OK, here i am already owning a bunch of multitrack recorders.
And apart from the R8, i recently added a Boss BR-80 to my collection which has basically the same functionality as it’s also more or less a small “total music production solution”.
Both recorders do have 8 tracks, built in drums and all sorts of effects for guitar, mastering etc.
They both run on batteries and can act as a audio interface.
However I’m reviewing the R8 here not the BR-80 as this is a Zoom forum but it’s obvious i’ve got a lot of comparison material (HD16/R16) so i will do a comparison from time to time.
Size does matter
The R8 is about the size of an average netbook, they are like brothers side to side.
If you like the size of a netbook you will have no problem with the size of the R8.
Of course it isn’t a pocket recorder like the BR-80 but there’s a lot to be said for physical faders and drum pads you can actually play to create a drum track.
That being said, it is a lot of fun, although kind of limited, to play with the drum pads but i will review the rhythm machine later on.
Personally i prefer physical faders above visual menu driven faders, it’s just more intuitive.
Having real faders is one of those dilemma’s in creating a small “total music production solution” restricting it in the minimum size but on the other hand it creates extra functionality because the recorder can be used as a control surface (operating the visual faders and knobs of a DAW with the real physical ones of the recorder).
Still the R8 could have been smaller, technology wise as the BR-80 proves but also considering the user interface in terms of the layout of the knobs etc.
For uniformity reasons the layout is a small representation of the other R series recorders, but i doubt if this layout is the most efficient.
I mean; who ever came up with the idea to place the transport buttons above the jogwheel… and then the jogwheel itself, i rather like to see the cursor buttons placed around the jogwheel, like the BR-80, it takes up less space allowing the unit to be smaller but it also makes navigating through all the menus easier.
But OK owning a R16, i know you get used to the layout and eventually will become second nature.
Operating the R8 is therefore completely intuitive for anyone already familiar to the R16 or R24.
The only thing being really different is the lack of the led level meters, instead you have to read levels from the LCD screen which is harder to see but at the same time more precise because you’re not limited to four segments.
All in all i do like the size and it’s easy to move around but it’s still no field recorder (the BR-80 could be considered as one), it doesn’t fit in your pocket.
The BR-80 is more of an advanced MP3 player, the R8 is nice to bring to a rehearsal and to work out song ideas.
The physical layout with faders etc. will allow faster operation (not necessarily easier) letting you concentrate on making music.
Quality versus quantity
We’ve seen the R16 with 8 inputs/8tracks simultaneous recording/16 tracks playback and the R24 with even 24 tracks playback, seems like the R8 is a step in the wrong direction and not topping it’s predecessors as it only has 2 inputs and 8 tracks.
But let’s take a quick look at the specs of the R16, as a standalone recorder it can record at 44.1kHz, 16/24bit whereas the R8 can record at 44.1/48 kHz, 16/24-bit.
Keep in mind that a recorder like the BR-80, although it can record in 24 bit, still uses the old Boss file system in multitrack mode (MTR) which is only 44.1kHz/16 bit.
So don’t be fooled by the lesser tracks, at least in theory the R8 can do better quality recordings then the R16 and is by far superior to the BR-80.
Having only 2 inputs is limiting if you want to capture a band’s live performance and if that’s your goal the R16 or the R24 is a far better choice.
However the R8 is more versatile in routing the inputs to a track as well as using the inputs to add a “live” signal while bouncing or mixing down.
With the R16 the inputs become active when you set a track in record mode meaning you can’t use the inputs if a track is set to playback.
The R8 has a on/off button for the inputs which let’s you use the inputs even if all tracks are in playback mode.
Combined with the free routing of the inputs to any track, this opens up new possibilities like so called sound on sound recordings which makes having only 8 tracks much less of a limitation.
Basically a sound on sound recording is exactly what the name says it is; with only 2 tracks you could record a whole orchestra, recording one instrument at a time.
While playing back the first track you add a live instrument and a record a mix to the second track.
The second track now contains the first track plus the live instrument and you can repeat the process by playing back the second track, add a live instrument and record this on the first track and so on and so on.
You can keep on doing this endlessly and there will be hardly any loss of sound quality as it’s all digital.
A company like Korg even made a device (SOS) based on this ide and now the R8 can do this too.
With built in drums and only 2 inputs the R8 is the perfect “scratch pad” and seems to be made for solo artists.
And it’s true, if you do most of your recordings on your own, you do need only 2 inputs.
Recording on your own also means you’re probably playing your instrument and at the same time need to operate the recorder.
Especially doing a manual punch-in is nearly impossible, so a footswitch will come in handy.
With all the specs playing an important role in recording nowadays people forget to check if a footswitch can be connected.
It might look so obvious but the R16 and the R24 do not have an option to connect a footswitch making them less usable for someone who primarily records on his own.
Luckily the Zoom engineers realized this and for the R8 they added a “control in” jack.
Connecting a footswitch to the “control in” jack allows you to start and stop playback, punch-in and out manually and change effect patches with your foot.
You can easily record without ever taking your hands off your guitar.
This is where the R8 really shines, besides really nice master, reverb, delay and other effects to enhance your recording, 30 guitar modeling amps mostly derived from the G2.1Nu are there, including my all-time favorite model the “Z MP1” created by merging characteristics of an ADA MP1 and a MARSHALL JCM800. The MP1 was a preamp made by ADA and is a dream if you want 80’s high gain tones and squeaking sounds.
Creating and changing patches is just as “deep” as on the G2.1Nu itself, you can scroll through all the effects in the chain and adjust all parameters.
The BR-80 has a similar approach having it’s guitar effects derived from the GT10 and they do sound good but to my ears in comparison to the R8 a little flat. If you are going to record guitar, you absolutely love the effects and amp models, no need for a separate multieffect processor, the R8 can do it all.
Track sequencer and rhythm machine
There has been a lot to do about Zoom’s new approach to drum and loop programming which was first introduced with the R24.
I will dedicate the last portion of my review to this, because it’s an important part of the R8 and if they had left it out, the machine would have been cheaper as it now is nearing the price of the R16 which hasn’t got a built in rhythm machine.
Evaluating if the rhythm/loop sequencer is worth the extra cost should be taken into account when buying the R8.
To make things a little more understandable my virtual friend who sits here right next to me and who is not yet familiar with the R8, will help us out in exploring this new phenomenon.
I’ve always admired Zoom to boldly go where no men has ever gone before or in other words; being very innovative and being often the first company to utilize something new and setting the standard.
A great example is the free assigning of audio files to tracks method which is also implemented in the R8 and getting rid of the idea of V-takes (virtual takes) which is a stupid concept if you come to think of it. I used to think “wow 8 V-takes per track” but now i realize that if you can assign any file to a track you got endless V-takes. Brilliant Zoom, good thinking.
V-friend: So how about this new approach for creating rhythm tracks, is it really as bad and useless as some people say it is or is it another groundbreaking fresh approach which we will be using and which will be copied by other companies for years to come?
Well, yes and no …
V-friend: Ehhhh, that’s not very helpful Henky, make up your mind.
V-friend: Can it be used to create a professional sounding advanced rhythm track?
V-friend: Can it be used to easily and quickly lay down a basic rhythm to shape your musical ideas?
If you get the hang of it, yes!
V-friend: Does it have some features a traditional drum computer does not have which gives it more possibilities?
I would say so, yes!
The new feature and the part you will not likely see in other multitrack recorders is the so called “track sequencer” which i guess is more or less the innovative part and replaces the old rhythm song method which can be found in many drum machines where you just chain the rhythm patterns together to form a song.
V-friend: So what does this track sequencer do?
It gives you the ability to start any track, which has a rhythm pattern or a loop assigned to it, in any order at any point in time (based on BPM settings).
If you have a rhythm pattern or a loop assigned to a track you can also manually start the playback by pressing the corresponding pad, that’s why the pads are neatly placed per track under each fader.
The creation of rhythm patterns itself is pretty self-explaining and straight forward, if you ever worked some kind of drum machine, creating patterns presents nothing new.
V-friend: You said the track sequencer replaces the rhythm song chain method, so how do we go about creating a rhythm song with this track sequencer.
Because the track sequencer sequences the tracks not the rhythm patterns, you have to assign a rhythm pattern to a track first.
There are two ways to do that: the “normal” way like you would assign audio files to a track etc. or by using a soft key (the four multipurpose buttons under the display) from the rhythm pattern screen.
To quickly assign a pattern in a typical rhythm creation workflow, you will use the latter method far more often, it’s one of those “clever” options which make the whole process more bearable.
Press the assign soft key and the pads for empty tracks will blink, pressing one of those pads will assign the pattern to the track, nothing to it.
V-friend: OK, so i assign my rhythm patterns to the tracks and use the track sequencer to construct a song with it, sounds easy enough and shouldn’t be to hard.
V-friend: But wait a minute, i have only 8 tracks therefore i can only assign a maximum of 8 rhythm patterns to them.
V-friend: Maybe i want to use more then 8 patterns, complex songs may consist of like 100 patterns.
There you have it PROBLEM NUMBER ONE!
V-friend: And another thing; if i assign a rhythm pattern to a track, i can’t use it to record normal audio anymore.
Yeah, yeah, FLAW NUMBER TWO!
V-friend: So what’s the workaround, how do i create complex songs which require more then 8 patterns and how do i free up tracks?
If all your tracks are occupied there’s nothing else you can do then just mix them to the master track.
Ones mixed and recorded, the mastertrack can be easily assigned to two normal tracks which leaves you to use 6 tracks for other purposes.
In fact this process is used widely and is called “bouncing”.
A great disadvantage of bouncing is that you can’t change it later when you are ready for the final mix.
If you don’t like the sound of the drums or whatever you have to do the whole bouncing thing again, recalling all the tracks and more importantly all parameters etc. etc.
This being said it makes good practice to start a new project instead of continuing the original project.
The mastertrack can also be easily imported in another project, leaving the original project intact.
If you then need to change something afterwards, you switch to the first project, change whatever you want to change, do a mix on the master again and import it in the second project again.
Not an ideal situation but it’s workable and you can do this multiple times, in the end you just might have built your song out of 3 or 4 projects.
And don’t forget rhythm patterns can hold 99 bars, and although the number of events is also limited it may be time to stop thinking about patterns as being 1 measure long.
One pattern could contain the drums for a complete verse, bridge or refrain in which case you would only need a few tracks.
V-friend: OK that might work but it still looks like to much of a hassle compared to the old method and not innovative at all.
V-friend: Why did they go for all this trouble, what’s the advantage?
Remember i told you the track sequencer gives you the ability to start any track, which has a rhythm pattern or a loop assigned to it, in any order at any point in time.
Well we did not talk about loops yet, and you know what; it just might open up a whole new world for you.
V-friend: Aaah, i never done anything with loops, that’s for freaks not real musicians.
Hold it right there, it doesn’t hurt to check it out does it? Let’s give it a try.
V-friend: OK but i have no idea what to do with it or where i should use it for and i don’t want to have my music sound like mechanical techno.
OK, a loop is nothing more than a normal audio file, it can be anything, coming from a library or downloaded from the internet.
It can also be something you recorded on the R8 itself and want to use more then ones in a song.
You got this song which has a line sung by a choir and it will be like 20 times repeated during the song.
You can try to record it 20 times in an effort for every single one to be perfect, you could also record it ones, create a loop and have the track sequencer play it every time you need it.
You’re a rock guitarist, right and i bet you love playing riffs?
Let me tell you what’s typical about a riff; it’s a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase which is, when you come to think of it, very similar to a loop.
Just think of loops as drum patterns but not based on midi notes but on actual audio data.
Wouldn’t it be great to not only build your drum track out of patterns but also use this method for real live instruments including vocals.
The only thing that might be tricky is getting the timing right.
You need to be able to precisely set the beginning and end of such a loop/phrase and you need something to start those loops at the right moment in your song.
And here’s your innovative part; the R8 has all the tools on board to do just that.
The audio file loaded on a track can be cut or trimmed to just the part you need when you set the track in loop mode.
There’s even a graphical representation of the wave form to help you determine the exact beginning and end.
If you’re done with the loop you can use the track sequencer to play those loops exactly where you want them.
And the really cool thing is when you have built your song using a click/metronome then the trimming of the audio file and the programming of the track sequencer will be a peace of cake because they both use bars and beats as reference.
V-friend: OK, let’s see, you say i can record for example a real bass get a piece from it like 2 bars and use that to build the rest of the song just like i used to do with drum patterns?
V-friend: Wow, that really opens up a whole new world.
V-friend: Could we try it with the live drum part we recorded last night, highlight a steady beat from it and have it played by the track sequencer?
Of course, first we set the track containing the already recorded drum track to loop mode, then in the same menu (good for the workflow) we set the beginning and end, it’s for one beat so we only have to set the start measure and how many measures it should play.
While doing this you can check how it sounds by pressing the play button.
Next we open up the track sequencer.
The drum pads now function as triggers for the loops, just like they did before for the drum patterns, and you can program the track sequencer either by playing the pads (don’t worry it will be quantized) or by step input using a cursor in a graphical grid.
You can do this while other tracks are still in normal (file) mode and the loop track will line up perfectly, if the normal tracks are played with metronome guide.
V-friend: OK, I’m impressed, and the looping is seamless, no one will ever tell this was a repeated phrase.
V-friend: I can see the full potential now and I’m beginning to understand why they carried out the rhythm programming the way they did.
Yes, from the looping point of view, the rhythm programming is just an artificial way to creates loops.
Besides, your workflow will be more consistent because you will construct your song the same way no matter if you use loops or rhythm patterns.
The rhythm implementation proves to be not so bad after all, it’s got it’s limitations sure but what you got in return is a whole new ball game.
You might have a go at the looping thing though before you can appreciate or at least live with the track assignment idea.
Working with multiple projects for one song is the way to go for me as it allows me to go back and make some changes without having to set up all the tracks and losing the current state of the project.
With the R8 we saw the return of some features which were lost in the other R series recorders, like a footswitch and flexible inputs that can be routed to any channel and used during mixing.
It shows the R8 is not just a downsized R24 but the next step in the evolution of multitrack recorders and furthermore that Zoom listens to what their customers have to say.
The looping concept is what sets this recorder apart, you won’t likely see it with multitrack recorders from other companies and it remains to be seen if those companies will ever follow but blimey it sure is a lot of fun.
There’s a beast inside this cute looking piece of gear, don’t underestimate it.
Me and my virtual friend are gonna take another beer, cheers.