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16-track Digital Multitrackers

Buyer's Guide By Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser
Published March 2001

The Fostex VF16 provides you with 16 tracks for only £1099, and allows you to record them all simultaneously.The Fostex VF16 provides you with 16 tracks for only £1099, and allows you to record them all simultaneously.

If you're looking to invest in a 16‑track digital multitracker, their extensive feature sets can make it very difficult to decide which to buy. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser round up the five current contenders and help you find the best model for your needs.

The advent of affordable digital recording has meant not only a vast improvement in the potential sound quality of project‑studio recordings, but also an explosion in the range of facilities and number of tracks available for relatively modest sums of money. We're always saying it, but what you can get now for an outlay of a couple of thousand pounds is light years ahead of even what was available half a decade ago. However, it can be bewildering, especially for the novice, to have to choose from the range of digital options on the market.

Recent advances in computer‑based recording have made such systems more viable and powerful, and available for smaller amounts of money than formerly. This means that for many people the first choice to make is between a computer‑based setup — a powerful Mac or PC to run all MIDI and audio operations via an integrated software sequencer such as Logic Audio or Cubase VST — and a dedicated hardware multitracker. There's no disputing that the computer‑based solution is an attractive one. When everything is going well with computer‑based recording systems they're a joy to use, offering dizzying yet convenient and comprehensible possibilities. Still, anyone deciding upon such a system should be aware that it's unlikely to be the most problem‑free solution. Computers may crash, software may have bugs, and often the two can conflict with aggravating consequences. Be prepared to become, if not a computer expert, certainly a bit of a computer handyperson if you go this way.

Hardware may seem more limited in comparison to the open‑endedness of a computer system, but the way the new breed of portable hard disk recorders is going seems to be narrowing the gap between the two approaches. Track counts are rising, with 16‑track machines increasingly affordable and large numbers of 'virtual' tracks being offered, built‑in effects are being provided, and displays are getting better and better, to the point where some of them look like mini computer screens. Yamaha's AW4416 even allows a mouse to be connected for screen navigation.

A common lament in computer recording circles is that, when something isn't working, none of the makers of the individual components of the system will admit liability. This problem can be partially overcome by buying an all‑in‑one system such as Digidesign's Digi 001 or one of MOTU's range. Yet with dedicated audio hardware you'll still have the reassurance of knowing that if something goes wrong then it's the responsibility of the machine's manufacturer to do something about it — as long as you've followed their drive recommendations and haven't abused the machine, of course. And there's no need to forgo the power and flexibility of MIDI sequencing software even if you choose dedicated audio‑recording hardware. A computer can cope easily with the relatively undemanding task of MIDI‑only sequencing and can be sync'ed with an external recorder which can take on the heavier burden of digital recording and processing. This is a very valid approach, and doesn't demand that a cutting‑edge computer be purchased.

With so many individual types and brands of computer available, so many types of software to run on them, and numerous permutations of the above, some will go for a hardware recorder at least partially because it's much easier to choose between the systems on offer. Especially when SOS provides a buyers' guide... Now that there's a decent handful of 16‑track personal digital studios on the market — Akai's DPS16, Fostex's VF16, Korg's D16, Roland's VS1880 and Yamaha's AW4416 — it's time to give them the SOS round‑up treatment and reveal how they stack up against each other. First, we'll take a look at what you should bear in mind when deciding on the machine that will probably form the centrepiece of your setup; the table that follows this article then summarises the most important facts.

Digital Multitracker Overview

The AW4416's strengths include generous channel processing, expandable I/O and onboard moving‑fader automation.The AW4416's strengths include generous channel processing, expandable I/O and onboard moving‑fader automation.

Digital multitrackers marry a multitrack hard disk recorder section with a mixer section, in a similar way to the old analogue cassette multitrackers. Their mixer sections (in the case of the 16‑track models) are digital and can thus be automated, which allows complex mixes to be undertaken by one person. Equalisation and multi‑effects processing is usually built in, and extra dynamics processing is often also provided.

Editing features mean that sections of audio can be copied and moved about to change the order of a track, or to make life easier — copying a chorus instead of recording it several times, for example. Though all the machines in the survey have a good range of drop‑in options for rerecording sections, digital editing allows the user to compile sections from different takes and thus to avoid the need to drop in. Mastering of complete mixes can be via either analogue or digital master outputs to a suitable stereo mastering machine, and some of the 16‑tracks even allow mastering direct to a connected (or, in the case of the AW4416, optional internal) CD writer.

Analogue Ins & Outs

The Akai DPS16 offers fast and intuitive parameter access through its Q‑Link knobs, as well as a great‑sounding 24‑bit/96kHz mode.The Akai DPS16 offers fast and intuitive parameter access through its Q‑Link knobs, as well as a great‑sounding 24‑bit/96kHz mode.

The playing field is pretty much level in the area of built‑in analogue audio connections, across all the machines in this survey. For a start, they all offer eight analogue jack inputs, though the VF16's are unbalanced while everyone else offers balanced ins. Balancing is nice to have, of course, because it allows signals to be conveyed with less chance of noise and electromagnetic interference spoiling the signal than when unbalanced connections are used. But it's not the end of the world to have only unbalanced ins when the majority of gear in a project studio has unbalanced outputs anyway.

A related, and more significant, issue is how many tracks can be recorded simultaneously, which is obviously a function of how many inputs there are available. Fortunately, none of these 16‑trackers offer less than eight‑track simultaneous recording. However, if you might want to record more than this (say, a large band or ensemble playing together), your choices are narrowed to the VF16, whose built‑in eight‑channel ADAT interface augments the eight analogue ins, and the AW4416, for which you can buy a card featuring an extra eight balanced jack inputs. Akai's DPS16 offers 10‑track simultaneous recording, but two of these tracks must go through the S/PDIF digital interface. Unpicking the implications, the VF16 would offer the best value if you were able to send eight sources via the analogue ins and extra ones via the ADAT connector, but if you needed all your inputs to be analogue you'd have to invest a bit extra in an analogue‑to‑ADAT converter such as Fostex's own £199 VC8. The extra input card for the AW4416 also naturally adds to the cost of that machine as well.

Staying with inputs for the moment, happily all the machines we're considering feature two XLR mic inputs, and all but the Korg D16 have switchable phantom power for condenser mics. Note that in none of these multitrackers do these XLRs ever boost the number of inputs to 10, even when they are provided alongside jacks — you have to choose which connection you use for those inputs. Dedicated high‑impedance guitar inputs are also fitted to all the machines except the VF16, which will consequently need an external DI box for proper interfacing with passive electric guitars.

There's a whole other side to inputs when it's mixdown time, as they can be pressed into service to bring sequenced sound sources into the mixer for balancing alongside disk tracks, and can also be used to return any external effects you use — none of the machines here bother to provide dedicated effects return inputs. The VF16 rather shows itself up here, as it is the only machine in the survey whose mixer cannot cope with this common way of working. If an input is used for a sequenced source or effects return, the corresponding disk track can't play back — a serious shortcoming for those using sequencers.

With all‑in‑one systems such as these multitrackers, there's little to say regarding analogue outputs: all have stereo monitor outs to enable a mix to be routed to a monitoring system, and master outs for those who mix to an analogue medium. What varies from model to model is the provision of external auxiliary sends (for integrating outboard effects with your portable studio). If you have outboard that you're particularly fond of, or don't think the built‑in effects offer sufficiently high quality, aux sends are important. Most generous on paper are the Akai DPS16 and the Yamaha AW4416, with four sends each — but in the case of the Akai, its four software sends are shared between feeding the hardware aux outputs and the optional four‑channel internal effects board, so it's not possible to use four internal and four external effects independently of each other. With optional extra analogue outputs added, the AW4416 comes out best for aux sends, as it can actually provide a total of eight. At the other end of the spectrum is Korg's D16, with a miserly single external aux send — but the D16 does at least have rather pleasing, powerful and varied internal effects, something that becomes more important the fewer aux sends you have.

The only other specific point to make about analogue outputs is that the VS1880's are all on phono sockets rather than the more usual jacks, as are the D16's monitor and mix outputs. The disadvantage here is that phonos are less robust, don't interface as readily with such a wide range of studio equipment, and by definition are not balanced.

Digital & MIDI Connections

The Roland VS1880's multi‑effects processors and onboard Automix functionality make it a strong contender.The Roland VS1880's multi‑effects processors and onboard Automix functionality make it a strong contender.

• Stereo Digital I/O: All the machines in the survey have digital I/O, in the 'consumer' stereo S/PDIF format, but some offer a coaxial connector and some an optical. You might want to bear in mind which connector your DAT machine or stand‑alone CD recorder has when choosing a digital multitracker, though it would be silly to make this a major consideration — if there's a mismatch, an inexpensive conversion box (suitable units are made by Fostex and Midiman, for around £50) can solve the problem. The VS1880 comes out well whichever form of connector is preferred, as it has both — though both digital inputs can't be used simultaneously. S/PDIF I/O also provides a cheap, if time‑consuming backup method in the case of the DPS16, VF16 and VS1880, which can save backups to DAT.

  • Multi‑channel Digital I/O: A useful feature on a digital multitracker is a multi‑channel digital interface such as the eight‑channel ADAT or TDIF. Many of us will change our recording systems eventually, or may want to export songs for remixing or editing in a commercial studio or on a computer. ADAT or TDIF interfacing means that eight tracks at a time can be painlessly transferred to a compatible system. Without it, the options are stereo track export via the S/PDIF interface, or — even more long‑winded — individual track export as WAV files, a facility offered by some machines. Those for whom easy audio exchange is important will be impressed by the VF16's built‑in ADAT interface, which can also be used for backing up to ADAT tape, and by the fact that the AW4416 has ADAT and TDIF interfaces as optional extras.
  • Word Clock: Quite a different concept from the MIDI Clock that syncs your sequencer to tape or hard disk recorder, word clock essentially keeps track of all the bits in a digital signal and makes sure that they're sent in the right order at the right time. In all‑digital audio systems, it's common practice to designate one machine as clock master, from which all connected equipment derives its clocking data; in fact, dedicated hardware units are available which do nothing but generate a central clock. All multitrackers in this round‑up can be set to clock to incoming S/PDIF (or in the case of the VF16, incoming ADAT), which is necessary when recording audio from a digital source or routing it through the multitracker's mixer, but only the Yamaha AW4416 offers word clock input and output, and so can function as the central clock master in a large digital studio or easily lock to the studio's house sync.
  • SCSI: The machines in our survey all have built‑in recording drives, but they also all have SCSI, which comes into its own when the need arises to connect further drives for recording (though not all the listed machines will actually allow direct recording to an external SCSI drive) or backup. It bears emphasising that the cost of a backup hard drive (or CD drive if backup to CD is preferred) should be factored in, whichever multitracker is chosen.
  • MIDI: All the units are equipped with MIDI I/O and this is essential if you want to synchronise a sequencer. MIDI interfacing also makes MIDI Machine Control (MMC) a possibility: this protocol allows the hardware unit's transport functions to be controlled by a connected MIDI sequencer, say, or vice versa. Thus you only need to push one set of buttons during a session. Some of these units also allow their controls to transmit their positions as MIDI data, which can then be recorded to a connected sequencer during a mix — when the sequence is replayed, the data is transmitted back to the multitracker and the mix automatically recreated.

Recording & Drives

As greater sample rates and bit depths become more prevalent, multitrackers reflect the trend, with some of the latest offering 24‑bit resolution and Akai's DPS16 even having a 24‑bit/96kHz option. At the moment no‑one really needs more than the standard 44.1kHz/16‑bit, but you might regard your multitracker as somewhat future‑proofed if it offers further sample rates and/or bit depths. In addition, using 24‑bit, for example, better captures the dynamic range of a performance than 16‑bit — but given what most people play their records on, and the fact that the difference is subtle, it's arguable how significant this is.

Be aware, also, that using greater bit depths and sample rates often has an effect on other facilities. The DPS16 usually allows up to 10 tracks to be recorded at once, and plays back up to 16, but at 96kHz only eight can be simultaneously recorded and played back, and the number of aux sends is halved, to two. In the case of the Korg D16, using 24‑bit mode halves the number of playback tracks, to eight, and with the AW4416 fewer tracks can be monitored during overdubbing of a 24‑bit recording.

There's also the inevitable impact on hard disk space: if more bits are used to describe the audio signal, the digital audio occupies more disk space and reduces the amount of recording time available from a given drive. Finally, there's a theoretical problem with mastering 24‑bit mixes to a 16‑bit digital recorder, in the absence of 'dithering' of the multitracker's output. Dithering properly reduces 24‑bit audio down to 16‑bit, and without it the extra bits are simply truncated by the 16‑bit mastering recorder, with a possible detrimental effect on audio quality. The AW4416 is the only multitracker in the guide that offers dithering during mixdown to stereo, though the VS1880 will also dither 24‑bit mixes down to 16‑bit during mixing to Roland's own CD writer.

As shown by the table, the size of the built‑in drives provided with these machines varies considerably, from 2.1Gb at one extreme to 12Gb at the other. A larger drive can go some way towards offsetting the cost of a more expensive multitracker (the AW4416 and VS1880, for example, cost the most, but come with the biggest drives), but probably shouldn't be a major factor in your decision, as existing drives can often be replaced with larger ones. The VS1880, regardless of the size of hard drive installed or attached, addresses a maximum disk partition of 2Gb, so 2Gb is the largest continuous file it can handle. Not a problem for most people, given that you'd be hard pressed to make an average 16‑track song file top 1Gb, but if your bag is 20‑minute concept tracks, or you use every single virtual track, you might like to consider the issue. On the plus side, the VS is unusual in that it treats audio edits in 'playlist' style: any copies of existing audio don't take up extra disk space, but simply refer to and play back the original audio at the new location. The VS also uses data compression in all but one of its recording modes. These two expedients make the most of the available partition space. The AW4416, too, places a limitation on individual file size, but it's a pretty hefty 6.4Gb.

Virtual tracks, referred to above, are yet another recording issue to consider: they allow the storage of alternative takes and organisation of material for bouncing, and can greatly increase the flexibility of a given machine. (Bear in mind, though, that they occupy disk space just like 'real' tracks.) Most people don't need hundreds of virtual tracks, but might consider the skimpy eight offered by the VF16 rather below par.

While we're on the subject of hard disks, you'll notice a line in the table for 'Defrag routine'. Anyone who uses a computer will know how fragmented a hard drive can become with use. If a multitracker doesn't offer a defragmenting or error‑check/repair routine and fragmentation and disk errors do start to occur, the only course of action will be drive reformatting.

Mixing & Automation

Fortunately, the mixer sections featured on most 16‑track personal digital studios are a cut above their counterparts on many eight‑track machines. In fact, there's usually little to complain about, other than the lack of proper effects returns and the scarcity of insert points for patching in external processors such as compressors or gates. Inserts are featured on only the VF16 and the AW4416, which are, ironically, the only machines to also have dedicated channel dynamics processors — an assignable dual compressor (plus a master compressor) in the case of the VF16, and a full choice of individual dynamics processors for every channel on the AW4416. Other machines offer dynamics in their effects selections, which is not as flexible an option, though some (notably the D16 and VS1880) redeem themselves somewhat by offering dedicated mix/mastering dynamics. In the case of the DPS16, note that it's not easy to compress a mix internally, and that there are no inserts for patching in an external compressor. The most practical way to compress a mix would be by routing it from the mix outs through an external stereo compressor — which would have to have digital I/O if you wanted to stay in the digital domain throughout — and thence to a mastering recorder.

It can be seen from the table that two of the machines listed don't feature a fader for every playback track. In the case of the Roland VS1880, though the 18‑track complement appears to include six stereo tracks in place of 12 mono ones, these stereo tracks can be 'unlinked' internally. The only inconvenience is thus not having a dedicated fader for each track. The D16's four stereo tracks, however, can't be unlinked, which reduces the machine's flexibility somewhat.

Mix automation is provided by all the listed units, but some systems are more generous than others, and some methods may be more suitable to your way of working. For example, if you don't use MIDI sequencing at all, the MIDI‑driven dynamic automation (dynamic because it captures continuous moving changes in levels and other parameters) of Akai's DPS16 won't be of much use to you. It may be more sensible to opt instead for a machine which has on‑board scene/snapshot memories, each capturing the state of the mixer at a given moment, and chainable to reproduce the correct levels for a whole song.

The best option of all would be a model offering both methods, such as the D16 (after its v2 update), or one with an onboard dynamic system that doesn't rely on MIDI, such as that provided on the AW4416 or VS1880. Be aware that not all automation is created equal: that featured on the DPS16 doesn't allow effects parameters or EQ to be automated at all, whereas on the VS1880 automation of effects and EQ is only available over MIDI.

You Pays Your Money...

Though they vary quite widely in price and in number of facilities, every one of the machines covered by this guide is capable of producing top‑quality recordings. Even quick demos made with the simplest of the units featured should boast superior sound quality, if used properly, thanks to the benefits of digital recording, while the most sophisticated models wouldn't be out of place in a fully professional environment. There's never been a better time to go digital.

What The SOS Reviewers Thought...

  • Akai DPS16: SOS's review found the DPS16 to be well‑designed and quite intuitive to use. We liked its impressive look and fantastic adjustable‑angle display, its helpful, software‑like interface, large number of bit depths and sample rates, great‑sounding 24/96 option, well thought‑out mixer with decent facilities, and the really nice effects provided by the optional effects board. (Note, though, that it's the only machine in this survey not to have effects as standard in its base version — though even with the board it's reasonably priced.) We also liked the large number of virtual tracks, and the useful Q‑Link knobs for hands‑on effects and EQ control, but were less happy with the fact that effects and EQ parameters can't be automated, that mix compression wasn't easy, and that we experienced occasional clicks during punch‑in/out. Our conclusion was that the DPS16 was "a serious and full‑featured multitracker capable of producing top‑quality recordings. One of the best of its type so far."
  • Fostex VF16: The VF16 offers good value for money, at under £1100 for 16 tracks, and is the cheapest self‑contained 16‑track digital studio on the market. The SOS review applauded the VF16's useful ADAT interface, its ability to import and export WAV files, its stability and tape‑like operation, and the fact that all its 16 tracks are recordable at once (if eight go via the ADAT interface). We also liked its insert points and phantom‑powered mic inputs, and its precise and easy snapshot automation system. On the downside, the mixer section is under‑powered for those who want to run sequenced instruments alongside a mix, it has the smallest and least approachable display of the machines tested, offers only eight virtual tracks, and has no dynamic MIDI automation capability. We also found the reverbs in its effects selection disappointing. Nevertheless, the verdict was that "would‑be digital recordists on a budget should find the VF16 provides everything they need to produce good‑quality recordings with ease."
  • Korg D16: The highly portable D16 impressed the SOS reviewers with its ease of use, excellent user interface (via an addictive touchscreen and well‑designed operational displays), 24‑bit recording mode, and generous effects that are more adventurous than the norm. It also has numerous extra features that add value to what is already a cost‑effective machine. We thought it was a shame that it didn't have phantom power, and also commented on the fact that data couldn't be backed up to CD and that dynamic MIDI automation wasn't offered. The last two objections were remedied by the v2 software update. Our conclusion was that the D16 was "a superb newcomer to the currently sparsely‑populated all‑in‑one digital 16‑track market." (Note that Korg have just announced the D1600, a new 16‑track which is not expected to arrive for several months. See page six of this issue for details.)
  • Roland VS1880: Roland were first to market with a digital 16‑track, the VS1680, and the VS1880 18‑track is a clear development from that machine and its V‑Expanded successor — which is why it's included in what is, strictly speaking, a 16‑track buyers' guide. Usefully for VS devotees, songs from earlier VS models can be imported into the 1880, while 1880 data can be converted for use in the earlier machines, albeit with track limitations. The SOS review summed up the machine as "a very powerful recording workstation which is capable of producing release‑quality CD‑R masters of your music. Though facing more competition than the VS1680 did two years ago, it's still very much in the running if you're looking for a self‑contained recording workstation." A very strong point of the VS1880 is imaginative effects processing, with good‑quality dual processors as standard and the option to add two more, and it also has an impressively large, clear display. Do be aware, though, that it doesn't have a dedicated fader for every track, and see the 'Notes To The Guide' for details on its data‑compressed recording.
  • Yamaha AW4416: SOS's reviewer found much to praise and little to criticise regarding this deluxe personal studio. A "near‑ideal feature set" was top of the list of 'pros', which also included its superb audio quality, motorised faders (unique in this sector of the market), simple internal phrase sampler, optional internal CD‑RW drive, SCSI archiving facilities, configurable interfaces, powerful signal processing and versatile signal routing. It's also the only machine in the survey to offer a dedicated metering display (three‑colour fluorescent) rather than providing metering via the main LCD — which, incidentally, is large and informative. The only negatives picked out by the reviewer were the "inevitable" hard drive whine and the fact that external SCSI drives couldn't be directly recorded to, though one more thing to mention is that the waveform display was rather underdeveloped in the software version reviewed, and can't be scrubbed through. The conclusion was that the AW4416 manages to be "a complete professional studio package at a home studio price."

Recording Time

To calculate how much recording time will be available from a given hard disk, use the following formula: one 'track minute' of 16‑bit, 44.1kHz stereo digital audio occupies 10Mb of disk space. Twenty‑four bit audio requires 50 per cent more space, and 24‑bit/96kHz more than three times the space of 16‑bit, 44.1kHz. It's a bit more complicated with the VS1880, which offers data‑compressed recording in most modes, but it's safe to say that recording times are at least doubled in comparison to uncompressed 16‑bit, 44.1kHz audio.

Here are the SOS issues containing each unit's full review:

Notes To The Guide

  • FOSTEX VF16: Though the retail price of the VF16 is given as £1099, until the end of March distributors SCV are running a £75 cashback offer.
  • ROLAND VS1880: EQ: 3‑band parametric EQ is available for 18 channels, or 2‑band for 28. CD writing: Though the 1880 offers a facility for mastering to CD, it technically only works with Roland's own, rather expensive, CD writer option. (However, though we don't necessarily recommend this, a search on the Internet will turn up users who have investigated using the VS with other, cheaper CD writers.) Bit Depth: The VS1880 makes use of various, user‑selectable levels of data reduction (often called data compression), which extends recording time available from the hard disk. For the majority of listeners, data reduction is undetectable or barely noticeable, but the fact that it is active makes it unclear exactly what bit depths are being used. The VS1880 does offer an uncompressed 16‑bit recording mode, but only eight tracks can be played back simultaneously. It also has a mode called 'Multitrack Pro', which Roland describe as 24‑bit and which impressed SOS's reviewer. For more on data reduction, see Cutting it Fine: The Science Of Digital Audio Data Reduction, SOS August 1998.
  • YAMAHA AW4416: The AW's four 'Omni' outputs can be used as auxiliary sends, and its internal architecture is such that if four extra analogue outs are added (with a mini YGDAI card) they can also function as external aux sends, for a total of eight. However, if preferred, two can be used for the built‑in effects processors, with up to six for outboard. Mixer: Yamaha's publicity states that the AW4416's mixer is 28‑channel, with a maximum 44 channels if two mini YGDAI I/O cards are fitted. However, these figures include the two stereo returns from the internal effects, which we have not counted.

EFFECTS: a/p = auto pan; a/s = amp simulator; cho = chorus; com = compressor; del = delay; dist = distortion; dopp = doppler; dyn = dynamic; enh = enhancer; exc = exciter; exp = expander; filt = filter; fla = flange; g/eq = graphic eq; lim = limiter; m/b = multi‑band; o/d = overdrive; p/eq = parametric eq; pha = phaser; p/s = pitch shift; rev = reverb; r/m = ring modulation; rot = rotary speaker; RSS = Roland Sound Space (3D effect); trem = tremolo; voc = vocoder;

OTHER: ch = channel; mon = monitor; o/b = onboard. The effects lists in the guide are as complete as possible but should be regarded as at least what each machine is capable of.

  • VIRTUAL TRACKS: 'Real' playback tracks have not been counted as part of this total.

The greatest care has been taken in the compilation of this guide, using manufacturers' published product literature and details from SOS reviews. However, it is intended as a starting point from which you should pursue your own research and no responsibility is taken for errors or omissions.