Boss's range of digital multitrackers is designed to allow musicians to make recordings with a minimum of technical knowledge. The BR1600 is the most sophisticated yet, providing 16-track recording along with amp modelling, vocal harmony generation and a drum machine and loop sequencer.
Every manufacturer has their own take on the all-in-one digital multitracker, and Boss's is summed up by the slogan on the BR1600CD's box: 'The easy way to record your band'. This is a product intended not for the seasoned audio engineer, but the musician who wants to get results without having to calibrate signal levels or delve into routing matrices.
|Photos: Mike Cameron|
Like its junior siblings the BR532, BR864 and BR1180, the BR1600CD thus has what you might call a 'streamlined' feature set. Everything has its own dedicated button — none of your shifted functions here. There's no choice of sample rates or bit depths, no monitor mixing, and not much by way of routing options. There's no waveform editing, side-chaining, mix bussing or grouping, nor even a track solo function, and the design encourages recording with effects rather than tinkering at the mix.
The drive towards ease of use hasn't just led Boss's designers to make a bonfire of inessential options, however. They have also included some attractive extras such as guitar amp modelling, a drum machine, a bass synth and a loop sequencer, not to mention a selection of hand-holding features designed to make recording faster and more immediate.
The BR1600CD is described as a 16-track recorder, although there are a few compromises along the way. The first is that tracks 9/10 to 15/16 are always configured as stereo; the second is that the built-in drum-machine, bass synth, and loop sequencer each take up a stereo track if you use them; and the third is that, unless you want to use a separate two-track recorder, you'll need to keep tracks 9/10 free to bounce your mix to. On the plus side, however, each track has 16 virtual tracks for storing alternate takes and the like. All audio is recorded at 16-bit resolution and 44.1kHz sample rate, with no data compression, and drive capacity is a generous 40GB. Up to eight inputs can be recorded simultaneously, with the socketry on offer consisting of eight XLR mic inputs, eight balanced quarter-inch jack inputs, a high-impedance jack for DI'ing electric guitars and basses, and co-axial S/PDIF I/O. Globally switched phantom power is available for the mic inputs, though it resets to 'off' every time you power the unit down.
The output arrangements are rather less impressive: there is only a single stereo output pair, and that emerges on RCA phonos, nobody's favourite connector (although it will suit musicians who are hooking the BR up to a hi-fi, rather than a roomful of studio gear). There are two front-panel quarter-inch headphone sockets with independent volume controls. This is as many as most of the BR1600CD's rivals provide, but still not enough for many band-recording applications, and there's no way to set up a headphone mix that's different from the main mix.
Audio data can also enter and leave the BR1600CD via a USB connection to a Mac or PC (an upgrade to version 1.01 of the BR operating system is required for use with OS X), and of course there's the built-in CD rewriter, which fulfils the usual backup and file-transfer functions, as well as writing audio CDs. It's handy to be able to back up BR projects via USB, but transferring WAV or AIFF files between the BR and a computer is no fun at all. They have to be converted to or from the BR's native format, a process which is about as snappy as continental drift, and the BR also takes ages to mount as a USB drive (on a Mac running OS X, at any rate). This might not be so bad, except that you can only import or export one file at a time via USB, so transferring a multitrack project involves dismounting and remounting the BR1600CD for each track. The BR also refused to recognise some of the AIFF files I tried to transfer to it, whether via USB or CD-R.
The unit itself is fairly large at 494 x 339 x 99mm, with a robust plastic case, and draws its power from an external line-lump adaptor. All the information is presented on a 130 x 36mm backlit LCD, which is navigated with cursor keys and a data wheel. There are also four function keys and four rotary encoders, which take on different roles depending on what you're doing with them. Each track has a fader and a single button which serves for track selection, record arming and muting. It's all pretty easy to navigate, though I was occasionally confused by the system used to display the function of the assignable buttons. When you're editing a compressor and the screen says 'Link on', for instance, what it actually means is that stereo linking is turned off, but that pressing the button below that message will turn it on.
Three-band EQ is available on every track, and there are eight dedicated track compressors; the two sides of each stereo track can be unlinked for independent dynamic and EQ processing. There are also two global send effects, or Loop Effects as the manual describes them, one devoted to reverb and the other to chorus and delay-based effects. Finally, there's a powerful 'floating' insert effects processor that can take on various tasks — you can spread its resources across eight tracks to provide additional compression and EQ, or focus them to provide more sophisticated functions for one or two tracks. The options available include COSM guitar-amp emulation, a Vocal Toolbox pitch corrector and harmony generator, a Mastering Toolkit, and speaker modelling for use with Roland's digital monitors.
When you call up a new Song, the BR1600CD asks you whether you intend to use the drum machine, bass synth, or loop sequencer, and configures the tracks accordingly. If you do want to avail yourself of these rhythm aids, you'll need to tangle with the BR's Pattern sequencer — see the 'Get Rhythm (And Bass)' box for more detail. If you just want to go straight ahead and record audio, the BR does its best to guide you through the setup procedure. First, you choose one of four input assignment options by pressing the appropriate button.
In Guitar/Bass mode, the BR assumes you've plugged your instrument directly into the front-panel quarter-inch jack, and that you want to play and record through the built-in COSM amp modelling and effects. Likewise, Vocal mode is designed to cope with a mic plugged into input two, and automatically places a chain of vocal effects, EQ and dynamics processors in its path. Pressing the Guitar/Bass and Vocal buttons at the same time allows you to use both modes simultaneously.
The Multitrack and Stereo Tracks modes make use of all eight inputs, if needed. In Multitrack mode, each input is assigned to the corresponding track, or to its equivalent in the 9-16 bank, while in Stereo Tracks mode, all eight are mixed down to a stereo pair and recorded to the track pair of your choice. In Multitrack mode, the BR's insert effects processor is automatically configured to place a low-cut filter, compressor and EQ across each track (in addition to the dedicated track compression and EQ that's always available). You can choose from various preset settings such as Rock Band, Jazz Band and Multi Drums, but the thinking behind the compressor and EQ settings for the different channels isn't always obvious.
The default setting in all the input modes has the insert effects placed in the record path as well as the monitor path, though you can choose to switch them into the monitor path only, into the playback path as conventional mixdown inserts, or off altogether. The usefulness of recording with effects such as (digital) compression and EQ is debatable. On the one hand, it makes recording a more immediate process, which is in keeping with the BR1600CD's raison d'être, and frees up DSP resources at mixdown. On the other, if you overdo things at the tracking stage, there's little you can do to remedy them at the mix, and the preset effects settings that are applied by default might do more harm than good. I also found it a bit odd that neither the insert effects processor nor the dedicated track compressors can provide multi-channel gating.
The BR1600CD can save up to 100 mixer scenes per Song, which can be assigned to markers for scene-based automation; and though the faders aren't motorised, they are also capable of dynamic automation when used in conjunction with an external MIDI sequencer. Channel volume messages are sent and received to indicate fader positions, and the default arrangement has fader one sending and receiving on channel one, fader two on channel two, and so on. This works fine, provided that your MIDI sequencer is capable of recording data on multiple MIDI channels simultaneously and keeping it separate (a process which in Pro Tools, for example, involves creating and record-arming 16 individual MIDI tracks). A helpful Fader option in the Utility menu displays the virtual fader positions as they play back.
As well as controlling an external MIDI sequencer using MIDI Machine Control, the BR1600CD can also send MIDI Time Code, or control another unit using MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointer data. It can't act as a sync slave, but can record timing information from an external sequencer to use as a sync track.
Navigating a BR1600CD Song is as straightforward as loading one from disk is slow (and it is slow: even the most basic Songs take upwards of 40 seconds to load). The Time/Value dial can be used to wind forward or back through the Song and there's the usual complement of transport controls. Each Song can contain up to 100 markers; there are dedicated search buttons to jump to the next and previous marker, but all other marker-related functions are buried in the Utility menu. Tracks are armed by pressing the track button once, whereupon the button flashes red; recording is started by pressing Rec, then Play. You can also punch in using a footswitch (not supplied), or set in and out points for dropping in automatically.
The mic preamps are obviously not in the Avalon or GML class, but they're perfectly usable, with only a little hiss creeping in even at the highest gain settings. Classical recordists and those with a large collection of ribbon mics would be unlikely to choose the BR1600CD anyway, and there's enough gain available for its intended applications. The sensitivity of each input is adjusted using a trim pot in the usual way, and each is equipped with a single red LED which lights when the analogue signal reaches -6dB. These LEDs are your only guide when setting input levels: the manual instructs you to turn up the gain until they 'light up occasionally when the instrument is played hard'. Metering on the digital side isn't a lot better — you get a fairly dinky multitrack bar-graph display in the LCD, with nothing at all to indicate digital overs. The internal effects and processors are equally devoid of gain-reduction meters and the like, which is a shame.
While recording it's impossible to set up a monitor balance that's different from the actual levels going to disk, because the faders only affect playback levels of previously recorded tracks. If the drummer wants to hear less tambourine and more snare in his headphones, in other words, you'll have to record the tambourine more quietly and the snare louder. You could do this using the preamp gain knobs, but in Multitrack and Stereo Tracks modes each track has an additional 'soft' gain control that works in the digital domain, following the insert effects. The gain controls are calibrated from zero to 127, with values below 100 providing attenuation and values above 100 increasing gain, up to a maximum of 6dB. The BR1600CD will adjust these gain controls automatically if you like — simply press the Level Calibration button, play the instruments for a few seconds, then hit Calculate.
Recording purists who don't want their signals degraded by digital level controls must also contend with a global Input Level knob. According to the manual, this also sits in the record path after the insert effects, but it's not calibrated and no explanation is forthcoming as to whether it simply offers attenuation or provides an additional gain boost. The lack of information makes it hard to know what the optimum setting should be. Again, the design has been compromised for the sake of simplicity, but whilst experienced engineers will undoubtedly find it restrictive, the bottom line is that it is possible to make good-sounding recordings with this unit. In the real world, the quality of recordings made on the BR1600CD is going to be limited by mic placement, ambient noise, room acoustics and instrument quality, not by the quality of the preamps, the lack of 24-bit recording or the degradation caused by digital attenuators. In fact, for all its fixed 16-bit/44.1kHz nature, the BR1600CD will deliver better recordings than its competitors in many situations, because it's almost completely silent in operation. I recorded a quiet finger-picked acoustic guitar part with the mics quite distant and the BR in the same room, and no trace of hard drive noise made it onto the recording.
As well as being 'the easy way to record your band', the BR1600CD also caters for those who aren't lucky enough to have a real rhythm section on hand, or who want to blend live performances with sequenced material. A built-in drum machine and bass synth are controlled by a Pattern sequencer, which can also be used to string together sampled loops, known in Boss-speak as Loop Phrases. The drum machine takes over tracks 15/16, the bass tracks 13/14, and the Loop Phrases tracks 11/12, so if you use them all, the BR1600CD is reduced to a 10-track recorder.
Drum and bass Patterns can be created by real-time recording, either from an attached MIDI keyboard or using the BR1600CD's track buttons. You can choose to have your recording quantised as you play it in, but there is no way to undo this, or to quantise a Pattern that's already been recorded. Alternatively, drum Patterns can be created in a friendly grid editor, while step-time recording is available for composing bass parts. I always find these methods laborious and restrictive compared to software sequencers, but the implementation here is as good as most. If you want to make detailed adjustments to your drum and bass Patterns, you can do so via the Microscope list editor.
There's a limited range of bass sounds; a few different electric sounds are represented, along with acoustic and fretless basses and a couple of synth-bass tones. They're perfectly usable, though it's not clear why any of them needs to waste a stereo track. Nine drum kits likewise cover the basics, but don't offer too much scope for experiment, and there's no way to edit drum kits or create your own. You can, however, connect up a MIDI module and have your drum and bass parts played on that.
You can also create your own Loop Phrases from audio recorded onto the BR1600CD, or import loops from sample CDs in WAV or AIFF format. The process of browsing a sample CD, auditioning loops and importing them to Loop Phrases is straightforward, but involves a bit of hanging around. A nice touch is the bundled Discrete Drums CD-ROM, which contains well-played and well-recorded drum parts for 14 songs, each broken down into loopable verses, choruses, and so on. If the tempo of your Song is different from the tempo of a Loop Phrase, the phrase will be time-stretched to fit. I've heard better time-stretching, though, and I found the results were only acceptable within a fairly narrow range.
The Arrangement sequencer works pretty much as you'd expect, although the scale of the graphical timeline is so small as to be of little value. As well as specifying which drum Pattern, bass Pattern and Loop Phrase to play back, each sequencer measure can store tempo and chord information, allowing you to create a tempo and chord map across your Song. The latter is essential if you want to use the automatic vocal harmony generator, and offers a healthy range of extended, diminished, and augmented chords as well as the basics and a 'non-chord' option.
However, I found it tough to get my head round the way chord sequences affect the bass Patterns. It seems that all Patterns, both preset and user-defined, are regarded by the BR1600CD as being by default in the key of 'C', so when the Pattern sequencer encounters a different chord, it modifies the bass part to fit. You can audition how your bass parts will sound in different keys from the Pattern editor, but you can't specify that a Pattern should have a root key other than 'C'. The upshot of this is that if you want to employ the chord mapping and you're using your own bass Patterns, you need to transpose them all into the key of 'C' before you enter them. This would be annoying anyway, and combined with the lack of a clear explanation in the manual it undermines the BR1600CD's supposed simplicity and intuitiveness.
The BR1600CD's sequencing facilities are OK for stringing together a few loops off a sample CD, or making a very rough backing track for a demo, but creating anything more ambitious would involve a lot of fairly tedious work. No doubt it would get easier with practice, but I found myself scurrying back to Cubase at the first opportunity...
In Multitrack mode, the eight-channel compressor/EQ setup is the only configuration available from the insert effects processor. If you are recording a solo instrument or vocal, however, you can get stuck into some more adventurous effects. Various different Guitar choices are available, beginning with a COSM-modelled overdriven guitar amp providing the usual choice of amps and speakers, from a sparkly JC120 emulation through bluesy Voxes and Marshalls to high-gain metal tones. Additional modelling is used to recreate a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals, or you can choose an alternative signal path with COSM compressor modelling instead. Four compressors are modelled: Urei 1178, Dbx 160X, MXR Dynacomp, and Boss's own CS3. It's all easy to use and versatile enough for most applications, though I found many of the amp models had a fizzy and synthetic-sounding edge to them, and given the choice I'd rather use my Johnson J Station.
Penurious electric guitarists can also turn to an Acoustic Simulator, which gives usable results in a busy mix, and a surprisingly reasonable Bass Simulator. You have to be careful how you play to use this, as any hint of a chord or overlapping notes will throw the pitching way off, but it would be fine for simple bass lines. If you're lucky enough to own a real bass you can choose a bass amp simulator or a multi-effects patch, while the Acoustic Guitar option is designed to make a DI'd steel-string sound more like a miked one.
Vocal Multi is the default choice for a vocal mic, and provides compression, de-essing, enhancement, EQ, a noise suppressor, chorus and delay. COSM Vocal Comp is similar, except that it dispenses with the chorus and uses a COSM modelled compressor/limiter rather than the basic dynamics algorithm. If you're after something more experimental, you could route your mic through the Voice Transformer algorithm, derived from Boss's dedicated vocal processing units, or a microphone modeller, which allegedly 'modifies the sound recorded using a conventional dynamic mic, lapel mic or direct line, making it sound as though it had been recorded using an expensive condenser mic or a special studio mic'. Don't put that AKG C12 on Ebay just yet...
There are also three Simul algorithms, which divide the DSP resources between a guitar and a vocal input. These combine basic vocal processing with amp simulation, acoustic guitar emulation or the de-DI'ing acoustic process. Finally, two Stereo algorithms are available for use across a track pair: a multi-effects patch incorporating ring modulation, dynamics, flanging, EQ, and delay, and a lo-fi patch.
In all, there is a total of 18 different insert effects configurations on offer. In each case, you can turn individual modules off and on, change the order, edit their parameters, and store the results as User patches, but you can't create your own routings or swap the effect modules out for different ones. It's another area where Boss have chosen to compromise the BR1600CD's flexibility in favour of ease of use, but as compromises go it doesn't seem too terrible. What is a real shame, given the emphasis on ease of use, is that none of the effects can be sync'ed to the BR's tempo. Nor can you use the Tap Tempo button to set delay times and the like.
If you don't mind forgoing the insert effects, you can use the same DSP resources to see what your mix will sound like on a different set of speakers using the Speaker Modelling, or avail yourself of the Vocal Toolbox or the Mastering Toolkit. Both of the latter are actually insert effects of a sort, except that neither can be used on input signals; the Mastering Toolkit can only be used on track 9/10. All of these are familiar from previous Roland and Boss products, and the Speaker Modelling is optimised for Roland's DS-series monitors, which can be connected digitally.
The Vocal Toolbox provides pitch-correction and automatic harmony generation. These can't be used at the same time, and the latter will only work if you have created a rhythm arrangement with a chord sequence. In the sections of the Song where you've specified a chord rather than the non-chord options, up to three artificially generated voices will sing harmony, with healthy doses of reverb and chorus available to smother the results. If my experience is anything to go by, you'll need it. The pitch-correction is not exactly transparent, either, though it still might be the best option in some circumstances! It's certainly easy to use — you simply select the type of voice you're working on (male or female, high or low) — and adjust the Smoothing amount to taste. Some glitching will be audible, but with luck it won't be too obvious. There's no way to specify a scale, and it doesn't seem to take any notice of the chord sequence.
Finally, the Mastering Toolkit is designed to even up the levels of your mixes, give them that 'produced' sheen, and impose automated fades in and out. The processing on offer combines EQ and enhancement with a three-band dynamics unit, followed by a limiter and output dithering. It's no substitute for a trip to Metropolis, but doesn't seem to offer any nasty surprises either. You'll need to bounce your mix down to stereo track 9/10 before using the Mastering Toolkit, and its output is bounced to one of track 9/10's virtual counterparts. When you do bounce your mix to a stereo track using the BR's Bounce recording mode, the inputs are muted by default, but it is also possible to use them to bring external sound sources in at mixdown.
You never get to see a waveform on the BR1600CD's display: that level of editing is obviously considered too daunting for prospective users. It is, however, possible to cut, erase, copy, paste, and move chunks of audio, either within the same track or between tracks. Editing functionality is accessed by pressing the Utility button and choosing the Track option. You delimit the section of audio to be moved or copied by specifying its start and finish position in bars and beats, in minutes and seconds, or by using marker numbers.
To place markers precisely you can scrub through an audio track using the data wheel, though you can only scrub one track at once. It should be pointed out that what Roland call 'scrubbing' is not very much like tape rocking past a playback head; instead, you hear a half-second loop on constant repeat, sounding not unlike a piece of experimental German glitch music. Some people prefer this method, but I'm not one of them, and I found it much easier to put markers in roughly the right spot in normal playback, then fine-tune their position later — although doing so requires you to delve once again into the Utility menu. Overall, the BR1600CD's audio editing is adequate for simple tasks like compiling a vocal from several takes, but not for more complex work such as multitrack edits on drum parts.
It's tricky to review a machine like the BR1600CD in the pages of a recording magazine, if only because it seems to be aimed at exactly those people who can't be bothered to read recording magazines! Anyone who already has a good grasp of the principles underlying a 'traditional' studio will find this machine inflexible and sometimes frustrating. With its woeful metering and tendency to insert effects and digital gain controls in the record path, it doesn't exactly encourage classical recording practices, either. But the BR1600CD isn't intended for the Al Schmitts of this world: its target market is the impatient musician who wants to record his or her band with the minimum of fuss.
I know several people in exactly this position who've bought the smaller BR1180 10-track, and their experiences really do bear out Boss's claim to have made recording easier. It's certainly interesting to see just how many of the features we traditionally associate with products of this kind can be removed without compromising the utility of the recorder too much. And in many cases, the resulting simplification does make the machine more approachable. Not having to deal with an input routing matrix is a blessing, for instance, and I didn't find myself bemoaning the fixed bit depth and sample rate at all; nor did the semi-preset effects setups prove restrictive.
Yet for all the streamlining that has gone into its design, the BR1600CD is fundamentally a much more complicated machine than its predecessors. The resulting lengthy boot-up, loading, and saving times make for a less immediate recording experience all round, and in other respects it's just plain confusing — the input gain structure and the bass chord sequencing spring to mind. The designers' aim to have no shifted functions is laudable, but the practical upshot of it is that lots of commonly used features are buried in the Utility menu, because there's no space for them to have dedicated buttons. Boss have also missed a few simple tricks that would have helped make it easier to use, like setting delay times with the Tap Tempo button or sync'ing them to the BR's tempo. The friendly Undo/Redo button is not as useful as it could be, because very few actions are actually undoable: it doesn't work on any changes made in the Arrange or Pattern editors, for instance. And there are definitely areas where Boss have thrown too much onto their features bonfire. The inability to solo tracks is infuriating, for example, as is the fact that you can't change the input balance in the monitor path without changing the recording levels.
There's a clear trade-off in multitracker design between versatility and ease of use, and like Boss's previous BR-series machines the BR1600CD deliberately sacrifices flexibility for the sake of simplicity. I don't think the balance works quite as well here as it did with the BR1180, and a little time invested in learning a more versatile 16-tracker might mean less frustration in the long run. But let's not lose sight of the bigger picture: in the UK £1099 still buys you a powerful 16-track recorder, and the drum machine, amp modelling, and loop sequencer are valuable extras. Realistically, no multitracker is utterly intuitive in all its aspects and, as long as you're aware of its limitations, the BR1600CD does indeed provide a straightforward way to record a band.
- Much more than just a multitrack recorder — many users will get by without the need for a separate drum machine or guitar effects unit.
- In some respects, it's more immediate to use than most multitrackers.
- Eight XLR mic inputs, all of which can be recorded simultaneously.
- Very quiet in operation.
- Records without data compression.
- Good complement of effects, with eight dedicated compressors and 16 track EQs.
- Some of the 'traditional' features that have been left out aren't missed at all...
- ...but some, like monitor mixing and track soloing, are missed quite a lot.
- Poor metering.
- Input gain structure is confusing, and places digital gain controls in the record path.
- Effects can't be sync'ed to tempo or controlled by tapping the Tap Tempo button.
- Some aspects of the BR's operation are frustratingly slow, especially loading and saving Songs.
- Only one output pair, and that on RCA phonos.
- Too many functions are buried in the Utility menu.
- Undo button doesn't work for the majority of actions.
- Transferring WAV and AIFF files via USB may produce that 'life's too short' feeling.
Boss's BR-series recorders are designed for the musician, not the engineer, and though the BR1600CD lacks the flexibility of some competing multitrackers, it provides an effective and reasonably simple way of recording a band.