Tascam TMD1000

Digital Mixer

Published in SOS November 1998
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Reviews : Mixer

TASCAM TMD1000 DIGITAL MIXER

Paul White studio tests the least
expensive digital desk currently
on the market and asks, "Is the
writing really on the wall for small
analogue mixers?"

 

The era of the low-cost digital mixer is finally here, and for the first time, it's probably true to say that it's now cheaper to buy a small digital mixer with built-in snapshot automation, effects and dynamics processing than it is to buy a comparable analogue mixer plus separate outboard effects and processors. Even so, it's still early days for digital consoles, so while you may win out in terms of overall value, you might also find you lose when it comes to things like insert points, overall number of analogue inputs and outputs, and simplicity of use. Eventually, when virtually everything is digital, the lack of analogue inputs or insert points won't be an issue, but for the next few years, when analogue and digital will run side by side, it is likely to be a significant cause for concern.

Enter The TMD1000

Tascam's TMD1000 is their first low-cost digital mixer and it's designed very much with the DA88/DA38 user in mind. Though the mixer has 16 input channels, only eight are analogue while the remaining eight are serviced digitally, either via a TDIF interface (eight channels of DA88-format audio) or via a choice of S/PDIF or AES/EBU (stereo only). This makes connecting a DA88 or 38 very simple, but ADAT users or those using computer cards based on the ADAT protocol will need a format converter to make use of the TDIF inputs. Fortunately, Tascam are producing one (more on this at the end of this review).

Of the eight analogue inputs, four have balanced XLR mic amps with globally switchable phantom powering and insert points, while for connecting to stereo digital equipment, there's also one digital input and two digital outs, each with a choice of S/PDIF or AES/EBU formats via phono or XLR connectors (there's also a TDIF out and four analogue group busses, of which more in a minute). The remaining four analogue channels offer mic/line on stereo jacks with no phantom powering. An optional expander card

TASCAM
TMD1000
£899
pros
Affordable.
Simple layout.
Built-in effects and dynamics.
Snapshot automation (sequencer needed for dynamic automation).
Good digital sync and MMC support.
cons
Only eight analogue inputs.
TDIF-only digital multitrack input.
No dedicated effects send and returns for outboard.
No moving faders.
Odd choice of levels for insert points.
summary
This is an inexpensive digital mixer, and despite some design and operational idiosyncrasies, it's capable of very high-quality results. Probably most appealing to the user with one digital multitrack recorder (or computer with the right interface) who wants a compact mixer that can also handle a few analogue sources.

(IFTD1000) is available to provide a further S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital input with sample-rate conversion, as well as a further TDIF input serving channels 1 to 8. As far as I can tell, this means you have to choose between digital and analogue inputs for channels 1 to 8, unlike the the Yamaha 03D, where adding an interface card provides access to additional channels.

Curiously, Tascam have decided to adopt what appears to be a nominal -10dBV input operating level, and though the input circuitry can cope with levels of up to +13dBV before the clip light comes on, this is still cutting it fine for use with digital machines with balanced outputs. The Stereo and Monitor outputs, which are properly balanced, fare better, as they are designed to the +4dBu nominal standard, whereas the buss outs seem to be hedging their bets by sitting between the two at a nominal
-2dBu. Most bizarre, though is the choice of a -20dBu operating level for the insert points -- making them suitable for little except guitar pedals.

Each of the 16 channels is furnished with a 3-band equaliser, and may be routed to the stereo output, to the four group busses or to a direct out feeding the TDIF digital output. There are four aux sends per channel that can be used to address the two internal effects/dynamics processors as well as external effects devices, and it's also possible to assign one of the processors to the stereo output for overall dynamic processing. The four group busses may be used to feed an external multitrack recorder, or they can function as aux busses. One of the compromises made to keep the cost down was to combine the functions of the group outputs and aux outs, so it's up to the user to decide how best to deploy them.

The console has both recording and mixing modes, so it is possible to pre-configure certain parameters, such as routing, to streamline operation. As a default, Record mode has the four busses set up as groups feeding the TDIF tape out, while in Mix mode, all four are configured as Aux sends. Stereo external inputs and outputs are provided for the connection of an analogue I/O stereo recorder, and replay from this device may be selected in the monitoring section.

Though designed for both general-purpose mixing and recording, the TMD1000 doesn't have a dedicated tape monitoring section -- the user has to arrange this by using the analogue ins as record sources routed via groups and the digital tape ins as monitor sources routed to the L-R outputs. Mix automation is catered for on board by means of a snapshot memory system, though unlike most other digital consoles, this one doesn't have motorised faders. This means that using it is more akin to a VCA automation system where the fader position doesn't always represent the true state of the channel -- though to be fair, it doesn't take much getting used to. One positive aspect of this approach, other than long-term reliability, is that the faders remain silent when you're mixing -- some motorised systems can be distractingly noisy.

There's no dynamic automation on board, but all the control operations are sent out over MIDI so they can be recorded to a sequencer. Providing your sequencer has a spare MIDI port (the TMD1000 uses all 16 channels) and that editing automation data isn't too difficult, it's quite possible to use the TMD1000 for fully dynamic automation.

Scratching The Surface

At 19 inches wide and 6U deep, the TMD1000 is about the same size as a typical 16-channel analogue mixer, and rackmounting brackets are available as an option. All the analogue connectors are on the front panel, with the digital and MIDI In/Out connectors grouped together on the rear panel along with word clock in/out phono connectors. Power comes from an external adaptor with a standard push-fit connector, which

  MIDI Machine Control  
  The TMD1000 includes MMC as standard and this may be used in closed-loop (both MIDI in and Out connected) or open-loop modes (only the TMD1000's MIDI Out connected). A brief visit to menu-land enables the MMC device ID to be selected, while double clicking the Shift key locks the dual function routing/MMC buttons into MMC mode. Track arming is done using the channel Mute buttons in conjunction with the Shift key, and up to 16 locations may be stored in the TMD1000, based on the MTC value read at the MIDI In socket when the Memo button is pressed. These locators may be used for locating an MMC device, and all the usual MTC formats are supported including drop frame. Recalling a locate memory involves holding down Shift and using the Channel Select buttons to recall correspondingly numbered locations.  
is just a little too easy to pull out by accident. There are physical faders and pan controls for each channel, group and master output as well as gain trims for the eight analogue input channels. All faders are 60mm types, and the majority of the audio connections are on balanced jacks.

The input and output converters are 20-bit, though the digital signal path can handle up to 24 bits. The signal-to-noise ratio for any line input to the left-right output is quoted as being better than 80dB which, although not outstanding, is quite good enough for the majority of applications, and compares well with analogue circuitry.

An illuminated Select button is provided above each of the channel Pan controls and there's a Mute button for each channel as well as for the first two Group outputs. Two channels (odd/even pairs only) may be linked for ganged operation by pressing down both Select buttons at the same time. Other than that, there are relatively few buttons, as most facilities are accessed via a menu system.

To the right of the stereo bargraph level meters is a fairly conventional monitor select system that feeds both the headphone output and the monitor output. There are separate level controls for the monitor and headphone outputs, with buttons for selecting L-R, 1-2, 3-4 or Ext as sources. There's also a Mono button.

Most setting up and editing functions are based around a two-line, backlit LCD window with four continuous rotary controls underneath. A fifth rotary control is used for data entry, which also has a push function that does various things depending on where you are in the menu system. This section of the front panel also contains the Record/Mix LED indicators and a Parameter select box that allows fast access to EQ, Aux or Effect-related functions. Most of the buttons have dual functions accessed by a Shift key located on the left of the front panel, and there's also a row of buttons used for channel routing that, by operating the shift key, can be used to send out MMC transport commands for controlling a remote recorder. Double-clicking the Shift key locks the routing buttons in their MMC transport mode. Two further knobs control the Effect and Aux return levels, while a Solo button above the Group faders gives access to PFL (Pre Fade listen), AFL (After Fade Listen) or SIP (Solo in Place) solo modes. When solo is engaged, the channel mute buttons act as solo buttons and the type of solo is selected in the Setup menu.

Each channel of the TMD1000 is equipped with a three-band equaliser where the high and low bands are variable-frequency shelving filters and the mid-range is a parametric bandpass filter. Each section can be swept over the full 41Hz to 16kHz range, and all provide 15dB of cut or boost. To make an EQ adjustment, the desired channel must first be selected using the Select button. Next, the Parameter Select button near the display must be used to select EQ. This simply steps around the EQ, Aux and Effects options.

There are two screens of EQ parameters selected by means of the Data Entry knob, and once you're in the right page, the four parameters displayed can be adjusted directly by using the four rotary controls beneath the display. A further illuminated master EQ button may be used in conjunction with a channel Select button to switch the EQ in or out without having to revisit any menus.

  Effects  
 

Included in the TMD1000 are two digital effects processors that can provide three categories of effect. Type 1 is a stereo effect that can handle dynamics, delay, chorus, pitch shift, modulation effects, de-essing and enhancement. Type 2 is exactly the same but also offers reverb and gated reverb. Type 3 provides single-channel dynamics processing, generally used for applying compression or gating for up to four channels at a time. To use the internal effects via the aux send/return system, the required number of Group busses must be set up as Aux busses. Remember these are assignable, so you have to decide how best to use them.

There are six different ways in which effects can be deployed, the first of which is to use all the processing power to provide four dynamic processors that can each be assigned to any of the input channels. This is a typical application during recording where effects are not required. The second configuration places one effect in the stereo output path while the other is fed from both Aux 1 and Aux 2 (in stereo) via Aux busses 1 and 2. The effect may be returned into the Left/Right mix or the remaining two Groups and there's are two dedicated level controls on the mixer for the Aux and Effect returns. Modes three and four place the two effects blocks in series, again feeding the effects from Aux busses 1 and 2. The difference between the two is simply the order in which the blocks are connected. Mode six sees both effects in parallel, again both fed from Aux Buss 1/2 and returned either to the stereo mix or Groups 3/4. Finally, all four Aux busses may be committed to feeding one effect from Aux 1/2 and the other from Aux 3/4. In this case, all four busses are used as Aux sends, so the only return option is via the Left/Right mix.

External effects may be connected, but again these use the busses -- there are no dedicated aux sends or returns on this mixer, so any analogue effects have to be returned via input channels. Even when using digital effects, you still lose the use of the corresponding busses as these have to be assigned to a digital output.

Setting the Aux send levels involves stepping around the three Parameter Select modes until Aux lights up, then selecting the desired channel using the Select button. The four rotary controls beneath the screen then function as the aux send level and pan controls. These sends may be configured either as pre- or post-fade, though for conventional effects use, they'd normally be post-fade. A degree of editing is possible to the effects themselves, and though there are fewer parameters than on most stand-alone units, all the key parameters can be adjusted. Edited effects may be stored for future use.

 

Automation

As intimated earlier, onboard automation is restricted to snapshots (up to 128), which may be recalled manually from the front panel or linked to MIDI Program Changes. There's also a footswitch jack on the rear panel which may be used in conjunction with a standard momentary action footswitch to step up or down through the snapshots, or to initiate punch-in/out on an MMC-controlled recorder.

Snapshot 000 is read-only and represents a default, neutral position with all the EQ flat, effects levels down and so on. When a new snapshot is recalled, the new settings can either be implemented immediately or a fade time can be set up to give a smooth transition between snapshots. The manual warns that switching from a Record mode snapshot to a Mix mode snapshot may produce noise at the output, but this isn't something you'd be likely to want to do during a normal mix. Saving and recalling snapshots is reasonably straightforward and there's a direct recall system that allows the first 16 user snapshots to be recalled using the numbered Channel Select buttons in conjunction with the Escape/Recall key.

Because this isn't a moving-fader system, there needs to be some way to 'null' the physical fader positions with the actual gain setting currently employed by the mixer. A display page has been devised especially for this purpose where all the level and pan pots are represented by asterisks. If the physical control position isn't in agreement with the currently recalled setting, the asterisk turns into an arrow showing which way the control needs to be moved to make it match the recalled value. Once the values match, the arrow reverts back to being an asterisk, and if you go too far, the arrow switches direction.

In Operation

The TMD1000 sounds clean and the EQ is rather less digital-sounding than I have come to expect from low-cost digital mixers, but the menu cruising part of the operating system is slightly non-standard. Instead of cursor keys, the Data knob is used to scroll through pages. When you find the right one, you press the Enter button, then use the data knob again to change the selected parameter. It's only on things like the dynamics and EQ, where up to four parameters are shown at once, that the knobs below the display do anything. An Exit button gets you back out of the menu system when you're done. The Data knob push switch is needed for certain functions, including naming snapshots. You soon get used to the way the TMD1000 works, and the menus aren't too labyrinthine. Also there's a quick access mode for inspecting menu settings where you can look but not change anything.

I have to say I found the effects routing (see box on page 92) unnecessarily restrictive -- I can't see why the internal effects (or external digitally connected effects, for that matter) should have to tie up the buss outputs, and I also fail to see why most of the effects configurations have the effects set up with stereo inputs, thus tying up two busses, when most of the time you simply want mono in, stereo out. Furthermore there are no analogue effect returns, which means you have to use input channels unless you have an effects unit with a digital output. On a more upbeat note, the switchable Record and Mix modes help simplify things while the channel Select and routing buttons are extremely intuitive.

Operational niggles aside, the snapshot automation works seamlessly, the EQ is reasonably musical and the quality of the onboard effects isn't at all bad either. Having a word clock sync option means that more serious professional can use this mixer within an existing system, and the profusion of digital ins and outs is to be applauded. The lack of moving faders does make it harder to keep track of where levels really are, but I appreciate that not all things are possible at so low a price. Similarly, onboard dynamic automation is not really an option at this price point, but having the facility to hand over the responsibility of dynamic automation to a MIDI sequencer is welcome.

Opinion

At a little under £900, the TMD1000 costs around the same as a decent 16:4:2 analogue mixer, yet includes snapshot automation and quite respectable onboard effects. What's more, the provision of S/PDIF and AES/EBU ins and outs means that a mix made from a digital source can be fed to a DAT machine or other digital mastering device without leaving the digital domain. To achieve all this at such a low price inevitably means compromises have had to made, and as is the nature of such things, they'll affect some users more than others. Perhaps the most serious limitation is that the second eight channels can only be accessed via the TDIF interface or via a stereo digital input, so if you only have analogue sources, you only have an eight-channel mixer. I don't see many DA88 owners going for this mixer, as it's a little too basic, though users with a single DA38 or ADAT (using the optional converter) may find it attractive. Tascam's bi-directional TDIF/ADAT converter costs £175 for eight channels, but I'll be most surprised if we don't find these being bundled with the desk at a much lower price.

The automation side of the mixer is relatively simple to use and works very smoothly, despite the lack of motorised faders. Unless you have a sequencer, you're limited to snapshots, but the adjustable fade rate between snapshots makes this a viable way to work for most jobs. If you need full dynamic automation, then you have to record and edit the automation data in your sequencer. The comprehensive MMC spec, which includes an autolocate memory and punch-in/out footswitch, is also a strong plus point.

I suspect that we'll see many sub-£1000 digital mixers over the next few years, but at the moment, Tascam's TMD1000 is the least costly digital desk on the market. It's sturdily built and businesslike, the audio signal path is clean and there's a good compliment of digital I/O, even without the expander card. Word clock in and out, selectable input wordlength of 16, 20 or 24 bits and the ability to sync to both 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates ensures compatibility with more serious audio systems. The real question is not one of sound quality but rather, can this mixer do the job you need it to do? If you have a single DA38 or 88 (or ADAT plus format converter), then the answer may well be yes, and this sector probably includes a number of post-production audio professionals. However, if you need to mix a lot of analogue sources or use multiple digital multitrack machines, then you may find one of the more sophisticated alternatives more attractive.

 information
£899 including VAT.
TEAC UK Brochure Line
+44(0)1923 819630.
+44 (0)1923 236290.
www.tascam.com

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