zoom's MRS1608 16-track digital multitracker which casts the biggest shadow by offering a wealth of features for not very much money. Like the BR1200, it provides a stereo drum machine (but with real soft pads to hit) and bass synth, both of which can be sequenced and sync'ed together with the recorded audio. What's more, it has a Phrase Loop facility similar to that of the Boss unit, and a FAST compose facility in place of the EZ Compose facility.
Boss are renowned for their guitar effects, but so are Zoom, who have added amp modelling and a tuner to their effects section so that guitarists/bassists can plug and play. Where the Zoom scores most points over the Boss is in its lack of track compromises. The rhythm section is additional to the 16 tracks, and there is a separate stereo mixdown track too. Even more importantly, the MRS1608 matches the pricier BR1600 by allowing up to eight tracks to be recorded simultaneously.