I began my foray in audio on a Boss BR-900CD recorder. It had nine faders, two inputs, a bright orange screen and a scroll wheel. Many a memorable tune was produced on that little box, despite its limitations in comparison to what I’m now used to with a DAW-based rig.
Yes, my computer-centric setup gives me numerous channels of high-quality preamplification into pristine conversion, which the Boss did not. With DSP on my interface I have the choice to compress, EQ and saturate incoming audio to my heart’s content. The whole thing is contained in a roadworthy 4U rack. As far as sonic quality goes, it does the job every time, and then some.
But there’s just something that little Boss unit did for me that my schmancy DAW rig can’t touch. There’s something about not having a gazillion options that made me focus on what’s important while saving me a lot of time. Recording was often more spontaneous and less complicated. No computer restarts or software updates, no menu diving, plug-in list scrolling or I/O configuration. Just stick in the inputs and hit record.
TURN OF THE TIDE
Since in-the-box recording became mainstream, naturally the market underwent a drought of these all-in-one recorder-type products. Until now.
You may not call it a ‘resurgence’ but the last few months have seen the release of not one but two such devices: the Tascam Model 24 and Zoom LiveTrak L-20. Both have real life faders, 16 preamps, built-in effects, and an SD Card slot for PC-less recording. Their arrival is not in a spirit of nostalgia — they’re here as standalone value propositions, offering convenience, immediacy and portability in a computer-and-software flooded world. It’s not a throwback as much as it is a throw-forward.
Of course we were curious to take the pair for a spin. Given the similarities in their specifications, we also decided to review the two models against each other. Here are our impressions.
NEED TO KNOW
The LiveTrak is very easy to nut out without a manual. First you need to select your choice of mode and sample rate with the three-way switches on the rear. I wanted it ready for PC-less tracking, so I set it to Card Reader mode at 48kHz and popped in a 32GB SD card. Then using the built-in screen and push knob scroll wheel, I created and named a new project.
The layout makes a lot of sense. Once you’ve plugged in your inputs simply record arm the correct channels (Rec/Play button), press Record, then Play/Pause. Six Monitor mixes, labelled A–F, are switchable for headphones or balanced line level monitor outs. These can be set up mix-layer style with the A–F buttons down the side of the last track fader. As the faders aren’t motorised, the LED strips indicate their positions when jumping between mixes. It’s pretty functional and doesn’t hamper your workflow all that much. What would be nice is the ability to duplicate a Monitor mix across multiple sends. The six outputs are locked to A, B, C, D, E, F mixes, and there’s no easy way to have A, B, and C output the same mix without mimicking fader levels on each one. Unless of course you switch them to receive the default Master mix, which may not always be practical.
It’s surprising how much bigger the Model 24 is compared to the Tascam given they have very similar I/O credentials. There’s no question it’s a more solid build than the Zoom, evidenced by the nearly 7kg weight premium. Long throw faders make a difference too, and they feel pro. Unlike the Zoom there’s no need for the fader-latching business as the Model 24 has its own rows of Aux knobs for both monitor mixes and the effect send.
That’s right — there’s only one effect send, whereas the Zoom has two. This will mostly affect those who intend to mix their tracks entirely in the unit (as opposed to putting the tracks into a DAW post-recording), but I still see the lack of a second effects engine as a significant omission. Having to pick a reverb or a delay is traumatic. I want both. Which the Zoom lets me have. Granted, the Tascam contains a few “reverb + delay” presets to partially fill the need.
The Model 24 has four stereo tracks while the Zoom has two. Make that five if you’re counting the 3.5mm jack input to record your phone’s output (Channel 21/22), and a sixth with the Bluetooth input. And where the Zoom’s operating mode — be it USB interface, SD recorder or live mixer — is set globally, the Model 24 allows this to be set on a track-by-track basis with the three-position slide switch under each gain knob. Setting up for a session is super easy — record-arm each channel, then press the main Record button under the screen.
convenience, immediacy and portability in a computer-and-software flooded world. It’s not a throwback as much as it is a ‘throw-forward’
AT A GLANCE
|TASCAM MODEL 24||ZOOM LIVETRAK L-20|
|Multitrack Recording||24 channels||20 channels|
|USB Interface||24-in/22-out||22-in/4-out, 48k|
The Tascam Model 24 is best approached as a capable analogue live mixer with no-compromise multitrack recording capabilities. The Monitor outputs, extensive routing functions and graphic EQ all indicate it’s inclined toward the live stage.
On the other hand, the Zoom LiveTrak L-20 feels more at home in a studio than on stage. With six stereo headphone outputs and a built-in metronome, it seems the perfect tool for capturing band performances in a controlled environment.
Both will excel in either application. They’re both great live mixers in their own right. Both are very functional multitrack recorders. Both have a generous range of effects. And both can be used as USB interfaces with a computer if you so choose.
I can see myself using the Model 24 or L-20 instead of my rack rig when tracking bands live on location, then transferring the WAV files from the SD Card into a DAW in the comfort of my home studio for mixdown. Or it’d be perfect as a live mixer in a rehearsal studio, offering bands the option to easily record a jam without setting up extra recording gear. Or you can happily mix a show through it and hit record when the set begins. The more you think about it, the more you realise — while eclipsed by the rise of DAWs and fancy interfaces, the humble mixer/recorder certainly hasn’t lost its place in modern recording.