Adventures in Home Recording

Well, I've had a month and a half to get acquainted with the Zoom R24, and have two covers completed so far. Recording these has enabled me to appreciate the unit's features, come to terms with its quirks and learn a lot in the process. Once I've done about 12 or so covers, I'll post them as a free mp3 album and you can hear the results for yourselves.

First, the pleasant surprises:

  • The R24 allows for unlimited virtual tracks (as many as your memory card can store).
  • Its built-in mics are excellent and very convenient. I've recorded acoustic guitar and mandolin with them so far, and they sound better than my Apex 430 condenser (which admittedly isn't the crème de la crème of condenser microphones).
  • The R24 has separate outs and volume controls for headphones and studio monitors.
  • You can adjust the ratio of click track to song with the turn of a knob ... without having to dive into sub-menus.
  • Files (tracks, loops, entire songs) can be backed up to a USB key: no computer required!
  • The percussion loops included on the USB stick are high-quality samples that can easily be time-stretched to fit your project's tempo. Adjust the tempo, drop them in, and presto: it's like having your own Ray Cooper in your hip pocket. Very, very handy.
  • You can loop any piece of audio and drop it into your song at various points. If, like me, you find it hard enough to play a part in time once, well, you only have to nail it once. And it doesn't matter where in the song you do that: you record your part to the click and it can be dropped in anywhere. Now, in conventional rock music, consider how many instruments play repetitive parts, though they may vary between sections. So far I've looped backing vocals, guitars, bass, individual drums, even a tin whistle. I can't fingerpick to save my life, yet I created two fingerstyle acoustic guitar parts by looping one chord at a time.
  • My sampled Roland TD-11K drum kit sounds great, and by using a simple workaround I can set things up with, e.g., the snare on three adjacent pads for a better playing experience and more realistic feel. Judicious use of the quantize function helps keep my beats on the beat. Also, using the sampled kit instead of the built-in sounds allows for greater control and flexibility. Because each drum is on its own track, levels can be set independently and each piece of the kit can be panned, EQ'd and processed separately.
  • I've not exhaustively auditioned the unit's effects yet, but some of the patches are terrific, and every patch is editable. (Some aren't so terrific ... see below.) Most of the send reverbs are quite good, and the "clean" section has some tasty guitar effects. A few of the mic preamp effects do wonders for vocals and acoustic instruments.
  • The bounce function allows you to use a multitude of pre- and post-effects over the course of a song, and the unlimited virtual track feature means you can keep the dry tracks if you later decide to reprint the effects. Bounce is also great for stitching together composite parts to form a whole, which I do a lot of.
  • Both hours/minutes/seconds/hundredths and bars/beats/ticks are shown on the display, unlike some units that force you to pick one or the other. And the "mark" function enables you to scroll to strategic points in the song, while the "stop/rewind" shortcut quickly gets you back to the start. Navigating through your tune is quick, easy and painless.
  • The manual is surprisingly readable and useful, though the layout is a bit weird. I ended up creating a customized how-to-do-what index to help me find things more efficiently.

Now, some sources of vexation:

  • Editing, trimming and silencing audio on the R24 is difficult and in some cases, impossible. It's easier to trim silence at the start or end of a song than, say, a stutter in your guitar solo two minutes in. There may be a way of doing that, but it's by no means obvious. I've figured out how to erase, e.g., unwanted amp hum before the guitar enters by recording "nothing" in that spot using the auto-punch feature. It works, but it's awfully cumbersome.
  • You can't normalize the level of your mix using the R24. Nor can you measure peak amplitude, see what the overall waveform looks like, and so on. A crude waveform view is available by using, for instance, File->Divide, but all told it's easier and more accurate to import the audio into Audacity and examine it there.
  • Trying to assign the same sample to multiple pads results in an "Already Exist!" error message. I had to "fool" the R24 into placing the same sample onto adjacent pads by creating duplicates and triplicates. So, I now have SNARE.WAV, SNARE1.WAV, SNARE2.WAV in my sample library, all of which are the same sound. It's a doable workaround and indeed, a necessary one; without it, I couldn't really "play" the drums like a real drummer would. But it's a pain to have to go to such lengths.
  • The built-in drum sounds aren't studio quality. A few were barely passable; the rest sounded like my first drum machine from 1982. If you're going for that retro crappola-drum-machine sound, great! There are only 10 (lousy) kits, not customizable, and you can't mix and match. Worse, the drums are assigned to a stereo pair of tracks, and you can only EQ, pan, level and process the entire kit, not individual drums. This again limits their utility.
  • Many effects aren't usable in their current form. The "distortion" section in particular makes your guitar sound like it's turned up not to 11 but 111. If you're some speed-metal shred-head, the distortion effects are your wet dream, I suppose. But for the rest of us who want just a touch of fuzz on our guitars, they're woeful. Deep editing, which I've yet to do, may yet salvage some of them.
  • Some of the effects are gimmicky and fall into the who-would-ever-use-this category, like the vocal preset "Hangul" which the manual says "makes Japanese sound like Korean."
  • If you want to apply simple stomp-box effectsdelay, tremolo, phaser, wah-wah or compressor, for instance—they do exist, but you have to disentangle them from some patch that uses them in combination. It's hard to find them in isolation. Some quite useful effects, like a Leslie speaker emulation, are missing entirely.
  • The mastering presets are disappointing. They're subtle as a sledgehammer, and 90% of them are useless. See, mastering is supposed to do two things: bring the level of your mix to a professional standard and and give it a glossy sheen by sparingly applying EQ and compression, kind of like the icing on a cake. The R24's presets alter the sound of your mix beyond recognition. I've achieved reasonable results by editing the "Maximzr" preset, which in its pure form adds 7,000 tonnes of compression, to saner levels, but even that has been massively frustrating. Sure, you can edit the parameters, but it's complete trial and error because you don't know what you're editing. Case in point: the aforementioned preset has parameters like "Sense Hi" which the manual says "adjusts high-range compressor sensitivity." Meaning what? Threshold? Ratio? Gain? We'll never know, and there's no way to adjust the compressor via these standard parameters. Similarly, that preset's three-band EQ lets me adjust bass, middle and treble. What specific frequencies I'd be adjusting and at what bandwidth, no idea.

My bottom line? With a modicum of additional equipment and a dash of savvy and patience, you can produce high-quality recordings with the Zoom R24. You'll be the judge when I unveil my "covers" album, but two songs in I'm quite happy with the results. And I haven't yet explored integrating the Zoom with a DAW, specifically the included Cubase LE. I'm about to transition to a new computer and am unsure which one I want to install it on, so I've held off on the download for now. Presumably this will further extend the unit's capabilities once I navigate Cubase's learning curve.

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