Korg aim to break the mould with this pocket‑sized stereo recorder, which offers overdubbing with no specified track‑count limitation.
Hardware multitrack recorders are usually defined by how many tracks they handle, their ability to simultaneously record multiple sources, and the level of mixing and editing that can be done onboard. Although Korg's new Sound on Sound [no relation! — Ed] is similar in some respects to such multitrackers, it is free from the restriction of having a limited number of tracks and mixing channels, makes no attempt to match the facilities of a workstation, and records just one (stereo) track at a time.
What it does do, though, is provide a timing grid, and anything recorded is saved relative to the rest of the song's audio tracks, enabling the user to layer idea upon idea (hence the name) ready for mixing in your DAW later. At the same time, a mixed version of all the tracks is saved separately, making it quite possible to complete a mix in the box itself. Mistakes can be rectified using the undo/redo function (which can be set to allow infinite stages of undo), and there are several A/B looping settings, to help performers get things right before committing each part to the mix.
Unlike most hardware multitrack recorders, the Sound on Sound is designed to be pocket‑sized, and has a built‑in omnidirectional mic and a small speaker for auditioning recorded material. In fact, in these respects, it more closely resembles one of the many hand‑held stereo recording devices that have been flooding onto the market ever since it became possible to store gigabytes of data on tiny cards. Most of these stereo recorders aren't capable of multitrack recording, however, so the Sound On Sound really does seem to be in a class of its own. Impressively, the display is a touchscreen, which means that many settings and levels can be adjusted using nothing more than a finger move.
Guitarists who are interested in laying down ideas are well catered for, as there's an on‑board tuner, as well as plenty of effects, amp and cabinet simulations (provided by REMS, Korg's proprietary modelling technology), plus a rhythm machine for setting up a suitable guide track. It's even possible to increase playback speed (without affecting pitch) to 150 percent and reduce it to just 25 — although overdubbing is only possible over slowed-down, rather than sped‑up, audio, presumably to avoid deterioration of quality when slowing it back down to normal speed.
Unlike some stereo recording devices, the Sound on Sound does not double up as an MP3 player, although technically it's possible to import 16- and 24‑bit WAVs and AIFFs at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz.
You'll notice that I've said that the Sound on Sound has no 'specified' track‑count limitation. Of course, in practice there will be limitations, simply because the device only has so much memory and storage available, which will fill up at a fairly predictable rate. Recordings are in Broadcast WAV format, saved at 16‑bit, 44.1kHz, which means that each gigabyte of memory allows approximately 100 minutes of recording. This would, for example, enable 16 separate tracks of a six-minute, 15-second song to be saved. Standard micro SD cards of up to 2GB capacity are compatible, as are micro HDSCs of up to 16GB. So if you use a high‑capacity card, the Sound on Sound will certainly feel as though its track count is unlimited, particularly if complete compositions are regularly transferred to your computer's hard drive to free up space.
Most pocket‑sized recorders have buttons, inputs and outputs on almost every edge and surface, but the Sound on Sound seems fairly simple in comparison, having its buttons on the top panel, alongside the screen, and what little I/O there is limited to the two sides. The left side is interrupted by a 4.5v DC input (for connecting an optional mains power supply) and the MicroSD/HCSD slot. The marginally busier right flank is home to mic and line inputs, and a headphone output (all of which are presented as separate mini‑jack sockets), plus one quarter‑inch high‑impedance input for electric guitar or bass.
The mic input allows a stereo microphone to be connected, and plug‑in power is available for use with a suitable external condenser. Of all the inputs, this is the only one with a user‑controllable gain setting, offering 'low', 'mid' and 'high' options. (The setting is selected from the input menu.) The other inputs simply rely on the connected device being set appropriately, and adjustment of the level (as opposed to gain) on the screen.
Korg have attempted to keep things simple for the user, so selecting inputs is something the recorder does automatically, by scanning for a connection. For similar reasons, inserting a headphone jack disconnects the on‑board speaker, and there's an automatic input‑gain facility and a limiter, so you can maximise input levels.
To manage all the features and settings, Korg have created eight menu categories, which are displayed at the top of the screen (arranged into two rows of four) and labelled Input, Record, Time, Rhythm, FX, Tuner, Data and Miscellaneous. Navigating from one to another is done by holding down the main menu button and pressing the adjacent up/down and left/right arrow keys that are set around the play button. Within each menu, further options are reached using the arrow keys. Certain options, such as the rhythm and effects menus, can also be reached more directly, by holding down their own dedicated buttons. Many adjustments to parameters, including the tempo of the rhythm machine or the effect level, can be made easily using the touchscreen: a finger sliding across makes incremental changes and touching either side immediately sets the value to zero or maximum.
The on‑board mics, together with the mini‑speaker and a number of status LEDs that relate to the buttons, are hidden behind a distinctive black metal grille, which surrounds the screen and all of the controls.
Having all the buttons and controls in one place and organised as symmetrically as they are does make the Sound on Sound seem very easy to operate. Indeed, this is an aspect of its design which is as simple to use as it looks. In contrast, however, its operating system (OS) is less intuitive — to the extent that it is not really possible to get to grips with all the workings of the Sound on Sound without the help of the manual.
In its pages are a couple of revealing diagrams, which show where effects can be placed in the signal path in one instance, and, in another, the way individual files are combined to form the mix files. Each recording pass is kept intact, in what Korg have logically named the Material folder, but there is also an additional '2‑mix' folder, where overlapping audio is combined according to the order and position in which it was recorded. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way of panning a take, or muting one, so while it offers a useful preview of your composition, sculpting the mix file isn't really possible.
Even after my initial reading of the manual, I found setting up recording and overdubbing a bit confusing, and had to return to some of the instructions to see what I was getting wrong. There are several arming stages, and it is all too easy to call up another song when trying to skip through a menu. A‑B editing also proved to be less intuitive than I'd hoped, for similar reasons, and I had to resort to studying the manual to find the exact sequence of button presses required to set up a relatively simple procedure.
I found the main text displayed on the screen rather hard to read, even though it is large and has support from a bright backlight. The problem is that each digit/letter is poorly represented by a crude set of dots and oblong shapes, so telling a letter apart from it neighbour is a bit like one of those psychology tests — although, to be fair, you do eventually get used to it. Strangely, while the rather hard‑to‑read screen text is almost unnecessarily large, the category icons are tiny, and almost impossible to read when the backlight is off.
Usability is compromised still further by not being able to browse a cascading list of options in a menu category (you can only see one option at a time). The Rhythm category offers 50 options, and the Effects as many as 100, so being able to see several on screen at once, and being able to scroll through them quickly, would help.
My only other complaint is the booting‑up time. This feels slow compared with, say, Yamaha's Pocketrak recorders, which are ready to record in a few seconds.
When exporting audio, an important process has to be undertaken in order to preserve the relative timing positions of the tracked parts. Korg have called it Finalize, but what it does is add a block of silent audio to the front of any file that has a gap between the start of the song and its own position. This allows everything to be aligned accurately in your DAW, but the process inevitably eats memory and is a little slow — so I'd recommend doing this only immediately before exporting.
The review model initially came with a noisy guitar input, which suffered from low‑level digital tones and trills, and compromised my recordings. This turned out to be a bug in the OS, which Korg wanted to fix after I had pointed the problem out to them. I was eventually sent an OS update (v1.5) which addressed that issue, as well as improving the speaker volume. So if you have one of the earlier units, it would be worth updating your OS. The update certainly managed to remove some of the interference problems, although the input remains fairly noisy.
The line input and on‑board mics have no such problems, however. The mics capture a pleasingly natural sound, giving a reasonably good stereo image. The level of inherent noise they exhibit is indicative of a budget device intended for demo work rather than anything too special — but that is understandable, given the relatively low retail price.
The effects and processors are very usable, and are a definite asset: when you're trying to build an idea quickly, having to mess around with settings just to get something half‑decent can be a huge distraction, so being able to dial up a good cab emulation or a reasonably convincing tremolo preset is great. There are even a few options that make good use of the touchscreen slider. The only issue — a minor one — is that some of the effects can trigger clipping when the auto level is on, in which case manual level adjustment is preferable.
It's impossible not to admire a company who come up with innovative ideas, but it's rare that that products both break new ground and get everything right at the same time. Korg's Sound on Sound is no exception: some of its oddities are very welcome, whereas others make it unnecessarily hard to use.
Certainly, most of the recorder's hardware controls have been well thought out, even if the way things are programmed to work is not always immediately obvious. Being able to pan each track layer would be a really useful addition for creating a basic mix, and perhaps in a future update there could be a way of going back and muting certain layers before remixing.
There has been no attempt by Korg to make the Sound On Sound the smallest thing around, and its curious wedge shape makes it somewhat bulky to keep in a pocket — but at least its dimensions allow for a large touchscreen and generous spacing of controls. The guitar input is still rather noisy, and is the one obvious indication that this is a budget product intended for demos rather than serious work, but at least the mics are solid performers.
I'm sure Korg will go on to refine the 'SOS' further, adding new features with subsequent models, and I look forward to that because this has the makings of a great device: I've no doubt that other companies will soon be desperately trying to climb onto the 'unlimited track' bandwagon — but for the time being, the Sound on Sound is out there on its own.
There are countless other pocket‑sized recorders with built‑in stereo mics and speakers, many of which record at higher bit and sample rates, but few with the sort of rhythm and effect options offered by the Sound on Sound. As far as unlimited‑track recording is concerned, there isn't anything else even trying to do that.