Tascam make their bid for the growing private studio/pre-production market with two brand new MIDI-controlled mixers. Tim Goodyer follows the expansion of automated mixing on a budget.
The choice of budget mixing desks continues to expand with the arrival of Tascam's M2524 and M2516 - studio facilities complete with MIDI automation.
It's not so very long since MIDI automation on a mixing desk was regarded as a rare luxury. A luxury, that is, to those of us who were taking MIDI seriously enough to recognise that it had applications beyond instrument sequencing and patch dumping. Outside this far-sighted (some would say idealistic) group, MIDI mix automation was a novelty not to be taken too seriously.
The passage of a little-time, however, has seen a meteoric rise in the importance of "budget" mixing desks. Prompted by advancing technology, a global recession (which has made a significant impact on the music industry) and the familiar megalomania of the average musician, compact, well-specified desks have been appearing at prices that have made them affordable to growing numbers of pre-production studio operators as well as many serious amateurs. Not only this, but limited MIDI automation is becoming an increasingly common feature of the budget mixer. With this facility, the humble "mixing desk can be integrated into a MIDI-controlled recording setup to permit levels of automation not available in many professional recording studios. Sometimes the idealist's wishes can come true.
Before going any further with a review of Tascam's new M2524 - a budget mixer featuring MIDI automation - we need to qualify the kind of features found on one of this breed of desk, and the level of automation available. Typically then, we're talking about a 16- or 24-input desk with either four or eight group busses, and around four aux sends per channel. On the MIDI side we're looking at fairly modest (by SSL Total Recall standards) channel and possibly auxiliary muting.
Specifically, then, the M2524 follows the 24:8:24:2 in-line format and has a sister in Tascam's smaller M2516 (16:8:16:2) desk. Both have a MIDI-controlled channel/scene muting system that owes much, if not everything, to that found on the company's neat little MM1 20-channel, rack-mounting keyboard mixer (see review, MT November '89). The review that follows will concentrate on the larger of the two desks, but may be taken to describe the features of both.
One of the easiest ways to get the general feel of a mixing desk is to run over the channel and master layouts. So, from top to bottom an M2524 input channel runs like this: each channel has a 30dB switchable attenuation pad immediately above the input trim pot. Beneath this is a button marked Flip, which switches between having the line/mic input on the main channel and the tape return on the associated monitor, and having the tape return on the main channel and the line/mic signal on the monitor. Next comes the EQ section, which consists of a high shelf (10kHz) with 12dB cut or boost, swept mid (420Hz-13kHz) and swept low (42Hz-1.3kHz) each with 15dB cut or boost. Aux sends 1 and 2 are available as pre- or post-fade sends and are hard-wired to the input channel; Aux 3 and 4 can be used as post-fade sends from the input channel or the monitor channel. This system uses a centre-zero pot with movement in either direction performing a different function - rotate Aux 1 left for pre-fade send or right for postfade send, for instance. Moving down to the (in-line) monitor section, there are pots for the monitor level and stereo pan. Immediately below these are the input channel pan pot, Mute/Solo button (with "active" indicator LED) and PFL button (again, with LED indicator). In the final section of the input channel there's an overload LED, the usual routing buttons which select main stereo output buss or pairs of routing busses (1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6 and 7 & 8), and a 100mm-throw main fader. The last eight channels have an additional Group button in the monitor section which selects the corresponding group as its monitor source.
As the M2524 is an in-line as opposed to split format desk, there's no separate monitor section. To the right of the input channel faders there are the eight group buss faders and a single fader for the main stereo output. Above these faders are the effects returns controls, aux send masters, control room section and talkback section. Above these is the MIDI automation section and above this are the bargraph level meters - one per group and a L/R pair for the main stereo buss.
Coming back to the effects returns, the first two are stereo returns with level pots, routing buttons (group buss pairs and L/R stereo) and a Mute/Solo button. The second two are mono returns with similar level pots, routing buttons and Mute/Solo buttons, but with the addition of pan pots. The Aux send masters section, meanwhile, contains four master level pots and a Mute/Solo button. Two further buttons allow Aux 1 & 3 and Aux 2 & 4 to be internally summed.
The control room section contains a PFL level pot, headphone level pot, control room monitor level (marked CR) and the control room source select buttons: Mono, Aux 14, Ext (external source, such as a CD or DAT player), 2TR (mastering machine) and the stereo buss.
Finally on the main panel, the talkback section hosts an internal mic, mic level pot, Slate and TB routing buttons (Slate routes to all eight output groups, TB to the panel output marked studio), and On button for switching the studio outputs on and off.
Of course, a mixer would be of little use without some means of connecting it to the outside world. In the case of the M2524, all the connections are made via a recessed area at the rear of the main panel. While this doesn't make the mixer as pretty as one whose connections are tucked out of sight on the rear panel, it does provide easy access for repatching. Given the type of studio the M2524 is likely to inhabit, I'd say that's probably no bad thing.
Additionally on the recessed area of the panel there's a global phantom power switch which pushes 48V DC through the mic XLRs for mics in need of phantom power. Handle with care.
"I couldn't fault the M2524's muting system - it's easy to operate, easy to incorporate into a sequence-based system and didn't glitch or lock up."
Most of the connections are pretty self-explanatory: each input channel has sockets for Mic (XLR), line (mono jack) and tape inputs (phono), an insert point (stereo jack) and a direct out (phono; direct to your multitrack). Each group has an associated output (phono) and each aux send has an output (jack). The Control Room mix has a pair of outputs and the stereo buss has two (jack and XLR). All effects returns - two stereo pairs for 1 & 2, and two mono for 3 & 4 - are on jack sockets. The Two Track and Ext inputs are on pairs of phono sockets as are the Sub Inputs. These are used for "cascading" mixers and give access directly to the M2524's stereo buss.
The only remaining connection on this panel (the headphone jack is under the arm rest) is for a footswitch (Tascam's RC60P) which is used for incrementing and decrementing the mute scene number (more soon).
Returning to the main panel of the M2524, we come to the MIDI control section. This consists of a two-character LED display, four status LEDs, MIDI Receive LED, numerical keypad and nine other buttons. The keypad can be used to enter a Scene number which is called into operation with the Recall/Store button. Alternatively, pre-programmed Scenes can be stepped through with a footswitch. Before going any further, it's worth remembering that we're talking about mute automation here - don't expect to be able to automate fades, pans or EQ changes; that's beyond the scope of a desk in this price range. Instead, we're using what Tascam call Scenes; there are 99 user-programmable Scene memories on the desk, each capable of remembering a "snapshot" of mutes for all the M2524's input channels, effects returns and the monitor master. If, for example, your drum machine occupies channels 1 to 6 of the desk and you've programmed Scene 1 to mute channels 7 to 24, recalling this scene will solo your drum part. Alternatively, un-muting effects return 2 during the verse could be made to add echo (preset on your effects unit) to the melody line in the chorus. You might want to use mute automation "creatively", as part of the arrangement of a song or as an alternative to using a gate to kill any hiss on unused channels. Either way, the M2524's MIDI muting will do the job for you. Furthermore, Scenes may be recalled over MIDI (as program changes), so you can incorporate them into a sequence rather than recall them by hand at the appropriate points in the song.
Obviously, to do this requires that you're able to set such MIDI formalities as Omni mode on/off and assignation of a MIDI channel to the M2524 - all this is available in this section of the mixer.
Now this Scene muting business is OK - even excellent - as far as it goes. If you're using the M2524 without the assistance of sequencing, for example, the ability to call up a complete set of mutes at the touch of a button is invaluable. But if you want to make the most of MIDI-controlled muting it presents you with one or two problems. The first, and greatest, of these is that you're limited to 99 Scene memories. Once they're full and you have to start overwriting them, you're going to find that the Scene numbers in your older sequences no longer match the mutes in the desk. Happily the M2524 - like the MM1 - offers you an alternative approach to MIDI-controlled muting.
The alternative to Scene muting uses MIDI note numbers (36/C2 to 64/E4) to identify each of the mixer's input channels and MIDI velocity information to mute (values between 64 and 127) and un-mute (values between 1 and 63) them individually. Using this method, you can enter mute commands off a controller keyboard or from the desk's mute buttons directly into a sequencer. This way you don't have to spend time organising the various Scenes needed in a song, and you'll never find yourself in the situation where your Scene memories don't match up with your sequences.
The first thing I notice when familiarising myself with the M2524 was the way in which Tascam have dealt with the problem of fitting a lot of controls into relatively little panel space. Instead of using knobs that are big enough to "read" positions off but leave no room for your fingers, or knobs that leave room for your fingers but make a very unfriendly panel, Tascam's designers have got the best of both worlds by using relatively narrow knobs with a skirt around the base: these are both comfortable to use and to look at. This built confidence in the integrity of the M2524 which was subsequently borne out both ergonomically, in the general feel of pots, switches and faders, and in terms of build quality.
Once in use, the desk was physically big enough to get involved with, without being too large for a typical pre-production/home environment. It scored comfort points over Studiomaster's Pro Line and Soundcraft's Spirit in having a decent arm rest along its front. Of the three, only the Spirit offers a scribble strip, however - why is it that the simple things are so frequently overlooked?
One omission from the M2524 which almost certainly isn't an oversight is that of EQ defeat on the input channels (it's included on the Pro Line, but also missing from the Spirit). Personally, I find it very difficult to work without being able to A/B EQ'd and un-EQ'd signals. That said, the M2524's EQ really delivers the goods. It's smooth and musical (as they say) in use; the bass in particular never disappointed me. Something about its implementation makes it deliver the sort of bass control that the rock fraternity will love, and the dance fraternity will kill for. Anything I touched with it turned into "bass gold".
"Something about the M2524's bass EQ makes it deliver the sort of control that the rock fraternity will love, and the dance fraternity will kill for."
EQ is also conspicuous by its absence from the monitor channels. It's not an unreasonable economy for a budget desk, but it does mean that if you want to use the monitor channels as additional line inputs at any time (on mixdown, say) you're going to have to do it without onboard EQ.
The effects return routing I found particularly flexible - being able to determine the destination of the returns means, for example, that you can dedicate one pair of groups to effects levels instead of having to accept them as part of the effected signal or dedicate input channels to effects returns.
Less flexibility is offered by the absence of insert points on the desk's groups and - especially - stereo buss. There's a lot to be said for being able to patch a stereo noise gate across your completed mix to suppress unwanted noise - unless you can't do it.
Moving on to the automation, the M2524 is difficult to fault. OK, so we're talking about a fairly basic level of automation, but there's a lot that can be done even with channel and effects mutes. Practically speaking, you can count the muting system as being the equivalent of having 28 (manual) noise gates at your disposal (a claim that cannot be made of muting sequencer tracks internally). Artistically speaking, I doubt whether the potential of such a system has been fully realised by anybody just yet.
If you're running a multitrack machine (anything from four tracks on cassette upwards) then you're probably already striping one track of tape with sync code and locking your sequencer to it. If this is the case, then the M2524 will facilitate MIDI-controlled muting of both sequenced and recorded tracks - that includes your vocals and acoustic guitar. On top of this you're able to cut out or bring in effects treatments at strategic points in the course of a piece of music.
In performance terms, I couldn't fault the M2524's muting system. It's easy to operate, easy to incorporate into a sequence-based studio system and didn't glitch or lock up on me under any conditions. All this from a "budget" mixing desk.
Tascam's new mixing desk is a pleasure to use. The faders and pots feel smooth, the design of the knobs makes the panel roomy without making the desk too big, and the layout is at least as friendly as any comparable desk.
The inclusion of the MIDI muting system takes the M2524 from being a good-quality budget studio item to being ideal for integration into a MIDI studio environment. The use of both Scene muting and MIDI Note Number muting systems makes the desk's automation useful on a number of levels of MIDI complexity. If you simply want to devote a Scene to a song's verse, another to its chorus and another to its middle eight, the system will oblige; if you want to go into complex use of the desk's channels and effects facilities, it's with you all the way - or at least as far as a muting system currently allows. Even if you're not already a MIDI convert, the muting system could prove an invaluable aid to mixing.
Perhaps the one serious limitation of both the M2524 and M2516 is their lack of expandability. If, however, the M2524's maximum of 48 channels (24 input plus 24 monitor) or the M2516's 32 channels (16 input plus 16 monitor) are adequate, and you want to automate your mixing, then I'd recommend that you check Tascam's new children out. You'll enjoy it.
Prices M2524, £2299; M2516, £1699. Both prices exclude VAT.
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Review by Tim Goodyer
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