Saturday, January 05, 2008

H2 Report From The Field

A customer of mine records traditional music ensembles, primarily in southern Africa. He has been using the Marantz PMD660 with a Rode NT4 stereo mic with great results.

However, he recently, he got a Zoom H2 (see debut below) in the interest of portability. Here is his report:

I have used the Zoom H2 on several projects now and am very impressed with the results. I would say 90% as good as my Marantz PMD660 and Røde NT4 combo for 20% of the price. The Zoom doesn't have the high end of the Røde, but I can still plug the Røde into the Zoom. The size is perfect. I've taken to carrying it around in my pocket, with the microphone handle attachment. Something I couldn't do with the Marantz.

Recently captured a Kwaito concert and a segaba player. A very loud and very soft performances, respectively. A segaba player will sway and move while playing. I could hold the recorder and sway and move with him while holding the mic to keep a consistent sound and stereo image. How cool is that?

I've been trying to get together a Setswana choir to test out the quadraphonic sound… mainly because the style involves a lead singer and a choir of backing singers standing in a half circle. I believe that putting the mic in their midst will yield a recording which I can mix between lead and choir (something which had to be done purely by moving people around with the Røde).

I am recommending this recorder to several colleagues...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The First Real Zoom H2 Review On The Internet

I've been fielding questions about the Zoom H2 Handy Recorder since it was announced over half a year ago. Questions like, "Will it sound as good as the H4?" and, "Is it true that it will record in 360-degree surround sound?" Now, I don't mind answering questions about gear... it's just that this piece of gear never really existed, and I'm always hesitant to simply affirm what a manufacturer's advertising department decided to say about a product that hasn't been produced yet.

But this morning, I was witness to the official launch of the H2: the first in the country to see it as it will ship. And after its debut, I stayed behind and spent an hour of one-on-one time with it.

Now, in case you haven't heard of this little thing, it's basically a handheld recorder that looks a bit like a communicator from the original Star Trek series. Very portable, very powerful, and very coveted. Why? Two main reasons: it's going to be a hundred bucks less than the hot-selling Zoom H4, and has been advertised as having three mic capsules for mid-side recording.

Well, sorry to disappoint you folks, but it's doesn't have three mic capsules. It has FOUR. Yes, you read that right. Apparently, the engineers at Zoom made the first production run of H2's and concluded after listening, "This thing sounds terrible. Back to the drawing board." Fortunately for us, what they ended up with was a gem.

In response to the question, "Will the H2 be as good as the H4," I can say it certainly seems so. Wonder of wonders, the mic capsules in the H2 are the SAME MICS as the H4! Yes, those same mics that can handle 120db of SPL and have a pretty flat frequency response across 70Hz to 20kHz. (There is admittedly a bit of a boost around 6kHz.)

How can they fit four of those mics into this little guy? Well, believe it or not, all that metal isn't all mic. The H4's mics are actually pretty small. And they're tightly packed into the H2 in a W/XY pattern (NOT the mid-side design that was originally developed): a 90-degree stereo pair in the front, and a 120-degree setup in the rear. That doesn't provide a true 360-degree omnidirectional recording device, but it sure makes for convincing surround sound. Setting it up in the middle of a band rehearsal or orchestra recital will yield some great recordings.

How would you do that? Quite easily, because the H2's mounting options are great. Not only does its 2.5" x 4.3" x 1.25" size fit perfectly into your palm for single-handed operation, but it also can be left alone using either the stand or mic stand adapter.

Both accessories screw into the threaded hole at the bottom. The mic stand adapter is especially ingenious in its simplicity: It's an extension shaped like the barrel of a microphone, easily mounting into any available mic clip.

Speaking of accessories, the H2 comes as a complete package. In addition to the stand and mic stand adapter mentioned, it also includes a 512Mb SD card, a windscreen, a USB cable, a 9vDC adapter, earbuds (necessary because there's no speaker built in), and a stereo RCA to 1/8' cable (for connecting to a home stereo system for example). Contrary to what all the music retail websites are reporting, the H2 does NOT come bundled with Cubase LE.

That's hardly a deal-breaker, considering how much benefit you're getting for a street price of two hundred bucks. Consider what you're getting:

USB Interface
The H2 can be plugged into your computer's USB port and serve as both mountable storage for file transfer and as a two-channel audio interface - functioning as a USB mic! Just plug in the USB cable and select either "Storage" or "Audio I/F". (By the way, it is USB 2.0-, Mac OSX-, Windows XP-, AND Vista-compatible.)

High Resolution, Long Recording Time
It can record either WAV or MP3 files. WAV resolution is from 44.1kHz/16 bit to 96kHz/24 bit. MP3s can be from 48k to 320kbps or variable bit rate. (Just decide what you want in advance, because there's no on-board conversion after the fact.) With a slot in the bottom of the unit, the H2 can take SD cards (including SDHC) up to 4Gb, and record a max file size of 2Gb. That equates to 380 minutes of recording 44.1kHz/16bit stereo WAV files or 68 HOURS of stereo MP3's encoded at 44.1kHz/128kbps.

Light Weight and Long Life
The H2 weighs just four ounces before you put in the two AA batteries, and will run for 4 to 4 1/2 hours on them.

Inputs and Output
In addition to its four mics, there is an external stereo mic input (using this disables the built-in mics), and a line in for devices with line-level output like a CD player. Output options are both USB and line out to headphones or other monitoring options.

Metronome and Tuner
The H2 has a couple benefits for players: a five-sound metronome with pre-count, adjustable from 40-250 BPM, as well as a built-in chromatic, guitar, and bass tuner.

Date/Time Stamping and Markers
The H2 is capable of date/time stamping your recordings, as well as adding markers to your audio file. Whether you're indicating when the next song in the set started or when your interviewee uttered some un-airable profanity, you can just hit the play/pause button while recording to insert a marker. These markers will be exported as Broadcast Wave Files (BWF), readable by any DAW that can read the metadata in BWF files.

All these features and benefits really make the H2 attractive. Even better is the fact that recording couldn't be simpler. This is due in large part to the fact that Zoom seems to have really listened to people's input about the H4's shortcomings. The new H2's display is backlit, with a resolution of 128 x 64 dots. They've made the font larger than on the H4 for easier readability. And the user interface is much easier than its larger cousin's. The 92-page manual is well-written and comprehensive.

But I didn't need to crack the manual before beginning to work with the H2. I quickly figured out how to power on and start recording. There's a three-level mic gain switch, fine-tunable using the on-screen menus, as well as choice of four recording modes: Front (90-degrees), Rear (120-degrees), 4-channel surround (which records two stereo channels of Right Front, Right Rear and Left Front, Left Rear), or simple two-channel surround of Left and Right.

Listening to 4-channel recordings in the headphones doesn't quite do it justice, since the H4 is having to sum to a stereo monitor. However, if you load these tracks into your DAW, you will have four independent tracks of audio (technically, they are two stereo tracks, but you can easily split them to four mono). And don't forget, the markers will import as well, if your DAW supports BWF.

You may need to consult the manual for some of the more technical features, like the Auto Record start and stop, which allows you to set the H2 to start recording from 0-2 seconds before the sound in your area rises above the db level you set. And you can also set the Record Stop level to stop 0-5 seconds after the sound drops below your defined level (individually programmable from the record start db level, by the way).

There are lots more things I don't have room to cover, most prominent being the 3D panning adjustment screen. This allows you to adjust the Front/Rear/Left/Right balance of a file pair recorded in four channel mode. Suffice it to say it's just plain COOL, and you have to see and hear it.

As for the inevitable audiophile questions: No, I didn't get to take it into the studio and analyze every nuance of the mic pres and frequency response. All I can tell you is that I recorded some ambient room noise, conversations, and a good bass player (thanks, Biscuit!) with the H2, and later was fooled by the authentic sounds coming through the headphones (I thought he had started playing the same song again). My brain bought it... I'm guessing yours will, too.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Eventide Timefactor Sneak Peek

Today I got some to spend some advance-release time with a prototype of Eventide's long-anticipated Timefactor delay stomp box. As you can see by the photo, it still has labeling stickers on it prior to the screenprinting that the shipped version will have.

Eventide is known in the pro audio world for its high-end Harmonizer effects processors and plug-ins. The last thing most of us ever expected from them was a stomp box. But sure enough, at this year's Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show, Eventide elicited a collective "whoa" from observers who marvelled at their first foray into this realm.

The Timefactor is a twin delay stompbox featuring two completely independent delays, each capable of three seconds. And it has ten distinctly different stereo effects: Digital Delay, Vintage Digital Delay, Tape Echo, Modulated Delay, Ducked Delay, Band Delay, Filter Pong, Multitap Delay, Reverse Delay, and Looper.

With both instrument and line level inputs, the box is not only ideal for guitarists, but also keyboard players, home studios, and even touring front-of-house engineers for whom space is at a premium.

Originally slated for a March release, the pedal has been undergoing continued refinement with input from a handful of users on the road. One of these is the band Blonde Redhead, who will forever have the distinction of giving the Timefactor its television debut just last week on the Conan O'Brien show. Also offering beta testing input is the band Ours, whose guitar player is ridding himself of his two Line 6 DL4's - one each at the beginning and end of his signal chain - in favor of a couple of Timefactors.

Some of the changes that have taken place with these musicians' input include: the preset scrolling has changed from a set rate to one every tap, and bank selection (which used to happen on release of the button) is now on the press. Seemingly little concessions like that are actually pretty involved re-engineering tasks, but Eventide clearly wants the best possible product, even at the expense of pushing back production by a couple of months.

I have no doubt that this will be the DL4 of the next decade. As soon as I heard it the first time, the first word I thought was, "Clean." This pedal sounds VERY clean. And I don't mean in a sterile, digital way, because the digital conversion doesn't sound like digital conversion. And the great thing is that the analog-sounding effects are just that: analog-sounding. This is the most studio-quality stomp box I've ever heard.

It's also completely usable. The program changes are instantaneous - essential for live use - and there are 27 user presets to customize your settings.

And what can I say about the sounds? You just have to hear this thing. But here are some highlights:

- The Timefactor's tape delay is beautiful. Hearkening back to the early days of the 60's tape echo, I was stunned by how genuine it sounded. Very analog, and very practical.

- Ever since the 80's over-use of chorused guitar (think Prince and The Police), I've tended to shy away from its use. But the Timefactor's chorus invited me in, captivating me with its understated beauty. It's just plain dreamy.

- Band delay allows only certain frequencies to be repeated, in a fully-customizable pattern, creating an effect much like a wah pedal, but far more complex. Great for unique special effects.

- The multi-tap delay makes for a great reverb sound. It's very much like the old spring reverbs we used to have in guitar amps years ago. A perfect emulation of that "Wipe Out" surf tone, and not digital sounding at all.

- The looper function features a sound quality that can't be touched by the JamMan or the BOSS RC-2. There is no discernible "degenerated and recorded" sound like the other loopers have.

- Another great thing about the Timefactor is that the knobs feel good and respond with a very natural and organic feel.

The only halfway negative aspect I can mention about this unit is the reverse delay. As with any delay box that does reverse, there's just no substitute for running tape backwards and adding the effect on, so that when played forwards, every sound comes in with the suction of a vacuum cleaner. There's no exception here - the reverse delay really wasn't too convincing. However, on its own, the effect made for some great ethereal sounds. Just don't expect to recreate any of Jimi Hendrix's cool backwards solos.

In summation, the Timefactor is simply awesome. I'm thoroughly impressed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Digitech Bad Monkey

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to interact with the manufacturers of audio gear. Plenty of products created recently have been a direct result of my coworkers saying, "You should make something that does this and this and that..." to companies like JBL, PreSonus, Gator, Korg, etc.

DigiTech is a company to which I haven't paid much attention in past years, since I was never excited about my GFX-1 TwinTube preamp.

However, I recently picked up an RP-350 and was very impressed by the quality of its effects, its noise-free operation, and comprehensive set of features...

So, when DigiTech asked me to be part of their Product Evaluation Team, I jumped at the chance. I figured it would be the best of both worlds - interact with a manufacturer about what they SHOULD be doing, or enjoy for free the good stuff the ARE doing!

The other day they sent me their Bad Monkey for evaluation. It's a tube overdrive pedal intended to boost the signal from your guitar into your amp, giving it the character of an overdriven tube amp.

The pedal features one 1/4" unbalanced input and two 1/4" unbalanced outputs. Output 1 goes to your amp, while Output 2 features DigiTech's speaker cabinet emulation, with the purpose of allowing you to run the pedal directly into a mixer or recorder.

In their advertising, DigiTech has been putting this pedal head-to-head against Ibanez' TS-9 Tube Screamer. But at a street price of forty bucks versus the Tube Screamer's hundred bucks, I was pretty skeptical of their claims.

I opened the box and was surprised to find that, even at such a low price point, the case is of solid metal construction weighing almost 1 1/2 lbs. A good first impression.

But that was offset by a couple of issues:

The four controls on the Bad Monkey did not feel consistent with one another, with two feeling resistant to turn, one about right, and one obviously looser in sweep than the others.

I also don't like DigiTech's method of getting to the battery compartment. Without a trip to the instruction manual, most people don't immediately think of using a guitar cable to push in one of the spring-loaded hinge pins to pop the pedal off the chassis.

However, the footswitch does feel good, the LED indicator is nice and bright, and the Bad Monkey appears to be constructed in a way that should stand up to years of use and abuse.

These initial observations aside, the biggest test of a pedal is in its sound. So I plugged my Strat into the Bad Monkey, running Output 1 to my 60-watt Vox AD60VTX amp.

The first thing I did was see how close the pedal could match my guitar's tone straight through. All it took was Level on 5, Gain on 0, and a little tweaking to the EQs. At that setting, it managed to be almost completely tranparent.

From there, I brought up the Gain a bit... And at that point, the Bad Monkey started to really shine! My guitar completely kept its personality, but now I was creating a Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-like sound - as if I was playing through a Fender Super Reverb cranked to ten.

Unfortunately, when I brought the Gain up towards max, things got really noisy. I was concerned that maybe this pedal wasn't going to be usable in the top 30% of its Gain range. So at this point, I switched to my Les Paul. Sure enough, the humbucking pickups proved that it wasn't the pedal producing the noise - it had been my Strat's beautiful-sounding but oh-so-succeptible-to-interference single coils.

The Bad Monkey did different stuff to my Les Paul. Rather than bringing out a bluesy feel, it saturated my signal, bringing out a 1970's arena rock sound and making pinch harmonics just scream.

I will have to bring this pedal into the studio to check out its cabinet emulation, but at this point, I'm already sold. Forty bucks for the Bad Monkey is ridiculously underpriced. After spending a week with it, the only limitation I've found so far is that there are so many good tones to be had from this pedal, I may need two of them for my live rig. Fortunately, two can be had for less than the price of ONE Tube Screamer!

To give the Bad Monkey a listen, you can check out DigiTech's online sampler by clicking the pic below:

However, one of the biggest strengths of this pedal is the really warm tones it envelops your guitar with. And that's one thing that these samples don't communicate well. But trust me - this is the best forty bucks you can spend as a guitar player today (as long as you already own a tuner).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Torq Xponent

I'm an old-school rock 'n roll guitar player, so the fact that the latest craze in music technology equipment is DJ products hasn't really been a source of excitement for me. At least not until I was actually impressed by a piece of DJ gear: M-Audio's Torq DJ software application and its accompanying hardware, the Xponent control surface/audio interface.

The layout of the Torq software is very logical:

A Deck on each side plays back a digital music file, just like a CD or turntable would. These Decks allow you to pitch shift and change tempo of the music, loop it, and jump to locations within the song.

At the bottom is the Browser, where you navigate through a database of all the music files on your computer, iTunes library, and hard drives - including ones no longer connected (displayed in red). It also automatically creates playlists, storing them by date.

Above the Browser is a Sampler which will play loops synchronized to the mix.

In the center, above the Sampler, is the Mixer, featuring gain, EQ, and a crossfader which will go back and forth between the two music files being played on the decks.

On either side of the mixer are the Effect Racks, which enable you to add phasers, flangers, distortions, etc. to each of the audio files in the Decks - up to three on each side. Amazingly, you can add any VST plug-in to Torq (and even the buggiest VST won't make the application stop or crash!).

At the top center is the thing that has sold me on the Torq system more than anything else: The Main Waveform Display. The way M-Audio has chosen to display audio waveforms is great:

Unlike all other programs which show visuals of audio waveforms, Torq only shows the upper or lower half. This gives maximum space to see the beats by eliminating the redundant information, and to see visual alignment between two audio tracks playing simultaneously. Simple, yet ingenious!

On the hardware side of things is the Torq Xponent, serving as both control surface and audio interface.

Some highlights of the Xponent include:
- a pad that serves a dual purpose: as both a mouse-like track pad and a touchpad MIDI controller (like the Korg KAOSS Pad) that lets you tweak parameters in realtime
- illuminated buttons for easier performance
- two responsive controller wheels for cueing or scratching

A good overview of all the Xponent's features can be found on M-Audio's Flash page.

Overall, I'm thoroughly impressed with this setup. If I was a performance DJ, this is definitely what I'd be using. It is both Mac and Windows compatible, with a recommended system requirement of only 1Gb RAM. For just six hundred bucks, you get both Torq and Xponent.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Digitech JamMan

The JamMan is aptly named. Setup is intuitive and quick, and within moments of plugging my Strat into it, I was jamming along to the included rhythms and bands in various styles.

The basic functions built into this 2-pedal box are easy to figure out quickly. While some of the more technical functions like tempo and sample length changes require cracking open the manual, I found that I was able to entertain myself for a couple hours before actually needing to read anything beyond the words screen-printed on the dark blue case.

The JamMan is a lot of fun, and really beneficial. While soloing over a 12-bar blues song, I found myself wishing I'd had one of these when I was learning to solo over 20 years ago. All those hours spent simply playing scales to a metronome could have been a lot more productive and entertaining with a JamMan.

Even now as an experienced gigger and songwriter, the JamMan drew more than a few new chord progressions and licks out of me as the looping function stimulated new creativity. I started out with some basic chords, and as the loops continued I experimented with combining various voicings and guitar tones layered on top of each other. Melody lines came next, with harmonies progressively building on top.

Not only is the JamMan great for the practice studio, but I’ve seen loopers used to create entire songs in concert by various solo guitar players like Phil Keaggy. These performances are often the ones crowds talk about for days afterwards.

Whether you plan to use it in concert, my opinion is that the Digitech JamMan is a must-have for any guitar student or lead guitarist in a band. It will help make you a better player.

If you want to get one or find out more about it, give me a call at 1-800-222-4700, ext. 1233.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

t.c. electronic Konnekt 24D

t.c. electronic's Konnekt 24D is an amazing audio interface priced at half of what they should be charging.

It's a FireWire bus-powered box that converts with a bit depth of 24 and sample rates of up to 192kHz.

The Konnekt 24D offers 2 front-panel XLR/TRS combo jacks for inputs. The mic preamps sound great and offer phantom power, while the Hi-Z ins are dedicated circuits optimized for guitar and bass. On the back, you have a total of 4 line-level TRS ins, two of which are redundant with the ones on the front. Use these to plug in a keyboard, mixer, etc.

Monitoring is easy with four analog line outs on the rear, as well as two headphone jacks on the front. A great feature is that one of the headphones will automatically mute your speakers, giving you the benefit of headphone mixing without the extra step of turning your monitors down manually.

Connectivity is also available through 8 ADAT optical, 2 S/PDIF coaxial ins and outs, and MIDI in and out.

Unlike the popular standard Digidesign M-Box, the Konnekt 24D has onboard effects. t.c. electronic's Fabrik C channel strip and Fabrik R reverb have been integrated right into the box. The quality of these effects is superb, and their computer interfaces are unique.

The Fabrik C is both and EQ and Compressor/Limiter. The EQ portion has four parametric bands with notch, parametric, shelving, and cut filter types. It also has a de-esser and high/low-pass filters, also of various types. The compressor can be full-band or 3-band, and there are plenty of intuitive presets like male vocal, snare, speak, etc.

The Fabrik R is a reverb with four types: plate, hall, club, and live. Each can be tweaked with reverb decay and predelay, color (diffusion), modulation rate and depth, and distance.

Both of these effects utilize a triangular interface that is so out of the ordinary, it will throw some people off at first. But as soon as you grab one of those circles and move it around, everything will make sense. You see, sound is all about listening, not about setting numbers in a little field. Move the circles around the triangle, and listen. You'll soon wish all of your effects and plug-ins were this easy.

The Konnekt 24D can also operate in stand-alone mode, completely separate from your computer. With all of the in and out options and built-in effects, you can use it as a little mixing board for something like a coffee house gig. Setting that up may not be altogether intuitive, but the 63-page manual is well-written and and provides a diagram of how this would be set up.

Lastly, this baby is networkable. Up to four of these units can be networked via FireWire to give even more ins and outs!

If you're looking for lots of audio interface "bang for the buck" (and you're not expecting to use this with ProTools), this box is definitely worth a look.

It retails for only $625, and streets for just $500. Frankly, they should have priced this thing at $1,200.