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  • Zoom R8 Recorder, Sampler, Interface, Controller

    The R8 is a "do-all" recorder that records to SD cards (up to 32GB). However, it also incorporates a USB 2.0 audio interface, control surface, and sampler (with an emphasis on drums and loops). If you don’t dig any deeper than that, you have a very portable, fine-sounding field recorder/inspiration catcher/rehearsal archiver. Let's start with an overview, then get into the details in subsequent posts.

    Beyond those basics, though, this is a very deep unit, especially given the price (around $300 street) and compact size. There are time-stretching algorithms, the control surface section is Mackie Control-compatible, and there are built-in mics so you can capture ideas without plugging in anything.

    Here's an example of the attention to detail regarding the inputs. Not only does the R8 have phantom power for the two XLR/line combo ins (with one switchable to instrument), but you can choose between +24V to save power (which works with most condenser mics) or +48V if your mic needs full power. Speaking of power, you can run the R8 off USB, an included (non-proprietary) AC adapter, or four AA batteries.

    Given the price, I expected the R8 to feel cheap. Yet the buttons have a positive, solid feel and “click” for tactile feedback (except for the velocity-sensitive mini-pads, of course; note that there are dedicated buttons for the various drums).

    And although the faders are only 40mm long they feel smooth, with virtually no “wobble.” Even the included USB cable is over 6 feet long (cell phone manufacturers, take note!). The SD card doesn’t stick out the side, but is safely recessed. Incidentally, if it looks like the unit is covered with fine dust in the photos, that's not the case; rather than being solid black, the case a sort of silver, speckled effect.

    Also surprisingly, navigation is relatively painless. With a lot of these units, there can be operations like "To start the metronome, hold down the Volume and Rewind controls, then press the Kick Drum pad." A lot of the ease of use is due to the display, which can contain quite a bit of information.

    There are also dedicated buttons to call up functions.

    And, the Transport section also offers quite a few buttons to get around a project, and this is also where you'll find a data wheel and the standard cursor navigation buttons.

    It's difficult to know where to begin with the R8 as there are so many functions, but we'll begin with evaluating the process of recording some tracks.
    CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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  • #2
    We touched briefly on the inputs but let's get into more details, as well as delve further into the I/O.

    The two inputs are combo jacks, with both XLR and 1/4" connectors. Phantom power is global for the two inputs; you can't enable them separately.

    Input 1 has a three-position switch for Hi-Z input, mic/line (it chooses the appropriate level depending on whether something is plugged into the XLR or 1/4" jack, and built-in mic. If you choose built-in mic, it precludes using the rear-panel inputs - you can't mix the built-in mics with other signals. There are two built-in mics so you can actually record stereo; they're located at the lower left and right on the front panel.

    There's also an input on/off switch, gain control, and peak indicator to help with setting levels.

    Input 2 is almost identical, except the input switch is two-position with the choice of mic/line or built-in mic - there's no instrument option on input 2. This is in keeping with the "solo artist" nature of the R8.

    I think that having stereo built-in mics is great as it makes the process of capturing inspiration extremely simple. As having only one mic input is a real limitation if you're into stereo recording, the fact that the R8 has stereo XLR mic inputs is really welcome.

    So, how easy is it to capture an idea with the built-in mics? And what does it sound like? Let's find out.
    CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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    • #3

      As far as easy is concerned, no, I didn't look at the manual

      I set the R8 up on a table in my office, pulled out my trusty J-45 acoustic, and stood a couple feed away from the recorder.

      Set the inputs to built-in mics, adjusted gain, looked at the meters in the LCD, and set the input faders to 0. Turned up the gain until the clip indicator lit, and observed that the input's on button flashes if you overload...that'll get your attention! Hit record, hit play, played for a bit, then hit stop.

      The R8 recorded each mic as a separate mono file. To create an online example, I pulled out the SD card, imported the files into Sonar, set panning to left and right for the two channels, then saved as an MP3 - this is the Zoom R8.mp3 example. Frankly, I think it sounds amazing for a couple tiny built-in mics.

      So you might ask..."but is it good enough to bring into a DAW if I did catch some great inspiration, then add a little processing and actually use it in a track?" Listen to the Zoom R8 in DAW.mp3 example, and judge for yourself. I boosted the bass to bring out the body sound, compressed it a little bit, and added a taste of reverb to cover up the undesired ambience from being in an untreated room. I wouldn't have any problems using this "for real." See what you think!

      CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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      • #4
        Let's take a look at the rest of the connections and controls before embarking on further "adventures in recording."

        We already mentioned the combo jacks, and here's what they look like on the rear panel.

        To the left of the inputs, you'll see two 1/4" jacks for the right and left outputs, along with an associated volume control. These are balanced, TRS jacks. Note that Zoom has included a graphic of the tip/ring/sleeve connections - probably overkill, but I'm a sucker for that kind of thing as it makes it clear immediately that you're dealing with balanced outputs.

        Moving along to the rest of the rear panel...

        There's a single headphone jack with associated volume control. Two points of interest here...first, having separate ways to set levels for the line outs and the phones is very helpful as opposed to a "one size fits all" level control. Second, THANK YOU for not making this an eighth-inch headphone jack. If you're going to make a product that's a serious portable studio, then you need to be able to use serious headphones.

        The Control Input to the left is for a footswitch to do things like stop and start, or punch-in/out. As far as I can tell, you can't use this for an expression pedal if you want to control, for example, some parameter in the onboard effects.

        Moving further left, you'll find the power on/off switch and Kensington lock.

        The only other connections are on the side, which hosts the SD card slot and USB connection. Zoom recommends using only their AC adapter with the Zoom, and I'm not going to contradict that. However, do note that it can be powered from a computer's USB connection, so strictly speaking, you have options other than the adapter for AC power and of course, you can always use batteries.
        CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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        • #5
          As mentioned, you can record up to two tracks at a time, and play back up to eight. You can’t record “stereo” tracks per se (i.e., the eight tracks don’t magically become 16 tracks via stereo recording), but you can record two mono signals and link them together so they appear, for all practical purposes, to be a stereo track.

          What’s more more, each track is not limited to recording audio signals. A track can include a “loop track,” which takes advantage of the Sampler function. Essentially, you can load and/or create loops, assign them to pads, and play them in real time (or step time) to create a backing track.

          But a third option, which is what we’ll cover next, is to use the built-in drum machine functionality. This works pretty much like a traditional drum machine, where you join patterns together to create a song. There are ten drum kits for different musical styles (e.g., basic, studio, live, rock, pop, funk, jazz, acoustic, techno, and urban). Recording drum patterns is pretty much as easy as just recording audio, and for many users, will probably be where a song gets it start.

          There are 472 factory patterns, and 510 total (the rest are empty, where you can store your own patterns; you can also delete any factory pattern, so essentially, all patterns can be user patterns). You scroll through the patterns with the data wheel, and while this may seem daunting with this number of presets, you can scroll through really fast and still see what type of preset you’re passing through thanks to unambiguous abbreviations in the preset names (Funk, Hip, Tech, etc.).

          But the coolest feature is once you hit Play, the drums stay on until you hit Stop (unless you want to do some housekeeping function, like delete, rename, import, etc). You can scroll to different presets and while they’ll obviously go out of rhythm if you’re scrolling through a dozen or more presets per second, as soon as you land on a preset and stay there, it starts playing from the beginning. While the pattern is playing, you can also audition the various kit sounds. To hear the 10 kits (presented in the same order as listed above), check out the audio example...I’ve chosen one of the Rock patterns, but we’ll try it with all the different kits. The pattern repeats twice for each kit, and the kits change in real time – note the lack of any glitching.

          Are they the very best drum sounds ever? No. Are they useable? Yes. Are they a whole lot better than what you might expect? Listen, and decide for yourself.

          A couple other items before signing off for this post: I continue to be impressed by the ease of use – if you know what Enter and Exit means, and the function of navigation buttons and a scroll wheel, you’re in fine shape. I keep thinking that at some point my head is going to explode trying to figure out how to access some function, and I’m sure at some point there will be something esoteric where I’ll scratch my head for a while before reaching for the manual - but so far, so good. I get the feeling that whoever designed the R8’s operating system is either a musician who records, or received some great consulting from someone who is.

          I also remain impressed by the depth of the feature set. For example, one of the drum Pattern edit options (along with standard functions like Copy, Delete, Length up to 99 bars, etc.) is a Listener or Player perspective. Seriously! Of course all it does is flip the panning, but for someone to even think of including that in a unit like this is pretty cool.

          Oh, and one tip: when powering by USB, I heard a very low-level whine when powered from one computer, and dead silence when powered by USB from a different computer. This supports something I’ve noticed more and more – not all USB ports are created equal in terms of “cleanliness.” This makes me further appreciate the ability to use batteries of a “USB-type” AC adapter.
          CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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          • #6
            First, a few details...

            • Although there are only eight pads, there are two banks for 16 sounds total - eight drums and eight percussion. The Percussion bank is particularly useful if you want to "overdub" real-time drum sounds over a repeating pattern.

            • There's a handy "pad roll" feature, where you can program the rate at which a drum repeats when you hold down its pad. For example if you want to add a 16th note hi-hat part, or a dotted eighth percussion part, or any of ten different options total, the drum will trigger at the selected rhythm as long as the pad is held down.

            • There are seven pad sensitivity settings, from feather touch to King Kong. The pads are velocity-sensitive, but there are three options for constant velocities. The one inconvenient aspect of this is you have to go into a system menu to set this, which locks out hearing the pads. So, you have to push the Rhythm button again to get back to drum pattern world, then play the pads to see if you like the results. On the other hand this isn't something you'd adjust every day - I haven't moved it off normal, which works best for me.

            I also found one pretty cool, non-drum related function while poking around the system menu: You can choose Alkaline or Ni-MH for the battery type. Ni-MH types have a slightly lower voltage, so it's interesting the R8 can compensate for this. Remember what I said about attention to detail...

            Creating Patterns, Other Pattern Functions

            Okay, back to creating a backing track. In addition to using the preset patterns, you can create your own patterns in step-time or real time. You'll also find other expected functions like copy, rename, delete, etc.

            Single-Pattern Playback

            You can assign a pattern to a track in two different ways, and when you hit play, the pattern will repeat along with whatever audio and other tracks you've recorded. However, note that you're limited to one pattern per track - you can't, for example, string different patterns together in a single track. For this, you need to use the track sequencer function.

            Dealing with Multiple Patterns Assigned to Different Tracks

            There's one aspect to pattern playback that's not very well explained in the manual. Suppose you've assigned four different drum programs to four different tracks. If you start from the beginning and hit play, all four patterns will start playing simultaneously. You might think you could then play with the track on/off buttons or faders to bring different patterns in and out, but polyphony is limited and with all four patterns playing, you'll definitely have stolen notes.

            A better option is to start at the beginning, but not hit Play. Instead, if you hit a track pad associated with a pattern, that pattern will play for as long as you're holding down the pad. When that pattern stops, you can then move over to a different pad and play the pattern associated with that pad.

            Pattern start and playback is quantized to the pattern length - for example, suppose you have a two-measure pattern. If you hold down a pad to trigger the pattern just before measure 4, the pattern will trigger at the start of measure 4, and play through for two measures whether you hold down the pad or not (but it will keep playing if you hold down the pad). However, if you press down the pad at, say, measure 5, the pattern will not pick up halfway through but will start playing at the beginning of measure 6.

            This is a good way to practice which patterns you want to have playing when, and after you've figured that out, you can then go over to the track sequencer and put them together into a continuous backing track - which is what we'll get into next.
            CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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            • #7
              I thought it would be fun to put together an actual drum backing track with sampled loops as opposed to MIDI patterns, as the procedure is basically the same and it gives us something new to cover. With the Track Sequencer function, you can create backing tracks in step time or real time (which I find less tedious and more musical). The procedure is relatively straightforward, although I did need to read the manual. Still, if the fate of the free world had depended on my figuring it out without the manual, I probably could have...

              Basically, like the rhythm patterns, you need to dedicate a track to any loop you want to use. With the stereo loops provided on the SD card, each loop actually requires two tracks. So you assign a loop to a track, and set it to loop. At that point the pads are your way of entering the pattern.

              I used three different patterns. With stereo loops, you need play only one of the pads to trigger a loop. As with rhythm patterns, audio loops play through to the end once triggered and are quantized; in short order I got used to hitting a pad slightly before I wanted the loop to play.

              After recording, you can see which loops are in which tracks—each square you see represents a measure.

              The above screen shows tracks 1-4, while the next screen shows the display scrolled down one track so you can see 2-5. As I had drums in track pairs 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6, and stereo tracks show up with a dot in both tracks of the pair, this let me see which loops were playing where.

              You can also delete tracks in real time by holding down a Delete under the display (there are four buttons under the display whose function changes depending on what you’re doing, with the display showing the button function) while holding down the pad associated with the track you want to erase.

              After you have your rhythm track together, you can bounce all the tracks down to free up more tracks. The bounce can include the tracks to which you’re bouncing, so you can take four tracks of stereo loops and end up with a stereo drum track.

              But, here’s the cool thing: While bouncing, you can use EQ and effects during playback, as well as manipulate the faders. This really makes a difference in terms of being able to add dynamics and expressiveness. If you get it wrong, you can undo a bounce so you can experiment with getting the rhythm track just right.

              Mission accomplished: I had a rhythm track. But what if you want to stretch tempo? Surely a little unit like this couldn’t do time stretching, trimming, and zooming in on the waveform...right? Well actually, that’s what we’ll look at next because apparently you can do all three. And, I’m curious to see if some of my loops recorded at other tempos can be integrated with my shiny new drum track.
              CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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              • #8
                First, I needed to get the loops into the R8. The USB functionality is super-obvious. You just hit the USB button, select card reader instead of audio interface, and it shows up as peripheral memory. From there you can transfer files back and forth with impunity. I ended up making a folder for my own loops, and of course, the R8 recognized it when I wanted to load loops from it.

                As long as you’re connected as a USB card reader, you’ll see the following image in the screen.

                The USB functionality is particularly welcome because you don't have to actually remove the SD card to move files onto it and off from it.
                CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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                • #9
                  Yes, you can stretch. But first of all, there’s one aspect where the manual isn’t clear—it says that when you stretch a file, it’s a destructive process. While that’s true within the context of a project, it’s not true for the original loop. For example, if you load a 100BPM loop into the SD card and then stretch it to 120BPM within the R8, the file will be altered within the project so if you try to stretch it more, you’ll keep degrading it each time you stretch. However, the original file on the SD card is still 100BPM—it’s not overwritten. So, you can use it in other projects and “start from scratch” with full fidelity.

                  The stretching process is simple. You open the loop’s Edit function, select Stretch (the other option is Trim), specify the target tempo, then execute the function. You even have a choice of two stretching algorithms, Beat or Tone.

                  The Stretchable range is 50% to 150%. Supposedly there’s a warning screen if you try to stretch out of range; but when I tried to stretch a 70BPM loop to 120BPM, it simply didn’t stretch. Fair enough.

                  As to the fidelity, the ground rules are the same as for most stretching: The less you need to stretch the better the fidelity, and the more defined a beat, the better the Beat algorithm will work. I will say the sound quality was much better than I expected; while not exactly “zplane elastique” in a box, it was more than useable.

                  Check out the attached audio example, which tells the story on stretching. There are two loops (both from my AdrenaLinn Guitars loop library) played against the drum part I made in the previous post. The first, more muted loop was sped up from 100BPM to 120BPM, while the brighter, sharper loop was slowed down from 140BPM to 120BPM. The quality of the latter loop was very impressive to me, as it’s always harder to stretch down than up--but I guess that's just another example of that attention to detail I keep mentioning.
                  CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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                  • #10
                    This is also easy, and lets you “mark off” part of an audio file for looping. You proceed as you would for stretching, except you choose Trim instead of stretch. You then see a representation of the waveform in the display—not exactly high-res, but still, pretty useful.

                    You can set the start and end points independently by measure, beat, or 1/16th note so you’re not limited to measure looping, and can even set up interesting polyrhythms (e.g., seven measures against four, where they meet up every 28 measures).

                    There’s also a Zoom function, but this zooms only vertically, not horizontally. This is helpful with low-level signals to bring them up to something more visible, but a horizontal zoom would have let you see what was happening with the waveform with a little more detail. The following image shows the waveform zoomed 3 times up, and you can zoom up to 32 times.

                    One other very useful editing function is ability to turn a fade in/out on and off. I’m not sure about the length of the fade, but it’s quite short—enough to get rid of clicks or pops, but not enough to sound obvious. You can turn it off to make sure rhythmic loops don’t have the attack compromised, and otherwise, leave it on (the default).
                    CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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                    • #11
                      Now that we have a rhythm track, it’s time to add some overdubs. We touched on recording in post #3, but even though the process is really simple, there are some deeper elements we need to cover.

                      Time Signature and Tempo. Of course, these are adjustable and you would specify these before you start recording. If you change tempo later, you do have the option to stretch all existing tracks, as mentioned previously.

                      Metronome. You have the usual options—during record, playback, both, or neither; level; pan position; and pre-count (1-8 beats), and a “1, 2, 1-2-3-4” type count-in.

                      Input EQ/Pan/Effects. You can record through “bread and butter” effects that are independent of the insert effects.

                      There are three EQ bands: Hi (cut with variable frequency or shelf with variable boost/cut and frequency), parametric mid, and Lo (cut with variable frequency or shelf with variable boost/cut and frequency). The mid is a true parametric, with boost/cut, frequency, and Q.

                      You’ll also find dedicated send controls for Reverb and Chorus and parameters to set level, invert phase, and link to an adjacent track for stereo recording. Note that any effects you add will be "printed" with the track.

                      Insert effects while recording. You can draw from the full roster of effects (which is substantial, and we’ll cover shortly). The process is turn on insert, choose an algorithm, choose a patch, then assign it to the input you’re using for recording. However, note that these algorithms are actually multieffects, not just individual effects (although you can bypass/enable the various algorithm effects to customize the patch).

                      The coolest “unexpected” feature is that you can record through the effect, or monitor through it but record the track dry. This is wonderful when, for example, you want to sing with reverb and compression to get the right feel, but not necessarily commit this to a track. However, note that this applies only to the insert effects, not if you add effects chosen in the EQ/Pan section.
                      CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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                      • #12
                        Thanks Craig. I have been recording on a DAW for about 12 years, and recently I have been wanting to have something to quickly try out ideas. On the DAW I feel like I must make it great - but I find it difficult to be inspired after I boot up, bring up the card control software, plug in the mic and get all the routing right, etc. And sometimes I have this weird guilt feeling about booting up the computer, monitor, and monitor amps and speakers just to mess around with some ideas. I have been feeling like I just want something quick and easy - like the old 4 track cassette was.

                        Your review here has been really helpful - thanks so much - I appreciate it!
                        Calfee Jones


                        • #13
                          More to come What surprises me the most about the R8 is that in many cases, you CAN use what you recorded on it in a "serious" production. If you heard that audio example of the acoustic guitar at the beginning, you'll know what I mean.
                          CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

                          Subscribe, like, and share the links!


                          • #14
                            Good to see you are still writing great stuff Craig and this review is no exception, I still have your Home Recording for Musicians, when I got my first recorder Teak 4 track reel to reel probably 25 years ago.

                            Its amazing what can be packed into such a small package now-a-days and the quality is outstanding, thinking back the equivalent to the R8 would probably have cost 2 to 3 grand 10 years ago.

                            Keep up the good work Mate.

                            I have ordered my R8, should be here in a couple of days, cant wait to get back into recording.


                            • #15
                              The R8 has three points where you can insert effects: Between the input and track, so you can record on the way in (with zero latency monitoring, of course), between a track and the mixer, and just before the master output fader- i.e., a mastering effect.

                              Before getting too much into how the effects are organized, algorithms, etc., let's listen to some - and I do mean some - of the distortion presets. I kept it simple: Plugged in, hit record, played, changed the effect, played some more, changed the effect, and so on. I then turned the R8 into a card reader and transferred the mono WAV file to Sonar, where I took a sort of "greatest hits" of what I recorded (it was all one-take stuff, so I figured you didn't want to hear the pauses when I changed effects). All examples were recorded with a Gibson Firebird X (yes, I'm one of the lucky ones who actually has one) using the single-coil bridge pickup.

                              I think you'll be surprised, as was I, by the number of different distortion sounds. Most of them are high-gain types, but I'm pretty sure I can edit them for bluesier, more vintage type sounds...we'll find out soon enough. Meanwhile, enjoy the distortion!
                              CHECK IT OUT: Lilianna!, my latest song, is now streamable from YouTube.

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