Turn On, Plug In, Rock Out
HOW’S THIS FOR A familiar scenario: You’re messing around on your bass and you stumble upon something cool, maybe even the Riff That Could Make You Rich. You know that if you don’t record it, you’ll forget it— but by the time you power up your computer, open your favorite software, set up a new track, grab a cable, plug into an interface, and set levels, the moment has passed.
Inspiration comes whenever it wants to, and in a perfect world, we’d always be ready for the muse and prepared to record her gifts. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of portable digital machines that are built to help us do just that, and most of them come loaded with rhythm patterns, built-in tuners, effects, and more. Many songwriting/ practice tools double as personal practice rooms and portable studios, though some specialize in one area or the other. We focus here on select devices that have at least one q" input, making seizing the moment as easy as turning on, plugging in, and tapping RECORD.
Let’s look at some of the things you’ll want to consider if you’re in the market for a portable recording and practice device:
Ease of use Smaller machines with fewer knobs and switches may have deeper levels of menus and submenus.
Rhythm tracks/metronomes Practicing and recording with a metronome makes a big difference, of course, and hearing a cool drum part can give you fresh ideas.
mp3/.wav recording Check to see if you can record directly as mp3 or .wav files— or whether you’ll have to go through a few extra steps.
Looping Several machines allow you to loop sections or whole songs.
Slow down without pitch shift It’s great to be able to import an .mp3, slow it down, loop a selected section or the whole song, and play along.
Effects Most effects on these tools are built for guitarists, but some have a few options for bass players.
Storage Most devices accept Compact Flash or SD/SDHC cards, which can hold at least 1GB; some recorders can handle 16GB or 32GB cards.
Connectivity Most devices have USB connections, but Firewire is faster; some digital recorders have both.
Editing software Some devices come with accompanying software, for example a “light” version of a recording program.
At the most affordable end of the spectrum, Line 6’s BackTrack ($70) is a straightforward machine that’s built to capture up to 12 hours of ideas; the BackTrack+Mic ($150) adds a built-in microphone. Tascam’s DP-004 ($150) is a cassette-recorder-size digital 4-track with a cool user interface; the company’s DP-008 ($240) offers twice as many tracks, while the GT-R1 ($229) combines digital recording capabilities with some of the attributes of Tascam’s playalong trainers (including the CD-BT2, the MP-BT1, and the GB-10). Korg named the Sound on Sound ($200) for its layering capabilities and made it easy to separate tracks once you connect the device to your computer; its “sound stretch” and other features make it a decent practice tool, too.
If you can shell out $300, you have several more options. Boss’s Micro BR can do 32 virtual tracks, but if you need more than the Micro BR’s 1GB-card max, you can get the newer BR-80 for the same price. It handles up to 64 virtual tracks, comes with Sonar X1 LE software, and accepts SD/SDHC cards up to 32GB. The top of the line is Zoom’s R-8, which allows you to simultaneously record two inputs—a drum machine and bass, for example—and features an interface that’ll be familiar to anyone who used cassette multi-tracks back in the day. The R-8, which allows unlimited virtual tracks, also stands out from the pack by including 500 drum patterns, half a gigabyte of loops, and a looper/sampler.
If the advances of the last few years are any indication, we’ll be seeing more of these pocket-size multi-tasking multi-track recorders as time goes on, as well as increasingly sophisticated interfaces that make it easy to record straight to your tablet, mp3 player, or phone. Later this year we’ll be doing roundups of the hottest handheld recorders and interfaces on the market. Until then, poke around peer reviews and ponder the potential of these and other potent portables.