The successor to the MRS1044 has more of everything — tracks, inputs, sounds — at a very similar price. But with new fierce competition, is there still room for a Zoom?
If you are considering the purchase of a digital multitracker, the list of candidates in the sub-£1000 category continues to grow. Just as Yamaha and Korg have recently upgraded their various offerings in this area, now Zoom have revamped the impressive MRS1044 by releasing the MRS1266. I reviewed the MRS1044 in SOS January 2002 and, at its original UK price of £649, it offered 10 tracks of 16-bit recording, phantom power, and a very usable rhythm/bass section, all wrapped up in a well-designed user interface. There were also a small number of design limitations (such as being only able to record on two tracks at once) as a result of the very competitive pricing, but for the guitar-playing first-time buyer of a digital multitrack, the Zoom had a lot to recommend it.
Of course, in some sectors of recording technology, 12 months is a long time, and this is certainly true of the digital multitracker market. Probably the biggest splash has been made by Yamaha's AW16G (see SOS October 2002). Offering a full 16-track system, with comprehensive effects and EQ, eight-track simultaneous recording and built-in CD burning at a price that leaves change from £900 (OK, probably not enough change for your bus fare home from the shop), the AW16G has certainly redefined the price versus specification relationship for this type of unit. So, with some pretty fierce competition, how does Zoom's new offering compare?
In many areas of specification and operation, the MRS1266 is very similar to the MRS1044. For example, A-D and D-A conversion are at 24-bit, as is all the internal processing. Recording is at 44.1 kHz, 16-bit (there is no 24-bit mode) and all audio tracks have ten virtual tracks for alternative takes. The MIDI-based stereo drum track and mono bass track, with their collection of built-in sounds and patterns essentially operate as in the earlier unit (although improved somewhat), as do the effects and EQ. As these issues were covered in the review of the MRS1044, what follows will concentrate upon the new or improved features of the MRS1266.
The new model number hints at the most significant differences between the MRS1044 and the MRS1266. In addition to the 10 audio tracks offered, the new unit also features a dedicated stereo Master track that is used for storing the final mix. So much for the 12, what about the 66? Replacing the maximum two-track simultaneous recording of the MRS1044, the 1266 now provides a six-track, simultaneous recording mode. There are still some limitations (for example, a fixed routing of inputs one to six to tracks one to six), but for multi-miking a drum kit or recording a band performance, it's certainly a significant improvement. The physical layout of the MRS1266 is very similar to its predecessor, but has slightly larger dimensions. This is to accommodate the six input level knobs and on/off switches located at the top left of the control surface, and a bigger LCD. One additional fader is also present; unlike the 1044, tracks seven and eight are not a fixed stereo pair — only tracks nine and 10 are now arranged in this fashion.
The slightly bigger housing also accommodates the rear panel's six unbalanced quarter-inch jacks and the two phantom-powered (switchable as a pair) balanced XLR jacks. These join the stereo out, the MIDI In/Out, and the 20-bit S/PDIF optical digital output. The XLR inputs are paired with the unbalanced inputs five and six. This is an either/or arrangement (with the unbalanced jacks taking priority) so they cannot be used to provide additional microphone sources. The same is true of the guitar and bass inputs on the front panel — these are linked with inputs one and two, with the front-panel jacks having priority. The front panel also includes footswitch, expression pedal, headphone and stereo 'sub' output sockets. By default, the latter carries the same signal as the main stereo outputs and can be used as an extra headphone output. However, it is also possible to route a specific input, track or drum/bass channel to it, and this might be useful if you wish to process the signal via an external effects processor.
In testing with a variety of sources, both the unbalanced and balanced XLR inputs performed well enough. Vocal and acoustic guitar recordings made with a mid-priced condenser mic were reproduced clearly and faithfully. These might not be the best mic preamps around, but they are capable of perfectly acceptable recordings subjectively comparable with 16-bit recordings made on the competing digital multitracks I have used recently.
The optional CD-RW drive is a full-size unit (as would fit into a desktop computer, rather than the slim-line models found on laptop computers). This drive allows project backup and the creation of audio CDs. Although I didn't have access to the optional USB port (which fits into a covered slot on the back panel of the MRS1266), this allows WAV or AIFF files to be moved between the recorder's hard disk and a USB-equipped PC or Mac. Indeed, the USB option might be attractive to those who already have CD-burning facilities on their computer, as the MRS1266 CD-RW drive option would then be less of a necessity. As a side issue, I do wonder about the pricing of these 'optional' CD-RW drives in a number of digital multitrack recorders. For all intents and purposes, the drive used here looks like a standard IDE unit, yet the specific model recommend by Zoom is priced at £229 in the UK.
Other improvements to the MRS1266 include a bigger hard drive (now 20Gb, giving approximately 60 track-hours of audio recording) and a greater number of rhythm patterns. A library of 400 patterns is provided, each containing stereo drum and mono bass parts, with 100 blank patterns for your own creations, although the presets can be overwritten if required. As with the 1044, these can be arranged to provide a complete rhythm section, essentially adding three additional tracks to the arrangement. Chord changes can also be entered, and the bass part is automatically adjusted to fit the root note and type of each chord. More drum and bass sounds are also available — some 126 kits, each based upon 36 of the unit's 700 drum sounds. Users can assemble different kits if required. Twenty-five bass sounds, covering acoustics through to synths, are also provided. All the sounds respond to velocity via the pads on the front panel and, in the context of a full mix, the rhythm parts sound pretty good — certainly on a par with a decent GM sound set. If the MRS1266 is the first item into a prospective home-studio setup, then you could certainly get by initially without a separate MIDI sequencer for drum or bass parts.
Two other features further enhance the rhythm section. Firstly, the FAST (Formula Assisted Song Translator) system provides a very rapid means of assembling a rhythm part. While this might sound a little scary, it's a simple process whereby the pads in the Rhythm section are used to enter pattern number and number of repeats, rather like using a basic calculator. Chord root notes and types still have to be added, but the whole process is certainly quicker than on the MRS1044. The second additional feature is that it is now possible to connect a MIDI keyboard directly for pattern creation. While the pads on the MRS1266 are perfectly adequate, there are only 12 of them. I certainly found using a MIDI keyboard preferable; it gives you access to all the sounds in the particular drum kit and is considerably easier for playing bass parts.
One other major addition is the MRS1266's Phrase Loop facility. This has something in common with the AW16G's Quick Loop Sampler. Stereo or mono audio loops can be added to a project (either from a sample CD or by creating loops from audio on an existing track) and then sequenced in a similar way to the FAST rhythm pattern entry. These loop sequences (called 'phrase loops') can then be recorded to a specified audio track. This process could obviously be repeated across several tracks if required, essentially building a whole song from phrase loops — although it might take a little while to achieve. One of the MRS1266 sample projects includes some 90 loops (from simple drum patterns through to guitar and synth loops in various styles) and illustrates what can be done. However, unlike the Quick Loop Sampler of the AW16G, there is no tempo-matching provided here, so it would be easiest to use if all the loops were at the required tempo and pitch prior to being imported into the MRS1266. This said, it is a very useful addition offering extra creative possibilities.
For prospective buyers, a comparison between the MRS1266 and similarly priced digital multitracks is certainly appropriate, and I've been lucky enough to review both the Yamaha AW16G and Korg D1200 for SOS in recent months. In my own view, for the guitarist, the Zoom is ahead of both these other systems in one key area; amp modelling. While guitar sounds are a very personal issue, Zoom's VAMS-based sounds, as implemented here, would probably satisfy the first-time buyer until they could afford their personal choice of stand-alone modelling preamp. The rock sounds are particularly good (if a little on the noisy side as a sustained note or chord is left to fade) and the clean sounds are equally useful. In other areas, the quality of the more bread-and-butter effects does not appear to be hugely different to those on either the AW16G or D1200 — again, at this price, most potential purchasers will find little to complain about. There are, however, some differences in the number of simultaneous effects available and where they can be positioned. Like the MRS1044, the new Zoom has two fixed effects (labelled Reverb and Chorus/Delay, but somewhat more flexible than that in practice) and a 'floating' effect. The latter can actually be placed in one of three locations; immediately after the input jack (providing amp modelling while recording guitar for example), applied to an individual audio track or placed immediately before the Master fader (to provide multi-band compression for example).
Aside from the obvious total audio track count, the MRS1266 fares less well in terms of some other features. For example, each channel of the Zoom provides two-band EQ with gain and centre-frequency controls but no bandwidth. This clearly doesn't match the degree of control offered by the three-band EQ on the D1200 and four-band EQ on the AW16G. As with the AW16G, the Zoom only offers 16-bit recording — the D1200 includes a six-track, 24-bit mode. In terms of simultaneous tracks of recording, the scores are eight, six and four for the Yamaha, Zoom and Korg respectively. One other missing feature of the Zoom is the absence of support for anything but internal scene-based mix automation. While this works very well, and is similar in nature to that found on both the AW16G and D1200, the Yamaha and Korg units offer dynamic mix automation via an external sequencer.
As with the Yamaha AW16G and Korg D1200, the Zoom MRS1266 provides an amazing combination of features and price. It is perfectly capable of making high-quality recordings, way beyond the demos most home-recording enthusiasts would have aspired to even a few years ago. From the perspective of a pure, all-round recording facility, I think Yamaha's AW16G still has a quite an edge over the competition; 16 tracks with built-in CD burning at under £900 is quite a trick.
However, each of the current crop of 'studio in a box' units has it's own particular feature set, and the Zoom MRS1266 has a few unique tricks up it's sleeve. For me, the most obvious buyer of the Zoom MRS1266 would be the guitarist who is taking their first step into the wonderful world of home recording. It offers a very useable built-in MIDI rhythm section and decent amp modelling, as well as the ability to record a whole band's performance onto six tracks if required. If the MRS1266 were the first item in your home studio system, you would certainly hit the ground running.