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Zoom LiveTrak L-8

Mixer, Multitrack Recorder & USB Audio Interface By Matt Houghton
Published January 2021

Zoom LiveTrak L-8

Could this be the perfect portable package for podcasters and musicians alike?

Zoom’s LiveTrak L‑8 (I’ll call it the L‑8 for short) is aimed at a very broad audience with a range of different workflows but, while an affordable hybrid product like this will inevitably lack some features for some users, I reckon Zoom have managed to strike a great balance between sonic quality, functionality, ease‑of‑use and price. So let’s take a closer look at what this thing can do — and what it cannot — starting with its role as a digital mixer, before moving on to the USB interfacing and standalone recording side of things.

Ins, Outs & Mixing

As a digital mixer, the LiveTrak L‑8 is fairly simple, in that all the input channels are permanently routed to the master stereo bus. There are no subgroup buses or, other than one that goes directly to the internal effects engine, aux sends. That effects send is available to all channels except, obviously, the effects’ stereo return channel and the stereo master mix channel. However, some behind‑the‑scenes digital sophistication means that it is still perfectly possible to create and distribute different cue mixes, or send signals to external processors/effects.

In addition to the master stereo channel and the stereo EFX RTN, the mixer has eight input channels. The first two accept mic, line or instrument sources, the last selected using a Hi‑Z button above the gain pot. The next four can be used with mic or line sources and feature a ‑26dB pad. 48V phantom power is switchable globally for the six mic inputs; there’s no LED indicator but a message flashes on the screen when phantom is engaged, or if it is engaged when you switch the unit on. Finally, channels 7 and 8 cater for a number of different sources: each can receive mono line‑level sources (TS jack), a stereo USB out from a connected computer, or samples triggered by the six Sound Pads (see box). These two channels can also, when used in combination, receive a stereo analogue line signal on a TRRS mini‑jack, with a ‘mix minus’ monitoring function to prevent feedback, providing a way to connect smartphones for podcasts, video conferencing and so on.

The SDHC/SDXC card for the multitrack recorder is inserted in a compartment at the rear, where you’ll also find the on/off switch.The SDHC/SDXC card for the multitrack recorder is inserted in a compartment at the rear, where you’ll also find the on/off switch.

The main stereo mix comes out on two balanced XLRs, and that signal is duplicated on the first headphone output. It’s also available on three more headphone outputs, each of which, like the first, has a dedicated level control. These three can be switched to monitor one of three secondary mixes, Mix A, Mix B and Mix C, of which more below. The headphone amps sound clean and clear and do the job well for most headphones, though with high‑impedance models I found there wasn’t lots of gain in reserve — occasionally frustrating when I was miking quiet sources, but it won’t be an issue for most users.

Each of the eight input channels has its own fader, mute (but not solo) and Select buttons, and when a channel is selected you can tweak further parameters in the Channel Strip section. This has five continuous rotary encoders and a (12dB/octave 75Hz) high‑pass filter button. Each encoder is circled by 13 LEDs, but as each LED has five levels of brightness and they light in combinations you’re treated to a finer level of indication than first sight suggests. A very minor gripe is that the height of the knobs means they obscure some LEDs’ default positions (eg. centre pan) when you’re seated, with the L‑8 on your desktop. The encoders control panning, the effects send level and a three‑band EQ, comprising high (10kHz) and low (100Hz) shelves and a peaking mid band (2.5kHz). Each band can boost up to ±15dB, again in fine enough steps that you have plenty of control.

Despite this being a digital desk (meaning no physical routing limitations in between the converters) you can’t apply EQ to the effects return or master mix; I can’t say I missed that ability but some might. Naturally, you can’t apply reverb to the main mix, since there’s only one effects engine and its signal already flows to the mix bus.

A feature I wish had been included but is lacking is a polarity inverter for at least one or two channels. A compressor or two would also have been welcome at times when using this as a standalone device. Perhaps such things could be implemented in a firmware revision, by giving some hardware controls a secondary function?

Making A Scene

As mentioned in passing, you can create up to four different post‑fader mix balances — the main mix, Mix A, Mix B and Mix C — and each can be sent to its own headphone output if desired. So it’s possible to use these to create artist monitor mixes or to feed external processors/effects (you’d have to return them on spare mixer channels). You can copy and paste from one mix to another, making it quick and easy to set up personalised cue mixes. The faders aren’t motorised, but switch between mixes and the level meter LEDs will helpfully light to indicate the ‘virtual fader position’ for each channel, and turn off when the fader is at the correct position. As this device costs less than many eight‑fader control surfaces, I reckon that’s a the perfect balance of cost and convenience.

It’s important to understand that the Mixes store only the fader settings: the Gain, Pad/Hi‑Z, Select, Channel Strip and Mute status aren’t recalled. But more settings can be stored in what Zoom call Scenes. Several settings are stored in each Scene: the fader positions (for every channel, including EFX RTN and Master); Mute status; all Channel Strip settings; the selected effect patch and parameters; and the input source selection for channels 7+8.

Hit the big Scene button at the bottom right, and the eight multi‑function buttons beneath the screen give you direct access to seven separate scenes which can be stored and recalled. Press a button and you have the option to save/overwrite or recall the Scene or cancel to take you out of the menu. The eighth button allows you to reset the selected Scene. It’s a very helpful facility and really intuitive. It might have been nice to be able to recall the channel Select status too, and the Rec/Play status for the multitrack recorder (discussed below), but those aren’t mission‑critical omissions.

USB

The USB 2.0 port, tucked beneath the L‑8, has a good strain‑relief system,and can be used for communication with and bus powering by a computer, or to hook up to the supplied mains power adapter or a USB battery. Alternatively, four AA batteries can power the L‑8.The USB 2.0 port, tucked beneath the L‑8, has a good strain‑relief system,and can be used for communication with and bus powering by a computer, or to hook up to the supplied mains power adapter or a USB battery. Alternatively, four AA batteries can power the L‑8.Many potential purchasers will be primarily interested in the L‑8’s recording capabilities. It can be used either as a USB 2.0 audio interface or as a standalone multitracker, recording directly to class‑10 or higher SDHC (up to 32GB) or SDXC (up top 512GB) cards. You can record at 24‑bit 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz to a card, though 96kHz isn’t supported over USB. Neither can you use the Sound Pads, send effects, EQ or the multitracker’s Overdub mode, at 96kHz. There’s a class‑compliant USB driver for iOS, and for Mac/Windows you download a driver from Zoom’s website. Once installed, ensure the L‑8 is in Mixer mode, then press function button 8, labelled Audio I/F, and you’re good to go.

Your computer is presented with 12 inputs. The eight input channels’ signals (7 and 8 each have left and right channels) are taken directly after the preamp, before the Channel Strip and fader, while the stereo mix is captured post‑fader. So you can record the clean input signals and tweak settings on playback, but can also capture the live stereo mix, with all your EQ, effects and fader moves applied. This way, it makes good sense for recording projects, for live streaming, and recording live performances while also delivering monitor and PA mixes. The L‑8 can receive two stereo feeds from the computer, one on channel 7 and the other on channel 8. Note that selecting the USB return on either channel will limit your access to other sources (eg. Sound Pads) that are exclusive to those channels.

On The Record

While USB recording is handy, the standalone recorder side of things really won me over. It’s just so quick and convenient — a joy to use. It’s the default mode at startup, but you can access it at any time by pressing the big Recorder button. In this mode the function buttons serve as transport and tempo controls, and access a Setting menu.

Initial recording tests are intuitive. You record‑arm the desired tracks using their Rec/Play button (which cycles through three states: record‑arm, multitrack playback, and off, whereby the input source is routed to the mix bus during recording/playback. Hit the Record button followed by the Play button: a new project will be created automatically as recording commences. Change the track state to Playback and hit the Rwd button, and you can audition what you recorded and adjust the channel settings to taste.

The standalone recorder side of things really won me over. It’s just so quick and convenient — a joy to use.

You can also navigate the project timeline by turning the Select Wheel (a rotary encoder with integral push button) and press it offline or during playback/record to insert up to 99 markers per project; the Fwd and Rwd buttons take you to the next marker in either direction. It’s a great way to mark unhelpful noises or fluffed lines that need attention. It’s worth noting, though, that pressing the button produces a small acoustic click, so if using this while recording you’ll want to keep your mics at a safe distance.

Hitting Setting (function 4) accesses the menu. It’s easy to follow but anything you don’t understand will be clearly explained in the manual. Here, you can create, delete and rename projects, assign recorded or imported sounds to different tracks, scroll through a list of markers and jump to any one. You can also specify the recording format, and engage auto (threshold‑triggered) record and/or 2‑second pre‑record modes. And you can set different playback modes, so playback stops at the end of a project or at the end of all projects, or loops around one or all.

The metronome is a welcome feature for those laying down music projects one track at a time. You’re offered control over the sound (Bell, Click, Stick, Cowbell or Hi‑Q), the pattern and most basic time signatures. The time‑signature options are adequate but not extensive; there’s no 9/8, for example. A Tempo button provides a tap‑tempo facility and allows you to use the Selector Wheel to set the tempo between 40 and 250 bpm with a resolution of 0.1bpm.

There are more menu functions than I’ve described here, all of which are fully detailed in the manual, but you get the idea: if your needs are conventional, Zoom have you covered; if they’re more esoteric I’d suggest that you consult the manual to ensure they’re fully catered for.Another function button (8) puts the recorder into Overdub mode, which determines if recording will be overdubbed in the current project or a fresh project will be created for the recording. Note that this mode doesn’t support 96kHz recording; I don’t know why that is. It does include latency compensation, though, so you can monitor your performance and the backing in perfect sync, and things will line up perfectly on playback.

Punching in/out is as easy as could be. You navigate to the section where you want the performer to start singing/playing, record‑arm the tracks on which you wish to punch in, and start playback. Hit the main record button to punch in, and hit it again to punch out. You can punch in/out up to 10 times during each playback pass. Between this and the marker system, dropping in corrections becomes second nature very quickly.

Playback or recording is not possible while you’re in the Setting menu, and having to exit the menus before hitting record/play sometimes made me pause for thought. Similarly, once playing back or if you have the record button engaged, ready to record, you cannot change the recording/playback status of individual tracks. When first using the L‑8 I often hit Record and then realised I needed to change the status of one or two tracks. These are both very minor frustrations, though, and I’m sure with more ‘miles on the clock’ any sense of annoyance would evaporate.

As with USB recording, each of the eight input channels can be recorded pre‑ the Channel Strip and fader, and the post‑fader master mix signal can be captured. Again, the only channel that can’t be recorded is the effects return; I’m not entirely sure why that is but it’s not a particularly important omission. It’s also worth noting that the L‑8 can record via USB to your DAW and direct to the SD card simultaneously, and that a card reader allows your computer to access recordings made to the SD card, or to deposit sounds there for import to recorder tracks, or to the Sound Pads.

The fact that it can run off batteries, USB power blocks, or bus power just makes it better still. So I take my hat off to the designers, and will file the LiveTrak L‑8 under ‘bloody impressive for the price’.

Lasting Impressions

As I hinted at the outset, I love the Zoom LiveTrak L‑8. It offers so much convenience and versatility for so little money, and it sounds decent too. The mic preamps, which have a gain range of +10 to +54 dB, are never going to be world‑beaters on this sort of device, but they are competent: clean and quiet and as good as any in their class. I was happy using them for exposed sources like spoken word (eg. podcasting) and when applying plenty of gain for dynamic mics (a Shure SM57 and Heil Sound PR40) there was pleasingly little hiss. The neutral‑sounding broad‑brush EQ is exactly what’s required here, and I found a handful of the effects (mainly the reverbs) very usable, even if I always wanted to tweak the default settings to something that sounded less obvious.

Operation generally is super easy: the manual, though helpful, isn’t essential to get started, and the on‑screen menus are mercifully shallow. When switching between modes there are no pops, pauses or glitches. There are enough headphone outs for serious projects. My list of gripes is very short, the most notable being the lack of EQ for the main mix, and the source‑routing limitations for channels 7+8. And they’re more than offset by the L‑8’s convenience, versatility and portability.

It’s really very hard to make something as complicated as this seem so effortless. And better still, it’s a lightweight (a shade over 1.5kg) portable package with a small footprint, yet gives spacious access to controls. The fact that it can run off batteries, USB power blocks, or bus power just makes it better still. So I take my hat off to the designers, and will file the LiveTrak L‑8 under ‘bloody impressive for the price’.

Effects

There are six effect types available, though you can have only one active at once. The top four function buttons give you Hall 1, Hall 2, Room and Plate reverbs. The bottom row offers Delay, Chorus, Vocal 1 and Vocal 2, the latter pair being a combination of reverb and delay. Pressing the relevant button allows you to edit two parameters for the effect: Tone and Decay for the reverbs, Time and Feedback for the delay, Tone and Rate for the Chorus, and Time and Decay for the two Vocal effects. It’s not a lot of control, admittedly, but between the channel send level, these parameters and the EFX RTN channel fader, I found it sufficient.

Sound Pads

The six Sound Pads are essentially sample triggers, three playing back on channel 7 and three on channel 8. The default sounds are the sort of effect typically used in radio shows and podcasts (applause, laughter, cash register, drum roll, sad trombone, scratched record) but there are others to choose from (in Mixer mode press the Sound Pad function key) and you can import or record your own samples too; it’s a feature that will appeal to many podcasters. Note, though, that when monitoring other sources (eg. USB or a TRRS phone source) on channels 7 or 8, you can access either no Pads or only half of them, and you can’t use the Sound Pads in 96kHz mode either.

Alternatives

While there’s nothing directly comparable with the LiveTrak L‑8, you might like to check out the Rode RodeCaster Pro, the Tascam Model 12 and the Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK.

Pros

  • Lightweight and will run off batteries, USB bus power or AC supply.
  • Sounds clean and pretty quiet, even at high gains.
  • Useful reverb options.
  • Four headphone outputs.
  • The price is right.

Cons

  • Can’t access USB, phone and Sound Pads simultaneously.
  • Cannot EQ the main mix.
  • Support for 96kHz is limited.

Summary

The LiveTrak L‑8 strikes a great balance between quality, versatility and ease of use.

Information

£399 including VAT.

Sound Service GmbH +49 (0)30 707 1300

zoom@sound‑service.eu

www.sound-service.eu

zoomcorp.com

$399.

zoomcorp.com

Published January 2021