YAMAHA AW2816

Digital Audio Workstation

Published in SOS January 2002
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Reviews : Multitrack Recorder

Yamaha's new AW2816 audio workstation appears to offer much of the functionality of the acclaimed AW4416, but at an even lower price point.


Hugh Robjohns

Following the success of the AW4416 workstation last year, Yamaha have now released a more cost-effective version in their new 16-track AW2816. This is derived directly from its predecessor, but with a slightly smaller feature set. Clearly, Yamaha aim to attract musicians who wanted the AW4416, but who couldn't quite afford it.

While all of the core functionality has been retained, some of the icing has obviously been removed from the original machine's cake. The hard disk recording is identical, but the AW2816's digital mixer is a cut-down version, although still based on the O2R technology. All analogue inputs and outputs employ 24-bit converters, and the internal signal processing is to 32-bit resolution, with 54 bits employed in the equalisation algorithms.

Up Front

The centrepiece of the machine's control surface is a familiar-looking 320 x 240-pixel monochrome LCD panel. The graphical user interface continues the usual Yamaha theme, and anyone with previ

Yamaha AW2816 £1799/£1999
pros
16 tracks of uncompressed 24-bit digital audio.
Most important functions of the AW4416 in a more streamlined form.
Fast and intuitive to operate.
Optional internal CD-RW drive.
SCSI archive facilities.
I/O expandability using optional mini YGDAI cards.
Smooth and quiet motorised faders.
Reduced drive and fan noise.
cons
Absence of AW4416's hardware metering and EQ knobs.
Relatively noisy analogue inputs.
No real-time audio to or from external SCSI drives.
summary
The junior sibling to the acclaimed AW4416 cuts few corners, providing top-quality 16-track hard disk recording integrated with a powerful digital mixer featuring typical O-series facilities. The operation is fast, intuitive and entirely familiar, with extensive automation facilities and MIDI functionality. A lean, mean package of essential pro-studio tools at a home-studio price.

ous experience of the O-series mixers will have little difficulty. Newcomers will also find the operating system intuitive and easy to learn, helped along by the excellent Owner's Manual and Tutorial guide, supported by a demo CD-ROM.

The AW2816 has a smaller footprint than its elder sibling, with less space available for hardware controls. The more obvious omissions include the AW4416's fluorescent metering and timer display, the eight sampling pads, half the motorised faders, and the assignable EQ knobs.

The nine 60mm motorised faders which remain (eight channel faders plus a main stereo output fader) are the same as those on the AW4416 -- quiet and fast under the motor drive, yet still pleasant to use manually. Fader paging is used to access the eight input channels, disk replay 1-8 or 9-16, and six auxiliary sends (there are eight in the AW4416). Rotary encoders set the levels of the two stereo effects returns and the usual On and Sel buttons are provided, the former performing PFL duties when in Solo mode.

The back of the machine sports only one mini YGDAI slot instead of two -- effectively discarding eight inputs and outputs. There is no insert point on either of the first two analogue inputs, no word clock I/O, and no mouse port... but other than that, the facilities are much the same as the bigger machine. That said, the rear-panel fan actually seems quieter, as does the hard drive.

The Ins & Outs

For many people, one of the most important aspects of this new machine will be whether it has sufficient I/O. The physical analogue inputs comprise eight balanced TRS quarter-inch sockets, all able to accommodate sources with nominal levels between +4dBu (line) and -46dBu (mic). The first two inputs also have XLRs connected in parallel with the TRS sockets, complete with switchable (but shared) phantom power. Input eight is equipped with a high-impedance unbalanced socket in addition to the normal balanced input. Additionally, there are S/PDIF phonos for digital stereo I/O, and the mini YGDAI slot allows eight further inputs and outputs to be added.

Overall, then, up to 18 external sources can feed into the mixer. Combining these with the two stereo internal effects returns, the metronome click and the 16 hard disk replay outputs, there are therefore 39 possible sources. The digital mixer has permanent inputs from the 16 disk tracks, plus eight further mono and two stereo inputs, which means that the other 23 sources have to be patched to the remaining 12 mixer inputs as required.

The mixer also features 18 mix busses (eight groups, six auxiliaries, a stereo main output, and a stereo solo bus), eight channel direct outputs, 16 recorder direct outputs, and up to eight channel insert sends and 16 disk replay insert sends. This vast array of notional outputs must be allocated to the available physical outputs, which include a stereo monitor feed operating at a nominal level of +4dBu; four unbalanced Omni outputs (at 0dBu); and an unbalanced stereo output on phono sockets at -10dBV. There is also the S/PDIF digital output, and potentially eight mini YGDAI card outputs. A single headphone outlet is located on the rear panel.

44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates are supported internally, with ±6 percent varispeed. The system can also be synchronised externally from the S/PDIF or mini YGDAI digital inputs. Both sampling rate and bit-resolution are fixed per Song.

A SCSI 2 port on the rear panel allows additional storage devices to be attached. As on th

  Automation Stations  
  The automation system remains the same as on the AW4416, with up to 96 Scene memories, and 16 Automix passes stored with each song. Full dynamic mix automation, with motorised faders, records and replays all the channel parameters as well as information about which Scene memories, libraries, and even remote MIDI control functions are required. Subsets of automation data (mutes, faders, EQ and pan) can be disabled or overwritten individually and there are facilities to determine how the faders react at the end of each automation pass.  
e AW4416, this is only for backup purposes -- it cannot be used for real-time audio recording or playback.

A trio of MIDI sockets is provided (In, Out/Thru and MTC Out), as well as a To Host serial data port for direct connection with a computer sequencer. The AW2816 can act as either master or slave for synchronisation via MTC or MIDI Clock, and it supports MIDI Machine Control (MMC). MIDI control change messages are also supported and a footswitch socket permits remote drop-ins.

Operating System Tweaks

Having sorted out the suitability of the AW2816's interfacing, the next most important consideration with a product like this is the operating software. This benefits from a very mature graphical interface with a well-established user base, and has been derived directly from the AW4416's recently released version 2 software.

Amongst the new features available in the new software is the long-promised MIDI remote control functionality. This enables the AW2816's faders and channel On buttons to respond to assigned MIDI messages, allowing them to be controlled from an external MIDI controller or sequencer. External MIDI control data can even be recorded as automix data.

The shortcut-key facility has also been extended with the addition of a 'Control Key Assign' function. This allows the user to assign operations to the soft keys below the LCD screen. There is also a Quick Record system which provides a fast way to set the machine's input routing for recording.

The control surface of the AW2816 is immediately familiar and intuitive -- especially to anyone with previous experience of Yamaha's O-series digital mixers. The gain controls for the eight analogue inputs are arranged across the top of the control panel, marked simply with Mic and Line at opposite extremes, and each is accompanied by an overload LED. The level controls for the headphone outlet and stereo monitoring feed are also here. Some of the early AW4416s suffered from strange high-pitched whistles on the monitoring output under certain conditions, but I could find no trace of any such problems with the new machine.

Given the absence of the AW4416's assignable EQ knobs, the channel and output equalisers must be adjusted by accessing the EQ menu page and using the cursor keys to select the required control, which is then adjusted with the dial wheel. While this approach feels clumsy in comparison to the hardware controls, I doubt it is much slower, and I had no problems in that regard.

To the left of the display a large array of buttons accesses most of the machine's parameters and functions. The Song parameters are set here, disk files can be managed, the internal CD-RW (if fitted)

  Preamp Pecadillos  
  The performance of Yamaha's mic preamps has been one of the perennial weaknesses of Yamaha's O-series digital mixers, and the AW2816 is, I'm sorry to say, no exception. For a start, the preamps are disappointingly noisy in comparison with even very modest analogue mixers, particularly at high gain settings. I'm not suggesting that they're unusable, but my Mackie 1402 VLZpro's inputs are around 10dB quieter. Admittedly, the Mackie preamps perform exceptionally well, but Yamaha should nevertheless resolve this issue, as it is a significant weakness of their otherwise excellent digital mixers and associated products.

There is also the problem that the maximum 46dB of gain (56dB if the input fader is pushed to the end stop) is barely sufficient for moving-coil mics, even when used in close proximity to acoustic sources. The situation with high-output condenser mics is better, obviously, but not really adequate for more distant, ambient mic placements. OK, you could argue that the majority of home studios rely entirely on close-miking techniques, probably with back-electret and condenser mics, so there is no need for more gain. This may be true, but the fact remains that the input stages are rather inflexible.

 
can be accessed, and the Quick Record mode initiated. There are also buttons to set up the input and output patching, establish user preferences, configure the MIDI operations and so forth.

The next row of buttons in the group offers the familiar mixer functions, accessing pan, EQ and dynamics screens, as well as the channel overview screen. Further buttons call up the different fader layers, with six dedicated pages for the aux sends, plus a MIDI remote page and a Home page which can be further selected from inputs 1-8, recorder 1-8, and recorder 9-16.

To the right of the screen are the usual track arming buttons, an All Safe key, and a Track Cue button which routes any track selected on the arming buttons straight to the monitor outputs (bypassing the mixer's monitor channels). There is also a button here to access the Meter page on the LCD -- a very important facility given the lack of hardware metering. Below this top array, more buttons access the track-display screen (showing recorded audio tracks as strips against a time line), enter the various edit modes, and undo or redo edits. The Automix screen is also accessed from here and the Scene memories can be managed.

The operation of the shuttle/jog dial wheel will be familiar, as will that of the four cursor keys, Enter button, and the standard transport functions at the bottom of the panel. A group of 16 buttons provide the locator facilities and Autopunch operation, as well as doubling up as a numeric keypad.

Mixing Muscle

Each of the eight input channels, 16 hard disk track monitoring channels and stereo output are provided with comprehensive signal processing identical to that of the AW4416. A digital attenuator (essential for maintaining headroom) precedes four-band parametric EQ and flexible dynamics -- both with

libraries of 128 factory and user presets. Polarity inversion is provided along with up to 59mS of delay, and routing to the eight mix busses and main stereo output. The panning is only for stereo, not for surround as on the O-series mixers. There is also channel muting, an insert point and the usual stereo channel linking facilities, along with four fader groups and four mute groups. Channel settings can be stored in 64 channel libraries to save time reconfiguring the console.

The AW2816 retains the two independent and powerful effects processors from the bigger machine, with all the usual multi-effects including reverb, ambience, delay, and time-modulation effects (chorus, flanging, symphonic, phasing, auto-pan, tremolo, pitch-shift, rotary speaker simulation, and so on). There is also a selection of very usable distortion and amp-simulation effects intended for the recording guitarist or bassist.

The effects processors can be configured to operate in the normal send/return arrangement, or they can be inserted directly into the signal path of selected channels or into the stereo output bus. As a default, the effects processors are fed from auxiliaries five and six and returned through the two dedicated effects returns channels, controlled by rotary faders, although everything can be reconfigured should you wish. These return channels have access to the full EQ, routing, panning, delay and aux sends of normal channels -- only the dynamics functions are absent. A dedicated library caters for up to 128 factory and user effects programmes, but the usual comprehensive parameter controls are also available to allow fine-tuning of programmed effects.

One small point worth mentioning -- although the individual aux sends from each input and disk replay channel can be controlled from dedicated fader pages, there is no provision to set the aux send master output levels via the faders. Nor is it possible to set the levels of the eight group masters on f

  Drive Details  
  The AW2816 is supplied with one 2.5-inch, 20Gb IDE hard drive fitted, as standard. This is sufficient to store about 230 minutes of continuous 16-track material at 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution (the most space-efficient format with the lowest available quality). At the highest possible resolution (24-bit/48kHz) the standard drive will store about 138 minutes of continuous 16-track recording.

Only one drive can be installed within the machine, but additional drive caddies are available to enable drives to be quickly swapped in and out of the machine, either to allow different projects to be stored separately or to transport work between different machines. The Yamaha web site lists approved alternative drives of six, 12 and 20Gb capacity, although the maximum size supported by the current operating system is 64Gb. Furthermore, the hard disk's filing structure limits the maximum storage capacity allocated to any one song to 6.4Gb. That translates to about an hour and ten minutes of 16-tracks at 16-bit, so no problem with the Pink Floyd-style concept albums then...

Like the AW4416 before it, the new machine can be fitted with an optional (in the UK) internal ATAPI CD-RW drive to create red-book CD-Rs of finished stereo mixes, and to store data backups of songs and associated mix data. It can also be used to input audio samples to the hard drive and to load software updates. The CD-RW adds such important functionality to the basic machine that it really is an 'essential' option.

However, if you want to install the drive later, Yamaha's web site currently only recommends their own CRW2100E and CRW2200E series CD-RW recorders. The site also lists various drives for connection to the SCSI 2 interface, and a selection of suitable CD-RW drives from Yamaha, Plextor and I/O Data have been approved so far. Similarly, various 640Mb and 1.3Gb MO drives; 20, 40 and 60Gb hard disks; 250Mb Iomega Zip and Jaz drives have also been tested and approved for expanding the machine's data storage via the SCSI 2 buss.

 
aders -- unlike the O-series mixers where there are separate fader pages for these functions. Instead, the levels of the group mix busses and auxiliary outputs have to be controlled through simple on-screen attenuators on the Home menu page, using the cursor buttons and data dial.

Recording To Hard Disk

The selected recording resolution (16-bit or 24-bit) affects how many channels can be recorded and replayed from the disk simultaneously. For example, working with 16-bit resolution the machine will allow eight tracks to be recorded and 16 to be played back simultaneously. Recording 16 tracks at the same time mutes all replay tracks. In 24-bit mode, the total number of record and replay tracks will always equal 16. So, if you're recording four tracks at once, only twelve can be replayed at the same time.

Each of the 16 nominal tracks can be selected from one of eight virtual tracks, giving 128 tracks per song. It is not possible to switch between virtual tracks during playback, but a comp track can be constructed from the different takes using a specially designed edit mode. In addition to the 16 main tracks, there is also a dedicated stereo track, intended to receive the final mixdown. When recording on the stereo track, the 16 main tracks can only replay, and when replaying the stereo track the 16 main tracks are muted automatically.

The AW2816 provides basic but functional non-destructive editing facilities, with 15 levels of undo should an editing sequence not work out as expected. In addition to the usual editing operations, there are also time-stretch (50-200 percent) and pitch-shift (up to one octave either way) functions. In addition, selections of audio can be exported as WAV files, and saved to any of the connected drives.

There are two fundamental editing modes. In one mode operations can be carried out on any of the 16 playback tracks, whereas the other mode confines edit operations to the virtual tracks of a single playback track. The latter mode allows excerpts from multiple takes recorded on different virtual tracks to be compiled into a composite performance on another virtual track, for example.

Selection of edit points can be made on the fly or with the transport parked, and specific time or measure values can be typed into the numeric keypad. A selected track can be viewed as a waveform if you wish, and scrolled back and forth to locate an edit point, but there is no audio scrubbing in this mode. Being used to working with more sophisticated audio editing platforms, I found the waveform editing function very frustrating. Only one track can be viewed at a time, so you can't see how tracks relate to each other, and only at the higher zoom resolutions is there any correlation between the rotation of the dial wheel and the movement of the waveform. Lower zoom settings reveal a longer window of audio, and the very slow reaction time of the system makes overshooting the point you're aiming for inevitable. The result is that you can end up chasing the wanted section of audio all around the screen -- and without the ability to hear it as you scroll, it is easy to become hopelessly confused!

As long as the waveform is viewed at relatively high zoom settings the waveform editing mode is useful and usable for performing fine editing. It is no substitute for a ProTools or SADiE system... but then Yamaha don't intend it to be -- this is a cost-effective multitrack recorder with some basic editing facilities, not a high-end post-production system.

Effective management of Songs on the hard disk is important and Yamaha have provided some useful facilities including storing comments with the file to help distinguish between various versions of a Song, and a built-in calendar function time-stamps every recording. There is also a couple of utility routines to maximise disk space, such as a hard-disk optimisation program which removes unnecessary data (the undo history, for example) and a defragmentation routine which maximises the usable storage space.

The Right Choice?

Deciding which features to retain and which to remove to meet the target UK price point can't have been easy. Some might argue that the demise of the fluorescent metering is a step too far (and I would support that view), while others may initially miss the hardware EQ controls. However, the reduced number of faders presents negligible operational problems and the same applies to the loss of two aux sends. And as for the inserts on the first two inputs, I don't know anyone who ever used them anyway! Having on

  Test Spec  
  Yamaha AW2816 OS v1.02  
ly a single mini YGDAI slot is far more influential on the machine's interfacing, but only a few users at this budget level would probably require more I/O anyway. That said, users should probably budget for an external preamp and A-D converter, as the quality of the mic inputs isn't great (see 'Preamp Pecadillos' box).

Overall, the AW2816 impresses with its competence and usability. Following in the footsteps of its elder sibling, the new machine enters the market as a fully developed and finely honed product with pretty much all the features and facilities you could wish for. It is also worth stating that this new machine has benefited from Yamaha's continuing development of the AW4416 and, as a result, is a mature and completely stable product.

If you have been hankering after an AW4416 since its launch, but couldn't quite justify it, the new AW2816 will be your salvation. I dare say it will also cause a certain amount of consternation at the headquarters of Yamaha's competitors...

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