Have computers made digital multitrackers obsolete? Zoom don't think so.
There was a time in the '90s when stand‑alone digital multitrackers dominated the market. If you wanted an affordable way to record, mix, master and burn CDs in the home environment, devices such as Roland's VS‑series recorders were pretty much the only game in town.
There are still plenty of them about today, but the inexorable rise of the Mac and PC as recording platforms has had a huge impact in this area. When it comes to expandability, flexibility and sheer processing power, there's really no contest. Yet even to the hardcore PC user, there is undeniably something attractive about a portable, stand‑alone recording system. I have two laptop rigs, and both are technically 'portable'; but actually porting them anywhere involves packing up and untangling a mare's nest of USB and Firewire cables, dongles, hubs, interfaces and external hard drives. What's more, like most laptops, they generate infuriating fan noise, and running them away from a mains power supply is rarely a realistic option.
So I was more than a little excited by the announcement of Zoom's new R16, because it seems like a product designed with people like me in mind. It's a stand‑alone, 16‑track, digital recorder, which records up to eight inputs simultaneously to solid‑state media, and can even be powered from six AA batteries; but plug a USB cable into it and it becomes a pretty capable front end to a Mac or PC recording rig. Not only does it act as an eight‑in/stereo‑out audio interface, but you can use its faders and transport buttons to control your DAW software of choice. Oh, and I did I mention the built‑in stereo microphones, guitar tuner and digital effects, or the ability to sync two R16s for simultaneous 16‑track recording?
The concept is, to my mind, a really attractive one. Take the R16 with you to recording locations, rehearsal rooms, spaces in your home — you could even record outdoors — capture your audio, then take it back to the studio and bring all your computer's mixing power to bear on the results. But does the reality live up to the theory?
Given its low price, you might expect the R16 to be toy‑like in appearance, but it's not. Admittedly, it's made entirely of plastic, but the casing feels solid, the design is sleek and stylish, the controls are well laid‑out, and the socketry is easily accessible. It's also surprisingly compact, with a footprint not much larger than a sheet of A4 paper.
The eight analogue inputs (there's no digital I/O at all) are all on combi XLR/quarter‑inch jack sockets, and the stereo outputs and single headphone socket are on quarter‑inch jacks. The first input can be set to a high‑impedance mode for DI'ing electric guitars and the like, while the built‑in stereo mics can be substituted for inputs 7/8 if required. Phantom power is available, but only on inputs 5/6, so unless you have an additional phantom power supply or preamp, you'll be limited to using dynamic mics and line sources on the other inputs. With no MIDI, word clock or other sync options, you're dependent on the accuracy of the built‑in metronome if you want to line up R16‑recorded material with anything else. According to the manual, six AA batteries should give you nearly five hours' use, but the supplied 5V power supply is obviously preferable where mains electricity is available.
Visual feedback comes from two sources: four‑segment LED meters on each channel, and a two‑line, text‑based LCD. There's a group of buttons dedicated to bringing up important menus such as EQ/pan, insert and aux effects. Four cursor navigation buttons, plus Enter and Exit keys and a data dial, take you through them once called up. There are also the usual transport buttons. Individual channels are controlled using eight track/channel faders and a master fader, and each track has a single button that toggles it between mute, active and record‑armed. A pair of buttons banks the channel controls to act on tracks 9‑16 rather than 1‑8. There's no solo function, and some other basic mixer functions such as pan and polarity reversal have to be accessed through menus.
The R16 ships with a 1GB SD card, and can accept SD or SDHC cards of up to 32GB in capacity, via a removable plastic door that is doomed to get lost sooner rather than later. At current prices, SD cards don't offer the same sort of pound‑to‑gigabyte ratio as hard drives, but won't break the bank either. The R16 can record either 16‑bit or 24‑bit files, though the sample rate is fixed at 44.1kHz. Thankfully, recordings are made in uncompressed Wave format. The manual states that individual mono track recordings can be up to 1GB in size, which means around 200 minutes in length.
Your first step to recording on the R16 is to create a Project. Projects can be named, as can recorded tracks, if you can be bothered to do so. Basic recording with the R16 is straightforward: simply decide which bank of eight tracks you wish to track to, arm the ones you want to record, press Record and Play, and you're away. When you've finished recording and pressed Stop, the R16 chunters away to itself for a couple of seconds before returning to user control.
The built‑in metronome is easy to set up, offers a decent range of ear‑friendly click sounds and a flashing LED, and will count you in if you so desire. A rotary control above the master fader sets the monitor balance between input and metronome signals (or, alternatively, between direct input and DAW output when the R16 is used as an audio interface). The metronome can be sent to the headphone output only, but there is no way to create an independent cue mix for a performer.
One R16 feature that is a godsend if you're used to laptop recording is its eerie silence in operation: as far as I can tell there are no fans or moving parts whatsoever to intrude on your intimate acoustic moments. The preamps are not the quietest around, and can sound a little edgy, but are probably about as good as you could expect at this price. There's enough gain for most common music‑recording applications, and channels 5/6 supply the full 48V phantom power even running off batteries. The plastic knobs used to set input gain feel a little flimsy, though, and given that there's no metering beyond the four‑segment LED and preamp clip light on each channel, it's not that easy to set the gain precisely. There are also no pads, and it's quite easy to light the preamp clip LEDs when miking a snare drum or guitar cab, though this occurs well before any audible clipping takes place. On the plus side, the built‑in omni mics are surprisingly usable, with a bright, crisp and generally noise‑free sound. They are, of course, vulnerable to handling noise and flapping headphone cables, but all in all, an unexpected bonus.
Recording a multitrack session couldn't be easier, then, and you can drop in up to 99 markers on the fly, which is especially handy for navigating a long session such as a gig recording. Automated and manual drop‑ins are also straightforward. Where things begin to get a bit cumbersome is when you want to overdub a track at a time, especially if you wish to record multiple takes. Apart from the buttons that switch the inputs between tracks 1‑8 and 9‑16, there's no way to reassign an input to a different track; and although the box copy claims "1000 virtual tracks”, all this really means is that an R16 Project can contain audio files that are not assigned to tracks. So if you want to record a new take or overdub, you'll either need to plug your mic into a different input, or delve into menus to reassign the audio file that was already on your chosen track. There is a 'Swap Tracks' function that can be used to move audio to an unoccupied track, but it's still a bit of a pain.
There's no waveform view, and beyond the ability to swap files from track to track as described above, there's almost no audio editing functionality. Again, if the thinking is that most users would rather chop audio files around within a DAW, I wholeheartedly agree.
In theory, the R16's mixer section is fairly well‑specified, and there's a dedicated master track so that you don't need to use up a pair of your 16 tracks to bounce a mix to. (It's also possible to bounce a selection of tracks to a new stereo file, in case you run out of tracks.) In practice, however, I doubt many users will choose to mix using the R16 alone if they could possibly use a computer instead. It's no surprise, at this price, that the faders aren't motorised, but as far as I can see, there is in fact no way to automate an onboard mix at all — which means, among other things, that one of your banks of eight tracks must be static throughout. Each track has pan, a single band of parametric EQ, and high and low shelving filters, but you need to delve into the R16's menu structure to set them, and there is no hands‑on control over pan, send levels or effects parameters. And although the insert effects processor can be set up to provide eight channels of dynamics and additional EQ (see box on previous page), doing so via the two‑line LCD is frankly more trouble than it's worth, with no visual feedback as to the amount of gain reduction taking place.
The reason I don't feel too inclined to dwell on the R16's shortcomings as a mixer is that it is so clearly designed to be integrated with a computer recording system. Once you've installed its ASIO driver, you can hook up a USB cable from R16 to PC (assuming you have a USB2 port on your computer, which almost everyone does nowadays). The R16 will happily take its power from the USB connection where it's available, and when it detects such a connection, gives you the option of starting up in Card Reader or Interface modes. Assuming you actually want to work on material recorded to the R16, you'll need to use the Card Reader mode first, so that you can transfer the necessary files over to your computer's hard drive. For some reason, all R16 projects appear to the computer as 'PROJ001' and so on, regardless of any name you've given them within the R16, but confusion is unlikely unless you've got lots of them on a single card. You can't import Projects themselves into a DAW, but it's easy enough to line up the audio files — helpfully, even takes that were started halfway through a Project are automatically extended to the Project start.
The R16's ASIO driver offers buffer sizes down to 64 samples, and seems a lot more capable than Zoom's earlier effort for the C5.1t guitar effects system. Nevertheless, if your machine can't handle low‑latency operation, you can still use the R16's built‑in direct monitoring. In Interface mode, sample rates of up to 96kHz are available. If you stick to 44.1kHz, you can even use the R16's effects to help out your mix, although since they can't be edited or controlled from the computer, I doubt many people will bother.
Like most small fader units, the R16 uses the Mackie Control protocol, and in my tests performed perfectly well as a controller for Cubase. Naturally, it doesn't emulate all the features of the Mackie Control, but the faders and transport buttons do what they're supposed to, while the five smaller buttons above the transport section operate as configurable function buttons. There's no visual feedback from the R16's LCD, and with only 60mm fader travel on offer, level control is not as precise as you'd get with a more expensive device, but at this price you can't really quibble.
In case you hadn't already figured this out, I'm impressed by the R16. It undoubtedly offers remarkable value for money: you'd be hard put to get an eight‑channel recording interface for much less, never mind a fader controller and stand‑alone multitrack recorder! Most of all, it's the thinking behind this product that I like. Zoom have realised that stand‑alone devices, with their small displays and limited DSP resources, are never going to rival the Mac or PC when it comes to mixing, editing, MIDI sequencing and so on. If a multitracker is going to succeed in today's environment, it needs to work with computers rather than fight against them, and to be strong in areas where the mighty micro is still lacking: simplicity, portability and quietness, among others.
When you get so much for so little, then, it's hard to fault Zoom for anything they have left out. However, I do think that the R16's spec leaves room in the market for a more professionally oriented sibling. I, for one, would happily pay extra for better preamps and metering, phantom power on every channel, some sort of digital I/O, a couple more outputs, cue mixing and a system of proper virtual tracks or playlists for managing overdubs and multiple takes. If you could attach a nice stereo preamp via S/PDIF, for example, it would make an excellent device for low‑budget classical music recording applications.
In the meantime, though, there's a huge amount to like — and enjoy — about the R16 just as it is. As a truly portable, truly silent multitracker, it's the perfect complement to a computer recording system; and as an eight‑channel interface, it's also a central component of a computer recording system. Unplug the USB cable, sling it in the back of the car, and you have the means to capture your rehearsal or gig with the minimum of fuss. Bring it back home afterwards, and it becomes a very capable front end, helping to pilot your PC through the overdubbing and mixing process. Neat!
The R16 has three main roles: as a multitrack mixer/recorder, multi‑channel audio interface, and fader controller. There are plenty of other products out there that fulfil two of these three roles, but I'm not aware of anything else that can do all of them.
As well as EQ on every channel, the R16 boasts three separate effects processors. Two are global auxiliary effects — a reverb and a modulated delay that can be used to create chorus and related effects — and the third is an insert effect. This can either be set up to provide eight channels of compression and EQ, or used in more DSP‑intensive modes on a single channel or pair of channels. This would be the case if, for instance, you wanted to apply one of the built‑in amp simulation effects to a DI'd electric guitar, but it also allows you to use various mastering presets to process the entire mix.
The quality of the effects is generally perfectly acceptable, although I don't think many people would bother using them in preference to the plug‑in effects in a modern DAW. The EQ is clean, but rather anaemic, and although the dynamics are transparent, setting them up from the two‑line LCD is hard, and the signal path is fixed (high‑pass filter precedes compressor/limiter precedes EQ). More useful are the amp simulations and so on, which can either be recorded with the input signal or applied only in the monitor path, allowing you to monitor the wet signal and record the dry one for later re‑amping.
One thing that confused me to start with is that unless you specifically tell the R16 to reset everything to its default values, any new Project that you create will inherit all its effects, metronome and track parameter settings from whatever project was previously loaded.
If you can't arrange for your computer and R16 to be in the same place at the same time, it's still possible to transfer files as long as you have a USB thumb drive. The R16 can't record directly to USB media, but will allow you to back up the contents of the SD card. However, this has to be done a track at a time, which is very tedious, and it would be much better if it were possible to back up entire Projects in one go.