Twenty years ago multitrack recording for me was working with two cassette tapes. Ten years ago I was dragging a terribly heavy 4-track AKAI tape recorder from the 60's (it had tubes inside and sounded really good). But I am fortunate to still be alive in the 2010's, and today technology advances in giant steps. They are indeed giant, as 10 years ago there was no such thing as an 8-track recorder that costs around $300 and fits in your bag. 10 years ago the best portable studios were of a size of a medium console mixer, went for around $1000+ and had limited functions.
Recommend this product?
So first of all, hats off to ZOOM. They've always been on the edge of technology, their products are always innovative and affordable.
But, and that's one serious BUT, ZOOM was always a synonym to "bad quality". And, as I can see with R16, they still are.
Now, let's get to the details and see what R16 is about.
What is R16?
Multitrack recorders went through many stages of development. Tape machines, multitrack tapes, ADATs, then as digital technologies advanced portable multitrackers became available to the public. First they featured built in hard drives, but those discs had reliability problems, just like computer drives. Finally, as SD cards became so widespread, recorders started using them for storage.
R16 is a 16-channel digital multitrack recorder, with a possibility to record 8 tracks simultaneously. It records to an SD card (up to 32GB), which means there are no moving parts in the machine (except for faders and knobs) and it has no internal mechanical noise while it records. This also allowed putting stereo mics onboard, which is a handy feature.
It also has all sorts of features and options I don't want to go through now (I'll put them later in the text), but basically it's an 8-track recorder. If your band is small, you can record it with this device, mix it and get convincing to pro results, depending on your skills.
The main ZOOM R16 limitations are:
1. Phantom power is available on two channels only, which means you may connect only two condenser microphones. Actually, that's what I do - I put two RODE NT1A mics for stereo room ambience and the rest are dynamic mics. If you want more condenser mics you need additional gear, like a mixer with phantom power or standalone mic preamps.
2. You can simultaneously record only 8 channels. Not much, but I can live with that. After all, Sgt Pepper was recorded on a 4-track (this statement was used on an early-00's ZOOM ad for another handy 4-track recorder).
More and more features!!!
This device is capable of doing all sorts of things. I'm not using a third of what it does. Not only because I'm lazy but also I'm not sure it adds to the final quality of the recording. First, it has all sorts of digital FX's I do not touch. Then it may work as a controller for computer software. You connect R16 to your computer, open your favorite recording program (in my case Cubase) and then you move sliders on R16 instead of clicking with a mouse. Handy, but for some reason I'm not using it. Sorry. R16 also has a tuner, a metronome and manual knows what else. Actually, the top of the line, R24, has a drum machine, but I hate those things, especially if they're made by ZOOM. So I apologize I'm not reviewing those features. I'm into old school recording and that's what I do with my R16.
You can mix and edit on R16, and you may produce final mixes with R16 only. But I think ZOOM designers understood that today everything goes into computer and adopted R16 to this. Very smart. One may say R16 has not decided if it's a standalone multitrack recorder, or a part of computer-based studio. I'd say you can use it either way and that's the flexibility. Considering today's reality, I'm not sure there are many engineers who will prefer mixing on a portable studio rather than using computer-based software. Too many parameters are not directly accessible, and you need to go digging in the menus to change panning or EQ a track. So while it's possible, it's not as easy as working with ProTools or Cubase. All the computer's visual enhancements, like seeing waveforms and such, are not an option on R16.
I have to say the designers did their homework and the recording procedure is as easy as plugging a mic, setting input level and pressing the red button. After you stop, the project automatically saves itself, leaving you for a couple of seconds with "wait" screen. I also own a TASCAM DP-004 portable 4-track studio (also reviewed here on epinions), and while TASCAM is smaller and should be easier to operate, it's a whole different story. ZOOM is fast and logical, and that's a great feature in today's reality.
Having no moving parts inside the machine allows putting stereo microphones onboard. This way you can actually record without any external microphones at all. Handy! At the beginning I was recording ambience with those mics, but soon realized they sound less than decent. I also have Tascam DP-004, which is a small 4-track, and it's onboard microphones are simply awesome. ZOOM's microphones are mid-heavy and I suggest using them only if you're in a rush and need to record some idea.
R16's preamps are pretty neutral. That's what they need to be, and I have no complaints. You can adjust input gain with a trim knob (4-led indicators are very handy), and keeping the signal out of the red zone delivers nice and clean input. Several times when I've had a signal too weak the preamps still haven't added much noise. Overloaded, they sound distorted, but in a nice way. I haven't explored that issue, maybe it's possible to use this distortion somehow. It sounds analog, not digital, which is already good. I remember those digital overload artefacts I've had 10 years ago with old soundcards on old computers, and this thing seems to be gone.
R16 records WAV files, automatically naming them MONO-001, STE-002 etc. You can rename them later. When you plug R16 into your computer with USB cable, it shows a screen which asks whenever you want to go into Audio interface or Card reader mode. Audio interface allows moving faders and recording straight to your recording software, while card reader, well, is a card reader. I've used it to download photos from my camera when I've lost its USB cable with similar success. In card reader mode you see R16 as additional drive with project directories which contain WAV files you can download. Simple and easy.
What happens when the card is full? By the way, it takes hours of hours of recording to fill up a 16GB SD card, but in the end it happens. So, when it's full, the recorder stops recording and displays "card full" message. I would like to see some warning before it reaches the limit, but there's none. You can check how much left, but it's not something you would do each time you're about to press record.
How it works
Basically, what i'm doing is taking my R16, going to our rehearsal point, setting mics and pressing record button. I can even record a full band rehearsal, here's my usual channels listing:
channel 1 - bassdrum, AKG D112.
channel 2 - snare drum, SM57.
channel 3 - bass line in
channel 4 - guitar, SM57.
channel 5 and 6 - room ambience, a pair of RODE NT1A's (phantom power on)
channel 7 - vocals, SM58
channel 8 - spare!!! I even have a spare channel, do you believe?
Usually I put additional drum mic, something like SM58 for toms.
I can get pretty decent results with such simple setup, and I've recorded several projects like that. You don't get overheads or other details, but you can work like this and that's not bad. And if I'm doing something serious, I will put more mics on drums and overdub vocals and other instruments later.
After the stuff is recorded, I take the studio to my home, download the files and drop them in Cubase for mixes and fixes. I'm not mixing on R16, although it's possible.
Until now everything looks fine, right?
Well, while it works, it records and it looks nice there are plenty of bugs and defects. First of all, cosmetic. If you look at R16, it's all made of cheap plastic, not better than some flimsy CD player. The knobs look weak. Faders don't line up - one goes lower, one stop earlier. Neutric-type combo inputs which accept XLR and 1/4" jacks are way too hard for the jacks. In order to unplug a regular PC cord I need to apply titanic pull. Phones' jack doesn't suffer from this problem.
But well, that's cosmetic stuff that is predictable. R16 is cheap, so the hardware is cheap too.
Let's get to serious problems. There are bugs when you record, bugs in recorded files. For instance, recently I've had a live session with several guest vocalists. I was tracking live drums, guitar, bass and vocals. All 8 channels were plugged. The material was improvised and we've had an order from a label, so we were in a rush. We've had one evening to do everything, so we've pressed record and went off. When I opened the session to do overdubs, I was surprised to hear one song lost synchronization and then all tracks were cutting in and out abruptly, making a sort of an unlistenable collage of sounds instead of an inspired take I've thought I've had. That was a major bug.
I've had several other bugs, like synchronization issues and abrupt stops and pauses during other sessions.
Which urges me to say - this device is not professional. Although I've heard about recording studios having all sorts of hardware problems, I've never stumbled upon something that was caused solely by the recording device, without any human involvement. I've had master tapes erased by mistake, channels not plugged, but all these were human errors.
A recorder which corrupts recorded material beyond repair is a problematic device. I can only say that it happens not often, and I'm now listening to recorded takes to make sure it was recorded properly. Which is what you must do in any case. Nothing ever works flawlessly, so although I was very angry at ZOOM for destroying a good and only take of one song, 98% of the time it works and it works pretty smooth.
So see for yourself, if you're Peter Gabriel you're not going to buy R16 anyway, but if you're just starting a modest studio you may withstand some failures here and there.