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Digital-Audio Mixer-Controllers

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Digidesign’s Digi 002, Tascam’s FW-1884, and Yamaha’s 01X are FireWire-based devices that serve two main purposes: each works as a stand-alone mixing console that you can operate away from your computer, and each functions as a mixing console with a hardware interface that adds analog-to-digital conversion for use with your digital-audio workstation (DAW) software (Apple’s Logic Platinum or Steinberg’s Cubase SX, for example). Their broad functions can help ease the transition between your roles as musician, recording engineer, and mixer, and they can allow you to maximize your productivity in the studio.

Ins and Outs

All three units can simultaneously record and play back 18 inputs and outputs. You can set up individual mikes for each musician in a modestly sized band, use four or five mikes to record the drums, and add several pieces of outboard gear, and you’ll still have more channels left to work with. I’ll describe the Digidesign Digi 002 and note how the other units vary from it. The Digi 002’s analog inputs include four XLR connectors with switchable phantom power and preamps for mikes; eight balanced 1/4-inch analog inputs, which include four line/instrument jacks that are switchable between +4dB (pro) and -10dB (consumer); four line-level-only inputs; and a stereo pair of RCA plugs for hooking up a home stereo.

Digitally speaking, the Digi 002 has a coaxial stereo S/PDIF input that can handle 24-bit audio at 96kHz, and an optical digital input that can double as another stereo S/PDIF input or accept eight channels of ADAT (limited to 44.1kHz and 48kHz) audio. It has one MIDI-in port, two MIDI-out ports, and two FireWire ports. (The Digi 002 doesn’t support using a hard drive on the second port, and whichever unit you choose, I advise that you plug any other FireWire gear into your Mac’s remaining onboard port. Digital music requires all the bandwidth you can give it.)

The devices’ outputs include eight balanced analog jacks, one ADAT out, one S/PDIF out, a balanced stereo monitor and auxiliary out, a home stereo out, and a headphone jack (the Digi 002 is the only device with the latter on top of the unit). There’s no Word Clock I/O for supplying master signal timing on the Digi 002; although I didn’t experience any signal jitter, people with significant track requirements should note this feature’s absence. And neither the bundled Pro Tools LE software nor the Digi 002 supports surround-sound mixing.

Tascam’s FW-1884 offers eight XLR ins and preamps (each of two phantom-power switches governs a bank of four), and eight 1/4-inch line inputs with accompanying channel inserts for routing to offboard effects units. All of the inputs handle +4dB. The FW-1884’s eight balanced outputs can be used for surround-sound monitoring. MIDI gets four ports each of in and out, and the unit offers Word Clock in and out. There are no home stereo outs.

Yamaha’s 01X has two XLR ins that can accept -46dB to +4dB, as well as six balanced 1/4-inch inputs. One jack doubles as a high-impedance input for instruments such as electric guitars. Both the monitor and stereo-and-auxiliary outputs are unbalanced, so you might get more line noise than you’d like, although I didn’t have any problems. Digital I/O includes one pair of coaxial RCA plugs, two MIDI ins and outs, and two FireWire ports, which also support Yamaha’s mLAN technology for interconnecting musical instruments and audio gear via FireWire. (mLAN is still an emerging technology, so few devices currently support it, but Apple has added support for it in Panther. And future versions of Core Audio and Core MIDI, as well as the availability of more compatible devices, may make it a technology to be reckoned with.)

Finally, you can expand the FW-1884 and the 01X so you can add more faders—essential if you want to control more than eight on-screen faders at a time when using one of these devices as a control surface.

All of these units have analog-to-digital audio converters and preamps, and they are of comparable quality and sound fine. A high-end, stand-alone preamp or converter can cost as much as one of these units, but neither will add as much value overall to your studio.

A principal factor may be your choice of software. The FW-1884 and the 01X include preconfigured software templates that map features to onboard hardware keys for the software sequencers they support. The Digi 002 includes the Pro Tools LE sequencer and assorted RTAS plug-ins, and the 01X includes nice Audio Units and VST plug-in bundles. Yamaha also includes its Studio Manager software for independently configuring all the connections and routing for the 01X.

Hands On

The Digi 002 and the FW-1884 are big, rugged units, while the 01X is compact and relatively light. The basic physical layout of the mixing sections is standard and will be familiar to anyone who has worked with a mixer or multitrack recorder. There’s a master fader, and each unit’s eight channel strips include volume faders and rotary knobs for controlling assignable parameter settings (such as pan or aux sends), knobs for line trim control, and solo and mute buttons.

Each of the channel strips also offers a button to arm tracks for recording, and that’s your first step into the new world of mixer-computer synergy. The faders, knobs, and buttons can also be used to control definable groups of channels and functions, and the Digi 002 and the FW-1884 offer Nudge buttons that enable you to scroll the channels controlled by the strips. The faders are all motorized, so once you automate a mix, they’ll move independently during playback to re-create the physical moves you made.

You can activate sequencer-related transport and navigation functions—such as play, record, and pause—from each of these units. And each offers keyboard shortcuts for common commands. The FW-1884 provides the most built-in functionality, with preset cut, copy, paste, and delete buttons.

Following signal flow is slightly more complex using these units because they double as stand-alone mixers and DAW controllers. On a couple of occasions, I didn’t hear anything in my headphones during playback, but the manuals’ comprehensive routing sections soon had me rocking again. I suggest that you set aside a weekend to get intimately familiar with the routing options on your chosen unit.

Unfortunately, none of these devices had OS X-conversant printed manuals, and none helped with OS X’s Audio MIDI Setup utility. The setup screenshots were all from Windows and OS 9, although Digidesign’s CD-based Core Audio documentation provided some basic figures showing how to set up OS X’s Sound preference pane.

Playing Not So Nice

All of the devices are great to work with and will significantly reduce the time you’ll need for creating and fine-tuning a mix, but each has quirks that range from the annoying to the unworkable.

The Digi 002 and the 01X both had problems with MOTU’s Digital Performer sequencer. After I booted up my Mac, the Digi 002 presented an error message that said, “The audio hardware did not respond”; I clicked through a couple of buttons and worked without any problems, but it was disconcerting. The 01X’s problems were more serious, with timing errors and stuck keys bad enough to render the combination unusable. Yamaha says it’s working closely with MOTU, and the two companies should have the problems fixed by the time you read this. (Be sure to update all your pertinent software before firing up one of these devices.)

The 01X’s small size, although convenient for portability, means the faders have shorter paths, which makes it harder to establish precise settings, and the plastic heads feel less substantial than the other units’. On the software front, to use the 01X, you need to launch mLAN Auto Connector on startup (you can set this up under the Startup Items tab in OS X’s Account preference pane) and manually enable Connect from a menu.

The FW-1884 handled all the software tests comfortably, but unlike the other units, it doesn’t have an LCD panel for monitoring your channel settings and routings. You’ll want to have clear line-of-sight access to your Mac’s monitor for mixing, and the way this setup forces you to look back and forth between your monitor and the FW-1884 is inconvenient.

At $2,495, the Digi 002 is considerably more expensive than the other two units, which cost $1,599 and $1,699. Its from-the-ground-up synergy with Pro Tools LE may make it worthwhile for you, but the FW-1884 can also work with this sequencer via the Mackie HUI driver; for nearly $1,000 less, you still get a device that works well with the Digidesign software.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

Each of these devices significantly reduces the tedium of mouse-based mixing and brings professionalism to a home studio. If you’re a Pro Tools fanatic, you’re limited to the Digidesign Digi 002 or the Tascam FW-1884. If you’re a Digital Performer user, you’ll want to wait until Yamaha and MOTU work out their compatibility problems so you can use the Yamaha 01X. The FW-1884 offers the best balance of features, software compatibility, and price, but if its lack of onboard LCD monitoring is too big a nuisance, you still have two other great units to check out.

Digidesign Digi 002Tascam FW-1884Yamaha 01X
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