In the ever more crowded world of portable digital recorders (see my 11 previous reviews), the TASCAM GT-R1 stands out. Some clever soul thought to combine the company’s popular DR-1 flash recorder with an MP series music trainer, an MP3 player that slows down recordings so you can work out tricky parts. The result is a device that goes well beyond the capabilities of either. What we have here is a recorder that will make you a better musician.
In its shiny red aluminum jacket, the GT-R1 looks like the DR-1’s dressed-up younger brother. Right away, you notice the two condenser mics on a swivel mount — handy when the recorder is in a shirt pocket, because you can aim the mics forward towards the music rather than up at your nostrils. Flip the mics up instead, and they’re positioned well for handheld interviewing or stand-mounted concert recording.
The display is a generous 1-7/8” X 1” and the top panel sports all the usual transport and function buttons. An LED ring indicating record status surrounds the record button. As with the DR-1, a scroll wheel handles a variety of functions depending on which screen is active.
The power switch, hold button, and jack for the optional power supply are on the left side. A sliding door provides access to the USB 2.0 port and SD memory card. (The GT-R1 comes with a 1-gig card, enough to hold over 90 minutes of CD-quality stereo WAV audio; cards up to 32GB are supported.)
Unless you spring for the optional $29 AC adapter, you'll need to open the door often, because the only other way to charge the internal battery is via USB. (Unlike the M-Audio MicroTrack and Korg MR-1, however, the GT-R1 has a user-replaceable battery; see Figure 1.) Battery life is touted to be up seven hours when recording MP3s; I never got anywhere close to that, but I was pushing the little puppy for all it was worth. Fully charging the battery can take as long as six hours. TASCAM recommends picking up a spare battery, but at $60 a pop I’m not sure how many people will.
Because the GT-R1 locks in to USB mass-storage mode when connected, essentially transforming into a thumb drive, you cannot use a portable USB battery pack to power it. You can, however, run it from the optional 5V AC adapter, so a custom-wired external battery pack could work.
On the right-hand side you’ll find up/down switches to set playback and mix levels (more about that in a moment), a dedicated Settings button that shortcuts to the input menu, a thumbwheel for setting input level, and a 1/8” stereo headphone/line-out jack.
Rounding out the tour, two 1/8” stereo jacks between the two mics handle external mics (with plug-in power) and line sources, while a 1/4” instrument jack for your guitar or bass resides at the opposite end.
Overall, the layout is clean and uncluttered and the switches, dials, and buttons all display TASCAM’s usual high quality.
As I said, the GT-R1 combines two distinct devices in one shell. First off, let me talk about the recorder side. Since the GT-R1 takes most of its recording functions directly from the DR-1, just about everything here applies to that recorder, too.
Like most flash-RAM recorders on the market, the GT-R1 records both uncompressed WAV (44.1 and 48kHz at 16- and 24-bit resolution) and MP3 (32 to 320kbps). To facilitate both handheld and tabletop recording, the stereo electret condenser mics swivel 90 degrees. Here is an audio example so you can hear the difference:
Incidentally, unlike much of its competition, the GT-R1 does not have a socket for a mini tripod. TASCAM sells a mic clip/table stand that adds a windscreen — another essential item for field recording — for $75.
Recording on the GT-R1 couldn’t be easier. Once you’ve selected the input and file type, a single press of the Record button arms the recorder. I like being able to set input levels via hardware, plus there are three basic input sensitivity settings. You can also choose Autogain or use the analog limiter to tame loud sounds. Autogain makes loud sounds softer and soft sounds louder; the limiter just lowers peaks, helping prevent overload distortion. The only settings are On and Off. Best save the Autogain for spoken-word recording; the effect can be too strong for music. A second press of the Record button commences recording.
As with my other reviews, I recorded my big Taylor guitar as a 44.1kHz, 16-bit WAV file so you can judge the microphones and preamps for yourself. The most common question I get from readers is “How quiet are the preamps?” If you listen to the recording as the guitar fades to nothing, you will have your answer.
The GT-R1 also accepts both external mics or line sources, and can even mix the mic input to mono.
One of the most interesting features of the DR-1 is the ability to overdub new material onto an existing recording. Even better, overdubbing creates a new track, preserving the original.
The GT-R1 ups the ante with a host of new features. Not only can you make unlimited overdubs to an existing track, but you can start with a drum track and add effects, quickly building an impressive demo from a device that fits in a shirt pocket.
The best way to describe this feature is to walk you through it. Overdub recording uses 44.1kHz WAV format — although you can start with an MP3 — so I converted the examples below to MP3 on my computer after recording.
To begin, I chose one of the onboard beats and dialed in a tempo using the thumbwheel. Although the beats won’t win any prizes for authenticity, with 79 drum patterns and nine click patterns there’s enough variety to handle most types of demos. (See the manual online for a list.) There is even an option to choose whether or not to record the count-in. Nice.
Next, I plugged in my acoustic guitar, selecting an effects preset via the FX button. Yep, you get a full complement of effects for electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and vocals, as well as a handful of patches aimed at mangling the drum tracks. Effects are fully editable, though I couldn’t find any way to save my edits. As with the drums, the effects are a tad heavy handed, but I sure had fun using them. Even better, you can assign the effects either to an input or to playback.
Here is the first pass:
I was curious how the GT-R1 handled bass. The next example adds my Tacoma Thunderchief processed with the “Walking” bass preset effect. Nice and deep!
Now I was really starting to have fun. I added a couple more guitar parts...
...and then got ready to lay in a vocal using the internal mics. This took no more than a couple of seconds. One more guitar part wrapped it up:
The whole process took just a few minutes. Rough? You bet, particularly as there is no way to go back and remix a track. Unlike multitrack recording, each new pass is a bounce of old and new material. The only way to set a balance is by raising or lowering the whole track and adjusting the level of the effects on the input before you record each take.
Nevertheless, this is one of the handiest features I have seen yet on a small recorder. I imagine every songwriter in the world will want one of these.
If all the GT-R1 did were make decent field and overdubbed recordings, it would be a contender. But wait, there’s more!
This little red box is a full-featured tuner that easily handles guitar and bass, and even outputs tones for people who still like to tune by ear. You can play (or sing) along to prerecorded tracks or the internal rhythms. You can add effects to both the inputs and tracks.
As with many recorders, you can easily set loop points — handy for learning a lick or solo. A feature called Part Cancel works like an old-fashioned vocal eliminator on digital vitamins. Instead of simply lowering any signals panned to the center, you can fine tune the range of the part to be removed — guitar, bass and “all” are the three choices — as well as dial in the panning to fine-tune the effect. I tested it on a jazz guitar recording; although I could not totally remove the lead because of some hard-panned echo, I was able to duck it to where it didn’t get in the way of my live noodling.
What sets the GT-R1 apart from the pack is VSA (Variable Speed Audition). Need to learn a riff played at warp speed? Slow it down up to 50% (in 1% increments) without changing the pitch. Want to play along with a track in B-flat but you only know a G scale? Transpose the track without changing the speed. Convinced your bass is in tune but the track is flat? Use fine-tuning to bring it in line.
At smaller jumps, VSA is almost transparent. Even at extreme settings, there are fewer artifacts than I have heard in some other devices. It is a great tool and a welcome addition to the recorder.
Oh, and if you are working on your third double mocha caffeine bomb of the day, you can also accelerate the track to match your speedy self.
I am quite taken with the GT-R1. It handles basic recording chores quite well. The design and build display TASCAM’s commitment to quality. The internal microphones are up to basic recording tasks, and the swivel feature is a cool way to get around the problems of recording from a shirt pocket. At high gain settings, the preamps are noisy — but so is just about everything else in this price bracket.
The overdub feature is terrific, even without the drum patterns and effects. Toss them in and you have one of the handiest songwriting tools around.
I also like the music trainer functions. In particular, the VSA is great. I really wish I’d had this when I was a kid.
What keeps me from jumping up and down and telling you to go out and buy one is the proprietary battery and lack of a tripod mount. Considering how long it takes to recharge, I would not consider owning one without a spare battery. At around $349 street, the GT-R1 is competitive. Toss in a second battery, the stand/windscreen and an AC adapter and the price jumps another $164. Ouch.
Still, there’s nothing quite like it on the market. If you were stuck on a desert island with your guitar or bass — and power — the GT-R1 would be just the thing.