Korg D1600

Digital Recording Studio

Published in SOS May 2001
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Reviews : Multitrack Recorder

Korg have seriously upgraded their original D16, adding a 'double O' for good measure. John Walden is both shaken and stirred...

If you were one of the many musicians who read Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser's round-up in SOS March 2001 with a mind to making a purchasing decision, then hold back on signing that credit card slip for one moment more, because there's a new unit now in the running: the Korg D1600. As an upgraded version of the D16, originally reviewed in February 2000 by Derek and Debbie themselves, there is much already in its favour — the reviewers' reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with particular praise attracted by the large touchscreen display, the absence of data compression and the range of built-in digital effects. Of the minor criticisms, the lack of dynamic mix automation via MIDI and the inability to backup data to CD-RW were subsequently addressed in a major software update from Korg, though phantom power and multitrack digital output were things that the user still had to live without.

Like the D16, the D1600 features 16 tracks of uncompressed 16-bit recording (or eight tracks in a high-resolution 24-bit mode) with virtual tracks, three-band EQ, built-in Insert, Master and Final Effects processors, rhythm patterns, and snapshot mix automation. But to this it adds significantly updated cosmetics and hardware, including an optional built-in internal CD-RW drive, as well as incorporating all the software updates which appeared in the D16's software revision.

Shiny & New

Physically, the D1600 is not only in a different livery to its forebear, it's also a more substantial beast, being a little larger and a little heavier, and is therefore not quite as portable. However, part of the extra weight is thankfully attributable to the newly internalised power supply.

KORG D1600 £1399
pros
Capable of high-quality 16-track recordings.
Excellent user interface via the touchscreen.
From click track to CD master in a single box.
Excellent value for money, and facilities targeted for cost-cutting well chosen.
cons
No multitrack digital output.
Insert Effect assignment not as flexible as it could be.
No auxiliary sends or dynamic MIDI automation available for input channels.
Manual could be improved (but that's getting very picky!)
summary
The D1600 is an excellent all-in-one digital studio which improves on the D16's already impressive specs at a very competitive price.

The D1600 is shipped with a 20Gb internal hard drive as standard and a CD-RW drive is available as an option — not only can you use a Korg own-brand device for the latter, but you can also use a number of others which are compatible. Both drives appear to be standard IDE-type devices. For songs using the full 16 tracks, the 20Gb drive would give a little under four hours of playback time; more than enough to complete all but the most ambitious album project! As both drive types were pre-installed in the review unit, I didn't get to see how easy they were to install. The manual suggests this is straightforward, so you could possibly swap drives for different recording projects — though using an external drive connected to the rear-panel SCSI port would probably be a more elegant solution.

Almost all the D1600's connections are located on the back panel. Of the eight analogue inputs, four are on balanced XLRs with individually switchable 48V phantom power (at last!) and four are on balanced quarter-inch TRS jacks, though these also accept unbalanced signals. Input eight is also linked to a dedicated high-impedance instrument input located on the front panel, which allows electric guitars to be DI'ed easily. Trim pots situated above the LCD screen give plenty of scope for managing input signal levels, with the help of clip LED's and more extensive on-screen metering.

On the output side, there are pairs of analogue outputs for master and monitor feeds respectively, with a single jack output for an auxiliary output. The signal arriving at the monitor outputs is also sent to the phones output, which is located on the D1600's front panel next to the guitar input. S/PDIF optical digital I/O is provided, with the digital output mirroring the signal arriving at the master outputs. Sadly, multi-channel digital output is still not provided, which may prove frustrating to those wishing to transfer projects from other digital multitracks, nor is it available as an option.

All Mixed Up

Like the D16, the D1600's control surface is essentially split into two parts. The left-hand section houses the input trim pots, the LCD and the channel strips for each track. The right-hand third is dominated by a collection of buttons for controlling the recorder's various functions, including dedicated transport buttons, a data wheel and four cursor keys.

The internal mixer provides 24 channels, each with EQ, insert, pan, level and routing controls. Eight of these channels deal with input signals, while the remaining sixteen handle signals from the playback tracks — auxiliary sends are only available from the latter. Because the input channels can be routed directly to the main mix if desired, this setup also allows you to incorporate external sequenced MIDI sound sources into your mix, with access to Insert Effects and EQ. Audio from the digital input or from the internal CD drive can be routed independently of the audio inputs, but there is no signal processing available for these inputs.

A considerable improvement over the D16 is that all of the 16 recorder tracks are mono by default (though the option exists to set any of them up as stereo pairs if you wish) and they all now have individual monitor faders. In fact, the size of these faders has also been increased slightly as well, to a 60mm design — an extra 10mm over the D16 which makes all the difference! Individual faders are also assigned automatically to control the input channel levels when tracks are in record mode.

Above the faders is a corresponding row of hardware pan controls, though these controls are not assignable to different parameters, as on some more expensive workstations. The only other physical control on each channel is the single selection button. This button allows you to record-enable tracks and also allows you to toggle between input, playback and muted monitoring modes — soloing functions also are available, but from a dedicated touchscreen view. All the other playback channel facilities, such as sends and EQ, are accessed via the various control buttons on the right-hand side of the LCD.

The input channel facilities are accessed separately from their own display screen, where they are assigned to recorder channels or to the main mix. Tabs at the base of the input assignment screen also provide access to a useful tuner facility and to each input channel's equaliser. The equalisers in both input and playback channels are identical and offer a high band fixed at 10kHz, a low band fixed at 100Hz, and a mid-band which is variable between 100Hz and 20kHz, with fixed bandwidth. Each band has 15dB of cut/boost. The LCD displays the four available parameters as on-screen knobs — stabbing a finger at the appropriate knob on the screen selects it and the data wheel can then be used for adjustment. This system is also used for many other parameters on the D1600 and, though not as nice as real physical controls, is certainly one of the easiest 'virtual' mixing systems I've used.

Other channel facilities include phase reverse, access to the internal Insert Effects, sends to the two onboard Master Effects and the send to the single physical aux output. As with the D16, there are no physical insert points, which obviously helps account for the D1600's competitive price. So, if you wished to compress a microphone signal in the analogue domain, for example, you'd have to use an external microphone preamplifier to feed a compressor connected to the relevant D1600 input.

A maximum of 100 mixer Scenes can be specified per song, each of which stores not only the usual track volume and pan position data, but also effect, send and EQ information for each channel, as well as the setup of every one of the effects processors. These Scenes can be named and can be set internally to recall automatically at specific times in the arrangement — they can also be recalled during playback under MIDI control using Program Change messages. Korg still haven't implemented any smoothing of the transitions between Scenes, useful though this would be.

In addition to the Scene automation, any of the settings associated with each playback channel can be automated more flexibly via MIDI. All the playback channels send and receive MIDI data, each with its own MIDI channel, and I had no problem sync'ing Logic on my PC to record and play back mix automation in this way. However, the input channels cannot be automated, which could be annoying if you were running sequenced MIDI sound sources alongside your audio tracks.

Given that the physical faders provided are not motorised, Scene or MIDI automation can create a mismatch between the fader/pan control positions and the actual parameter values. The D1600 helps to avoid confusion here by providing an LCD display mode which shows the virtual positions of faders and pan pots in real time.

  D1600 Features In Brief  
  • 240 x 64-pixel backlit LCD touchscreen.
• 16-bit or 24-bit uncompressed recording at 44.1kHz.
• 16-track playback at 16-bit (eight at 24-bit).
• Eight tracks of simultaneous recording at 16-bit (four at 24-bit).
• Recording time with suppied 20Gb hard drive: 62 track hours at 16-bit or 41 track hours at 24-bit.
• 100 songs per drive.
• CD-RW support for song copy, data backup and import/export of WAV files.
• Track-at-a-time audio CD creation using non-consumer CD-R discs.
• SCSI interface for connection of external drives.
• Eight analogue inputs: one with high-impedance guitar jack, four with 48V phantom-powered XLRs, four with quarter-inch balanced TRS jacks.
• Master Output: two quarter-inch unbalanced jacks at -10dBu nominal level.
• Monitor Output: two quarter-inch unbalanced jacks at -10dBu nominal level.
• Aux Output: single unbalanced quarter-inch jack at -10dBu nominal level.
• A-D conversion: 24-bit, 64x oversampling.
• D-A conversion: 24-bit, 128x oversampling.
• Optical 24-bit S/PDIF I/O with sample-rate conversion of 32kHz and 48kHz sources to 44.1kHz.
• 24-channel digital mixer (eight input channels and 16 playback channels), with 32-bit/44.1kHz internal processing.
• Three-band EQ on every channel: outer bands fixed shelving, mid-band sweepable.
• Onboard Scene automation (with 100 scenes per song) and dynamic automation via MIDI.
• Effects: Maximum of eight Insert, two Master and one Final Effect simultaneously, with 44-bit/44.1kHz internal processing.
• MTC and MMC transmitted and received; MIDI Clock transmitted.
• Tempo map with 200 points per song.
• 96 metronome patterns and 215 rhythm patterns.
• Four locate points per song and 100 mark points per song.
 

Red Light District

The recording process starts with the creation and naming of a new song. Once this is done, you connect your sound source to the most appropriate input and assign that input to the track on which you wish to record. Level adjustment is fairly straightforward, using the Trim pots and their associated LEDs, though both pre- and post-fader metering options are also available for finer level management from the LCD by pressing the Meter/Track View button. (This can also provide a number of arrangement views, where recorded audio is represented as blocks scrolling across the LCD.) A user-definable peak hold function makes sure you notice any sneaky little overloads.

  Cut & Paste  
  Audio editing with the D1600 is a simple affair. Tracks or sections of tracks can be copied, deleted, moved, reversed, normalised, swapped, faded and have space inserted within them. Tracks can also be time compressed or expanded (with or without pitch shift) and a track-optimisation routine can reorganise file storage on the hard disk to reduce the possibility of playback errors if many small fragments of audio are being used.

Most of these editing options would usually be performed on small sections of tracks, and these can be easily defined using the In/Loc 1 and Out/Loc 2 locator buttons. A very useful audio scrub facility displays the audio waveform on the LCD and makes setting these locators a simple task. With a little patience, you could easily comp a vocal from several takes using the audio editing facilities. While anyone who has done such editing on a computer based system would probably find the process a little time consuming on the D1600, this will doubtless be an acceptable trade-off for those who value the reliability and simplicity of a dedicated recording workstation.

 
The D1600's internal cooling fan is quite noisy and can therefore be a little distracting when working in the same room as the machine — though it sensibly disengages when you're recording. However, it can easily be switched to a thermostatically controlled mode, and I found this to be a much better option, as the unit never seemed to get warm enough to switch the fan on!

Once you've got a good signal level, you can apply EQ and an Insert Effect in order to get the exact sound you're after. If you need a separate cue mix for overdubbing, then this can be set up via the Solo/Monitor button, allowing you to have a different mix via the monitor and headphone outputs to the one arriving at the master outputs. To get the inspirational juices flowing, you can then choose from a selection of the 215 rhythm or 96 metronome patterns to which you can play or sing along. The drum patterns range from rock to jungle, and in each case a small selection of main patterns is provided, as well as intros, fills and endings — though the selection becomes much more limited if you wish to go beyond a four/four time signature. Patterns can be chained to produce a complete rhythm track if required and can also be recorded to audio tracks for inclusion in your finished song if you want. Most people using the D1600 are likely to have access to other, more sophisticated drum sound sources (or maybe even a real drummer!), but the built-in drum sounds are fine if you just want to get some basic ideas down.

All that then remains is to arm the required track and hit record. If you want more hands-free operation, then punching in can be automated or can be triggered by a footswitch connected to the requisite rear-panel socket. A useful loop mode is also provided, for doing multiple retakes or a specific drop-in, for example. The eight virtual tracks per playback track allow considerable flexibility. Not only can source tracks be kept when bouncing down, but you can also keep multiple versions of lead vocals or instrumental solos for comping using the onboard audio editing functions — see the 'Cut & Paste' box for more details of these.

Recording with the D1600 was an absolute pleasure. It copes admirably with a wide variety of sound sources, either directly or via a selection of different microphones. Setting levels was a breeze and the resulting recordings were reproduced very faithfully — the bottom line is that the D1600 is capable of capturing audio at very high quality, and you ought to be able to do serious recording work with this multitracker.

Effects

Given the lack of physical insert points and the single aux output, a consideration of the D1600's internal effects processing becomes particularly important. All the effects are based around REMS (Resonant structure and Electronic circuit Modelling System) technology, which is Korg's slant on the digital modelling of reverbs, delays, and so forth, as well as instrument bodies, guitar amps, speakers and microphones. As mentioned earlier, the effects fall into three groups: Insert, Master and Final. These are provided with 128, 32 and 32 preset patches respectively (plus an equal number of user patches), based upon some 98 algorithms and 106 different effect types.

The Insert Effects are perhaps the most complex, as the available processing power can be configured in a number of different ways. In their simplest configuration, the Inserts can be used as eight mono-in/mono-out effects, but options also exist for four more complex mono-in/mono-out processors, two mono-in/stereo-out processors, or two stereo-in/stereo-out processors. Obviously, when eight individual processors are used, the algorithms available tend to contain only a single process, such as a noise gate or compressor. The other insert configurations allow more complex effects and chains of effects, which cover all the bases you'd expect — reverb, delays, modulation, dynamics and more powerful equalisation.

In addition, there are a number of guitar-friendly algorithms including various overdrives, distortions and amp/speaker simulations. These are fine for getting basic guitar or bass tracks recorded with a minimum of fuss, and the cleaner sounds are very usable. However, the more overdriven sounds are not up to the high standards available from something like a Pod or J Station. There is also mic simulation, which can be used to make recordings done with a cheaper mic sound a little more 'expensive'. Realistically, it will not turn a Shure SM58 into something like a Neumann M49, but that doesn't mean that the tonal changes available aren't interesting and usable in their own right.

There is one problem with the Insert Effects, which has been inherited from the D16 — even though there can be eight available, they cannot be used on input channels and playback channels simultaneously. Moreover, switching to input-channel use from playback-channel use clears all the effects settings made for playback, so that these are not restored when you return to using these effects on the playback channels. While this is easily resolved by using a Scene to store and recall such settings, this useful workaround is not discussed in the D1600's documentation.

The two Master effects are fed from two dedicated auxiliary sends, and are returned to the mix via individual level and balance controls. There is a good selection of effects types on offer, including 15 different reverbs (plates, rooms, halls and a few other spaces) and a smaller number of delay and modulation patches. The reverbs sound smooth enough and would certainly compete with most mid-priced rack units. Four special-effect algorithms are also available: Stereo Ring Modulator; Doppler, which creates movement in the sound with changing pitch, sort of like an extreme chorus; Analog Record, which adds the sort of crackle and flutter you'd expect from old vinyl; and Talking Modulator, which manipulates the frequency spectrum of the sound to create vowel-like effects.

As with the D16, the D1600 also includes a Final Effect. This is essentially a stereo process that can be inserted into the mix buss. There are some really useful treatments included in the 32 presets — many of these are based around compression and limiting, but the selection using the stereo multi-band limiter is particularly effective. Again, while the Final Effect might not replace a dedicated mastering processor (or a mastering engineer's ears), it can certainly help to beef up and even out a final mix.

The degree of control over each effect is good, but I found myself having to dip into the manual quite a lot to work out what some of the individual parameters did. However, that said, the touchscreen made effects editing pretty painless, compared to the usual page scrolling and cursor-button work needed on some effect units.

  Import & Export Duties  
 
The original D16 added the facility to back up data to CD-RW as a software update. As is to be expected, this backup function is provided on the D1600 as standard. Data can be backed up to any drive attached to the unit (either the internal CD-RW or any drives attached to the SCSI interface. Two modes are possible; backup or copy. The latter essentially copies the data to an alternative drive, from where it can be directly played back by the D1600. The former is a full backup routine — data backups need to be restored to the internal drive before they can be worked with. Both backup and copy can work with single or multiple songs. In addition, the backup procedure can deal with multiple disks, so if you wished to backup a large project containing several songs, you could do so across a number of CD-Rs.

A particularly useful feature of the D1600 is that its files can easily be exported to other D-series multitrackers. For example, songs created on the D1600 and then backed up to CD-R can be restored to the forthcoming D12 12-track — the D12 simply ignores any material on tracks 13 to 16. As Korg had kindly provided me with a D12 for review alongside the D1600, I was able to experiment a little with this, and everything I tried worked a treat.

Many potential purchasers of the D1600 will be glad to know that it can both import and export files in the popular WAV format. Sample loops could therefore be imported into the D1600 for use in your song, for example, or each of the 16 audio tracks of a D1600 song could be exported to a computer-based multitrack system for further processing and arrangement. The process works well enough, but, as files are imported or exported individually, it would be a little time consuming to transfer large numbers of audio fragments.

 

Mixing Down

Once you have recorded all the required parts, the D1600's bounce functions make it easy to record effects (to free up processors for other uses) and to put together a final mix. A number of options are available, but probably the most useful mode bounces all 16 tracks down to two of the virtual tracks. This allows you to bounce down a complete mix while preserving all the original material if you need to repeat it or if you wish to try an alternative version.

Aside from providing a useful data backup facility (see the 'Import & Export Duties' box), the optional CD-RW drive allows finished mixes to be burnt to an audio CD one at a time, though you have to bounce down to stereo first in order to do this. Because of the way the CD burner works, you get a gap of about two seconds in between each track, and this prevents certain types of CD playlist from being created. To have this integrated into the D1600 provides an extremely neat all-in-one solution: from songwriting to finished audio CD. Using even cheap and cheerful CD-R disks, I had no problem playing back audio mixes created using the D1600 internal CD-RW drive on a variety of audio CD players.

Conclusion

I like the D1600 a lot! Having all this functionality integrated into a single box makes the whole audio recording process an exceptionally easy task. Those moving up from a more modest multitrack environment ought to find the transition a painless one, although the impressive specification of the D1600 means there is plenty to learn during those first few sessions. It is difficult to overemphasise the usefulness of the touchscreen facility; this speeds up many of the operations involved in using the unit.

There is no doubt that the D1600 is capable of excellent audio quality, and with a little care and attention it is easy to imagine producing recordings worthy of commercial release. Add in some MIDI sequencing, a decent mic, your choice of 'POD-a-like' (for the guitarists) and the only other things you would need for a hit would be time, talent and a bit of luck! The D1600 certainly won't get in your way.

In working with the D1600 I found myself occasionally wondering which screen I needed to call up to make a particular setting. This is perhaps inevitable given that much of the functionality is accessed on-screen rather than through physical controls. The manual does a reasonable job of explaining most of the D1600's many functions, but some things could have been explained more clearly. For example, I would like to have been told how to do a simple track-to-track bounce when none of the preset modes caters specifically for this. It would also have been nice to see a clearer acknowledgement of some of the things the unit can't do, together with ways in which to work around these deficiencies — particularly regarding the limitations of the Insert Effects assignment.

However, Korg's latest offering is an awful lot of studio for a very modest sum of money. Like many of the current crop of digital multitrackers, it undoubtedly forces some compromises upon the user in terms of the recording process, but these compromises are limited in extent and have been sensibly chosen to keep the cost down and quality up. If you are in the market for a 16-track digital studio in a single box then the D1600 comes highly recommended.

 information
D1600 with 20Gb hard drive, £1399; internal CD-RW drive, £199. Prices include VAT.
Korg UK Brochure Line
+44 (0)1908 857150.
+44 (0)1908 857199.
Click here to email
www.korg.co.uk
www.korg.co.jp

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