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While much of the buzz in the mobile recording market of late has revolved around iPhones and iPads [see our cover story, March 2012], portable stand-alone multitrack devices have quietly gotten better and better, while offering a more stable and arguably higher-performance platform than their smart-phone counterparts. What’s more, the field is awesomely varied: Some devices, like the Korg SOS, combine multitracking with onboard effects and jamming tools, while others, like the Olympus LS-100, add multitrack options to their solid footing as pro field recorders.
In this roundup, we’ll look at the Korg and Olympus units, as well as the latest incarnations of two of the most popular devices in this category—Zoom’s feature-rich H4N and Boss’ smartly designed Micro BR, both of which boast amp and pedal models, as well as worthy master effects. Finally, we’ll catch up with home-recording pioneers Tascam, and their simple, classic-looking DP-004. In every case, you’ll encounter advantages that these dedicated units have over iPhone or iPad setups, including vastly longer battery life, quality built-in microphones, better output levels, independent level controls, slick ergonomics, USB ports for connection to a computer, up to 24-bit/96kHz audio, and expandable storage capacities by way of SD or Micro SD cards.
Just don’t expect to take a call from your mom on one of these babies.
• Light, truly “palm-sized” recorder with stripped-down menu set.
• “Sound On Sound” overdubbing makes for unlimited track count.
• Massive range of drum patterns and amp/effect models.
Not much bigger than a smartphone, the Korg SR-1 SOS ($145, street) combines a light, streamlined physical design with an inspired concept: Instead of the typical multitrack system, it “thinks” in terms of infinite overdubbing—the way one might approach capturing sound in a looping environment. With its ramped profile, the jet-black SOS sits on your desktop with its front panel at a slight angle toward you, like a proper mixing desk. And that front panel not only contains a 1" LED display, but also the SOS’ built-in stereo microphone and speakers, along with the main function, menu, and transport controls. Small pads on the back panel—which stores the two-AA battery compartment—keep the SOS from slipping around, while stereo mini input jacks for mic and line in, a stereo mini headphone/line out, and a ¼" jack for guitar can be found on the right side. A MicroSD card slot and 4.5V AC jack are on the left.
Much as you might use a tiny Dictaphone to capture the very first impulse of a song idea, you can use the SOS’s built-in mic to capture that vocal idea in stereo with a quality reverb, and then throw down some quick harmony ideas. No worries if you screw up—the easy undo function will wipe out as many past clunkers as you choose from the arrangement. Using one of the 200 drum tracks as a tempo guide, you can also record guitar with one of the SOS’s 100 amp/effect models. (While overdubbing, you can loop subsections of your song to record over, or simply overdub to the entire song.) That looping-type approach adds a certain casual feel to the SOS, so you may surprise yourself with adventurous, off-the-cuff stuff that you’d be unlikely to try in a stiffer recording environment—and that’s good. For such a simple device, the SOS does have something of a learning curve (lots of menus to master), but once you get the hang of it, the SOS genuinely cuts the lag time between inspiration and execution.