If you want to see breakthrough music technology, AES and Winter NAMM are the places to be. But occasionally, an amazing new gadget sneaks in at the Summer NAMM show.
Last July, Summer NAMM was in my hometown of Austin, and I was slogging through the aisles, disappointed that none of my favorite software companies were there. After navigating rows and rows of guitars and amps, I was just about to head out when, lo and behold, I saw it: my new love, the Boss Micro BR. A portable multitrack studio that fits in the palm of your hand.
I watched mesmerized as the demonstrator chained a few drum beats into an arrangement, plugged in his electric guitar, chose a cool effect, played a rhythm part, recorded a lead guitar with a new effect on another track, and then created a mixdown of his performance as both WAV and MP3 files. Then he showed the MP3 player built into the Micro BR and how that worked. I was impressed.
The Micro BR wasn't being released for another month, but I ordered one ($229 street) and forgot about it until it arrived just before Christmas. Here's what I've discovered.
At 5 3/8 x 3 1/4 x 7/8 inches, the Boss Micro BR puts multitrack recording and an MP3 player in the palm of your hand.
I've admitted to being a gear and software addict. My addiction began with portable gadgets—from micro cassettes, handheld sequencers, video games, metronomes, and tuners to battery-powered speakers, I have quite the pile of antiquated toys in my studio closet. But I'm sure my new Micro BR won't be banished to the misfit toy closet for many years.
My first impression taking the Micro BR out of the box was amazement. It's as thin as an iPod and just a wee bit bigger. When the power is off, the mirrored front is just plain sexy (and it came in handy while applying mascara). I plugged in two AA batteries and noticed the included Secure Digital memory card inside the battery compartment. This 128MB card will record 64 minutes total in high-resolution mode. With a 1GB card—the largest size the Micro BR supports—you can record up to 8 hours and 22 minutes. Note that those numbers refer to a single (mono) track in compressed mode. Record an uncompressed stereo WAV file and you'll get about 94 minutes out of a 1GB card.
Turning the power on, I saw the bright LCD display. I immediately started pressing buttons and exploring to see what I could figure out before digging into the manual. The main features are all accessible from the front. The main buttons you use are <, >, +, –, and, of course, Exit.
I've collected a mountain of music gadgets over the years, but I think the Micro BR will have staying power. (Photo: Ryan Chahanovich.)
I noticed the USB port and decided to hook it up to my PowerBook to see what happened. The LCD read "USB Connecting," then "USB Idling," and then the Micro BR mounted like a hard drive on my computer desktop. I opened it and noticed two folders, one called "Roland" and one called "MP3." There was a demo MP3 file inside the MP3 folder called "Big Dance," so I decided to copy a few of my own MP3 files into the folder as well. Then I disconnected the Micro BR from my laptop, pressed the MP3 button in the bottom left corner, and used the + and – buttons to scroll through my MP3 files and play them. (The Micro BR plays MP3s with bit rates from 64–320kbps as well as 44.1kHz WAV files.) It was simple and intuitive.
Next to the time display, the LCD said "100%." I scrolled over to the number, changed it, and noticed that the Micro BR changed the tempo of my MP3 file without changing its pitch. The settings range from 25% (quarter speed) to 200% (double speed), although the sound degrades pretty badly when you start getting slower than about 85%. Boss intended this feature to help guitar players learn parts by slowing down the song. It would be fine for that, but the garbled sound quality would grate on my nerves after a while.
Another interesting feature in MP3 mode is looped playback. On the front panel is an "A/B" button. Pressing the button once creates the loop start point and pressing it a second time creates the end point. Playback loops between those points until you press the "A/B' button again to clear the loop.
The other working mode in the Micro BR is Song mode, which turns on the four-track recorder. Song mode is the coolest thing about the Micro BR. Though Boss calls it a four-track recorder because it can play back four audio tracks at the same time, it's really 34 tracks: one stereo rhythm track and eight virtual tracks for each of the four playback tracks.
What the heck are virtual tracks? In Pro Tools, they're called Playlists. Think of them as pages in a sketchbook. You open the book, draw something on the first page, and then flip to a new page and draw something else until you run out of pages. With the Micro BR, you have eight pages to scribble on within each of the four playback tracks. Using a vocal as an example, you can record a take on Virtual Track 1 (called V1), and then record another on V2, a third on V3, a fourth on V4, etc. After you record as many takes as you want, you can edit them together into one perfect take, called a composite.
So, for example, you can take the intro of V1, the first verse of V2, and the chorus of V3 and paste all of those separate takes into one perfect track. As someone who started on a four-track Yamaha cassette deck almost as big as a card table back in 1982, I am blown away by this tiny miracle device.
If you still need more tracks, you can simply "bounce" (mix) up to four tracks to a new Virtual Track without erasing anything. That lets you keep your original tracks intact. What's more, you can add live audio from the input as well as the stereo rhythm track while you're bouncing.
Unlike an analog tape recorder, the Micro BR can bounce all four tracks to another pair. In this example from the manual, two more sources are added as well.
The Micro BR has decent onboard drum sounds, organized into nine different kits including 808, House, Jazz, Hard, Reggae, Room, and Hip-Hop. It offers 293 drum patterns, but unfortunately all of them are in 4/4. There is a metronome that plays a generic sidestick hit in a variety of meters, but if you want to hear the whole kit, you're stuck with 4/4.
Each pattern is part of a group of patterns that contains an intro groove, two different verse grooves, two fills, and an ending. There are no patterns for choruses or bridges. You could use the extra verse pattern for a chorus, but I didn't feel the default verse-pattern pairs were varied enough to make a chorus that lifted or a bridge that changed the feel. So I often found myself using a pop pattern for the verse and a rock pattern for the chorus. To create a drum track, simply string patterns together into an arrangement or choose one of the Micro BR's preset arrangements.
One thing I didn't find intuitive was how to create an ending for a song. You'd think you could simply use an "ending" pattern, but no. When you choose an ending pattern, that same pattern plays over and over without stopping. To actually end a song, you have to set the last pattern in your song to pattern #327, "Break." This is described on page 84 of the manual.
Input and output are on the left and right sides of the Micro BR. The small notch at bottom right is for a wrist strap.
The Input button on the front panel allows you to choose among four sources: a 1/4-inch guitar input, a built-in microphone, and a 1/8-inch stereo input that accepts either line- or mic-level signals. (In mic mode, the jack offers plug-in power.)
The onboard effects change according to the input you choose. For example, if you choose the guitar input and then press the Effects button, all effects are guitar effects. If you choose the built-in mic input (which truly sounds better than any built-in mic I've ever used), effects such as delays are all vocal-oriented. If you choose the line input, you can choose among ten different mastering effects such as compression and EQ. There's even a guitar tuner, which is activated when you press the Effect and Rhythm buttons simultaneously.
When you create a new song, you have the option of three audio resolutions: HiFi, Standard, or Long. It seems that HiFi is the actual standard for the Micro BR and the only audio format that supports bouncing. I recommend getting a larger SD card and always using HiFi. All formats, including MP3, use 44.1kHz as the sample rate but the manual never reveals what the bit depth is or what kind of data compression is used. It pretty much says, "Use this if you want to bounce" or "Use this if you want to save space."
The Micro BR has two effect processors—one for individual inserts and one for reverb. The reverb choices are pretty limited with only a hall and a room to choose from, but you can edit the reverb time and tone. The reverb is actually not bad. It doesn't rival most reverb plug-ins, but for a box that fits in my pocket I can't complain.
The insert effects are grouped in three categories: guitar effects, vocal/mic effects, and mastering effects. There are 80 guitar effect presets, 20 vocal/mic effect presets, and 10 mastering presets. The guitar effects are so much fun—really inspiring and realistic.
“The guitar effects are inspiring and realistic; vocal effects are creative and edgy.”
I wish there were a few more vocal effects, but I really like the ones Boss gives you. I found them very hip with some creative, edgy vocal delays that make anyone sound like a rock star.
The mastering effects were decent as well. Again, I can't compare the Micro BR effects to the Waves Platinum Bundle, and I wouldn't begin to. But for what this box is and does, the effects are usable, abundant, and inspiring.
Using the effects while recording is intuitive but getting to specific effects categories after you've recorded a track is not. When you record your guitar, for example, you must choose the guitar input from the front panel, and when you press the Effect button, it automatically calls up the guitar effects group. But after you record, you may want to add a chorus or delay. To do that, you need to change the input to "Mic," press the Effect button, choose where you want to apply the effect (the track with the electric guitar), and then scroll through the 20 vocal/mic effects. That's confusing.
All effects are editable and can be chained in different ways. For example, a guitar effect includes five components to choose from: Preamp, Speaker Simulator, Noise Suppressor, FX (which includes compressor, chorus, flanger, phaser, and tremolo/pan) and Delay. Each one of the components is editable as well. So within the Speaker Simulator are 14 different amp models, such as a Fender Twin, Roland JC-120, Matchless, and more.
When you're used to a big computer monitor and software like Pro Tools, editing on the Micro BR can be frustrating. There's no solo or mute or automation, for example, so if you want to mute a track, you have to simply bring the volume to zero. The cool thing is that the micro BR can edit in measures. So I could tell it to copy the data from measure 26, beat 2, to measure 54, beat 3, and paste that at bar 1, beat 2. I wish there were a crossfade feature that made my edits a little less abrupt, though.
When you're done recording and editing your tracks, you'll want to Optimize. This removes any unkept takes from the SD card and saves you space. Optimizing doesn't delete any parts left on Virtual Tracks that aren't being used. It simply deletes audio that was recorded over and is not being used at all.
Creating a final mix of a song wasn't as obvious as the rest of the functions but it is spelled out pretty clearly in the manual. You have to enter Mastering mode by pressing the Exit and Utility buttons together a few times, choose an unused virtual track on which to record your final mix, and then press record. When your mix is done compiling, press Stop and the Micro BR asks you what format you want your final mix in, MP3 or WAV. You name your track and then your final mix is placed in the MP3 folder of the Micro BR's drive.
When you connect your Micro BR to your computer, just open the MP3 folder and find your final mix to burn to a CD.
Remember I said there were two folders on the Micro BR drive and the other one is called Roland? Well, that's where all of your song data is stored. To back up, simply drag that Roland folder to your hard drive. That's it.
Note that the Micro BR uses its own proprietary audio file format, but you can bounce or export any track or track(s) to WAV or MP3 format if necessary to use in another application. I suggest exporting to WAV files because they're sample-accurate and will line up to your click track without any problems. MP3 files always add about 20 samples to the front of a file and require you to move or nudge your file to line up with your tempo.
The Micro BR shines as a personal recording tool. (Photo: Ryan Chahanovich.)
So, how and when would I use this? Personally, I wouldn't record and master a serious album on the Micro BR. Not that it couldn't be done; I'm simply spoiled using Pro Tools and computer based DAWs for my serious work. I think of the Micro BR as a portable sketchpad for songwriting. When I don't want to lug around my Pro Tools interface, USB dongle, microphone, and speakers, the Micro BR is absolutely perfect for songwriting or capturing fun ideas when the mood strikes. It's great for sitting with an electric or acoustic guitar and trying out new ideas and harmony parts.
I used the Micro BR over Christmas with my family to record a thrash-rock version of "The Little Drummer Boy." Then we did our own OK Go-ish video to it and emailed that to all the absent family members just to make them laugh. Basically, I chose a drum groove and played power chords on my brother's electric guitar. On the other three tracks, I recorded my family members singing lyrics I rewrote with stupid family jokes. For playback, I used one of favorite gadgets, the Sonic Impact I-F2 portable speaker.
To create the video, I hooked my Apple iSight camera to my laptop. Using a small application called G-Cam to capture the festivities, I aimed the camera at my crazy family and played the Micro BR into the line input of my laptop while we all acted like we were singing in real time. I then exported the video from QuickTime to a 5MB MP4 file and emailed that. It was quick and painless and kinda fun for everyone. I figured that recording a bad song and video was better than arguing or hearing about my brother's appendix surgery.
I actually bought another Micro BR and gave it to my computer-phobic wannabe rock-guitarist brother for Christmas. Within moments of opening the box, he had his distorted electric guitar playing with his heavy rock drum groove and was immersed in headphones and unavailable to anyone until dinner was served.
So I still say go with Pro Tools LE if you're doing serious demos, but if you need a songwriting sketchpad or just hate recording on the computer, the Boss Micro BR is one amazing gadget worth owning.
Return to digitalmedia.oreilly.com.