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Tascam M3700

Raising The Stakes

Zenon Schoepe gets to grips with the VCA automated desk that some British console manufacturers have not been looking forward to!



Tascam have been making a quiet but steady impression on the console market for some time now, but for the most part their efforts have been thwarted by the relentless grip that British mixing console manufacturers have on the business. Undeterred, the top-end Tascam products continue to be characterised by high build quality and exceptional value for money. Nowhere is this more evident than in the company's top of the range M700 in-line, which has got to be one of the most underestimated boards around, and in the circa £10,000 M3700.

The M3700, available in 24 or 32 input versions, is essentially the company's M3500 split/in-line hybrid desk with VCA fader and switch automation added. 'Split' because the desk's eight groups have their own outputs; 'in-line' because tape monitoring is available on each input channel, accommodating serious multitrack work.

So what's it like and what do we get?

THE CHANNEL STRIP



At the top of each channel we find phantom power and 30dB pad buttons, followed by individual level, pots for mic and line input. These are tied into an overload LED located just above the fader and selected by a button marked 'Line' above the EQ section.

The in-line portion of the M3700's split/in-line design warrants a small monitor fader and pan pot per channel strip. Normally this receives the correspondingly numbered tape return from the multitrack. However, the Flip button changes the input to the small fader section to match whatever the Line button is receiving (mic or line input) and sends the tape return into the channel strip proper, for remix or mix-as-you-go routines. The phase reverse switch is notable by its absence!

The EQ section kicks off with an illuminated in/out switch, which has no effect upon the 12dB/octave high-pass filter (rounding off at 80Hz). There are four EQ bands, featuring (1.7 Q) swept mids and fixed high and low frequency shelvings. This section is pretty much a direct replica of that found on Tascam's highly acclaimed M600 split desk, offering +/-15dB at 10kHz and 100Hz, 42Hz-1.3kHz and 420Hz-13kHz.

On paper this may look a little basic, but in practice it's very nearly brilliant, with the right amount of overlap in the mid bands and what sounds like gentle sharpening of the Q towards the extremes. I've found the EQ on Tascam's recent models very appealing, because it is clean, efficient, and it works. People in some quarters sneer at fixed EQ on a desk, but the well chosen frequencies and decent slopes of the M3700 allow simply and effective tonal lightening and darkening. Overall, a flexible EQ that can sweeten and correct more powerfully than its paper specification might suggest.

The Aux section offers six auxiliaries on four pots, with the first two knobs switchable between Auxes 1+2 and 3+4, and the last two dedicated to Auxes 5 and 6. Pre/post status of Auxes 1 to 4, depending on which two are selected, can be switched and this pair can also be sourced from the monitor path by the Monitor button. Auxes 5 and 6 are post-fader and fixed in the channel path, and can be muted as a pair.

Given that the channel has a maximum of four auxiliaries at its disposal, it would have made more sense to have the Mute switch available on the two pairs of Auxes 1 to 4. As the Aux 5 and 6 Mute button is automated, it means that any fancy send manipulation work has to be restricted to these. A choice from four would have been better than a choice from two. Ideally, it would have been better to have a Mute on each Aux send — but this probably would have put Tascam into something of a dilemma when it came to deciding which of these warranted automation.

The channel's Monitor section has a short fader and a pan pot feeding the main stereo bus. The Input button sources the tape return or, if that is being sent to the channel strip via the aforementioned Flip button, the mic or line input. The Pre button selects the main channel's post-EQ, pre-fader signal for independent monitoring and the whole section can be muted but, interestingly, not soloed.

The last eight channels have an additional Group button in the monitor section, which can be used for listening to the desk's eight groups going to tape, for example, or for general subgrouping tasks.

The remainder of the strip concerns itself with channel routing via a pan pot to the four paired Group buttons and to the main stereo bus. We also encounter an illuminated channel Mute and Solo button, which can be set to operate as solo-in-place or PFL.

The components used throughout the M3700 are of the high quality and standard we have now come to expect from Tascam — smooth pots and faders, no give on the channel top plates putting stress on the components underneath, and pots that don't feel as if they'll fall off in a hurry. Centre detents on the pans and EQ boost controls are reassuringly gentle. The choice of colour on some of the pot caps is a little vague, and the lack of any clear pointer combined with a cream colour on the Auxes makes visible checks of pot position difficult. Tascam have been bold with the design and concept of this little wonder, it's just a pity they were not as bold in their choice of pot caps and colours. Aesthetically pleasing? Yes. Practical? Not really.

Signal metering is comprehensive with the output groups placed directly above the last eight channels of the desk. Using the buttons on the meter bridge, it is possible to look at auxiliary levels and input levels all going out via two chunky VUs with peak LEDs on the main stereo bus, which can also be placed over the studio and control room signals.

MASTER CONTROLS



Six master Aux pots, presented in the same unfortunate shade of cream, are accompanied by four Aux returns on short faders, with eight group and stereo bus routing via a pan pot. At first sight, I took it for granted that these were in fact stereo returns and that the pan pot was some form of balance control, but unfortunately they are all mono returns and as such seem to take up a disproportionate amount of space for what they do. Routing is handy on Aux returns but most users are likely to want a bit of EQ into the bargain, which these returns don't offer. However, they can be soloed and muted.

The Control Room source switching strip allows monitoring of the six auxiliaries, an external source, a 2-track and the main stereo bus, which means you'll have to replug if you want to listen to a CD or cassette in addition to your DAT and your quarter-inch machine.

Much more annoying is the fact that you can only monitor one source at a time, due to the action of the switches — depressing one switch cancels the previous selection. Tough luck if you're trying to balance on two auxiliaries, for example.

Still in the Control Room section we have separate pots for Solo and PFL level and Control Room monitor level, plus a Mono button and a 30dB Dim switch. Two sets of monitors can be selected.

The studio foldback section can be switched on with an illuminated button and is normally sourced from the main stereo bus; however, the feed can also be taken from the Control Room source, can be monoed, and has its own level control.

Talkback, via a built-in mic and level control, can be directed to the first four auxiliaries, the slate, and the studio output regardless of whether this section is selected or not. Rounding things off nicely is a five frequency oscillator that routes to the group and main stereo buses on a button.

DESK SUMMARY



The facilities described above make the M3700 a fairly comprehensive desk with no catastrophic omissions but a few oversights. For example, it would have been handy to be able to split the channel EQ with the monitor path, solo the monitors, and have some form of muting on Auxes 1 to 4. A phase reverse switch, stereo effects returns as opposed to mono ones, and a few more external sources for playback purposes would have helped matters still further. Also I was irritated by the restriction of not being able to listen to more than one source at once in the control room section, simply because I object to having decisions like that made for me.

On the up-side, everything works extremely well. The desk is very quiet, has generous headroom, extremely useful EQ that can be put to drastic use if need be, and is very well built and almost painfully simple to use.

CONNECTIONS



Praise be! Tascam have managed to shirk off their long-standing fetish for phono plugs, offering standard 1/4" jacks on the M3500/3700 for the Tape, Line, and Insert-connections which are bridged across the channels, group and main stereo outputs. The stereo bus is duplicated on -10dB and +4dB XLR connectors. The 8-bus nature of the desk is aided by pairs of outputs per group for 16-track operation, thus avoiding repatching, and direct outputs on each channel if you really want to push it.

A balancing kit is available for the desk, comprising eight balanced group outputs and 16 balanced tape returns, but bearing in mind the -10dB nature of the new breed of 1" 24-tracks that sit so comfortably alongside this desk, I shouldn't think that an awful lot of people will bother.

AUTOMATION



Automation on the M3700 comprises of VCAs on the channel, group, and main stereo faders plus switch automation of channel mutes (separate to the non-automated channel mute at the base of the strip), group and main stereo mutes, monitor mutes, Aux send 5 and 6 mutes, and EQ in/out. Each switch has an associated LED and putting the system into action yields a very reassuring click as switches are thrown internally — we're talking about relays here, not FETs, which means the switch automation is not compromising the audio integrity of the desk.

Following similar principles each channel's VCA can be bypassed — as well it should when automation is not required. Thus the VCAs would normally be taken out of the signal paths when track-laying and only employed for mixing. Even then, if a fader maintains a pretty constant position in a mix, it is wiser to bypass its VCA and run it wild. This action has the effect of taking the channel mute switch out of the automation process but leaves all other channel switch automation in tact.

A/B tests on a channel's VCA bypass switch did reveal a difference between the two signals, but not a significant one. The VCA signal exhibits a subtly altered character, somewhat akin to switching in an aural exciter on its most unobtrusive setting, but it is certainly not noisy, distorted or grainy-sounding in the way that some VCAs have been described.

VCA automation is nothing new, and rather than trying to reinvent the wheel Tascam have managed to present their implementation in a way that is likely to be familiar to those who have used a VCA system before, while still keeping things simple enough to entice the novice.

Automation activity is centred around the top right-hand part of the desk, where a 3.5" DS DD floppy drive and a cluster of buttons have been assembled along with an alpha dial, in what looks like a resprayed Roland MC500 MIDI sequencer buried to the waist in the desk plate.

A numeric keypad with Shift key allows the setup routines to be selected and put into motion, with data displayed on a small, variable contrast, backlit LCD and scrolled with the alpha dial. Four large illuminated buttons globally instigate the automation modes: Write, Update, Read, and Null. These modes can also be selected locally, channel by channel, by a Mode button which cycles through the options. Each channel's status is displayed by a yellow illuminated down arrow and a red illuminated up arrow (see photo), which double as direction indicators when nulling a fader position.

M3700 AUTOMATION PRINCIPLES



Essentially the M3700 records all fader and mute movements into its internal RAM, referenced to the timecode it receives from the multitrack tape, and this data can then be saved to the internal floppy disk drive. The desk has an internal timecode generator/reader offering 30 non-drop-frame, 30 drop-frame, 24 and 25 frame rates. The timecode rate can be set via DIP switches housed in a small flip-up compartment behind the disk drive, and once a new rate has been selected the desk has to be reset by pressing a ballpoint pen (or equivalent) into a small hole next to the DIP switches. Tricky, most certainly, but in honesty there is very little reason to have to change the switches once they have been set to suit the intended purpose. A SMPTE start time can also be entered, for striping a track on the multitrack tape.

MIDI sockets are provided on the back of the board, and the desk will slave to MIDI Song Position Pointer and MIDI Time Code. MIDI works the other way, too — a SMPTE-locked M3700 will drive a sequencer in sync via MTC.

Each fader movement or switch action on the desk generates MIDI Continuous Controller information, but it is not possible to control the desk dynamically via MIDI. You can sync it to MIDI and write into a sequencer from it, but you can't load the desk with a finely edited and merged version of a couple of mixes which you collated in the sequencer, in the traditional offline sense, because the M3700 just won't have it. If my memory of my visit to the Tascam R&D department in Japan for the preview of this desk serves me well, this is because the M3700 does not use MIDI internally; it merely spews out a MIDI representation of what is happening when you move a fader. The intention, presumably, is to harness this ability and drive a computer graphics package as an aid to visual verification.

While the MIDI Continuous Controller allocation on the desk is fixed, the MIDI output could of course be used to control outboard equipment or synths. You could record this MIDI data into a sequencer and use it to alter reverb and modulation effects dynamically, to be played back in time with the desk automation while synchronised to SMPTE code on the multitrack.

OPERATION



Let's assume the multitrack tape is striped with the relevant timecode, you've finished track-laying and are now ready to mix. The M3700 allows you to approach the task from a number of different angles: you can start to enter mix data from all the switches and faders, just the switches, just the faders, just the channel mutes, just the monitor mutes, just the Aux mutes, or just from the EQ in/out switches. That's a lot of choice and it means that if you're happy with your mix but want to drop in some EQ on a particular section, then you can set the desk automation for EQ switches only and not have to worry about inadvertently jogging a fader here and there.

In its most basic form, with fader and switch automation, you can roll the tape and practice a mix in manual mode — indicated by none of the Mode switch lights or channel mode indicators being on — in which the audio passes through the VCAs but none of the mute/fader data is memorised by the desk.

Let's assume you're now settled and want to have a go at putting some bare bones on the mix — such as some general levels and the fade-out at the end of the piece. Hit the global Write key in the automation section — each fader now indicates it is in Write mode by its mode indicators — roll the tape from the top, and mix, with no need to enter start and end times.

The display near the disk drive shows the SMPTE timecode running, next to a percentage indication of the amount of memory used and an indication of lock. From all my investigations, there seemed to be ample memory for heavily extended and convoluted mixes. However, if you're intending to do the complete song and dance routine on a half hour's worth of worn tape, you are likely to encounter the limits of the M3700's memory (but then there is probably something wrong with you anyway). For all intents and purposes there is sufficient memory to satisfy most people's requirements.

At the end of the mix, on stopping the tape and spooling it back, the M3700 immediately reverts to Master Read mode (both arrow indicators on) and starts to replay your mix as soon as the pinch roller makes contact.

Moving the faders at this stage makes no difference, but what if you'd now like to raise the level of some of the parts and turn down some of the others? This can be achieved with the Update mode, which is auto-nulling and keeps your basic fader movements exactly as they were but gives you a general more-or-less type of control. Increasing the fader level relative to its position on starting the tape adds to the already written values; decreasing the fader level does the opposite. You can enter Update mode globally (ie. to activate editing on all channels) by hitting the Update button, at which point all the channel mode update indicators light up, or you can select it locally via each channel's Mode button.


Before we go much further it is worth mentioning that once a mix starts 'getting there', as we say in the trade, the M3700 requires you to save the mix data — any subsequent alterations are final and cannot be retrieved if you decide you've made a mess of things — because the automation system doesn't use a mix buffer as some VCA systems do, almost certainly a consequence of the M3700's ridiculously competitive price.

If you change levels and don't like what you've done, you can only go back to the previous mix if you happened to have saved it to disk. Thus regular naming and saving to disk, particularly following periods of inspiration, is to be recommended. Once you get into the habit, you can live with this routine quite easily.

Updating a mix in this manner, with the tape rolling, is one of those things that you really can't do all that easily without automation, and remains one of the beauties of technology. Of course, the process can be repeated locally on specific faders after you've saved your mix — by setting individual channels to Update mode on separate passes, or indeed completely rewriting channels. An Update Null mode is also offered, whereby the channel's mode indicators, which double as up/down arrows, allow you to bring the fader precisely back to its original position after modification, by showing you if you're above or below this value.

Read Null mode uses the up/down indicators to help you place a fader in exactly the position of its current value, as read from memory, which is essential for certain punch-in/out routines. In Write and Update modes, you can punch in or out on selected channels in a number of ways, providing different ways of combining the existing mix data and what is added to it. Once these techniques are learned, they provide very fine control indeed and elevate the M3700's automation to a level of considerable sophistication, offering everything from seamless joins to radical corrections.

Mute subgroups can be created but the components are unfortunately not saved to disk with the mix data — only the subgroup master mute is. This can be remedied by writing down the components.

SNAPSHOTS



A total of 99 snapshots of fader positions and switches can be stored in the desk's internal RAM, but you cannot blend these together with dynamic mix information, as the M3700 does either one or the other — even the formatting of the disks for the two purposes is different.

Snapshots can be recalled via MIDI Program Change commands from the desk's keypad or by a footswitch. The transition time for each program is snapshot-specific and adjustable up to 19 seconds.

AUTOMATION SUMMARY



To be honest, at the start, I was expecting to unearth quite a few compromises in the automation's basic functions and felt sure I would have to keep reminding myself of how little this desk costs. Unfortunately for Tascam's competitors, no short-cuts are evident: the automation works incredibly well.

What appeals most is the level of integration and complete lack of reliance on anything more external than a SMPTE feed. It is logical and well designed — the information required is there in front of you and is not nearly as complicated as it could have been. The business of mixing is not interfered with and while the system might not have some of the more high-brow features of comparable systems, it does have a few tricks of its own which, when mastered, permit fine control to be administered.

There's little else to say apart from that it does everything an automation system should do — and more — and it does it alarmingly well. I'm staggered!

CONCLUSION



If you think how much you could pay for a VCA automation system and a 24- or 32-channel desk of this build quality, the M3700's price tag doesn't seem to make sense. Inevitably the price of such a package will be inflated by the cost of the type of desk that most of us believe warrants automation. Tascam have turned this argument around by stating that the M3500 carcass, which forms the basis of the M3700, is up to automation — I would have to agree. There are desks around that are certainly more heavily featured, in the traditional console sense, but for some time now it has been a fact that mixing desks don't have to cost the earth to be clean and quiet. Modern componentry and manufacturing methods have made the slope of diminishing returns even slighter as we advance up the price scale.

Couple good solid performance, and the sort of features nobody could live without, with a handful of minor niggles that are totally obliterated by an automation system that really works well, and you've got the M3700.

There are other automation systems around that offer fader subgrouping, RAM buffers for storing previous mix information, dynamics, offline editing, stronger MIDI interaction, and detailed graphic displays. The question is not so much what we expect for the M3700's sort of money, but how much more are we prepared to pay for what amounts to only marginal control improvements to the fundamental matter of mix automation?

I have a very strong feeling that this product will suit the needs of a great many users to a tee. Hardened VCA automation users will instantly take to this desk and recognise it as considerably more than just some down-market toy equivalent of what the grown-ups use, whilst it will comfortably satisfy the requirements of those who are discovering automation for the first time. In addition, there's a large pool of potential owners out there who probably haven't considered themselves to be in the market for an automated desk in the past — a situation that will no doubt change once they clock the M3700's £10,000 price tag.

Competing manufacturers will no doubt mock the M3700's 8-bus architecture, unbalanced operation, and the lack of a phase reverse switch, but in real world terms they are simply going to have to better it to get even. This console has now got to be the first port of call if you have this sort of money to spend.

I'm reluctant to say it, but this is one of the most important developments in mixing desk technology of recent years. The M3700 is now a fact of life and things are never going to be the same again.

Thanks to Systems Workshop ((Contact Details)) for making the desk available for review.

Further information

24 input £10,281.25 int VAT.
32 input £11,456.25 inc VAT.


TEAC UK, (Contact Details).



Previous Article in this issue

Emu Proteus Master Performance System

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Musical Books


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jan 1992

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Mixer > Tascam > M-3700

Review by Zenon Schoepe

Previous article in this issue:

> Emu Proteus Master Performan...

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> Musical Books


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