Zoom have created another portable recorder that's overflowing with features and functionality. Can it be all things to all people?
For some years now, Zoom have been creating products which defy standard categorisation. The ancestry of the R8 can be traced back to the HD16 multitrack recorder, which doubled up as a MIDI controller for DAWs. Not long before that, recording was either done using a computer in conjunction with an audio interface and mixing control surface, or with stand-alone hardware that allowed recording, mixing, processing and CD mastering to be done in one box. Zoom, coming from the hardware side of things, saw a way of combining the two approaches with the HD16 — and they haven't looked back since.
The R8 is essentially a cut-down version of the 24-track R24 reviewed in SOS January 2011 (/sos/jan11/articles/zoom-r24.htm). Instead of offering — as the R24 does — eight tracks of simultaneous recording, the R8 manages only two, but it can play back and mix as many as the '8' in its name. Reflecting the two-track simultaneous recording capability, the R8's inputs, preamps and control knobs come in twos. Much of the rest of the hardware knobs and buttons are the same as those of the R24, the only other (very noticeable) change being the removal of the LED meterbridge section which served eight channels simultaneously. This time an on-screen meter display does the job, albeit in a smaller and less impressive fashion.
The R8 is capable of recording 24-bit files at a maximum sample rate of 48KHz, but if used as a computer interface, it is able to handle 88.2 and 96 KHz files. Although there are only eight simultaneous playback tracks, each project supports an unlimited number of virtual tracks. Track recordings are simply WAV files stored in a song's audio folder, and a little data file tells the R8 which ones are currently assigned to physical tracks. There's also a stereo Master track for making mixdowns, and that, too, has unlimited virtual track assignment.
Audio is stored on SDHC cards of up to 32GB (a 2GB card comes as part of the package, and an hour of stereo 24-bit/48kHz audio takes up approximately 1GB). Power can be delivered by four AA batteries, or via a USB cable. Mains power can also be used: there's a mains adaptor into which you can plug the USB cable.
Given that the R8's footprint is smaller than a sheet of A4 and its depth is about the same as a cheese sandwich, the device should fit into a gig or shoulder bag fairly easily, and its reasonably solid build means that it is likely to withstand a few knocks. This being the case, musicians on the move might find it useful as an on-the-spot tool for capturing ideas.
The fictional gigging musician that I suspect Zoom's designers originally had in mind would kick things off by building a drum guide-track using the sequencer and rhythm sounds, and would then plug in an instrument and create some material for looping (if none of the 500MB of supplied loops are to taste), this time using the sampler functions.
Even if lacking a microphone, the musician could capture a vocal or acoustic performance with the on-board pair of mics, which can be seen on either side, flanking the drum pads and data wheel. However, for the more discerning, there are two combo XLR/jack sockets at the rear which deliver 48V phantom power for condenser mics. The combo sockets also accept quarter-inch jack plugs, so if our musician plays guitar or bass, they'll be able to connect their instrument to the channel that is armed with a high-impedance switch, tune up using the on-board chromatic tuner, and then process their guitar overdubs with the amp-modelling insert effects.
On the trip back to the studio, Zoom's musician could don their engineer hat, and start laying down a few test mixes; setting pan and EQ positions, adding reverbs and other send effects and then calling up various mastering processors to polish the results.
Once hooked up to a PC or Mac via USB, the R8 functions as a computer peripheral, and in such a state its data can be ported into a DAW to await further work. (A 'lite' version of Cubase is included for anyone not already in possession of suitable software.)
Next, our musician can begin using the R8 as a two-in/two-out audio interface for Cubase and other DAWs, adding further track ideas to the basic composition. Finally, to make the task of mixing a little more 'hands-on', they can set the R8 to works as a hardware control surface, using its faders, buttons and transport controls to operate the software's main transport functions and certain mix parameters.
Of course, most potential customers will already have other gear, whether it's a MIDI controller, sequencer, effects processor, audio interface or microphone, and therefore won't use the R8 so 'completely', but being able to carry one thing around, rather than lots of separate bits of kit, is an attractive prospect.
Studying the R8's features a little more closely, it is the rhythm and sampling tools that look like the ones most users will find the hardest to get to grips with, as they require the most editing and forethought. Just like an old-fashioned drum machine, the rhythm sequencer has preset rhythm patterns (472 of them) which can be edited, saved and arranged to create backings for songs. The actual drum/percussion sounds played by the sequencer are dependent on the selected kit: Basic, Studio, Live, Rock, Pop, Funk, Jazz, Acoustic, Techno or Urban.
Sequencing is done either by creating drum hits in the on-screen timing grid using the control wheel, arrow keys and Enter button, or by playing the touch-sensitive pads situated below the faders, letting 'quantisation' move errant beats into place. Of course, simply selecting preset patterns and arranging them is another option.
The sampler is designed to work alongside the rhythm sequencer as an alternative method of developing backing tracks. Although it is possible to record original audio and trim it into loops for triggering (there is a waveform display to help with this), the R8's 2GB SD card comes pre-loaded with two Big Fish Audio sample library collections — Elemental Studio Percussion and LA Drum Sessions 2 — thereby providing a ready-made selection of high-quality sample loops.
What is most significant is that there is no dedicated track for the sequencer or sampler, so each individual loop or pattern has to be assigned to its own track, at which point they can be triggered either by using the associated soft pads or the sequencer. The problem with this arrangement is that if a number of different patterns are being used, the eight tracks soon get eaten up. In order to free up the tracks for instrument and vocal lines, it's necessary to bounce the patterns and loops to a stereo pair, or even a mono track, effectively fixing the backing arrangement as a continuous audio file. Of course, this means that certain decisions regarding the rhythm have to be made early on.
Unfortunately, it isn't possible to drag and drop loops and patterns into place — as many of us are now used to doing with computer software — so setting up rhythm tracks quickly and efficiently takes practice. For some, it will seem like performing keyhole surgery, but having grown up using hardware sequencers fitted with even more basic displays, I know that familiarity does eventually breed speed and efficiency.
In the past, I have had problems getting Zoom's products to interface with and control my Cakewalk Sonar DAW. When reviewing the R24, I eventually gave up trying — even though there is a Sonar-specific plug-in option in the Driver Installation. Hoping for better luck with the R8, I was disappointed when I experienced the same problems. I did, however, have success using the R8 with FL Studio 9 XXL, setting the controller type as Mackie Control Universal. I also tested the Audio Interface mode with FL Studio and had no problems at all. Having one control knob that fades from direct monitoring to the output signal of the DAW makes things very simple, and the associated on-screen 48dB input/output level meters are very informative. It is even possible to apply the on-board effects either as inserts during recording or to the return path for monitoring, although only if recording at the lower sample rate of 44.1KHz.
For the purposes of testing the R8's own recording abilities, I worked up a demo song I'd been meaning to for some time, and was really pleased with my results. Zoom must surely have cut costs somewhere in the design, but no matter what they have done in this respect, it is still possible to get great-sounding recordings from this little device. Not quite studio quality, perhaps, but not a million miles away from it. When recording vocals, I was able to find a suitable limiter from the range of options, and for my guitar and bass there were plenty of good-quality effects to choose from. Even the standard rhythm sounds are pretty usable, although this is understandable, given that Zoom have long history in manufacturing stand-alone rhythm machines and effects processors.
As for the process of recording, it really is a no-brainer. Using the Auto Punch-in feature to amend segments of audio could not be simpler, and assigning inputs to record tracks is equally straightforward. If, for example, the LED is green, a track is turned on and playing; if it is flashing red, it is armed; and when it stays red, audio is being recorded. Similarly, adjusting the preamps and applying phantom power requires nothing but common sense.
The biggest problem with the R8 is that each of its operating modes inevitably compromises the others a little. Primarily, it is optimised for recording and playback (both to SD card and via USB), so its sampling and controller functions are not as well developed or implemented as they might be. For example, by accommodating a row of drum pads, Zoom have not been able to find space for a row of band-assignable EQ and pan knobs, the inclusion of which would make mixing much quicker and easier, and would also be very useful in control-surface mode.
It would be useful to have more audio editing tools onboard. Granted, Zoom intend a DAW to be used for audio editing purposes, but as there are mastering processors and mixdown tracks, there should also be the editing tool necessary for preparing audio mixes for mastering. As there's already a sequencer on-board, perhaps some kind of automation system could be implemented in future — and it would certainly benefit the process of creating mixes. For me, being able to get in and mess about with audio lessens the need for automation, while if you have automation, that can help overcome dodgy audio recording. In other words, having one or the other here would be an improvement.
The R8 is not without its flaws, but for those getting into music technology for the first time, it is potentially a great buy. The sequencer and sampler will enable those interested in hip-hop, dance music and other assorted electronica to emulate the basic production techniques they are hearing, and the recording facilities will introduce newcomers to the wonders of multitracking and mixing in the most straightforward manner.
Ultimately, the R8 is a better eight-track digital recorder and stereo interface than it is a controller, and there are drum machines and samplers that have more controls and are easier to use, but all things considered, the specification is rather impressive. A lot of functionality has been packed into a very portable and competitively priced package.
There aren't too many products performing as many different jobs as the R8, but the Boss BR800 is one of the few that does. It too offers rhythm facilities, operates as a DAW controller and audio interface, includes built-in microphones and a powerful effects processor, and is just as portable. Like the R8, it also uses SD cards and ships with an LE version of a DAW (this time it is Sonar v8.5). One notable edge it has over the R8 is its ability to record four tracks simultaneously, but it does cost more.
There is little else out there, unless the audio interface and control surface features are not essential, in which case Fostex's MR8 MkII and Tascam's DP008 become candidates for consideration. Both aim to attract ex-analogue multitrack cassette users by providing plenty of simple-to-use, hands-on controls, and are similar in most other aspects to the R8.