Tascam's new 48-channel digital console is an imposing sight, full of features and attractively priced. We get to grips with it...
With the ever-increasing power of DAW systems, the market for modestly priced digital studio consoles is, I would suggest, relatively small. After all, why use a hardware digital mixer when you can do so much 'in the box' for free these days? However, there are some applications where a budget hardware mixer still makes some sense — such as for location recording, or where there are a lot of outboard sound sources to mix. Furthermore, most users agree that a hardware control surface makes using a DAW faster and easier, and for that reason most digital mixing consoles also incorporate remote-control facilities to enable them to serve as hardware controllers for the more popular DAWs.
It is probably fair to say that Yamaha continue to dominate the budget digital console market, but this latest challenger comes from Tascam — the imposing DM3200.
The DM3200 is a logical development from the DM24, expanding on that model's feature set quite considerably while broadly retaining its operational paradigm. Just to set the scene against the widely known Yamaha range of digital consoles, in the UK the DM3200 is roughly twice the price of a Yamaha 01V96 and half the price of the DM1000 — although it looks almost as big as an 02R96! Its feature set and facilities also lie comfortably between those of the 01V96 and DM1000, so the initial impression is that the DM3200 represents an appropriate balance of 'features per pound'.
The DM3200 is essentially a 48-channel console with 32 mixer channel inputs (fully equipped with EQ and dynamics), and 16 limited-facility channel inputs. There are 16 mix busses plus a stereo master buss, eight auxes, direct outputs from the 32 full channels, and two stereo effects processors. It also has four assignable analogue effects sends/returns, two option-card slots, and dedicated stereo control-room and studio monitoring outputs.
The desk can operate with sample rates up to 96kHz while maintaining the full feature set and channel count — but the built-in ADAT and TDIF ports inherently suffer a halving of their track counts at the elevated rates, and the Firewire option card currently available won't support the rates above 48kHz.
There are 16 mic/line inputs with separate XLR and TRS connectors, allowing sources to remain connected to both at all times. The required source is selected from the front panel, and phantom power is switched in blocks of four channels. Every mic/line input is also equipped with an unbalanced insert point on another TRS socket (post preamp, but pre-converter). As in most digital desks, each of the physical inputs can be mapped independently to any of the digital mixer channels.
Balanced outputs from the main stereo mix are provided on XLRs, with the control-room monitoring on TRS sockets. The studio monitoring output and the analogue two-track return are on unbalanced phono sockets, while eight TRS sockets provide four channels of assignable, balanced sends and returns.
The desk has one ADAT and three TDIF ports built in , each carrying eight channels at standard sample rates and four at elevated rates. There are also two sets of stereo digital inputs and outputs, each equipped with both XLR and coaxial sockets. The inputs have to be selected as either S/PDIF or AES3 format, but the outputs are provided as both simultaneously.
Also on the rear panel are a trio of MIDI sockets (with comprehensive MIDI routing and filtering options configurable in the menu software), word clock in and out, timecode in (unbalanced on a phono connector), a socket to connect the optional (but highly recommended) meterbridge and a B-type USB port to interface with a computer. Other connections include an RS422 socket providing Sony P2 machine-control protocols, an eight-channel GPI socket for miscellaneous remote-control functions, and a cascade socket to link the busses of two consoles. Finally, there are two option slots which can accept a variety of additional interface cards (see 'Option Cards' box below).
The TDIF interfacing is an obvious inclusion on a Tascam console, and will be perfect for those wishing to use the DM3200 with Tascam's MX2424 hard disk multitrack recorder, for example. However, using the console with other manufacturers' hardware recorders will probably mean having to invest in external TDIF-to-AES3 or TDIF-to-ADAT converters. With only eight channels of additional output available via each option slot, installing extra ADAT or AES3 cards isn't likely to be a workable solution.
The first thing that strikes you on seeing the DM3200 is how large it is. There is a lot of real estate available here and Tascam have been able to space the controls out well to give an un-cramped feeling, for the most part. However, the ergonomics of the console don't seem to have taken advantage of the space on offer, which is disappointing.
The analogue input controls are ranged across the top of the console, with mic/pad/line input selector switches and rotary gain controls for each channel, supplemented with phantom-power switches for each group of four channels. To the right of these input facilities is the built-in talkback mic and associated gain control, the control-room monitor-level control, and the headphone level control with a pair of headphone sockets.
Coming down towards the faders, the next control sections comprise the buss routing facilities, the monochrome LCD screen and associated context-sensitive controls, the desk configuration switches and navigation controls, a stereo bar-graph meter, and the monitoring selection and talkback keys.
Below this are the assignable channel encoder knobs, the select, solo and mute buttons, and then the channel faders and fader-layer switching. To the right are some buttons to select the channel encoder operating mode and the panels to control the desk automation and external machine transport controls.
At first glance everything seems logical and much as expected, but it's when you come to use the DM3200 that you find the ergonomics are less than ideal. For example, the motorised touch-sensitive faders are long-throw and nicely weighted, but the master stereo fader lies right next to channel 16 with no geographical (and next to no graphical) differentiation at all. I lost count of the number of times I accidentally moved the master fader when I meant to reach for channel 16.
I also found the placement of the anonymous control-room monitoring level control less than ideal. It would have been better to swap this with the largely unused Solo level control next to the control-room monitor selector buttons — which is right where you'd expect the control-room knob to be anyway!
The console configuration buttons next to the LCD screen are all multi-purpose with three labels each: white on grey, white on blue and numbers. Over to the left of the console are two buttons, labelled Shift and Control — the former being on a blue background and the latter on a white background. Logically, then, you might assume, as I did, that to access the configuration-button functions highlighted on blue, you'd need to hold down the blue Shift button first.
Well, no! What you actually need to do is hold down the key in the bottom right-hand corner of the configuration-button array, labelled 'Alt'. That's fine once you know, but hardly intuitive! A further inconsistency is that two of the buttons don't have secondary functions and just have labels on a blue background, but you don't need to press the Alt button to access them!
To compound the confusion further, the DM3200 likes to be shut down in a specific way, and shows grumpy boot-up messages when you power the console up after shutting it down improperly. The issue here is that the desk doesn't automatically store changed library memories and automation data associated with the current project. Instead, you have to tell it to do so with explicit Save commands, or by telling it you want to shut the desk down. This is basically because Tascam have chosen to store all that project data on a removable Compact Flash card, installed underneath a rubber-covered slot on the top panel.
So, to shut the desk down you might reach for the Alt button mentioned just now since this has Shutdown written underneath it. I tried that and nothing happened, so I tried holding the button down for a few seconds and still nothing happened. On reading the manual I discovered that what I should have done was to hold down both the Shift and Control buttons on the left-hand side of the console, and then press the Alt key! Again, this is fine when you know, but it's not clearly marked and not at all intuitive. Are you detecting a small sense of my frustration here?
Each of the current range of option cards available for the DM3200 provides eight channels in and out, with analogue (£362), TDIF, ADAT (both £186) and AES3 (£206) formats available. The one card that provides more channels is a Firewire option card (£349), which provides 24 channels plus MIDI.
Once installed, the Firewire card allows signals to be routed freely between the computer and console allowing, for example, signals from the DAW to be processed in the console instead of gobbling up DSP power in the DAW itself. This processing potentially includes not only the desk's EQ and dynamics, but the internal reverb and effects processors too. However, the card is limited to 44.1kHz or 48kHz operation, which some might find restrictive, although I understand a new Firewire card is planned for the end of the year that will allow 96kHz operation. There still seems to be some question mark at the moment over latency issues, especially if the user forums are anything to go by. It seems that different computers' Firewire interfaces and drivers all contrive to make the latency something of an unknown. Latencies of 10ms or so seem common, while some systems can certainly achieve 2-3ms, which is more usable.
The final card option is a bespoke surround-sound card (£445) that provides eight monitor outputs with all the necessary bass management, time alignment, and solo/muting facilities you would expect. If you want to mix in surround at some point, you'll have to budget for this card as well.
The channel encoder knobs feel a little plasticky, but work well enough and can be switched between coarse and fine resolutions by holding the now infamous Shift key while you turn the knob. I would have preferred some kind of automatic speed-sensitive resolution, but this approach is perfectly workable and you can set a preference for the default condition to be coarse or fine. The encoder and fader functions can be swapped with a Flip button, and the encoders themselves configured for a variety of actions. Buttons to the right of the encoder strip select pan, aux send, dynamics or EQ settings, and the panel graphics above and below the encoders are labelled accordingly. However, a little colour coding would have helped with the identification, as would the use of multi-coloured LEDs around the encoders — it is very easy to lose track of what the encoders are doing in the heat of a tracking session!
By using the Shift and Control keys, the functions of the four encoder configuration buttons change to provide more options including setting the Aux 1 and 2 send levels for each channel on the selected fader layer; adjusting the 16 mix buss levels, or the eight aux master levels; or setting the levels of hidden layer faders. All this sounds more complicated than it really is, and with some familiarity it enables quite fast operation and adjustment of the EQ, dynamics, aux sends and so on.
One particularly useful feature is that there are three user-configurable buttons to select frequently used menu screens. The top button in the group of four to the left of the bar-graph meter always recalls the overview window for the selected channel, but the three buttons below can be programmed to recall any other screen — the routing window, perhaps, or effects libraries, or the studio monitors. It's entirely your choice.
The talkback facilities are welcome in a desk of this type, and although the internal mic seems unusually noisy, you can use one of the 16 mic inputs for an external talkback mic if required. The Studio and Slate buttons toggle between momentary and latching modes depending on whether they are held down or just jabbed. This is a widely used idea and works well. Selecting talkback automatically dims the control-room monitors to prevent howlrounds too.
The Control Room monitor output has four source selection options, one of which is fixed as the stereo mix buss, but the others can be configured through a setup menu for any desired source or buss in the console. The Studio output's source and level can only be controlled by accessing the appropriate menu screen, but at least this is made a little easier with the programmable direct-access buttons mentioned earlier.
The Automation system is one of the highlights of the desk for me, with all the usual operating modes including Write, Trim and Overwrite. Pretty much everything can be automated if desired including, rather unusually, the buss routing selections.
The transport section is equally as comprehensive — this has always been something Tascam have done well — with lots of options for different machine types and modes. The MIDI handling is also unusually flexible, with a graphical display to configure MIDI data paths and filtering options.
Like most budget digital consoles, the DM3200 can be configured as a remote controller for many popular DAWs by emulating the Mackie HUI protocol. This mode makes the 16 channel faders and encoders, plus all the transport facilities available to control a DAW via the USB or MIDI interfaces. It's a very well-implemented facility, and the ease with which you can flip between the DAW and local control modes adds enormously to the console's usability — speeding the workflow for those using a DAW rather than a hardware recorder.
The final remote control option is via the bundled software (for Mac and PC), allowing a computer to communicate with the console via USB. This allows remote storage and recall of project data, libraries, automation passes and so on, a graphical metering display (pictured right), and remote transport controls. However, compared to the Studio Manager software supplied with Yamaha's digital consoles, the Tascam offering is rather disappointing.
Like the DM24 before it, the DM3200 features a mix of fully-featured and less capable channels. The 32 main channels are blessed with four-band parametric EQ and full dynamics, polarity reverse, digital gain trim, channel delay, internal insert points, and direct outputs. Each of these channels is also provided with a secondary 'return' input, intended for the replay channel of the recorder to avoid having to repatch or reassign inputs each time you want to move between tracking and mixing. These returns can be selected individually or in blocks of eight channels at a time. It's a useful, time-saving facility.
The 16 additional return channels (33-48) have no dynamics or EQ, no digital gain trim or polarity reverse, and no delay facilities, which might prove too restrictive in some situations.
Signals feeding the 32 main channels can be routed to the corresponding direct outputs, or to any of the 16 mix busses and main stereo buss. The eight additional return channels don't have direct outputs, but can feed all of the other busses. There are also eight aux sends, accessible from all the input channels and 16 busses. The desk is designed such that Aux 1 and 2 are optimised for use as the performer's cue headphone feed.
Channels, auxes and busses can be linked in adjacent odd/even pairs for stereo, but there is no provision for decoding Middle & Sides sources and no 'vertical pairing' facility, used to link channels on different layers, as featured on the larger Yamaha consoles.
The aux, mix and stereo busses are all equipped with their own dynamics processing, delays and insert points, but no EQ. The console also includes eight mute and fader groups, with the ability to nest them so that Mute Group A could be set up to silence its own channels, as well as those included in Mute Group F, say. However, you can't put any channel in more than one mute or fader group.
The DM3200's analogue input circuitry seems very competent. The mic inputs have up to 60dB of gain available and can tolerate signals of up to +16dBu with the -20dB pad switched in. The line-level inputs will accommodate signals between -44dBu and +12dBu, and the inserts, which have a nominal operating level of -2dBu, can work with peaks to +14dBu. So there are no problems with interfacing any normal sources, then. The noise and distortion figures are all very respectable and the desk's propagation delay between analogue line in and stereo out is a modest 1.7ms at 48kHz sampling rate (0.85ms at 96kHz).
The digital channel EQ is comprehensively equipped with four bands, all sweepable over the full spectrum from 31Hz to 19kHz. All four sections have a peaking mode with ±18dB of gain available and a variable Q from 0.27 (very broad) to 8.65 (usefully narrow). In addition, the middle two sections also have a notch mode, and the top and bottom bands can be switched to shelf or filter modes.
The EQ can be adjusted by calling up the channel's EQ page on the LCD screen (pictured above) and then using the encoder knobs under the screen, or by allocating the encoder knobs above the faders to serve as the EQ controls, as mentioned earlier. In this mode, the first four channels' encoders relate to the low band's parameters, the next four to the low mid-section's, and so on. The selected channel EQ can be switched in and out by using the screen menu and navigation keys, or by pressing the dedicated button for the purpose located next to the buss routing buttons. The graphical EQ display on the LCD is adequate, but not as large or clear as on some other consoles.
The channel dynamics processor includes both a gate and a compressor/expander, and the Shift and Control keys allow the EQ bypass button also to switch the gate and expander/compressor processes in and out. Each dynamics section's side-chain can be fed from its own input, any of the other 31 full channels, or a globally assigned 'trigger source'. This enables key gating and auto-ducking, de-essing and other side-chain related trickery.
All of the usual controls are provided for the gate section, plus both Hysteresis and Hold. The former sets the amount by which the gate's closing threshold is lower than the opening threshold, which helps to minimise 'chatter'. A wide range of ratios is provided for the compressor/expander, but there's no means to change the knee of the slope.
There are two effects processing engines built in and both are stereo-only devices. The generic time-based effects (delay, phaser, flanger, chorus, pitch-shift and so on), are all coded by Tascam, as are the exciter, de-esser, distortion and compression effects. However, all the reverbs are courtesy of TC Works, with a broad range of ambience, chamber, hall, room and special effects.
The effects settings are controlled through the encoder knobs under the LCD window, with the initial controls for all effects being input type (mono/stereo), input level, wet/dry mix and output level. For the Tascam effects there is then a second level of options which varies for the different effects, but there is little consistency over which parameter is controlled by which knob.
For the TC Works reverbs, the first row of control parameters is the same as for the standard effects, but there are then five further levels of parameters to allow extremely comprehensive adjustment of the reverb settings. The most important parameters are on the upper levels and the less frequently used ones in the lower layers. All the effects are usable, if not always spectacular, but I found the reverbs particularly good.
The console can handle surround-sound mixing, if required, but it is not really optimised for it. The mix busses can be switched to provide two sets of up to eight stem busses, and the channels can be configured for surround panning to these busses. However, the desk doesn't have a panning joystick and so two-dimensional panning has to be performed with two of the soft controls for forward/backward and left/right. The monitoring section is also not geared up for surround, so the optional surround card has to be installed. This adds a fourth level of function switching to the desk's configuration buttons to provide the speaker mute/solo switching and so forth. It's not for the faint-hearted!
The Tascam DM3200 is being marketed at an attractive UK price given its feature set and build quality, and in sonic terms it works well. The analogue stages are competently designed, the DSP processing seems bug free and sounds good if used with care, and the TC Works reverb algorithms are every bit as effective as you would expect. However, the nature of the design is that it will either suit your needs perfectly, or be the cause of immense frustration — I don't think there is a middle ground.
Unlike some of the competition, the DM3200 has clearly been created with a specific purpose in mind — that of traditional multitrack studio recording — which means that potentially interested parties may find its feature set and facilities either 'disappointingly limited' or 'nicely optimised', depending on their point of view.
As the attentive reader will have gathered, I also found the control-surface ergonomics suffered from far too many multi-function buttons and inconsistent markings and operating modes. This makes the learning curve unnecessarily steep and, while I accept that greater familiarity will eventually allow reasonably slick operation, novices to the desk will struggle to do anything more than the absolute basics.
The LCD feels cluttered and the operation of the associated encoders is often not as intuitive as it is on some other digital desks. It's as if separate teams of engineers worked on different sections of the desk without talking to each other. I used the desk exclusively over a couple of weeks and was still struggling with some aspects of its operation at the end of it, even after reading the 100-page handbook.
If the DM3200 ticks all the boxes in your wish list, then you might have a match made in heaven, but this really is a case of 'try before you buy'.
The DM3200 sits midway between the Yamaha 01V96 and DM1000 consoles, both in price and facilities, and I see these as the main competition. Each desk has a variety of pros and cons over each of the others and so the choice depends completely on the user's requirements and expectations. The DM3200 has a physical presence that both Yamaha consoles lack, purely because of their smaller sizes, and this probably weighs against it to a degree. When you see a Yamaha 02R-sized console, you automatically expect 02R facilities... The built-in machine-control features of the Tascam desk may appeal to studios with hardware-based recorders. Like the DM3200, the Yamaha consoles can serve as external machine controllers, but in a slightly less elegant way. However, both Yamaha consoles have rather more flexible interface options and a far easier user interface to master, with neater and clearer LCD screen graphics.