A complete studio in a box, for around the cost of a decent software sequencing package.
Zoom started life as an effects company, but today they also specialise in entry-level hard disk multitrack audio workstations, the Zoom MRS802 being a new addition to their expanding range. This time Zoom have gone for a more conventional number of audio tracks, as users seem to have an aversion to anything that isn't in multiples of eight.
The Zoom MRS802 is an integrated eight-track recording system, which features an additional stereo master track for recording your mixes, as well as ten virtual tracks for each track (including the stereo master track) for storing alternate takes. Recording is to a 20GB drive, and internal track bouncing is facilitated for where more than eight parts are required. Bouncing can be to virtual tracks, so you don't need to leave two tracks free for the purpose.
The essential cut/copy/paste editing features expected of a digital multitrack recorder are included, while a phrase looping facility allows imported or recorded audio loops to be played back a specified number of times to create a continuous backing which is recorded as audio. As with previous Zoom multitrack recorders, there's a built-in pattern-based drum machine offering in excess of 400 Patterns that can be used to create either a simple guide track or a part of the final recording. The mixer incorporates snapshot-based automation, and the effects section includes both insert effects and two send/return effects for reverb and chorus/delay.
Despite being an all-digital product, the only way in and out of the Zoom MRS802 is via analogue I/O. A pair of mic/line inputs on combi jack/XLR connectors feeds a pair of 24-bit oversampling converters, while the output (normally used for monitoring) is unbalanced on two phonos, again at 24-bit resolution. You can probably deduce from this I/O arrangement that the Zoom MRS802 is designed to record only one or two tracks at a time, and that all mixing and processing must be accomplished internally.
An optional CD burner allows tracks to be burned as stereo masters. MIDI In and Out sockets are available on the rear panel, and there's switchable phantom power for the mic inputs. An optional USB card is available for connection to a Mac or PC for file management or backup (Mac OS 9 onwards, but not OS X), but this was not fitted to the review model.
Although the main body of the case is constructed from plastic, the unit has a rigid metal sub-chassis and feels very substantial. Power is, of course, from an external adaptor. A centrally mounted LCD window with three mode buttons below it handles metering and parameter display/editing, and all the sections of the machine are separated into distinct areas to make navigation easy. For example, the section to the left of the display deals entirely with the inputs and the effects section while the angled fader section accesses the mixer functions with the channel keys doubling as drum sound trigger keys. A separate mixer fader is included for the drum track, as this is electronically generated and need not be recorded as audio.
The Control section is centred around a data entry dial and four quadrant-shaped cursor buttons with an Enter button at their centre, above which are controls for handling Markers, bouncing, punching in and out, automation snapshot selection and repeat looping. There's also an Exit key. Three buttons access the rhythm section, while a single Track Parameter button enables you to step through the track parameters, using the cursor buttons to access the two-band EQ, send levels, pan, virtual track selection, level and stereo linking. A tape-style transport section falls comfortably beneath the fingers at the bottom right of the front panel, and the illuminated Play and Record keys are sensibly large, with a positive feel. The transport controls include 'go to start' and 'go to end' buttons. A headphone output with level control is located on the front edge of the case, and there's also a jack input for use with an optional footswitch or pedal, to allow hands-free punching in.
Unlike tape, where you just pick a place and start recording, songs saved to a hard drive don't generally overwrite other songs unless you deliberately erase them. In the MRS802, songs are saved as Projects, where a Project contains not only the audio data you record, but also the settings pertaining to the recorder and mixer sections, plus any rhythm and effects settings used in the Project. Other data is also saved, relating to automation snapshots, Markers and MIDI functions. Creating a new Project is a simple exercise, after which you can name it with up to eight characters. The Project also has a number, which is the lowest unused number available. Project data is automatically saved when the unit is powered down via its power switch, during which time the message 'Bye, See You!' is displayed.
The flow of work starts with opening a new Project (up to 1000 Projects can be stored, drive space permitting) and then choosing a guide rhythm Pattern and tempo where applicable. You can then go on to record one or two tracks, with or without insert effects. Inputs to the MRS802 are automatically routed to whichever tracks are currently armed and, if a mono input is used, it routes to both tracks of the available pair so that you can record to either. The track select light serves a dual purpose, showing red for record ready, green for on, and dark for track muted. A single knob adjusts the record level for each input and, after a track has been recorded, you can select the next track you want to record onto and overdub straight away with no routing to worry about.
If you need a guide rhythm part, all you have to do is press the Drum button and then select from one of the available Patterns, after which you can set the tempo. When changing Patterns, you have to press Enter to load them in, which takes a second or so, but you can do this during playback, enabling you to audition the rhythms. Anything more complicated requires the Patterns to be chained as in a drum machine, which is done via Song/Pattern mode. MIDI Clock with Song Position Pointers can be sent by the MRS802, enabling a sequencer or drum machine to be sync'ed up. Start and Stop commands are also sent over MIDI, and it's also possible to use MIDI Controller data to control the drum levels. Another feature which may be useful both in live performance and in the studio is the ability to import Type 0 standard MIDI files, which may be used to play back the internal drum sounds or which can be output over MIDI to trigger an external module. This means it is possible to compose drum parts in a more friendly sequencer environment, then import them into the MRS802, where the data can be used to trigger the MRS802's own drum sounds. However, if you already have a sequencer, you may not feel you need an MRS802...
The drum sounds themselves are typical of what you'd expect from a mid-priced drum machine, and cover a variety of traditional drum and percussion sounds, with some electronic hits. Most of the factory Patterns are straight enough to be useful, and overall the kits sound solid.
Mixing involves balancing the levels of the recorded tracks, setting their pan and EQ values and applying send/return effects such as reverb. At this stage, an insert mastering effect may be applied to the whole mix, which is then recorded to the stereo master track within your Project. If you have the optional CD burner (which can be retrofitted if necessary), you can burn the mixed track directly to CD-R. The same CD-R recorder may also be used to back up Projects.
The mixer faders adjust the monitored level of recorded tracks (or tracks in the process of being recorded) and so are used both to set the monitor mix level and to adjust the final mix. When mixing, wanted tracks are switched on, unwanted tracks are switched off, and the inputs should be turned off if not required so as to eliminate noise coming in from that source. Arming the Master track and then going into record mixes everything to stereo, and a mastering effect may be used if you feel you need it. Personally I felt the mastering effects were most useful as special effects — there are none that I'd use for serious mastering as they all sound rather too processed to my ear.
Using the mixer is very straightforward, though the basic EQ is limited by being only two-band, albeit adjustable in frequency as well as cut/boost amount. Extra EQ is available within the insert effect chains, but you are limited by having only one instance of an insert effect available at a time. Each track has two sends for the reverb and chorus/delay effects, and odd/even channel pairs may be linked for stereo by selecting one of the channels and then following the Track Parameter menu until you find the Link page. Selected tracks may also be soloed using the Solo button.
Mixer snapshots can be saved as Scenes (up to 100 per Project) for partially automated mixing, and there's a dedicated Scene button for this purpose. After pressing Scene, you need to select the Scene number you wish to save into, then press Store to save the current mixer setup. Scenes may be named and though you could mix by recalling Scenes manually in order at the correct time, it's more precise to do this automatically using Markers to show where the Scenes should change. You can set any Scene number to appear at any Marker point, so Scenes don't need to be saved in order, but you do have to remember to save an opening Scene for the start of the Project corresponding to Marker number zero. More complex editing modes are available that allow you to disable only certain elements within a Scene so that these won't change as the Scene is recalled. For example, you can omit the Track Parameter section so that the EQ, sends and pan positions don't change with the Scene changes. Most Scene elements can only be enabled globally, in that they apply to all tracks, but the Track Parameters section can be included or omitted for an individual track or tracks, including the drum track.
When punching in, I usually opt for the manual (or footual?) option, and the footswitch jack is very handy for punching in and out while performing. However, you can set an auto-punch region by marking the points using the Punch In and Out buttons, and you can test your settings by rehearsing the edit during playback. When you're happy it's going to work, the machine can be set running somewhere before the punch-in point by pressing Play and Record together, and it will enter record only between the set locations on the armed track or tracks. There's no Undo function, so the rehearse mode is very welcome, although if you're paranoid then you can use the MRS802's temporary track backup facilities, of which more in a moment.
Though fast wind buttons make navigation as easy as with tape, you can also drop Markers into a Project by pressing the Mark button either during playback or while the transport is stopped. A couple of Marker 'cursor' buttons may then be used to skip through the Markers, or you can use the dial to scroll to a specific Marker number. Unwanted Markers may be deleted once you are at their exact location using the Marker Clear key. There's also a Scrub mode that uses the familiar short repeating loop, and that can be used on one or two tracks at a time as selected in the display.
Editing is basic, but covers the necessary cut/copy/paste moves and is accessed via the Utility menu. The modes available are copy, move, paste and trim, though it's also possible to do fades (in and out), reverse sections of audio, and time-stretch/compress sections. As expected, time manipulation over more than a small percentage shows up some processing side-effects. The copy-related functions rely on marking the boundaries of the material that needs to be copied on the source track using Start and End values. An In point must then be defined on the target track. If data is moved to a different location on the same track, the original data will be overwritten. Trim mode allows unwanted noises or material at the start and end of a track to be removed, making it useful for mastering, where mixes can be cropped.
The concept of virtual tracks (V-Takes in Zoom parlance) is well known, as it provides a means to store alternative takes or multiple takes for later comping using copy/paste editing. However, the MRS802 also includes a 'track capture and swap' feature that allows any audio track to be temporarily saved on hard disk, from where it may be restored later. This may be useful when attempting tricky edits, as you can save the original state of the track just in case it all goes wrong, though you should be able to do much the same thing by copying the data to a V-Take track. The main difference is that the temporary 'capture and swap' files are deleted automatically when the Project is saved.
When burning a CD, the MRS802 writes the contents of the stereo master track to disc as audio data, and either single tracks or whole albums can be burned. When writing single Projects, the CD-R can be left unfinalised, allowing further tracks to be added, though such discs are not suitable for making commercial CD masters, as these have to be burned in disc-at-once mode. When burning an album, a playlist is first created to tell the machine which mixes to burn, after which the disc is automatically finalised. CD-RWs may be used for jobs where the disc needs to be reused afterwards. The CD burner, where fitted, may also be used to play back audio discs and to import audio into the recorder. Also, very importantly, the drive may be used to back up Projects, across multiple discs as necessary.
Physical noise can be a problem with digital workstations, though the MRS802 is quieter than most and you could easily record vocals and instruments in the same room provided that you weren't too close to it. I found the recording quality to be clean and uncoloured and, though there is a little noise generated by the effects, especially when overdrive is used, the in-built noise gate is pretty effective at keeping tracks clean. I found the guitar effects to be typically Zoom, insomuch as they sound a little heavily processed, but they are very musical anyway, and several different amp emulations are available.
Every workstation has its own operating foibles, but considering I've not done much work with Zoom recorders before, I found the MRS802 very easy to get around, and most functions could be deduced without recourse to the manual. The most tedious part is creating Pattern chains, but it's no worse than using a stand-alone drum machine — I find copy/paste editing a real chore on any machine of this kind, now that I'm used to my software sequencer's editing. Again, though, it's no worse than any other hardware system in this respect other than the lack of an undo button.
The overall quality of the effects is as good as can be expected from a workstation in this UK price range and most are very usable, though I'd be inclined to give most of the mastering presets a miss. If you do need to use them, then I'd suggest editing them, as most of the presets are too severe, and in any event the MRS802 does such a good job of recording that you shouldn't really need to do much in the way of mastering, beyond some light EQ and compression.
The MRS802 is a good-sounding, easy-to-use eight-track workstation with decent in-built effects and drum patterns. The degree to which effects can be edited is a good compromise between depth and simplicity, and you also have the benefit of snapshot automation, which is useful when a chorus or solo needs slightly different settings to the verse. The single insert effect means you have to do some pre-planning, but on the whole the effects and drum sounds stand up pretty well.
Clearly there are compromises when a workstation is built to a price like this one is, the most notable being that all the mixer functions other than faders have to be accessed individually and then controlled using the data wheel, but, to be fair, the adopted system makes this pretty painless. There's no undo function, but then tape never had an undo either! The other main limitation is that there's no way to use external effects or processors other than to treat the main input or output, so you have to use the internal facilities for everything. I'd say the CD-R drive is almost an essential, rather than an option, as it allows you to back up Projects as well as to burn audio mixes, but if you opt for the USB port then you could instead back up your files to a computer and use mastering software to burn more professional audio CDs that way.
Provided that you only need to record one or two tracks at a time, the MRS802 provides a compact and cost-effective solution to recording good-quality demos or even commercial recordings, though you may benefit from a good external mic preamp and computer editing and mastering if you're really serious about making quality albums. On balance, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality and ease of use of the MRS802. Add a mic and headphones, and you really do have a complete studio at your fingertips.
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