Zoom Zoom

I’ve been asked to review my new ZOOM. Your wish is my command.ZOOM R24

What is it?

It’s a portable 24 track sound recorder made by ZOOM, best known for their hand held field recorders. It’s about the size of a portable typewriter and has some of the same ‘recently archaic’ / ‘I am a hipster’ vibe about it. If you know about PortaStudios you’d see this as the latest refinement. There are 8 balanced inputs fed into three banks of 8 channels, mixed down into a stereo pair. Tracks are either audio streams, or sample playback – both are really just WAV clips triggered either by time position or bar/beat. Understanding that is key to knowing what you can do.

A sensible review is here.

I have a DAW. Why would I want this?

This doesn’t replace your DAW. In fact ZOOM supply a copy of Cubase for you. Use the ZOOM running on batteries to multi track record when away from your studio, then copy to the DAW for finishing. Or plug the ZOOM into a USB port and directly record up to 8 inputs at a time. The recorder is not too expensive and having an 8 in audio interface + Mackie controller means you’re getting two uses out of it.

If you’re intending to buy some of the new breed of cheap synthesisers that are coming on the market you are going to need a way to plug them all into your DAW. Most of them are designed for real time jamming with friends and you’re not going to make nice ‘one at a time’ multi-track recordings.

My intention is different. I want to take music that I’ve made on my DAW and transfer it to the ZOOM. Now I have a 24 track recording I can perform live. This is a sexed up version of how I used to make music on an 8 track tape recorder.

Why did you buy the 24 track?

The 8 track R8 looks pretty fine too, but I figured that for the price difference I might as well triple up. I’ll likely use only 8 channels for gigs and now and then want maybe 12. The R16 is older and has less features so not worth it.

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When looking for ZOOM pictures I found this. Maybe it’s important.

How can I see what I’m doing?

You can’t. You have to listen. That’s kind of the point, because DAWs tend to work with visual information, where this is just a ‘tape recorder’. I’m not saying that’s better. It’s just different. Even though the machine is larger it still uses a screen about the same size as a H4n, and you are going to have to learn to push little buttons on a control panel.

In the recordings I have done so far I was impressed how quickly my brain and fingers went back to a tape recorder way of thinking. This is what I want to explore. If you have not used a tape recorder it may be pointless.

How might you perform on the r24?

First of all there’s the faders. You can grab them and mix.

BUT I’ve noticed that the machine has limited brain power and while you can tweak and twiddle there can be a subtle delay. So your style would need to be less than frantic.
BUT apart from the faders and mutes the controls are not physical. Panning and EQ require assignment – select track, menu, turn big knob.
BUT 8 tracks are seen at any one time. And your faders are not motorised so they have to pick up the sound level.

Then there’s the sampler. There are buttons to push under each track. Any recorded clip, any length, can be fired off by pushing the button. The sample will be triggered on the beat, which is good if you are trying to do an Ableton Live style set. I will most likely turn off global quantize so my loops can be out of time.

A simple sequencer is there to fire off your samples according to a grid. I see no way to send MIDI to the ZOOM, even just to supply a BPM clock. When connected by USB to sequencer it receives MIDI Clock. It’s designed to hand over any of that kind of fancy stuff to a DAW. There’s a hack below that means you could record time code.

How does this compare to other portable mix solutions?

It’s better than my original PortaStudio!

I looked closely at Auria + an interface for the iPad and decided against that because (a) I am resurrecting a specific technique I once used with my tape recorders and (b) 8 track balanced in to iPad ain’t cheap. Really I’d say Auria might be the better solution if you wanted a portable DAW. Especially as the mix can be automated, something the ZOOM doesn’t offer.

Samplr on the pad is a really excellent ‘tape looping’ tool and if you have a pad then you really should own it. It’s like 8 tape loops with plenty of bend and stretch – and it’s automated. About the only thing on the pad that isn’t a toy version of the real thing. I decided on the ZOOM because I already have the pad and want to have a different paradigm that mixes both looping and streaming sound.

The ZOOM weighs much less than a laptop and has the real connections. I like the idea of performing with it, but you should check out AKAI’s MPC drum boxes as an alternative. You could always add a laptop if you like.

What is the quality like?

Probably it’s not excellent but it sounds like what you put in is what you get back, which was never the case for my Fostex B16! The actual machine is pretty nice. It’s light weight but it’s solid. Like a Roland box.

Any bad points?

You are not getting a full DAW. This is not Pro Tools HD. Capice? But like any tape recorder you still have to bounce down real time.
The transport is not instant. AB looping has a gap.
Only stereo out (but see below).
No panning or EQ knobs. The effects are limited (but hey – there are effects).
No MIDI.
Some people have found that ZOOM recorders in general have a small drift and will lose synch over a long recording time. (Whereas open reel tape recorders were always perfect and I’m the president.)

Any hacks?

You can send a stereo/mono track out the headphones jack. Use that for SMPTE?

http://www.henkybacker.com/2011/10/the-hidden-output-of-the-zoom-r8-and-r24/

5 thoughts on “Zoom Zoom

  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Tom! I’ve had fun making loop compositions using the program Mixere on a laptop, but a limitation there is only being able to move one slider at a time with the cursor.

    I was wondering, usually Roland has a Zoom competitor, is that the case here? Does the Zoom’s features or quality win out, or is price factor the main pro?

  2. Both Roland and TASCAM have competition. I think the latter might be better than the ZOOM for sync recording with video. I chose ZOOM because we teach the H4n recorders at my workplace and so I’m familiar with the way they work. I have a H2 for my own stereo field recording.

    From what I read the ZOOMs are the leader in this particular bracket. But you really have to have a point to it, because a computer is always going to have more power. Like there’s no way to reverse a sound!

    • Thanks, I take your point — have you heard about that forthcoming documentary I Dream of Wires? The trailer includes the sentiment, how it can be more fun to organize sounds via actual tactile interfaces; knobs and buttons! I would look forward to moving sliders, and enjoying the portable mixer for what it is. Kind of a relief from the bottomless options of PCs, actually! Thanks again for the info.

  3. Having used various modular systems may I suggest another title is “I am strangled by wires”. Because tactile is a nice way of saying tangle.

    • As much as I like playing with hardware, and enjoy the music of people like Chris Carter in the docco, I kind of have to agree. It’s fun if you have other options but it becomes time consuming making simple patches – there is a double edged sword in the amount of specialist one function modules being released now.

      Semi related it occurred to me that sometimes the best way to engage with the computer as a decent instrument without too many options is to pay for all your software :P

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