Yamaha breathe new life into their AW range with USB connectivity, loop sampling, and an onboard pitch-correction processor.
It's been a few years since Yamaha last released a digital multitracker in their AW range. In that time the original flagship AW4416 and the mid-range AW2816 have both been discontinued, leaving only the more basic AW16G in production. For a while it seemed that Yamaha might have given up on the hardware recording market, but the recent announcement of new AW2400 and AW1600 models has proved otherwise. The latter machine is the subject of this review, and is basically an updated AW16G. At a glance, not much seems to have changed, but the refinements Yamaha have made are significant in that they improve upon the features that were beginning to get outclassed by the competition.
Firstly, the hard drive capacity is now 40GB instead of 20GB, which means that there's room for a few albums' worth of 16-bit, 44.1kHz projects. 40GB is also big enough to cope with large higher-resolution projects, which is handy as Yamaha have added a 24-bit mode too. Although low-cost gear isn't necessarily capable of making use of the increased dynamic range that 24-bit recording allows, just having the option will be welcomed by some, and it mirrors what Korg have done with their D1600. Unfortunately, as in Korg's design, the track count is reduced to just eight in 24-bit mode. The sample rate has been left untouched at the CD standard of 44.1kHz.
Also in line with some of the competition is the introduction of USB 2.0 facilities, making it possible to back up files directly onto a computer hard drive instead of relying solely on CD-RW as a storage or transport medium. Given that the AW1600 has an onboard sampler, the USB port is also very handy for exchanging sample files, and those musicians who prefer to use software programs to edit their audio will also benefit. It's even possible to run MIDI MTC and MMC signals via USB provided that the driver software found on the included CD-ROM is installed.
Engineers wishing to mike up drum kits or many musicians simultaneously will be pleased to see eight phantom-powered XLR inputs on the back of the AW1600, which is a significant improvement on the two that were provided by the AW16G. This time Yamaha have used combi jack/XLR sockets, which, for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with their design, are dual-purpose sockets accepting either a jack or an XLR plug. Although they are a great space-saving idea, and probably help keep costs down, they're not quite as robust as either standard XLR or jack sockets, which is why you don't tend to see them on professional pieces of gear. Still, they are very convenient, and appropriate for low-cost situations. Yamaha have slightly limited your options in the way they have implemented the phantom powering though, which is switched in two banks of four inputs. This may present problems if only one or two devices need powering, but it's still great to have the option of using it on all inputs. One other I/O change from the AW16G sees the replacement of the optical S/PDIF socket with a pair of phono sockets, Yamaha's reasoning being that they are a more commonly used format.
One of the main innovations on the new machine is the Pitch Fix tool, which makes it possible to salvage out-of-tune vocal performances. The feature is by no means a novelty on hardware digital multitrackers (the Akai DPS16, reviewed way back in SOS September 2000, had one) but Yamaha have managed to integrate their processor into the software somewhat, so that it is readily available for use in typical mixing situations — see the 'Fix It In the Mix' box for more on how this feature performs. The effects processors provide the same set of algorithms as their predecessors did, but I was informed by Yamaha that some improvements to the effects had been made, so this is also something we'll examine closely. The other changes seem to be fairly superficial. For example, the transport buttons are a different design and now match those found on the 01X, and some of the screen printing has been altered to highlight the control sections more clearly.
The rest of the features will be very familiar to AW16G users. Sixteen tracks are available for recording and mixing, together with a further eight inputs and four sample-triggering Pad tracks. As on previous AW machines, each recording track offers a further seven virtual tracks for storing alternative takes. Up to eight mono audio sources can be recorded simultaneously via the input preamps, each providing a healthy 50dB of gain. Input eight can double as a high-impedance instrument input, allowing guitars to be plugged straight in and processed using the internal amp- and speaker-modelling effects.
No self-respecting multitracker seems to be without a CD-RW drive these days — it is the primary vehicle for making backups, importing sample data, and creating CD Audio files of mixes. The AW1600's drive is situated on the front edge of the machine, and offers all the facilities you'd hope to see, including disc-at-once and track-at-once audio recording, and full support for the import and export of standard WAV files. It's also possible to store entire projects in a format that can be opened by the older AW machines, although mix setup data differs between models.
In addition to the combi jack/XLR sockets, S/PDIF connectors, and USB port, the rear panel also holds Stereo/Aux Out and Monitor Out jack sockets; MIDI In and Out/Thru connectors; and a standard footswitch jack for controlling things like drop-ins. The back is also the home of the single headphone output, which shares a front-panel level control with the monitor outputs.
These days, Auto-Tune-style pitch-correction is evident on a huge number of pop tracks, where it is used as a production sound as well as a problem-solving tool, so it was probably about time Yamaha added something similar to the AW series. Pitch Fix, as it's called, is accessed through the Bounce page in the Record menu, rather than from one of the effects processors, to prevent anyone trying to insert it into an input channel where it would have to work in real time. Instead, recorded tracks are bounced through the processor to any spare track leaving the original part intact.
Once the processor is selected, the recorder asks the user to decide how it's to be patched, by defining input and destination tracks. Afterwards, a page appears displaying the parameter adjustments. These enable the effect to be tailored to suit different sound sources or vocalists, or to be programmed to create dramatic vocal effects.
The first setting allows the user to select whether the pitch-correction is controlled by a connected MIDI keyboard, or via the on-screen 12-note scale panel. If an external keyboard is used it becomes possible to play in guide notes while the bounced performance is being recorded. Otherwise it's a matter of selecting or deselecting notes from the scale display as appropriate. Elsewhere on the screen the Type button toggles between Normal, Male, and Female settings so that the user can pre-program the processor to cope with differences in pitch.
The most important controls, as far as accurate vocal fixing is concerned, are Detect and Rate, each with a 0-100 range. The manual does a poor job of explaining what these do, but basically the former allows you to avoid the detection of spurious short notes during pitch transitions, while the latter determines how quickly off-pitch notes are corrected. Getting a good result is down to finding the right balance between the two in the context of the problem material, a process I actually found quite difficult to achieve to my satisfaction.
To test the processor I tuned my guitar and recorded a riff, then overdubbed a vocal part on a separate track, deliberately forcing certain notes off key. I then processed the solo vocal and referenced the results against the guitar part. With some adjustment, Pitch Fix corrected held notes quite imperceptibly, but its activities were far more obvious during more transitional parts, where the sound became unnatural. A power user might prove me wrong, but I don't think there's enough flexibility here to cope with an entire performance.
Perhaps the Pitch Fix could have been made a little more effective if Yamaha hadn't tried to make it work as a harmony processor as well. Amongst the controls are a four-octave Pitch adjuster for creating harmonies and a Formant option which radically alters the character of the voice. I for one would happily live without these controls, particularly as there are enough tracks to compile backing arrangements already, and the effects section already has some decent pitch-shifting algorithms to choose from.
The mixer's dynamics, EQ, bussing arrangement, and patching scheme are pretty much the same as in the AW4416, although there are just two auxiliary busses instead of eight. There is still a pair of busses dedicated to serving the two internal effect processors, though, so the auxes remain free for other jobs. Most of the time they will probably be put into service as effects sends, delivering customised mixes to external multi-effects via the Stereo/Aux Out jacks. However, in a live situation they could also be used to provide feeds to stage monitors. The auxiliary busses can also be used as the Key In source for any dynamic processor applied to a mixer channel, which means that, for example, the hit of a snare drum could be used to rhythmically chop up a synth pad. This can be done by routing the drum signal to one of the auxes, inserting a gate into the mixer channel used by the synth pad, and then selecting the relevant buss as the gate's Key In. If it were possible to add extra outputs via card slots, then the AW1600 would probably need more auxes, but what's on offer here matches the I/O options pretty effectively.
As far as I can tell, the four sweepable bands of EQ have remained the same since the days of the AW4416, providing an identical Q range of 10.0 to 0.10, and ±18dB of gain for each band. However, the frequency range differs very slightly, in that it is rated at 21.2Hz to 20kHz instead of 20 to 20.1, which may indicate some optimisation. Once again, the lowest and highest bands can be switched from standard peaking filters to either shelving or low/high-pass filters. The dynamic processors also seem to be unchanged, providing the same compressor, expander, compander, gate, and ducking options.
Audio editing facilities include all the usual tools, as well as routines for performing off-line time-stretching and pitch-shifting. Sadly there's no way to reverse audio, which is something that anyone who has ever played around with tape is likely to miss. Admittedly the USB port offers an easy way to throw audio into a computer software program, reverse it and then re-import it, but that's not much of a consolation. I'd also like to see some kind of edit command for changing levels — a feature I used a lot on the Akai DPS16. You can achieve almost the same thing with the AW1600's automation, but audio editing would have been a much neater way of dealing with small changes.
The AW1600 has quite a respectable selection of song-navigation facilities and transport controls situated on the bottom right-hand side of the front panel. These include buttons for setting up playback looping and automatic drop-ins, plus a set of controls for laying down up to 99 standard markers and then moving between them. The other controls on the front panel worth highlighting are the four knobs to the right of the screen, which also work as buttons when pushed. Not only do they select the effects, dynamics, EQ, and pan pages, but they also control key parameters within these screens.
Besides its primary role as recorder and mixer, the AW1600 provides some sound-creation possibilities through its Quick Loop Sampler, which will be of use to anyone who wants to use samples as the basis of their recordings. When it leaves the factory, the machine already has its own onboard library of drum loops and audio clips ready for assigning to the four soft trigger pads. Yamaha have also made it fairly easy to import samples from CD or via USB, so the presets are really just a starting point.
The sampler provides 16 sample slots per project, but there are only four dedicated mixer channels and the same number of trigger pads, so Yamaha have organised these slots into four banks of four. Each pad can be set up to play a different bank, so you could, for example, have Pad 1 playing from Bank C while Pad 2 is accessing Bank B, but that doesn't mean it's possible to have more than one sample played by a single pad. If another sample is needed during a song then you have to switch banks, and the only way to do that in real time is by programming the change into the internal Tempo Map. In practice this doesn't take long, and programming changes is simple enough, but the planning necessary to ensure the right sample is loaded for each measure is likely to hamper the creative process of anyone who doesn't notate their compositions beforehand!
The pads can either be played and recorded as a performance in a simple sequencer or entered directly into a tempo grid, the concept of which will be familiar to anyone who has used step-time input on a sequencer. Both methods can be used to achieve the same result; it just depends on how you prefer to work.
Although the AW1600 is still very much the offspring of the AW4416, it also bears a stylistic resemblance to Yamaha's 01X hardware controller, which was created as an I/O interface and mixer for computer recording systems. Indeed, you can set up some of the AW1600's hardware faders and buttons to act as MIDI controllers for XG sound modules or aspects of Cubase, Logic, Nuendo, Sonar, and Pro Tools, provided that the relevant MIDI template is selected.
Unlike the 01X, the AW1600 has no mLAN Firewire interface, so it can't be used as a real-time audio interface for a computer sequencing package. Nevertheless, the MIDI sockets and USB port make it possible to exchange MTC, MMC, MIDI Clock, Program Change information and System Exclusive data in both directions. Using MIDI is also a useful way to achieve partial mix automation — otherwise the only option is to cue up mixer snapshots in the AW1600's Tempo map. Two dedicated pages in the Utilities menu let you specify exactly what is to be transmitted and received, and whether USB or the standard MIDI ports are going to be used for the job.
As you'd expect, there is a fine collection of effects on tap, including the usual reverb and delay algorithms, filters, modulation tools, amp-modelling processors, and pitch-shifting programs. In normal use, the processors work in a send/return configuration. However, they can be disconnected from general duties and inserted into input, monitor, or stereo-buss channels. Yamaha's algorithms offer the user control over quite a few parameters, which is no bad thing, and the quality of the effects is reasonably good. Although I had been told by Yamaha that some work had been done on the effects, I couldn't see any parameter differences when compared to the setup of my AW4416, apart from in the amp-modelling processor, where 10 cabinet emulations had been added to the distortion options.
I checked the effects of the AW1600 against those in the AW4416 by choosing a few reverb types, making sure both machines had the same parameter settings, and then feeding the two multitrackers with the same sound source. I did notice a very slight difference, but it certainly wasn't radical and could possibly have more to do with design changes in the signal path itself. The reverb tails certainly didn't sound any more complex and seemed to behave in an identical way.
The AW1600 seems a very mature product when compared to my own AW4416, which is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster insomuch as it was created from lots of parts that probably weren't originally designed to go together! There certainly aren't any noticeable processing delays when moving from one mode of operation to another, as was the case with the older machine. Even booting up and shutting down seems to happen rapidly, and the general level of noise created by the mechanics is pretty low. The waveform pages are now extremely quick, and the Listen feature, which plays the in-view segment of the waveform, is a nice idea that never got added to the previous flagship.
One thing I particularly like about using the AW1600 is the way that a diagram of an input channel's routing pops up if its selector key is held down for a second, allowing the user to insert an effect into the signal path, pick amp and cabinet models from the effects library, and specify the exact signal path. Overall, the way functions have been grouped into menus and then assigned to keys is well thought out, and it's nice that you can skip down each menu by repeatedly pressing the same button.
Even when price is taken into account, the small screen is the one feature that doesn't compare favourably with the much larger displays of the AW4416 and AW2816. The limitations of screen size are most evident in the track display, where the 16 recording tracks and four sampler tracks are crammed together. Unfortunately the display doesn't have a particularly fine resolution either, so its ability to convey information is rather restricted.
The Quick Loop Sampler is a welcome feature that makes it easy to trigger samples and have them play in time with recorded audio, but I think Yamaha have missed a trick here by aiming the functionality only at those musicians who want a sampler for playing back loops. With only four-sample polyphony and no velocity sensitivity, the sampler would be precious little use for programming drum parts from individual hits, for example, and any kind of multisampling would be out of the question. That said, the grid-based programming screen is a great way of positioning samples precisely, even though there's no facility to enter velocity values.
Something that I'm particularly pleased to report is that exchanging files via USB is extremely fast and painless. Many of the competing multitrackers have implemented USB connectivity in a very clunky way, resulting in slow operation — the Boss BR1200CD I recently reviewed was very sluggish in USB mode, for example. However, with the AW1600 I could copy a 1.19GB file to my PC in just over five minutes, which is very good going. Entering the USB mode and making a connection was also easy, and both the AW1600 and the computer seemed to recognise each other immediately. Backing up a folder is just a case of doing a drag and drop, and exporting or importing individual WAV files is only slightly complicated by the process of placing them into a Transport folder for exchange purposes. What is really nice is the way the Import page has a Listen button so that you can check the sample is the right one before sending it to a sample pad or audio track. Interestingly, all audio tracks are saved in WAV format, whereas previously they used a proprietary format. Yamaha have obviously made some big changes in this department to facilitate smooth USB communications, but it does come at a cost: I noticed that project files were considerably larger than those of the AW4416. Backwards-compatible archives can still be made by selecting the As AW2816 button when backing up to CD-RW.
The review would not be complete if I didn't say something about the excellent sound quality offered by the AW1600. It shares the characteristically clean sound of the more expensive AW4416, so with careful use some great results are to be had.
Although the AW1600 is more of an upgrade than a radical redesign, the improvements Yamaha have made are significant. I can't think of another 16-track with a bigger hard drive, or any sub-£1000 digital recorder on the UK market offering more than eight phantom-powered mic/line inputs, and the USB facilities are also very well implemented. As for the rest of the package, not a lot has changed, but then the AW16G was already a strong product. There certainly isn't anything in this price range offering dynamics on every channel; in fact most multitrackers seem to lump compressors, gates, and the like in with the effects, making it necessary to juggle resources throughout the mixing process. Some of the more basic models even categorise traditional mixer controls like EQ as 'effects'! The AW1600 makes no such compromises: even the sampler and stereo master channels have EQ, dynamics, insert points and comprehensive metering.
It's a little unfair to pick holes in a product that offers so much for so little financial outlay, but there are some aspects of this AW which could still be improved. It would be nice to have independent headphone and monitor level controls, and I really would like to see more multitrackers with a second headphone feed to cater for an engineer and a performer. The screen is a vital component of the AW1600, so a higher resolution would be an advantage, and being able to add a few more outputs via expansion slots might encourage some buyers to get onboard now, upgrading their system when they can afford to. It is a shame that the Pitch Fix function can't be used on live performances, and it could probably be given better controls than it has at present. I think Yamaha compromised the pitch-correction facilities by trying to make the processor work as a harmony generator. Nevertheless, it's still a worthwhile addition. The sampler is also a nice feature, made all the more useful by USB sample-transfer facilities, but like Pitch Fix, it could offer more.
To sum up, the AW1600 is very powerful, ruthlessly functional, and has been designed so that its operation aids rather than hinders the creative process. Buyers will be able to rest safe in the knowledge that they have something that derives its methodology from industry-standard products like the O2R, O1V, and AW4416, and that's got to be a good thing.
Apart from being able to control the hardware transport of the AW1600 using MMC and synchronise its operation with a sequencer using MTC or MIDI Clock, you can also automate many mix parameters in real time by sending the multitracker Continuous Controller messages. These can affect the fader and effect-send levels, panning, and channel on/off status. Don't worry, though, if you're not keen on programming sequencers; the faders and many of the buttons also transmit MIDI, so it's possible to record your mixing activities into a sequencer and then play them back as automation.
If you want to steer clear of MIDI automation, it's possible to work largely using mixer snapshots instead. Called Scenes in Yamaha-speak, these snapshots store EQ, dynamics, effects, and sample and channel settings, and there are 96 Scene slots per project. Scenes can be recalled under the control of the project's Tempo Map without requiring any external sequencer. However, you can also assign Program Change messages to the Scenes as well if you want to control Scene recall from your MIDI sequencer.
As the mixer's faders are not motorised, when a Scene is recalled the fader positions may not correspond with the parameter values stored in the Scene. It's possible to find out what the Scene settings actually are from one of the display pages, and any discrepancies between the fader position and the stored value are clearly indicated there.
- AW4416: SEPTEMBER 2000
- AW2816: JANUARY 2002
- AW16G: OCTOBER 2002