The Roland R-26 was, in its day, a pretty decent portable audio recorder. The thing is, its day was 2011, so it's out of production, pretty dated now, and lacking in some features that a lot of people would consider basic. Also, as I've recently found, it has a pretty serious flaw in terms of intermittent electronic noise.

Despite all this, there still seems to be a bit of interest in it. Which is not surprising; it has a lot of things going for it. Since I've had and used one for over 8 years, I have some thoughts on it, so if you're interested, here they are.

First Impressions

My first impressions of the R-26 were good. One of my first recorders was a Zoom H4n — the original one, not the new Pro version — and when I took it out to record (very) quiet ambiances, I found it to be terribly noisy. I ebayed it pretty quick, and replaced it with the R-26, which I found to be much better.


The Roland R-26.

The build quality of the R-26 is pretty amateurish. It's basically a bunch of panels screwed on to a frame. I guess it's quite tough, but doesn't look terribly sexy; which doesn't really matter, after all.

It's quite big; but I like the "brick" form factor. I have attached a shoulder strap to the two bars on the XLR end, and it works very naturally with a hand-held mic for walking around.


See the R-26 in use at 03:28 and 06:33.

Controls

The controls are pretty sparse and easy to use; there really aren't very many, since most things are controlled via the large touchscreen. The gain knobs are recessed and well protected, and they're huge, making them very easy to use. The power switch is a drag-and-hold slider on the left side; the headphone volume is a typical edge-wheel on the right.

One issue with the gain knobs is that there are only two, so if you're recording more than 2 channels, some levels will be set via the menus. Recording stereo, though, they work great.

The screen is fantastic. It's low-tech reflective LCD, so it uses minimal power; it's low-res, but I don't think that really matters. The main thing is that its large size makes the meters very easy to read; they even have numeric dB markings below the scales. And the touchscreen is very easy to use, since the size makes the on-screen controls well spaced-out, for the most part. A big physical "menu" button gets you in or out of the menus.

The touchscreen is resistive touch (real old-school!), so you'll be using fingernails to hit the buttons. Some of the buttons are a little fiddly, particularly when there are up and down arrows, but it's all quite usable.

Channels

The "26" name refers to the fact that this is a 2-channel, or 6-channel, recorder, depending on how you look at it. In fact it has 8 inputs:

The R-26 can record from up to three of these pairs at once, in other words 6 tracks. But that's not as useful as it sounds, as the three pairs would all be different kinds of mics. It can be useful for comparisons, or for capturing a subject in multiple ways at once; for example, you could use a pair of miniature mics in a Jecklin disk into the 3.5mm jack, plus two contact mics or hydrophones into the XLRs, and also record from the built-in XY mics. But there are only 2 gain knobs. So, for most practical purposes, it's really a versatile 2-channel recorder.


The Roland R-26 makes a great hand-held kit.

Age

The age of the R-26 means some things are quite low-tech. Although it takes SDHC cards, it only works with cards up to 16GB. The USB interface is mini-USB (as opposed to the much more common micro-USB, or the more modern USB C), which is a pain; you'll need to find a cable for that. And while the R-26 can be used as an audio interface over USB, which is potentially great for recording voice-overs and such, the USB interface does not take power — so no powering from an external battery bank. There is a DC input, but it's a proprietary jack for the supplied wall wart.

Power

Battery life is good; recording from an AT BP4025 stereo mic, with phantom power, I got just over 7 hours from a new set of Eneloop Pro AA batteries. Of course, not being able to supplement this from a USB power pack is a serious drawback.

Electronic Noise

So this is the big downer — electronic noise.

The self-noise of the R-26 — in other words, the hiss it adds to recordings — is very low; this is one of the nice things about it. However, and unfortunately, it has a nasty habit of adding internal electronic noise to recordings, at least in my experience.

This is very intermittent, and seems only to happen with certain mics. It can also be quite subtle. So it's quite hard to pin down. In fact I first saw this 8 years ago, but only recently figured out it was the R-26! (I didn't run into this for a long time because I was using Sennheiser mics (MKH8040, MKH30) which don't seem to hit this problem.)

The clearest manifestation of this is a regular "heartbeat", consisting of a very low-frequency "pulse" occurring at regular intervals. The interval is just over 2 seconds when recording 24-bit stereo at 48 kHz; it changes at different sample rates. I believe this is the data being written to the SD card. You can hear it through the headphones; at first I thought it was a pile driver in the distance, until I found the identical pulse on a recording made days later and 50 miles away. I got this with the AT BP4025 mic; it only came on after a few minutes' recording, and then got gradually louder, and sometimes fainter.


Audio waveform from the R-26 and AT BP4025, showing the sound of the wind in trees, captured near Aviemore. The pulse starts around 1:50. 25 October, 2020.

Audio waveform from the R-26 and AT BP4025, showing the sound of drips captured in an adit near Strathpeffer. The pulse starts around 7:20. 27 October, 2020.

The problem definitely varies by mic used. The worst offender is the JRF hydrophones, with the supplied impedance adapters; but for some reason not the JRF contact mics. With the hydrophones the noise is again variable, but at worst there is a continuous loud electronic chirping — louder than what you're trying to record — with a 2-second "chunk". The latter part is certainly the SD card being written to, as it stops when recording is paused.

So...

Obviously, you can't buy this new (because it's not). But you might be able to pick up a used one, in good condition, and cheaply. Is it worth it?

Of course it's up to you, but it might be. The sound quality really is quite good for an older machine, as long as you don't run into the electronic noise issue; and in 8 years, I only hit it quite rarely. Even then, in many cases, it's subtle, and a low-cut filter would easily remove the worst of it. However, some mics, like my JRF hydrophones, might be a disaster.

And, of course, there's the lack of modern features. The lack of USB powering would be a big put-off for a lot of people. The limit of 16GB memory cards could be an issue, but maybe not so much since the batteries will limit you to around 7 hours anyway.

All of which is to say, yes, there are things to be aware of. But if you find one in good condition, and at a good price, it may be well worth it, specially for a starter machine. The fact that it can record from internal, consumer, or pro mics, gives you a great and easy way to work your way up through the various mic options.