KORG D16

If anyone had asked me just a few years ago whether I thought I would ever be able to bring a complete digital recording studio into bed with me, I would
Author:
Publish date:

If anyone had asked me just a few years ago whether I thought I would ever be able to bring a complete digital recording studio into bed with me, I would have thought they were more than a little weird. Amazingly enough, however, I found myself doing just that while reviewing Korg's D16 Digital Recording Studio. (My wife thought that I was pretty strange for doing so, but that's a story for another day.)

The cobalt blue D16 is impressively compact and lightweight, managing to pack in almost everything you need to record professional-quality, 16-track digital recordings anywhere that you can find power. Topping the list of features is a graphical touchscreen interface to control the device, complete with waveform editing. You'll also find a multiplicity of built-in effects (up to 11 are available at once), a good assortment of analog and digital inputs, a 24-channel mixer, an internal 2.1 GB hard drive, and an external SCSI connector. Heck, it even includes drum patterns and has a built-in microphone!

Korg clearly learned a great deal in producing the D8, its first portable digital studio. With the D16, the company has addressed the D8's shortcomings, taken all of its good ideas, and added more features. The end result is one impressive recorder.

FIT AND FINISHPulling the D16 out of the box, the first thing you notice about the unit is how small it is. Weighing only 4.4 pounds and measuring just 14 inches wide by 2 inches high by 9 inches deep, the D16 seems almost too small to contain its own feature set. However, as a result of its tiny size, you can bring it to bed for some late-night manual reading or tote it to a gig or practice session.

Other than its size, the most salient element of the device is its large, angled TouchView LCD. Based on an updated version of the touchscreen technology found in some of Korg's high-end synthesizers, the D16's backlit 240-by-64-pixel display provides a wealth of useful feedback. (And yes, it does have a dedicated contrast knob on the back.) On a piece of equipment as full-featured and complex as the D16, the type of screen and the information that it provides go a long way toward determining the recorder's overall usability. Thankfully, in this regard the D16 delivers in spades. The TouchView screen is nicely designed and very easy to read. In fact, the only personal digital recorder screen that surpasses the D16's is the larger display found on Roland's more expensive VS-1680 (although it's not a touch screen).

In addition to the large screen, the D16's interface is driven by numerous dedicated function buttons that are located above the unit's transport controls. You can choose from a wide range of system settings and parameters simply by selecting one of the rubbery buttons, and then touching the screen. If you prefer, you can use the unit's cursor control as well. You can also flip through multiple pages within a particular area by simply pressing the dedicated function button repeatedly. All in all, it's a fast and intuitive interface that will help keep the equipment out of the way when all you want to do is record. Still, this is a deep, feature- laden device, so plan to keep the manual by your side until you fully grasp the machine's way of working. Sadly, the included documentation is only mildly helpful in figuring out the D16-a tutorial video would be a great aid.

The D16's front panel features a master fader, transport controls, and the now ubiquitous jog wheel for making editing adjustments. Rounding the panel out are 12 input faders; the first 8 are mono, and 9 through 16 are stereo pairs. Faders 1 through 8 each have a pan control, and the stereo pairs each have a balance knob.

GET CONNECTEDWhen it comes to connecting the D16 to the rest of your gear, you'll find the device to be very well equipped. Across the front are four balanced analog inputs with dedicated trim controls: two are traditional 1/4-inch jacks, and two feature the combination XLR/1/4-inch plug design that lets you use either type of connector. In addition, the first input also offers a dedicated 1/4-inch guitar jack that's designed specifically for direct recording of electric or acoustic-electric guitars.

Unfortunately, neither of the two XLR connectors offers phantom power, which would be convenient for using the low-cost condenser microphones that are now available for home or personal studio use. Other connectors on the front of the device are a 1/4-inch headphone jack, a footswitch jack, and a 1/4-inch expression pedal jack that can be used to control the device's built-in effects in real time.

The back panel adds four more balanced analog 1/4-inch input jacks with dedicated trim controls, optical S/PDIF stereo inputs and outputs, a 1/4-inch mono aux send, and stereo RCA master outs. Another pair of stereo RCA monitor outs has its own dedicated level control. MIDI devices are connected with MIDI in/out jacks. A 25-pin SCSI connector can access external hard disks or removable media, as well as CD-R/CD-RW drives (see Fig. 1). Connected SCSI devices can be used for additional recording or for backup. However, note that backing up to CD-R is not supported in the first version of the D16's operating system, though Korg originally promised that it would be. Fortunately, Korg plans to release a free software upgrade this summer that will address this problem and add many useful features (more about the upgrade later).

All told, the D16's connection options are broad enough that most people can plug in all the components they've got without needing to switch anything when moving from recording to mixdown. I'm particularly fond of the monitor outputs and dedicated level control, as simple as they may be. On similar units, finding out how to set up and control your monitors can be inordinately difficult. I would have liked a few more XLR mic inputs in case I wanted to record, say, two singers and a guitar at once; but otherwise there's plenty of room to grow.

Another "connection" that deserves mention is the D16's built-in microphone, which offers a three-way switch that lets you turn it off or set it to input 1 or 2. One of the D16's niftiest features is a built-in chromatic tuner that works with plugged-in devices and purely acoustic sources. In order to make it work with acoustic instruments, however, Korg had to build in a microphone. Once it did, the company quickly realized that the same simple dynamic microphone could be used for recording quick audio notes or reminders (sometimes called slating) and for recording sudden inspirations, all without the need to plug anything in. The built-in mic certainly won't replace any of your dedicated mics, although you can run it through the D16's microphone modeling effects for added punch (more on this later). Nonetheless, many people will find the built-in mic to be a very handy addition.

ENLIGHTENED DISK COURSEThe recording process on the D16 is straightforward and is similar to that of other portable digital studios. You assign an input to a mixer channel via a dedicated Input page, and that mixer channel is hard-wired to the recording track of the same number. With the D16, you can record up to 16 tracks of uncompressed 16- bit, 44.1 kHz digital audio (8 tracks can be recorded simultaneously). With uncompressed 24-bit, 44.1 kHz recording, the number of physical tracks drops down to 8, with 4 tracks that can be recorded at once. Because the D16's A/D and D/A converters operate with 24-bit precision (the internal mixer's processing is 32-bit), this is a true 24-bit recording mode, unlike the pseudo 24-bit setting found on Roland's VS-1680.

Each input can be routed through the mixer's 3-band sweepable mid EQ and through one of the dedicated insert effects before it's recorded to disk. If you want to work with an external signal processor, you can use the mixer's Aux Send control. The EQ controls offer basic sound shaping and allow you to invert the phase of an input signal, but I found their onscreen layout to be a bit confusing. I would have really liked one additional assignable parameter knob per mixer channel that could be used to quickly tweak EQ or other settings.

Once you have all the input levels, EQ, and effects set up, you can store your mixer settings as a Scene. Up to 100 Scenes are available per song, and you can manually or automatically switch between Scenes during playback, recording, and mixing. For example, you can automate Scenes from a sequencer via Program Change messages, but the D16 doesn't support any kind of dynamic automation-not even via external MIDI continuous controllers-which is unfortunate.

However, Korg plans to release a free upgrade to version 2 of the OS this summer. The new software will add the ability to send and receive all mixer parameters, including panning and fader controls, via MIDI Continuous Controller messages. Another useful track-editing feature in the upgrade will be a Fade In/Fade Out command. The software will also allow the D16 to import and export track data as WAV files. The upgrade will be available on CD and as a download at the Korg Web site.

To simplify the recording process, the D16 has many of the features that you would expect in a well- equipped personal digital recorder, including autopunch in and out, loop recording, and trigger recording. In addition, the D16 offers up to 8 virtual tracks per physical track. Thus, you could have up to 128 virtual tracks per song, although you can only play back 16 physical tracks at once. Nonetheless, for recording multiple takes of solos and other parts, virtual tracks are a godsend. The ability to easily view (with adjustable peak hold times) prefader and postfader input and track levels is another of the D16's recording amenities, as is the separate cue mix for monitoring. The unit also has a dedicated Solo button and a flexible architecture that lets you quickly hear a single track or groups of tracks during the recording, editing, and mixing process.

ART AND ARCHITECTURETwo of the D16's most exciting features are its extensive array of built-in effects and its overall effects architecture. The device features 192 preset effects organized into different categories, and includes room for 192 additional user effects. You can also apply up to eight independent insert effects, two independent master effects, and one dedicated final effect for mixdown. As a result, up to four different multi-effects programs can be applied to an audio signal. Each of these programs can consist of several individual effects-the insert effect as well as one or both of the two master effects (depending on how you adjust the appropriate mixer channel's Effects Send 1 and 2 settings). Lastly, the final effect can be applied to the overall mixer output. This scenario may seem like overkill for many recording applications, but it shows that the D16's effects architecture is flexible enough to do just about anything you want it to. You can apply any of the effects to an input channel or a playback track, so you have the option to record a track with signal processing or to record dry and then experiment with different effects later.

As impressive as this arrangement may be, it can be confusing, and the effects architecture does have some limitations. Specifically, the Insert Effects are available in four different modes: one mode offers eight mono inputs and eight mono outputs, another uses four mono inputs and four mono outputs, a third has two stereo inputs and two stereo outputs, and a fourth mode yields two mono inputs and two stereo outputs. Like any other digital device, the D16 has a fixed amount of processing bandwidth. Consequently, the variety, quality, and depth of the effects programs vary according to the different modes. In the 8-in/8-out mode, for example, the 20 available effects programs are limited to single effects, whereas the 40 programs available in the 4-in/4-out mode typically feature two effects per program. In the two different dual-input modes, the 68 available programs are all complex multi-effects, each consisting of several independently adjustable individual effects.

The bottom line here is that if you want to use the more complex multi-effects chains, you'll be limited in the number of insert effects that you can use at once. In practical use I don't believe this to be a serious limitation-you can always record a few tracks dry and then apply the complex programs as insert effects later in the mixdown process.

The available effects sound first-rate and include all the types of effects that you'd expect in a modern digital recording device: reverbs, delays, chorus, flanger, distortion, dynamics processing, and pitch- shifting. There are some other effects that you might not have expected, such as the microphone and guitar- amp simulation models that Korg refers to as REMS (Resonant structure and Electronic circuit Modeling System). These models attempt audio alchemy by taking sounds from inexpensive microphones or direct- injected guitars and converting them into signals that emulate characteristics of more expensive microphones or popular guitar amplifiers. I'm not sure that the emulations are exact duplicates, but there's no doubt that these modeling effects are useful and offer good-sounding, intriguing ways to treat plain vocal and guitar tracks.

In addition to the modeling effects, the D16 offers several useful options, such as multiband dynamics compression and other mastering-type effects. Each of the effects offers a wide range of editable parameters, and many have the ability to control certain parameters in real time, either with the expression pedal jack or with MIDI continuous controllers-a nice touch.

GROOVE 'N' SYNCThe D16 carries over some of the neat rhythm and synchronization ideas originally introduced in the D8. First, it offers 215 built-in preset drum-machine patterns. These patterns can't be edited, but they cover a wide variety of musical genres. They're tremendously helpful, either for use as a metronome with a groove or for songwriting; the audio quality of the drum samples in the D16 is good enough to record. It would be great if you could create and edit your own patterns, but presets are better than nothing.

Another cool feature carried over from the D8 is support for tap tempo. For example, you may want to record an acoustic guitar track and then sweeten your tracks with MIDI parts. You can tap along with the beat of the acoustic guitar track and automatically generate a MIDI tempo map that can drive your sequencer and keep it in perfect sync. If you prefer, you can also record a tempo map from a sequencer into the D16 and then use it to drive the D16's metronome, rhythm machine, and the optional bar:beat display.

One minor but notable limitation is that in the original version of the OS, the D16 can send MIDI Time Code (MTC) but does not receive it-the D16 must serve as the master clock. Conversely, although the D16 can respond to MIDI Machine Control (MMC) messages, it does not generate them. Again, the release of Korg's version 2 software will enable the D16 to send and receive both MTC and MMC messages.

EDITING POWERLike other digital recorders, the D16 offers a wealth of editing options, including the standard ability to copy, insert, erase and delete portions of any track or virtual track. It can also swap, reverse, and optimize sections of audio. The D16's time-compression and expansion options are useful for slightly shortening or lengthening a single track or several tracks at once, as well as for adapting drum loops or other sampled phrases for use in a song.

The D16 includes a dedicated scrub button that you can use to fine-tune your edit points. When you select it, the screen switches to a waveform display of the active track. In addition, many of the edit functions include a Wave button that lets you view and set edit locations in finer detail. You can vertically or horizontally zoom into the waveform display, although you won't have the level of detail or control that you can get from computer-based audio-editing software.

MIXDOWN MAGICWhen it comes time to create a finished stereo product, the D16 offers several useful options. First, you can use one of two special bounce modes that let you record the final stereo mix on the D16 itself-either by mixing 14 tracks down to 2, or by mixing 16 tracks onto 2 virtual tracks. In addition, you can mix up to 24 independent signals at once by using the D16's Sub Input feature. This enables you to add up to 8 live or sequenced tracks to the 16 onboard tracks on mixdown. Many home and personal studio recordists have been dreaming of this kind of flexibility-it's nice to see Korg deliver it.

SIZING IT ALL UPDespite strong competition in the portable digital studio market, the D16 can hold its own against virtually any of its competitors. It doesn't offer all of the professional niceties that you'll find in the VS-1680, such as phantom power, a larger display, and advanced synchronization options. However, it has many features that its competitors can't touch, including true 24-bit recording options, built-in drum tracks, and an extensive and flexible effects architecture.

The audio quality of the D16 is superb, and its large touchscreen makes it easy to use. I have a few minor feature quibbles with the device, but they can all be fixed in software, and Korg appears to be already working on most of them. If you're looking for a home recording device that you can live, learn, and grow with, the D16 is an excellent choice.

Former EM editor Bob O'Donnell is a computer-industry analyst at IDC, the author of Personal Computer Secrets (IDG Books), and the host of the O'Donnell on Computers radio program. His Web site is www.everythingcomputers.com.