Attendees of the first Tape Op Conference in 2002 may remember a photo of the yet-to-be-released Zoom Palmtop Studio in my presentation of music technology history. I had read enough prerelease info about the unit that I knew it'd be pretty damn impressive, given its extreme portability, even if it operated like a cassette 4- track and didn't sound any better. Well, having played and traveled with a PS-04 for the past few months, I can say that I'm even more impressed than I thought I'd be. This sucker is way more than a 4-track. It's like a multitrack hard-disk recorder, an amp modeler, a digital effects processor, and a two-track mixdown deck-with bass accompaniment, a drum machine, and an instrument tuner thrown in-shrunk down to the size of a pocket dictionary and priced at $200 street. The manual is bigger than the unit itself, and not a lot of buttons and controls fit on the faceplate; therefore, the UI is quite deep, and numerous button pushes are required to get to some of the functionality. This is the first piece of audio gear I've gotten in years that required thorough reading of the manual before I could use it for even simple tasks-like recording a track! Fortunately, the manual is cross- referenced throughout-crucial when describing a device that offers so many optional settings for each task. It'd take way too long to describe in this short review all the capabilities of this device, and normally, I'd suggest the manufacturer's website for more information; but Samson Tech's website is really sparse on details, and it doesn't offer downloadable manuals. So I'll tell you a little bit about what I was able to do with the PS-04.
First of all, the PS-04 has four tracks available for audio recording and two additional tracks available for building drum and bass parts using sampled sounds. Each audio track has ten virtual tracks, so you can keep multiple takes and edit between them to create a single comp'ed track (just like on a full-blown HD recorder or DAW). A built-in mic and preamp let you record right into the box, and a 1/4'' input with a good deal of gain range lets you plug in things like keyboards, instruments with pickups, or external mics. A stereo 1/8'' jack works for recording line-level signals, one or two tracks at a time. How's the sound of these inputs? The line input was a little more hissy than the others, unexpectedly, but in general, the sound quality of the inputs is as good or better than that of any cassette 4-track I can recall using. In other words, the input quality is more than good enough considering this is a portable device, and environmental noise will probably be a bigger concern than the unit's sound. You can insert various effects (compressors, EQ's, modelers, delays, etc) on individual inputs to print the effects while tracking or on the mix buss while mixing/bouncing down to two tracks. Or you can use a send/return loop to add effects (reverbs, delays, choruses) while mixing. The modelers sound pretty good. With headphones on and a guitar plugged right into the PS-04, I was amazed that I could get believable amp and stompbox sounds. And these effects aren't just simple on/off algorithms. Most have editable parameters. How about gain, tone, level, cabinet type, speaker type, and depth for some of the amp simulators? Or predelay, decay, high EQ, low EQ, and level for the plate reverb? Or three tweakable bands of compression and editable crossover frequencies for the built-in "mastering" processor? Unfortunately, you can't insert effects onto the drum and bass "rhythm tracks" individually (send/returns are doable). Too bad, because to distort my drum track with an amp modeler, I had to send the drums out the headphone port and back into the line input using an 1/8'' patch cable and rerecord the drums onto an audio track with an inserted effect. By the way, I had lots of fun building up rhythm tracks. Zoom's FAST (Formula Assisted Song Translator) makes it really easy to build up songs via algebraic forms using + and x operators along with parentheses (kinda like programming an infix scientific calculator). And the bass machine can follow your programmed chord progressions, so it's easy to transpose or even transform the bass line without having to edit bass notes.
I have a few gripes that are worth mentioning. The shape of the battery door (it sticks out) encourages it to slide open at inopportune times. Track clipping isn't obvious (but there is a clipping indicator for the mix buss). Comp'ing between virtual tracks would be much easier if the paste-to location defaulted to the copy-from location; as it is now, you have to memorize and then re-input the location after you specify the destination track. And I wish the PS-04 used CompactFlash instead of SmartMedia storage, with the option to record uncompressed. Otherwise, I'd say that the PS-04 is one of the coolest and funnest audio products I've used in a while. Nothing else provides so much usable functionality in an extremely portable form-factor.
($359.99 MSRP; www.samsontech.com)