Science fiction has a way of catching up with us, but when I took my first steps in multitrack recording I didn't envisage just how far things would come in such a short space of time. My first studio comprised a Teac 3340 four-track open-reel machine, a 12-channel MM mixer, a Great British Spring reverb and a couple of home-made compressors. The mics were whatever I used live, and mastering was to an open-reel stereo tape machine. In the effects department, my pride and joy was a tape-loop echo machine augmented by a couple of guitar pedals. The whole setup occupied more space than my current Logic/G5 studio, and if you translate those late-'70s prices into the modern equivalent, allowing for inflation, I wouldn't have had much change from £5000, even buying second-hand. And now, Roland send me a complete four-track Boss digital studio that, if it hadn't been for the generous cardboard packaging, could have been posted directly through my letter box.
Once out of its elegantly designed packaging, the Boss Micro BR is little larger than a typical guitar tuner, and noticeably smaller than its own manual, yet it incorporates everything you need (including a guitar tuner) to make surprisingly good-sounding demos or independent CD releases. It also doubles as an MP3 player, and features a USB port for communicating with a computer. I have to admit that back when I started out in recording, I never for a moment imagined a fully functioning recording studio that you could lose down the back of the sofa!
This degree of miniaturisation is possible because the audio is compressed prior to recording in the same way that MP3 players compress their music to make the most of the storage medium. This enables the Micro BR to use SD flash memory, rather than the usually bulkier alternative of hard drives. If you don't compress music too aggressively, the subjective listening experience can still be surprisingly good from MP3s — the Micro BR offers you three different compression options so that you can trade off recording time against audio quality when necessary.
In a nutshell (and the next version could easily come built into a nutshell!), the Micro BR lets you record and mix four tracks of audio, but you can also record up to eight virtual tracks (alternate versions) per track if you have the space available on your memory card, enabling you to pick the best parts for your final mix. Unlike tape, where you had to leave a track free if you wanted to 'bounce' down existing tracks to make more space available, the Micro BR allows you to record all four tracks and then bounce these to a virtual track. You can then make further recordings either to the newly freed-up tracks or to other other virtual tracks, enabling you to bounce down and then add new tracks without necessarily having to discard any of the previous stages, as you had to in the days of analogue tape.
Effects are built in, guitar amp modelling is built in, there's a drum machine that can lay down some very plausible beats for you — and you can arrange a combination of patterns to form a song in a similar way as when using a full-scale drum machine. There's a very good on-board guitar tuner and a microphone built into the front panel. Normally, inbuilt mics don't give great results, but because the Micro BR has no moving parts, you can record vocals or instruments without suffering from the background motor whine that always afflicted cassette recorders.
A rather frugal 128MB SD memory card comes with the machine; it includes a demo tune so you can get familiar with the controls. Once cleared, this size of card will hold just two or three typical songs, but as memory card prices are now so low, the best bet is to fit the largest SD memory card you can find. The largest mentioned in the manual is 1GB, which gives around two hours of four-track recording (502 track minutes) in best-quality mode, 604 track minutes in standard mode or 755 track minutes in long-play mode. It is worth remembering, though, that recording to virtual tracks uses just as much memory as recording to real tracks.
Access to the card slot is via the battery compartment. This takes two AA batteries, though you can also use an optional power adaptor, which is more eco-friendly, especially for long indoor sessions. You don't have to discard recordings once the card is full either, as the unit's USB port allows songs to be saved to or restored from a Mac or PC and finished mixes to be transferred in WAV/MP3 format. You can save favourite songs onto the unit in MP3 format, as you might with a conventional MP3 player, and some neat processing allows you to slow these down for working out parts. There's also a central image canceller that reduces the level of vocals and other centrally panned parts for karaoke applications, but let's not go there!
The USB cable is one of the miniature types used with cameras, but isn't included, so you may need to visit a photographic shop or buy one on-line. With the unit comes a protective fabric sleeve, a manual, the 128MB card, a couple of batteries and a proper printed manual.
You can record one or two tracks at once and there's a stereo mini-jack for bringing in external line or stereo mic sources. This works with commercial stereo mics, making the Micro BR the ideal concert bootlegger's tool (I didn't say that!). You can switch on 2.5V microphone power for mics that need it, such as camcorder mics, while a further full-size quarter-inch jack allows guitars and basses to be connected directly. When doing the final mix, the four selected tracks can be bounced down to a new stereo file, via a choice of mastering processors that can add polish to the end result. The mastered file may then be saved as an MP3, so it can be played on your computer once transferred.
Cosmetically, the unit is almost too stylish to be a piece of recording gear, and until you power it up you don't even realise it has a display, as this is hidden beneath the semi-reflective, mirror-finish front panel. There are also relatively few buttons, aside from the familiar tape-style transport buttons, the power switch and four track selection buttons. Of the 11 remaining buttons, four deal with cursor and value functions, and two relate to input selection and in/out point settings for looping or auto punch-in/out. Separate buttons access the effects and drum rhythm functions, and pressing both together activates the on-board guitar tuner. The remaining buttons are used to select the Utility menu and operating mode as well as providing an Exit function.
To understand how this machine operates, you need to appreciate that it has three distinct operating modes: Normal, Bounce and Master. Normal is the mode you use when recording, Bounce is for combining recorded tracks onto a new track (mono or stereo) and Master is for doing the final mix via the on-board mastering processors.
To start a project, you must first create a new Song, so, to free up space, I erased the demo song and whatever else was on the card via the Util/Init menu by reformatting the memory card. When cruising the menus, the four track buttons double as selection or confirm buttons for the functions displayed directly above them in the display, so operation is extremely intuitive. Next, you select the input source using the Input button, after which you select the required option using the track buttons, then set the record level using the thumbwheel level control alongside the input jacks. A similar thumbwheel on the left edge of the unit adjusts the headphone level, and the USB port is also located here. I'd have liked a bit more headphone gain for overdubbing when the tracks have been recorded at fairly cautious levels, but on whole it is adequate.
You can record either dry or via Insert effects, and you get a choice appropriate to the source you've selected. For example, if Guitar is your source, you get a range of amp models plus effects. There is a very useable selection of presets for the effects, and if you are not comfortable programming your own (or you'd rather just spend your time playing!) then you should find these very useful. If, on the other hand, you don't like any of the presets, you can do a sensible amount of editing to fine-tune them. The amp models cover a good range, including the classic British class A and British stack sounds, as well as the standard American combo and plenty more models with a bit of crunch, so there should be enough here to suit most styles. There's also overall reverb, which can be added to any of the tracks after recording, and a selection of mastering effects and processors that only become available when you're processing the final mix.
To make a recording, you select the track button, press Record, which puts a flashing record sign in the window as well as flashing the track that's armed, then hit the Play button to start recording. If the rhythm section is switched on, this starts at the tempo you have selected and includes a count-in to get you started. When you're done, hit Stop, then press Rewind and Stop at the same time to take you back to the start of the song. Tracks that have been recorded light up solidly.
Subsequent tracks are armed and recorded in the same way and, as the insert effects are permanently recorded with the track, you can opt to have different effects on every track if you want to. If you're recording via the inbuilt mic, it seems best to work pretty close up: for vocals, the best technique is to hold up the recorder and use it in the same was as a hand-held mic, about three inches from the mouth. The recording quality is surprisingly good and, though it doesn't rival a good studio mic in this respect, the end result is quite plausible. There's also no significant tendency towards popping, though you could of course use a pop shield between the recorder and yourself if you have problems in this regard.
If you need to change the relative balance of the tracks, as you will invariably need to do to get the best mix, you can do so in Normal, Bounce or Master mode. Pressing one of the four track buttons selects the track you want to adjust. You use the cursor right button to enter the volume screen and each track level can then be changed by pressing the [+] or [-] value button. You can also adjust the pan positions and reverb levels and, though perhaps not as intuitive as using faders, it is pretty straightforward — if you can figure out a mobile phone, you'll have no trouble with the Micro BR.
To bounce a mix, you first select Bounce mode, set the balance, then select the virtual track onto which your bounce will be recorded. Bounces can be mono or stereo, with or without the rhythm track. For mastering, you can select Master mode, set the balance and choose a combination of three-band compression and limiting with variable levels, ratios, thresholds and attack/release times in all three compressor bands to allow useful tonal changes to be made. If this seems scary, just picking the nearest preset and then adjusting the levels of the three bands is probably all you need to make your mix sound loud and sparkly.
Though the insert effects are by default placed between the input and recorder in the manner of a stomp box, one mono or stereo insert effect may also be used while mixing by changing the effect location from Normal to Track 1 to 4 or stereo tracks 1/2 or 2/3. You can also apply the insert effects to the rhythm part or even use them for processing the entire mix by selecting Master.
You get a good selection of effect presets, but there is a useful amount of editablity — you typically get as many controls per effect as you would for a typical stomp box. The guitar processing chain is pretty comprehensive: as well as the amp model and speaker simulation mentioned earlier, you also get noise reduction for taming the hiss on those high-gain settings, a choice of compressor or any of the popular modulation effects (chorus, flange, phase and so on) as well as delay, though reverb is added globally.
The vocal effect chain is a little simpler, with compression, enhancer, EQ, noise suppression and delay but, again, there's also the overall reverb that can be used to add individual amounts of Hall or Room reverb to the four audio tracks and to the rhythm track. The reverb can be edited, in this case for time, tone and level.
For more detailed recording, you can repeat certain sections for practice or to set up auto-punch ins or outs by setting A and B markers via the AB buttons, and there's also an Undo function in the Utility menu that allows you do cancel the last thing you did, such as recording a duff overdub. You can also set up a manual punch in which is activated on the selected track by pressing the Record button once the track is playing.
Copy or Move editing is also possible within tracks or even between tracks but this relies on you setting precise start and end points for the region to be copied, then specifying the exact time location to which you'd like it to be copied. This is no harder than copying and pasting in any non-computer workstation, but unless you are working to a drum rhythm, it can be a bit hit-and-miss. A similar technique can be used to erase unwanted sections of tracks.
Songs can be named, saved, individually copied or individually erased, which is great for managing your recordings. Saving your song stores not only the audio but all any arrangement changes and mix/effects settings that you used. Unused data on the memory card can be freed up using Song Optimise, and songs may be named with up to eight characters.
The concept of the compact studio system has been around for a while, although there are few systems that are quite as compact as this. Korg's PXR4 and Zoom's MRS4B have similar functionality but are by no means as convenient in terms of portability. The nearest comparable units I can think of are those by Zoom, who are always keen to pack as much as they can into one box. The PS02 and PS04 'palmtop' recorders are similarly small and they have a good range of basic effects, multitracking capability and USB connectivity. However, the technology is a little older, and they use the Smartmedia card, which imposes a much lower limit on data storage. On the other hand, downloadable software does allow you to convert individual tracks for import to your sequencer.
Probably the closest thing to the Micro BR at the moment is Zoom's H4 portable recorder, reviewed in SOS December 2006, which is capable of recording at higher sample rates. It offers a similar range of modelled effects and multitracking facilities, as well as providing a USB computer interface, though it is a little larger and more expensive than the very affordable Micro BR.
Once you've figured out how to use the Micro BR without your guitar cable dragging it off the table, the basic operation is actually very straightforward and the audio quality in either standard or high-quality mode stands up to what you'd expect from a good MP3 player. There's no noticeable hiss, the effects are good and even the modelled guitar sounds come over as impressive and 'produced'. You may not want to trade in your favourite tube amp, but you can get close to most of the expected electric guitar sounds, from clean and country to down and dirty. If I'd had half these effects when I started recording I'd have been more than happy. To get the recorder thrown in too, for less than the price of some guitar pedals, is pretty amazing.
Other than your instruments, all you need to get started is a pair of headphones. Being able to back up a virtually unlimited amount of work onto your computer via USB mitigates the recording time limitations of flash memory cards. As far as memory is concerned, the drum machine doesn't count as an audio track. Though it doesn't challenge the best drum boxes on sound or flexibility, it's pretty versatile and includes useful rhythms across a range of styles.
Once connected via USB, there's a Roland folder for songs and an MP3 folder in to which you can drag songs that you want to hear. Each new song has its own folder, so the audio files are backed up, as are any necessary settings, including effects. However, you need to convert your finished mastered mix to an MP3 within the Micro BR before you can play it in the outside world. It would have been nice to see a function that would allow you to export song projects as complete bunches of track-length MP3 files so you could drop them into your favourite sequencer, but I could find no direct way to do so. You could, however, bounce each of the four tracks separately and then convert them to MP3s to achieve the same result in a more long-winded way.
The manual is clearly written and features a useful 'getting started' section that takes you through your first recording in easy steps. With the provided batteries I got over three hours of working time: you may get a little more from good alkaline batteries but, unless you're planning to record an album on the beach, buying the optional mains adaptor will save you money in the long run.
The Boss Micro BR combines all the functions of a well-specified four-track recording studio with what you'd expect from a dedicated MP3 player, yet it costs less. It is perfect for those moments when inspiration strikes and you want to get down your ideas quickly and it puts the fun back into recording. You can also transfer your 'holiday mixes' to your computer as MP3s, open them in your sequencer and add further overdubs, so you aren't restricted to demos. If only my original four-track studio had offered so many effects and so little hiss...