The latest multitracker from Zoom is their most sophisticated yet, but can it see off its rivals in what is an extremely competitive marketplace?
Zoom's MRS1608 is a 16-track digital multitracker offering a wealth of features for not very much money. These include a Rhythm section providing a stereo drum machine and bass synth, both of which can be sequenced and played together with recorded audio. There is also a Phrase Loop facility for building tracks from samples and a Pad Sampler which can be used to build custom drum kits. The effects section has, amongst other things, amp modelling and a tuner, so guitarists/bassists can simply plug in and play. There is also a built-in CD-RW drive, plus all the other basic digital I/O and editing features you'd expect to find on a digital multitracker.
The MRS1608 is a direct descendant of the Zoom's MRS1266, reviewed in SOS February 2003, which itself was a development from the MRS1044. In fact, the MRS1608 can exchange audio track data and rhythm data with both the models mentioned above, and also with the smaller MRS802. Bearing in mind the MRS1608's heritage, I'll start by comparing some of the newcomer's features to its predecessor, to find out what's been improved and added to the design.
Possibly the most significant difference between the MRS1266 and MRS1608 is the track count: the older machine has 10 ordinary tracks, plus an additional stereo track for the master mix, whereas the MRS1608 is a 16-tracker, also with its own separate stereo master track. Given that the MRS1608 also has a stereo track for the drum machine and a mono track for the bass (more on these later), I'm surprised Zoom haven't added the whole lot up and called this machine the 2108 — there are manufacturers who would! Just as on the MRS1266, there are 10 virtual tracks available for each record track.
At last, Zoom have made a recorder that can record eight tracks simultaneously, hence the '08' bit of its name. The 1266 would record up to six tracks at once, and provided a matching set of six quarter-inch jack inputs, two of which were interchangeable with a pair of XLRs, but the MRS1608 offers quite a lot more. All eight of its inputs are combi jack/XLR sockets, and therefore accept either balanced XLRs or quarter-inch jacks. As on the MRS1266, a pair of high-impedance jack sockets are situated on the front of the recorder for use with guitars or basses, and these can be used instead of the first two combi jack/XLRs. However, on the MRS1608, these two inputs each have a dedicated gain control by the input socket.
The number of inputs which are phantom powered has also been increased from two, so that now four sockets are active. These are organised into pairs, so that power can be selected for inputs three and four, five and six, or both pairs together. One further addition to the I/O is a pair of RCA phono ins, included so that signals sent to an external effects machine have their own return path, or, alternatively, so that the outputs from a CD player can be connected. Unfortunately, these inputs don't have their own signal path, and are mixed with inputs seven and eight, but they are still a welcome addition.
At 40GB, the drive has double the capacity of that in the MRS1266, and is in line with other contemporary 16-trackers. The sample rate and resolution remain fixed at 44.1kHz and 16-bit respectively, so total recording time works out at around 120 track hours. The MRS1266's disappointing two-band EQ is now a more respectable three-band parametric design with a Q control for the mid-band.
It might be my imagination, but the MRS1608 feels considerably more robust than the MRS1266. A glance at the spec shows that it is a kilogram heavier (7.8kg rather than 6.8kg) than the MRS1266. The casing is now metal rather than plastic, which together with the improved I/O has probably added the weight. Nevertheless, the new machine is still eminently portable, and its weight is nothing other than reassuring.
There are 15 faders on the MRS1608 in all, including one each for the drum and bass tracks, and one serving the master level. The remaining 12 handle the sixteen audio tracks — tracks nine to 16 are paired up to make stereo tracks, and thus only have four faders between them. Such tracks are intended for things like keyboards and sound modules which will have panned stereo outputs.
Like its predecessor, the MRS1608 can be hooked up to a Mac or PC via USB, so that data transfers and backups can be performed. Once again, the UIB02 board, which is necessary for any USB activity, is an optional extra, and that's a shame, although the CD-RW drive is included as standard. Unfortunately the review model was not fitted with the USB board, so I was not able to see it in action. One of the most interesting features the MRS1608 has brought to the table is its Pad Sampler, which joins the existing Phrase Loop facility, so it's now possible to take slices of recorded audio or samples from a CD sample library and use them to make custom drum kits, thus greatly expanding the MRS1608's rhythm capabilities.
The MRS1608 offers no waveform display for editing, but it does have a pretty decent collection of tools in its armoury. These are Copy, Move, Erase, Trim, Fade I/O (fade-in/out), Reverse, TimStrch (time-stretch), Pitchfix, Harmony (offers three-part harmony creation to go with the specified data) and Duo Harm (one-part harmony generation). Particularly welcome here is Reverse, which is something I miss on my Yamaha AW4416. It's a great feature for creating psychedelic guitar effects, which had to be done in the old days by swapping the reels of analogue tape around on reel-to-reel machines. Specifying a segment of audio, reversing it, and recording the result to a spare track is a cinch. Then you have the option of time-stretching it, sampling it, and using it as a loop or drum sound! There are loads of possibilities.
Now that the main comparisons have been made, let's take a look at the remaining MRS1608 features. In addition to the combi jack/XLR and RCA inputs, you get a front-panel footswitch jack input and a MIDI In/Out pair. A pair of RCA phonos serve as master outputs, and there is a single optical S/PDIF socket for carrying digital mixes to DAT machines and the like. Finally, there is a blanking panel which covers the slot for the USB board. The remaining front-panel connections are Master and Sub Out headphone outputs, the latter of which can also be used to send stereo signals out to effects. Indeed, the MRS1608's software allows the user to specify the purpose of this output, and then to assign certain tracks to it.
The control section labelled Rhythm provides drum machine, bass synth, and sampling facilities. As you would expect from a company who have had success with stand-alone drum machines, namely the Rhythmtrak 234 and 123, there are some rather nice-sounding kits which can be played via the 12 built-in soft pads or from an external keyboard hooked up to the MIDI In. Each kit actually contains 36 drum/percussion sounds, so a keyboard is needed to play an entire kit at once (should you wish to do so), otherwise the Bank Octave button allows switching between three banks of 12 sounds.
There are plenty of preset rhythm patterns to start with, but both real-time and step-time recording make it possible to create new rhythm and bass patterns. Patterns themselves can be sequenced using a conventional step-time method, or by Zoom's much more attractive FAST (Formula Assisted Song Translator). The bass sounds have been limited to just a few synth tones, although Zoom have been careful to pick ones that are likely to be most useable. Like the drum patterns, bass lines can be programmed via the pads, and there are various settings determining things like musical scales, pad sensitivity, and metronome accompaniment, all of which make performance easier.
Despite the range of conventional internal drum sounds, there will be some people who want something different, and that is where the Pad Sampler becomes very useful. AIFF and WAV samples can be loaded from CD and stored in the MRS1608's Sample Pool ready for action. Alternatively, a slice of audio from a track or virtual track can be placed in the Sample Pool for the same end (up to 1000 samples can be stored in the Pool). Once in the Pool, material can be cut, adjusted, and edited before being assigned to a pad for playing. In this way, custom kits can be created.
The MRS1608 also has a Phrase Loop facility, which differs from the Pad Sampler somewhat. Phrases are not intended to be played from the pads, although the pads actually function as programming buttons when Phrases are being assembled, again via FAST, into a sequence. For each project, up to 100 Phrases can be stored on the hard disk in a Phrase Pool, and these Phrases can be drawn from CD, from another project's Phrase Pool, or from a recorded audio track. Once in the pool, Phrases are ready to be placed into a running order. Cleverly, the MRS1608 allows the programmer to specify the playback range of each Phrase, and to give it a time signature so that the audio is automatically expanded or compressed to match the tempo setting of the song. Once arranged, performances have to be recorded to a track where they become a continuous block of audio, like any other track.
Digital multitrackers are available from a number of different manufacturers, and amongst middle-market machines, priced around the £1000 point, competition is extremely fierce at the moment. Products costing more than a grand need some pretty serious features to justify their cost, while those dipping below battle to be the best-featured product to be officially 'affordable'.
Currently fighting it out are the Roland VS2000, Boss BR1600, Yamaha AW16G, Tascam 2488, and now the Zoom MRS1608. Akai seem to be out of the running, having shown no sign of following up on their excellent, but now out-of-date, DPS16. Fostex also have some low-price 16- and eight-track machines, but they too need a little updating to keep up with the competition.
Of the products listed above, the ones in direct competition with the MRS1608 are of the easy-to-use variety, designed to appeal to the guitarist, band, or composing musician, rather than to the budding engineer/producer. Tascam's 2488 offers an amazing 24 tracks and 36 mixer inputs, but it lacks the extra rhythm, bass, and sampling features of the Zoom, and has a modest collection of inputs. The AW16G, on the other hand, has technology handed down from the original 02R mixer, and for just a few more UK pounds than the MRS1608 probably has the best mixer in its class. What's more, it even offers a loop facility and a user-friendly interface. Nevertheless, it doesn't have Zoom's rhythm facilities and impressive amp-modelling algorithms, which are likely to attract guitarists and bassists who want to create their own backing tracks.
The BR1600 is probably the product that is conceptually and physically most akin to the Zoom. It too is a 16-track machine offering eight tracks of simultaneous recording, a straightforward user interface, and amp-modelling effects. It directly competes with the Zoom by having a stereo bass synth, drum machine, and sampler, although none of these facilities have their own tracks or faders and can only be used at the expense of valuable audio recording tracks. The BR1600 also lacks a dedicated stereo master track. What's more, even with USB fitted as standard, in the UK the Boss is priced £200 above the Zoom.
Sandwiched between the Input and Rhythm sections is the collection of buttons dedicated to effects and processing. Individual effects and processors are gathered together and placed in chains which Zoom have labelled Algorithms. Zoom have given the algorithms helpful category labels: Clean, Dist, Aco/Bass Sim, Mic, Dual Mic, Line, 8 x Comp EQ, and Mastering. The intended use of each algorithm is apparent from the name, apart from perhaps 8 x Comp EQ, which is intended for use with the MRS1608's eight-track recording mode and which provides independent high-pass filter, compressor/limiter, and EQ for each of the eight track inputs.
Within each algorithm, effects modules can be turned on and off, swapped for other effects of the same type, and, of course, edited to a certain extent. All the chains are of the insert type, meaning that they need to be placed into the audio signal path before they can be used. There are three insert points to choose from: at the beginning of the input mixer, between the track recorder and the track mixer, and across the master buss. Each of the algorithms offers a selection of pre-programmed patches, as well as a few user slots, all making a total of 320 patches. The patch selection buttons make it possible to scroll up and down through effects patches, although the general-purpose scroll wheel performs the same function.
Zoom have two other buttons dedicated to send and return effect menus. The first calls up a selection of choruses and delays, while the second deals entirely with reverb algorithms. The extent to which each track's signal is sent to these effects can be determined on a track-by-track basis by using the two corresponding buttons in the Track Parameters section to the right of the screen. All send effects can be edited, and both effects modules work simultaneously if selected.
The Effect section also has a freely assignable tuner, which is great for guitarists plugging directly into the inputs on the front edge of the MRS1608. These kinds of features suggest that Zoom consider the guitarist one of their key customers, as you might expect from a company who are renowned for making guitar effects processors. As it happens, the preset amp simulations on offer are pretty good and very playable, and although some effects are not quite as editable as they could be, they will be more than good enough for many people. I frequently found myself dialling up drum and bass loops from the Rhythm section, selecting the amp patch of my choice, and then playing along happily for far too long (when I had a review to write), with just my guitar plugged into the front!
As with many aspects of the MRS1608, the way Zoom have arranged the effects and processors into preset configurations seems a little restrictive when compared with some systems where all reverbs and delays are available for either insert or send duties, and where effects modules can be placed in any order. Nevertheless, Zoom's configurations are more than adequate for the majority of situations, and the easy-to-use button assignment is commendable.
The MRS1608's mixer is a little on the basic side, having no dedicated dynamics (the 8 x Comp EQ Algorithm going some way towards making up for this) or complex bussing structure, although its simplicity makes operation relatively simple. The input section has gain pots with clip LEDs, and there is a global record level trim with clip LED and on-screen metering. Signals can be panned, have their phase switched, and be assigned to the Sub Out headphones jack for sending to external effects processors and the like.
The track mixer offers volume, pan, phase, and EQ control. Again, effects send level can be adjusted, as can the delivery of the signal to the Sub Out jack. The improved EQ has a high-frequency sweep from 500Hz to 18kHz, a mid-band control ranging from 40Hz to 18kHz and a low adjustment covering frequencies from 40Hz up to 16kHz. Each band has ±12dB gain, and the mid-band control provides an adjustable Q from 0.1 to 1.0. It's not uncommon to find EQs that reach from 20Hz up to 20kHz. However, what the MRS1608 offers is adequate for a 16-bit/44.1kHz machine like this.
Usefully, most of the main mixing tasks can be done quite quickly by using the Track Parameter buttons which run down the right-hand side of the screen and immediately call up a specific function when pressed.
Real-time automation is not available on the MRS1608, which will be an issue for some potential purchasers who like to have total control over levels, EQ, effects, and panning throughout the passage of a song. Nevertheless, each project can have as many as 100 scene changes scattered throughout its duration. For a four-minute song, that equates to one scene every 2.4 seconds, which should be enough to provide most pieces of music with a variety of dynamic changes. Once a set of scenes has been programmed, it is necessary to go through the song in question and place markers where changes are to be made. Then the scenes are simply assigned to the markers as and when necessary.
One of the first things I began wondering about was why I couldn't see an Undo button on the front panel. After trawling through the manual I realised that it was because the MRS1608 doesn't have undo at all! Instead, there is something called Track Capture, which allows a track to be saved into a temporary memory location while an edit is performed. If an edit turns out to be wrong, then the captured track can be retrieved. Although Zoom's Track Capture is a welcome facility, it's not as neat as having dedicated undo/redo buttons, and I'm unsure quite why Zoom haven't been more conventional in this area of their design.
I should also comment on the MRS1608's transport and navigation tools, which are largely confined to the right-hand side of the front panel. Most of what you'd want is here, including playback looping, an automatic punch-in function, and audio scrubbing, plus a hidden method of accelerating the fast-forward and rewind controls.
My first impressions of the MRS1608 were that it appeared to be constructed reasonably well and looked more professional than previous Zoom multitrackers. This impression was reinforced when I turned the machine on and began to work with it. To start with, its operating noise was respectably low — to provide some kind of comparison, the Zoom is far quieter than my old Akai DPS16 and the Roland VS2000 I tested recently, and a touch less noisy than the Yamaha AW4416 I currently have in my studio. It also doesn't pump out gusts of air like some machines which use powerful cooling fans, yet it remained remarkably cool after many hours use.
Although there is quite a large screen, it actually has a very limited display, which is rather unfortunate. The machine is packed with features, and yet the screen is only capable of displaying one or two pieces of information at a time. This is largely because the bottom two thirds are dedicated to timing and channel/track-metering information which doesn't change regardless of mode. What does change is limited to just two lines at the top of the screen, and this becomes frustrating when one's used to a more elaborate design.
To give an example, the EQ parameters for a channel can only be seen one at a time. There's no helpful line graph showing the EQ's curve, and certainly no channel-strip-style knobs to tweak. Having said this, the more I used the MRS1608, the less irritated I became with the display, and the track selection buttons and eight Track Parameter buttons work together quite effectively. One way to work is to select a track and access all its parameters by pressing the Parameter buttons one by one, making adjustments with the cursor keys and data wheel. Alternatively, you can select a parameter, such as Low EQ, and then use the track selection buttons to rapidly change that parameter for each track in turn.
I can see how familiarity would enable the user of the MRS1608 to work very quickly. At first, the repetitiveness of working through the same limited interface is confusing, because different actions require very similar, but subtly different, button-pressing combinations. Nevertheless, Zoom's methodology quickly becomes apparent, and it's then possible to second-guess how certain tasks are achieved.
In fact, the MRS1608's simplicity may well be one of its strengths, in a funny kind of way. It's probably fair to say that if you'd never owned a machine with a more sophisticated interface, then you probably wouldn't miss many of the features which I first felt were lacking. To give an example, having dealt with patch matrix pages on Roland, Akai, Yamaha, and Korg products, I assumed the MRS1608 would have the same, and searched the manual to find out where the patch page was hidden. Instead, Zoom have made it painfully simple to send an input to a record track — it's done by pressing the relevant track selection buttons or by using the fixed eight-track recording mode which links inputs one to eight with their corresponding record tracks.
Admittedly, the Zoom's routing options are limited compared with many devices, so some recording configurations are not easily done. To record any more than two inputs at once, the inflexible eight-track mode has to be used, so any further overdubs must be sent to tracks nine to 16. If you need to record more overdubs in the eight-track mode, then the existing eight need to be moved first, freeing up the first eight again! Zoom, might want to think about making it possible to assign inputs a little more freely on future models.
One thing the MRS1608 certainly has in its favour is that it performs reliably and succinctly, and doesn't seem to suffer from the bug problems exhibited by some machines. I found no bugs and had no crashes, which is a nice change, and my only complaint about its performance would be that many buttons are a little slow to respond when pressed.
The CD-RW drive is included as standard on the MRS1608, whereas it was still a costly option for the MRS1266. This is a sensible move on the part of Zoom, as all of the competing products now come with CD-RW drives too. You can use CD-R and CD-RW discs for the backing up of song data, as well as for the burning of your finished mixes as audio. It's also possible to assemble tracks into lists so that 'albums' can be burnt directly from the machine.
The drive also offers a method of loading in sample data on CD in AIFF or WAV format for use in the Pad Sampler or Phrase Loop feature. It's slightly disappointing that USB is still an option. Even if the owner of an MRS1608 doesn't use a computer for music, sooner or later they are likely to want to back up files or load samples, and USB is an extremely fast and satisfactory way of doing this.
Despite its sophistication, the MRS1608 is still a low-budget machine, and therefore lacks a few professional features like word-clock interfacing, I/O expansion slots, mixer bussing structures, and moving-fader automation. Their absence is understandable, but the lack of a proper undo facility and a detailed display means that the machine lets itself down in some areas. Nevertheless, it really packs a punch in other departments, especially when it comes to the dedicated bass, drum, and sampler tracks.
Like its predecessor, the MRS1608 is bound to appeal to guitarists through its modelling effects, and the rhythm provides instant backing for any solo player trying out a few ideas. It's really impressive that the drum and bass tracks are subject to the same processing as the rest of the recorder, so, for example, they can be soloed, sent to the effects, or equalised just like any other track. Used to the full, this really is a genuine 19-track machine, with separate stereo master tracks. Some manufacturers quote their products as having more tracks than they are really capable of running in normal operation, so Zoom's modesty here is refreshing.
Zoom could have left off the bass/drums/sampler features, which are not strictly digital multitracker necessities, and improved on the mixer functions. However, they have been, in my opinion, wise to stuck to their plan, and have therefore avoided taking on the likes of Yamaha and their powerful AW16G. Zoom have played to their strengths as a long-time guitar effects, rhythm machine, and sampler manufacturer, and in doing so have produced a product which will appeal to a different market.
OK, Boss offer an alternative with their BR1600CD, but the MRS1608 has the edge in a number of important areas (see the 'Taking On The Competition' box). Musicians who want to get heavily into engineering a production will undoubtedly be better served by a machine with a more serious mixer and interfacing; however, there are a large number of people who won't miss what isn't there. The bottom line is this: the MRS certainly won't let you down, and if you're happy with what it has to offer, then you'll probably grow to love it.