Zoom R8 review
Back in October 2013 I bought the above Zoom R8 you see, have been recording with it off and on for the past few months, and this is the update on how it's fared out so far.
The bad stuff
Nothing has failed on the unit at all. Everything works just like it's supposed to.
The only time the R8's plastics feel cheap is specifically with the four small toggle switches at top left of the unit, which you can see in the above photo. That is literally the only part of the R8 that feels subpar. Otherwise, every hard button has a nice resounding click to it, every pad button feels fine, every slider works properly and the scroll wheel jogs properly without issue.
If the four toggles were made the same was as the power switch on the back (which does feel correct), it would be perfect.
Fortunately, those four toggle switches are what you use the least on the R8, so it's not like you use them often. But I can definitely tell that as the unit ages, it will be one of those toggle switches that will fail first.
Hidden features either not found in the manual or buried so deep you would never find them
There are a few things about the R8 which are in fact very cool but aren't mentioned in the manual or barely mentioned.
An example of this is setting a guitar delay effect repeat rate to the tempo and not to the millisecond.
This sounds confusing, but once you start using this feature it is amazing what you can do with it.
Let's say you set a tempo of 120 beats per minute. Then you arm a track for guitar recording. You press EFFECT, enable effects, go to MOD/DELAY, select a delay and enable that.
When you do, you see this:
I wanted to see how much delay time the R8 was capable of, and it's a full 2 seconds:
But then I found something else after I went past 2000ms:
You can set the delay to follow the tempo, as in follow the metronome in whole notes, eighth notes, quarter notes and so on.
VERY, VERY USEFUL. This means you can set the delay to exactly what the tempo of the song is for exact-match slap-back style or "dreamy" style delay effects. This also means you DO NOT have to do any math to look up what the millisecond delay time should be for exact-match to a tempo because the R8 can totally do it for you, and does it well.
Oh, and guess what else? You can exact-match the same thing for the tremolo effect. HOW COOL IS THAT?
I list this as "bad" because it is barely mentioned in the manual. I found this totally by accident. Glad I did.
The good stuff
I'm very surprised anyone who records at home doesn't own an R8. Actually, I'm not surprised because the R8 is marketed totally wrong. If more musicians knew what this thing could do, they'd go buy one in a second.
The R8 is without question the best budget multi-track recording unit that exists. Nothing out there even comes close to what it can do for the price it sells for. It's also a million times more convenient than dragging around a laptop - especially since it can run on AA batteries.
Here's an example scenario of how good the R8 is:
You're at home and come up with an idea for a song. You insert a drum track (the R8 has its own drum machine built-in), follow along and record two guitar tracks. One rhythm and one lead. Did you need any external effects or amps? No. The R8 has all that built-in.
After than you pop in batteries and take the R8 to the singer's house. Can that singer plug right in? Yep, because the R8 has two ports that accept 1/4-inch or XLR. Record the vocal tracks, done. Did the singer forget or break his mic? No problem. Use the R8's internal microphones instead for a quick fix.
After that, run over to the bass player's house, have him plug in, same thing. Record and done, done, done.
After that, mix, master, record and you've got THE WHOLE THING ready-to-go. Export a master WAV, convert to MP3 on the computer and that's it.
And yeah, the R8 remembers where you set the faders for each project saved. It's also a can't-go-wrong environment, because the moment you turn if off, even if accidentally, it auto-saves what you were doing.
If the batteries run low, no problem. The R8 detects when the batteries are low, will auto-save, then power off (with a warning of course).
When I say the R8 is a can't-go-wrong thing, I'm not kidding.
A lot of thought and effort went into the R8's design.
The only real problem with it other than the "bad" stuff I mentioned above is that yes, you will have to dig through menus to get certain things done (usually with setting effects). But other than that, the R8 is as good as it gets for what it is.
Recently I tried my first punch-in/punch-out with the R8. Super-easy. Every time I try something new with the R8 I'm just amazed at what it can do in such a small size.
Could you record a whole band with just the R8?
Yes, but only if the tracks were recorded separately. And that's only because the R8 has just two inputs, so it can only record 2 simultaneous tracks at a time.
If you want a unit that can record up to 8 simultaneous tracks, you get an R16. That thing can absolutely record a full band live with no problem at all.
But like I said, if the band doesn't mind recording their tracks individually, yes the R8 can definitely record a whole band, and easily.
Better than a DAW?
This is actually were the R8 shines the most.
The R8 is primarily marketed as an interface rather than a multi-track recording unit. Yes, the R8 easily connects via USB and easily acts as a proper DAW controller. But it can also totally hold its own as a standalone multi-track recording unit as well.
Put simply, you get the best of both worlds. The R8 acts as a proper controller for DAW use, and as a proper standalone recorder.
For DAW use, it's great because of the easy access to 1/4-inch/XLR ports and manually adjustable faders.
For standalone use, it's great because it is so much easier than lugging around a laptop.
DAWs are meant to be used in controlled environment and have a tough time being used portable-style. The R8 on the other hand can easily flip-flop between being used in a controlled environment or in any other location.
I'll say it like this:
In the band rehearsal spot, using a DAW would totally suck, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. You take a DAW out of its controlled environment and into the rehearsal spot, and the idiot trying to get a good recording out of the thing simply won't be able to do it. WAY too complicated for something that should be simple.
Using an R8 in the rehearsal spot on the other hand is ridiculously easy. You can place it right on the floor and not worry about it getting damaged. Plug in the instruments direct, or just output the mixing board to the unit, mash record and go.
Can you "fix" files later from the R8? Sure can. Every audio file is stored as a standard uncompressed WAV. So if you're the type that likes to edit raw audio files in post-production later, you can with the R8 because the WAVs will be there.
Better than a Tascam?
Without question, yes - except for one thing. The DP-008 is physically smaller than the R8 is because it doesn't have faders on it (just knobs). And it's also true that the "smallest usable multi-track" award definitely goes to the DP-004. You simply can't beat that for size. Yeah, there are smaller units, but the Tascam offerings are much more usable and have a very small learning curve to them.
If you are really tight on space and need super-small but super-usable, you get a Tascam DP, as you can chuck a DP-008 in a backpack easily and not worry about it. As for the DP-004's size, that thing is almost small enough to fit in your pocket. Crazy-small, but very convenient.
Could you chuck an R8 in a backpack and would it fit? Yes, but you'd have to wrap it in a towel first to avoid the faders from getting damaged.
There are several things that make an R8 better than a Tascam DP. The R8 has real faders, has a built-in drum machine, has both 1/4-inch and XLR input, many more effects, writes data to proper WAV files and not the proprietary crapola that Tascam uses, uses the full capacity of any SD card instead of that partitioning nonsense the Tascam does, and so on.
I owned a DP-008 before the R8, and can say with 100% confidence that I should have bought the R8 first. I had no problems with the DP-008, but it doesn't have anywhere near as many features as the R8 does.
Best budget multi-track recorder?
As I said above, yes it is.
The only thing that would make the R8 better - and bear in mind this is really splitting hairs here - is if the R8 had some way to connect wirelessly to a phone or a laptop via Bluetooth. With the wireless feature, you could transfer projects to and from a phone or a laptop without having to mess around with any wires.
True, project files are big as they are raw WAVs, and it would take a while to transfer them. Bluetooth would still be a nice-to-have thing. But not necessary.