Building on their record for successful hand-held stereo recording devices, Olympus have stepped into multitracker territory...
In recent years, Olympus seem to have been exploiting the technologies they've developed for voice recorders and digital cameras to create high-quality — and to date very well-received — audio recorders. Thus far, we've seen the LS10, LS11, LS20, LS3 and LS5, all of which have been surprising successes for a company better known for their cameras than their audio products. The new LS100, though, is in a different class from these models, something that's reflected in both its price and its feature set.
The LS100 feature likely to be of most interest to many potential buyers is its eight-track recording mode, because that's one thing that sets it apart from the others. The first thing to make clear, just to dispel any misconceptions, is that the device is not able to simultaneously record any more than two channels at a time. However, it can play back and mix eight discrete tracks — and not just four sets of stereo pairs, which is a limitation of some similar devices.
The most obvious way of capturing audio is to use the on-board mics, the capsules of which can be seen protruding from the 'nose' of the recorder, complete with elaborate metal supports to protect them from knocks. By default, audio is saved into the 4GB internal memory, but SD, SDHC and SDXC cards can be inserted to provide much more storage, and 96kHz PCM recording at a 24-bit word-length is an option, as is every other standard file type, right down to low-quality MP3 files.
If the LS100 is connected to a computer via a USB lead, it appears by default just like any other standard drive, and its files can be renamed, deleted or dragged across for storage. It's also possible to dump 'foreign' audio files into its memory and play them back, assuming their word length and sample rates are supported. USB also serves as a means of charging the tiny Olympus-branded battery. (It's worth mentioning that unbranded spare batteries can be bought on the Internet for only a few pounds.) The USB connection also doubles up as the power supply for recharging the battery, and a mains-to-USB adaptor is included. Finally, of course, the USB connection allows the LS100 to function as an audio interface for Mac or Windows PCs. In the correct USB mode ('composite'), it is automatically detected by your computer as both an interface and a hard drive, and becomes available to any software that uses Core Audio (Mac) or WDM (Windows) drivers.
At the opposite end to the on-board mics are two 'combi' sockets, which accept quarter-inch jack plugs as well as three-pin XLRs. Phantom power is available to each input independently, via its own dedicated switch, which is a nice and useful touch. You can also choose between 24V and 48V, though this has to be done via a menu and your selection affects both inputs. There's also a mini-jack socket, for use with 'plug-in power' microphones.
On the underside of the recorder is a speaker, which means that files can be auditioned without headphones. That said, there is, of course, a headphone mini-jack socket. Mounting the recorder on a mic or camera stand is also possible, thanks to the inclusion of a threaded socket just behind the speaker. There are also transport controls, dedicated buttons for returning to the home and menu pages, and assignable quick-keys relating to on-screen options. The screen itself is reasonably large and the display is clear.
Everything else of importance happens in the LS100's OS environment, the design of which I found rather interesting, in that it has the look and feel of an 'app' (it even has a little start-up/shut-down jingle!). It seems, though, that the software comes at a cost, as the LS100 takes just under nine seconds to start up. By way of comparison, my own Olympus LS5 is up and running in three. One of the things the LS100 is loading is a colour graphic, complete with images representing some of the applications that can be selected, including the metronome, tuner, multitracker, and a processor called Lissajous, which measures the phase difference between mics, so that the user can make suitable adjustments. These application icons swoop to the foreground of the screen when the left/right arrow keys are pressed, and every menu selection is identified by either a mobile-style beep or a voice guidance option with its own speed. Should the load time seem long, it's worth pointing out that the recorder can stay in a power-saving standby mode, from which it takes rather less time to access the recording functions.
Beneath the posh introductory pages and features, the LS100 has a fairly standard set of menus, only differing from those of the LS5 in that they're arranged across the top of the display rather than down the side. It's here that important things like the record settings are selected. Topping the Rec Menu list is a page of record mode options which include Normal, Overdub, Play Sync and V-Sync Rec, although, strangely, the Multitracker option is selected from the home page. Normal simply allows consecutive stereo recordings to be captured, and V-sync is a triggered record mode.
I'm afraid that the precise differences between Play Sync, Overdub and Multitrack were initially unclear to me, even after studying the manual, which I found to be rather too brief and not very clear. After playing with the LS100 for a while longer, I realised that Overdub mode mixes pre-recorded files with the incoming 'overdub' signal, to create a new file that's a combination of the two. Play Sync is similar, but doesn't mix the incoming signal with playback to make the new file: instead, it keeps each pass separate. By default, the most recent recording is recalled as the reference track, although earlier passes can also be selected.
The Multitracker mode is very much a separate entity, with its own dedicated files, folders and project-selection page, and it takes things a stage further. When a project is open, it's possible to mute each track, adjust individual levels, pan positions and the pitch of any one of the tracks in ±6 semitone increments, and assign alternative files to playback tracks. In other words, it has a practical complement of basic mixer options. What's more, mixes can be bounced down to a single stereo file, at (quite literally) the press of a button, enabling further tracking if required.
In terms of hardware ergonomics, the LS100 is very well thought out, just like the other LS-series recorders. I'm sorry to have to say, though, that the OS requires far too much menu jumping. It feels as though Olympus have taken the OS used in other LS-range products and simply bolted the flashier stuff on top, instead of designing it from the ground up to suit its purpose. That would account for the multitrack functions being treated separately to the other recording options, and it might also explain some obvious design faults.
Record Monitor, for example, allows a musician to hear their overdub parts as they are playing them, but it has a very significant and rather off-putting delay. Also, the OS is poorly equipped to deal with mono recording via the combi sockets, especially in the non-multitrack modes, which have no mono select option at all. As if that weren't enough, in some situations the L100 would inexplicably refuse to go into record. Olympus say that much of this should be fixed in a future firmware revision, but at the time of going to press there were no updates available.
Initially, I disregarded the voice-guide option, but then it occurred to me that it would be a great tool for the visually impaired. Testing it out, I quickly realised that important things like file selection, metering and transport-key operation were not guided, and concluded that Olympus had missed a trick. However, I then I grew to quite like this feature, as it meant that I didn't have to double-check the settings changes I was rapidly making.
To test audio quality, I compared the LS100 with my LS5, hoping, given that the eight-tracker costs approximately twice as much as the other, to hear a difference in the noise floor and recording quality. The noise floor was indeed lower — although the LS5 already did a decent job. The LS100 recordings also sounded clearer, managing to deliver a very convincing 3D picture of where I was when I moved about the room.
In their marketing literature, Olympus promote the LS100 as a 'professional' product, claiming the sound is 'brilliant' and 'studio quality', that the build is 'tough and durable' and that the mics are 'hyper-sensitive'. The mics are certainly very sensitive and sound good, but I'm not sure that the 'professional' tag is entirely justified.
First, the build quality, while on a par with its peers, seems less solid than that of some pricier units that I would consider professional. Sony's PCM D1, for example, has a body made of titanium, whereas most of the LS100 appears to be robust plastic. Apart from the screen, the most vulnerable part looks to be the record level wheel, which protrudes from the side and is lightly built. Handling noise is also significant, which means that the LS100 really needs to be mounted on a stand for serious work.
The built-in mics' frequency response is quoted as 20Hz to 20kHz, but this alone tells you little. There's a tendency towards brightness, and a glance at the supplied frequency response plot shows that while the response is only roughly -3dB at 20Hz (not bad at all), the response from 4-9kHz is over +5dB in places, with a dip back to 0dB at around 5.5kHz. As I said, though, the mics don't sound bad at all, and the results are perfectly EQ'able if you prefer a less bright tonality. It's also worth pointing out that this degree of variation in the response is common for mid-priced recorders like this.
Finally, if you're using the LS100 as an audio interface, it has to be said that the performance is pretty basic. Although many DAWs will be able to see it automatically, it doesn't have any ASIO drivers. If you're using a DAW that requires ASIO drivers (such as Cubase or Pro Tools), you can get your software to recognise it by installing the free-to-download ASIO4ALL driver, but the latency is significant. So, while I was able to track and overdub using whichever mics were selected on the device itself (so only two inputs at a time, not all four), and even playback (via the inbuilt speaker, or by taking a line out from the headphones socket to my studio speakers), it wouldn't be great for anyone looking to play software instruments, particularly drums. Nonetheless, it's a nice-to-have feature that will provide enough functionality for many people.
There's no doubt that Olympus have produced a product that beats the competition in some departments, but I'm not convinced that they are the right ones. Is it really necessary, for example, to have the voice guide and beep options, a colour screen, or the swooping graphical images? Although they'll have appeal for some, they'll seem a distraction to others. The ability to record using the on-board mics and external feeds at the same time, for example, would greatly enhance the LS100's desirability, as would dedicated ASIO drivers that improved the performance as an audio interface — and these are features offered by some of the competition. Furthermore, some competitors offer the options of changing the angle of the on-board mics and using on-board effects and processors, neither of which are available here.
I'm conscious that this seems very critical, so it's important that I stress that the LS100 sounds very good, and it has everything a product of this type needs to record high-quality stereo audio. Despite my reservations about the implementation of the OS, there's no competing product that comes close to providing eight mixable mono tracks, let alone at 24-bit, 96kHz. I suspect that for many potential purchasers, including those looking to sketch out song ideas, this capability will be enough to influence their decision, and, as Olympus have hinted, there may yet be improvements via firmware update — although that, of course, remains to be seen.
Roland's R26 has XLR/TRS combi inputs, can handle up to three stereo channels of recording simultaneously (but not six mono tracks), functions as an audio interface and offers on-board omnidirectional and directional microphones, all for a similar price. Of the other competing products in this price range, only Zoom's H4n offers both XLR mic inputs and multi-channel mixing.