Zoom R12 MultiTrak Is the Perfect Portable Studio

It even runs on AA batteries

  • The Zoom R12 is a standalone 8-track recorder, like the old cassette-based PortaStudios. 
  • It has a touch-screen, plus all the knobs and sliders you’d ever need. 
  • Oddly, it cannot sync with other devices.
A musician using the Zoom R12 MultiTrak while playing music.

Zoom

Finally, a small, battery-powered rival to the iconic cassette-based PortaStudio.

Throughout the 1980s and beyond, Tascam's PortaStudio was the best—if not the only—way for home musicians to record their work. It was a standalone recorder that used standard audio cassettes in a non-standard way to capture four tracks at high quality. Today, we are spoiled with all kinds of amazing hardware and apps that can do way more than record and overdub on four tracks, but there's never really been a good successor to the PortaStudio. Until now. 

"Laptops and iPads are multifunctional devices. Though they can do a lot, they are still limited by either their size, the need for additional accessories, driver malfunction or software issues, and so on," musician and music producer DKTA Paul aka Paul Agwa, told Lifewire via email.

Zoom In

Zoom's R12 MultiTrak is an eight-track digital recorder with two inputs, an LCD screen to show your recorded tracks, and a bunch of hardware controls to make recording and editing intuitive and quick. It also packs in a bunch of drum loops, and if you plug in a USB MIDI keyboard, it can work as a synthesizer for adding some quick bass lines, chord tracks, or melodies. 

But the real point of this device is to get away from the computer, and record live instruments onto audio, just like the tape machines of old. 

For this, the R12 has two inputs, for mono microphones or guitars, or stereo samplers, drum machines, synths, mixers, etc. Then, fire up the optional click track (aka metronome), set your levels, and record. You can lay down eight tracks, and those recordings are visualized as blocks of audio on a timeline, just like in a regular Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) app like Logic or Ableton Live. 

It can also be used as a hardware controller for a computer DAW, blurring the lines between hardware and software. So why use this instead of a computer?

Standalone Box

If you run a recording studio, you may have a dedicated computer that's always running Ableton and always ready to record. For most of us, though, recording means quitting Safari or Chrome, launching the DAW, and hooking stuff up, all while trying to keep that musical idea in your head. 

The Zoom R12 MultiTrak with headphones connected to it.

Zoom

If you ever picked up your phone to check one fact and emerged a half hour later after reading your WhatsApp messages or Twitter instead, you'll know that humans are easily sidetracked. 

The Zoom R12 has none of that nonsense, and more importantly, it is always there, ready to carry on from where you left off. And because it is dedicated to a single task, the hardware can reflect that, instead of being a compromise that has to be capable of anything, like a laptop or tablet. 

When you're recording, you don't want to study the screen, so you can place the mouse pointer on a virtual slider to change the track volume. You want to grab a real fader, one that always controls the same thing and shows its current state just by its location. This is why musicians often connect hardware controllers to their laptops, but with the R12, you can forego the computer altogether.

It sounds esoteric, but it works. I used to use an older Zoom recorder, the R8, which is very similar in design to the R12 but less capable. I used it to record a singer/songwriter friend, and it was so much more direct than using a computer, and I wasn't even playing any instruments, just doing the recording. 

Closeup on someone using the Zoom R12 MultiTrak alongside a laptop computer.

Zoom

Zoom Out

The R12 isn't perfect, though. For quick editing, the little touchscreen is fine, but if you want to go deep, you'll probably want to transfer all those recordings to a DAW. But the biggest drawback is a curious lack of MIDI sync, according to the user manual.

While the R12 can connect to a MIDI keyboard, it cannot sync to other gear. This means that you have to simultaneously press play on your drum machine and record on the R12 if you want your recordings to line up. 

"Lovely portable device with great features, but with so many years of experience, Zoom should have acknowledged that people need to be able to sync their setup. Midi ports are missing, so next…" electronic musician Andreas says in a comments thread.

In this respect, the R12 is a little too much like the old cassette-based PortaStudios. Then again, I see this more as a tool for live recording, not for capturing tracks from sequencers and drum machines. And for that, this new R8 looks hard to beat.

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