Zoom R16 Review

The Zoom R16 is a multi-track solid-state recorder, capable of recording 8 tracks simultaneously and playing back an additional 8 tracks. It retails in the UK at about £350. It is a much more complex and sophisticated device than the Zoom H4n which I reviewed earlier this year. This is evident from the proliferation of buttons across its face. In addition to the faders for each individual channel, there is an array of cryptically-named single-function knobs. Happily there is a basic recording guide at the front of the manual which helps the user get up and running quickly with the most simple of multi-track recording tasks.

Zoom market the R16 as a multi-function device, not just a portable multi-track recorder, but a control surface and multi-channel sound card. When you consider the price of equipment needed to get similar functionality (e.g. an Alesis Master Control, a MOTU 896HD or MOTU 8Pre), it looks especially good value. To have it all in one unit makes this sort of technology much more accessible the keen amateur or anyone operating on a tight budget.

We used the R16 for recording an episode of the Ubuntu UK Podcast, as well as the live show recorded with the Linux Outlaws at OggCamp. It was vital that the pressure of providing a live sound mix for the OggCamp audience did not get in the way of capturing a good recording for the many thousands more people who would download the episode after the event. The R16 is primarily designed for musicians, which I am most certainly not, but Zoom certainly see podcasters as part of their market so I was pleased to try the R16 out. My “use case” meant that I didn’t need to try out the many effects available, but was able to record and bounce down a podcast recording session to a stereo pair pretty easily.

I purchased an 8-way jack-to-jack loom to allow me to take the direct output from each of 8 channels on my Soundcraft M12 mixer to the R16. This worked beautifully, giving me a pre-fade recording of each track on the R16 but also allowing me to mix the live audio. The pre-amplifiers cope well with the signals fed from the desk, and the peak indicator LEDs are useful for an engineer who has to monitor both a live desk and recording equipment.

The transport controls should be familiar to anyone who has used a software DAW. The display is backlit and clear, but a little cramped for the complexity of the menus through which one has to navigate to complete pretty much any operation on the R16. There are menu maps in the manual, and it does become easier with familiarity, but a larger LCD screen would be a welcome upgrade in any future revision.

The build quality of the R16 is good, especially for the price. The faders aren’t as smooth as more expensive mixers, but are more than good enough. The buttons have a nice solid click and the jog wheel feels firm too. The rear of the unit sports 8 multi-purpose XLR and jack sockets, which also feel solid.

The R16 supports SDHC cards up to 32GB, though it only comes supplied with a 1GB card. If you were recording all 16 tracks, 1GB would fill up in about 12 minutes or so. That’s more than enough for most songs, but nowhere near enough for an album (or podcast!) so most users will want to buy a few large SD cards if they plan to work on a variety of projects. The cover for the SD card slot is not hinged, but comes right off. There is a screw hole which can be used to secure the cover permanently, but for those who wish to change the card even irregularly the detachable cover seems cheap compared with the rest of the product.

The R16 can be run from batteries, and it claims to run for over 4 hours on 6 AA batteries, but the supplied PSU is very light so I’d suggest carrying it around with you anyway. It can also be powered from the USB bus of an attached laptop, which is handy. There are also two built-in microphones, the same excellent ones found in the H4n, which makes the R16 suitable for making even simple recordings. However, the unit is much bigger than a handheld one, not something you’d be able to just slip into a backpack. It isn’t supplied with a protective cover, but there is one available from a company called Tourtek.

Phantom power is restricted to just two microphone inputs. I suspect this is because the power required to drive more than two phantom power devices is too great for the PSU or batteries to deliver. Two of the 8 channels can be switched over to the internal microphones and another two switched to a high impedance input to accomodate line outputs from other equipment.

Being a Linux user, rather than Mac or Windows, I connected the R16 to my PC running Ubuntu 9.04. (Zoom do not claim to support PCs running Linux, so this was entirely specualative on my part, but important to me, and I suspect important to the majority of my readers.) Whilst it works flawlessly as a mass storage device, giving you access to the contents of the SD card over a USB connection, it does not work as an external sound card. Not being a simple stereo device, it does not use the USB audio interface common to just about every other external sound card. This is obviously a technological restriction, but a frustrating one nevertheless. I can only hope that either Zoom or some clever folks in the Linux community are able to produce an Open Source driver, as the versatility of the R16 is one of its major selling points and at the moment Linux users are missing out.

A similar story applies to my attempts to use the R16 as a control surface with Ardour. It seems there is no common standard for control surfaces, so support for each one must be written separately. At the time of testing, there was no support for the R16 in Ardour, so I wasn’t able to test this aspect of it either. The unit does come bundled with Cubase LE 4, which presumably does integrate with the R16 as a control surface.

Overall, the R16 is a great device at a very agreeable price. Even though I wasn’t able to use all of its functionality, it did its job as a multi-track recorder superbly. Zoom have done a great job of incorporating functionality previously only found in separate units into one superb package.

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    5 Responses to Zoom R16 Review

    1. Jani Frilander says:

      I run Ubuntu Karmic and I’m going to get my R16 soon. It would be nice to have a driver for that.

    2. Jeremiah Miller says:

      Wondering more about using it as a control surface in ardour… supposedly this thing mackie control emulation, which means it *might* work. (That is the same way the popular behringer bcf2000 works with it, you hit a button combo that puts it in a mackie emulation mode.) But I’ve read that there is more than one type of mackie emulation.

      I just got an h4n, and already have a bcf2000. I never even knew about this R16 thing, and if I could confirm (with the right tweaking) it would work as a replacement for the bcf2000, I might consider replacing both with one of these.

      But… I’m pretty sure this doesn’t have motorized faders, right? (No mention of it anywhere, and I suppose that’d be a bit over-the-top for this thing.)

    3. Tony says:

      Hi Jeremiah. I’d be interested in trying the R16 in Mackie emulation mode as a control surface. Have you got any URLs which may be useful, as I couldn’t find anything in the manual about it.

      But you’re right, the R16 doesn’t have motorised faders.

    4. Gunnar says:

      Hi!

      I would need to combine the Zoom R16 with Ardour and Rosegarden on my Linux Jack System to make free music more confortable. (recording 8 tracks at once).
      You can download free music from my site – not only for helping me, it’s free for all …
      http://www.neppstar.net/cms_neppstar/html/modules.php?op=modload&name=Downloads&file=index&req=viewdownload&cid=1&orderby=dateD

      Greetings and thanks if you have some informations for me
      Gunnar

    5. Tony says:

      Hi Gunnar, unfortunately as I mention in the blog post, you can’t use the R16 with Linux as there are no drivers.