The explosion of affordable and sophisticated digital multitrackers has produced its share of frustrated musicians. Plunging headlong into the waters of affordable digital recording, they soon discover that they're in over their heads with gear that takes weeks to learn and months to master. Thankfully, the Zoom MRS-1044 has a shallow end for beginners and a deep end for experienced divers.
The MRS-1044 gives you ten tracks of digital audio at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution (onboard effects are processed at 24 bits). Tracks 7/8 and 9/10 are treated as stereo pairs but can be edited separately. Each track has 10 associated virtual tracks, called V-Takes, for a total of 100 tracks per project. Two inputs offer a variety of ways to get sound into the MRS-1044 (see Fig. 1). Both have unbalanced ¼-inch jacks and balanced, phantom-powered XLR inputs; input 1 adds a dedicated guitar and bass input. The MRS-1044 lacks a digital input.
Each input has a trim pot for adjusting gain, a clipping-indicator LED, and a lighted on/off button. Output options include a stereo headphone jack (Zoom thoughtfully oriented the Volume knob upside down, knowing users would likely reach over the unit to adjust it), a stereo pair of RCA outs, and an S/PDIF optical digital out. Auxiliary sends and returns are notably absent, but the makers of this unit assume you need only the effects and accompaniment it can provide.
MIDI In and Out ports let the MRS-1044 send and receive information for its drum and bass generators. It also outputs MIDI Clock, though it cannot receive MIDI Clock or be set to slave to any external signals. Zoom also warns that transmitting MIDI Clock and drum or bass information from the MRS-1044 can interfere with synchronization. Rounding out the back panel are jacks for a punch-in pedal and an expression pedal (neither pedal is included) and a phantom-power switch.
Functions and settings for all-in-one multitrackers are often buried deep within menus. In contrast, the MRS-1044 has an abundance of dedicated controls that, as a bonus, have red LED status indicators. Instant access and visual feedback are major factors in the MRS-1044's ease of use, and its layout is well designed. For instance, the five Track-Parameter buttons are laid out vertically in the same top-to-bottom order as a conventional mixer channel strip: EQ High, EQ Low, two effects sends, and Pan. Also, the large data-input wheel is near the control buttons you'll use it with most often: the cursor keys, Enter, Exit, Undo, and Edit. The effects section is similarly helpful, showing you at a glance which effects are active in any given preset. In addition, the drum/bass pads light as their sounds are played.
The backlit LCD, though not huge, provides track-level information, edit parameters, and time bars and beats information. The alphanumerics are nice and readable, but I would have preferred more display real estate dedicated to mixer levels. The meters also double as indicators to let you know if you've recorded any V-Takes; for that use, the meters are pretty tiny. An audio Scrub feature lets you dial in precise points in your sounds, but there's no waveform display. You can switch your Time Base display from minutes and seconds to bars and beats with the push of a button. In short, the MRS-1044 has a well-thought-out control surface other manufacturers would do well to study.
DRUM 'N' BASS
The MRS-1044 can record only two tracks at a time — not ideal for bands wanting to lay down eight tracks of drums. But the unit seems particularly tailored to the songwriter who's building an arrangement track by track. Besides, who needs eight tracks of drums when you have an onboard drum machine? Many competing multitracks include a rhythm generator, but their limited flexibility and wimpy sounds make it clear that they're only for playing to a beat, not creating a final demo. Zoom upped the ante by including a full-featured, great-sounding drum machine.
Eight rubberized Velocity-sensitive pads control three banks of sounds each (that's a hefty 24 sounds per pattern, more than either of my standalone drum machines). Those sounds are grouped together in 30 drum kits and a stunning 733 preset patterns — with plenty of room for user patterns, too. Like most drum machines, the MRS-1044's Patterns can be programmed and arranged into Songs that lock to your project's tempo. The variety of terrific-sounding samples says that this feature wasn't an afterthought.
The pads also double as input triggers for the onboard bass generator, which includes 15 acoustic, electric, and synth-bass sounds. Each sound covers a five-octave range. Each drum pattern has an associated bass pattern (based on the pattern's musical style); you can modify them or create your own. A keyboard MIDI controller is handy, as tapping on the keys for a bass line is a little tedious. Because you have only eight pads to work with, there's a lot of root-chord and scale switching involved using the data-input wheel, and the end result can be pretty mechanical. For some reason, the process reminded me of playing the handheld Merlin game in the '80s. Having said that, the procedure is more time-consuming than difficult and would be a welcome feature for songwriters without access to a keyboard or bass.
When it's time to plug in and get a signal to the recorder, the MRS-1044 is far from intimidating. Complex digital-mixer operations, such as routing and scene automation, are simplified to push-button operations. For instance, you don't have to tell the mixer to route input 1 to track 9 so you can record on it; the MRS-1044 assumes that because you plugged in to input 1 and hit the Record status button above track 9, that's what you want to do. Bouncing tracks is simple, too. Just press Bounce and set the destination track or tracks to Rec.
Routing is also easy for effects. The Input Source button lets you assign patches to any track, including the drum and bass generators — very cool for whacking out the drum sounds. At the input stage, the only thing that could be confusing is the level-setting procedure. Your inputs have three level controls: a Recording Level knob, an Overall Gain knob, and the Destination Channel fader (used for monitoring your signal). In addition, some insert effects also add or subtract gain, so the signal path requires extra attention.
As mentioned previously, track parameters such as EQ, sends, and pan are controlled by a single row of channel-strip buttons, also with status lights. If you've switched off any of those for a selected track, you can tell at a glance. It bears repeating that such thoughtful engineering makes tracking and mixing much less tedious for beginners and veterans alike.
Mixer and effects settings can be saved as 1 of 100 scenes (per song) and associated with marks you've set, which lets you create a sequence of scenes that automates your changes as the song plays. Again, the procedure is much less complicated than on similar recorders; I just stepped through my marks to the point where I wanted the change to occur, pressed Mark, and dialed in the scene I wanted.
ON YOUR MARK
Marking sections of your song inside the MRS-1044 couldn't be more intuitive, thanks to the six buttons dedicated to the task. The MRS-1044's procedure for setting Auto Punch In/Out points is easier than that of similar recorders. One button sets mark points, one clears them, and two let you step forward or backward through them. The remaining two buttons are dedicated to Auto Punch mode and A-B Repeat mode. To engage either mode, go to your start mark, press Punch or Repeat, step to your end mark, and press it again. You zero in on points in your song in three ways: by specifying bar:beat:tick or Hours/Minutes/Seconds/Frames, or by using the audio Scrub feature.
If you track to the drum machine, Bars and Beats is the fastest time base to work with. Just dial in the first bar of your chorus, verse, or whatever, and press Mark. Zoom could improve on one thing, though: the MRS-1044 lets you scroll through measures and beats using the data-input wheel, but you can't round off the clock ticks to zero. That requires some extra wheel turns that could be eliminated if the locations were always round numbers.
CHAIN OF TOOLS
As in traditional mixers, signals can be processed through inserts or sends. The MRS-1044 has four insert-effects types: Guitar/Bass (100 patches), Line (50 patches), Mic (50 patches), and Mastering (20 patches). Each type has its own status button, and each is constructed of six effects modules in series. Those modules include compression/limiting, an amp or preamp, Zoom's noise reduction (ZNR), a volume-pedal control, EQ, and a delay/modulation effect. Four modules have dedicated status buttons, as well, and the noise reduction, volume pedal, and overall patch level are all grouped under the Total button.
You call up patches by simply pressing the large Effects button. As you scroll through the preset effects with the data-input wheel, each module's button lights if it's used in the patch, providing instant visual feedback of the active effects. To edit any module or algorithm, just press it and then hit the Edit button and cursor through your settings. The two send/return effects, chorus/delay and reverb, are engaged in similar fashion. There are 20 of each type, and they have many editable parameters. If you're keeping score, that's three independent 24-bit stereo effects generators at once.
User settings for send/return and insert effects can be saved, but not in a dedicated user location; you just write over the factory presets. The good news is that once you create an effect you like, it can be shared among projects. No more re-creating that great vocal or guitar setting for every song. Sweet!
CUT … V-TAKE TWO
The MRS-1044 employs the standard editing features found in most portable multitrackers: Cut, Copy, Paste, Move, and Erase. Those are implemented in standard ways, with one exception: undoing any edit requires that you first capture a track in its original form. In similar recorders, that's usually taken care of by the operating system, which keeps track of changes to your data — not so on the MRS-1044. If you don't capture your guitar lead before you record another take, you can't go back with Undo. The same is true for any edit function that copies over or erases data. With all the other elegant things about this unit, I don't understand the reason for that clumsy extra step (maybe I'm just grousing because I always forgot to do it).
Thankfully, recording alternate versions of a track with V-Takes is much easier. A dedicated V-Take button takes you directly to a screen where you can dial in one of ten layers of tracks beneath your primary track. The MRS-1044 even lets you name the virtual tracks, which is a feature I've often wished for, even in higher-priced units. Audio can be copied from any V-Take to any other, providing lots of arrangement flexibility. You can copy, move, or erase tracks individually or in pairs of adjacent tracks (no more than two at a time, though). The MRS-1044 takes an unusually long time to execute those functions, however, and copying pairs of tracks takes even longer.
The MRS-1044 is equipped with a generous 15 GB hard drive. (The hard drive will be increased to 20 GB by the time you read this. A new model, the MRS-1044CD, will have a 40 GB hard drive and an internal CD burner.) No matter how big the drive is, one day you'll manage to fill it up. When that happens, the MRS-1044 has optional user-installable USB or SCSI interface cards ($99 each). The more I thought about it, the wiser Zoom's decision seemed. Because SCSI and USB machines are common, you can buy the card your machine needs. If you don't want such capability, you don't have to pay for it.
The boards come with a CD-ROM of software that lets you back up your projects, convert tracks and V-Takes to editable WAV files, and update your unit's operating system. The Audio File Manager software also offers some great benefits that aren't so obvious. One is the ability to see your tracks and VTakes in a graphical grid format (see Fig. 2). Clicking on Audition lets you hear your tracks (as many as two at a time).
Another big time-saver is the track-renaming feature. That lets you enter names for projects, tracks, and V-Takes with your computer keyboard, which is much less tedious than entering letters one at a time using the data wheel. As cool as Audio File Manager is, as of this writing, the Macintosh is not supported. Zoom hints that Mac support is on its way through software downloads from the Zoom Web site.
During the review period, I laid down some song ideas using only the MRS-1044's internal effects, onboard bass, and drum generator. The basic sound quality was pristine and detailed. Using a Røde NT1 microphone, I dialed in an acoustic-guitar preset and generated a pleasing sound with just a little tweaking. The reverbs and spatial effects are particularly attractive because of their 24-bit resolution. In addition, the great sounds and wide assortment of onboard drums and basses are much more than guide tracks. The biggest disappointment was the electric-guitar presets. For the most part, distortion effects sounded thin and transistory, and few had the personality of a miked amplifier. On the plus side, I created some passable presets from scratch, and there are lots of parameters to tweak. The expression-pedal input is a nice touch, too.
Overall, the MRS-1044's strengths far outweigh any gripes I have. Songwriters — particularly those without access to a drum machine, a sequencer, or a bass guitar — will get a huge bang for their multitracker bucks. If you have a PC with SCSI or USB, definitely spring for the interface card. Newcomers to recording and production can dive in without fear of a steep, frustrating learning curve.
If you've been putting off buying a multitracker because you thought you'd never figure out how to use one, check out the MRS-1044. It sounds and works like a hard-disk recorder should.
Steve Brodersonis an adjunct professor at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, where he teaches audio for media. His recently formed Studio 246 creates original music for broadcast.
portable digital studio
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE5.0DOCUMENTATION4.0VALUE4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy to learn. Intuitive control surface. Great effects. Many extras, such as drum machine and bass sequencer.
CONS: Records only two tracks at a time. Hard drive not upgradable. Macs not currently supported.
Physical Tracks(10) mono; (1) stereo drum; (1) mono bassVirtual Tracks100 (10 per track)Simultaneous Record Tracks2Sampling Rate44.1 kHzSampling Resolution16-bitAnalog Inputs(2) unbalanced ¼" (2) balanced XLR;
(1) ¼" high-impedance guitar/bassAnalog Outputs(2) RCA; (1) ¼" stereo headphoneDigital Output(1) S/PDIF opticalAdditional ConnectionsMIDI In, Out; SCSI or USB (optional); (2) ¼" footpedalsInternal Storage15 GB EIDE hard driveEffects Processors(3) 24-bitSound Enginesample playbackFrequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (±1 dB)Dynamic Range>97 dB (IHF-A)Total Harmonic Distortion<0.02% (@ 400 kHZ)Display2.38" (W) × 1.63" (H) backlit LCDDimensions14.10" (W) × 2.53" (H) × 8.53" (D)Weight9.5 lb.