The first of Roland's eagerly awaited digital mixers, the VM3100 is an obvious spin‑off from the mixer section of Roland's VS1680 digital multitracker. But it still packs a lot of functionality into a tiny space — and the basic version is the cheapest digital mixer yet!
As digital signal processing chips have become cheaper and ever more powerful, digital mixers have become increasingly commonplace at the budget end of the market. Indeed, it is probably now more cost‑effective to buy a digital mixer, complete with its snapshot facilities and built‑in effects processors, than it would be to buy a similarly equipped analogue mixer and a small rack of outboard gear.
Value for money is one thing, though, and usability is another. I would suggest that anyone with some recording experience could quickly find their way around an unfamiliar analogue mixer, and probably master a rack of effects processors in a pretty short time too. However, as anyone who has tried to use a digital desk will know, you need a set of well‑honed crampons to scale the near‑vertical learning curve. Sometimes, even simple operations like switching auxiliary sends to pre‑fader seem to require the kind of warped mind of which Professor Moriarty would be proud.
Another serious issue is the number and flexibility of available inputs. Digital desks tend to be relatively poorly equipped with analogue inputs, bulking out their interconnectivity with modular digital multitrack interfaces. Insert points also tend to be a rare sight too, which makes it difficult to integrate those favourite analogue processors. In fact, replacing a trusty old analogue mixer with a nice, modern, shiny, digital affair is rarely straightforward, and often requires a radical rethink of working practices.
Nevertheless, for the Nintendo generation who actually enjoy peering at small yellow LCD screens and frantically stabbing tiny buttons, or for those of us who recognise the undeniable benefits of snapshot and even dynamic automation, digital consoles have to be the way to go. The arguments over digital sound quality will continue to rage, but if a digital desk is designed and used properly, with due consideration given to headroom, clocking and dithering, it is almost certainly the noise of the internal mic amps that will be dictating the overall quality anyway, not the digital processing! Whatever else happens in the future, commercial digital recordings at 16 bits and 44.1kHz are going to remain an international standard format for quite a while yet, and with the availability of cheap recordable CDs, it makes sense to embrace digital processing in mixers, to go along with that in recording systems and outboard gear.
Roland's VM3100 follows in the footsteps of Tascam's diminutive TMD1000 — the first of the budget digital mixers — but the VM3100's technology, and many of its ergonomic characteristics, have been derived from the mixing section of the popular VS1680 Digital Studio Workstation. To help Roland find an edge over Tascam, this attractive new console is currently available in two versions: the VM3100 which, at two hundred quid less than the Tascam, is the cheapest digital mixer yet; and the VM3100 Pro which is priced to match the TMD1000.
The two versions seem identical at first glance, and are certainly compact, being only 300 x 343 x 95mm in size, and weighing just 3.6kg. Their control surfaces look very neat and well‑organised but their miniaturised appearance belies their capabilities — there is a great deal of flexibility of signal routing and processing hidden just under the surface. The standard VM3100 mixer provides 12 analogue inputs plus a pair of stereo consumer digital I/Os, and a single internal effects processor. The Pro version extends this complement with eight further channels of digital I/O (albeit in Roland's own RMDB II format) and also includes a second internal effects processor offering a much wider range of processes, together with double the number of effects presets and 100 user patches. It is the Pro version of the VM3100 which is the subject of this review.
Whilst the Roland VM3100 Pro is directly comparable to the Tascam TMD1000 (reviewed in SOS November 1998) in terms of channels, effects processors and general facilities, it embodies a totally different set of compromises in its specification — two balanced mic inputs instead of four, for example, but two digital inputs instead of the Tascam's one. These minor differences are likely to be the issues which steer potential purchasers in the direction of one mixer or the other, depending on their specific requirements, as the two mixers are very similarly equipped in all other respects.
It is the pluggery of a console which gives the biggest clue as to how well it will integrate into a system, so I'll describe this aspect of the VM3100 Pro first. All of the analogue inputs are mounted on the top panel of the mixer towards the left‑hand side, making re‑patching very easy and obvious. Of the 12 analogue inputs, two are balanced, with both XLRs and jack sockets, and provide a gain range which spans ‑50 to +4dBu. Phantom power is switchable from a menu page on the screen, but is applied to both sockets together. There are six further unbalanced jack inputs providing the same gain range, and input four also boasts an extra high‑impedance socket specifically to accommodate electric guitars. This collection of eight 'instrument' inputs all feature rotary gain controls immediately below the relevant connector on the front panel. The remaining four analogue inputs are provided with pairs of standard red and white phono sockets and accept a fixed 0dBu line level signal, intended for replay sources such as cassette or CD players.
The analogue outputs consist of a pair of unbalanced jacks for the two auxiliary outputs (which make use of internal busses 1&2, and so can also output these), a pair of phono connectors (from busses 3&4), another pair of unbalanced jacks for the master stereo mix buss output, and a stereo headphone jack socket for monitoring. The master output sockets can also be switched to follow the monitoring signal to provide a loudspeaker feed if required. In fact, the signal‑routing capabilities within the mixer are very comprehensive, and most signals can be routed to most places — which makes this an extremely flexible little machine!
The back panel of the console houses the digital I/Os and assorted other interfaces which would tend to be plugged and left alone. A pair of DIN sockets provide MIDI In and Out/Thru connections (see the 'MIDI' box), and a jack socket caters for a footswitch (its function is programmable, but it is normally used to step through the snapshot memories). Next are a pair of orange phono connectors providing the first of two S/PDIF digital I/Os, the output side of which can also access mix busses 5&6 in the digital format. A pair of TOSlink optical connectors provide the second domestic digital I/O, and access to mix busses 7&8. Both digital outputs are available at the same time and can be configured to output different signals.
The VM3100 Pro also includes a 25‑way D‑Sub connector furnishing eight channels of digital I/O via Roland's RMDB II interface. This is a bespoke format, but an optional converter box, the DIF‑AT, translates between this Roland in‑house configuration and either ADAT or TDIF, allowing a modular digital multitrack machine or computer workstation using either of these formats to interface directly with the mixer (unfortunately, the converter box is not yet available, so I wasn't able to test it for this review). An internal routing matrix permits the RMDB connector to output any of the eight busses, stereo mix buss, or post‑fade channel direct outputs, so working with a multitrack should present no problems.
The only remaining facilities on the rear panel are a power switch and an IEC mains inlet. The internal power supply accepts mains voltages between 117 and 240V, and consumes 15 Watts (12W in the case of the basic model).
The operational controls on the VM3100 are sensibly organised, given the relatively compact nature of the machine. Across the front of the mixer are 11 short‑throw faders, which have a distinctly firm feel tthem. The first eight cater for the main mono analogue inputs, with the next two being stereo faders for inputs 9&10 and 11&12. The digital inputs can be routed to any pair of channel faders, but use 11&12 by default. The last fader has a red cap and acts as the master output fader. Channels can be stereo‑linked if desired, and equaliser settings can be copied from one channel to another.
The first eight faders operate in one of four fader banks as selected via a couple of illuminated buttons to the left of the fader block. These assign control of either the eight mono analogue inputs (channels 1‑8), the extra eight RMDB channels (13‑20), or 16 MIDI channels (1‑8 and 9‑16). The MIDI mode sends the fader position as Continuous Controller 7 (Volume) data on each respective MIDI channel. Colour coding of these Fader Assign buttons is such that red denotes audio channel 1‑8 and MIDI channels 1‑8, whilst green indicates channels 13‑20 for the RMDB, or MIDI channels 9‑16.
Fader banking is a good way of packing a lot of facilities into a small space, but unless motorised faders are employed (so that faders physically jump to the new positions of recalled channels) there is inevitably going to be some confusion involved! The VM3100's faders are not motorised, so to make the system as friendly as possible, Roland have provided a menu page to display the stored fader positions alongside their physical placements. The user can also choose how the system reacts when a fader is moved: the 'Null' mode waits for the physical fader position to match that stored in the mixer before allowing the level changes — thus avoiding unwanted jumps in volume. The alternative 'Jump' mode causes the level to change to a physical fader's position as soon as it is moved, potentially with a step change in volume. The same two options are available for the equaliser and other processor controls.
...the signal‑routing capabilities within the mixer are very comprehensive, and most signals can be routed to most places — which makes this an extremely flexible little machine!.
Like most digital mixers, the VM3100 employs assignability to keep the number of operational controls (and therefore cost) to a minimum. Thus equalisation, aux sends, dynamics and routing facilities are all centrally controlled, being allocated to each channel by pressing an illuminated 'Select' button above each fader. These buttons also double as the channel Mute and Solo keys if the dedicated mute or solo mode buttons are pressed first (above the two Fader Assign keys to the left of the faders). When any channel is muted or soloed, the master Mute or Solo buttons flash to warn the user and, although it sometimes feels as if a lot of button‑pushing is necessary to achieve anything, the process is quite logical. Software options allow the solo system to monitor a channel signal pre‑equaliser, post‑EQ (pre‑fade), post‑fade (AFL), or 'in‑place' (post‑pan).
Moving up to the top of the front panel, the small backlit LCD screen provides a wealth of information about the console settings, many of which can be altered with the four soft keys and soft knobs immediately below the screen, or by using the cursor buttons, data wheel, and yes/no buttons to the right of it. The top line of the display always shows the currently assigned (selected) channel number, the current snapshot (or locator) memory bank and scene number, the status of phantom power, whether the two internal effects processors are turned on or off, and a time display in either measures and beats or MIDI timecode.
A button to the left of the display (Level Meter), is the one to press when everything has gone horribly pear‑shaped, or you are lost in the menus. This resets the display to its default condition of a set of bar‑graph meters, one for each of the 12 analogue inputs or the eight RMDB inputs, according to the selected fader bank. These meters are inherently very small and can provide only a general idea of signal levels rather than any precise information, but they do have a software‑switchable peak hold facility which helps a lot, and can be switched to show levels pre‑ or post‑fader.
When in the meter mode, the four soft keys under the display access related screens: a set of output meters, for example (effects, monitors and stereo mix buss on one page; auxes, buss and digital outputs on the next; and the eight RMDB outputs on the last page). The second soft button recalls a channel overview page showing the stored fader, pan, effects, aux and equaliser control positionsplus routing settings and a channel bar‑graph meter. The third and fourth soft buttons show channel and output fader placements respectively, with stored and physical positions clearly marked to help with nulling.
To the right of the display, a column of three equaliser knobs are labelled simply High, Mid and Low. However the equaliser is rather more flexible than it might appear, and turning any of the knobs automatically recalls the equaliser menu page which shows values for the gain of each band, its turnover or centre frequency, and the Q of the mid section. The top and bottom bands are shelving types with variable turnover frequencies, whilst the mid section has variable centre frequency and variable Q ranging from a broad 0.5 to a narrow 8 — more than enough to sort out most problems. These parameters are selected and adjusted with the cursor keys and data wheel but glitches (zipper noise) can sometimes be heard as changes are made. Favourite equaliser settings can be stored and a load of preset starting points are also available.
Between the equaliser controls and the screen are three more buttons which provide direct access to facilities such as Pan, Effects and Aux sends, and bus Assigns. These recall menus showing relevant settings for four channels at a time, with further sub‑pages to show the other channels. The cursor keys select adjacent channels in order, but a complete page can be skipped if the cursor key is pressed in conjunction with the Shift key (more on this in a moment). A fourth button in this section allows the user to set up personal preferences for the console such as screen contrast, master word‑clock source, phantom power, and sundry other options. This also provides access to the global MIDI settings, bulk data dumps and reinitialisation of the console.
However, for the first couple of days I was frustrated with the VM3100 because I could find no way of storing my preferences — the machine always rebooted to a factory standard. Eventually I discovered the secret in the errata notes with the manual: you have to press the Level Meter button after changing the preferences in order to store your new settings. Hmmm.... logical and intuitive, I don't think!
The number of buttons required on the control surface has been reduced by relegating many of the lesser‑used operations to shifted functions which are accessed by first pressing a 'Shift' key to the right of the master fader. Even this simple facility has a number of software options to determine various ways in which the Shift button can be made to latch. I won't mention all the shifted functions but, for example, employing the shift key with the Level Meter button provides a much larger time display, and shifting the Effects buttons accesses the compressors.
To the right of the equaliser controls is the monitoring section. A knob sets the volume through the headphones (and potentially the master outputs, if selected to follow the monitor signal). Two buttons provide monitoring of either the mixer itself (Source) or a pre‑selected digital input. Only one of the two digital inputs can be used at a time, and then only when the mixer is slaved to the input signal's word clock (which gives rise to a problem I'll come to towards the end of this review). A further limitation ithat only sources with a sample rate of 44.1kHz can be accommodated — the mixer will not operate at any other rate at all.