The last year or so has seen a proliferation of digital 'studio in a box' packages building on the convenience aspect of the cassette multitracker, but with the inherently cleaner sound of digital recording. At the same time, just about every piece of MIDI sequencing software includes multitrack hard disk recording and editing, so you might reasonably ask where these digital studios sit in the current marketplace. Obviously, if you want to make music recordings that don't involve MIDI sequencers, a digital integrated studio provides a compact, portable and affordable means of making very high-quality recordings, but those thousands of people still using Atari sequencers (and let's face it, the Atari is just about the only mechanically quiet music computer left out there!) can also benefit. Using MTC or MIDI Clock, an Atari (or hardware sequencer) can be locked to a digital multitracker to provide a powerful MIDI + Audio package with integral audio mixing and digital effects.
KORG D8 £849
So, what's inside a digital 'studio in a box'? Well, digital recording, obviously, which can be data-compressed or uncompressed (see 'Easy Peasy Data Squeezy' box for more details), and may be stored on a fixed hard drive, MiniDisc, or some other removable format, such as a Zip disk.
The other main component of a digital studio is the mixer, which can either be analogue or digital. Digital mixers have the advantage of being able to offer more EQ, plus features such as snapshot automation, while analogue mixers are, in general, rather easier to use but less flexible. Though there may be some spare mixer inputs over and above what's needed to mix down the multitrack recording, you'll probably still need a separate line mixer to handle all your MIDI stuff unless you have a very simple setup.
Finally, today's studio in a box tends to come complete with digital effects, so with nothing more than a pair of headphones, a mic, and a stereo machine to mix onto, you can start making serious recordings that, with care, will be good enough for independent CD release.
Having put the digital multitracker into context, it's time to see where Korg's D8 fits into the picture. My first impression was how small and solidly built it looks -- it's more like a big drum machine than a small studio, and, like most drum machines, it's powered by an external PSU. An LCD window, which isn't backlit but has a variable viewing angle, provides the usual text information, as well as metering, and the mixer itself has controls for six mono channels and one stereo channel, plus a master fader. Each channel also has a dedicated pan/balance control.
This unit is priced to appeal to the entry-level user, and in some ways is rather simpler than its competitors, but its audio credentials are good: digital mixer, built-in effects, and up to eight tracks of uncompressed 16-bit recording, at 44.1kHz, direct to a 1.4Gb internal drive. This provides a maximum of 34 minutes across eight tracks, though recording time is dynamically allocated, so if you only recorded four tracks you would get twice as much time. However, you can can only record up to two tracks simultaneously, which rules out most live recording applications. A SCSI connector also comes as standard, so you can record directly to external drives, and for backing up you can save data to DAT via the digital output, or to an external drive via SCSI. DAT backup is rather slow, at two hours to back up and two more hours to reload, and is limited to the amount of data you can get onto a 120-minute DAT tape (around 30 minutes of 8-track audio), but it works and it's cheap.
Apart from the input amps and the analogue monitor outputs, the mixer section is entirely digital and features 12 inputs (eight from the recorder, two analogue mic/line ins and a stereo digital input with sample rate conversion), a stereo buss, an internal effects send and an external Aux send. Having a digital input with sample rate conversion means that you can feed any stereo digital signal in without having to worry about sample rate compatibility, and as many budget effects units are now appearing with digital outputs, this could be really useful. It also allows existing backing tracks from DAT or CD to be recorded onto the D8 without leaving the digital domain.
In mic/line mode, the analogue inputs function as low-noise, balanced preamps capable of handling anything from mic level to +16dBu line signals. However, because these inputs are balanced jacks, there's no phantom power, and conventional XLR mic leads will require an adaptor. The left-hand input also has a guitar DI switch position, which increases the input impedance to 1MOhm.
|"If the D8 has an Achilles heel, it is that it uses a fixed hard drive for recording."|
Korg have tried to keep the D8 both simple and affordable, so instead of a multi-band parametric EQ with a tedious menu access procedure, you simply get high and low controls. If these aren't enough, the effects section does have some parametric EQ options and, like all the effects, they can either be used during recording or added during playback. It's also possible to apply stereo effects to the whole mix, or even to monitor via the effects while recording, without recording the effects. Setting up these various options necessitates a little menu cruising but it's something you'd soon get used to.
Obviously you're not going to get full automation on a machine of this price, but you can still save up to 20 Scenes per song, with a Scene holding all the information relating to level, pan, effects type and send levels. These Scenes may be recalled manually, or made to change automatically at the appropriate point in the song.
Where digital recorders differ greatly from their analogue predecessors is in the flexibility of their editing facilities, and those offered by the D8 are impressive for such a low-cost machine. For a start, there's one level of Undo which can be applied to recordings and edits, and edits are also saved automatically, without the need to make manual saves all the time. If you're working with a sequencer, the D8 can store tempo maps of up to 10 points per song, and I'm glad to say that it also has the facility to create a tempo map automatically if you play a sequence directly into its MIDI In port. Tap tempo is also supported. To help you play along to the tempo map you've created, there's an internal metronome, but rather than clicking away monotonously this one has a library of 131 different rhythm patterns to choose from. It's not quite a state-of-the art drum machine, but it's a lot better than four beeps to the bar.
Recordings can be punched in and out manually with the transport controls, just like a tape recorder, or you can use an optional footswitch, to keep your hands free for choking the drummer! There's also an auto punch-in/out option, again much like the tape equivalent, though I have to admit that I've always preferred the immediacy of doing the job manually. Another nice feature, more often associated with samplers, is a trigger record mode that starts recording automatically once the input signal level exceeds a threshold.
Once recordings have been made, edit points can be located using a scrub function, and three locate points can be set up for each song (for editing), as well as up to 100 marker points. These are useful to identify points you may wish to use for later editing, or points that you want to return to later. What's more, if you've finished a few songs and want to mix them to DAT in the right order, you can program the machine to mix and play all your songs in any order you choose.
The D8 can output MTC and MIDI Clock for sync purposes, but it's also MMC (MIDI Machine Control) compatible so you can control the transport from a sequencer if you wish. Finished mixes can be output via the analogue phono sockets or via the digital optical sockets (why don't designers include digital phono connections, as they're still the most commonly used in studio DAT machines?), and, as mentioned earlier, the digital input doubles as a digital aux input and a means of restoring data backed up to DAT. These connectors are located on the right-hand end of the machine, along with the Aux Out phono and the two Aux In phonos. The 25-way SCSI connector also shares this panel.
At first glance, the control surface appears rather simpler than that of a conventional cassette multitracker, probably because of the small number of knobs in the mixer section. Each channel has one fader, one knob and just three buttons. The top button sets the track record/play status (shown via a three-coloured red/orange/green LED -- red for analogue recording, orange for digital), and the next button toggles between high and low EQ, so that adjustments can be made using the Value dial in the master section. Button three is used to adjust aux send levels, and to toggle between the internal effects and the aux send buss. Three more buttons above the stereo master fader select the record source, the effect type and the effect assignment.
Moving to the master section, there's the display window, a large Value dial, tape-style transport buttons, and 18 additional buttons that deal with setting locators, auto punch-in/out, scene storing, song selection, and so on. The names on most of the buttons give a fair clue as to what they do, with the exception being the System key. This hides a number of functions, including selecting which volume levels will show up on the meters and which sound will be monitored during recording, as well as changing the footswitch status. In conjunction with the Edit button, the System key also allows you to change the sync setup, pair channel parameters for stereo operations, and select the destinations for signals on the two input jacks. The arrow keys above the Value dial double as Yes/No keys for confirming or cancelling operations.
With a cassette multitracker, you just stick in a tape, route your input to the desired track, set a level and blast away, but digital systems ask just a little more of your patience before you can make a start. The internal drive comes ready formatted, but if you connect an external drive, this must be formatted before you can use it. As with other tapeless devices we've looked at, the first thing you do when recording is create a Song, a 'virtual' pigeonhole for your audio data. This effectively safeguards you from accidentally overwriting parts of a Song you want to keep safe when you're working on a different Song. It also makes it easy to jump directly to the start of any Song, because with hard disk there's no waiting for tape to rewind. Songs can be named with up to seven characters.
Selecting a Song is achieved by holding down Stop, then pressing either the fast forward or rewind key to step through the available options. Holding Play and either of the forward or rewind buttons performs a type of fast cue/wind function, while selecting Scrub enables the Value wheel to be used to scrub the audio to find precise locations. The scrub quality isn't great, but it's fine for navigational purposes.
For one musician working alone, recording by overdubbing couldn't be simpler -- you just leave your instrument or mic plugged into Input 1, select record ready on the track you want to record onto, then use the transport buttons exactly as you would with a tape recorder. Holding Stop and Rewind at the same time gets you right back to the start of the Song. Just as with a tape machine, you can perform multiple punch-ins and outs without having to stop the transport each time, and you only need to use a single transport button to get into and out of record. The Record button can be used to toggle between record and safe modes, but if you feel more comfortable using Play to exit record mode, that works too.
When punching out, the monitoring seems to be delayed by around half a second at the punch-out point, which might lead you to believe the timing of the punch-out is wrong. However, on playback, the punch-out invariably occurs at the point where you hit the Play button, so this 'feature' seemingly affects only monitoring. Edits made in this way appear to be seamless and gapless.
The three locate markers are used to set the in and out points for editing or auto record events, while the third sets the location to which material defined by the first two markers can be copied. Unwanted material may also be cut, or material exchanged between tracks. The transport tape position can either be in time or beats/bars -- the latter is obviously easiest for editing. Pressing Save followed by Locate stores the current time point, whether the transport is stopped or playing. When you're pasting information to a new destination, you can specify the number of copies you want, so if you have a few bars of dance groove that are working well, for example, you can copy them throughout the whole song.
Effects can be added during recording, useful when you want different effects on different tracks, and if you need to record something in stereo, tracks can be linked in pairs using the Aux Send buttons, or you can use tracks 7/8. Bouncing to any unused track or track pair is possible, and more effects can be added at this time, either via the channel effects sends or by processing the whole mix through one stereo effect. To be honest, the effect quality is pretty variable -- the reverbs are somewhat perfunctory, some of the guitar overdrive effects are fizzy, and the pitch-shifter patches are so lumpy they remind me of school custard. However, the chorus and delay effects work OK, and used sparingly they can be useful in making a recording sound more sophisticated than it really is.
Mixes can be automated to some extent via the Scene feature I mentioned earlier. This is easy to use, and simply stores the state of the mix and effects selection at a particular time location; up to 20 Scenes per Song are available. When Scene Read is switched on and the mix is played back, levels, aux sends, pan positions and effects will switch to their new values at each new Scene. Scenes may also be edited if they're not quite right.
I checked out the MTC facility, which only offers 30fps (frames per second), but otherwise works perfectly well. The output values coincide with those shown in the display window, and my Mac version of Logic Audio locked perfectly on my first try, via the Unitor8 interface.
This is a very powerful and decent-sounding little machine. If it has an Achilles heel, it is that it uses a fixed hard drive for recording, so you either have to back up to DAT or to an external SCSI drive. This is less convenient than either MiniDisc or Zip as used in Yamaha's MD8 and Roland's VS840, though both these formats use data compression. Also, being able to record on no more than two tracks at once is limiting if you want to record real drums or other complex sources. There's also no virtual track feature, as offered by some of the competition.
Physical noise is a lot lower than you'd expect from a computer doing hard disk recording, but the hard disk can still be heard ticking as it runs. Computer and hard drive noise is becoming a real problem for many home studio owners striving to make clean acoustic recordings in the same room as their computer equipment, and it's something to which manufacturers should be paying a lot more attention.
The D8 has the benefit of being quite simple to use, but the EQ can be a little inflexible when you're working on middly sounds, such as electric guitars. The Hi control adds a nice glassy top to most things, but it's pitched rather too high to do much good with something like an electric guitar. There's also no varispeed facility that I could find.
On the plus side, the D8 allows you to make very high-quality recordings with relatively little effort -- the only lo-fi side of the D8 is the effects section, which, frankly, I found rather disappointing. All the basic recording functions are as easy to use as those on a tape-based system, with the advantage of instant rewind, and though I initially thought that the more in-depth editing functions might be rather complicated, most were actually pretty straightforward to access. You'll need the manual first time around, but after a few hours you should be able to put it back on the shelf and leave it there.
Being able to use MTC sync without having to waste an audio track on timecode is something we now take for granted, but nevertheless it makes locking up a sequencer very easy. The fixed 30fps mode might make life awkward for those working to picture (other than film), but for music-only applications it presents no problems. What's more, MMC support means the D8 can be driven from a software sequencer, which will then control play, locate and fast-wind functions. I also like the idea of having a selection of preset drum patterns in the metronome menu, and though the drum sounds are sometimes a bit cheesy, most of them are quite good enough to use for demos. And, finally, Korg must be commended for a taking notice of all our requests for the ability to read tempo-change information directly from a MIDI sequencer, rather than always having to input tempo map information by hand.
Ultimately, the D8 is going to face stiff competition from the Roland VS840 and the Yamaha MD8, both of which approach the same concept from a slightly different direction. Of the three newcomers, the D8 is the only one that doesn't use some form of data compression (though there are a number of existing Fostex models that also shun data compression), but, as I've said, most people would be hard pushed to notice the difference, so compression isn't the problem some people perceive it to be.
The D8 offers a compact and friendly solution for those people who like the convenience of a cassette multitracker but demand digital quality, built-in effects and some degree of mix automation. It's a very nicely presented, clearly organised little unit that really does give you everything in one box (bar the mastering machine) and features such frills as digital stereo input/output, an integral SCSI interface and the guitar DI facility.
I had a lot of fun using the D8, and its immediacy meant I did quite a lot of recording in a very short space of time. In fact it was only the lack of an affordable, removable recording medium that kept me from diving for my credit card.