If you fancy Tascam's FW series of Firewire interfaces, but don't need their control-surface features, the new FW1804 might be just what you're after.
Firewire seems to be the interface protocol of choice for large numbers of musicians on Mac OS and Windows, and the pages of SOS have featured a growing number of such devices over the last two of years. Tascam have featured a couple of times in this regard. The FW1884, a well specified unit combining a control surface, comprehensive analogue and digital audio interfacing and four sets of MIDI I/O, was favourably reviewed by Paul White back in the November 2003 issue. More recently, the FW1082 was reviewed in May 2005. This unit, which also combines a control surface with audio and MIDI interfacing, could be seen as the FW1884's more affordable baby brother, with four rather than eight mic preamps, two analogue outputs to the 1884's eight, and just two MIDI In and Out ports.
Tascam's latest offering is the FW1804, and if it is possible for a baby brother to have a baby brother, then this is it. With a list price under £500 (and being advertised at considerably less than that by some of the major retailers), it features a very similar input and output specification to the FW1082 but without the control surface; instead, it's housed in a 2U rack format. The relationship between the FW1082 and FW1804 is, therefore, not dissimilar to that between Digidesign's 002 and 002 Rack.
The front panel of the FW1804 is almost minimalist in comparison with some other audio and MIDI interfaces. The left-front is dominated by eight Trim controls for setting the input levels for the eight analogue inputs. Underneath each Trim control are two LEDs labelled Signal and OL, indicating the presence of a signal at each input and whether the input is being overloaded — useful, but in terms of front-panel level monitoring, that's your lot. A global switch for the phantom power for inputs 1 to 4 is located between and beneath the Trim controls for inputs 2 and 3. Beneath Trim 8 is a quarter-inch unbalanced jack which can be toggled between Line and Guitar levels: given that all the other inputs are on the back panel, this is useful if you just need to hook up a guitar, synth or microphone quickly.
Aside from the power switch, the right-hand side of the front panel contains various LED indicators to show Firewire, Clock, Digital In, ADAT and MIDI activity, all of which are useful for seeing quickly that signals are going in and out of the FW1804 correctly. A headphone output with its own level control is also present. The Monitor control sets the level of the signal going to the stereo out, while the three large buttons labelled Computer, Inputs and Both dictate which signal is routed to the stereo outputs — just the audio from the host computer, just the audio received at the inputs or both.
The rear panel is somewhat busier. Inputs 1 to 4 have balanced XLR-TRS combo jacks. Very usefully, these inputs also feature separate Insert jacks so that external processors such as compressors can be patched into the signal chain if required. Inputs 5 to 8 are provided on balanced quarter-inch TRS jacks, as are the Stereo Out jacks. Two physical MIDI In and four MIDI Out connectors are provided and a quarter-inch jack can be used to attach a footswitch, the function of which can be assigned through software. The rest of the rear panel is all about digital, with word clock, ADAT optical and coaxial S/PDIF connections. There are two Firewire ports, although the manual advises against daisy-chaining the FW1804 with other Firewire devices.
Aside from a printed Setup Guide and Owner's Manual — both very concise — and the necessary power adaptor and two-metre Firewire cable, the only other contents of the box are three CDs. The first of these is the ubiquitous driver installation disc, while the other two contain bundled versions of Cubase LE (for both Mac and PC) and Gigastudio LE (PC only). The latter two are described more fully in the 'Bundle Of Fun' box, while the former provided a very painless installation of the unit when hooked up to my test PC.
Tascam supply a very useful bundle of software with the FW1804, particularly for PC users. For both Mac and PC, Steinberg's Cubase LE (v.1.07 in the review package) provides up to 48 audio tracks with 96kHz support for those who want it, 64 MIDI tracks, VST, VSTi and Rewire support and a good subset of the editing facilities found in SL or SX. There is also an upgrade path to the full version of Cubase SX.
Tascam's own Gigastudio 3 LE is also included for PC users. Some regard the full version of Gigastudio as the best software sampling instrument currently available and it certainly has some of the best sample libraries. The LE version offers 64-voice polyphony, 16-channel multitimbral MIDI, Rewire and VST plug-in support. It is compatible with all Gigastudio sample libraries.
Given that much of the I/O hardware on offer is identical to that found in the FW1082, I expected both the audio and driver performance of the FW1804 to match the positive findings of Paul Sellars in his May 2005 review of that unit. Some basic listening tests using a range of commercial recordings in various styles — including orchestral, solo classical guitar, pop, hip-hop and rock — produced consistently good results. Playback was always clear, with no obvious noise, and the sound both detailed and focused.
In testing with Acid Pro 5, Sound Forge 7, Wavelab 5 and Cubase SX v3.1, the audio drivers performed flawlessly. The front-panel Computer, Input and Both switches enable input monitoring to be done directly or via your DAW. Easy access to direct monitoring will be appreciated by many, although latency is not really an issue given the performance of the drivers. Even with a fairly busy mix, I was able to get down to 4ms latency value in SX without any noticeable glitches in performance.
Recording tests in SX also suggested that the quality of the mic preamps is very good, while the line inputs and the switchable line/guitar input located on the front panel all provided very clean recordings. As long as due care is paid to other elements of the signal path, the FW1804 is capable of very good results and, in the context of a home or project studio environment, I'd have no qualms in using it for recording material aimed at commercial or broadcast applications. Although I didn't get to test the ADAT connectivity, I had no problems with the MIDI I/O or the S/PDIF I/O — both worked exactly as would be expected.
For potential purchasers weighing up the FW1804 alongside the various other Firewire audio and MIDI interfaces available, two features are worth emphasising. First, the front-panel monitoring of the audio input levels provided by the Signal and OL LEDs for each input can, at best, be described as 'basic' — it does the job without fuss, but if you need more precise information on input levels, this will have to be achieved through your software. Second, unless you can make use of the digital connectivity, the FW1804 is only stereo-out. Obviously, if you envisage needing multiple analogue outs to feed a surround monitoring system or integrate external effects units, then this particular Tascam unit is not going to be for you.
Tascam's FW1804 is solidly built, very easy to use, offers reliable drivers and provides audio performance that will be more than a match for most of the other equipment in the average home and project studio, all in a neat 2U rack unit. With the addition of the software supplied, it also provides a complete hardware/software recording package — although PC users get a slightly better deal here given the inclusion of Gigastudio LE to go with Cubase LE.
The market for Firewire audio and MIDI interfaces is getting crowded, with products at a range of different prices. Digidesign, RME, Echo and Yamaha all have excellent units at or above the price of the FW1804, while for those on a tighter budget, Edirol, M Audio and Focusrite (with their new Saffire) all provide stiff competition. While these units may vary in their absolute audio quality, they also offer different audio and MIDI input/output options, so it's a question of whether the combination adopted by Tascam in the FW1804 fits your needs. The unit itself performs to a high standard and is very straightforward to use.
- PC: Windows XP or 2000; six-pin Firewire port.
- Mac: G4 or G3 with OS 9.2 or above or OS 10.2.8 or above, Firewire port.
- Very good audio quality.
- Good driver performance.
- Easy to use.
- Only basic input level monitoring on front panel.
Tascam's latest offering is very easy to use, the software drivers seem solid and it provides high-quality audio performance. It might not be the coolest-looking piece of hardware in your rack, but if the feature-set fits your particular combination of I/O needs, the FW1804 is worthy of serious consideration.
£479 including VAT.
Tascam +44 (0)1923 438880.
+44 (0)1923 236290.