What's impressive, essential to any multikeyboard setup and normally costs a fortune? Answer: a mixing desk. Tim Goodyer looks at a budget desk with a more-than-budget spec.
The Tascam MM1 offers many of the facilities of a professional mixing desk and mix automation for around the cost of a cheap synthesiser.
IT'S THE SORT of problem that you'd normally associate with a nightmare - an uncomfortable knowledge that follows you around, allowing you to forget about it for a while, only to return to your thoughts when least expected... What could it be, that could cause an innocent musician such unhappiness? Where could you find an innocent musician to ask?
Fortunately for you I am such a musician, and I'll tell you all about it. It goes like this: once you're hooked on little bits of hi-tech gimmickry like synths, samplers, drum machines and effects processors, you just can't get enough. Equipment manufacturers and the laws of physics appear to be equally aware of this and conspire together to offer you ever more attractive pieces of kit at ever more attractive levels of expenditure. Before you know it, you're surrounded by technology, all of it promising to help you realise your musical dreams. And all of it demanding some method of making itself heard.
To begin with, The Problem is a small one; you might plug your first synth into your hi-fi before graduating to a dedicated PA amplifier or - more likely - a small mixer, amp and speakers. But it escalates: the number of audio outputs on your gear quickly surpasses the number of inputs on the mixer; the connection of reverb units and effects processors demands auxiliary submixes and the instruments all require subtly different equalisation. It is at this point you first acknowledge The Problem: you need a "proper" mixing desk. At first you dismiss it as an expensive luxury, and continue to "make do", but The Problem persists until you realise that you really can't live without a 16 - or more - input mixer, and you don't have the necessary £1500 or so that will buy you even a modest one.
Unlike real nightmares, there's a happy solution to this particular problem, however. It takes the form of a new mixing desk from the inventors of the Portastudio, and is called, perhaps unimaginatively, the MM1. The MM1 is a 20:2, 19" rack-mounting mixer with two-band EQ, four aux sends, four stereo aux returns and programmable MIDI muting that will cost you a mere 700 quid. Now you can sleep again.
LET'S TAKE A closer look at what the MM1 has to offer. The unit is the rack-standard 19" wide so that it can be tucked away with your expanders and reverbs for live work (primarily) if you so wish. Here we encounter the first of the unit's pluSses: using a couple of thumbscrews it can be angled away from the vertical, making it much more comfortable to work with. The MM1 can also be used flat, and for this purpose the mounting ears can be removed and a removable palm rest is supplied - in its rack-format this rest can be re-fitted on top of the unit to conceal the cable connections.
There are actually 16 faders controlling the 20 input channels on the desk. The first four input channels will accept stereo inputs or act as standard mono inputs - bringing the capacity of the desk down to 16 channels.
Each channel has its own trim pot (for balancing input levels), two-band EQ, effects sends, pan, mute/solo button with red status LED, and fader with LED level indicator. The master outs also have mute buttons and status lights and sit directly below the master effects sends and returns. The remaining panel space is given over to the mains switch, LED Output ladders, headphone level and jack, footswitch jack (for remote switching of mute "Scenes") and programmable MIDI muting controls (including a 14-segment display).
"As the MM1's muting facility is MIDI addressable, it can be recorded, along with the rest of your note and patch data, as part of a sequence."
The rear panel, meanwhile, houses all channel inputs (on quarter-inch jacks), 16 direct outs (one from each of the first four pairs of channels, one each from the rest), effects outs and ins (on quarter-inch jacks), MIDI In, Out and Thru, master outputs (on jacks and phonos), two effect buss inputs and the power socket (fed from a separate transformer).
The first eight channels have two inputs so that the stereo output from a drum machine, say, can be connected using two standard mono jack-to-jack leads. Only the effects sends require a stereo-to-two-mono jack leads (of the type used for insert points).
Because of its 19" rack-mounting format, all the controls on the panel of the MM1 are small. Looking at a photograph, you'd be forgiven for assuming the faders are the usual half-inch or so wide, In fact they're nearer half-a-centimetre wide - which should give you some idea of the scale of the EQ and other controls.
ONE OF THE big selling points of the MM1 is its MIDI muting capability. What this actually allows you to do is store patterns of channel mutes in one of 99 Scenes. These Scenes can be recalled at the touch of a button (actually several touches of a couple of buttons), or over MIDI. And as the muting is MIDI addressable, it can be recorded, along with the rest of your note and patch data, as part of a sequence.
These Scenes can be used in two ways. The first is to minimise unwanted noise: if an instrument isn't actually playing anything, muting the appropriate mixer channel will cut out any background noise that might otherwise appear in the mix. This can be particularly effective if you're dealing with less than top-of-the-range gear as it's more likely to produce the sort of noise that quickly builds up to degrade a recording. The second use of automated muting is musical: muting everything except the drums and bass during a bridge, for example.
The same buttons that mute the mixer channels double as channel solo buttons. Pressing Solo brings up "SL" in the display, after which pressing any channel Mute/Solo button mutes all other channels, allowing it to be heard on its own. Pressing Solo will unmute all channels and return you to normal operating mode. Alternatively, pressing the solo'd channel's Solo button again unmutes all the other channels but leaves you ready to solo another channel. If further channels are solo'd without un-soloing the first, all solo'd channels will be heard together.
PLUGGED IN, POWERED up and ready to go, the MM1 looks the business. Everything is readily accessible and readily assessable at a glance - the controls are easy to "read", and the red status LEDs and Scene number display make the automated functions as transparent as possible.
"The MM1's MIDI muting is, simply, excellent - it's no substitute for full mix automation, but it is a perfect complement to today's MIDI setups."
While it would have been nice to see four-band EQ or even quasi-parametric EQ on the MM1, the simple two-band shelf-type (12dB cut or boost at 100Hz and 10kHz) is adequate for most applications. I tried a variety of sources from a TR808 bass drum to CD and was always able to get what I wanted.
As already mentioned, the first eight channels are paired to give four stereo channels. These are intended - and are ideal - for drum machines and multitimbral expanders with stereo outputs, and have a balance control where the remaining channels have pan. This arrangement puts the stereo signal under the control of the same volume and tone controls - a very comfortable arrangement when mixing. The only drawback is when these channels are used with instruments with pairs of outputs rather than stereo outs, or when you want to separate one drum sound from the other for special EQing or treatment. Take my old Jupiter 8 which has two audio outs; in Whole mode (the same sound across the keyboard) the same signal appears at both MM1 inputs: no problem. In Dual or Split modes the instrument assigns one sound to each output. Here the two sounds will always be panned hard left and hard right. If you want to assign a drum machine's bass drum to one of its stereo outs and the remaining voices to the other (so that you can EQ the bass drum separately) you have a drum kit with a bass drum on one side of the mix and the remaining shells and cymbals on the other. It's a small point given that so many current instruments carry suitable stereo outputs, but it's worth bearing in mind when you're working out whether the MM1 has enough channels for your requirements.
On to the muting. To select and recall a mute Scene manually, you step through the Scene numbers using a pair of Up/Down buttons (there's no means of inputting a number directly) until you come to the required Scene. The display now flashes to tell you that it's ready for selection. Pressing Recall causes the appropriate channels to be muted and unmuted, and the display number stops flashing.
There's also a convenient method of finding the next free Scene - holding down Recall and simultaneously pressing Scene will bring up the highest Scene that holds a program. Step to the next Scene and press Scene and Store/Copy and your Scene is saved in that memory location.
But the most powerful use of the MM1's muting facility is in conjunction with a MIDI sequencer. As previously mentioned, mutes can be used to help reduce noise levels, as part of the musical arrangement, or both. Perhaps the best musical application is experimenting with different mixes of a song - muting the bassline here, the snare drum there... If you're slaving your sequencer to a multitrack recorder then you could also be muting the vocal or acoustic guitar lines.
First of all we've got to get the MM1 onto the MIDI highway. This is done using the familiar MIDI In, Out and Thru on the rear panel and then resorting to the Scene/MIDI Ch and the Up and Down buttons. Pressing Scene/MIDI Ch once takes you into MIDI Channel Send mode, and lights a green LED marked Send immediately below the panel display. From here you can step through all 16 MIDI channels, and Omni "on" and "of" (as in off) modes using the Up and Down buttons. Having selected the required send channel, a second press of the Scene/MIDI Ch button takes you into MIDI Channel Receive mode (accompanied by a green Rcv LED). The same procedure allows you to set the receive channel. The one remaining function that can be set is whether or not the MM1 will respond to individual channel muting (more in a moment). This is set by holding down Store/Copy and pressing Up or Down. The display will toggle between "on" and "of" as you press Up or Down.
There are two ways in which the MM1's mutes can be recorded in a sequencer - as Scene numbers or as individual channel mutes. If you use Scene numbers the whole pattern of mutes is recorded and recalled as a MIDI program number. This is quicker and easier than using individual channel mutes but requires you to have the correct mutes stored in the appropriate patterns before running the sequence. The alternative is to store each channel mute (and unmute) as a MIDI Note On event - what Tascam have called "dynamic automation".
"The MM1 is going to find itself the communications centre of a MIDI studio, for which it is ideally suited - even its size is a huge plus point here."
Each of the MM1's audio channels has a MIDI Note number associated with it (C1-F2), and note velocities of 64 or more will cause the channel to be muted while note velocities below 64 will cause it to be unmuted. In this way a MIDI C1 Note On command, velocity 127 will mute channel 1 on the MM1. These MIDI muting events can either be entered into the sequencer from a MIDI instrument with a velocity-sensitive keyboard or by pressing the mute buttons on the MM1. The main advantage of this method over storing Scene numbers is that all the information required to automate the mix will be in the sequence file - you won't have to make sure the MM1 has the correct mute patterns in its Scene memories.
In case you're worried about stray Note Offs, the MM1 sends these although it doesn't actually use them itself. Presumably this is to prevent lone Note Ons causing hung" notes if the MM1's MIDI information is overheard by an instrument.
SMALL THEY MAY be, but I found the controls on the MM1 comfortable to use - the secret seems to be to allow enough space around the controls to allow you to operate one without upsetting another. Whatever the design principle, Tascam have mastered it. The result is a mixing desk that is easy and enjoyable to use.
The only aspect of the MM1's compact design I found to be a drawback was the relationship you have with the desk during a mixdown. The situation would never arise if the desk were only to be used in a live situation, but with my attention focussed on it, the MM1 didn't give me the same feeling of control (power?) as a desk that is physically bigger. Obviously the problem is a psychological one (I have many), but I'm sure there's something about the physical relationship you have with the mixing desk that contributes to the finished music.
One of the most important areas of a mixing desk is its equalisation. (Even SSL desks come in for some stick here.) The two-band EQ on the MM1 could have limited its application to live use where you can get away with more, and the whole keyboard submix could have been re-EQ'd at the main desk. Instead, it proves to be more than adequate on a desk of this price. If you do find yourself dealing with more demanding sound sources - as you might with certain samples - you could always resort to outboard parametric equalisers.
The MM1's MIDI muting is, simply, excellent. It's no substitute for full mix automation - fading, panning and so on - but it is perfectly matched to today's MIDI setups and there are ways around some of its limitations. For example, by bringing the output of a digital delay on one of the mixer channels proper (rather than an effects return) you can set up an echo effect and leave it on a muted channel until you need it.
The most critical it's possible to be of the MM1 is to point out that it lacks the necessary subgroups to make it usable with multitrack tape machines. If you're using a personal multitracker you can patch the MM1 in as an expansion of its facilities including patching the multitracker's effects busses into the MM1 on the Effects Buss In jacks - giving you quite a flexible and powerful setup. If you're looking at an 8- or 16-track reel-to-reel, you can use the MM1's direct outs to circumvent the unit's stereo outs, but you're going to have to do a lot of repatching somewhere down the line. But you're asking the desk to do something it wasn't designed to do and, as I say, this is as critical as it's possible to be of the MM1.
More realistically, the MM1 is going to find itself the communications centre of a MIDI studio, for which it is ideally suited. Even its size is a huge plus point here - who's got room for a 48-input SSL desk at home, even if they can afford it?
Given the desperate need for a mid-priced mixer to meet the requirements of the many, many MIDI recording setups now in (enthusiasts') bedrooms and (pros') pre-production suites the MM1 can't fail. Another first for Tascam.
Price £803.85 including VAT
Review by Tim Goodyer
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