Sunday, June 21, 2009

BOSS BR-600 Quick Review

The BR-600 is a portable, 8-tracks, digital recorder. I  borrowed that particular unit in order to record my new backing band's rehearsal tomorrow (more on this later!).

I had a couple of days to get to grips with the thing, so I figured I'd drop a few words about it, and possibly record a song to demo its functions.

Specs from the official site:
8 simultaneous playback tracks, 64 V-Tracks
CompactFlash memory card slot for storing recording media; 128MB card included
Built-in FX processor, including pitch corrector and COSM amp models
Built-in drum-machine with velocity-sensitive pads
Built-in stereo mic and battery power to record anywhere
USB for data transfer/computer connectivity
Portable and ultra slim: 257 x 182 x 23mm
Carrying case and XLR-to-1/4" mic cable included

The BR-600 is light and small, works on 6 batteries, and stores music on a CompactFlash card. The unit comes with a 128Mb card, which is enough to get you started, but no doubt you’ll eventually want to purchase a bigger one. Beware, and here’s my first gripe with the BR-600, it only accepts up to 1Gb cards.

One thing that I should clear up first : you can only record on two tracks at a time, so forget about recording your band with, say, 5 mics and 3 line instruments… that just won’t do, and the only two options for recording a band are :
1. Route all instruments to an external mixer and feed the result to the BR-600’s line input (good sound but everything’ll have to be perfectly mixed beforehand because you’ll end up with all instruments on a single track... that's how I'll proceed tomorrow, because I only need a reference recording of how songs are arranged for the live set), or :
2. Capture the whole band with a couple of mics plugged in the BR-600 or use the two built-in mics (now you’ve got two tracks, but sound quality will suffer). 
By any means, the BR-600 is best suited for the single musician who tracks his instruments one by one.

Second important point : tracks 1 to 4 are mono, while tracks 5/6 and 7/8 are stereo. That means that the BR-600 may technically feature 8 audio tracks, but more precisely we’re talking about 4 mono tracks and 2 stereo tracks, that is, 6 workable tracks at any given time.
Note that each of these audio tracks features 8 “virtual tracks”, which doesn’t mean that you’ve really got 64 tracks overall but that up to 7 alternate takes can be stored for each audio track.

How does it work? Like I said, two tracks can be recorded simultaneously. There are two mic inputs, one guitar/bass input and one line input. Guitar and mic inputs can be used at the same time, for most purposes, live guitar and voice recording. The line input is the ugly duckling of the lot, and makes it clear that the BR-600 is targeted at the guitar player, not the synth addict. Not only is the line input a mere 3.5 jack, which is quite insufficient to say the least, but you can’t use the guitar and line inputs at the same time, so forget also about taping a demo with your guitar and a drum machine (at least, not conveniently).
Once you’ve chosen your sources, and lit up the tracks in the mixer where you want the data stored, just press Rec, then Play, and you’re on.

The BR-600 features good quality effects to process the input, even while recording. Realistic distortion and other classic chorus or flanger effects for the guitar, more adventurous processing for the line input (bit reduction, etc…). These are really useful, as you can just plug in a guitar and record a decent electric guitar track, and so on… There’s also a whole mastering section, which I didn’t have the time to test, along with some facilities like tuner, phrase trainer, pitch correction or loop.

Much less convincing is the internal drum machine. I doubt anyone will find the dull, generic drum samples good enough to use the factory beats or program new ones. The best that can be done with them is providing tempo reference, only to be muted afterwards.
More interesting is the possibility to load new drum samples, but then again, the limitations are drastic : only 4 drum sounds, and up to 13 seconds sample time overall. Still, it’s a good idea, granted you realize that the BR-600 is no MPC, and don’t intend to be.

Once you’ve recorded several tracks, you can, in true analog fashion, bounce up a mix of these tracks to one empty track, allowing you to free the first ones, and record again. Since we’re in the digital domain, this can be done without significant quality loss and allows you to expand the number of available tracks, at the price of course of having several instruments merged on a single, definitive track.
One very odd thing is that the bounce, while very easy to do, isn’t processed internally in some seconds, like I would have expected from using a computer. No, you’ve got to do it real-time : just like on a classic tape recorder, you have to actually set up the selected tracks as source, then launch a normal recording, and let the song plays till the end. Of course, that way, you may play around with the levels or effects in real time to be sure your bounced track sounds just like you want, but an “instant bounce” option would have be nice as well.
Now, who’ll need that thing ?
My feeling is that it’s primarily aimed at the amateur musician, preferably guitar and/or bass player, who wants to make music without the fuss of software recording. The BR-600 is an affordable, self-contained box with a straightforward interface. Just browse the manual a bit, plug a guitar, press “Guitar” on the top to set it as source, push “Effects” to choose a treatment, then push track 1 to route the instrument there, and voilà. Easy to use and good sounding, it’s definitely a good price/value ratio for the occasional player.
If you’re a more “serious” musician, chances are the BR600 will prove far too limited to produce a complex, "pro sounding" song, but it’s still a nice tool to quickly sketch demos while on the move. It works on batteries and it’s surprisingly thin and light. You could of course use a laptop, supposing you own a laptop that light and portable with quality audio inputs. Well, I don’t! On the other hand, I personally prefer using a small Yamaha QY sequencer to write little demos, instead of a recording facility, but I can definitely sense the appeal of the product.

I’ll record a demo song on the BR600 and post it these next days, so stay tuned.

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