Zoom R8 Portable Recorder Review

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I''m into portable recording. While I''ve used many capable products, most had to sacrifice ease of use due to the limited number of controls and compact size. The R8 doesn''t fit in a shirt pocket—it''s about the size of a closed netbook—but the bigger form factor gets you major functionality and more importantly, serious ease of use.

The R8 records two tracks simultaneously, plays back eight, and includes an internal sampler/drum machine. The drums aren''t exactly Toontrack-in-a-box, but more than suitable for creating rhythms—or use the included patterns. You can also string together loops to create a backing track; while of course more tedious than using a computer, it''s totally doable. Recording is to an SD/SDHC card (up to 32GB), protected in a recessed, covered compartment.

When you return home, the R8 offers a 2x2 USB 2.0 audio interface (Mac/Windows, 32/64-bit, and runs up to 24/96kHz although the recorder itself tops out at 48kHz), the ability to serve as a card reader for the SD card “solid-state hard drive,” and a Mackie Control-compatible control surface (transport, nine faders, bank select, auto-punch, five assignable function keys, etc.).

The attention to detail is noteworthy. For example, it''s surprising enough that there are two XLR balanced combo mic/line jacks; one can also switch to an instrument DI input. More surprisingly, there''s phantom power—but even more surprisingly, you can choose between +24V to save power (works with most mics), or the full +48V if needed. Don''t carry mics with you? Use the two built-in mics for capturing ideas.

Curved “fins” along the sides protect the controls, faders, and switches if something lands on the front panel. As to the user interface, I thought I''d see how far I could get without opening the manual. I was able to record, play back, mix, and even assign the internal reverb to an aux send bus. (Speaking of effects, there are 146 effects types and 370 patches, with the limitation that these work only at 44.1kHz.) When I did start digging deeper, the well-organized paper manual documents a logical, consistent operating system that allows for a significant amount of editing. There were no “head-scratch” moments.

The icing on the cake: It doesn''t feel cheap. The 40mm sliders have virtually no “wobble,” the navigation buttons give a positive click for tactile feedback, and the velocity-sensitive drum pads have a useable, rubbery feel. The R8 comes with a 2GB SD card (that folds in 500MB of drum loops from Big Fish Audio), Cubase LE 5, 6-foot USB cable, and a non-proprietary AC adapter—you can run the R8 from four AA batteries, USB, or AC power.

Yes, the R8 has impressive specs. Yet the single most important “spec” is how easily you can capture inspirations and make music—and that''s where the R8 is outstanding.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the R8 product page.