Hands-On Review:Korg ToneWorks Pandora PXR4 and Boss BR-532 personal studios.

by Emile Menasche


Personal recording studios have come a long way since the days of bulky cassette four-tracks. Accordingly, the latest generation of four-track musical sketch pads offers more than mere recording capabilities. Both the Korg/ToneWorks Pandora PXR4 and the Roland BR-532 boast built-in microphones, guitar preamps, rhythm guides, digital audio editing, effects processors and more. They can record digital audio onto small and affordable SmartMedia cards. And, because they run on AA batteries, the PXR4 and BR-532 can go anywhere you go, making them ideal tools for capturing—and developing—the perfect riff.

The Boss and Korg both offer four record-and-playback tracks, each of which has eight virtual tracks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a virtual track can be used to retain alternate takes of your performances. You can swtich amont the virtual tracks when compiling your master mix, but only one of the virtual tracks can be heard at any one time. For example, let's say you record a guitar solo on track 3. You can use virtual tracks to compile several versions without erasing the original. When you're happy with a take, you can assign that virtual track for playback and keep the others on hand in case you change your mind. You can also use the virtual tracks to compile sections of music into one final piece.

Korg Pandora PXR4
When it comes to pocket-size recording devices, nothing beats the PXR4. This petite four-track offers an impressive array of features in a package that's smaller than the average portable CD player. It records 16-bit audio and can output MPEG audio, which can be shared with a Mac or PC.

Although the Pandora records any type of instrument just fine, it's especially well suited to recording guitar, thanks to its hi-Z 1/4-inch guitar input, multi-effects processor and built-in tuner. In addition to the guitar input, the PXR4 has a stereo mini jack line input and a built-in condenser mic that gets surprisingly decent sound. You can switch between inputs from the front panel, and the guitar input and mic can be active at the same time.

Each of the inputs can be routed through the Pandora's onboard digital REMS modeling multi-effects processor. The effects themselves, which run the gamut from guitar sounds to vocal settings to basic audio sweetening and premastering, are extremely impressive. The guitar effects includes the typical array of digital-amp and stomp-box emulations. While they're not as high quality as those in a dedicated guitar modeling processor, they do sound quite good, and we were able to dial up an appropriate patch for each song without a fuss. Effects can be assigned to any of the inputs, allowing you, for instance, to run a distortion/wah preset on the mic input—cool if your taste in vocal sounds goes beyond the mainstream.

The Korg's rhythm processor, meanwhile, is basic but useful. You can choose from plenty of preset drum patterns of the most popular music styles. Although you're limited to one drum pattern per song, you can switch between patterns while the unit is playing. Note that the rhythm-pattern track is separate from the audio tracks, so you can have four independent parts in addition to the drums.

Once you record your masterpiece, you can edit it with a variety of basic cut/copy/paste features. You can use the data wheel to "scrub" the audio and hone in on your edit points, or you can mix your tracks and reassign the effects from the input to the mix bus. And when you finally hear playback, you might have to pinch yourself to remember that this little box runs on a pair of AAs.

The SmartMedia card does have limited memory, but it's easy to access and change. If you'd rather use your computer to store tracks, you can back up your work to PC or Mac via the onboard USB port. (When doing so, you must use the included AC adapter.)

Boss BR-532
Boss' parent company, Roland, was one of the pioneers of the digital-workstation concept, so it's no surprise that the BR-532 is well developed and smartly executed. This personal studio is a scaled-down version of the BR-8, a guitar-friendly eight-track that records on 100 MB Zip disks. In the case of the BR-532, the unit offers 24-bit input and 32-bit internal processing and records on SmartMedia cards.

Compared to the Pandora, the BR-532 is large (it's a little bigger than your typical laptop), but it's light enough to go anywhere. Like the Pandora, the BR-532 has eight virutal tracks on each of its four tracks, a built-in microphone, built-in effects (including COSM guitar modeling), a rhythm guide and extensive digital-editing capabilities. In addition, the Boss offers an XLR input, so you can connect your own mic. It also has MIDI and digital audio outputs; the latter is especially useful for mixing down or transferring your tracks to another multitrack.

As with the BR-8, most of the BR-532's features are accessible with a dedicated (and well-labeled) front-panel button, so it's relatively easy to get up and running. The larger display is also an asset, especially when you're setting up edits, switching virtual tracks and doing other specialized functions. It makes even complex tasks, like assembling takes from one set of virtual tracks and bouncing them to another, fairly simple to complete. The BR-532 also provides auto-punch and auto-loop features, two essentials for honing in on difficult passages. And a built-in phrase trainer makes the Boss as effective a practice/learning tool as it is a recording device.

The rhythm programmer, meanwhile, offers more than you might expect. It allows you to have multiple patterns and tempos per song, and many of the patterns feature variations with rolls and other expressive goodies.

Since Boss is known for effects, the BR-532 is appropriately laden with versatile processing options. The COSM guitar processor offers plenty of sonic options; the presets sound a bit on the thin side, but it's nothing a little tweaking can't fix. The Boss also automatically recalls the appropriate category of effects when you switch inputs from guitar to mic. And, in addition to the input effects, you have a full-time master processor that covers audio sweetening like reverb, delay and chorus. Finally, you can use the guitar and mic inputs simultaneously and route them to independent tracks, an especially nice feature.

The Bottom Line
If you're a musician on the go, either of these boxes will be hard to resist. The Pandora PXR4 is a fun and well-executed idea grabber. It takes a little while to get to know all the features, but once you get past the learning curve, the PXR4 makes a great writing and practicing tool.The Boss BR-532 builds on a long legacy of portable digital recording, and the more you use it, the more you'll like it. Although it won't fit into your pocket as easily as the Korg, it takes advantage of its size by offering more features and better audio specs while still retaining the vibe of both a portable and a sketch pad