Some time ago I was sent the Micro BR-80 and BR-800 multi-track digital recorders by Boss/Roland UK to review.

After doing overview articles highlighting the features of both the Boss Micro BR-80 and the BR-800, I was keen to get my hands on these two to try them out.

This article covers my thoughts and experiences testing out the smaller of the 2 units, the Micro BR-80.

Above angle view of the Boss Micro BR-80 digital recorder user review

I can remember when I first got into home recording many years ago during my school days.  In those days units like the Micro BR-80 were pretty unimaginable.

Ok, we drooled over the latest multi track tape recorders, you may remember the ones, which used the old clunky micro cassettes.  But these never really produced the kind of results you could be really proud of. Let’s face it, a cassette was never really designed to accommodate lots of tracks.

But things have come a long way since then and the Micro BR-80 lays testament to this.

What’s in the box?

Boss BR-80 box - Front side and back views

In the box you’ll find; The Micro BR-80 unit, Micro USB cable, Sonar LE Software DVD, 2 x AA batteries, 2GB SD Memory Card and Owners Manual.

Boss Micro BR-80 unit front view

 Micro USB lead packaged with the Boss BR-80PC DAW audio midi recording software packaged with the Boss BR-80AA batteries packaged with the Boss Micro BR-80Toshiba 2GB SD card packaged with the Boss Micro BR-80Boss - Micro BR-80 Manual image

First Impressions

After getting my hands on the Micro BR-80, I immediately concluded it is indeed a fantastic piece of kit!

It’s light, small (a little larger than a packet of super king cigarettes), fits comfortably in the hand and certainly packs a punch when it comes to instant guitar playing gratification.

It’s also pretty effective at allowing you to get your ideas down quickly and fuss free.

Being so enamoured by this tiny unit, I couldn’t help show off the Micro BR to some of my visiting friends, who were frankly blown away by the idea that this tiny object contained a recording studio.

Later, I found myself reaching for the unit whenever I fancied picking up the guitar for a quick jam.  Instead of picking up my acoustic guitar, I’d plug in my Stratocaster.  I could sit happily in my arm chair, guitar in hand, headphones on, noodling out some interesting riffs.  All this whilst my partner settled to a TV program.

I often ended up playing much longer than I’d intended, purely because once you plug an electric guitar into the Micro BR-80, it doesn’t take long to find one of the onboard CMOS multi-effects to provide you with some instant guitar playing gratification.

This has to be the defining feature of the Micro BR-80 for me. It’s small enough to go with you anywhere.  Unlike other larger ‘portable’ multitrack recorders, I can perch the BR-80 on my arm chair and kick back with my guitar, even play along to a built in rhythm or add to or mix tracks I’ve been working on on my desktop DAW by importing a stereo WAV.  It’s so easy to just, jam by yourself…

When you consider that the BR-80 offers 8 track recording, an integrated guitar tuner, phrase trainer, MP3 player with vocal/guitar removal, a backing drummer and the ability to use it as a USB audio interface, you realise you’ve got a digital freind that you can spend hours with and hopefully end up with a stock of ideas created to boot.

How does it perform?

Like most pieces of music tech, the longer I used and experimented with it, the better the results.  I did find I had to get used to the input sensitivity.  As well as the physical record level dial on the side of the unit, there’s also an ‘Input Sens’ setting where input gain can be adjusted. My initial guitar recordings were a little harsh sounding with some clipping.  But a little experimentation with input and gain settings was worthwhile as it enabled me to find the best input sensitivity for my guitar.

The built in rhythm/drum machine sounds great.  They’re bright, well defined, punchy and offer up a pretty big sound to play along with.  Better still, drums have their own separate stereo channels, so they won’t eat into your 8 tracks.

It’s impressive how much it affects your playing confidence when you have an easily accessible drummer to play your heavily effected metal guitar along with.  And, although there isn’t a huge list of kits to play with (9 in all), I did find these were sufficient to define the groove of the tracks I created and to get a decent rhythm progression going using the built in rhythm editor.

I have to admit I didn’t get time to use the SMF (Song MIDI File) import function to import my own programmed beats, but the function is there to tailor the units rhythms to your own personal style if you need to.  

I also loved having the CMOS multi effects readily available.  They performed well, especially if you like effects like fuzz, metal, flange and phase.  And because all the effects have a number of user definable settings you can tailor them to suit your needs.  I even discovered I could use the effects to pitch down my guitar to mimic a bass guitar, when I wanted to sketch out a quick bass line idea.  It’s also worth mentioning there’s plenty of space to store your own customised effect setting in the 100 user and 100 song banks.

As with mastering the input settings, once I got used to the other controls, I found it very easy to navigate the menus, and functions like track arming and recording are always easily at hand in the middle of the unit.  I also found it pretty easy to use the built in track edit functions to chop out bad takes, repeat good sections and do general song arrangement.

The built in mixer is basic, but again more than adequate with the usual things you’d expect to see.  You can control level, panning, effect send,  mute and solo, there’s even hi, mid and low eq for each track.  I also liked the fact that you could create a separate level mix for the virtual tracks.

Battery Life & SD Memory

In use, the battery performance of the Micro BR-80 was excellent, even with rechargeable batteries. Once I’d rundown the Alkaline batteries that came with it (which did seem to last ages), I used the BR-80 with 2 Duracell 2450mA AA batteries and found that these performed very well too, although they didn’t last quite as long as the non-rechargeables.

Toshiba 2GB SD card packaged with the Boss Micro BR-80

The Micro BR-80 also comes loaded with a 2GB SD card. Which was pretty adequate for my uses (I didn’t fill it up).  Although I have to admit I didn’t record many really long songs with lots of virtual tracks. So I didn’t run out of memory whilst testing it.

When I imported the SD card content to my Mac I realised that the content I had been recording only amounted to around 800mb, the rest of the content was the Mac and PC software, which you could of course remove after you’ve copied it to your host machine.

It may also be worth mentioning that the SD card is ‘hot pluggable’.  You can insert and remove it with the unit turned on quite happily. Although I wouldn’t recommend doing this whilst the unit is writing a recording, it did cope fine inserting the SD card while it was idle and simply flashed up a ‘checking…do not turn off’ warning.

For those who use it a more intensively than I did, there may be merit in investing in a larger card.  It can accomodate SD cards with capacity up to 32GB SD – I didn’t try other cards in it, but I imagine that most good quality SD cards will work fine.  There is a webpage at Roland confirming card compatibility for the Micro BR-80.

Sound Quality

The Micro BR-80 uses digital audio compression (similar to mp3) when recording audio tracks to the built in SD card. This enables the Micro BR-80 to pack an enormous amount of audio data onto a relatively small SD card.

The draw back often associated with compressed audio is sound quality.  But I have to say I didn’t think this was a concern with the Micro BR-80.

It has a bright, punchy and well defined sound, for both recorded tracks and the built in rhythms.  I was very happy with the sound quality of the recordings, even more so when I consider the convenient size of this unit.  The built in stereo mics also perform very well, although I didn’t record any vocals, I did record some acoustic guitar which it captured admirably.

Some Recording Examples

Here are some multitrack recordings over at Soundcloud.com I made using only the Micro BR-80 which I hope give a reasonable idea of what can be achieved.

I mastered these using mastering preset 4 (POP MIX).  Each track was put together pretty quickly and added to and tweaked whenever I got the chance.  I  didn’t pour over these for too long or do any really critical mixing.  They are pretty much as they went to track bar a some level and reverb setting.

Could it change the way you write?

Using the Mirco BR has fundamentally changed my outlook to sketching tunes.

I would previously lock myself away in my studio, fire up my plethora of different pieces of kit and attempt to get my ideas down. But often this is not the most productive way to write.  It’s so easy to get bogged down when you’re trying to write music.  If you compose in a desktop DAW, then you probably know how easy it is to get side tracked endlessly tweaking compressor plugins and other effects.

But with the Micro BR-80, I felt much freer to concentrate on just committing to a recording.  Even if it wasn’t perfect, as I could alway overdub it later or arrange the bits I did like either in the built in editor or within my DAW.

The BR-80 also allows the freedom to record in places you wouldn’t normally, perhaps you could use it in your live gigs to add backing tracks and record your performance whilst using the built in multi effects.  Or even use it to overdub some vocals in that railway tunnel you found with the amazing acoustics.

What would I add?

Count-in

One of the things that did mildly irritate me about the Micro BR-80 was the fact that it didn’t have any ‘pre-roll’/count-in settings.

Now this is probably my own personal hangover from days of recording with tape and SMPTE. But I do find that I like to have 1 or 2 bars intro to get ready before I start recording a performance.

In reality though this isn’t really a problem, as you can simply use the first bar or two of recording as pre-roll. Although this does mean that you need to minus whatever your pre-roll is when cutting and pasting sections of recordings in the track editor.

MIDI implementation

If I have any real criticism of the BR-80, then it’s the lack of any proper MIDI implementation.  But when you consider what the unit is trying to achieve it’s not surprising there’s no MIDI.  If you want MIDI then you need to take a closer look at the bigger brother the BR-800.

I did get excited when I noticed a page in the manual entitled MIDI implementation. But quickly realised that this was a very minimal implementation specifically for the importing and playing back drum rhythm patterns.

One little nuance that surprised me I discovered whilst importing MTR sessions from the SD card.  It turns out that the BR Series Wave Converter software can only import directly from a SD card volume.  There is a work around.  If you copy the card content into a disk image created in the Macs Disk utility the opened imaged will appear in the list of available disks in the BR series wav converter software.

A wireless MIDI connection and syncing to iOS device, in a similar way to the new Pioneer  XDJ-RD1 DJ deck would also make a unit like the BR-80 a very powerful companion.

iPad support

I already knew before receiving the BR-80 that its drivers weren’t compatible with the Apple iPad and the Apple USB camera adapter kit.  But I can’t help thinking what it would add to the units appeal if it was compatible.  Judging by the number of manufacturers that are now offering audio interfaces with iPad support, it’s clearly something that people want.

Having said that, why would you want to complicate an already compact and clean set up with an iPad and USB adapters etc.  Perhaps another approach would be to make it easier to import the multitrack sessions into iPad/iOS to make them available to multi track DAW iOS apps such as Auria.  Perhaps an iOS similar to the desktop conversion tool.   Of course if you could plug the BR-80 directly into iPad I’m sure it’s a feature that would be well received and open up a whole new audience of users.

Conclusion

The Micro BR-80 serves up excellent results all within a tiny package and will appeal to guitarists or anyone wanting to capture and layer their performances.

If you’re new to audio recording it’s an excellent platform to get started with (Especially with the bundled DAW audio software and it’s ability to work as a USB audio interface), but will also be an asset to the more experienced home recording performer or guitarist.

The Beatles produced many of their early tracks with only 4 tracks (and a lot of audio bouncing).  Which makes me wonder what’s possible with some creative thinking and the Micro BR-80.

For the modest price tag and it’s versatile abilities, I can definitely recommend the Micro BR-8o.  I’ve had a lot of fun with it and I think you will too.

Useful Links

A set of links to ‘workshop’ pdf’s produced by Roland to help you master the BR-80’s functionality 

Link to software downloads page for the Micro BR-80 (including firmware updates, manuals etc)

Screenshots of the Micro BR-80 at Songcrafters.org


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