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BOSS BR-8

August 1, 2000
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Though it is the "baby" of the Roland disk-based recorder line, the Boss BR-8 is by no means an infant. This digital multitrack boasts many of the features of its older, bigger VS-series siblings, along with a few innovations that are worthy of the family name. Having used the Roland VS-840 extensively over the past two years, I can testify to its ease of setup and operation. The BR-8 offers those same qualities and more, and though it does cut some corners, it's difficult to imagine a songwriting tool that can take a writer from musical sketch to finished master in fewer steps.

Anyone can use the BR-8, but it is clearly designed for guitarists. For starters, it has a dedicated high- impedance (Hi-Z) guitar input, and if you plug an instrument into it, the currently selected track is automatically labeled "Guitr." The BR-8 also has an instantly accessible chromatic tuner, a healthy selection of Roland's COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling) guitar amps, and multi-effects for both six-string and bass guitars. In fact, the BR-8 really blurs the line between a multi-effects processor and a portable digital studio, but please, guitarists, don't set it on the floor and push the buttons with your feet!

DIAL DIRECTDigital workstations typically boast myriad features, but accessing their user interfaces often requires paging through interminable screens and submenus. In contrast, the BR-8's main features are readily accessible with the push of a button or twist of a knob (see Fig. 1), and the unit even self-configures its internal signal routing in response to which input you choose. "Ease of use" appears to have been the mantra of the BR-8's designers, and its interface is both intuitive and well designed.

The backlit LCD is easy to read and presents information clearly and logically, using instrument icons to help you locate banks of dedicated effects. A large data wheel makes adjusting parameters easy, though there is no Shift button for changing parameter values in increments of 10, as on the VS units. Curiously, the BR-8 has two input level controls-one for controlling input gain and another for controlling the signal sent to the effects bus-probably because the channel faders perform the same function as track-cue knobs would during recording.

PATCH ME THROUGHThe rear panel has three 1/4-inch inputs (one labeled "Guitar/Bass" and two labeled "Mic") along with a stereo pair of unbalanced RCA line inputs (see Fig. 2). The Mic inputs are TRS for balanced signals, but if you want to use a condenser mic, you'll have to first route the mic signal through an external mixer with phantom power.

As I've mentioned, the unit configures its internal routing according to the input you use. For example, plugging a guitar into the Guitar/Bass input takes you straight to the COSM amp-modeling effects bank. Similarly, the Mic inputs are routed to a vocal-effects bank, and the line inputs to yet a different effects bank. The input selections may seem a bit limiting at first glance, but remember that this machine was designed to help you get your songwriting ideas down quickly and efficiently, not to be on the receiving end of a multibus mixer.

Output options are pretty basic and include an optical S/PDIF digital (but no coax) stereo output, a stereo pair of unbalanced RCA analog outs, and a MIDI Out. Conspicuously absent are a computer interface (such as SCSI or USB) and a MIDI in connection. These were apparently sacrificed in the interest of convenience, low price, and ease of use. Still, when you're copying or backing up data using the unit's single 100 MB Iomega Zip drive, the disk swapping could leave you yearning for an external drive. Speaking of swapping, the BR-8 lets you reformat your songs for compatibility with Roland's entire line of VS recorders, opening the door for long-distance collaboration and interfacing with a huge installed base of VS products. Bear in mind, though, that currently you can change files from BR-8 to VS format but not the other way around.

The BR-8's internal digital mixer has gain, EQ, pan, and effects sends on each channel. I was disappointed to discover that the mixer's EQ section lacks a sweepable midrange control (although you do get sweepable mids in the Insert effects).

FRET-FRIENDLY FXThe BR-8 boasts dual effects processors, a luxury usually found only on larger, pricier units. Dual processors provide many more options than a single processor during bouncing or mixdown, and the BR-8 is currently the only unit in its price range that features them. The two effects processors handle both Insert effects (applied during tracking to one channel at a time) and Loop effects (applied to several or all channels at once, like an effects send). The processors can be used in combination, and there are even three algorithms designed for simultaneous recording and processing of guitars and vocals (one algorithm per input).

Besides the amp and cabinet COSM models, all the usual time-based effects (chorus, delay, flange, and so on) are at your fingertips, as are some passable acoustic- and bass-guitar simulators. The vocal-effects bank includes a few modeled "high-end" mic simulators (to improve the sound of a dynamic mic), a noise gate, and a de-esser.

The BR-8's effects are organized graphically, like stompbox effects. They even include icons representing the instruments for which the effects are intended, which makes it easy to see what you're changing. Unfortunately, you can't change the order of effects within the chain; for example, you can't put the compressor after the preamp. All of the effects, some of which are stereo, are processed at 24-bit resolution, and I found them to be very good generally. Some of the preset settings are a bit extreme (harsh equalizers and huge, compressed overdrives, for instance), but the shortcomings are easily remedied with a few tweaks, and all of the presets at least provide good starting points for creating custom sounds.

On the back of the BR-8 you'll find a jack for an optional expression pedal (EV-5), which can be used for controlling volume, pitch-shifting, and/or wah-wah effects. Like I said, this box loves guitars.

FAST TRACKSThe BR-8 provides 2 tracks of simultaneous recording and 8 tracks of simultaneous playback. For each of the 8 primary tracks there are 7 additional virtual tracks, yielding a total of 64 virtual tracks. The BR-8's button-click ease replaces the extensive mixer routing you have to do on similar units. Select the input, select the track, select the virtual track, and hit record. Sure, you can fill in details such as whether you want to record the track dry or with effects, but this little box wants you to get tracking fast. The BR-8 let me record a processed guitar sound within about 15 seconds of plugging in the unit, and little inspiration can be lost in that amount of time.

Navigating a song is easy once you set a few marker points, and punch-ins can be accomplished with an optional momentary footswitch or with the Auto Punch feature, which has its own set of dedicated buttons. Setting Auto punch in and out points is easy, and the punches are perfect (as long as you're playing in the pocket, of course).

The BR-8 also includes all the usual nonlinear editing tools. You can cut, copy, paste, move, and exchange work within and among all 64 tracks. Those tools, combined with track markers and MIDI clock, make editing a no-brainer. If you didn't track to a click, you can still locate the beginning of a sound using Scrub. Unfortunately, the BR-8's scrubbing feature does not include a waveform display.

The single-level Undo and Redo commands let you edit without fear of a permanent goof. Many similar units offer multiple undo layers, but the BR-8's single-level implementation means it has less data to keep up with, which improves the unit's tracking efficiency. In addition, an Optimize command throws away leftover editing and event data, which frees up space for more track time. The BR-8 uses a mild data-compression scheme to extend its recording time, and you can select from three grades of audio resolution. Up to eight sets of mixer and effects settings (scenes) can be stored along with your song for easy recall of a mixdown or bounce.

The BR-8's track-naming capabilities really had me cheering. As you can imagine, with 64 virtual tracks it's easy to (dare I say it?) lose track of your musical bits and pieces. To help you keep them straight, the BR-8 automatically assigns track names based on the input you're recording through. The first track recorded through the Guitar/Bass input is called Guitr1-1; mic input tracks get Mic labels. If you're sneaky and plug a synth into the Guitar/Bass input, you can go back later and edit the name of any track. This is a great feature for any recorder, and even more so on an entry-level one.

WHAT'S MOREOne of the BR-8's handiest features is its built-in rhythm generator, which provides 80 preset patterns to start you grooving. These patterns aren't meant to end up in your final mix, but they let you immediately track to bars and beats of MIDI Clock. What's the advantage? When your mix has to fit into 100 MB of disk space, it makes sense to keep as many instruments as possible in MIDI land. Because the BR-8 generates MIDI Time Code and MIDI Clock, you can sync a drum machine or drive sequenced tracks from a keyboard and submix them with an outboard mixer-all without using up valuable memory. The rhythm generator provides inspiration when you need it (like right now!), a groove to lock into, and the means to create a song with far more than eight tracks.

The BR-8's toolbox also includes an onboard Phrase Trainer and a center cancel feature. The Phrase Trainer lets you record a section from a CD or tape and then slow it to half speed while maintaining the pitch. Center Cancel removes vocals and instrumental parts placed dead center in a mix (though it's not always completely successful with every recording).

Finally, when you power down you don't instantly lose all your data (as you do with most other all-in-one workstations). The BR-8 first prompts you to save your work. The disk drive then spins down, ejects the Zip disk, and shuts off.

IT'S A TAKEThe BR-8 was designed to be a self-contained idea machine that, if used efficiently, could take songs from scratch tracks to a finished production with a minimum of hassle. In fact, if you write and compose on a guitar, the BR-8 can do just about everything but restring your Strat. What with its built-in rhythm generator, bass simulator, and other effects, a musician armed only with a BR-8 and an electric guitar could easily produce the basic tracks for a demo.

The BR-8 is the best value among the current crop of entry-level digital multitrack recorders, and it will serve you well as long as you're willing to be flexible and live with a few restrictions. For example, its inability to record more than two tracks simultaneously may make it unsuitable for recording a full band's demo.

The Zip disk's 100 MB capacity is also an issue, but being in the midst of my fourth full-length CD produced on a Zip-equipped VS-840, I can testify that the obstacle is easily overcome. The key to success with the BR-8 is taking advantage of the onboard editing tools and MIDI sync capabilities. The 100 MB ceiling might even be a benefit, because it forces you to plan ahead, tighten up your songs, and make more focused arrangements. In other words, use the BR-8 wisely, and you may never want to roll tape again.

Steve Broderson writes for a Lexington, Kentucky, advertising agency. He has written and produced original music with home recording gear for 14 years.

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