David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: Tascam, Zoom, comparison, recording, review, @musings info

Zoom HD16CD compared to Tascam 2488mkII

I just switched from a Tascam 2488mkII to a Zoom HD16CD a couple weeks ago. This article compares the two units. Both units are discontinued as of the time I wrote this article. Perhaps this discussion will be of some value to folks perusing the used market.

I had used the 2488mkII for a few years before switching to the HD16CD. I had always found the 2488mkII to be difficult to use. Conceptually it's a fairly simple machine, but the workflow is not well-suited to someone who wants to focus their attention primarily upon creating a good performance. This, I suspect, is the case with with everyone who does their own recording.

I consistently botched about one of ten takes with the 2488mkII by forgetting to complete some step in going from auditioning the previous take to recording a new take. Mostly I'd forget to change routing, or forget that changing the routing had canceled all the armed tracks. Sure, I know... Simple things that I should have caught, and probably would have had the majority of my attention been on engineering rather than performing. But that's the point: my attention is focused upon performing; I need a DAW that's as obvious as possible.

Whereas the 2488mkII hides important information (specifically, routing selection) on a screen that you must specifically request, the HD16CD makes everything extremely obvious. The track light is green for playback, red for recording, off for mute and orange for setting parameters. You really can't mess up the routing, since it's implicit in whether the track is set for recording or playback. A quick glance at the HD16CD tells me whether I'm good to go for a take: if I don't see red on each in-use channel plus red on the record-arm button, I forgot something. I don't need to go menu-diving to see hidden state, because there is no hidden state.

The Zoom guitar effects are, to my ear, much better than Tascam's. Not that I use them often, but it's nice to know that I can get away with using the Zoom's built-in effects for a quick demo.

I usually record my trio live to multiple tracks. I've already talked about how the Zoom's workflow reduces errors in that situation. The Zoom's workflow for recording one track at a time is also quite intuitive (and even more streamlined than for 8-track operation), whereas the Tascam's workflow still suffers from the faults I noted above.

I had reservations about the Zoom's 2-line LCD at first. I quickly discovered that it's a lot easier to navigate - and more useful than - Tascam's flashier graphical display.

The Zoom's LED meter bridge is much easier to see than Tascam's on-screen metering display.

Both units have scene support (the ability to capture all mixer settings), but only the Zoom has the ability to associate a scene change with a location marker. IOW, the Zoom supports a rudimentary form of automation, while the Tascam has none. I find that the Zoom's simple automation is much more convenient and easier to use than the "draw the control points" form offered by software-based DAWs. Although I can't automate a gradual parameter change on the Zoom, I haven't found that to be a serious limitation.

Under the covers the Zoom and the Tascam behave very differently. The Zoom records to manipulates WAV files. All of the files begin start at the zero time reference. This makes it easy to export the Zoom's files to another DAW.

The Tascam uses some kind of frame-based recording format. This gives the Tascam a noticeable speed advantage when doing things like jumping to a location marker and trimming a track. On the other hand, exporting a track from the Tascam is a tedious, painfully slow process. It took me about forty minutes to export four twenty-minute tracks when I was moving projects from the Tascam to the Zoom. Most of that time is spent rendering the tracks as WAV files; writing the CD-R only took a couple minutes.

Because the Tascam uses frame-based recording, its editing resolution is limited to the frame time (1/30th, 1/25th or 1/24th of a second, depending upon a parameter set upon project initialization). Frame-based recording makes a lot of sense for recordings that must sync with film or television.

The Zoom uses linear recording and provides an editing resolution of 1/1,000th of a second. You might find this kind of resolution useful to time-align two tracks recorded using mics at different distances from the sound source. It's not something I'd do, but it's there in case you need it.

You'll find most of the same editing operations on the Tascam and the Zoom. However, the Zoom does not have the ability to splice a chunk out of the middle of a track. I suspect that, due to the Zoom's linear recording format, the time to execute such an operation would be prohibitive. You may be able to approximate this operation by copying ranges into a new track, but you'd almost certainly have some kind of glitch due to a waveform discontinuity at the "splice". (The Tascam automatically does a 10ms crossfade to mitigate this problem.)

The Zoom performs a couple of track-editing tricks not available on the Tascam: time-stretching (without pitch change) and reversal. I haven't tried either. My experience with low-budget time stretchers is that they create audible artifacts. I'd be pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong by the HD16CD, but not at all disappointed if it didn't deliver Lexicon-quality sound for $500.

The Zoom can import a track from a CD, from an IMPORT folder in the file system (writable via USB - see below), or from any other project. The latter option simply isn't available on the Tascam without a lot of tedious and time-consuming intermediate steps. The Zoom, however, is not without fault: it's stereo tracks are actually paired mono tracks which must be imported one at a time.

The Zoom includes a harmonizer and a pitch corrector among its insert effects. I haven't used either effect, so can't comment regarding their quality. Neither effect is available on the Tascam.

I like the reverbs slightly better on the Tascam than on the Zoom. However, the Zoom's reverbs are quite usable.

The Zoom offers a very effective three-band compressor. The Tascam doesn't. (The 2488neo include a three-band compressor in its mastering section.)

Both the Zoom and the Tascam allow you to use track location markers to separate one project into multiple tracks when burning a CD-R. I get a lot of use from this feature. Remember, though, that the Zoom supports use of location markers for mixer scene automation. Unfortunately, a mark is mark on the Zoom; there's no way to distinguish between a scene change mark and a CD track mark.

In the case that you are recording multiple songs in a project and using scene automation within one or more of those songs, you're going to have to do some extra preparation before burning a CD-R. What I do is master the project (with automation), copy it to a new project (this preserves all the tracks, scenes, markers, etc. in the copy), switch to the copy, remove all the marks that are just for scene automation, then burn the CD-R from the copy. It's honestly almost easier to do than to write about. If I had one wish for a firmware upgrade (I'm not holding my breath), it'd be for some way to specify that a mark is to be used only for scene automation.

The Tascam has a much more capable monitoring section than the Zoom. The Tascam allows you to select which bus is monitored and provides an independent monitor level control and a mute button. The Zoom monitor outputs are permanently associated with the stereo bus and have neither a level control nor a mute button. This is a minor inconvenience during mastering, as you can't reduce the monitor volume unless your monitors have their own level control.

The Tascam provides balanced 1/4" monitor outputs, while the Zoom uses RCA jacks.

The Zoom wins on input configuration with eight combination jacks that will accept either an XLR or 1/4" plug. The first two inputs are switchable as a hi-Z guitar input. All eight inputs have individually-switchable phantom power.

The Tascam has eight inputs, only four of which will accept an XLR plug. The phantom power applies as a group to all four XLR inputs. A separate 1/4" jack on the unit's front - linked to one of the rear-panel inputs - is a hi-Z connection for guitar.

Both units can record up to eight tracks simultaneously. The Zoom can mix sixteen tracks (eight mono and four stereo) while the Tascam can mix twenty-four tracks (twelve mono and six stereo).

The Zoom records only at 16-bit resolution, but processes audio at 24-bit resolution. The Tascam can record either at 16- or 24-bit resolution; its processing resolution is unspecified. Both units sample only at 44.1 KHz.

The Tascam's performance is undoubtedly limited by its analog section and its converters: despite the available 24-bit resolution, the 2488mkII's noise floor is virtually the same as the HD16CD's.

Both the Zoom and the Tascam provide USB connectivity for transferring files to and from the unit. On the Tascam all files are transferred via a FAT partition and require a time-consuming conversion between the Tascam's internal format and WAV files. The Zoom exposes its file system directly. No conversions are necessary since the unit records directly to WAV files. On the downside, there's always the risk that the Zoom's file system or your recorded tracks can be corrupted through operator error; this can't happen on the Tascam.

The Zoom can convert sample rates while importing WAV files.

I found that the HD16CD doesn't play nicely with Mac OS 10.4.11. I was able to mount the Zoom's file system on the Mac, but attempts to move WAV files from the Mac to the Zoom consistently locked up the Zoom after having transferred about 110 MB. Fortunately, I can still move files to and from the Zoom via CD-R.

Computer compatibility seems to always be an issue for manufacturers of audio gear. Ironically, Mac OS 10.4 and the Zoom HD16CD are both about three years old; you'd think they'd work together. On the other hand, maybe the HD16CD was only tested against Mac OS 10.3. An email inquiry to Samson Technology's support address for Zoom products remains unanswered after several weeks.

In addition to the mountable file system, the Zoom also provides control-surface and MIDI functionality via USB. I have not used either of these features, so can't comment on whether they work.

The Zoom provides a programmable rhythm section and can play SMF files. The Tascam can play SMF files. I can't comment on these features as I haven't used them.

Regarding physical characteristics, neither unit will be mistaken for a piece of professional equipment. The physically-larger Tascam seems more substantial and has slightly longer faders. The Zoom is better suited for constricted workspaces. Both should be treated carefully and operated in a clean environment in order to maximize their working life.

The Zoom uses a small AC power adaptor. The Zoom adaptor will work anywhere in the world when matched with a proper cord. The Tascam has a built-in power supply that works only on the voltage specific to the region in which the unit was sold.

March 26 2010 02:56:15 GMT