It's affordable, cute and desirable, but what exactly is the Line 6 BackTrack? Essentially, the concept is based around a single-channel, Flash-memory audio recorder that's tailored to the needs of guitar players and songwriters. Where it differs from other Flash recorders is that it is designed to sit in-line with your guitar (it has an instrument input impedance) and it records everything you play as soon as audio is detected — unless you specifically ask it not to, by selecting the Play Only mode. Although there are numerous general-purpose Flash recorders around, this is the only one I've tried that is specifically designed for the guitar player.
The BackTrack is actually available in two versions: the plain old BackTrack (£74.75$139.99); and the slightly more expensive, and beautifully descriptive, BackTrack+Mic (£113.85$209.99). It is the latter that's reviewed here. Both devices can record uncompressed 16- or 24-bit audio at 44.1kHz or 48kHz. The basic BackTrack has a built-in 1GB memory and the BackTrack+Mic 2GB. That equates to around two hours of recording time at 24-bit quality for the BackTrack and twice that for the '+ mic model — but if it's just ideas capture you're after, there are various other recording modes that trade quality for quantity, enabling the BackTrack to capture up to 12 hours of audio, and the '+ mic' model 24 hours.
The device cleverly splits up the recorded audio into separate files when a pause is detected. The pause settings can be customised using a Mac or PC computer and the included BackTrack Setup Utility software, whenever the BackTrack is connected via USB. A single press of the Mark button moves the current take into a separate 'Marked' folder, where it can't be deleted by accident, and sections of the existing unmarked recording can also be copied into this folder if you find something you wish to keep. When connected to a computer, all the audio files show up in the Marked or Unmarked folders, and you'll also find a disk-image file in the BackTrack's memory for installing the Setup Utility software, which, in the case of the BackTrack + Mic, allows different setup parameters for the mic and instrument inputs. Once the BackTrack's memory is full, audio that has not been transferred into the Marked folder is overwritten, starting with the oldest material first. Files are stored in WAV format and may, of course, be transferred to the computer for use in DAW projects, but you can also review them using the forward and reverse buttons to jump through the audio files in sequence.
As the name implies, the BackTrack+Mic includes an electret mic that can be used for recording instead of the guitar input jack (the latter takes priority when a guitar lead is plugged in). The guitar and mic gain levels are selected using the control software, and there's also an automatic gain control with a number of settings that can be used if required. The device is charged via USB, and when fully charged will run for up to eight hours, but there seems to be no way the user can change the internal battery if it fails or wears out.
Smaller than a typical guitar tuner, the BackTrack is equipped with a clip that can fit onto the player's belt or over the strap peg on the end of the guitar, and a short jack-to-jack cable is also included for connecting the guitar to the device's input. Because most of the setting up is done via the computer, there are few controls on the BackTrack itself, just a couple of switches: one for setting playback of only Marked files or All files; and another to select Off, Play Only or On. Forward and Backwards buttons let you jump through the Marked or All files and there's also a large Play button that toggles between play and stop. In addition to the quarter-inch jack output used to link to your guitar amplifier, the '+ Mic' model also features a 3.5mm headphone jack with Up/Down buttons to set the volume, and this can double as a line-level output. The mic is on the side of the unit, along with the controls, and the instrument level In and Out jacks are found at one end. A mini USB connector at the other end accepts the included USB cable that links to the computer.
The most obvious use for either model of BackTrack is to have it run in record mode when you're in a songwriting or jamming mood, because you can revisit anything you played over the course of the past few hours. You can also set marked segments to loop continuously, so that you can jam over them.
Because the guitar is recorded with no processing, the recording can be imported into a DAW and either re-amped, or treated with amp modelling software such as Line 6's POD Farm. The recording quality is really rather good, so the BackTrack files could easily be used as the basis for a serious recording. At a pinch you could also use it to store mono backing tracks for gigs, because you can drag WAV files onto it from your computer.
There's a less immediately obvious use for this little gadget in live performance, too: it enables you to record your guitar during the soundcheck, then walk out to the front as the audio plays back, to see how your guitar sounds out there! You could also take a mono feed from the mixing desk to record the gig for later analysis (taking care not to exceed the instrument level required at the input), or even use the BackTrack+Mic to record your gigs using the on-board mic. The recording is only mono but the quality is easily good enough for critiquing your performance. And when you're not using it for music it makes a very handy note recorder
The status LED above the play button is extremely informative, changing colour and/or flashing to indicate the recording and playback status, the remaining recording memory before overwriting occurs and when the battery is running low. After switching on, it takes a few seconds for the BackTrack to get its act together and enter record-ready mode, at which time the LED flashes blue to let you know it's OK to start. When connected to a computer via USB, audio recording and playback is disabled and the LED colour indicates the charging progress in the sequence red, orange, yellow, green and, finally, white, to show that a full charge has been achieved. The Setup Utility allows you to choose the auto-trigger record threshold, pause durations, mic gain, and automatic gain control settings, although the defaults work fine for many applications.There's no display, so the only way to audition clips before transferring them to a computer is to use the forward and back buttons, but you have the choice of listening only to Marked clips or to all of them.
The BackTrack does pretty much as promised, sound quality is surprisingly clean, so you could use what you captured in a commercial track, and as the guitar is recorded without processing, you can re-amp or process it later. It's not often you find something practical and fun that you can leave in your guitar case, but this definitely fits the bill. Paul White
The BackTrack is a novel and affordable gadget that's genuinely useful for recording high-quality parts from your guitar without you having to think about it. The BackTrack+Mic also doubles as an effective mono recorder via the built-in mic, although the fact that the device is only mono means you can't use it to make stereo 'desk' recordings of your gigs.