Tascam is back on the map with some well-conceived, keenly-priced, studio essentials. Brad Watts cheers on this interface/controller.
What initially struck me about the Tascam FW1884 was its personal validation of my ‘when to buy technology-based audio equipment’ theory. The theory goes thus: when a new and unique product appears on the market, don’t rush out and buy it. One should wait patiently, tag it if necessary, and then stealthily track its progress. When a second or possibly third evolution of the technology becomes available, it’s probably time to lash out. By that stage of the game the bugs have been ironed out, the guinea pig end users of the first generation product have voiced their dissatisfaction (and hopefully appreciation of the product) to the manufacturers, who then set about building what the users really wanted – inevitably at a far cheaper price. Bear in mind that this process only lasts a couple of years at most. It’s not a long time to wait if the gear you’re looking at just isn’t quite right. For me the theory rings true with the Tascam FW1884. The Mackie HUI is, after all, where this all started. Then there were those shenanigans between Mackie and Emagic – they couldn’t quite decide who could use the original Logic Control. With the FW1884 we see a blend of technologies and standards from a mixture of manufacturers, all combined into one inexpensive product. Three cheers for the march of progress!
The FW1884 is that kind of product. It combines three main pieces of DAW hardware into one simple box. A Midi interface, an audio interface and a control surface. It also reins in standards set by a number of manufacturers – namely Mackie/Logic Control, HUI and now Native control surface protocols. The unit will control most of the favoured flavours of DAW software available, including ProTools. The audio side of the unit also smells remarkably like mLan, but isn’t. This side of operations is courtesy of Tascam’s partner in this project, Frontier Design Group. Frontier is responsible for a number of PCI sound cards such as the Dakota and Wavecenter PCI. They also design and market knicknacks such as lightpipe patching systems and A/D, D/A converters. Then of course we shouldn’t forget the big boys in this arrangement, Tascam. If they don’t know how to design an ergonomic, studio- and musician-friendly console then I don’t know who does. They’ve made plenty of them over the years – not to mention the countless portastudios and multitracks emanating from the Tascam/TEAC stables. In fact, I’m particularly fond of Tascam’s penchant for transport buttons – big, square solid jobbies designed to take a pounding from engineers. But enough of my musings, let’s have a look around the FW1884.
To begin with, the FW1884 is large-ish. By that I mean it’s bigger than a Logic/Mackie Control or a Digidesign 002. While I loved my time with Logic Control and the Mackie Controls, I’m now of the opinion that their layout is a little too cramped – too many buttons and faders confined to too little space. Meanwhile, the FW1884’s 582mm width and 481mm front to rear measurement provide plenty of room on the field for the nine faders, transport (with big chunky Tascam buttons), and associated navigation keys and shuttle wheel. The surface of the controller is metal, implying you can lean into or onto the unit without fear of putting your fist through it. Ergonomically, the layout is quite standard. For example, the monitoring level pot sits directly above the LED output metering towards the rear of the surface – out of reach of that client who likes to turn things up, but within reach of the operator. To the right of the monitor pot is the headphone level pot and to the left is the solo/PFL level pot. The uncluttered layout is very similar to a Yamaha O2R digital console even down to the EQ section with Q, frequency and gain pots and four buttons for selecting frequency bands. If your EQ plug-in offers more than four bands, holding down the shift key on the console will select the extra band parameters. The other aspect to the size and general design is that it looks professional – and we all know how important the ‘impression’ factor is in any studio. Keep the lights flashing and some huge red LED SMPTE readouts running, and the client knows they’re getting their money’s worth – all sarcasm intended.
All the faders are touch-sensitive and move quite smoothly through their 110mm travel. To quote a rather well known reviewer, they feel like a ‘Vaseline-covered eel in a WD40 factory’… actually I wouldn’t go quite that far, as they’re the typical belt-driven style found in pretty much all low-cost controllers. In which case you’ll know how they feel. I would like to have seen the jog wheel able to control a fader for super-fine adjustment. Above each fader are backlit mute, solo and select buttons. Record arm LEDs appear next up the channel strip and apart from their most obvious purpose also act as scale representation for the rotary encoder pots. At first I thought this was a tawdry cost-cutting measure, but in practice I found it far nicer than the Mackie-introduced idea of the ‘V-Pot’ – mainly because you can see the entire scale without the knob obscuring your vision of the LEDs. You don’t have to peer over the top of the board to make sure the pot is at exactly 12 o’clock. Off to the left of the console are buttons for choosing the rotary encoders’ task assignment. The default setting is pan, or you can choose from eight send level controls. A Flip button switches the encoder’s task over to the faders if that’s how you prefer things. Jumping to the left of the fader section there are 14 buttons for tasks such as save, cut, copy, paste, delete, undo, marker setting and loop. There’s even a dedicated button to bring up the controller’s software panel on the host computer.
Back down in the transport area there are the classic N-S-E-W navigation buttons, smooth-as-an-eel shuttle wheel, bank select, locate and nudge buttons. Additional backlit buttons will toggle between automation modes, clock source or as function keys. Operating as function keys, these buttons will bring up plug-in windows within the host software. Four buttons to the top right of the controller force the unit into either computer mode – running as software controller, monitor mix mode – whereby the console acts as a stand-alone mixing console, or Midi control where the console becomes a standard Midi controller for anything with, you guessed it, a Midi interface. Obviously this mode will come in handy for tweaking up your arsenal of virtual and hardware instruments.
Getting up to speed with the controller took me a little bit of mucking about with software. The initial v1.0 drivers I was supplied failed to work under OSX 10.3.3. A quick download of v1.2 had me up and running until I found the control side of things wasn’t working with Logic Platinum 6.3.3. A quick run-around to upgrade my software to Logic Pro 6.4.1 and an additional controller plug-in download from Tascam had the control surface functioning beautifully – who said Tascam support was rubbish? Not so. All control information along with the audio and Midi information travels via the single Firewire cable – a very tidy arrangement indeed. Just for giggles I also ran the unit in Mac OS9. Same functionality. Same results… everything ran as expected. The 1884 is also happy working with Digital Performer and Cubase as it can swiftly be changed via the software control panel to run using the Mackie Control or HUI protocols. Similarly, you can drive ProTools using the HUI map. Of course, you can’t utilise the audio interfacing side of the 1884 directly from ‘Tools but there’s no reason why you can’t use the mic pres and route the Adat optical output of the console straight into your Digi 001 or submix them into a stereo S/PDIF and then into your MBox. In fact, here’s an idea, I reckon an MBox and a FW1884 would be a very cost effective option, compared to, say, the Digidesign 002. Then you’ll have equipment to cover most recording situations and work with any DAW software including ProTools LE.
Now some may complain about the lack of certain features such as a SMPTE readout and plug-in displays on the FW1884, which is fair enough. Practically, I can’t see it as being a problem. For a start, this information is always available via the host software and, quite frankly, if I’m mixing a track I don’t want to be gazing at a thousand different parameters. If you’re missing an abundance of flashing lights, Tascam offers ‘Soft LCD’. This small piece of software puts a virtual LCD up on your screen and supplies numeric feedback of settings from the FW1884. For me, the lack of a mini Las Vegas on the console is a blessing.
So let’s get into the other side of the FW1884 – audio and Midi interfacing. Because the FW1884 combines a fully-fledged audio interface, there’s no need for any equipment other than your computer – be it desk or laptop, and a pair of powered monitors. Nothing could be simpler to set up. Out the back of the unit we have eight mic preamp inputs as balanced XLRs, coupled with eight balanced jack inputs. Each of these analogue inputs features a TRS insert jack – brilliant! Two phantom power switches (one per bank of four mic inputs) are available and input eight has a nifty little switch for swapping between mic and guitar impedances. Adat optical I/O and S/PDIF coaxial I/O make their obligatory appearance with the ability to swap Adat into optical S/PDIF. All up, you can get 18 inputs occurring with the aid of another Adat A/D. For monitoring purposes there are eight balanced jack outputs. These can be configured as individual outputs or can be ganged and controlled via the master fader for surround mixing. There’s also wordclock I/O, two Firewire ports and a four-in/four-out Midi interface. Frankly, I can’t see anyone asking for more in such a keenly priced board.
Sample rates are anything up to 96k. Just like the control behaviour of the FW1884, audio operation worked fine straight off the bat. For the propellerheads among you, the analogue to digital conversion spec offers 110dB of dynamic range on A/D and 103dB on D/A. Figures not to be sneezed at. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, the unit also operates as an 18:2 mixer, but unlike the Digi 002 it has no internal DSP processing. No doubt that’s where those insert points will come into play. That’s one thing I like about Tascam – they deliver the important bits. As for the sound of the FW1884? I’ve no complaints. It delivers the quality I’d expect from any Firewire-based interface. If you want a better result, hook it into a better clock via the wordclock input.
So what did I think of the FW1884? I reckon it’s a damn fine piece of kit for a stupidly low price. It covers plenty of bases and functions with more software compatibility than you can poke a stick at. The most enjoyable aspect is that it feels like a proper console. Then if eight faders aren’t enough for you to call it a real console, Tascam has an eight-channel side-car. So you could expand the surface up to 128 real faders if you’re that way inclined. Plus, what would the sum total of its parts cost you in separate dedicated units? Two grand for an interface, another two for a controller and then you’re still up for a good wedge of cash for a comparable Midi interface. In short, a really cool piece of gear.