The Roland R-88 is one of life’s little surprises. A professional eight track portable recorder
for under two grand, was not what I was expecting from Roland so it certainly caught me
on the hop. The list of features is maybe surprising too. Eight xlr inputs all with mic amps
all with associated front panel controls. Eight xlr outputs assignable between track outputs,
on board digital mixing and a first for me on a portable recorder, touch screen control of the
menus and settings options. The screen also serves for monitoring input and output levels.
Also included – time code in and out, AES in and out, recording to SD card, back up to
external USB storage and the option to attach the whole shebang to your PC and use it as
an eight channel sound card. Oh, and up to 20ms delay on each channel for syncing your
spot mics with the pair.
Delay was added in the latest firmware update (1.10 released in late June) which also added
polyphonic recording, edit houses everywhere rejoice. External power input is comfortingly
professional via 4 pin XLR, while internal powering is provided by an eight AA battery
sledge easily accessible on top of the R-88. I filled the sledge with Sanyo Enerloops and
fully charged the Roland ran in record (eight tracks 48kHz, 24 bit, two phantom mics) for
four hours. With a FAT 32 two gig file limit the R-88 splits your recordings on the 2gig
boundary. With an external battery plugged in you can pull the sledge and refill it while still
recording. Neat. Recording is to SD card (32Gb max) or computer or both simultaneously.
USB hard drives are not supported and neither are NTFS volumes. You can plug in an
external usb flash memory device,however this is for back up not direct recording. Copying
files is straightforward and using folders you can easily copy a day’s audio in one operation.
The R-88’s mini USB port allows connection to a win or osx pc where it does double duty
as storage or as an eight channel USB Sound card.
3 Rates and Gain
Out of the bag and up to and including 96KHz the Roland is a ten track recorder, the
eight inputs with the additional optionof recording the stereo mix. At 192KHz you are
down to 4 record tracks, bit depth is selectable between 16 and 24 bits. Each input offers
concentric gain controls and a configurable and rather startling red led peak indicator, you
won’t miss any dangerous peaks. The outer ring provides rough gain adjustment in six dB
steps from +4dB round to 56 dB of amplification and in the latest firmware you can add a
6dB sensitivity boost, taking you to 62dB of mic amp gain. You have no seperate line input
switch to worry about, the inner control is your fader. If I was fussy I’d beg for another 6
dB of gain but there’s already enough oomph for a Beyer 201 or more likely an SM58 and
the mic preamps are pretty quiet even at full gain. Beware though you cannot adjust the
rough gain while recording without a momentary drop out of the audio. There are limiters
on every channel and they can be used individually or flexibly ganged in four user selectable
groups. And this linking option including groups extends to input sensitivities.
4 Taking Control
One of the things that bothers location guys is RF spill, I had no problems with my channel
38 Micron kit, even with the receiver parked right on top of the R-88. There’s comprehensive
M and S functionality built in to the recorder. On the record side you can decode M and S
to any or all of the four input pairs to their record tracks, you can decode any or all of the
pairs to the mix and in playback you can decode any any or all of the four pairs of tracks.
There’s also software control of the M—S level for each of the input pairs and also the M—S
width. While on the subject of control, the R-88 makes extensive use of the touch screen
for control. You have hardware transport buttons and mix master and monitor pots and a
menu button but beyond those settings are accessed through the touch screen. Even with
my terrible eye sight and sausage fingers I managed to find my way round without too much
difficulty. I would like a dialogue exit mapped to a (stop?) key and one rotary would be
nice rather than just the function nudge that is available on the hardware cue buttons, but
I have certainly dealt with much trickier interfaces than Roland provide here. I did like the
fact that even while recording you can access the menus and adjust settings while running,
not the record settings obviously.
5 Who wants an R-88?
One of the questions potential customers will ask is, ‘Who is the R-88 aimed at?’ The
extensive M—S facilities and dsp delay options point to music while the inclusion of time
code and the slate functionality favour a TV environment. I think it is clear Roland are not
taking aim at the Sound Devices 664 or Zaxcom Nomad market. I think the most telling
hardware decisions here are the absence of any return monitoring and the absence of any
camera multiway connectivity. The Roland is not really a mixer/recorder in that sense. It
is a recorder first and foremost. However it does have an onboard mixer that can be midi
controlled with the optional Roland UM-ONE usb midi adapter, which sadly I didn’t get to
try. But the mixer has simple eq, mutes, pans and faders so you do have quite a flexible
playback environment in the box. I think people who are taking adventurous steps in DSLR
video production will be very interested, any one wanting iso recordings of conferences and
the like will find the R-88 very attractive, and any music makers who want a walk up and
go multitrack and can fit their gig into eight channels will be knocking hard on Roland’s
door. Yes I know you can plug your ultrabook into a usb interface but I think the R-88
brings a different focus. I want to be ready to go in less than ten seconds, I want every
thing running off one battery and it has to last and last. I don’t want my entire gig hanging
by a usb thread and most of all I want the option of one bag, I don’t want a laptop and a
powersupply and a usb interface and a powersupply for that and a banqueting table to lay
them all out on, I just don’t. However if you love laptops check out the R-88 as your sound
card. Now that’s flexible working.