Product Reviews

About These Reviews

When I write a product review, in addition to telling the reader what’s good or what’s bad about the product, when writing about a feature that involves a technical principle, I like to include a little tutorial material, explaining the theory behind the practice. Whether you want to buy one or not, you could learn something that will be helpful to you when evaluating similar devices on your own.

If it looks like my reviews tend to be about certain types products rather than a little of everything, well, that’s because they are. Magazine editors tend to have their “go-to” guys and gals when they get a product in for review. This one is good with microphones, that one is good with compressors, the other one is good with software plug-ins. My niche seemed to be portable recording, mixers, and things with really unusual features, so that’s where my assignments fell. That’s fine with me since I tend to shy away from reviewing products where readers expect to see subjective evaluations like “sounds warm and fat” or “great on overheads.” I’m hoping to be able to continue along this line and bring in some current products to review in my style.

Most of these reviews have been published in magazines (what’s here is usually close to the original version, before the editor told me to make it shorter), some have been awaiting publication for too long, and others will probably never be published elsewhere. They’re all fairly detailed and are published here as PDF files. Click on the link and the article will probably pop up in your web browser, or right-click on the link and  you can download the file and read off line at your leisure.  Organized roughly by category:

Mixers and Consoles

  • PreSonus StudioLive 16.4.2 Digital Console – A well thought out 16-channel digital console which includes sixteen plus a few more channels of audio I/O to a computer via Firewire.
  • Mackie 1604-VLZ3 16-Channel Compact Mixer – The latest version of a classic small format mixer.
  • Allen & Heath ZED-R16 16-channel Analog Console – An analog console with the bonus of Firewire and ADAT optical digital I/O, faders, knobs, and buttons that double as MIDI controllers.  Note: For those who care about what chips are used in the unit, in the review I identifed the D/A converter as a PCM1404. This is likely a typo, and it’s probably a PCM4104.
  • Behringer 1204FX Tabletop Analog Mixer – A great “starter” mixing console for the studio or podcaster. 4 mic and 4 stereo line inputs, and a Behringer UCA200 USB stereo audio interface to boot.

Recording Devices

  • Marantz PMD-300CP Cassette Recorder – This is a currently available (Summer 2019) dual-deck cassette recorder with USB output for no-brainer computer digitizing of cassette tapes, and it only costs $150. Short review: It’s not great, but it’s OK, particularly if you’ve always thought that anything sounded better than a cassette. Click on the link for the long review.
  • TASCAM DR-44WL Hand Held Recorder – This is a four-channel recorder with a lot of professional features such as two XLR mic inputs with phantom power, a really good limiter, and, most exciting to me, a full featured remote control that runs on an Apple or Android mobile device and connects to the recorder via WiFi.
  • Sony PCM-M10 Hand Held Recorder – I’ve been through several of these and this one is my current favorite, at least until the next greatest one comes along.
  • Korg MR-1 Hand Held Recorder – Built like a fine watch, records to an internal 20 GB hard disk, features “future proof” DSD as well as conventional PCM recording.
  • TASCAM DR-1 Hand Held Recorder – A solid package with a lot of musician-oriented features.
  • Zoom H2 Hand Held Recorder – I didn’t get to write the full review for PAR, but they asked me to write this Second Opinion. One of these days I probably should turn it into a full review, but if you’re interested in getting one or if you have one and want to learn a little more about it, here’s your chance.
  • Zoom Q3 Hand Held Video Recorder – They call it “the YouTube Recorder” and I concur. Decent video, really good audio quality.
  • TASCAM DR-40 Hand Held Recorder – Sometimes referred to as the “Zoom (H4n) killer,” this portable digital recorder offers great sound and a lot of flexibility. It’s been out for a while now and the price is coming down, so it’s a great value. It’s replaced the trusty Zoom H2 in my guitar case. This is a somewhat extended version of the review I initially wrote for Everything Audio Network, but since it’s been festering in their “to do” box for a while now, I figured i’d get it out here before the recorder gets replaced by something new in the product line.
  • Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder – This compact box connects directly to a mixer’s Insert jacks and records 16 tracks to your choice of USB recording media – hard drive recommended but a thumb drive is possible. It’s a good solution for multitrack recording of live shows when you don’t want a computer to be one more thing to fool with on a gig. When you get home from the gig and want to fix, mix, or maybe add some overdubs, it also serves as a 16×2 USB audio interface. [Revised 6/23/2013 to fix a minor error in the I/O Connection illustration]

Computer Audio Interfaces – Firewire, USB, whatever’s next

  • Focusrite Saffire Pro26 and Pro10 Firewire Audio Interfaces – The basic model and its big brother. Good sound, flexible control, 8 mic inputs, more.
  • Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 Audio Interface – An update to the Pro26 with two Liquid Channels that provide a variety of mic preamp flavors using a sophisticated modeling technique. It features a really, honestly low latency DSP mixer for monitoring.
  • Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 and 18i6 USB 2.0 Audio Interfaces – Two nice, clean, and relatively inexpensive USB 2.0 audio interfaces. 2 mic/line/instrument inputs on each plus an assortment of other inputs and outputs for the two models. Very low latency input monitoring, Windows and Mac (including Win7 and Lion), supports ASIO, WDM, and MIDI.
  • Focusrite Scarlett Review Update – This is a summary of changes after a driver and firmware update. If you read the full review prior to October 15 2011, no need to download the whole thing again, but check out this short update.
  • Focusrite Forte Review – The Forte is a high performance USB 2.0 audio interface that features excellent mic preamps and a pretty darn intuitive user interface for a device with a single knob to control everything (there’s a computer application, too). It’s a gorgeous tabletop format package that sounds as good as it looks.
  • PreSonus 44VSL USB 2.0 4×4 Recording Interface– This is a pretty detailed review of this 44VSL interface. Its monitor mixing section, incorporates most of the functions of the PreSonus 16.0.2 mixing console. The secret? The DSP mixer actually runs on your computer, not a built-in hardware chip. Cool! There’s a fair amount of detail here about testing various aspects of this gadget (and related ones) that might interest you even if you aren’t interested in buying one.
  • Alva Nanoface USB Recording Interface – This is an amazingly compact USB audio interface with 6 input (2x mic, 2x line, S/PDIF) and output (2 line, headphones, S/PDIF) streams, MIDI, and Hi-Z instrument input. An elegant design and good sound. Quirky controls, but a computer application is coming to ease the pain.
  • Cymatic LR-16 Live Recorder – The primary purpose of this unit is as a stand16-track recorder to capture live shows from a PA mixer, but it also works as a 16×2 USB interface and features a low latency DSP monitor mixer that’s useful in the studio. That’s why I’ve listed the review here as well as in the Recording Devices section.
  • Focusrite 18i8 USB Recording Interface – This is the latest (as of  December 2013) in the high quality and cost effective USB interfaces from Focusrite. It shares a lot with the Focusrite 8i6 and 18i6 reviewed previously – same mic preamps, same converters (I think), differing primarily in the assortment of inputs and outputs. This one has four mic inputs, two of which accommodate line inputs and the other two accommodate line inputs and instrument pickups. The balance of the 18 inputs are four line level analog, 8 ADAT optical, and S/PDIF. A built-in DSP mixer provides truly near zero latency monitoring for tracking. The front panel features two headphone jacks with can get their own mixes. It’s a great unit for recording duos, and can be expanded to be the heart for a decent sized studio.
  • Prism Sound Lyra 1 USB Recording Interface – This is a really high quality interface, a notch above what I usually get for review. With only a single mic input, two line inputs, an instrument (DI) input and S/PDIF input, it may not be appropriate as a general purpose interface, but it’s ideal for the solo musician who demands the best quality, or for a mastering studio. Features include a flexible very low latency mixer for input monitoring and very high quality A/D and D/A converters.

Mics and Preamps (I really don’t care much for reviewing these, so this will remain rather sparse)

  • CAD Trion Series (6000, 7000, and 8000) Microphones – A family of mics, one tube condenser, one solid state condenser, and one ribbon, with something for everybody. This was my first, and so far only, microphone review. It was an interesting challenge for me.

Software and Computer Stuff

  • IK Multimedia MODO Bass – This is the first piece of software I’ve written about, so I had to add a new category for it. MODO Bass is a virtual instrument that models the electric bass. There are lots of VSTi bass plug-ins, but the thing that makes this one special is that rather than playing multi-layered samples or more conventional methods of waveform synthesis, it uses physical modeling. Its schtick is that rather than manipulating filters and thresholds, you tweak the sound by manipulating physical characteristics of the instrument and how you pluck the strings. The sounds are very realistic, it responds like a real instrument would respond to a real player, and it’s a great learning tool for how you can affect your own playing on a real instrument.

Tools and Test Equipment

  • NTi Minirator MR-PRO – a hand-held audio test generator and more. A good companion to the Minilyzer or whenever you need clean analog test signals. Bonus features include cable testing, input impedance and phantom power measurements.
  • NTi Minilyzer – A hand-held test instrument for making nearly all the analog measurements you’ll ever need – level, frequency, 1/3 octave analysis, more.  A test lab in your hand (almost)
  • NTi Digilyzer – Very much like the Minilyzer but with digital inputs rather than analog, and worthy of the same high praise. A particularly useful feature is a complete analysis and display of the part of the digital data block that isn’t audio. This review includes a bit of a tutorial on what’s in that block of data and what you can do with the information.

Useful Gadgets and Accessories

  • Dry Case – Protects your portable electronic device from a dunking. I had hoped that it would work for a handheld recorder, but the built-in mic performance falss drastically when the case is buttoned up. Still, it’s good for phones (its intended purpose) and MP3 players.
  • Focusrite VRM Box – You’ll either love it, hate it, or love it because you hate it. The VRM Box is a USB playback-only audio output device that, through earphones, simulates a variety of listening environments and speakers. It’s best used for checking the “transportability” of a mix, and it’s a good tool for learning how listening spaces affect what we hear.
  • TC Electronic PolyTune – A stomp-box electronic guitar/bass tuner with an interesting twist. It can display and tune all of the strings together on a single screen. It also works like a conventional one-string-at-a-time chromatic tuner.
  • E.A.R. SoundChecker – A thumb-sized sound level checker that will tell you when it’s getting loud enough to need your ear plugs. You know this is important. The review includes a bit about how SPL is measured, weighting, Fletcher-Munson curves, and how they all relate to the potential for hearing damage.
  • ETYMŌTIC Music●PRŌ Active Ear Plugs – You have to wonder (as I did) if you really want a $400 set of ear plugs. These aren’t for everyone, but they do what the manufacturer claims and they’re different.
  • PaleBlue Rechargeable Lithium-Polymer Batteries – This is a rather clever way to make a rechargeable AA cell. Claimed features are long shelf life between chargers (sorry, I haven’t had them long enough to confirm that yet), rapid charging, and nearly flat discharge curve. There are some surprises inside.