In the second part of our new recording series, Marcus Leadley continues his look at the quickest and easiest ways to get your songs and riffs safely archived. It’s time to put those phones and apps away and find out what a real specialist recording device can do
These days, £350 can buy eight digital tracks and tons of features
A dedicated recording device is just that, and without a screen to power you’ll get extended recording time from standard alkaline batteries. Some are rechargeable, and all of the necessary connectivity is there as part of the deal. The quality of built-in mics and mic preamps is appropriate for music recording and improves significantly the more you spend. Many also feature dedicated guitar inputs, tuners, amp models and effects.
At the budget end of the market it’s just not possible to compete with the cost of a phone app and a connector – assuming you already own a phone. Contract deals aside, Android phones start around £40 for a slightly older model and an iPhone 5 would set you back a hefty £530. It’s possible to buy a digital recording device with a mic for less than £50, but this will be a voice recorder/dictaphone. They will record musical instruments… but hardly offer the best sound quality.
At around £45, the Line 6 Back Track is one of those gadgets that seems almost too good to be true. Offering between two and 12 hours of mono recording, depending on quality, it’s basically a flash recorder designed specifically for guitarists. It plugs in between your amp and guitar and records everything you play, unless you tell it not to. Every time there’s a pause it splits the recording into a separate file. If you play something that feels significant, you press the Mark button and it moves the recording to a separate file. You can listen back direct from your amp or transfer the files to a computer.
The Olympus LS-100: very compact and with eight tracks, but no FX
As well as being brilliant for songwriting and jamming, there’s an added advantage used live – you can use the instant playback facility as a way to tweak your amp’s tone and volume and even walk out front while the band is playing to hear what you’ll sound like. The + Mic version (£100) adds the ability to record acoustic instruments, jam sessions and gigs. As the recorded sound is your raw guitar output before the amp, you get to reamp it later, so you can continue to tweak it and experiment with different sounds.
For a dedicated guitar recording device with a more traditional profile, Tascam’s GTR-1 (£290) is an excellent piece of kit with a proper 1/4″ socket, amp sims and a multi-FX processor as well as a pair of condenser mics for stereo live recording and an overdub facility for building songs or developing parts. It’s also designed as a learning aid so there’s a centre cancel and pitch control feature and many rhythm patterns to play along with.
If you want a basic digital stereo recorder, there are many to choose from. The Alesis TwoTrack (£90) records at 16bit /44.1kHz using an X/Y pair of cardioid condenser mics. This is a good, practical solution that minimises phase issues because the mics are essentially picking up sound at the same point (the layout also tends to minimise pickup from behind, giving less chance of audience noise). You don’t get the widest stereo field, but it works well for recording bands. Files can be transferred to computer by USB. There’s an external stereo mic/line input if you want to experiment with plugging your guitar straight in. Expect better results than with a phone’s input as there will be a level control, but the impedance mismatch probably won’t have gone away.
The Eight Track Boss Micro BR-80
The Zoom H1 (£117) records up to 24bit/96kHz and has a pair of quality built-in condenser mics and an external stereo mic/line input. Like all Zoom recorders you can use USB to transfer files (as WAV or MP3) and the H1 will even act as an audio interface, so it’s a useful USB mic as well. The two-track recorder/editor software WaveLab LE is included.
For around £130 the Tascam DR-05 has mics designed for omidirectional capture, built-in chromatic tuner, varispeed, loop and repeat playback options. The Yamaha Pocketrak C24 (£170) is a high-quality stereo recorder with built-in mics – this one comes with a handy wireless remote so you can avoid handling noise or locate it elsewhere. Roland offers the R-05 (£237), a no-nonsense, high-quality recorder with stereo mic and eternal input. Further up in price at £350 is the Olympus LS-11: high quality recordings, X/Y mics and slimline design. Cubase LE is packaged with the unit.
The remarkable little Line 6 Back Track + Mic
The Zoom H4n (£320) is another one of those products that should be up for a ‘Swiss Army knife’ award. It’s a two-track recorder with built in X/Y mics, proper XLR connectivity and phantom power if you want to use condenser mics. It’s an audio interface for your computer as well. The H4n comes with Cubase LE giving you instant access to computer-based multitracking. It can also operate as a standalone four-track recorder complete with amp models and guitar effects. Oh, and there’s a guitar tuner as well.
The Tascam DR-40 (£269) is another hand-held unit that can be used as a two- or four-track recorder. With this one you can change the position of the internal mics from X/Y to A/B and use external mics at the same time if you wish for more complex mic’ing arrangement (a stereo pair and two mono mics, for example). As a musician’s four-track you’re limited to a basic overdub mode of operation and you won’t get amp sims, reverb is the only effect and the unit isn’t an audio interface. You can, however set the DR-40 to record a backup safety track set at a couple of db lower… very useful for loud gigs or rehearsals. If you like multi-function devices but the idea of four tracks seems like a step backwards, the Olympus LS-100 (£449) is an eight-track portable recorder in the same hand-held format – but with no FX.
Coming at multitracking from the most traditional direction, the Tascam DP004 (£199) lets you record and bounce tracks and also record stereo using the built-in condenser mics, so it’s great for gigs, rehearsals or songwriting at home. The two 1/4″ inputs are switchable for mic or guitar, but with no onboard FX your pedalboard will be getting a work-out.
The Four track Zoom H4n
Zoom is well known for making value-for-money multitrackers and the R8 (£296) has built-in mics for live recording, 140 DSP effects and 18 amp models to sparkle up your playing. There’s an eight-track sampler with pads if you want to build tracks on the fly around loops, and it also works as an interface and a controller for your DAW. It comes with Cubase LE and it will record 24bit/48kHz WAV files.
The Zoom H1 is a super-handy stereo recorder with directional built-in mics.
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The Boss Micro BR-80 (£332) is a miniature digital eight-track recorder. It’s tiny at just 138mm wide, it’s highly portable so live recording with the built -in stereo mics is an obvious idea. There’s an additional stereo rhythm track and onboard groove library, 40 COSM amp models and effects for guitar, bass and vocals – so it’s something of an all-in-one solution. This unit will function as an audio interface as well as a dedicated portable recorder and comes with Sonar LE. If you want a larger unit with real knobs to twiddle, the Tascam DP008 (£349) is a great eight-track digital Portastudio from the originators of the idea. As with the DP004 all your money is focused on a well-featured recording device, so you will need some sort of input effects processor.