Digital multitrackers are now nothing new, but this one records to a built‑in Zip drive using low‑cost 100Mb cartridges. Duke Ashton carries on recording.
The new VS840 is the latest in a line of highly successful digital 8‑track workstations produced by Roland, the first of which, the VS880, was reviewed in SOS back in March 1996. A major update of the original VS880, including onboard mixer automation and extra effects, was chronicled in the May 1997 issue of SOS, but for those who don't need this level of sophistication and who don't need to record more than four tracks at a time, the VS840 provides many of the features of its older brother at a significantly lower cost. It also has the advantage of a removable recording media as standard. Those who need more tracks should wait for the soon‑to‑be‑released 16‑track VS1680.
As Roland's entry‑level machine, the VS840 can be viewed very much as a modern successor to the cassette multitracker, in that it's basically a complete studio in a box and retains some of the familiar tape‑style controls, such as transport buttons, channel cue pots and faders, but not far beneath the surface you'll also discover a powerful mixer with snapshot memories, high‑quality multi‑effects, and a random‑access recorder with cut/copy/paste editing.
The VS840 is a self‑contained 8‑track hard disk recorder with digital mixer, but whereas the VS880 includes a SCSI interface to which you can connect a hard drive of your choice, the VS840 comes with a built‑in Zip drive that takes low‑cost, 100Mb removable cartridges. In order to deliver a worthwhile recording time from these disks, the VS840 uses audio data compression, but I have to say, for the benefit of those people still suspicious of audio compression, that the system used here is extremely transparent, even after several bounces.
There are four recording modes, designated as Multitrack 1, Multitrack 2, Live and Live 2, offering progressively longer recording times at the expense of reduced sound quality. Multitrack 2 is the most commonly used mode and provides a subjectively good sound quality combined with 50 track‑minutes of recording time. Multitrack 1 is better quality still, but reduces the available time to 37 track‑minutes. If you're going to use all eight tracks fairly intensively, Multitrack 2 mode equates to around one song per disk. It's also possible to switch from 44.1kHz sampling to 32kHz in any mode, to further extend the recording time but at a penalty of some treble loss. A 'virtual tracks' feature allows up to eight different takes to be stored for each track (disk space permitting).
The use of Zip cartridges makes storing your recordings as convenient as with tape and negates the need for backing up to DAT or external hard drive. It's also possible to duplicate a Zip disk, but it takes 64 disk swaps! However, a SCSI interface is available as an option, to allow backups to be made to an external Zip drive in one hit, though you can't record to the external drive.
When the VS880 first came on the scene, an effects board was an option, but with the VS840 the effects come as standard, and what's more they're exceptionally good. Having internal effects keeps all the signal processing in the digital domain, and in addition to the usual effects there are dedicated guitar treatments based on Roland's proprietary physical modelling algorithms.
Physically, the unit resembles the VS880 in many ways, with the mixer to the left and the recording and editing controls to the right. Most of the action is controlled by a Time/Value wheel and four arrow cursors. The small backlit display is used for metering, time position indication and routing, often all at the same time, and it also shows parameter information when editing songs or effects. Fader and pan positions are displayed graphically during adjustment, with icons often used to make the presentation of information that bit more friendly. When a scene memory is recalled, the display can also show the actual channel levels, as these may not agree with the physical fader settings. A bigger display would have been nice, but compromises have to be accepted somewhere along the line to keep the price reasonable.
MIDI In and Out ports on the rear panel allow synchronisation to a MIDI sequencer via MIDI Time Code or MIDI Clock (with Song Position Pointers), and MMC is also supported. In all cases the VS840 acts as the master and the sequencer is the slave, though if you use MMC the VS840's transport can be stopped and started from your sequencer. There's also the facility to create a tempo map (with metronome), for use with MIDI Clock, offering up to 50 tempo changes per song. MTC can be at 30, 29.97, 29 drop frame, 25 or 24 frames per second, and a separate sync track is available that is designed to record MIDI Clock signals direct from a sequencer if this way of working suits you better. This doesn't reduce the number of audio tracks, but you lose out on Song Position Pointers, so every take has to start at the beginning of the song. However, it saves having to create a tempo map. During the review I used mainly the MIDI Clock/Tempo map/ metronome method of synchronisation (in conjunction with my MC500 sequencer), with no problem whatsoever.
Four balanced jack sockets on the rear panel allow for four external mic or line‑level inputs, each having a corresponding Input Sensitivity pot and Peak indicator. Input 1 also has an extra jack socket to provide a high‑impedance guitar DI input which, given the quality of the on‑board guitar effects, is very useful. Inputs 3 and 4 have parallel phono sockets, while all the sensitivity pots cover the range +4 to ‑50dBm, effectively covering most line/mic applications. Phantom power is not available, so capacitor mics are out unless you have an external phantom power supply, though you can, of course, use battery powered back‑electrets if you need high sensitivity.
Analogue outputs from the machine are via pairs of phonos, providing Master and Monitor Outs in stereo and a stereo jack headphone socket. There are also both co‑axial and optical digital Master Outs, so once you've captured a signal it can be piped directly to DAT or CD recorder. The remaining jack socket on the back panel is for connection of an optional footswitch, which, apart from enabling a lone operator to punch in and out if their hands are otherwise occupied, can also be used to alter effect parameters or act as an alternative device for marking and selecting up to 1000 marker points per song.
The mixer section looks very simple, but in fact many of its features are hidden behind multi‑function buttons and a number of parameters have to be set using a time/value data wheel. Conventional controls are available for trim pots, channel faders and a phones pot, but from then on you're into menu land, navigating by the time/value wheel, parameter and cursor buttons and multiple pages of icons on the LCD screen. Roland have given a lot of thought to the challenge that this might present to first‑time users, and the manual provides exhaustive explanations.
As well as faders and trim pots, the channels each have a channel Select button, and above these is a row of buttons for accessing the usual channel features, such as input selection, EQ, aux settings and pan. Once a function is selected, the channel is accessed via the cursors, while the parameters are adjusted using the time/value wheel. When you adjust a function such as aux send level, all six aux send knobs are shown as virtual knobs in the display and you can use the cursor buttons to move along them. This kind of approach is reasonably friendly when you consider how few controls relate to so many different functions and parameters.
The mixer section is the digital equivalent of an 8:4:2 mixer, where channels 1‑4 are mono while 5/6 and 7/8 are stereo pairs. These are controlled via six faders on the top panel, the remaining fader handling the stereo master mix. Any channel can be fed from the external input jacks or from any of the tracks of the recorder, which are again arranged as tracks 1‑4 mono, tracks 5/6 and 7/8 stereo. The mixer channels can be selected to feed four record buss groups designated A‑D and these subsequently feed the eight tracks of the recorder. The four mono and two stereo tracks are monitored by the six Track Cue pots in the master section, and monitor pan positions can be changed with virtual knobs.
The channels may also feed the stereo mix buss where the signal appearing at the Master Out, Digital Out and Headphone sockets goes via the Master fader. The tracks also feed a stereo Track Cue buss which appears at the same locations, again via the Master fader, and there's also one stereo Auxiliary buss switchable for pre‑ or post‑fade operation. The internal effects have their own routing system and send levels.
You can't switch between scenes during playback, so there's no option for adding automation to your mixes, as there is with the VS880.
The Monitor/Aux output is switchable to monitor the Record, Track Cue, Master, Track Cue+Master or Auxiliary busses and its signal also appears at the Headphone socket. If you want to use an external effects processor, simply route a signal to the monitor outputs via the auxiliary buss and return it through any of the input jacks. The onboard effects can be set as pre‑ or post‑fade and patched into channel or master insert points, or routed to a stereo effects return buss, which in turn can be routed to feed the Aux, Cue, Aux+Cue, Rec A/B, Rec C/D and Rec A/B+C/D busses as required.
A brand new feature of this model is 'EZ Routing' — pressing the EZ Routing button gives you access to a series of menus intended to guide the beginner through basic procedures, such as recording, track bouncing and mixdown. How 'EeeZee' it really turns out to be can perhaps best be put into context by noting that the manual is close on 200 pages long — and all of it's in English. Don't be surprised if it takes you a few days to become really adept at using this device, and if you really are a beginner it might help to make a lot of strong coffee! More experienced users should be able to find their way around rather faster. Of particular note is the versatile EQ, which consists of shelving High‑pass (centre frequency assignable from 500Hz‑18kHz), and Low‑pass (centre frequency assignable from 40Hz‑1.5kHz) filters, and a fully parametric Mid sweepable from 200Hz‑8kHz, with Q variable from 0.5 to 16. It's also possible to save up to eight global snapshots of all mixer and effects settings, including routing, as scenes which become available at the touch of a button. However, you can't change scenes during playback, which rather limits their usefulness. Once you've mastered the routing, you can create snapshots for all the most common recording mixer scenarios to minimise your visits to menu land.
Snapshots can also be very useful when deciding between various mixes, and they're saved with the song, so that you can come back to a mix weeks later and nothing will have changed. You can't, however, switch between scenes during playback, so there's no option for adding automation to your mixes, as there is with the VS880. Given that the entry‑level Korg D8 provides up to 20 snapshots that can be programmed to change during playback, this is quite a shortcoming.
With its chunky transport buttons, track cue pots and track status buttons, the recorder section of the VS840 is certainly reminiscent of a multitrack tape recorder. Indeed, it behaves somewhat like one in its basic functions although an immediately noticeable difference is the virtually instantaneous access to any selected point in the song — a characteristic of disk‑based systems. Another difference is the machine's ability to record and store up to eight alternative takes of tracks through its 'virtual' track system, allowing up to 64 tracks to be recorded in all. This is very clever and of obvious use in compiling a 'perfect' take, although it's worth bearing in mind that each virtual track takes up its own little bit of disk space, and when you've got just 100Mb to play with you can't afford to go too mad. If you were to use all the virtual tracks, the total recording time in Multitrack 1 mode would be reduced to around 30 seconds!
It's extremely useful to be able to Undo/Redo your steps (mistakes!), and the machine supports 999 levels of Undo — though as each Undo uses real disk space to store the unerased take, setting a more realistic one or two levels of Undo is perhaps more practical. However, if you delete a complete song from disk, you can't undo that!
Roland have included a Vari‑Pitch function that operates in a similar way to a traditional varispeed control, but works instead by altering the sample rate at which recorded data is clocked out. It's important to have the Vari‑Pitch turned off when mixing down to a digital recorder, as digital recorders won't accept anything other than standard sample rates.
In addition to the 1000 markers previously mentioned, the recorder features a useful eight locate points accessed through four buttons plus the Shift control. If Auto Punch is selected, buttons 1 and 2 mark the In and Out locations. Similarly, when you require the machine to loop, buttons 3 and 4 mark the Start and End locations. Both Auto and manual punch worked reliably and seamlessly during the review, and I had no need to alter the crossfade parameters, which can be changed in steps from 2ms to 50ms.
Once recorded, tracks may be cut, tracks or parts of tracks may be copied, moved, erased or exchanged, and it's also possible to insert a blank space between sections. This is all non‑destructive, so if you mess up you can use Undo until you get back to where it all turned pear‑shaped. Because the counter can be set to show either time or beats and bars (assuming you've set up a tempo map), locating precise edit points is usually quite easy.
Copying sections of a track is a particularly useful and commonly used facility, enabling a good take of chorus, drum loop or a repeated riff to be re‑used as many times as required. An audio preview function helps you find the desired area of track where you intend to perform surgery, by looping around up to 10 seconds of the recording, and it's simple enough to put markers or location points at the start and end of the section to be edited. Scrub playback (adjustable to repeat over a 25‑100ms timespan) can also be used to home in on a particular event or note and is accompanied by a coarse overview of the audio waveform envelope in the display window. In general, the editing functions are straightforward and logical, although I did occasionally find them long‑winded and had to refer back to the manual on more than one occasion.
The onboard stereo effects offer 200 preset patches and 200 user patches. Accessing the patches, editing, routing and saving involves heavy use of the cursor keys and time/value wheel, but the results range from impressive to stunning, especially considering that the effects board comes as standard and is not an optional extra. Amongst the expected (although excellent) reverbs, delays and choruses there's a wonderful COSM Guitar Preamp/Speaker Simulator and a truly trippy RSS (3D) effect, not to mention a rotary speaker simulator, a vocoder, an enhancer, a de‑esser, compresser/limiter, gate... sorry, am I drooling on the page?
Obviously, using the VS840 isn't as straightforward as using a typical cassette multitracker because it does so much more, and you also have a programmable effects unit to play with. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the routing system, because unlike when you're using the familiar analogue console with routing buttons, you're not always sure where everything is going, or even how to get it there. Even so, if you always work by recording one track at a time and building up your recording in layers of overdubs, the procedure is reasonably straightforward, as an EZ routing default is provided for this eventuality. More complex routing setups can be saved as snapshots, but you'll occasionally want to do something out of the ordinary, which will need to be set up from scratch, and this can be long‑winded. Looking on the bright side, the VS840 is going to be the centre of your studio, so you'll soon find your way around it, and Roland have made the operating system easier to deal with than that of the VS880.
The sound quality of the machine is outstanding, especially when you've been used to narrow‑format analogue 8‑track tape machines, and the data compression used in Multitrack 2 mode is still very subtle. I also like the EQ, which is suitably flexible, but rather frustrating to adjust, as you have to keep moving from one parameter to another. As for the effects, they're every bit as good as you'd expect to get in a good stand‑alone effects box. Having such good guitar effects in there as well means you can get a great DI guitar sound with nothing more complicated than a guitar lead.
Punching in and out is just as easy as with a tape machine, except that there are no gaps or clicks, and being able to transfer the finished result to DAT in the digital domain helps preserve the quality of what you've done.
Although the VS840 is the latest in a line of very popular studio workstations, the competition, originally confined to Fostex's DMT8, seems to be getting very stiff indeed. There's Korg's D8, which is slightly simpler and records uncompressed data to an internal hard drive; Yamaha's Minidisc‑based MD8, which has the simplicity of an analogue mixer, and Akai's Jaz‑driven DPS12 with digital mixer — and there are almost certainly more on the way. The VS840's price is temptingly low, it has great effects, and the removable media is more appealing than a fixed hard drive that needs backing up all the time, but Roland no longer have this market to themselves and some of the competitive machines are stronger in certain areas. Certainly the lack of true snapshot automation will be seen as a weakness.
Within the confines of this review I found the VS840 capable of impeccable sound quality and packed with features, to the point where you really don't need much else, apart from the sequencer of your choice, to set up a fully equipped home studio. Furthermore, you could save yourself the installation and compatibility headaches that often seem associated with trying to run HD recording inside your computer alongside other applications. The cost of dedicating your computer entirely to HD recording is in a different league altogether to buying a VS840 — just buying suitable software, a soundcard and a couple of decent effects plug‑ins could cost a lot more than the VS840.
One other important point regards noise levels. My computer's cooling fans shift so much air that I couldn't possibly tolerate the noise in my little project studio. I did, however, find that the VS840's Zip drive was quiet enough for delicate vocal takes to be conducted a couple of metres away, in the same room. My only reservation about the VS840 concerns the inevitable menu‑cruising and button‑tapping that seems to form an integral part of any piece of digital equipment where you get a lot of features for a low price. But the real bottom line is this cute little machine's outstanding value for money and high standard of audio performance.
Four modes of recording and two sample rates are available on the VS840, the idea being that you select the appropriate combination to meet the needs of the recording you're about to make. In Multitrack 1 mode, no data compression is used and the sample rate is a full 44.1kHz, the same as DAT or CD. This is a good mode to use for stereo mastering or for short but discerning multitrack projects where you can make do with 37 track‑minutes of recording time. That's a little over four minutes of 8‑track recording, which should just about cope with a standard single, providing you don't start filling up virtual tracks. A limitation of Multitrack 1 mode is that you can only record up to two tracks at a time, rather than the more usual four offered in the other modes.
Multitrack 2 mode offers 50 track minutes at the higher sample rate and allows simultaneous recording on up to four tracks. This is the default mode of the machine and provides the best compromise between recording time, track availability and sound quality. In fact, the subjective difference between a recording made in Multitrack 1 and Multitrack 2 modes is negligible unless you're indulging in multiple bounces, which is a great credit to the data compression system used here. It's so transparent that I couldn't tell whether or not it had been used in a blind A/B test of a first‑pass recording. In any event, audio data compression tends to be far less intrusive than any of the commonly used noise reduction circuits that we've put up with in analogue recorders for so many years!
Live 1 and Live 2 allow progressively longer recording times through the use of increased compression ratios and, as the names imply, they're suitable for live or other recordings where longer recording times are more important than perfect sound quality. The maximum recording time available is 103 track minutes at a 32kHz sampling rate, though, as you might imagine, this mode isn't as bright or well‑focused as Multitrack 2 mode.
Though the input and output converters work at 20‑bit, the noise spec suggests that the actual recorded format is 16‑bit, though the spec section in the manual doesn't shed any light on this.
|Tracks:||Up to 4‑track simultaneous recording and 8‑track playback.|
|Recording medium:||100Mb removable Zip drive.|
|A‑D Conversion:||20‑bit, 64x oversampling.|
|D‑A Conversion:||20‑bit, 128x oversampling.|
|Internal processing:||24‑bit (mixer).|
|Sample rates:||44.1kHz, 32kHz.|
|Frequency response:||20Hz‑21kHz (+1/‑1.5 dB) at 44.1kHz; 20Hz‑15.5kHz (+1/‑1.5 dB) at 32kHz.|
|THD:||better than 0.08%.|
|Nominal input level:||‑50 to +4dBm.|
|Input impedance:||guitar jack 1MΩ; input jacks 20kΩ; input phonos 20kΩ.|
|Output Impedance:||Mon/Aux 1.6 kΩ; Master 1.6 kΩ; Phones 100Ω.|
|Residual noise (1kΩ at input):||‑91dBm or less.|
|Dimensions:||410(W) x 307(D) x 88(H) mm.|
- Removable, economical storage medium.
- Internal effects as standard.
- Fully digital signal path.
- Powerful mixer includes flexible 3‑band EQ.
- SCSI option available.
- Snapshots can't be used for automation.
- Menu‑intensive user interface.
- No phantom power.
- With only four mixer inputs and the ability to record a maximum of four tracks at once, this machine isn't really suitable for live recording or work with multi‑miked drum kits.
- Limited recording time in Multitrack modes.
- Having four of the tracks arranged as two stereo pairs won't suit everybody.
This digital audio workstation is the one to beat in its class. It has so many features at so low a price and no serious vices other than the lack of snapshot automation.