This new 24-input desk has an in-line tape monitor section doubling as additional line inputs and the benefit of MIDI muting. Dave Lockwood sounds it out.
A reputation for excellence in a particular field carries with it no guarantee of being taken seriously in another. To some extent, both Tascam and Fostex, pre-eminent as manufacturers of narrow-gauge multitrack tape machines, both seem to suffer a perverse level of market prejudice against their mixers, quite unrelated to the performance of the actual products.
Despite the fact that they have been making rather good in-line recording consoles for the professional market for some time now, when you mention the prospect of a Tascam mixer, many people still seem to conjure up visions of something that would be most appropriate partnering an old TEAC 3340. Designs like the M3500 and the automated M3700 (when it arrives) will dramatically change that perception forever, I am sure. Meanwhile, at the lower end of the market, Tascam have just launched a new multitrack recording console, the M2524. A smaller, 16-input version is also available (M2516).
The M2524 is a 24-input desk, routing to eight subgroups/tape sends, but with an inline tape monitor section doubling as additional line inputs. This is an increasingly popular configuration, combining the convenience of a group fader with provision for the maximum possible number of sources on mixdown (there being a monitor input to every input channel, as opposed to just one per tape return, as on a conventional 'split' console). The drawback to this is that in-line monitors are sometimes very restricted in their facilities, with no EQ (except where the main equaliser can be split) and limited access to auxiliaries.
The M2524's compact dimensions (40"x26"x6") and sleek wedge-shaped profile give it an attractive modern appearance, with the end-cheeks and armrest following increasingly popular practice in being formed from some sort of high-impact plastic. In common with many designs in this price range, the desk is of non-modular construction, with all input channels, groups master and meter sections, and connectors, mounted on a single panel. The meters are mounted flush with the control surface, housed under a dark perspex cover; an arrangement which, whilst never ideal, actually compromises usage very little. Ten rather coarse-resolution (10-segment) LED ladders, changing from yellow to red at the nominal 0VU point, give a clear enough indication of group and stereo buss levels.
All connections, apart from the stereo headphone jack located beneath the armrest, are made along the rear edge of the top panel, which is tilted slightly away from the operator. All tape-related connections are via phonos at the 'domestic standard' operating level of -10dBV, whilst Line inputs, effects sends and returns etc, are all on 1/4" jacks. Insert points use the Tip-Send/Ring-Return stereo jack convention, whilst Mic inputs and the main stereo outputs employ balanced XLRs. A Direct output is provided from every channel, facilitating the simultaneous recording of more tracks than the number of groups available, or the bypassing of the group amplifier stage on particularly critical individual signals. The Direct signal is post-channel fader/post-EQ and, like the other tape sends, appears on a phono, at -10dBV. Group Out parallels are not provided; Tascam tape machines never require them, of course, as they invariably seem to employ 'normalled' banks of eight tracks, making loom creation simple and economical. 48V phantom power for condenser mics is provided, although it is only globally switchable, so the user will need to be careful to avoid using the mic inputs with any unbalanced sources when this is activated. The power supply is internal, with a fixed mains lead, connecting to the rear of the desk.
Input channel controls are colour-coded, in rather muted shades, beginning with the channel gain control, designated Trim. There is no separate Mic/Line switching for there is sufficient gain range (41dB), in conjunction with the 30dB Pad facility, to accommodate signals from -67dBm (microphone level) right up to +4dBm 'pro' line level. Gain setting is assisted by the inclusion of a Peak LED monitoring the channel post-EQ (indicating 25dB over nominal level, or 1 dB before clipping), thus helping to avoid equaliser-generated overload as well as optimising channel headroom.
A Flip switch selects between Mic/Line sources or the tape return signal, so repatching is not required for mixing from multitrack via the channels. When the tape signal is occupying the channel path, the Mic/Line source is re-directed to the monitor channels, thus creating extra inputs as these feed directly into the mix bus. The Trim control inevitably remains with the input source, so there is no gain control for the tape returns, which means that you will not always be able to optimise the fader range when mixing — an under-recorded signal will require the fader to be operated at the top of its range, whilst anything particularly 'hot' on tape will have the fader operating down in its lower region where the resolution is reduced. I am not merely trying to make provision for poor recording here; there are sometimes good reasons for under- or over-recording a signal on an analogue recorder, for both 'tape squash' and modulation noise can actually be deliberately used for creative purposes.
The M2524's EQ offers a fixed shelving HF band with two sweep or semi-parametric sections. This is an economical variation on the conventional arrangement for budget systems, where there is most often a fixed HF and LF, with either one or two sweep mids. HF is fixed at 10kHz (+/-12dB) with a shelving characteristic, whilst the M2524's sweep sections offer a considerable margin of overlap, with 15dB of boost or cut between 42Hz and 1.3kHz on the lower control and 420Hz to 13kHz on the mid. The point about overlapping bands is not that you might wish to operate them at the same frequency (although I have known it happen!), but that an area of the spectrum can receive particularly detailed attention if necessary — such as two notches in the midrange, for example.
The bandwidth (or 'Q') is quoted at 1.7 (the precise figure is dependent on the amount of gain applied, as in all EQs except a 'constant Q' design), although to my ears it sounds somewhat broader than that. The 'sound' of an EQ is a very subjective area, and perhaps your perception of it depends as much on the nature of the signals that you are EQing as much as anything else. If you are working mainly with synths and samplers you are much less likely to notice the typical colouration of high 'Q' filters than if you are working with real-life signals, where significant phase disturbance is immediately apparent. Happily, the M2524 seems to have none of the 'nasal' colouration that I associate with this type of equaliser. I found I could use more of it than normal, and still have a respectable-sounding signal. The trade-off for this is that it is a little less effective at notching out an unwanted frequency band — but the balance is the right way round for my liking. All in all, this is quite a versatile and effective little EQ, and slightly untypical of desks in this sector of the market.
The design of the M2524 auxiliaries seeks to achieve the maximum operational versatility from the minimum number of controls. There are actually only four aux pots, but each one is centre-detented, with a different mode of operation depending on which way you turn it. Auxiliaries 1 and 2 are fixed in the channel path, acting as pre-fade sends when turned to the left and post-fade to the right, whilst auxiliaries 3 and 4 are dedicated post-fade, but will assign from the monitor path when turned to the left and the channel path when turned to the right. In reality, this is not quite as obscure as it may sound, and it certainly makes efficient use of the controls without the need for additional switching.
The precise configuration chosen, however, would appear to leave you without the capability for a pre-fade send from the monitor path, which could certainly be a drawback if you do most of your overdubbing with the tape returns feeding the monitor channels. To sum up: you can have four postfade effects sends from the channel path for mixing, or up to two pre-fade sends at the same time as two postfade during recording (this configuration would only apply if you were using input channels as tape returns). Alternatively, up to two (post-fade) effects sends are available to the monitors when they are being used as additional inputs on mixdown. There are undoubtedly more operationally convenient configurations than this, but there can surely be few more flexible ways of using just four controls.
The monitor mixer consists simply of a rotary level control plus a Pan facility. There is no dedicated monitor EQ, nor any facility to access part of the main equaliser when monitors are being used as additional inputs, which is really a bit limited when compared to some recent designs. The last eight monitors have Group/Tape switching, allowing the eight group busses to be monitored during recording, or conventional audio sub-grouping to be employed when mixing.
Located immediately beneath the monitor Pan, within the comparatively short channel strip, is the main channel Pan control. Output selection is via five Group/Mix bus assign switches (inevitably located, unfortunately, within the fader area), selecting pairs of groups with the usual odd/even pan logic determining the actual destination.
Normal (non-destructive) PEL monitor switching is provided, along with a Mute/Solo switch. These, when switched to Solo mode, use the mute elements employed by the M2524's MIDI muting system to provide a 'destructive' Solo facility, which mutes all channels except the one soloed. In Mute mode, the channel is silenced by electronic switching, interrupting the signal prior to the fader/routing but also taking out the auxiliaries and Direct Out.
All inputs and outputs are completed by 100mm carbon-track faders, which are very smooth in operation, offering the right amount of resistance to give the right 'feel'. 10dB of gain is available above the nominal unity position, and attenuation at infinity is more than respectable, specified at >80dB (@1kHz). Although narrow, fader tops are ribbed and deeply concave, making them easy to control accurately without undue pressure. The stereo mix bus has a single ganged stereo fader as opposed to separate left and right channels — personally, I prefer the flexibility of the latter to the precision of the former. There is no dedicated write-strip area, although the plastic surface below the faders is ideal for placing masking tape, which I find preferable as a method of marking up — chinagraph tends to be all too easily rubbed off during mixing.
The remaining controls are the dedicated effects returns plus the master switching and control functions. There are four returns, each with Gain and Group Assign switches to determine their destination. All eight groups can be accessed, so it is simple to record effects to tape when you want to, although normally you would just return effects signals directly to the mix bus. Returns 1 and 2 are stereo, using a single ganged level pot for each, whilst 3 and 4 are mono and have a Pan control to determine their stereo positioning. All four aux sends have master output level controls, with the additional facility (designated 'Sum') to combine aux 1 with 3, and 2 with 4, allowing both monitor and channel paths to access the same effects, if desired. Sadly, there is no provision for feeding the stereo bus to auxiliaries to form the basis of a foldback mix, nor any provision for sending effects returns to foldback. The easiest way to achieve effects in the headphone mix is probably to use the facility for assigning the returns to groups, and then send to foldback (pre-fade) from there.
"Tascam's M2524 recording mixer would be simple to use for even the least experienced of operators. The control layout is entirely conventional, making signal routing obvious — only the operation of the auxiliaries could be said to be a non-standard procedure."
Separate level controls are provided for the headphone socket and the master Control Room Monitor mix, with plenty of level available on both. Seven selector switches decide the monitor source, from a choice of stereo bus, the four auxiliaries, a stereo external source, or the 2-track machine return. There is also a useful, and too often omitted, master Mono switch. The monitor source selector switches are mechanically interlocked so that only one at a time can be selected.
Studio playback also has its own level control, curiously positioned closer to the talkback switching than the Talkback control itself, which is located near the Control Room Monitor level pot! Talkback via the built-in electret mic can be to cues, to tape, or both. A pair of Sub inputs is provided to allow direct access into the mix bus, facilitating very simple parallel connection with another desk, if needed. Finally, there is a level control dedicated to the PFL circuit, and a helpful option to allow the main meters to either display the stereo bus, or automatically follow the control room monitor source.
MIDI muting permits automation of the M2524's electronic mute elements in two different ways. Snapshots, or 'scenes', of different combinations of muted channels can be stored in internal memory, so that they can be recalled when required, either manually or via Program Change messages from an external MIDI sequencer. Alternatively, information from the individual mute switches themselves can be sent out via MIDI to be recorded by a sequencer, either as Control Change data, or in the more easily edited form of Note data. Note On messages are used, with the note number determining the channel (C2=Ch 1, B3=Ch 24) and the velocity value setting the mute status. A Note On with a velocity between 1 and 63 is interpreted as a Mute Off (ie. channel on), with 64 to 127 signalling Mute On. When transmitting in Note mode, the mute switches become effectively like the notes of a keyboard, sending short notes of fixed velocity (32 for Mute Off, 96 for Mute On).
When MIDI Controller (correctly termed Control Change) data is used, it is the Controller number that determines the mixer channel to be addressed (Controller 00=Ch 1, 23=Ch 24) and the value sets the Mute on or off; data 0-63 for Mute Off, and 64 to 127 for Mute On.
The M2524's MIDI mute processor is well equipped to handle either mode of operation, with enough dedicated buttons (including a separate numeric keypad) to make operation fast and very easy to learn. The numeric keys allow direct entry of Scene numbers for recall, so you do not have to endure endless scrolling via the Inc/Dec buttons, as on some systems (increment and recall can also be performed via footswitch). A two-digit numeric display and five status LEDs keep the user adequately informed of the operating state of the system at all times. Apart from that, there are just six dedicated function switches, (each with a Shift mode) selecting Note or Controller operation, Scene display mode, Recall/Store operation, and basic functions such as MIDI channel selection and Scene copying and erasing. Solo mode operation of the mutes is selected or disabled here.
Logically, Solo mode is automatically overridden by the receipt of a Program Change over MIDI. Solo with effects is permitted by allowing the muting function to be disabled on the dedicated effects returns and the monitor channels. If you are thinking it would be easier to simply PFL the channel and its returns, then you have forgotten that PFL leaves the other channels' auxiliaries still active, meaning you would hear your desired signal along with the effects returns from all the others. True Solo with 'Solo safe' returns is a far more valuable facility than it might at first appear — you only really appreciate it when you haven't got it.
Scene data can be saved and loaded as MIDI System Exclusive, using either a sequencer or any type of MIDI data storage device. It would appear that you cannot be selective about this, for the function works only on the entire memory, but there would surely be no point in saving individual Scenes as SysEx data when they are so easily constructed using Note and Controller data.
Tascam's M2524 recording mixer would be simple to use for even the least experienced of operators. The control layout is entirely conventional, making signal routing obvious — only the operation of the auxiliaries could be said to be a non-standard procedure. Switches are all helpfully self-indicating via coloured stripes, which are only visible with the switch in the released (up) position — one or two more illustrious desks I can think of could take a lesson from that.
In terms of signal quality, the 'single front-end amplifier' approach is always a compromise, and so mic amp performance is competent rather than spectacular. A high output condenser mic close to the source will overcome any shortcomings, but don't expect to be able to pick up room ambience with moving-coil types. No difficulties whatsoever were encountered at Line level, and interauxiliary crosstalk was quite acceptable, provided bus levels were optimised. Crosstalk between the two signal paths within the channel was perhaps a little higher than expected, however. Mixing noise can be seen to be directly related to the number of channels feeding the bus, so judicious use of the channel mutes can help to optimise this. The electronic MIDI mute switches are effectively silent in operation; indeed, all the M2524's audio switching is commendably quiet for a 'budget' desk.
The EQ section was a pleasant surprise. It may not suit everybody, for if you go in for really radical frequency surgery you could find it a wee bit gentle. I have a preference for EQs that are kind to signals, allowing moderate tonal balance correction without unwanted side-effects. I would be happy to patch in an external equaliser unit for the odd occasion when something more drastic was required. As always, I did seriously miss an EQ In/Out switch — centre-detented Gain controls are really no substitute at all.
Inevitably, on compact consoles in this price range, some features just have to be omitted. Often, it seems to come down to a choice between a talkback mic or an on-board oscillator! In my opinion the correct option has been taken here, for of the two I would always much rather have the talkback mic. An external oscillator is so much easier to rig up, when you need one, than an external mic system.
Being a Tascam product, it practically goes without saying that the M2524 is beautifully manufactured and finished. Build quality is excellent, the audio performance comparable with competing models in this price range, with the MIDI muting system adding a significant extra degree of operational flexibility for achieving sophisticated modern production effects.
On the negative side, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the monitor channels are under-specified in this design. Although there is access to auxiliaries, there is no monitor EQ at all and the monitors are not included within the MIDI muting system (monitor muting is a global function — all or nothing), which considerably reduces their effectiveness as extra inputs. It seems a little ironic that in my recent review of Soundcraft's Spirit — a natural competitor for the M2524 — I should have praised the extensive monitor channel facilities but regretted the lack of MIDI muting; here the exact opposite applies. Neither of these features is prohibitively costly to design in — the console that puts them together, without unduly affecting the price, will be the real winner in this sector of the market.
The Tascam M2S24 is a good, solid choice of console to partner any format of narrow-gauge-multitrack, from 8- to 24-track, with or without MIDI gear running in sync. Everything that it does, it does well. It just doesn't do quite enough, I feel. Ultimately, the verdict has to be based on your working practice — if you put all your signals on tape before mixing, then monitor channel facilities are of less significance than if you also run tons of synchronised MIDI gear, with every conceivable input pressed into service. The choice therefore has to be a personal one, but if you are in the market for a recording desk in this price range, Tascam's M2524 is well worth serious evaluation.
M2524 £2448 inc VAT.
M2516 £1799 inc VAT.
TEAC UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Dave Lockwood
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