Zoom reimagine the stand-alone multitracker for the DAW generation.
To musicians of a certain age, the name Zoom is synonymous with ‘cheap and cheerful’. Most of us have probably owned one of their guitar multi-effects pedals, or a budget rackmount reverb unit: equipment that might not have rivalled Lexicon or Eventide in quality, but certainly offered excellent value for money. In recent years, though, the Japanese manufacturers have been moving steadily upmarket. Building on their affordable H-series of hand-held recorders, they’ve created a professional field recorder, the F8, and their current audio interfaces in the TAC and UAC lines give nothing away to competition from more familiar names in that field. That process continues with the LiveTrak L‑12.
Way back in September 2009 I reviewed a product that could be seen as its ancestor. An innovative combination of multitrack recorder, mixer, fader control surface and USB audio interface at a very attractive price, the Zoom R16 bridged the gap between ‘in the box’ and stand-alone recording. For the first time, a single piece of kit allowed owners to quickly and easily make location recordings anywhere before bringing them back to the studio for computer-based editing, overdubbing and mixing. (You can read that review online at www.soundonsound.com/reviews/zoom-r16.)
There was a lot to like about the R16, and I bought and still own the review model. However, I’ve always felt there was scope for a more ‘professional’ implementation of the same concept. The R16’s capacity to run on six AA batteries meant that phantom power was available only on two inputs, and compromised the quality of its preamps and other analogue circuitry. With only a single stereo output, mirrored on a single headphone socket, monitoring and cue-mixing options were very limited. Stand-alone recording was restricted to 44.1kHz, there was no digital I/O, and metering was basic.
Almost nine years on, the LiveTrak L‑12 looks a lot like that ‘more professional’ version of the R16. Once again, it seems, Zoom’s core aim has been to create a USB device that will work well as a front end for a computer-based recording system, and which can also be removed from your studio and taken to rehearsals, gigs and location venues for stand-alone multitrack recording. It turns out, though, that the LiveTrak is far more than an updated R16 — and in some ways, it’s also less.
Physically speaking, the LiveTrak occupies nearly twice as much real estate as its predecessor, though it’s still relatively compact. Although it is made almost entirely of plastic it feels reasonably robust, despite a tendency to emit creaking noises on occasions, and the layout of the top panel is admirably friendly and clear, with plenty of space between adjacent buttons and knobs. The additional functionality compared with the R16 has made it impractical to run the LiveTrak either from internal batteries or from bus power, so the included wall-wart power supply is a necessity. This does at least secure firmly into its socket in the back of the unit.
Like the R16, the LiveTrak features eight ‘combi’ XLR/TRS inputs with mic preamps, but these ones use a high-quality design said to deliver A-weighted EIN measurements below -128dB, and all can supply phantom power, which is switched in two banks of four inputs. The first two offer an optional high-impedance mode for the direct connection of electric guitars and so on, while the other six have a switchable -26dB pad, eliminating any risk of clipping when recording close-miked drums. The R16’s built-in stereo omni mics have been junked in favour of an internal talkback mic, which can be slated to recorder tracks.
Although the R16 was, in theory, a 16-track recorder, it could record only eight tracks simultaneously, and managing a larger project using bank switching and so forth got confusing quite quickly. Sensibly, then, Zoom have dispensed with the banking system on the LiveTrak, along with the R16’s little-used and cumbersome ‘virtual tracks’ system. This is made up for by the addition of four line inputs, on RCA phonos and unbalanced TS quarter-inch jacks, which can be recorded to two further stereo tracks. The LiveTrak is thus ‘only’ a 12-track recorder, but it can record all 12 tracks simultaneously, along with its own stereo master track. Oh, and it can record 16- or 24-bit audio at 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz, though for some reason 96kHz operation isn’t available when it’s used as an audio interface, and there are still no digital inputs.
Where the LiveTrak differs most of all from the R16 is perhaps in its mixing functions. Both devices use 60mm faders, which generate digital control data rather than altering levels in the analogue domain. When the R16 was hooked up to a computer, that data could be sent to a host DAW program using the Mackie Control protocol, allowing the R16’s faders to control their on-screen counterparts. This feature has, alas, been dropped in the LiveTrak, but has made way for substantial improvements in other departments.
In place of the R16’s meagre four-segment LED meters, the LiveTrak has 12-segment meters that run alongside rather than above the faders. These don’t just display signal levels, though, because one of the key additions to the LiveTrak’s mixing functionality is a simple but effective scene-based recall system. Each LiveTrak Project can store up to nine scenes, which are stored and recalled using a dedicated grid of numbered buttons. A scene stores all digital mixer settings, including not only fader positions but EQ, send levels, pan, and global effect parameters. When a scene is recalled, the appropriate LEDs on each channel fader light to indicate the stored value, and the fader itself only ‘picks up’ control once you move it through this position.
The main limitation to this feature is that it doesn’t seem to be possible to save and recall scenes independently of Projects; when a new Project is created, it inherits the active mixer settings from the previously loaded Project, but not settings stored as scenes. So, as far as I can tell, there is no way to import one Project’s mixer scenes into another, which is a shame.
The R16 had a DSP effects processor that, as well as generating two global send effects, could provide either EQ and dynamics on eight channels, or various single-channel insert effects. Whichever mode you chose, setting it up was done entirely using a fairly cumbersome menu system, and it wouldn’t completely surprise me to learn that no R16 owner ever had actually used these effects in anger.
The LiveTrak has a more basic but much more useful arrangement, operated in a hands-on fashion similar to other digital mixers. Each of the eight mono and two stereo mixer channels has a select button which makes that channel the ‘focus’ for a dedicated bank of channel-strip controls. These comprise a switchable 12dB/octave high-pass filter turning over at 75Hz, low and high shelving EQs centred at 100Hz and 10kHz respectively, and a mid band providing ±15dB gain at a frequency of your choosing, along with a pan control, a send control to the single global reverb/delay, and an EQ on/off button. The global effect also has dedicated knobs, one selecting the type of effect and two more controlling parameters appropriate to that effect, and there’s a fader and mute button controlling the global return level.
There is no dynamics processing available in the channel strip, but each of the eight mono channels has a rotary control labelled Comp. This applies simple ‘one knob’ compression in increasing amounts as the control is turned clockwise, and is hard-wired into the input path rather than the mixer itself. Any compression you apply is thus ‘baked in’ to the recorded signal, in contrast to the EQ. Logically, this would suggest that the compressor is an analogue circuit, though the schematic in the manual has it placed immediately after the A‑D converter. Either way, it certainly doesn’t prevent the converter clipping if your signals are too hot, and in any case, the converter seems to be aligned such that the clipping point of the mic preamps is almost exactly at 0dBFS. Both the EQ and the compression actually sound rather good, though with so little user control available over the latter, the safer option is to leave the dial all the way to the left, where it does nothing.
In terms of the overall user experience, then, the LiveTrak’s mixer is a massive improvement over that of the R16. There are no shifted functions or mixing features accessible only from menus, everything is logically laid out, and the scenes system is both useful and fast. I’d be more than happy to mix a small live show on the LiveTrak, or to set up individual cue mixes for musicians using the five headphone outputs (see box) — something which is almost never worth the trouble with the software-based cue-mixing utilities found in most computer audio interfaces. However, I can’t move on without pointing out a few negatives.
One is that, speaking for myself, I’d have found solo buttons infinitely more useful than the mute buttons provided. After all, you can instantly and smoothly mute a channel just by dragging its fader to the bottom, and since there are no pre-fade sends, the only thing the mute buttons do differently is that they work across all of the cue mixes at once. By contrast, there’s no way to solo a channel except by dragging all the other channel faders to the bottom! Some sort of solo or PFL feature is invaluable in location recording and live-sound contexts, especially in a troubleshooting situation, so it’s a pity there’s none on offer here — even a single solo button within the channel strip would have been better than nothing.
The other obvious omission is that there is no way to reverse the polarity either of an input or a recorded track. This wasn’t easy on the R16 either, but at least it was possible. If you often record multi-miked drums and other sources where polarity can be an issue, you’ll probably want to invest in a couple of polarity-reversing adaptors that can be introduced into the input path.
Finally, it’s probably worth mentioning that although the quarter-inch monitor outputs have an analogue level control, the XLR master outputs always operate at full level (delivering, according to the specifications, +14.5dBu for a full-scale digital signal). The only way to vary the level coming from the master output is to pull down the master fader. This operates in the digital domain, so if you need to pull it down a long way in order to feed very sensitive monitors or a PA, you will in effect be feeding a reduced word-length signal to the outputs, with theoretically deleterious consequences for sound quality. This probably won’t be a problem in most real-world situations, but in a studio context, you need to be careful with the master fader: like all of the other faders, it goes to +10dB, with no detent at unity, and only about 40mm of fader travel between unity and minus infinity. It’s thus hard to set an output level precisely, and if you’re playing back mastered material that peaks close to 0dBFS, it’s easy to push it too far and generate unpleasant distortion.
The influence of the R16 on the LiveTrak’s design shows up most clearly in the recorder section, which nestles in the bottom right-hand corner of the front panel. Controls are less abundant, and the R16’s large jog wheel has given way to a small rotary encoder, but basic operation is very similar. The LiveTrak can record to SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, with the latter offering a staggering 512GB of potential recording space. This would, by my reckoning, give you almost 90 hours of 12-track, 24-bit recording at 44.1kHz, or nearly a whole Paul White guitar solo.
The first step in making a recording is to create a Project. These are automatically named according to the date and time of creation, but it’s possible to give them meaningful names with a little encoder jockeying. Also lurking in the Project category in the menu system are the options to load other Projects, delete or write-protect the current Project, and export or import both complete Projects and individual audio files to or from an attached USB drive.
Each mixer channel has a corresponding track within the Project, and what you hear depends on the setting of that channel’s Rec/Play button. If this is unlit, you’ll hear whatever input is selected; if it’s lit red, that input will also be recorded; and if it’s green, you’ll hear instead whatever has already been recorded to that track.
This last option is relevant in only one of the LiveTrak’s two recording modes, which are toggled by a button labelled Overdub. With Overdub inactive, engaging Record automatically creates a new Project, making it impossible to accidentally record over something you’ve already captured. If you perform a series of takes, stopping the recorder between each one, they will occupy individual Projects in separate folders on the card. By contrast, engaging Overdub means that subsequent recordings take place within the existing Project, so additional takes simply sit further down the timeline — or overwrite previous ones, depending on where you started the transport.
Assuming you’re later going to import the files into your computer for mixing, this gives you the choice of a single set of up to 12 long WAV files with your takes embedded in them — which is what you get in Overdub mode — or a collection of folders containing sets of audio files corresponding to an individual take. The problem with the latter approach is that the WAV files created by the L‑12 are always named ’TRACK01’, ‘TRACK02’ and so on, and there’s no way to change this, or make the WAV files inherit the Project name. So, if you’ve done a lot of takes, you could potentially have tens or even hundreds of folders containing identically named audio files to sort out. The risk of getting into a terminal tangle is much greater than the risk of accidentally erasing your best takes in Overdub mode.
Overdub mode also gives you the ability to overdub onto new tracks whilst hearing previously recorded material, and to punch in and out on existing recordings. This is destructive and can’t be undone, but an optional footswitch is available if you need to do it hands-free. As on the R16, there’s a fixed relationship between inputs and tracks, but this time around there is no ’swap tracks’ function to move recorded audio from one track to another. So if, for example, you want to record a lead vocal on track 1, then overdub harmonies on tracks 2, 3 and 4, you’ll need to unplug the mic each time and shift it to a new input. Just like the R16, the LiveTrak also grinds to a halt when you press Stop at the end of a take, and there’s a slightly annoying delay lasting several seconds before you can take any further action.
The encoder can be turned for precise adjustment of the playback position within the Project, and each Project can also contain up to 99 markers. Dedicated buttons let you step forwards and backwards through the markers, making it easy to navigate large projects. For instance, if you were recording a live show, it would be natural to drop markers at the start and end of each song. However, it’s not possible to use markers to set pre-determined punch-in and -out points, and nor does there seem to be any way of transferring them to a DAW along with the audio content of a Project.
A built-in metronome can be set to any practical tempo and to most time signatures you’re likely to need, including 5/4, 7/4, 3/2 and 6/4. There’s a choice of five click sounds, and the click level is separately adjustable in all of the cue mixes, which is nice. You can also choose whether the metrononome should be active only in record, only during the pre-count, and so on.
The talkback mic is located just above the display, and is activated by a nearby button. This always operates in momentary mode, so it’s not possible to have the talkback mic latch on. By default, talkback is slated to any track that’s record-armed, but it’s possible to disable this either globally or on a track-by-track basis.
Finally, two neat options that should be mentioned are automated recording — whereby the LiveTrak’s transport can be configured to automatically start and stop recording when user-specified signal levels are encountered — and pre-recording, which captures whatever was played in the two seconds before recording is started.
Even more so than on the R16, it’s fairly obvious that the LiveTrak’s built-in recorder isn’t intended as a substitute for a computer-based DAW. There is no editing, system of virtual tracks, or bussing architecture, and there are no insert effects beyond basic EQ. But, of course, the whole point is that no stand-alone digital multitracker could hope to compete with what modern DAWs offer. Rather, the LiveTrak’s recording features are designed to complement and extend the capabilities of the computer-based DAW. Even better, its built-in recorder can actually be used at the same time as recording is taking place on an attached computer, giving a degree of redundancy that’s not available in any other system I know of at this sort of price.
The LiveTrack can be started up in three different modes, which are selected using a slide switch on the rear panel. The ‘normal’ mode is Audio Interface, in which both interface functionality and SD card recording are enabled. Recording is likewise possible in USB Host mode, which also permits the LiveTrak to transfer Projects and files to and from an attached USB thumb drive (don’t do what I did, and attach a hard drive, because everything will slow to a crawl). In Card Reader mode, the L‑12 starts up purely as a storage device, allowing an attached computer to read and write files directly from and to its SD card.
A computer attached to the LiveTrak ‘sees’ 14 inputs and four outputs. The inputs correspond, respectively, to the eight mono inputs, the two stereo line ins, and the stereo master output from the mixer. However, if you want to hear any playback from the computer, you’ll need to sacrifice one or both of the stereo line inputs, as these share mixer channels with the two stereo USB returns from the DAW. One way in which the LiveTrak differs from most audio interfaces is that sample rate cannot be set in software. To change the sample rate, you need to use another hardware switch on the rear of the unit. Again, three settings are available (44.1, 48 and 96 kHz) but operation as an audio interface is disabled if you select the last of these.
The LiveTrak can be operated as a class-compliant interface, but this mode is intended only for use with iOS devices. To use it with a computer, you need to download and install Zoom’s custom driver. The company’s UAC range of USB audio interfaces reportedly offer superb low-latency performance; I don’t know whether the LiveTrak uses the same driver, but it doesn’t deliver the same results. At the lowest 32-sample buffer size, round-trip latency was nudging 10ms, presumably because of internal latency within the mixer section rather than poor driver coding. Were the LiveTrak a conventional audio interface, with internal digital cue-mixing functionality accessible only through a Mac OS or Windows utility, I’d be questioning whether the benefits outweighed this latency penalty. However, since the mixer is such an integral, hands-on part of the LiveTrak’s design, I don’t feel inclined to be critical here. The latency can be compensated for within the LiveTrak’s recorder section, if you want your overdubs to line up perfectly with the original takes.
In researching this review I was surprised to find that, nearly nine years after its launch, the Zoom R16 is still a current product. That’s an astonishing lifespan for a piece of budget digital audio equipment, and suggests that it met and continues to meet a widespread need. At the same time, though, I was also surprised to find that it remains pretty much unique. Apart from its slightly larger sibling the R24, no other multitrack recorder in the same price range also acts as a USB interface, digital mixer and DAW controller.
The LiveTrak L‑12 likewise ploughs a lone furrow. It does not really supersede the R16, since it is not a DAW controller, can’t run on batteries or be bus-powered, and omits some of the R16’s menu-based features. Yet at the same time it is clearly different from anything that other manufacturers offer. Tascam, for example, still make a wide range of Portastudios, but seem to envision them as alternatives to computer-based recording rather than as part of that process. Many digital mixers now offer USB interfacing, and some of them also have basic recording facilities, but these are really designed only for capturing live shows — and I challenge anyone to name another recorder, mixer or interface that has five headphone amps built in.
The LiveTrak is a much better-sounding machine than the R16, and the additional inputs and outputs allow it to take on a considerably wider range of recording tasks. At the same time, of course, some engineers will feel that even 12 inputs aren’t quite enough to cater for all location-recording scenarios, and as it’s not possible to sync two L‑12s or to add additional I/O, there’s no getting around this limitation. Anyone expecting a truly ‘professional’ device might also be put off by the vague master output level management, the lack of timecode or clocking options, and the non-availability of 96kHz recording over USB, but frankly, if you want features like that, you need to be prepared to pay a whole lot more!
For its intended roles, the LiveTrak is a very well-judged design. It should make an absolutely brilliant tool for bands, serving as a live-sound mixer for small gigs, a multitrack recorder in the rehearsal room and a USB audio interface in the studio. There’s enough I/O to record a full drum kit plus a couple of other instruments, and it’s about as easy to use as any digital mixer or multitracker could ever hope to be. Once again, Zoom’s designers have demonstrated a level of imagination and creativity that is lacking in many other manufacturers, and they’ve once again come up with something very cool, at a price that almost seems too good to be true.
There is one key area in which the LiveTrak scores not only over the older Zoom R16, but also over every single stand-alone multitracker and computer audio interface I’ve ever used. Most multitrackers and audio interfaces include at most two headphone sockets. Most bands include at least three people. So if you want everyone to monitor on headphones, you need a separate headphone amp, with all the complication that entails. Quite why no-one has done before what Zoom have done on the LiveTrak is a mystery, because the solution is obvious: they’ve included five headphone sockets.
Each of these headphone outputs has a level control and a button which toggles its source. In the up position, it mirrors the master mix that goes to the LiveTrak’s main XLR outputs. In the down position, the output gets its own mix, which is adjusted by selecting the appropriate Fader Mode button. The headphone amps are, if not the cleanest I’ve ever heard, roughly comparable in terms of loudness to those found on your average audio interface, and headphone output A is also mirrored on a pair of quarter-inch line outputs — so it could, for example, be used to feed stage monitors in a situation where the LiveTrak is doing duty as a live-sound mixer. The only serious limitation is that, for reasons best known to Zoom, the effects return appears only in the master mix. This is a shame, as it means that anyone using a separate cue mix is deprived of the ‘comfort reverb’ that some musicians rely on.