Korg's new workstation heavyweight boasts 32 recording tracks, a powerful 44:12:2 mixer, a programmable drum machine, and up to 11 simultaneous effects — for under £1000!
Although the prodigious 32-track playback of Korg's new D3200 is enough to turn heads on its own, the company haven't rested on their laurels. They've also included a a 44-channel, 12-buss mixer, a respectable set of digital editing facilities, powerful multi-effects processing, a programmable drum machine, and MIDI control/synchronisation. The machine is no slouch on the hardware side either, with a decent array of I/O facilities and an intriguingly knobular user interface.
The 32 playback channels are assigned to 16 hardware faders in two banks which you can switch between at the press of a button. There's also a dedicated fader for the drum machine and the Master fader which controls the overall mix level. Each track, including the stereo Master track, has seven virtual tracks for storing alternative takes or ideas. Up to 100 songs can be stored on any single drive, although there's only really space for about 20 medium-length 32-track compositions on the 40GB drive provided. Still, there's no real need to pack the drive with songs when they can be backed up to CD-RW media using the onboard burner or filed away on a PC or Mac hard drive via the rear-panel USB connector.
The D3200 is capable of both 16-bit and 24-bit recording at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz sample rates, although recording at 24-bit resolution halves the track count whichever sample rate is selected. The manual states that up to 16 tracks can be recorded at once, but, given that there are only 12 analogue inputs, you'd need to be recording the S/PDIF digital input and the internal drum machine's outputs at the same time! I'm not quite sure why you'd want to record the drum machine, though, as it's easily synchronised and has a dedicated track of its own. In 24-bit mode simultaneous recording is reduced to 12.
For synchronisation purposes, the multitracker can send and receive MMC and MTC information, and can act as a MIDI Clock master. It will also respond to MIDI Continuous Controller, Program Change, and Note On/Off messages; so it is amply capable of talking to external effects modules and sequencers. The onboard automation system is able to record fader moves, panning, channel on/off commands, effect-send moves, and expression data. All automation is stored in an event list and can be edited in a number of ways. The mixer also offers snapshot-based automation, and there's another editable list showing where each snapshot happens.
The screen is arguably the most important single feature on a multitrack recorder, yet I've noticed that many of the products competing at the same level as the D3200 are a disappointment in this department. Could it be that the screen is the one component that pushes up production costs more than any other? Of the competing products, the Yamaha AW1600 has the best combination of screen size and display design, even though its resolution is low and it doesn't quite have the scope of its forebear, the AW2816.
The Zoom MRS1608 has a much cruder screen by comparison, but the designers have proved that a really basic display can be functional if it is logical enough, with large easy-to-read characters. The Boss BR1200CD's screen is a little more detailed than the Zoom's, but it still feels a little small for the job at hand. Korg's high-resolution display is by far the most sophisticated in its class, and much of the graphical interface seems to have been taken directly from the well-designed D32XD. Nevertheless, the whole thing is still compromised because of the screen's size and contrast.
I haven't had the chance to use Tascam's 2488 (priced the same as the D3200 in the UK), but I suspect that its relatively small backlit LED screen, measuring approximately 2.5 inches square, is also somewhat inadequate for the mixing and monitoring demands of a 24-track machine.
Most high-end digital multitrackers are designed with lots of output options, so that a commercial project can potentially be sent track-by-track into a larger desk for mixing. The more modestly priced products, such as the D3200, assume that the buyer will want to do everything in one box, so the emphasis is on getting multiple audio signals in, and completed stereo mixes out of the other end.
Bearing that in mind, it's no surprise that the input side of the D3200 is the most impressive. A row of XLR sockets allows as many as eight microphones to be connected at once, each XLR having its own 48V phantom-power switch and associated status LED. Individual phantom switching is rare on multitrackers in this price range, but it's a definite plus point, as it allows condenser and dynamic mics to be safely mixed in any combination, and removes any necessity for external preamps.
Each input channel has its own switchable 26dB pad and level Trim knob, complete with a Peak LED to indicate if signals are being clipped. In line with the XLRs are eight quarter-inch jack sockets that offer an alternative format for inputting audio — no combi jack/XLR sockets here! Next to these are four more jack inputs, taking the total number of analogue inputs that can be used simultaneously to 12. The only remaining analogue input is a high-impedance jack socket labelled Guitar In, designed to allow any bass or electric guitar to be connected directly without the use of an external amplifier. Helpfully, a copy of this signal is always being sent to the internal tuner, which pops up on screen instantly if the dedicated Tuner button is pressed, and can be calibrated to a reference of your choice.
The rear panel of the machine is where the digital connections are located. A pair of optical S/PDIF sockets and a USB connector make it possible to get digital signals in and out of the machine, therefore avoiding the A-D/D-A conversion process. Next to these are the MIDI In and Out sockets, and two footpedal inputs. Certain transport functions can be remotely controlled using a footswitch plugged into the first of the two pedal inputs, while the second exists so that expression pedals can be used to modulate filter effects such as wah-wah.
The remaining connectors form a collection of mostly unbalanced jack output sockets situated to the left of the screen, which deal mainly with monitoring requirements. The Master outputs are conceived as a direct feed for external stereo recorders and are designed to take balanced or unbalanced jacks. The neighbouring Monitor outputs are a little more flexible, having a level attenuator and a mute switch all to themselves. There's also an independent headphone output with its own level control. To the left of all these sockets is a pair of Aux outputs that one would typically use to route signals to external multi-effects processors.
Although the D3200 is a powerful piece of kit, Korg couldn't resist pulling a few tricks to enhance the product's appeal. A fine example of this are the wooden end cheeks, stained to look like mahogany in order to give the impression of a high-end product. They do have a pleasant tactile quality, but I suspect Korg didn't add them for comfort. The designers have also gone to the trouble of printing several collections of dots on the front panel, which from a distance look very much like the venting grilles commonly found on valve desks. Closer inspection reveals that they are just paint!
From certain perspectives the D3200 appears to be a cut-down version of the D32XD multitracker (reviewed in SOS December 2003). The former machine was more than twice the price in the UK, being aimed at the semi-pro market, but there are definite similarities in the software interface and hardware design. However, although the D3200 has fewer professional features, it introduces several innovative ideas Korg have not used on a digital studio before.
For a start, Korg have obviously had a rethink about how best to offer hands-on control of the various parameters that are displayed on screen. Instead of adding a row of three or four software-assignable parameter knobs along the side of the screen, as many competing products do, Korg have prominently placed a matrix of 16 knobs at the foot of the display. The advantage of having so many Knobs becomes clear pretty quickly. For example, when a channel EQ page is displayed the knobs offer control of all 12 parameters; when in the Pan page they provide instant adjustment of 16 channels at once; and when the Send button is pressed, they become assigned to the effect send level of each track. They're also used for adjusting effects parameters for whatever algorithm is being viewed, and for controlling the individual levels of each of the drum machine's sounds.
Korg's other main innovation is a new tool for navigating through screen menus and selecting the options buried within the software pages. They've still retained the page menu tabs at the foot of each window, but instead of positioning a corresponding row of function keys under the screen, selection is done using a joystick, which Korg have proudly trademarked ClickPoint. Just like a mouse, or a laptop's trackpad, ClickPoint controls the movement of an on-screen pointer, and when the stick is pressed like a button it activates whatever menu option is under the arrow at that moment. Those who have not used a laptop may find controlling the pointer a bit fiddly, particularly as the on-screen graphics are very small. However, there are still four cursor buttons surrounding the joystick providing a more conventional method of navigation across the page, as well as another two buttons labelled Tab Page, which take you back and fourth through the menus at the foot of the window.
This D3200 has a surprisingly well-featured mixer section which is only really let down by a lack of channel dynamics, a short travel on the faders (45mm), and the omission of channel delay. Having just two dedicated auxiliary outputs could also be an issue for those who like to use a lot of outboard effects.
With so many tracks to cope with, it's good to see that there are fader and mute grouping systems, without which controlling 32 channels with two hands would be a nightmare. Channels can be freely assigned to any one of four fader groups and four mute groups, making it possible, for instance, to attenuate an array of backing vocals or drums just by moving one fader. Inputs can be sent directly to recording channels or can be submixed to the output buss for mixing or monitoring purposes. This makes it possible to have 32 tracks of audio playing back from the recorder while a further 12 input sources are being added to the mix.
Each mixer channel can be viewed in two ways via the Ch View button. The first window that appears shows the status of all elements in the signal path: EQ, effect inserts, sends, phase reverse, panning, metering, and fader/mute grouping. The second window provides a very informative schematic, illustrating how everything is interconnected, and, as far as I can tell, all of this is exactly as it was on the D32XD.
The rest of the hardware mixer-related buttons all lead to a set of menus where particular mixer functions can be edited globally for all tracks and channels. These are labelled Send, EQ, Pan, and Effects, although there's also a Mixer button leading to the settings that are not adjusted quite so often — it is here, for example, where the onboard fader and pan automation is reached.
Although there are no channel dynamics, EQ is provided and offers four sweeping filter bands, each with ±15dB of gain and a Q control for all of the first 24 tracks. The bands are labelled Low, LowMid, HighMid, and High and all have a sweep range of 21Hz-20.1kHz, with Q values from 0.1 to 10. The Low and High bands also become shelving filters if the Q parameter is turned fully to the right. Monitoring the EQ can either be done directly through the EQ pages, or from within the Ch View screens, and in both cases Korg have used a graphical representation of the curve to show the results of any adjustments. Tracks 25-32 and those of the input submixer have only two EQ bands and no Q control.
Drums are not the easiest things to record, so it's no wonder then that the D3200 and other similar products include rhythm machines in their feature set. Korg's Session Drums drum machine has its own fader and mixer channel and, when activated, makes use of the four locate buttons for transport control and pattern triggering. A variety of kits are used to create patterns, and patterns can be chained together to form a complete arrangement using a dedicated Pattern Map sequencer.
Programming the drum machine is a simple matter of selecting the most appropriate pattern and then changing its feel using the knob matrix to alter Accent, Human, and Shuffle parameters. Each drum and percussion instrument is also assigned its own volume knob, so its relative balance is adjustable, but further tweaking of the tuning and panning can be achieved in another editing window. The drums even have a global two-band EQ and a routing page to determine where they are inserted into the mixer's signal path.
The only real drawback with the facility is that you are forced to use preset patterns and fills as the basis of a composition, because there is no editing of individual drum events, which is a pity. The manual seems to suggest using the drums as a guide for a real drum performance, or in addition to real drums. Korg tell me that they sell lots of multitrackers to guitarists, so perhaps the idea is for guitarists to record to a guide pattern and then call in the drummer later on. Nevertheless, seeing as so much can be adjusted to taste, surely a method of creating custom patterns would have been a worthy inclusion?
No multitracker's editing toolbox would be complete without erase, delete, insert, compress/expand, copy, optimise, and track-swapping options, and Korg have included all the above dutifully, but amongst the D3200's 12 editing tools are some valuable options that are not quite so commonly included. For a start there is a Reverse processor, enabling any section of audio to be selected for treatment. Many computer editors offer reversal as an option, and countless psychedelic records were made by playing sections of tape backwards, yet I only recall seeing this facility on Roland multitrackers before now, so it is great to see Korg are getting in on the act.
Fade in/out is also rarely seen amongst the digital editing tools of a hardware multitracker, which is a shame, because, although fades can be done using automation, affecting the audio at source is often a much neater way to work. Korg's Fade editor is good, in that it offers a variety of curve shapes to choose from.
Another unusual multitracker option is the Noise Reduction facility. This editor is clever enough to be able to analyse a specified area of recorded background noise, learn its characteristics, and then remove it from the rest of the track. Korg have even added something called Erase Punch Noise that homes in on plosive noises and reduces their impact.
One other feature worth a mention is the very nicely designed Waveform dialogue box. Most competing products do have waveform displays, but this one has a stereo button that selects the waveforms of two adjacent channels so that left- and right-channel recordings can be seen side by side. There's also a really useful Search Zero button, allowing you to find the nearest zero-crossing point, where an edit will tend to be least noticeable. It's certainly worth playing around with some of the tools, because there are 16 levels of undo/redo to fall back on if you make a mistake.
The D3200 is well equipped with effects, although you do have to plough through a menu or two before you can start adjusting the algorithms. The main Effect button takes you to a set of menus that relates to all aspects of effect assignment. By default, no effects are selected, so it's a case of deciding whether you want to create an Insert, Master, or Final effect patch, and then calling up the Select Effect Category page. Here there are two lists relating to mono and stereo algorithms, and these are subdivided into Reverb & Delay, Modulation & Pitch, Dynamics & Filter, SFX, and so on. An extra Multi option only appears in the mono list, and this contains the guitar effects chains.
The maximum number of algorithms that can be used simultaneously is 11, including eight Insert, two Master, and one Final effect. The two Master effects are basically on a send/return loop, and Korg expect these to be used for global reverbs and special treatments. The Final effects are for mastering and are inserted into the path of the stereo output buss. The remaining Insert algorithms can be used on the input signals while recording, or in the path of a mixer channel during playback. Thankfully, channel EQ hasn't been classed as an effect, but dynamics processors such as compressors, limiters, and gates all have to be sourced from the effects.
Having just eight insert effects for 32 channels doesn't seem a lot if you like to use a lot of compression, and yet there are further limitations to consider. For example, you only get eight when exclusively using what Korg call Size 1 effects. Most of the mono reverbs and delays are Size 1, but stereo reverbs and compressors are Size 2 and there's even a whopping Size 4 multi-band limiter.
The Multi guitar effect chain counts as all eight Insert effects, as it provides a chain of individual effect blocks that can be switched in and out of service as required. Of particular interest to guitarists will be the amplifier and cabinet models, each with controls for drive, volume, bass, middle, treble, presence, and a noise gate. Featured amps include the Vox AC15 and AC30, various unspecified tweed and boutique models, plus some blues, rock, and metal types. There are a similar variety of cabinets, including stacks, small combos and twins.
After an amp type is selected, a new window appears showing some graphical representations of the effects in the chain. Clicking on one calls its parameters to the window below where they can be immediately adjusted using the knob matrix. The configuration makes programming fast and easy, and the Store, Rename, and On/Off buttons elsewhere on the page bring all the relevant functions together neatly. Incidentally, Korg have used the same modelling algorithms on numerous other products, so there are no surprises, but it has to be said that they act as a pretty good replacement for the real thing in many recording situations. As there is a guitar DI input and a tuner, everything necessary for guitar recording is here other than the guitar itself.
Before you can back up any data, either to CD or via USB, the composition in question has to be saved to a part of the internal hard disk called the PC Drive. I found that for a 611MB song file I'd been working on, this process took about six minutes. Once a task is complete everything becomes very easy indeed. Getting the multitracker connected to my computer was an almost instantaneous process, and from there it was merely a matter of opening the project file with my PC and copying it across. This time the 611MB file took only something like 20 seconds to copy over, which is very fast. To save the same file to a CD-R the D3200 has to first generate a disc image file, after which the machine automatically begins burning the backup CD-R.
Overall, the D3200 is quite easy to operate, and is certainly one of the most user-friendly products currently on the market. Potentially complicated processes like building a drum-machine performance prove to be relatively easy when compared to the methods used by some of the competition. It's also pretty easy to automate drop-ins, add marker points, and operate mixer features such as track solo.
On a more general level, the machine works very quickly, showing no obvious processing delays in any of its operational modes. It starts up rapidly and shuts down even faster, saving the current setup as it goes. The recorder does have a tendency to make a high-frequency whine when it's first switched on, although it soon settles down and generally the recorder is very quiet. It seems that the days when noise was a serious problem in multitracker design are long gone.
As far as the sound is concerned, the recording quality is very good. The dynamics processors are effective and usefully programmed, and the effects sound reasonable. You'd probably want to use a dedicated reverb if you had a TC Electronic or Lexicon processor to hand, but the onboard algorithms are enough to be getting on with.
Although the machine does have a lot of on-screen controls, Korg have got the balance between software and hardware control about right. There are hardware buttons to take you to all the main operation pages, and once you're there the relevant software options are gathered together logically. The software itself, coupled with the implementation of ClickPoint, really makes you feel like you're working in a Windows OS environment — it has that kind of menu-driven look and design. Korg's knob matrix is also success, and a great idea.
In fact the only operational problem is the tiny screen, measuring just a couple of inches across, which severely compromises the usability of features like the matrix. Granted, the resolution is very high, so the graphical elements are clear, but they're still tiny! The size problem is most apparent when the channel and metering pages are selected — there just isn't space for all the information to be included at a sensible size. Having a five-position tilting screen is a nice touch, but that too is undermined by the screen's contrast, which is not great no matter how it is adjusted. Even at an extreme setting the blacks look grey, making it harder to detect what parameter is highlighted for adjustment.
The D3200 is a pretty impressive product, albeit with a few significant flaws which threaten to undermine the rest of the designers' good work. Korg might have got away with the small screen if it was on a much simpler machine, but for a 44-channel mixer it is way too small, and no matter how you adjust the contrast knob it never seems to have enough definition. The Irony is that the software itself has been carefully designed to be as user-friendly as possible — as demonstrated by the extensive use of pictures to illustrate many of the functions. I'm sure it all looked great on the software developers' computer monitors, and must have suited the D32XD (for which it was originally intended), but here eye strain is a definite possibility! Incorporating a larger screen, or a socket for connecting a monitor, might have added to the cost, but it would have made a dramatic difference.
It would have been nice to have had dynamics on every channel, as on Yamaha's AW machines, particularly as that would have freed up the effects processors for other things. It's also a real shame that the compressors and gates don't have a side-chain key option — professional engineers use triggering all the time, so this is a missed opportunity to widen the product's potential.
The short-throw faders are another negative aspect of the machine — they make small adjustments difficult, especially if something needs to move by nothing more than one decibel. It is possible to change level in tenths of a decibel on screen by turning the data wheel, but grabbing a fader is more intuitive. The halved track count in 24-bit mode, the restricted EQ on some mixer channels, and the lack of a pattern editor in the drum machine must also count against this unit.
The D3200 does score highly in other areas though. The USB and CD-RW facilities are very well integrated into the operating software, the editing options and the array of signal inputs are impressive, and there seems to be a hardware button or software page for everything you want. ClickPoint is a nice alternative to the touchscreens Korg have tended to use in the past, and the knob matrix works effectively for controlling a whole range of different parameters. I can't think of another multitracker with anything quite as good.
There's no denying that a lot of effort has gone into the design of this product, but I feel that a few too many cuts were made to break the £1000 barrier in the UK. Having 32 tracks is a big selling point, but I would have settled for a 24-track machine with a bigger screen, longer faders, and more dynamics processors. Nevertheless, if you have good eyesight, you should still be able to get some great results with this machine.