MIDI Mutable Mixer
Most small mixers simply don't have enough inputs for even a modest home recording setup. One that certainly does is the new 20:2 Tascam MM1, complete with MIDI mute automation. Tony Hastings checks it out.
As multiple or stereo outputs are now more or less standard features on keyboards and expander modules, most small mixers simply don't have enough inputs for even a modest home recording setup. One that certainly does is the new 20:2 Tascam MM1, complete with MIDI mute automation - Tony Hastings checks it out.
At the most basic level, the function of an audio mixer is to take a number of audio inputs, combine them, and output the eventual result to a stereo mix. Of course, every mixer is manufactured with a specific application in mind and therefore each will have slightly different facilities - it is unlikely that you would hook up a 48-input Neve Series V desk with flying fader automation as a submixer for your Portastudio, just as an MM 12:2 would probably never be used with a Sony digital multitrack. Yet each has its place in the scheme of things. As for the new Tascam MM1, it looks very much as if Tascam have identified an obvious gap in the market for a compact mixer with enough inputs to handle several multitimbral/stereo instruments, ample effects busses, EQ and MIDI-controlled channel muting - and with the remarkably low price of £699.
The MM1 is housed in a smooth black satin finish box measuring a standard 19 inches wide and 5U high - a small armrest pad that can be fixed to the bottom adds another 1U's worth of height. The mixer weighs 5kg, and can be operated just as happily on its back, where it naturally slopes up for ease of use.
A clever bit of engineering has given the MM1 some unusual rack 'ears': undoing a locking bolt on either side allows you to tilt the whole mixer up at an angle, so that even in a rack you can still see everything clearly and reach all the controls easily. Most of the space on the front panel is taken up with 16 mono input channels - all have identical controls and functions, except for channels 1 to 4, which are stereo channels. This effectively makes the MM1 a 20:2 mixer. Cramming that many channels into a unit this small is quite a feat, and as an inevitable result all the controls are quite small - but it's a tribute to Tascam's design team that the MM1 can have so much on it and still not look confusing or complicated.
The layout of each channel is identical. Starting at the top is the Trim pot that limits the input level of the signal. This is adjustable from -50dBV to -10dBV, varying the sensitivity to cope with line and microphone level inputs. Beneath the Trim are the two EQ knobs - Treble and Bass. Each cuts or boosts by +/-12dBV at 10kHz and 100Hz respectively. It would have been nice to have had a sweepable midrange EQ control, but I'm not really complaining - the MM1 offers a remarkable amount of features for very little cash, so there are going to have to be some compromises.
The next two pots are the effect sends, which control the signal routing to four effects busses. The first pot controls the signal level to effects busses 1 and 2, and the second to busses 3 and 4. When they are in their '12 O'clock' position no signal is sent, but turning a pot to the left routes the input signal to the first effects bus. The further you turn, the more signal is sent. Conversely, turning to the right sends the signal to the second effect. So, although there are four effects busses, it is only possible to use a maximum of two on any given channel, and you can't use 1 and 2 at the same time, or 3 and 4.
The last knob is the channel pan control. This works like any other pan control except on the first four inputs, which are stereo. Input channels 1-4 each have two input jacks, and using only one configures the channel in mono - the signal can then be panned left and right as normal. If both jacks are used, then one input is routed left and one is routed right; the pan control now sets a balance between the two levels.
Directly under the pan pot is a small rectangular button, with accompanying LED, that is used to either mute that channel or solo it, depending on what mode the mixer is in. Lastly we have a level fader, with a 70mm throw. At the top left-hand side of each fader are three coloured LEDs - green, amber and red - to monitor the input level.
It's at this point that I'm going to have my only real moan about the MM1. I have no argument with the size of faders used - they have to be this small to fit the machine - but this apart, they have two problems; first of all, they are stiff and don't travel very smoothly unless you exert the same amount of pressure all the time; secondly, the piece of curved plastic that sits on top of the fader to provide a finger-hold is loose. The problem here is that the red line that supposedly shows you the fader's position could be a little higher or lower than the 'true' reading, and it might therefore be slightly misleading.
To the right of the channels is the master level control section of the mixer. Two vertical rows of four knobs allow you to set the master send and return levels for each auxiliary. Each send is mono, but each return can either be mono or stereo depending on the type of jack plugs you insert in the four effect return sockets: if you use mono jacks, then returns 1 and 3 are mono returns, sent to the left output, and returns 2 and 4 are sent to the right; a stereo plug in each will give you four true stereo returns. At the bottom of this section are the two master output faders, each with their own Mute button. The master output is via a choice of two jack sockets or two phono sockets.
The last control section of the MM1 is on the far right, and deals with the MIDI muting aspect of the MM1's operation - you can store 99 Scenes in memory, each containing the mute settings for all 16 input channels plus the master faders. The MIDI mute feature is probably the MMVs biggest attraction for most potential users. At the top of this section is a two-digit red LED showing which Scene is currently selected. Next to this is the power on/off switch, and underneath this is the output level display, which employs two LED bargraphs. Halfway down is a headphone level control, below which are seven buttons that allow programming of the Scenes: Clear; Scene/MIDI Channel; Store/Copy; Recall; Solo; Down; Up. Scenes can be recalled in three ways: directly from the front panel with the Up/Down buttons, or from an optional double footswitch (not supplied), or with MIDI Program Change commands output from a sequencer or synth for example.
Programming a Scene is simple: you simply press the Mute buttons on the desired channels to create the intended mute setting. The current Scene number will flash to show that you are editing the Scene. When you are happy with the mute settings, you just press the Store button at the same time as the Scene button and the new Scene is written to the current memory location. To quickly reset a Scene so that all mutes are off, enabling you to start from scratch, a Clear button is provided. There is also a solo function, activated by the Solo button. In solo mode the Mute buttons now act as Solo buttons, so that individual channels or groups of channels may be checked without having to alter any fader levels.
To handle MIDI interfacing, the rear panel of the MM1 includes MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets. The Out socket is necessary because muting channels generates MIDI data which can be recorded into a sequencer, and played back to provide a further means of automating mutes via MIDI, this time without using Scenes. The Scene button doubles as a MIDI channel selector, allowing you to set the MM1's transmit/receive channel to 1-16, Off or Omni.
When I first heard about the MM1, I thought it would be interesting to see how it compared with my ageing Seck 12:2 mixer, which I rely on for my home recording. I always record my song demos in two halves - first I create a complete backing track (keyboards, drums and bass) and mix it down to a stereo Revox, the music coming from countless keyboards and expanders all hooked up to my trusty Atari computer. I then take the stereo backing tape up to my friend's house and copy it onto two tracks of his 8-track recorder. From there we add the vocals and live guitar. So, although I only need a stereo output on my mixer, I am forever soldering two or three cables together just so that I can plug all my instruments into the Seck in the first place. Therefore the first thing I did after removing the MM1 from its box was to plug in everything I owned. And, joy of joys, I was able to use my Roland D50 synth in stereo at last!
The best way to get to know any piece of gear is to use it in context, so I started working on a new demo using the MM1 as the heart of my system. The first thing I noticed was that the two-band EQ wasn't as limited as I had feared, and although I initially missed the midrange control of the Seck, with some careful tweaking I could still achieve a sound that I was quite happy with. What's more, having four auxiliary sends with stereo returns really is wonderful. With everything up and running the sound was very clean and quiet - none of that unwanted hiss that smacks of 'good idea but cheap components'.
To bring the MIDI mute automation into play, I hooked up the MM1's MIDI In and Out to my MIDI system, and prepared for a little 12" mixing. I set up a number of Scenes, with mutes set so as to cut out different instruments, and then chose a track on my Cubase sequencer to use for Program Changes. I then started the track playing and made some Scene changes in real time whilst recording them into Cubase. As if by magic, when I replayed the track, I suddenly had computer mute automation.
After playing with the MM1 for a number of days I got my old Seck 12:2 out, and it looked like a football field compared to the Tascam! There seemed to be so much (wasted?) space around the controls, yet only a few days earlier the Seck had looked like the image of compactness. How easily one's perception changes.
The obvious uses for the MM1 are based around keyboard mixing - it is called a keyboard mixer, after all. But the stereo inputs make it suitable for many audio-visual related tasks, as well as a great submixer for just about anything that needs a bit of extra tweaking without tying up your expensive desk. In a live situation, the provision of a direct output socket on each input channel means that you could give direct control of selected instruments to a front of house engineer without using up loads of DI boxes.
By this time I thought I might just be cool and collected and dismiss the MM11 with a casual 'yeah it's OK, better try one for yourself' sort of closing line, but I can't be that offhand - it's going to be most depressing to return to a mere 12 inputs and my soldering iron again.
Even with my small gripe about the faders, I'm sure Tascam will have a hard job keeping up supply to the obvious demand there's going to be for this baby. The MM1 doesn't offer anything totally new in terms of technology (similar features have appeared on past mixers from Simmons, Allen & Heath, Akai and Yamaha, to name but a few), but what it does do is give you more than you wanted, in a box smaller than you thought possible, at a price less than you expected.
TEAC UK Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Tony Hastings
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