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Boss BR532 Digital Studio By Paul White
Published October 2001


Paul White tests one of the first of a new generation of portable multitrackers which utilise SmartMedia digital data storage cards as their recording medium.

The Boss BR532 is one of the first of a new generation of multitrackers that uses SmartMedia cards for recording. These cards are the type used in many digital cameras and the BR532 can accept cards of between 16Mb and 128Mb via a slot in the right‑hand side. Linear 16‑bit audio requires around 5Mb of storage space per track minute, but by using data compression Boss have managed to squeeze 16 track minutes of 24‑bit, 44.1kHz audio onto the supplied 32Mb memory card with up to 65 track‑minutes available on a 128Mb card. The recording time can be further extended by up to 50 percent by selecting from two more aggressive data compression modes.

A 128Mb card costs around £100 in the UK, and in a four‑track recording application using the best sound‑quality mode, that equates to around 16 minutes of recording time, so it's clearly not a cost‑effective replacement for cassette tape. Where it does score, however, is that you can buy a SmartMedia card reader for your Mac or PC quite cheaply and use this to back up your recording projects to hard drive (and subsequently to CD‑ROM if you like) for archiving. Even so, it would have been more sensible for the designers to have included a USB port as standard, as on many digital cameras.

The physical format of the four‑track BR532 is not unlike that of the BR8, and power can come from either six AA batteries or an optional mains PSU, so it is fully portable. There's a built‑in mic if you want to make a quick recording without plugging in an external mic and, because there are no moving parts, there's no motor noise in the background — though the mic itself turned out to be pretty noisy.

The four main tracks each have eight virtual tracks, which allow alternate takes to be recorded, but they can also be used when track bouncing, so that all four main tracks can be submixed to mono or stereo. Naturally, virtual tracks take up real memory space, so you have to use them carefully, bearing in mind the limited capacity of SmartMedia.

Because the Boss BR532 is a digital studio and not just a digital recorder, it also includes a digital mixer and two effects processors, one dedicated to send/return effects and one dedicated to insert effects. The effects include COSM amp modelling, and there's a guitar DI input as well as both XLR and jack mic inputs, enabling fully produced guitar parts to be recorded using nothing more than a guitar and a lead. You even get a guitar tuner.

Once parts have been recorded, the basic copy/move/paste editing functions are available, and to make editing easier there's a guide drum rhythm generator that acts as a sophisticated metronome. This behaves rather like a drum machine, where the order in which the patterns are arranged can be edited by the user, but the patterns themselves are fixed. It sounds pretty good, however, and can be used to provide a respectable drum part for the finished recording without eating up an audio track. Markers (apparently up to 999 of them, though the manual doesn't confirm this) can be assigned to locations within songs for fast navigation, and finished mixes can be cloned to a digital recorder via an optical S/PDIF output. There is no coaxial digital output, so if you need a coaxial feed, you'll have to buy an optical‑to‑coaxial converter, such as the Fostex COP1.

User Interface


Having hopefully whetted your appetite, it's time to look at the unit in more detail. At the top left of the front panel are three rotary Sens controls for setting the gains of the three analogue inputs: Guitar/Bass, Mic and Line. Note that the XLR mic input is balanced, but has no phantom power provision. Source select buttons are used to choose the source being recorded and it is possible to press the Guitar/Bass and Mic buttons simultaneously to record both sources at once onto two adjacent tracks. The clearly marked Effects button switches the input insert effects on or off and also accesses the effect parameters for on‑screen editing. A large Input Level knob sets the record level of the selected source and the nearby Tuner button brings up the guitar tuner.

The lower left of the front panel is given over to a fairly conventional tape‑style transport control which also includes the facility to loop between user‑definable A and B location points. The Stop button can be used to enter a useful audio Scrub mode (controlled via the Time/Value data wheel) which, although lumpy‑sounding, is good for general navigation. A separate row of buttons activates the auto punch‑in/out mode as well as storing or seeking location points. Holding down Locate and Auto Punch clears the current locator.

In the centre of the machine is a backlit LCD screen that doubles as level meter, information display and parameter readout. Below the LCD window is the Audio Track mixer, where four faders control the track levels during playback. Separate faders set the overall level of the rhythm guide and the stereo mix, while four Rec Track buttons are used to arm the track being recorded. The track status LEDs change colour or flash to let you know whether the track already contains data, and whether it is armed for recording. At least one track is always armed for recording. A separate button selects the active virtual track and a Loop Effects button accesses the screen where the effect send levels are adjusted. It's also possible to change the send level for the effect added to the input signal being recorded, for monitoring purposes.

A similar system is used to call up a Pan position screen where value changes are made using the large rotary encoder at the top right of the front panel. This section includes the Phrase Trainer facility which allows material to be played back slowly so you can work out tricky passages, and a centre cancel function for reducing the level of vocals and other centre‑panned sounds in a mix.

One really nice feature is the Rhythm Guide, which provides a choice of drum machine‑style patterns, rather than a regular bleep. An Auto button cycles through the available selections for quick auditioning, or you can use the Pattern Select button to go directly to the pattern you want. A Tap button below the Rhythm Guide fader enables the tempo to be set intuitively rather than numerically, and up to 999 patterns can be combined within a song to form a complete backing rhythm part, complete with intro and outro. Track bounces are set up using a simple button that steps through Off, Mono, or Stereo. Bounce destinations can be any single or adjacent left/right pair of real or virtual tracks.

In the master section on the right is the large Time/Value data wheel plus a Utility button that accesses such functions as track editing, song management and memory card operations. The familiar Undo/Redo button lets you go back one step if you make a mistake, while the parameter arrow buttons are used to select parameters which are then adjusted in value using the Time/Value data wheel. Enter confirms an action while Exit/No cancels the entry or returns you to the last screen. The headphone jack and internal mic are located at the front left of the machine where the headphones follow the source and level of the line output.

Using The BR532

The BR532 uses readily available SmartMedia cards for storage.The BR532 uses readily available SmartMedia cards for storage.

The first step, before recording, is to select which input source and recording mode you want to use. For anything serious, the higher‑quality Hifi mode is best, though I found the intermediate Normal mode also sounded clear and natural. If you want to use an external mic, the internal one must be switched off, via the Utility menu. Setting the input gain is done while viewing a meter in the LCD — the Parameter select buttons will take you to a page where you can choose which of the inputs or outputs is to be metered. At this point you can choose whether to use an insert effect while recording. If you plan to do any precision edits, it's also a good idea to turn on the Rhythm Guide, where you can select a suitable drum pattern and tempo to play along to — that way you can later edit by bars and beats. Now all that remains is to select a track (or pair of tracks) to record into using the Rec Track buttons.

Sometimes you may want to record a mono signal onto two tracks to make full use of the stereo insert effects. Also, if the simultaneous recording of guitar and mic has been selected, the two inputs can be recorded separately to tracks 1/2 or 3/4. Recording is started by pressing Record and then Play. Simply hitting Record during playback will punch in, and Stop ends recording. If you fill up all four tracks and need to bounce them down, either in mono or stereo, they can be bounced to virtual tracks along with any live input source.

You can balance track and rhythm levels using the four central faders. Unlike disk‑based machines, there is no shutdown procedure, but you must not switch off while playing or recording, as data can be lost. Memory cards should also be inserted or removed only when the power is off.

Auto punch‑in/out works in a similar way to most other multitrackers, though I still prefer the footswitch approach myself. The automatic drop‑in works between two locator points which can be marked using the In and Out buttons, and these points can also be erased easily by holding down Auto Punch and then pressing the In or Out buttons.

A similar process is used for setting and erasing locator points using the Locate button. When copying audio data, the A and B loop markers are used to define the data being copied, after which the destination track and new start location are entered. Any existing data at that point will be overwritten, which isn't quite as non‑destructive as with a computer editing system, though you still have one level of undo if things go wrong. You can also copy entirely by specifying time locations, rather than using the markers, and you can copy data to other tracks as well as to the original track. Moving data is very similar to copying it, but the original is deleted. Alternatively, you can select Erase to simply wipe the marked section of track. Note, though, that you can't move or copy selections shorter than one second in length. There's also a function for exchanging the recorded data between tracks — if you want to do two versions of a song, you can copy it to a new track and then work on the copy.



The BR532 performs all of the basic functions you'd expect from a compact multitracker. On the down side, the internal mic is quite noisy and is only really suitable for rough work. Using an external mic produces much better results, but even then the recording is noticeably noisier than when using a good mixer or mic preamp. However, a reasonably sensitive mic used close up can give good results.

The COSM guitar modelling effects are a welcome addition for DI'ing guitar parts and most of the insert effects work nicely, with a sensible amount of user adjustment. The only exception is the reverb, and this is particularly disappointing, as it lets the whole sound down. What's more, there's no way to patch in a better reverb unit, unless you record through it.

Recording quality is surprisingly good in both Hifi and Normal modes and there's still reasonably good resolution in the most compressed mode, with no noticeable glitching when punching in or out. I'd say the Hifi and Normal modes are comparable with formats such as Minidisc, and you probably only need to work in Hifi mode if you plan to do any track bouncing. With the 32Mb card supplied, there's just about enough room to record one song, and maybe even to mix it to stereo if it isn't too long, but for anything more ambitious, you'll need a 128Mb card.

The machine is quite straightforward to use and the manual takes you through all the common scenarios. The in‑built drum rhythms are really very good and all of the effects other than the reverb work quite well. The basic audio quality is fine, despite the less than optimum mic amp, and the battery powering option makes the BR532 truly portable. Because of the high media costs and the short recording time, however, a machine like this only makes sense if you have a computer (with a SmartMedia card reader) to which you can back up.

As a replacement for a cassette multitracker, the BR532 is a neat solution with some impressive facilities that cassette machines can't offer. It isn't perfect, but it is flexible, self‑contained, easy to use and compact, which counts for a lot when you want to get your ideas down in a hurry.

Making Connections

The rear panel houses the mic and instrument inputs, as well as stereo line input and output connectors on phonos. There's a switch to turn Audio Submix on or off, enabling an external stereo submix to be fed into the line inputs when mixing (for example, a MIDI keyboard mix), though this is not sent to the digital output, only the analogue line outs. Another jack socket accepts an optional footswitch that can be used for starting, stopping, punching in/out and other functions, which is very useful when you're a guitar player working on your own. A MIDI output is provided, mainly for sync purposes, but MIDI note numbers from the guide rhythm part can also be sent, as well as MMC and certain record status information. The power supply input is pretty standard, but does have a clip to prevent the cable being pulled out accidentally. There's also a slot for a computer locking chain.

Internal Effects Processing

The insert effects are really series multi‑effect chains and include a COSM guitar effects combination including compression, amp and speaker modelling, noise suppression, a choice of modulation effects and a delay. Similar patches are provided for acoustic simulation, bass simulation (from a regular guitar) and acoustic guitar processing. There's also processing for real bass guitars and a number of vocal treatments, from the conventional to radical voice transformation. Stereo mix‑processing algorithms are available, as well as setups for recording guitars and vocals at the same time, the latter providing two separate effect/processor chains. Each effect block is editable to a surprising degree, especially the guitar amp modelling, where a number of standard amp types can be called up.

The loop effects are mainly reverbs though there's also a double‑tracking simulator and chorus. The reverb offers room or hall environments with variable decay time, tone and level, though the quality is rather poor, with a pronounced flutter that reminded me of Zebedee on a trampoline! Loop effects settings are saved along with the song data, as opposed to the insert effects, which are organised as patches.


  • Compact and self‑contained.
  • Inbuilt COSM effects and guide drum rhythms.
  • Battery or PSU operation.


  • Needs a computer and SmartMedia card reader for backing up.
  • Poor reverb quality.
  • Limited recording time.


The BR532 is a neat one‑box solution for songwriting on the move, or for making demos on the beach, but it's let down by poor reverb quality.