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Zoom PS02

Palm Studio By John Walden
Published February 2001

Zoom PS02

Do you write your song ideas on the back of a fag packet? Well, now that Zoom have made a studio the same size as a pack of 20, you can give up smoking! John Walden gets addicted to the PS02 Palm Studio.

The portable studio concept has come a long way in the 20 years since the introduction of the original Teac 144 cassette‑based four‑track Portastudio, a revolutionary product for the home and mobile recording/songwriting community. The concept has clearly been a successful one, in both analogue and digital domains, and the competitiveness of the market means that the basic models are now within the financial reach of almost anyone.

For some, size really does matter and even a Portastudio is, well... simply not portable enough. Enter Zoom's solution to this portability problem: the PS02 Palm Studio. Aimed squarely at the guitarist or songwriter who likes to be really mobile, Palm Studio is a perfectly accurate description — the PS02 is approximately three inches (yes, inches) square. Despite this, it has a feature set that owners of the original Teac 144 would have sold a close member of their family for. So just how much 'studio' can you cram into something the size of a fag packet?

Tardis Time

The mono, quarter‑inch jack input can accept a range of guitar, synth or mic inputs. Output is via a stereo quarter‑inch jack, though a 3.5mm mini‑jack output is included for headphone use. A stereo mini‑jack Aux In is also provided.The mono, quarter‑inch jack input can accept a range of guitar, synth or mic inputs. Output is via a stereo quarter‑inch jack, though a 3.5mm mini‑jack output is included for headphone use. A stereo mini‑jack Aux In is also provided.

Reading the features list for the PS02 (see 'Features In Brief' box) leaves you wondering if the Zoom design team were also involved in the production of Dr Who's Tardis. Fitting drum and bass backing facilities, three digital audio tracks and a digital effects unit into a box this small is quite a design accomplishment. The rather smart silver plastic case feels reasonably robust, and its front panel is equipped with a small LCD screen, three sliders, a selection of buttons and a four‑way circular cursor button. The main function of each control is clearly labelled, although in operation, as might be expected, some buttons actually do a number of different jobs. Despite their fairly small size, the controls have been laid out in a sensible fashion and only the most ham‑fisted are likely to have any difficulty navigating the PS02 environment.

The single, mono quarter‑inch input jack can accept a range of guitar, synth or microphone inputs (although there is, of course, no phantom power for the latter). A built‑in microphone is also provided for those moments of inspiration when a standard mic is not available. A stereo mini‑jack Aux In is also provided. Output is via a stereo quarter‑inch jack, though a 3.5mm mini‑jack output is included for headphone use. The unit can be powered using batteries — four AAA batteries providing about four hours of use — or from the supplied mains adaptor.

The PS02 provides a rhythm unit that comprises a stereo drum track, which can be built from 200 preset rhythm patterns, plus a mono bass track which is based on a user‑defined chord sequence. The PCM drum and bass sounds use the same technology as the Zoom RhythmTrak drum machine. Three digital audio tracks can be added to this rhythm section (more if you use the digital bounce facility). The audio input can be fed through the PS02's digital effects processor, which offers algorithms for guitar, bass and acoustic sources. Finally, the finished mix can be output, and a little global reverb and EQ applied if required.

Data is stored to SmartMedia cards. These are now widely available, due to their use in some digital cameras, and prices, while still quite expensive at present, are coming down. The 8Mb card included with the PS02 provides a modest 3 minutes of total audio track time in 'Hi‑fi' mode (at 31.25kHz sampling rate), while a 'Long' mode doubles this. However, 32Mb cards are around £60 at the moment, for example, so the facility is there to extend this recording time considerably if you wish. The SmartMedia card is integral to the operation of the PS02 as it is used to store the system, sound, song, and effects‑patch files. A format routine is provided that will initialise a new card and copy the necessary files to it. The manual indicates that Zoom will provide updates for the PS02 (in the form of new sounds and drum patterns) via the web. You would, of course, need a SmartMedia reader (at current prices these are around £40) for your computer in order to transfer these updates to the PS02.

The Rhythm Method

The Zoom PS02's incredibly small size is possible in part because it records to diminutive SmartMedia memory cards.The Zoom PS02's incredibly small size is possible in part because it records to diminutive SmartMedia memory cards.

Creating a new song with the PS02 starts with the rhythm track. From the Song menu it is possible to scroll through the 100 song locations. The song number and name are displayed on the LCD as you move through the song list. By default, songs 1 to 50 hold demonstration patterns to show off the various drum and bass styles. Only song 1 has any audio associated with it and, even if you do not like the song itself, it is difficult not to be impressed by the sound quality.

With an empty song location selected, moving to the Rhythm menu allows a new song to be started. Pressing the Rec key puts the PS02 into Rhythm Record mode and automatically gives an empty song a two‑bar rhythm track. Pressing Ins/Del then allows the slider controls to be used to specify how many additional bars you wish to insert into the song — as elsewhere in the song creation process, the LCD provides very clear visual feedback. Pressing Store adds the specified number of bars to the song.

The next step is to specify the drum pattern associated with each bar. The preset drum patterns are divided into sections, styles and variations. The section defines the basic rhythm: there are sections for quarter, eighth and 16th‑note patterns provided, as well as sections of fills, intros, and endings. Within each section, various styles are available, and these cover a wide range of genres including pop, rock, country, R&B, latin, blues, techno, hip‑hop, funk and jazz. For each of these styles there are then a number of variations.

The three sliders allow selection of the drum pattern section, style and variation for each bar. If no drum pattern is specified for a bar then the pattern from the previous bar is used. Usefully, if you press the Play button then the patterns can be auditioned during the selection process. Each drum pattern has an associated bass part. The timing of the bass notes is fixed for each pattern but, as described below, the pitch of the individual notes within the bass part varies depending upon the chord specified for each bar.

While in Rhythm Record mode, you can toggle between drum pattern editing and chord editing by pressing the up and down arrows on the cursor wheel. In chord editing, slider 1 specifies the root note of the chord and slider 2 specifies the chord type, with plenty of choice being provided — see the 'Pick A Chord' box. Chord changes can be specified with quarter‑bar resolution and, as with drum patterns, the current chord is played until a change is specified.

From the Rhythm menu, a number of other settings can be changed. Tempo can be adjusted and a selection of drum and bass sounds are provided to suit different musical styles. The six kits offered are Standard, Rock, Jazz, Analog, Power and Funk, whereas the five bass sounds are Finger, Pick, Slap, Acoustic and Synth. The quality of the sounds is remarkable given the size of the unit and I particularly liked the Jazz and Funk kits.

Overall, creation of rhythm tracks is very simple and the manual does a reasonable job of explaining the steps involved. It does not take very long for the whole process to become second nature and basic sequences can be created in just a few minutes. Very usefully, when a song is playing, pressing View switches on a chord display on the LCD so it is easy to follow the chord sequence if playing along to a PS02 backing track.

Strumming Along

The PS02 runs for approximately four hours on four AAA batteries, though it may also be powered from the supplied 9V DC external power supply.The PS02 runs for approximately four hours on four AAA batteries, though it may also be powered from the supplied 9V DC external power supply.

So far, so good, but the key facility of the PS02 is obviously it's audio capability. Once you've connected a signal to one of the PS02's inputs, the next step in setting up for audio recording is to tweak the sound itself. From the Effect menu, the 'Effect Patch' cursor keys can be used to step through the 60 preset and 60 user effect patches. Many of these are designed for electric guitar, but there is also a good selection suitable for acoustic or bass guitars, vocals, keyboards and for final mixdown. The LCD displays the patch's name and number. A small microphone icon lights up for those patches designed for vocal recording and, for these patches, pressing the Mic button disables the main jack input and uses the built‑in microphone instead — the quality of this is good enough for capturing basic acoustic instrument or vocal performances.

The DSP chain consists of a number of effects modules (Drive, Cabinet, Noise Reduction, EQ, Modulation, Reverb and Total) each of which can be switched in as required. The guitar preamp and cabinet modelling is based on the same VAMS system developed for the GFX8, reviewed in SOS September 2000, and a range of sounds from clean country through to thrash metal are available. The quality and editing flexibility of the effects is not as great as would be found on a dedicated multi‑effects unit, but all are very useable, including the reverbs — the 'Effects Highlights' box gives a taste of what the presets offer.

With an appropriate effects patch chosen and the Audio menu selected, pressing the Rec key allows one of the three audio tracks to be selected for recording. Pressing the Play button, which by this stage is flashing, activates the recording. A pre‑roll can be defined, as can punch‑in and punch‑out points, and there is also a function to display the remaining audio capacity of the SmartMedia card at this stage. Each track can have up to 10 alternate takes recorded, storage capacity permitted, and the best of these takes can then be selected for playback when mixing.

If three audio tracks is not enough, then a bounce facility is available and all three tracks can be bounced either to stereo or mono. With a stereo bounce, the original pan positions of the audio tracks are retained, and you can even bounce to a new take on the destination tracks, retaining your original tracks for re‑bouncing if needed. The one limitation is that only whole tracks can be bounced, not just a range of bars.

Stereo recording is not possible and, while this is perhaps not surprising, it is a shame because some of the digital effects are available in stereo. One feature of the audio side of the PS02 is, however, more frustrating. The rhythm track has a 'repeat' function that can be switched on for a particular song, for looping a 12‑bar blues sequence for example. Unfortunately, any audio parts recorded for a song do not get repeated; they play the first time through the song, but then the rhythm parts just repeat on their own. Given that much of the operating software for the PS02 is held on the SmartMedia card, this may be something that Zoom could address in future updates.

Mixing is a fairly basic affair. Once the recording process in complete, one of the special mixdown effect patches can be selected, though this mutes all the PS02's inputs. The mixdown effect patch uses a dedicated configuration in the Drive module, allowing some tone shaping of the upper and lower frequencies, and adds global reverb. Mixing while playback is in progress is then just a case of flipping between the Song menu (where the sliders control the drum and bass levels) and the Audio menu (where the sliders control the three audio track levels). The whole mix can be output to an external monitor system or recording device to produce a stereo mix.

Conclusions

Despite the one or two minor criticisms mentioned above, the PS02 has a huge list of positive features. For the musician/songwriter on the move, Zoom have just redefined what 'portable' means in terms of a recording sketchpad. Considering both its size and price, the feature‑set of the PS02 is hugely impressive and the quality of what can be achieved is, quite simply, remarkable. The PS02 is innovative, easy to use and a whole lot of fun; it will be very interesting to see if or how other manufacturers respond. With the PS02 as a mobile songwriting tool, it is definitely time to throw out the dictaphone and abandon the back of the fag packet. Brilliant... I want one!

Spec Check

  • 20‑bit, 64x‑oversampling A‑D conversion.
  • 20‑bit, 8x‑oversampling D‑A conversion.
  • 24‑bit internal DSP processing.
  • Sampling frequency: 31.25kHz.
  • 100‑song memory.
  • 211 rhythm patterns.
  • 120 effects patches (60 preset, 60 user).
  • Built‑in microphone: omnidirectional electret.
  • Input: quarter‑inch mono jack at ‑10dBm to ‑50dBm (adjustable).
  • Output: stereo quarter‑inch jack rated at ‑10dBm.
  • Headphone output: stereo mini‑jack.
  • Aux In: stereo mini‑jack.

Effects Highlights

Within the six main effect modules that make up the processing chain (Drive, Cabinet, Noise Reduction, EQ, Modulation and Reverb), a total of 50 effects types are available. For example, these include 24 Drive, 14 Modulation and 9 Reverb types respectively. There is more than enough editing control available given the likely uses to which the PS02 will be put. Some of the more notable preset patches are:

  • 7 BLACK: American stack emulation with lots of gain (party on, dude!).
  • 18 B‑FINGER: Nice clean patch for finger‑style bass.
  • 20 VO‑ECH: An OTT reverb and delay to disguise any dodgy vocals!
  • 25 AG‑CHO: Chorus for a clean acoustic, which also works well with electric.
  • 41 SNAKE: Overdriven guitar sound, but with plenty of bottom end.
  • 49 FUNKCT: Clean and funky with a touch of auto‑wah.
  • 50 FD‑CLN: Clean channel on a Fender Twin. Very nice for picked chords.
  • 53 ELEACO: Acoustic guitar simulation from an electric. Surprisingly useable.
  • 54 PITSFT: Pitch‑shifted harmonies. Basic but, again, effective.
  • 58 SL‑ATK: Slow attack volume swell.
  • 60 ZAKWAH: Rock solo with auto wah — hmmm... nice...

Pick A Chord...

The PS02 provides the following excellent selection of chord types for song construction:

  • NON: No transformation
  • MM7: Minor Major 7th
  • MA9: Major 9th
  • MI9: Minor 9th
  • MA6: Major 6th
  • MI6: Minor 6th
  • M75: Minor 7th (flat 5th)
  • SU4: Suspended 4th
  • 7S4: 7th suspended 4th
  • DIM: Diminished
  • AUG: Augmented
  • MA7: Major 7th
  • MI7: Minor 7th
  • 7TH: Dominant 7th
  • MIN: Minor triad
  • No display: Major triad

Pros

  • Brilliant songwriting tool.
  • Extremely portable.
  • Damn good fun!

Cons

  • No loop function for audio tracks.
  • SmartMedia still a little expensive.
  • So small you might lose it down the back of the sofa!

Summary

A paradigm shift in terms of mobile recording for the songwriter. Small on size, big on features and a whole lot of fun besides.