Not toolong ago, I declared a moratorium on the seemingly never-endingupgrades required with computer-based digital-audio workstations(DAWs). I freely admit to being intimidated by the expense of a morepowerful computer, switching to USB, replacing my serial MIDIinterfaces accordingly, abandoning or adapting my SCSI drives, and thetrial-and-error nature of upgrades in general. I decided instead tosimplify my life and look for a digital recording system that I couldeasily tote from my studio to a gig or a friend's living room. BecauseI have a fairly extensive MIDI system, I needed a recorder that couldcommunicate with my computer in multiple ways, includingsynchronization and automated mixing. In short, I wanted it all:digital recording with mixing, effects processing, and mastering in asmall portable package.
The recording studio was once the domain of the seasonedprofessional engineer. Anyone seriously considering recording a projectfor posterity would rent time (and presumably, the engineer'sexpertise) at a fully equipped recording studio armed with a goodmultitrack recorder, a capable mixer, racks of dynamics and effectsprocessors, and (of course) a separate recorder for mixdown. Naturally,engaging the services of a full-blown studio cost a pretty penny, evenwithout the cost of mastering.
A little more than a decade ago, the advent of digital multitrackrecording allowed budget-conscious musicians to control their owndestinies. At the time, digital recording gear was limited tocomputer-based systems and modular digital multitrack (MDM) recorders.Those recording systems were either tied to the recording studio orrequired you to transport a boatload of ancillary gear such as mixersand effects processors. Computer systems were prone to crashes and dataloss, and MDMs were bulky rack-mount units with uninformative displaysand limited mixdown capabilities. Even though some modular systems hadexpansion options for effects and dynamics processing, recording andmixdown were mostly abstract processes.
More recently, portable digital studios offer us some of the best ofboth worlds: recording, effects processing, sophisticated mixingoptions with waveform and track displays, cut-and-paste editing, directmastering to CD, and even a degree of expandability in a few cases.What's more, the best of these systems offer the ability to interactextensively with your computer, allowing you to control your recordingand synchronization, automate your effects processors and mixdown withyour computer, and even offload your project to the computer foradditional processing. Today's portable digital studios promisepractically all of the features of a full recording studio (less thesoda machine and bad coffee) in a single unit.
I CONTAIN WORLDS
When EM surveyed portable digital studios in May 1999,author Bob O'Donnell suggested that the devices had their roots in butextended far beyond the archetype of cassette-based multitrack units.Three years later, the resemblance is mostly in size and outwardappearance. Today's portable digital studios pack an amazing amount ofpower into a very small space.
The recorders I looked at have underlying common threads: all recorddigital audio to disk; provide virtual tracks; and offer typical randomaccess editing operations such as copy, cut, and paste. In addition,all of the studios offer scene-based automation, a mixing surface, andinformative displays. However, the units vary widely in complexity;from inputs, outputs, and routing options to sampling rates, bit depth,storage, and display information, every device is different. Perhapsthe best way to decide which portable digital studio is right for youis to consider the ways in which the units differ. To that end, Istocked my home with seven top-of-the-line units — Akai DPS16,Boss BR-8, Fostex VF-16, Korg D1600, Roland VS-1880, Tascam 788, andYamaha AW4416 — and enough documentation for an army of Talmudicscholars, and I got to work. They all yield vivid,professional-sounding results, yet all have different ways of gettingthere.
Downloadcomprehensive charts comparing features and specifications for allmodels mentioned in this article. You must have Adobe Acrobat to viewthese charts.
NOW YOU SEE IT
The most obvious ways in which the units differ from theircassette-studio ancestry are the displays and navigation capabilities.Alongside familiar tape-transport controls and faders are LCDs andnavigation and function buttons. Because most of the signal flow is inthe digital domain, it can be difficult for those accustomed to ahardware modular system to comprehend. In general, the more informationyour portable digital recorder provides, the easier your task will be.But the way the information is presented can be just as important. Forexample, the Boss BR-8 lets you scrub with a Jog/Shuttle wheel andoffers regional editing of tracks but has no waveform display;ultimately, you'll need to confirm your edit regions by ear.
The Fostex VF-16 displays the waveform only in Scrub mode; once youfind a region, you must exit Scrub mode, hit the Store button, andselect a memory location with yet another button. The Roland VS-1880,Akai DPS16, Yamaha AW4416, Tascam 788, and Korg D1600 display thewaveform of a selected track and let you zoom in and out of the timeand amplitude axis. The D1600 and the VS-1880 are the only units thatcan scroll through and update the waveform view during playback, makingit easy for you to play back (or scrub) while punching markers and tolocate points on the fly. The Akai DPS16 offers a waveform view with acontext-sensitive legend displaying the number of samples per dot; zoomin or out on the time axis, and the legend changes sample resolutionaccordingly. You can define an edit point to the single sample level.The Korg D1600, Roland VS-1880, Tascam 788, and Yamaha AW4416 allow youto zoom in to pinpoint edit regions with the scrub wheel and locationmarkers.
Because portable digital studios can circumvent the need for patchbays, the display is critical; routing of channel inputs, effects sendsand returns, and the like is handled by function buttons paired withonscreen menus and displays. The DPS16 and the VS-1880 win top honorsfor informational friendliness when making track-to-channel inputassignments: when you input tracks to mixer channels, an onscreen patchcord extends from track to channel. The Roland VS-1880 even offers EZRouting, an online wizard to walk you through everything from armingtracks and assigning inputs to applying effects.
I GET AROUND
As helpful as the displays may be, you still need to familiarizeyourself with the topology of buttons, menus, and functions for yourrecorder. In that respect, the Boss BR-8 is the simplest to learn. Iwas able to start recording and mixing with hardly a peek at themanual, but that was in part because of the BR-8's limited recordingoptions. Just the same, the unit is logically and ergonomicallydesigned.
The Fostex VF-16 relegates many seemingly unrelated functions to asingle Setup menu button. There, you'll find settings forfile-management tasks, including disk formatting and saving and loadingof songs; time signature settings and MIDI sync and MIDI Time Code(MTC) frame rates; digital I/O settings; soft switches for fader recall(which disables or enables scene-related fader levels); and phantompower. The menu also gives you access to information such as the typeof hard disk installed, its total capacity, remaining capacity, and thenumber of events per song. The logic of that type of user interface maynot appeal to those who prefer separate buttons for related parameters.I found it extremely easy to scroll down the list, select the functionI wanted to change, set it up with a twist of the rotary dial, and getback to the main screen.
The Tascam 788 has a menu arrangement similar to the VF-16's;however, its menu nests related setup parameters in submenus. Forexample, the song menu groups all song-related functions, includingcreating a new song, reverting to a previously saved version, andcopying and deleting entire songs. Similarly, MIDI and sync, diskmanagement, and CD-RW options have separate submenus. For some users,that arrangement may require one push of the Enter button too many;others may appreciate the focus on related settings without peripheralinformation in the display. Nonetheless, the Tascam unit provides aHome/Escape button, which takes you to the topmost screen, even if youare burrowed down a menu or two.
The Korg D1600 is unique in that it uses a touch screen inconjunction with buttons. The screen is a huge help; for example,pushing the Utilities button takes you to nested submenus that you canopen by touching their onscreen tabs. Glide your finger across thescreen, select and adjust your parameter, and you're done. If you wishto do things the old-fashioned way, the unit provides Mode buttons, afour-axis cursor, and an Enter key. The other units need to be set upwith combinations of buttons and a rotary encoder.
Assigning inputs to tracks is a relatively simple task with all ofthe devices. Again, the BR-8 is the easiest to set up. Press a buttonto arm a track, and you're ready to hit the Record button and play.There are no bus assignments. The Tascam 788 and the Fostex VF-16 offera grid of rectangles. Inputs are at the left of the screen, andchannels appear across the top. Both units shine in combining thevirtual with the physical. Select an input button, press a trackbutton, and you're ready. The LCD immediately mirrors yourassignments.
The DPS16's Q-Link Mixer Control (QLMC) feature helps bring thevirtual and physical worlds a little closer together. The upper-rightcorner of the control surface sports six knobs to which you can assignreal-time control of send level, EQ, or effects parameters. Yamaha'sAW4416 has similar dedicated knobs for pan and EQ that immediately callup an informative parameter display on the screen for any selectedchannel. You can defeat the automatic display if you would rather tweakby ear and view the track screen in progress.
The Yamaha AW4416 is the most complex unit I reviewed and the mostdifficult to navigate. It took me about ten minutes to figure out howto open the CD drive. Like most of the recorders I tested, the AW4416has a dedicated area for CD functions, but the Eject and Load buttonsare not visible until you press the Shift key. Clearly, the AW4416 is avery different machine from the rest; it is not a device to approachwith a cassette mini-studio metaphor in mind. If you have experiencewith Yamaha's 02R mixer, you should have little difficulty gettingcomfortable with the AW4416's terrain, but it is hardly an entry-levelmachine. The AW4416 ships with a video that orients you to its userinterface and gives you a deeper appreciation of what the unit can do.At the back of the AW4416 is a port for a serial mouse, which will alsohelp you get around more quickly.
SIX OF ONE
The number of tracks available for recording or playback issomething of a moving target. The Roland VS-1880 leads the pack withplayback of as many as 18 tracks at once. However, track count dependson other variables. As always, the phrase “as many as” is ared flag. The number of tracks available on many of the units dependson the bit depth and the sampling rate you select. For example, theDPS16 can play back 16 tracks at a sampling rate of as high as 48 kHzin 16-bit mode; changing the resolution to 24-bit yields 12 tracks; and24-bit, 96 kHz audio brings the number of playable tracks to 6. Withthe exception of the Tascam 788 and the BR-8, which limit your trackcount to 8, the remaining units provide as many as 16 tracks forplayback. The Fostex VF-16 records only at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, so itstrack count is always 16.
The Roland VS-1880 offers six recording modes. In CDR (CD mastering)and MAS (mastering mixdown) modes, the machine records uncompressedaudio, giving you approximately 200 minutes of recording time at 44.1kHz. The other four modes use various degrees of Roland's proprietarydata compression. MTPro (multitrack) mode is the best of the four; inthat mode, the data compression is so subtle that I was not able toperceive the difference between compressed and uncompressed recordings.MT2 (lower-quality multitrack) and LIV (live recording) modes, thoughstill good, use noticeable data compression.
The net result of Roland's compression scheme is more recording timealong with more record and playback tracks. When recording at 48 kHz inMAS mode, you get only six simultaneous recording tracks and tenplayback tracks.
The number of available inputs for recording also varies. Keep inmind that although you may have the ability to record as many as 16tracks at once, portable units may have less than the full complementof analog inputs. As with the track count, bit resolution and samplingrate determine the number of simultaneous tracks available forrecording. As an example, the Korg D1600 lets you record simultaneouslyon 8 of 16 available tracks with 16-bit, 44.1 kHz settings; if youchoose to record 24-bit, 44.1 kHz audio, you can record only 4simultaneous tracks.
Additionally, you need to consider the types of inputs that comewith the unit. The BR-8 provides only two 1/4-inch balanced inputs, twoRCA inputs, and an unbalanced high-impedance input for guitar. However,you can record only two inputs at a time. The 788 has four 1/4-inchbalanced analog inputs and a pair of 1/4-inch unbalanced auxiliaryjacks. The Fostex VF-16 has eight, two of which offer both 1/4-inch TRSand XLR jacks. You can also use the VF-16's digital inputs for as manyas eight additional tracks. For a complete listing of the I/Ocapabilities of each unit, see the downloadable table.
The current crop of portable digital studios offer virtual tracks,allowing you to record multiple takes of a performance and choose thebest one or to create a composite track from multiple takes. However,implementation varies among units. Some recorders, such as the VS-1880,allocate 16 virtual tracks to each physical track. The Tascam 788 (seeFig. 4) and the Akai offer a pool of 250 virtual tracks thatyou can assign freely to any physical track. The Fostex VF-16, on theother hand, uses Additional Tracks, which are storage locations,essentially. The difference is not simply a matter of terminology; youcannot record to, play back, or edit an Additional Track. You mustinstead perform a track exchange with 1 of the 16 physical tracks toaudition the results. With other units, you simply assign a virtualtrack for recording.
On the Korg D1600 and the Roland VS-1880, virtual tracks gosignificantly beyond the alternate-take functionality of the otherunits. You can bounce your tracks down to virtual tracks even if youhave no more physical tracks left for recording.
SLICE 'N' DICE
Once you have recorded your tracks, you may need to do a bit oftrimming and rearranging here and there. All of these studios are up tothe task; nonetheless, some are more capable than others. Each unitlets you define regions that you can copy, cut, move, delete, insert,and so on. The Korg D1600, the Tascam 788, and the Fostex VF-16 requireyou to set up region markers in advance of your edit; the YamahaAW4416, Roland VS-1880, and Akai DPS16 offer preselected regions andthe ability to define edit points numerically from a window in the editscreen. The DPS16's edit windows interact nicely with the track Selectand Record buttons. For instance, to copy an area of track 1 and insertit into track 3, press the track 1 Select button and the track 3 Recordbutton to highlight the source and destination and draw a virtual patchcord between them. To perform the operation on the same track, simplypress the Select and Record buttons for that track number.
One editing feature that puts a computer workstation ahead of mostportable digital studios is the ability to move mass chunks of audiodata, making it easy to rearrange song form should the need arise. Withportable digital studios, most editing can be done only one track at atime, so moving entire verses, choruses, and bridges on a portable unitcan be an abstract and mind-numbing exercise. However, the RolandVS-1880's Song Arrange feature is pointer based, letting you identifyregions of your song with markers and nondestructively rearrangeplayback of the regions in any order, in much the same way you wouldcompile an Edit Decision List.
The Song Arrange screen uses markers to indicate the regions youwish to rearrange. You simply assign a number to the markers, hit theExecute function button, and the VS-1880 dutifully rearranges yoursong. The Akai DPS16 and the Korg D1600 can perform multiple trackedits to achieve the same result (albeit with destructive edits), butnone of the other units can rearrange song structure except on atrack-by-track basis. It's hard to beat Roland's Song Arrange display,which gives an overview of the entire song and displays marker tabs atthe bottom of the screen.
The Yamaha and Korg units provide drive bays forswappable hard disks and a CD-RW drive. Installing the drives is asnap. All recorders except for the BR-8 offer ports for external SCSIdevices, so if you already own a SCSI CD-RW, you can press it intoservice and avoid the extra expense (provided that it is a unitrecommended by the manufacturer). Roland's VS-1880 requires the use ofits VS-CDRII ($750). Considering the price of the average SCSI CD-RW,Roland's VS-CDRII is somewhat costly, but you can also use the drivewith your computer.
One feature I love most on the portable digital studiosis the ability to integrate with a computer-based workstation. Theunits offer digital output and synchronization with your computer. Allof the recorders support MIDI Machine Control (MMC), albeit withslightly different implementation. A case in point is the BR-8; becauseit has only a MIDI Out port, it must always be the master device forMMC and sync. That means you can slave your sequencer (or anotherrecording device) to the BR-8, but you can't control the unit'srecording processes from your computer. Each recorder supports MTC andMIDI Clock, and each one locked in without problems.
The Roland VS-1880, the Akai DPS16, and the Korg D1600can slave to MTC and serve as the master source. The D1600 can evencapture your sequencer's tempo map, but the Korg units support a framerate of only 30 frames per second, nondrop. That is unfortunate becauseit removes an otherwise qualified unit from consideration for film andtelevision work. Hopefully, a future software update will address thatlimitation. The Yamaha AW4416's connectivity is a cut above the restwith the addition of Word Clock I/O for digital-audio synchronization.In addition to MIDI In and switchable Out/Thru jacks, the AW4416 offersa dedicated MIDI output only for MTC; the unit filters extraneous MIDImessages from the synchronization pipeline.
Perhaps the next most important feature isMIDI-controlled dynamic automation. The ability to capture, tweak, andplay back your fader moves, settings, and more is a tremendous asset.Typically, you synchronize your sequencing software to the recorder,and then from your recorder, you record fader and panning moves.Adjustments made from your recorder's controls send MIDI CCs. You canthen fine-tune your moves in the sequencer and play the messages backto the recorder, which dutifully follows the computer's instructions.You can also store multiple mixes on your computer's hard disk. The twoodd birds in the lot are the Akai DPS16 and the Korg D1600, which donot offer built-in dynamic automation but are able to send and receiveCCs for automation via MIDI. The Tascam 788 responds to CCs for mixing,but it doesn't send them. So unless you want to mix with a mouse, youwill need a MIDI control surface. The AW4416 does not use dynamicautomation through MIDI; it relies instead on its powerful built-inautomated mixing capabilities and motorized faders. Finally, the Yamahacan switch between scene settings with MIDI Program Change messages.Scenes are useful for establishing snapshot settings of differentregions of the recording, but they don't provide the continuity ofdynamic automation. The units that implement dynamic automation alsoprovide scene automation using MIDI Program Change messages.
Each portable digital studio I tested supports MMC tosome degree. MMC lets you arm or disable tracks, locate precise regionsof your song, punch in, and rehearse punches (if your recorder supportsRehearse mode), all from your computer. MMC also makes it easy tocontrol multiple machines from a central location. It comes in handy ifyou are overdubbing live performances with MIDI virtual tracks, becauseyou can perform quick edits of your MIDI parts on your sequencer tosuit the performer's taste. For example, you can quickly and easilytranspose a song's MIDI component if your vocalist spontaneouslydecides that the key is too low; meanwhile, your recorder is stilllocked in and ready to go. However, not all of the recorders implementMMC bidirectionally. For example, the AW4416 receives but doesn't sendMMC, so you can't do remote-control recording on a second recorderwithout bringing a computer into the process.
All seven recorders offer at least S/PDIF output, sotransferring audio to DAT or to your computer's hard disk is a breeze.After transferring audio, you can offload tracks or entire songs toyour computer for editing with your choice of software tools. Ofcourse, not all of the units offer S/PDIF input, so getting tracks backto your portable digital studio may prove to be problematic. Onepossible work-around is to save your edited tracks as WAV files andburn a CD. The Fostex VF-16 is the only unit that comes standard witheight channels of ADAT and two channels of S/PDIF I/O (see Fig.6). You can change the I/O configuration in the Setup menu.Because the Fostex offers both Lightpipe and S/PDIF on the same ports,the jacks use optical connectors, so you may need to consider anoptical-to-coaxial converter to share data with your coaxial-equippedgear.
Support for saving and loading WAV files is becomingmore prevalent, providing yet another means of moving data back andforth between your portable studio and your computer. WAV-file supportalso opens up the portable digital studio to the enormous library ofloop-construction-kit sample CDs. I imported WAV files from aconstruction-kit sample CD to the D1600 without a single hitch. TheAW4416 is a bit less transparent in that regard; navigating around theImport WAV menu requires multiple cursor moves alternating with therotary dial and the Enter button. Nevertheless, that unit offers moreimport options on the same page. For example, you can pinpoint yourfile's new track and time location on the same page that you select thefile. The Akai DPS16 supports saving and loading of WAV files to eitherFAT 16- or FAT 32-formatted disks. The VF-16 can only load WAV filesfrom the root directory, so loading from stock sample CDs is out of thequestion. The Fostex, Yamaha, and Korg units also allow you to exportsongs and tracks as WAV files to FAT 16-formatted hard disks. Some ofthe other units don't support WAV files at all.
I found special hardware and software highlights ineach of the machines. The Yamaha AW4416 offers preset EQ libraries fordifferent applications to get you started; a collection of settings fordrums proved invaluable for shaping my drum machine sounds. You caneasily adjust the settings and create your own libraries. Libraries canalso be created for signal flow and effects processors. I liked theYamaha's scene increment and decrement buttons, which were especiallyuseful in conjunction with the dedicated Pan and EQ knobs. If I made achange to a channel's EQ setting, I merely had to hit the Scene Plusbutton to advance to the next scene and make a change there. Theupper-right corner of the window lets you know which scene you areworking on.
The AW4416 includes a limited but useful sampler. Youcan sample audio from the built-in CD-RW and import track data or WAVfiles, but you cannot sample directly from external sources. You canassign samples to any of the two banks of sampling pads and play themback. The Yamaha is also the only unit with a separate large-size levelmeter, which is a godsend if you need to monitor input levels andrecord at the same time (see Fig. 7). It's worth mentioningthat the Yamaha is the only unit that provides expansion slots foradditional digital or analog I/O. Together, Yamaha and Waves aredeveloping a plug-in DSP card that includes the Waves L1Ultramaximizer, Renaissance compressor and EQ, TrueVerb, SuperTapdelay, and DeEsser.
Several units provide quick setup routing features; Iparticularly appreciate Tascam's take on that. Pressing the 788's QuickSetup button opens a menu of preset routing options for recording,mixdown, bouncing to tracks 7 and 8 for CD mastering, and gainingaccess to other libraries for scenes and signal routing. The RolandVS-1880, Tascam 788, and Fostex VF-16 permit varispeed recording orplayback, which allows you to adjust tracks for variations inpitch.
The Boss BR-8 and the Korg D1600 offer an assortment ofdrum patterns that can serve as a metronome or as drum tracks in yoursong. Drum sounds seem to age quickly, so it's nice that the BR-8 cantransfer MIDI note data to an external drum machine or your sequencerfor a sonic face-lift. The BR-8 sounds are mapped to General MIDI (GM)note numbers, a practice fairly standard among drum machines thesedays. Speaking of drums, I appreciate the D1600's ability to reversetracks — great for the “Strawberry Fields” drumeffect.
The switchable ADAT/S/PDIF I/O of the VF-16 is awelcome addition for anyone wishing to bring VF-16 tracks into an ADATsystem or vice versa. As mentioned earlier, you can use the ADAT inputsfor eight additional track inputs when recording.
I have scads of MIDI files in my computer consisting ofdisembodied ideas for bridges, verses, choruses, and grooves; any ofthem could be useful somewhere. Every now and then, an inspirationstrikes for joining a couple of them together. Doing that is notdifficult with MIDI data, but it can be a frustrating task with digitalaudio. The Roland VS-1880, however, can take an entire song and combineit with another, making it easy to experiment with combining sectionsfor other songs. Roland also ships the VS-1880 with a copy of Emagic'sLogic VS (Mac/Win), which lets you perform graphical editingof waveform data and mixer and effects parameters, and enables MIDIsequencing.
Akai bundles Mesa II DPS16 Editor (Win) withthe DPS16. The software sequences faders, EQ, effects, and more. Onescreen offers envelope-style editing of fader moves. You also get ascreen that lets you visually fine-tune your mix down to a singleevent.
Finally, some features may be so obvious that I caneasily overlook them here. The Tascam and the Fostex units are thesmallest of the units I reviewed and can fit into a laptop computercarrying case (see the sidebar “Beyond Multitracking”).
WHAT'S UP, DOC?
With all of the features portable digital studioscontain, documentation can be as important as a unit's user interface.Simple icons can read like hieroglyphics without clear explanations inprint. The Roland VS-1880's documentation includes an owner's manual, areference manual, a tutorial, and a brief but helpful handbook onrecording basics. The lot is clear and well written.
The Akai manual is not nearly so helpful; for onething, it doesn't have an index, so you must use the table of contentsto find what you need. The single Korg D1600 manual is all too brief,and it could stand a more comprehensive index. Fortunately, the KorgWeb site is expected to have a PDF-format tutorial manual posted by thetime this article goes to print. The Tascam 788 provides a tutorial, anowner's manual, and a four-page overview of the unit; all thedocumentation is well written and contains clear diagrams.
As portable as the units are, you may still want toinvest in ancillary devices for recording. For example, if you are notsatisfied with the quality of your unit's built-in preamp, you may wantto consider an external preamp with digital outputs.
You may also want to experiment with dedicatedhigh-quality A/D converters. If your unit has digital I/O (some offeronly digital outputs), you can record into the external converter andpass the audio into the unit's digital input.
You may find it necessary to digitally transfer data toor from a device with a different S/PDIF connector than the one on yourmachine. Quite a few inexpensive boxes that can take input from coaxialS/PDIF cables and send the data out to an optical jack and vice versaare on the market.
You'll need to monitor your recordings; check outRoland's DS-90A ($595 each) or DS-50A powered monitors ($349 each).Those speakers provide balanced analog inputs using Neutrik combo jacksand S/PDIF digital input with both coaxial and optical connectors. Themonitors are especially effective when used with the VS-1880; it offersmodeling algorithms for different speakers, allowing you to test yourmix on a car stereo without having to get into your car, forexample.
The smaller units fit nicely into wheeled, paddedairline porter cases designed for laptop computers. I can carry myrecorder power supply, a SCSI CD burner, a couple of small condensermics and cables, power supplies, an optical-to-coaxial converter, a fewCDs, and the manuals — with room to spare — in a paddedcase with an extendable handle and wheels. If your recorder is roughlythe same size as the Fostex or the Tascam, it should fitcomfortably.
CHEFS OF THE FUTURE
The portable digital studios discussed in this articleare by no means the only units in circulation. Several companies offerproducts with similar user interfaces at less-expensive price points.For instance, Roland has three other portable digital studios. TheVS-890 is a 24-bit studio with as many as eight simultaneous tracks ofrecording and eight tracks of playback (six tracks in thehighest-resolution recording mode). Korg offers the D12, which has manyof the D1600's features in a 12-track unit (without the touch-screeninterface). Fostex offers the VF-08 for eight tracks of uncompressed16-bit audio. Akai's DPS12-I gives you a maximum of 12 tracks forrecording and mixing. I included those units in the “PortableDigital Studio Features” table for comparison.
Portable studios have certainly come a long way sincethe days of their cassette mini-studio ancestors. With greaterprocessing power, where will those machines go? As this article goes topress, several new portable digital studios have appeared on thehorizon. The Akai DPS24 will add motorized faders, as many as 24 tracksof recording, and stereo time-stretching capabilities. Among otherfeatures, the Roland VS-2480 will offer 24-bit, 96 kHz recording;motorized faders; and connectors for a mouse, ASCII keyboard, and a VGAmonitor, enabling drag-and-drop track editing.
The trend with portable digital studios seems to pointtoward assimilation of computer-DAW functionality; in the future, youmight see new features such as amplitude-based waveform slicing forchanging tempo, pitch, or even the feel of audio tracks. Such featuresare already available on synthesizers and hardware remix units, soimplementation on a portable digital studio is not a great stretch ofthe imagination.
With MIDI I/O already included on all of the unitsmentioned, perhaps a built-in MIDI sequencer and a virtual synthesizeror two are not out of the question. As with computer DAWs, the futureof portable digital studios appears to be wide open to innovation. Therecorders already offer tremendous power in the here and now. Whywait?
EM assistant editor Marty Cutler will eventually archive hiscollection of vinyl LPs when he gets his turntable repaired.
Korg USA, Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com
Roland Corporation U.S. tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com
Tascam tel. (323) 726-0303; Web www.tascam.com
Sidebar: BEYOND MULTITRACKING
Apart from recording and mastering of your musical masterpieces, thesheer portability and versatility of portable digital studios make themgreat tools for other tasks. Here's a list of ideas for extending theusefulness of your portable digital studio.
I have a ton of LPs, tapes of live gigs, and miscellaneous audiothat occupy a good deal of real estate in my studio. As much as I wouldlike to clear out the space for other uses, those recordings are nearand dear to me. If you are in the same boat, why not archive your vinyland cassettes on audio CDs? Any recorder with CD-RW capabilities isperfect for compiling your LPs and cassettes in CD form, and you caneasily doctor your cassettes with the recorder's onboard EQ.
It's easy to create your own sample CDs. Consider everything fromdrum loops and entire grooves to single-note instrument samples; allare fair game. You can press your portable digital studio into serviceby exporting WAV files to disk. First, record your samples to a trackor pair of tracks. If you are recording multisamples, make sure toleave a reasonable gap of silence between notes. After you export thetrack or tracks as a WAV file and pull the file into a digitalaudio-editing program, slice the track into separate samples and savethem to disk. You can then use your computer to burn a CD of WAV files— some samplers will read WAV files directly from CD. Of course,you can also burn audio sample CDs. In that case, you can record ametronome count off as a cue for triggering your sampler.
If your portable digital studio offers time compression andexpansion, you can record that tricky musical passage, slow it down,and learn it. For example, the Boss BR-8 has a Phrase Trainer featurethat lets you record a musical passage to the last two tracks. You canhalve the playback speed without affecting pitch and even cancel soundsmixed in the center if you want to play along.