This weekend I felt like making some casual recordings of my original songs for voice and guitar. I have pro sound equipment: mixer, condensor and dynamic mikes, effects, direct boxes and computer interfaces and software that allow me to record and edit on a workstation, but I didn't want to set all that stuff up on this particular day. I just wanted to plug in something ready-to-run and a microphone and grab an old guitar. I pulled out my Sharp MDDR480HS grey-market MiniDisc recorder, plugged in a Sony ECM-DS70P mike, flailed away at the mighty Guild 6-string and had a ball. It was fun but it wasn't cheap. The stereo recorder cost me over $300 and is really more suited for recording live gigs than even casual studio work, but it will do just fine in a pinch for recording songwriting ideas or rehearsals. I got great results, but when I was finished, I was moved to research what it would cost to switch to a professional quality multi-track recorder. I'm tired of fighting with software drivers in both Linux and Windows, and frustrated with motherboards and their constant south bridge chipset issues. ADAT is outside my budget, tape sucks and while the MiniDisc gives a great recording it's no substitute for the real thing. The last time I looked into the idea of buying a dedicated multitrack recorder the equipment was expensive enough to be prohibitive but that situation has now changed, mainly due to a lack of downward price movement in the Minidisc field. Sony seems to own the very small US Minidisc market and feels no need to compete on a price basis. Recording equipment on the other hand has finally begun to come down in price.
Here's what I percieve as the current top-of-the-heap portable MiniDisc recorder; the Sony-MZ-RH1. At $329.00 USD there are more expensive models but this is what I would choose were I buying one today.
Taking that as my base line, I went off to Musicians Friend to see what the competition looks like. These units are presented in no order other than that in which they caught my eye, and while I tried to stay in the same general sub-$400.00 USD price field I wandered away for a couple models that seem like an especially good deal. You'll notice I don't even mention effects, for a couple of reasons. One is that I don't consider them to be something you should be thinking about when recording. If you are recording an instrument that has it's own effects loop such as an electric guitar stack or keyboard and you know exactly what you want, and are OK with the idea of not being able to go back and take out that horrible flanger effect you plugged in, thats just fine but in most cases I think the goal should be to record pristine tracks, other than perhaps a bit of compression to keep the peaks down. You can always muck them up with your favorite plug-in later, and if you were smart enough NOT to record the original track with effects you can always change your mind. The other reason is that the manufacturers and retailers are always more than happy to distract you by blathering on and on about how great their effects are, and you can only find out if they are lying by trying them out yourself. I won't waste our time by repeating their marketing claims.
I've tried to consistently point out some features such as number of tracks, USB, XLR Balanced microphone inputs, and number of tracks for simultaneous recording, but this doesn't mean I'm describing EVERY feature of these devices. I haven't said a word about tone controls, faders, warrantees, displays, A/D converters, effects patch capability, sample rates, user interface, firmware upgrades and many other issues. You have plenty of homework to do. Keep in mind this stuff is at or near the -bottom- of the barrel of stand-alone digital home studio recording equipment; for more money you can get substantially extended capabilities. Also keep in mind I don't yet own any of the devices in the following list. I decided to go shopping at the low end of pricing and I'm taking you with me. What follows is reasonably well-founded guesswork from a musician/computer geek familiar with the technology and terminology. It's worth every penny you're about to pay for it.
XLR Balanced, TRS Balanced and Unbalanced Inputs
Track Bouncing: The practice of combining multiple recorded tracks (bass and drums, for example) into a single track in order to free up track capacity to record more tracks.
Virtual Tracks: The ability to keep multiple versions of a track, only one of which can be selected for playback at a time.
Taking a musician to shop for gear is about as smart as inviting a crack whore along on a Colombian vacation. Let's go!
The Korg D4 for $349.00 USD. It uses compact flash cards up to 2 Gigabytes so no moving parts and a gig of flash can be had for about $20 lately. USB connectivity, 4 tracks with 8 virtual tracks per track, runs on 9 volts, has two line inputs and one balanced XLR, records 2 simultaneous tracks and comes with an onboard drum machine. Cons: I don't think we have to settle for 4 tracks at this price level.
The Korg D888 is quite a bit more expensive at $699, but ye gods I want one. 40 gig IDE hard drive, 8 XLR inputs with phantom power, 8 tracks of simultaneous record and play (!) with 8 virtual tracks per track, USB 2.0 connector, MIDI Time Code transmit, optical S/PDIF connector, 2 headphone jacks, effects, and it appears to be basically an ordinary 8 track mixer you can use for gigging that happens to record. For the extra money you also get some features usually found on more expensive equipment or digital editing software such as punch-in/punch-out for overwriting sections of a track or inserting a quick track segment, 100 mark points and four editing points to help you locate particular sections of a track, a metronome... could someone hand me a towel? Cons: Well, just the damage to your bank account.
The Tascam DP01FX is $449.99 for a unit with somewhat similar features to the Korg D888 but only the usual 2 tracks of simultaneous input and only two XLR jacks. It could not be used as a gigging mixer, and I'd still prefer to spend the extra $250 for the Korg. If your budget can't go there you might feel differently. I see there is a promotion right now that lets you get the Tascam unit with an MXL V63M condensor mike for an extra 99 cents. This is an entry level $100 condensor microphone, so it's a great inducement. Cons: They are facing hard competition at this price level from Fostex.
Foxtex MR-8 MKII
The Fostex MR-8 mk-II at $249.00 (!!!) has 8 tracks, uses Compact Flash, has two phantom-power XLR inputs and two simultaneous tracks of recording, midi connector, USB, two headphone jacks, runs from DC 12 volts or 6 AA batteries. That's almost a hundred bucks less than the minidisk! You could spend the money on Compact Flash cards and (for long-term storage) a DVD burner for your computer. I note this unit can take CF up to 2 gigs. It also has the ability to drive an external CD burner over USB and has a very complete manual available online. If you're on a small budget this unit is a killer deal. Cons: Few, but see the track bouncing problem described for the Fostex MR8HD below. I suspect this machine may have the same limitation.
The Fostex MR8HD at its current sale price of $399.00 US is -very- competitive. 40 gig IDE drive, 4 simultaneous recording with 4 XLR phantom-powered jacks, USB, S/PDIF, 2 headphones, 8 tracks. It appears to be pretty much an MR-8 with hard drive instead of Compact Flash, and 2 more XLR jacks. For someone like me who likes to record a voice track, a miked guitar track and the same guitar running through a pickup all at once, this is a nice little system for very little money. Cons: I note it does have one odd pecadillo in that you cannot bounce multiple tracks to a single track but only to -two- tracks, 5/6 or 7/8. This is a limiting factor in terms of flexibility but not a deal-killer when you remember it records 4 tracks at once.
Tascam DP-01 Portastudio
Tascam DP-01 PortaStudio. $299.00. 40 Gig IDE hard drive, 8 tracks total, 2 to record, 1 headphone, USB, Midi, with no XLR jacks, instead you have two 1/4 inch TRS jacks. Cons: the lack of XLR inputs means any condensor mikes will have to be self-powered or be given an external supply and you'll need an XLR to TRS adapter. If I had to choose I'd try the Fostex MR8 instead. If you need the extra storage afforded by the hard drive and don't care about the missing XLR inputs this unit might be an option, but be aware you may badly want XLR and phantom power later.
Boss BR-600, $399.00 for 8 tracks, USB, two headphone jacks, uses Compact Flash. All the docs I found were strangely silent on the issue of how many tracks it can record at once but I'll assume its the usual two tracks. There are no XLR jacks but it does come with an XLR to TRS adapter. Runs on 6 AA or AC, and has a drum machine onboard. I'm a little ambivalent on this one but it does have the very nice feature of supporting 8 'virtual' tracks for each track, like the Korg D4 and D888 we started with. I'm not sure if the virtual takes can be saved between sessions. Having all these virtual tracks can suck up storage in a hurry but I can't imagine anyone running any of these units with less than a gig of storage anyway, which is as much as this model can handle. For this price level I'd much rather have the Fostex MR8HD. Cons: the one-gig limitation is not shared by competing models at this price level and below; you can do better.
So that's our shopping trip. Did you make up your mind? I have decisions to make. The Korg D888 is my favorite but price is an issue
unless you'd like to let me hold your wallet for a few minutes. If we can't go there, I may need to choose between the Fostex MR8HD
and the Tascam DP01FX, pretty much in that order. Feel free to visit my website if you buy any of these, and let me know how it turned out.