Hardware control surfaces promise to make working with a software DAW more intuitive and 'hands on'. Tascam's new offering has more knobs and faders than most, but also keeps things deliberately simple. Is it an essential accessory, or an expensive gadget?
There's something liberating about using a true analogue recording setup, especially one based around a traditional mixing desk. The accessibility of controls on all channels, and the tactile quality of moving a knob or fader and hearing, instantly, a corresponding difference in sound, can be very enjoyable and rewarding. But increasingly this is not the experience of the modern studio-based musician. Computer DAW software allows unprecedented levels of flexibility, control and accuracy, but a great deal of immediacy and involvement at the mixing stage is removed by reducing the human interface to a standard computer keyboard and a mouse. You get to adjust one (or at best a few) mix parameters at a time, and have to rely on automation for any complex simultaneous changes.
Enter the hardware control surface. Looking to the untrained eye like any other mixer, but generally having no audio functions, these hardware units aim to let you have your cake and eat it, by providing traditional mixing and other controls as a 'front end' for your DAW software of choice. They range in complexity from compact and fairly limited generic MIDI controller boxes to highly specialised units optimised for one or more mainstream DAW applications, and aim to provide tight integration with what's happening in software through the use of motorised faders and other informative displays.
Tascam's new US2400 definitely falls into the latter division. It's physically quite imposing, sporting 25 motorised, touch-sensitive 100mm faders along with rotary encoders, various banks of illuminated buttons, a jog wheel and joystick, and transport controls. Connection to a computer is via USB, and the US2400 integrates with various host applications by emulating two existing control surfaces, Mackie's HUI and the Mackie Control. It measures 91cm in width, 39cm in depth, and just over 8cm at its highest point.
The US2400 is powered by an external 7.5 Volt AC adaptor which plugs in to a socket on the rear panel. I've never met anyone who wouldn't prefer an internal power adaptor fed by a standard IEC cable, so I was sorry to see Tascam had gone down this route. Also on the back are a quarter-inch jack footswitch input and a square Type B USB socket.
AC adaptor aside, the US2400 is beautifully put together, with a spacious, clear and uncluttered front panel. It looks extremely good, and has a cool, businesslike air that should satisfy anyone buying it partly to make their studio look more 'pro'. From a tactile point of view, the transport buttons in particular feel great, and the faders move smoothly with great resistance characteristics — it's extremely easy to move them a tiny amount, and they don't suffer from the stickiness and inertia that seem to plague many 60mm faders. There's also plenty of space for one or more scribble strips in front of the faders.
The US2400 only works with Mac OS 10.2.8 or later or Windows XP, and both OSs recognise it as a multi-port MIDI interface even though it doesn't act like one! In OS X you simply connect the control surface to the Mac and it's recognised in the Audio MIDI Setup application. In XP it's similarly easy: the US2400 is detected, drivers are automatically installed, and it becomes usable without a restart. Incidentally, although the US2400 itself uses a USB 1.1 interface it does of course work perfectly well when connected to a USB 2.0 socket. Tascam point out that as a wide-bandwidth USB device the US2400 really needs to be allocated a computer's USB socket all to itself, and should not be used via a USB hub.
Once you've made the USB connection you then need to configure the US2400 for your DAW application. This is done by pressing two keys whilst switching the power on, allowing you to choose between HUI emulation (for Pro Tools) and four different Mackie Control emulations for Sonar, Digital Performer, Logic and Cubase/Nuendo. If you use any other HUI or Mackie Control-compatible DAW application you might be able to use the US2400, but there'd be no guarantee about exactly what feature set you'd get, and even as to whether some basic functions would work at all.
Having said that, the latest US2400 firmware has one free emulation 'slot' earmarked for 'future use', so that does offer the prospect of wider DAW support with future firmware updates. There are also two modes — Native and User — that are not associated with any particular application. There's no information about them in the manual, but User mode, at least, is a source of MIDI Controller messages, so could be useful with software synths and other applications where parameters can be set up to 'learn' external MIDI Controller signals. What's certain is that the US2400 has no user programmability whatsoever, either from the front-panel controls or from the host computer — it's strictly a 'preset-only' device and you're very much reliant on the emulations provided.
Finally, you have to configure your DAW application to see the US2400. Some applications (like Logic) do this automatically, whilst others (like Digital Performer, which I used for testing) need to be told what's attached to them. In DP, for example, you start by creating a Mackie Control and two XT expanders and connecting them to the US2400's virtual MIDI ports in the Audio MIDI Setup application, and then entering the same information in DP 's Control Surface Setup window.
Overall, installing the US2400 into a typical DAW setup is very easy, and I'm happy to say I had no trouble whatsoever in getting up and running. As soon as I booted up DP and opened a project the US2400 sprang into life, with faders sliding gracefully into position to match those in DP 's Mixing Board, and the LEDs surrounding the rotary encoders indicating pan positions.
Getting to grips with the finer points of the the US2400's operation was a little more challenging. The review US2400 was supplied with a 24-page User's Guide and a four-page Quick Start Guide, plus a four-page 'Release Notes' addendum for the version 1.10 firmware revision. Since the Quick Start and User's guides relate to the very first firmware version, I found I needed to pick my way quite carefully between all three documents, figuring out what aspects of operation had been updated, and which not. The situation got more complicated after applying the version 1.20 firmware update (see the box) as this gets another 'Release Notes' document, this time downloadable in PDF format. It's good that Tascam are providing firmware update documentation, but it would be hugely preferable if this could be issued as part of a single, updated and consolidated manual each time. It wouldn't exactly be War And Peace, and would make new users' lives much easier, especially since I found several crucial bits of operational information tucked away in the 'old' manual.
Thankfully, however, once you've rationalised all the information, the US2400 is incredibly easy to use. With the Pan button illuminated the US2400's panel works largely as expected. Motorised faders control on-screen faders and vice versa, the rotary encoders at the top of each 'channel' control and indicate pan position, and the Solo and Mute buttons correspond exactly with the DAW equivalents. Pressing Sel does indeed select the corresponding channel in the DAW software. Meanwhile, the US2400's transport controls work just as expected, corresponding directly with on-screen clickable equivalents.
Using the bank of keys at the top right of the panel, the function of the rotary encoders can be changed. Hitting one of the six Aux buttons turns the encoders into Aux send level controls for their channels. MTR causes the encoders' ring of LEDs to act as channel level meters, as long as your DAW software supports this, and Chan turns the encoders into sources of MIDI Controller messages, with the encoder on channel 1 sending out MIDI CC 0, channel 2 sending out CC 1, and so on, with the encoder on channel 24 sending out MIDI CC 23. The idea here is that the encoders could be used to control plug-in or other controls in DAW software that has a 'learn' mode for individual parameters.
The remaining button in this part of the panel, F Key, is used as a 'modifier key' with other buttons on the US2400 to provide additional DAW control. For example, hitting F Key plus the first three Aux buttons gives editing window access in Digital Performer, whilst F Key plus Aux 4 turns the Metronome on and off. F Key is also used in conjunction with the bank of buttons just above the transport controls, which provide bank shift functions for when your DAW's current project has more tracks than the US2400 has faders, and in/out markers for loop sections and auto-punch record operations. A Shift button here acts as an additional modifier key for various functions such as Shift+Rewind, which is 'return to zero' in Digital Performer.
Finally, to the jog wheel and joystick and their associated Scrub and Null buttons. The function of the jog wheel depends on your software, but at the very least offers a very simple linear locate function, whilst the joystick promises accurate surround panner control.
As I mentioned in the main body of this review, I updated the US2400 to firmware v1.20 during the test period. Tascam's firmware updates come in the form of a dedicated application, downloadable from their web site, and there's no faffing about with 'playing' System Exclusive data from your sequencer, as is often the case when updating firmware on hardware synths. The OS X version was a breeze to use, and helpfully walks the user through all the steps of the update sequence. Good work, Tascam!
I also received some information about a forthcoming v1.30 firmware update, though no date was specified for its release. This apparently adds EQ control for Steinberg applications, and wider plug-in control for Logic 7.1 — no details of how this would be achieved were given.
Perhaps the first thing that dawns on you when using the US2400 is that there are no LCDs, no alphanumeric displays, no keypad, and no menu hierarchies to wade through. Operation is disarmingly simple: every function is readily available and there's an overall sense of simplicity that is decidedly 'analogue' in character.
One of the strongest contributory factors in this is the excellent faders, which feel great and have superb resolution. I opened up a few old projects and played around with setting up mixes from scratch, as well as writing some new automation data. In nearly every case I was able to work substantially quicker than by using a mouse, and felt that I actually achieved some better mixes simply because of the superb response and tactile nature of the faders. It's just that much easier to experiment, and from time to time ride the faders, just like in the old days! The rotary encoders don't seem to have quite the same luxury feel, and their 15-segment LED displays don't provide a terribly accurate readout of pan position or send level, even though their actual control resolution is much greater. They do the job, though, and it was interesting to once again find myself setting pan positions in DP using only my ears, without thinking about numerical values. Incidentally, in most DAW applications the 'master' fader's Flip button swaps the fader and rotary encoder functions, so that the faders' touch sensitivity can be used to write (and overwrite) automation data.
As I mentioned before, the transport controls are reassuringly large and clunky, but I was less enamoured of the way that some DAW functions are mapped to the US2400's buttons. To start with, a variety of functions (which differ quite considerably between DAW applications) use F Key in conjunction with the Bank and In/Out buttons, and indeed the transport buttons themselves. That's all very well, except that the F Key is quite a long way away from those other buttons, so they're awkward to use with just one hand. I'd have much preferred to see an additional F Key, or a more sensible placing of the existing one, especially since the more accessible Shift seems generally to be used for far fewer functions.
I didn't have a lot of luck with the jog wheel and joystick, either. Tascam's Digital Performer-compatible mode promises simple locate functionality using the jog, when the Scrub key is pressed. Unfortunately this never worked for me, although I could get it to work using Sonar-compatibility mode — but then other function mapping was messed up. Similarly, the joystick can be problematic because it doesn't form part of the HUI or Mackie Control protocols and must be accessed by the DAW application directly. The joystick sends MIDI Controller messages, and whilst Pro Tools can use it courtesy of the JL Cooper MCS Panner personality file, the situation is less certain for some other DAWs. In Digital Performer it's a no-go, unless at some future point Tascam can make the joystick appear to the Mac as a standard USB joystick. Other applications that are compatible with the JL Cooper device should be able to use it, but there's not a great deal of information on this in any of Tascam's documentation.
I had mixed feelings about the US2400 when I received it for review: it seemed a mighty expensive item for the relatively limited feature set it offered. But in use I have to say I was won over by its simplicity. Here's a DAW-related product that you can pretty much plug in, spend a short time learning, and incorporate into your workflow with no additional fuss. Using the US2400 proved to be enjoyable, liberating, and completely reliable. How often can you say that about a piece of software, for example? In fact, I found myself wondering if I would want massively increased functionality even if it was offered. In that respect the US2400 is like any other good quality tool — it does what it does, and does it well.
On the other hand, the fact remains that the US2400 is limited. It comes into its own during the mixing stage of projects, but during tracking and, particularly, editing I rarely went near it, despite it offering track record arming and editing window access. Even during mixing, you'll need your keyboard and mouse accessible at all times, for configuring automation, saving your work, directly locating to points in your sequence, and setting up signal routing. Even more important, perhaps, you can't currently use the US2400 for working with plug-ins. So for EQ, dynamics, and everything else, you'll be back to your mouse.
Looking at things in more detail, it also bothered me that whilst there were F Key shortcuts for defining Memory Cycle loop points in the Digital Performer mode, there was no shortcut for turning Memory Cycle on and off. Much more serious, from my perspective, is the omission of any sort of locate functions aside from the transport controls and the jog wheel. With some DAWs the US2400 can write markers, but not necessarily move between them, which seems crazy. Certainly, with the Digital Performer mode there's no direct locate functionality at all. Of course, there's no control surface out there that controls every single function of your DAW, and you probably wouldn't want it to — a mouse is superb for all manner of editing operations — but the overall usefulness of the US2400 may well be largely dependent on the work you're involved in.
Compared to the Mackie Control itself, the US2400 does seem basic. The Mackie product is bristling with dedicated buttons, with the distinct advantage that, providing you're using the correct overlay for your application, they're also fully labelled. The inclusion of a display also makes it possible for the Mackie to work with virtually any type of plug-in, and there's plenty of scope for it to actually replace the computer keyboard and mouse for basic, day-to-day tracking, editing and mixing work. It also has wider DAW application compatibility, which could be an advantage for some users.
So if the Mackie's so much more sophisticated, how are Tascam going to shift any US2400s? The answer to this comes down to money. The Mackie might have the bells and whistles, but it also has only eight faders, which (in my experience of it at least) severely hampers the 'immediacy' aspect of using it for mixing big projects. To match the US2400 you'd need to buy a Mackie Control and two Extenders, which would set you back in the region of £2,000. Contrast that with the Tascam, which is available at a touch over £1,000, and the Tascam's niche becomes much more clear. If you like the idea of mixing with a control surface, and you primarily want something that will get you back towards a more 'analogue' way of working, with super-easy control of faders, pans and basic transport, the US2400 will suit you down to the ground. It looks superb too, and can make any old bedroom-style DAW setup appear much more purposeful. Look at it this way — it might not make your recordings sound any better, but it could make the difference between a client booking your studio or looking elsewhere!
The US2400 is, then, a product that seems to know its market. By providing more faders than the competition, albeit at the expense of breadth and depth of DAW integration, Tascam have come up with a strong product that could really work wonders in some setups. Only you can decide whether yours is one of them.
Continuing Tascam's recent trend of developing products jointly with other companies (such as the FW-series interfaces, which all carry a Frontier Design badge), the US2400 is a joint effort with US company Sane Wave. These partner companies handle much of the research and development work that lies behind a product such as the US2400, and almost certainly save Tascam a huge amount of money in the process.
Sane Wave are also behind Tascam's new X48 dedicated workstation, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the US2400 has been designed to closely integrate with it — that's almost certainly what the 'Native' mode is for, as well as the aux, EQ and pan labelling across the top of the rotary encoders, which don't appear to be implemented as part of the Mackie Control and HUI emulations. I imagine the X48 and US2400 partnership could work beautifully.