Good boys and girls, you've been patient. You may now buy a Repeater. After more than a year of anticipation, the hardware loop recorder from Electrix is on the market. Although numerous hardware multitrack recorders are available and a growing number of software programs concentrate on user-friendly loop composition, Repeater is the only hardware device dedicated to recording loops to multiple tracks and matching their tempos without changing pitch or pitch-shifting them without changing tempo.
Truly unique products can become must-have industry standards or niche favorites for those in the know. Repeater may well occupy the latter realm as some users might scoff at its apparent limitations; after all, it lacks massive amounts of tracks, memory, and built-in effects. Yet enlightened musicians will look past mere specifications and see Repeater's enormous potential. Adventurous DJs and live performers should explore its possibilities as an improvisational tool, and inspired recordists of all skill levels likely will lose hours of sleep discovering how much fun a 4-track recorder can be. When you consider how many people, from Underworld's Rick Smith to acclaimed sound designer Eric Persing, began their musical careers with simple sound sources and old 4-track recorders not half as cool as Repeater, you have to wonder what a little repetition could do for your music.
LET'S BEGIN AGAIN
Like all of Electrix's products, Repeater is a 2-rackspace module ruggedly built for regular stage use. If you like, you can remove the rack ears and use Repeater as a tabletop unit. After a few moments getting used to it, you should be as familiar with the smart front panel as the back of your hand. A ¼-inch instrument input and a headphone output with respective level knobs are on the face, but the back is also crowded with connections. Stereo pairs of RCA (phono or line selectable) and ¼-inch inputs are available, though only one pair can be active at a time. A main stereo analog output and an S/PDIF digital output are also present. Effects sends and returns are on deck; the effects sends can be used as auxiliary outputs for tracks 3 and 4, letting you process each track individually. MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports are complemented by a MIDI Channel Selection knob, and a footswitch jack is at hand to control single functions with a standard footswitch or three functions with a DigiTech FS-300 three-button switch.
You can use Repeater's four tracks as four mono tracks, two stereo pairs, or a stereo pair and two monos. Together the four tracks make up one loop. Loops are stored in Repeater's 8 MB of internal memory or on Compact Flash Cards (CFCs). The length and tempo of the first track recorded will determine the loop's length and tempo. Repeater derives the tempo any of three ways: by detecting the tempo of incoming audio, by syncing to the MIDI Clock of an external MIDI device or software sequencer, or by reading the user's preset value. A metronome click is available for musicians playing live parts into the unit.
To record a loop, hit Record on the downbeat to begin and Stop on another downbeat to end. For example, hit Stop on the count of five for a one-bar loop, on the count of nine for a two-bar loop, and so on. Once a track is recorded, it will begin looping immediately. At that point, you can adjust the start and end points, set the pan, play the loop in reverse, or adjust the pitch up as high as one octave or down as low as two octaves. I was generally pleased with the pitch-shifting performance: only a small hint of digital edginess was introduced at the extreme pitch ranges. You can also choose to multiply the loop, which essentially repeats the loop without eating up more memory.
With the first loop recorded, you can keep its recorded tempo or choose to speed it up or slow it down without changing the loop's pitch. Repeater is excellent at increasing tempos. Drum loops and instrument riffs sound perfectly natural at speeds even as fast as +70 bpm. When decreasing loop tempos, Repeater introduces slightly audible stretching effects as early as -10 bpm; however, that faint noise doesn't worsen until the -40 bpm mark. By -90 bpm, drastically stretched sounds take on different characteristics that can be great for resampling and creating new drum hits. Kick drums, for instance, suddenly become boomier, and hi-hats sound edgier and more synthetic.
Each Repeater track can be overdubbed as often as you like; the overdubbed part simply becomes part of the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV file that makes up a track. Overdubbing offers the advantage of saving memory and track space, and one level of Undo is available for overdubbing, track recording, and resampling operations. Resampling is one of Repeater's most important features. With it you can print external effects to a track, bounce any combination of tracks to a mono or stereo track, or permanently record a track's pitch-shift setting.
REPETITIVE STRESS RECORDER
Repeater's incredibly easy operation encourages a flurry of track recording, overdubbing, bouncing, and resampling. With only one level of Undo, save as many incarnations of your tracks and loops as you can and return to them later. Do that by copying loops to a new loop location, which is as easy as pressing the Copy button, choosing a loop location, and pressing Copy again. The problem is that the 8 MB of internal memory are enough for about 85 seconds of track time. If you have one 8-second loop with four tracks, you've already used 32 seconds of track time. Also, the internal memory is like computer RAM, meaning that data is erased if the unit loses power. For permanent backup, use CFCs.
The unit comes bundled with one 16 MB CFC providing a bit less than three minutes of track time. Any loop artist worth his or her salt will eventually need more memory. Kingmax makes the included CFC, and Electrix also endorses SanDisk and Simple Technology cards. Electrix warns that other manufacturers' CFCs may not run fast enough for Repeater's demands; what's more, CFCs must have Type 1 specifications. Type 1 CFCs top out at 256 MB, but Repeater will support Type 1 cards of as much as 512 MB. Removable media is still fairly expensive, but CFC prices recently dropped and should only go lower. Street prices for approved brands of CFCs begin at less than $40 for 64 MB, less than $80 for 128 MB, $135 for 192 MB, and $180 for 256 MB. With a USB CFC reader (about $50 or less), you can back up CFCs to a PC or a Mac.
Because individual Repeater tracks are standard WAV files, you can dump them to a computer for use in a software audio or looping program. Unfortunately, you may not import your own WAV files into the device. Along with the raw WAV files, Repeater saves a proprietary file for each loop and each track containing certain information about that loop or track. Without that file, Repeater will not play a WAV file, meaning no external WAV files can be imported. What you can do on a computer is reorder loops by renaming loop folders with new numbers. For example, you could rename the Loop1 folder Loop2 or any other number through 999.
AN ENCORE PERFORMANCE
Assuming the guise of a DJ, I tested Repeater as a DJ might, recording loops from a record here, adding a snippet from a CD there, and arranging and resampling until completely new loops emerged. Recording precisely timed loops on the first try was easy, not because I have flawless timing but because Repeater buffers a little bit of audio before and after you record. Therefore, it can compensate for any off timing and detect the correct loop points. I anticipate DJs using Repeater to record those spontaneous, perfect moments when two records blend to form a new composition or to lay down improvised loops they can revisit throughout their sets.
I also tried hooking up a footswitch to the unit to immediately control Record and Stop functions. That freed both hands to play a keyboard and fidget with knobs and controls. I played monophonic analog synths into Repeater and created small multitrack arrangements on the fly — very cool!
Repeater can sync to a MIDI sequencer, yet I miraculously found myself eschewing MIDI the majority of the time; nonetheless, I occasionally synced Repeater to a hardware beatbox or an effects processor to get MIDI-synced delays. For the first time in more than a year, I actually made music with my computer turned off. My studio became little more than a turntable, a Repeater, and an effects processor. I wish that Repeater featured a song mode for stringing loops together; instead, you must dial up each new loop and trigger it with the Play key.
Another small nitpick concerns tempo tapping: when I gradually tapped the tempo up from 90 to 130 bpm, for example, Repeater got ahead of itself and played back noticeably faster than 130 bpm for a couple of seconds before catching on to the right tempo.
LIKE A BROKEN RECORD
Not to belabor the point, but using Repeater can help you take a break from the distraction of too many options. It's great that current software programs and sophisticated multitrack recorders can do nearly everything except sing your lyrics for you, but sometimes stripping away those modern conveniences can lead to creativity. Nevertheless, don't be fooled by Repeater's skin-deep simplicity — the unit is a solid performer and deceptively versatile. It can hold its own as a mini recording studio, and amenities such as four individual analog outputs, S/PDIF digital output, and MIDI implementation make it right at home as part of a larger rig. Although Repeater may leave some people scratching their heads, just as many sampleheads will be scratching loops into Repeater.
PROS: Supereasy to use. Auto detection of incoming bpm. Little need to mess with loop points. Unlimited track overdubbing. Effects sends double as auxiliary outputs.
CONS: No track muting. No importing of WAV files. No copy and paste of individual tracks. No song mode.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3.5