Zoom R16 Review

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FIG. 1: The Zoom R16 packs a lot into a small, portable chassis, including the ability to record eight simultaneous tracks.

When Zoom first announced its R16 recorder/interface controller, I was intrigued. Here was a standalone 16-channel digital recorder that could double as a DAW front end/controller and, at a street price of $399, could be a desirable tool in a lot of production situations. Over the years, I''ve learned to read the fine print on such offers, which are typically loaded with gotchas—little traps that quickly remove the luster from such perceived bargains. Some of the most common trip-ups in this situation—whether with DAWs or hardware units—is recording low-fi data-compressed audio or only offering two or four simultaneous record tracks, making these products very limited when tracking drums or doing live multitracked band recordings. But the Zoom R16 records linear 44.1kHz PCM audio data at 16 bits or 24 bits, and its eight onboard line/mic preamps can capture up to eight tracks at the same time—something that''s never been done at this price point. I had to check this one out.

Physically, the R16 is small—just 14.8x9.3x2 inches (WxDxH) and less than 3 pounds—but there''s a lot going on inside. Beyond its recording capabilities, the R16 also has a 16-channel digital mixer with eight channel faders and a master fader (see Fig. 1). A Bank switch provides fast access to the other eight channels. Under the hood are more than 100 DSP effects—compression, EQ, reverb, chorus, delay, and guitar FX (distortion, flange, pitch, wah, tremolo, and more), as well as amp/cabinet emulations, a digital metronome, and a built-in chromatic tuner. The R16 has an onboard 2-track recorder for mixing within the box—with or without mastering effects—and a sequence play function that lets you assemble playlists of finished songs or projects.

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FIG. 2: The back panel has eight combo XLR-¼-inch connectors, but the rear headphone and monitor-level controls are somewhat inconvenient.

The R16 is bundled with Steinberg Cubase LE 4, although it works with a wide assortment of DAWs—Mac and PC. As a bonus, the R16 can also double as a DAW controller, offering remote tweaking of DAW parameters (including transport functions) using Mackie Control protocol. Taking the recorder job description to the next step, the system can operate as your DAW front end, routing its eight mic preamps through 24-bit A/D converters and outputting a 44.1kHz/48kHz/88.2kHz/96kHz datastream over USB to your computer. And note that the 44.1kHz sampling rate limitation only applies to recording directly to the R16''s SD card.

Housed in a lightweight plastic chassis, the R16 has eight channel inputs on combo XLR/TRS mic/line jacks (see Fig. 2). The first channel has a 470k-ohm hi-Z switch for connecting a guitar or bass, and channels 5 and 6 have switchable 48VDC phantom power. The rear panel also has ¼-inch jacks for connecting a pair of studio monitors and a headphone output. Both have individual level controls, but the rear panel placement makes these somewhat inconvenient. The unit can be powered by an external AC adapter, or for up to 4.5 hours on six AA batteries. When used as a DAW recording interface, the R16 can also be bus-powered from USB, and the side panel has two USB ports for connecting to computers or to a second R16 for synchronized, simultaneous 16-track recording. And built into each side of the R16 is an omnidirectional condenser mic with the pair routed to inputs 7 and 8. These afford a quick setup for laying down ideas or musical sketches, or can be switched out of the signal path when the XLRs are in use.

The R16 has no onboard hard disk, instead storing audio tracks as individual WAV files onto removable SD (max 2GB) or SDHC (max 32GB) cards (see Fig. 3 on the next page). It includes a 1GB card to get you started (about 200 track-minutes at 44.1kHz/16-bit), but on a 16-track project, that only equates to about 12.5 minutes of recording time. Fortunately, SD media is readily available, fairly inexpensive, and easy to transfer to any software DAW for further tweaking or editing. I did most of my work on 4GB SDHC cards; these provide more than an hour of 8-track, 44.1kHz/24-bit recording. This is the maximum resolution for the onboard recorder, and the R16 definitely sounds much better in 24-bit mode. Also, standard DVD-R discs offer convenient backup for the 4GB cards.

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FIG. 3: The R16 stores up to 32GB of data on standard SDHC cards.

Central to most R16 operations is a small monochrome LCD screen that includes a couple lines of characters and a few small icons for operational status. This small display is your window to the world; fortunately, most R16 functions are handled via one-switch-per-function controls rather than a confusing maze of menus. Some functions are tedious, such as entering project/file names by marking characters using the data wheel. But for the most part, navigation is straightforward and fast once you become accustomed to using the data wheel and cursor/enter/exit keys. Perhaps in a future software revision, Zoom could enable such functions from a QWERTY keyboard connected to one of the R16''s USB ports.

Speaking of software, the drivers that shipped with my review unit were several months out of date, so be sure to check the zoom.co.jp website for the latest drivers/software. These are required for using the R16 as a controller or DAW front end, and as the unit first began shipping about the time that Mac OS X Snow Leopard and then Windows 7 were coming to market, Zoom has addressed most of the R16''s early driver issues.

Overall, operation is a breeze and you will barely have to consult the manual. One thing that impressed me right away was the R16''s lack of fan or drive noise that always seems to be part of the recording process.

I began my tests of the R16 with a simple vocal/guitar session. In this case, I routed the onboard pickup of a Taylor 814ce acoustic into the hi-Z input on channel 1, a Sterling Audio ST69 tube vocal mic into channel 2 and two RODE M3 condensers placed in a spaced stereo array about 16 inches in front of the guitar and connected into the R16''s channels 5 and 6 (the two inputs with phantom power). It all worked quite well with a bit of added crunch from a Marshall amp model, a wide airy sound from the stereo RODEs and smooth ST69 on vocal. Having phantom power available on all chanels would be nice, but here it was no limitation—the M3s could have been battery powered (from their onboard 9V), the tube mic didn''t need phantom and the guitar went direct.

The mic preamps themselves weren''t stellar (I own several preamps that cost nearly 10 times the R16''s price), but they weren''t bad, either. These lacked the extended headroom capability of outboard preamps, but were fairly clean. I did have an issue with the gain knobs, where I had to push the gain fairly high up to get the signal to about -30dB (about 4 o''clock) and then 1⁄16 extra turn of the knob would make it jump to overload. To get the optimum performance from the R16, you have to be careful about setting levels, and the short (four-LED) ladder meters make this a little hard, although the fast-reacting red peak LEDs give you a good indication of levels during session setup.

While tracking, record punch in/outs were uniformly smooth and these can be manual or set up for rehearse/auto-punch. One thing I missed was a footswitch control for punching in.

Mixing and signal processing are static—no automation here—but are more than adequate for many projects. Some of the DSP effects are surprisingly good, and, of course, if you need more, you can always transfer your project to a DAW for final touches. At the same time, the R16 provides a decent amount of access to the DSP parameters—for example, the reverb programs offer hall, room, spring, and plate with tweaking of pre-delay, decay, high/low EQ, early reflections, and wet/dry mix; the 3-band parametric EQs have widely overlapping bands and variable control of “Q” (bandwidth).

With the correct drivers in place, using the R16 as a DAW front end is a real plus—a useful feature that extends the unit''s versatility while adding the capability to do extended fidelity (up to 96kHz) recording. The R16 is also touted as a DAW controller, but in this application is far less of a plug-and-go process, requiring a fair amount of user tweaks and customization just to add the ability to use the transport controls, faders, and five function keys. Anyone seeking more a detailed DAW controller would be best advised to look at a dedicated unit.

Having spent several months with the Zoom R16, I really like it, whether used as a sketchpad for laying down song ideas, as a DC-powered location recorder for budget video shoots, or for recording rehearsals/live performances. Add in its “bonus” DAW interface capabilities, and the R16 is a deal that''s hard to resist, especially at $399.

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Click on the Product Summary box to view the Zoom R16 product page.