If James Bond had a mission to write and record a song, Q wouldcertainly give him a PS-02 Palmtop Studio. It doesn't shootlaser-guided missiles or cut through steel doors, but the latestoffering from Zoom packs music-making firepower. Billed as“the world's smallest recording studio,” it combines amultitrack recorder, a mixer, an effects processor, and a bass anddrum machine into a box that fits in your pocket.
Because the PS-02 is such a unique product, it's difficult tocompare it to anything. The 3-track digital-audio recorder has tenvirtual tracks for each physical track, all with auto-punch andbounce capabilities. Audio is recorded directly to a SmartMediacard rather than to RAM or tape, so the maximum recording timedepends on the card's capacity.
To inspire and accompany your musical ideas, 200 preset drum andbass patterns can be arranged in any order. The patterns aresequences of varying lengths that you use to trigger the internalROM samples. Fifty effects are tailored for guitar, bass, keyboard,and vocals. The unit boasts a built-in condenser microphone and achromatic tuner as well.
To connect external audio sources, there are two inputs: a¼-inch unbalanced high-impedance jack for an instrument or micand an ⅛-inch stereo minijack for sources such as CD orMiniDisc players. The PS-02's audio outputs are a ¼-inchstereo TRS jack and a stereo minijack for headphones. All ins andouts are analog, and there are no MIDI I/O capabilities. The PS-02can be powered by the included A/C adapter or by four AAAbatteries, which provide as much as four hours of continuousoperation.
GIMME A GROOVE
To road test the PS-02, I followed the well-written manual'ssuggestions for a typical tracking session. First I selected a songlocation; a single SmartMedia card can store up to 100 songs. ThenI specified the song length in measures, selected a tempo, and laiddown a groove with the drum machine. The percussion samples, whichare quite good, come straight from Zoom's RhythmTrak series. Youcan't program specific beats on the PS-02 the way you can on mostdrum machines; instead, you select from a list of patterns in avariety of musical styles.
Selecting and entering rhythm patterns is a simple procedure.Using the PS-02's three multifunction sliders, you scroll throughthe available patterns and insert them wherever you want. You cango back later and rearrange the patterns, add drum fills andvariations, and delete unneeded measures. To further tailor thesound, you can choose from six different drum kits and auditionyour choices as you make adjustments.
Programming the bass track is a bit trickier. An associated bassline usually follows the kick drum in the drum patterns. Using thesliders, you specify the root note and the chord for each measurein the bass pattern. You can program a chord change in the middleof a measure, but it has to fall on the beat. The down side to thiskind of pattern-based sequencing, of course, is that you can'tprogram a note-for-note bass line.
Programming the bass is much slower than programming the drumtracks, especially if you're accustomed to playing by ear. Theprocess is easy enough, but it's not particularly intuitive. WhenI'm writing a song, I'd rather be playing than programming. I don'tnormally think, “Hey, a scale based on a G7 sus4 chord wouldsound great with this riff!” I just compose a bass part byplaying it.
Fortunately I had the luxury of recording an electric bass onone of the audio tracks. If you don't have a real bass at yourdisposal, though, the PS-02 provides five types of bass sounds:finger, pick, slap, acoustic, and synth. Because all the notes arequantized and played with the same velocity, the sequenced tracksalways sound a little stiff and mechanical.
When Zoom's new RT-323 drum and bass machine becomes available,you'll be able to create your own patterns for the PS-02.SmartMedia card slots on both devices will make it possible toimport patterns you've sequenced on the RT-323 directly into thePS-02, so you can program an original library of rhythms and basslines.
A TRIO OF TRACKS
When it's time to record acoustically, the PS-02's three audiotracks are quite flexible. You can record only two trackssimultaneously, which is no surprise considering the number ofinputs. Even after you've recorded on all three tracks, you canstill bounce them down to stereo. Because digital recordings haveno perceptible generation loss, you can bounce down tracks as manytimes as you want. (If you keep the original unbounced tracks, youwill run up against your SmartMedia card's memory limits.)
Virtual tracks give the PS-02 greater functionality than isinitially apparent. To experiment with alternate versions of atrack, you can record up to ten different “takes” pertrack. Those are like layers below the primary tracks. You canbounce all three physical tracks to a virtual track and keep yourprebounced tracks intact. Because the PS-02 has limited editingcapabilities, however, you can't assemble a track from differentparts of several virtual tracks.
The PS-02 possesses two grades of audio recording quality: HiFiand Long. HiFi is recorded at 31.25 kHz with 20-bit resolution. Itsfrequency response is comparable to a stereo recording on astandard audiocassette but with greater dynamic range and no tapehiss. Recording on all three tracks at the HiFi setting can savemore than 11 minutes to a 64 MB SmartMedia card.
Long grade gives you twice the recording time because thesampling rate is cut in half. Yet there's a noticeable loss offidelity with less high end and more graininess. You can mixrecording grades using both HiFi and Long on different audio tracksin the same song. If any tracks are recorded at HiFi grade when youbounce, the resulting bounced tracks are also HiFi.
The PS-02's fidelity shouldn't be criticized too harshly,though. It's a vast improvement over multitrack recording on acassette ministudio. The recording rate is high enough to preservedecent audio quality, and at the same time, it minimizes the needfor large amounts of memory. If the PS-02 could record at full CDfidelity, it would either offer less recording time or be moreexpensive. Considering the trade-offs, I don't think most userswill be disappointed with its sound. Don't forget that this deviceis a tool designed for songwriters, not for record producers. Ifyou dismiss the PS-02 because of its audio limitations, you may bemissing the point.
LES PALM EFFECTS
I plugged in my guitar and spent some time jamming with thesequenced drum and bass tracks through my studio monitors, and Irecorded the results. I wanted to try different effects presets andfind where the drum grooves took me. The variety of rhythms andguitar tones provided me with fertile ground for new songwritingideas.
The PS-02 is clearly designed with guitar players in mind. Ithas more than 30 guitar presets taken from Zoom's GFX-8 GuitarEffects Processor, including 14 amp models and a flexiblespeaker-cabinet simulation. Inspired by the included belt clip, Ican imagine showing up for a gig with nothing but my guitar, aguitar cord, and a PS-02. The unit offers enough guitar goodies tomake such a lean setup possible.
But the effects aren't limited to electric guitars. Zoom hasprovided effects patches designed for a variety of instruments andvocals, along with some mixdown settings that give extra punch andshimmer to the final mix. Effects patches contain as many as sixeffects, most of them in stereo. You can store up to 60 presetpatches and another 60 user-programmable patches.
Effects include 3-band graphic EQ, reverb, chorus, flanging,pitch-shift, distortion, cry (a talkbox-type modulator), and allthe other effects you'd expect from a company that built itsreputation making effects boxes. In fact, when you're not recordingwith the PS-02, it makes a first-rate standalone effects processor.All effects are fully programmable, and most are well executed. ThePS-02's three sliders give you quick access to an impressive numberof adjustable parameters.
EDIT? FORGET IT
I don't want to come down too hard on the PS-02 for its limitedaudio-editing capabilities. Come on, doesn't this little box doenough? Although you can edit rhythm patterns to your heart'scontent, I was disappointed to discover that, apart from copyingentire songs to new locations, the PS-02 can't cut, copy, paste, orotherwise manipulate audio within songs. Zoom hints that moreextensive editing may appear in an upgrade, but for now thesequenced bass and drum patterns are the only tracks you canrearrange without a computer.
You can, however, replace part of any audio track by using theauto punch-in/punch-out feature. Begin by setting the punch-in and-out points, either in Pause or as the track plays. When you setthe punch-out point, the track automatically rewinds to threeseconds before the punch-in point. You can push Play to auditionyour punch before actually recording it, with the track mutedbetween the in and out points. When you push Record, you recordover the previous material. Auto punch-in/punch-out is a realbenefit when both hands are occupied with an instrument.
The PS-02's operating system, effects, patterns, and recordedaudio are all stored on a wafer-thin SmartMedia card — thesame form of storage that many of today's digital cameras use. Theunit comes with an 8 MB card containing all the factory presets anda demo song. Zoom recommends that you keep the supplied SmartMediacard as an operating system backup and use a working card of atleast 32 MB for recording. That means you'll need to buy a biggercard up front and format it for the PS-02. At present the PS-02recognizes cards with as much as 64 MB, with 128 MB support plannedfor the future.
A free utility program called Card Manager lets you transferaudio tracks to and from your Mac or PC as editable WAV files. Youcan also import and export drum and bass patterns as Standard MIDIFiles, freeing you from the mechanical nature of preset patterns.Card Manager even makes it possible to add MIDI velocities to notedata. To use Card Manager, you need a SmartMedia card reader foryour computer.
PS-02 Palmtop Studio Specifications
Physical Audio Tracks 3 mono Virtual Audio Tracks 10 mono per physical track Simultaneous Record/Playback Channels 2/3 Rhythm Pattern Tracks 1 stereo Bass Pattern Tracks 1 mono Preset Rhythm Patterns 200 Sampling Rate 31.25 kHz, 15.625 kHz ADCs/DACs 20-bit, 64× oversampling/20-bit, 8× oversampling Internal Effects Processing 24-bit Effects Patches 60 preset, 60 user Analog Inputs (1) ¼" unbalanced hi-Z; (1) ⅛" stereo TRS Analog Outputs (1) ¼" stereo TRS; (1) ⅛" stereo headphone Built-in Microphone nondirectional condenser Storage Medium SmartMedia card Maximum Songs 100 per SmartMedia card Maximum Recording Time 33 min., 33 sec. with 64 MB SmartMedia card Supplied AC Adapter 9V DC, 300 mA Batteries AAA × 4 Battery Life 4 hours (continuous operation with alkaline batteries) Display 1.38" (W) × .63" (H) LCD Dimensions 3.26" (W) × 3.58" (H) × 1.32" (D) Weight 4.9 oz. (without batteries)
With a card reader, you can also download a card's data to yourcomputer for backup. Even without Card Manager, you can copy andrename songs. This capability lets you save backup copies of yoursongs at various stages in the recording process. With yourcomputer and a SmartMedia card reader, you only have to buy oneSmartMedia card; use it as work space and offload it when it'sfull.
POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES
If you're a songwriter, by now you might be salivating over thepossibilities inherent in the Zoom PS-02. The old microcassetterecorder you carry around for capturing spontaneous song ideasmight suddenly look very out of date. Although skeptics mayconsider it the Game Boy of recording, the PS-02 contains manyuseful and practical features that easily propel it out of the toycategory.
The sequenced rhythm patterns sound crisp and detailed, whilethe bass and drums provide plenty of thump and sizzle. Regrettably,the audio recording quality isn't quite good enough to producefinished tracks for commercial release. I don't think Zoom expectsto replace anyone's primary multitrack recorder, and the PS-02 wasnever designed for mastering CDs. Nonetheless, the PS-02 can helpyou create perfectly acceptable demos, and it's a giant step beyondany previous songwriter's notebook.
Because the PS-02 is software based, its features aren't writtenin stone. You can download new bass and drum sounds, patterns, andeffects patches from Zoom's Web site (www.zoom.co.jp) as theybecome available. At the time of this writing, a new collection ofhip-hop drum and bass patterns is ready for free download.
The PS-02 doesn't just capture moments of inspiration; itcreates them and provides the tools to build on them. Whenever apiece of gear adds so much to the creative process, it's worthy ofattention and praise. The PS-02 is such a unit.
Steve Broderson is a central Kentucky-based songwriter andproducer who recently formed Studio 246. His current clientsinclude the University of Kentucky, Ale 8-1 (a local soft drink),and iHigh.com.
PS-02 Palmtop Studio
portable digital studio
FEATURES 3.0 EASE OF USE 3.0 AUDIO QUALITY 3.0 VALUE 4.0 RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Portability. Flexibility. Lots of excellent effects. Freedownloadable updates.
CONS: Limited audio editing. Some complex operational steps.SmartMedia card reader required for archiving and exchanging datawith a computer.