Paul White checks out Tascam's latest contender for the 8‑bus crown and believes that, despite fierce competition, it's in with a fighting chance.
Tascam have been building very fine mixing consoles for a long time, but they've never really focused their attention on the project studio area before, other than at the higher level with their M‑3500 (manual) and M‑3700 (automated) desks. The recently launched 2600 series changes all that: it's a strictly manual‑drive console priced to compete with the likes of the Mackie 8‑bus; its claim to fame seems to be that it gives you lots of everything you might want but with the absolute minimum of complexity and without unnecessary frills. On top of that the styling is good, the sound quality is excellent, the line inputs have enough gain to cope with even the weediest synth, and the external rackmount power supply is the size of a small sub‑station! There's no noisy fan to contend with, and the heat sinks look large enough to keep it running cool in far more tropical climes than we enjoy here in the UK.
As you can probably surmise from the photograph, the 2600 is an 8‑bus console with in‑line monitoring, loads of auxiliary sends, and an extremely streamlined master section. It incorporates the usual tape‑out system where each channel has its own tape output socket, fed either from the appropriate Group bus or directly from the channel. To minimise patching, Group 1 feeds tape outs 1, 9, 17, and so on. As on larger in‑line desks, the 4‑band EQ may be split allowing it to be shared between the main and monitor channels.
In order to accommodate capacitor microphones and active DI boxes, 48V phantom powering is provided, but to save on cost, this isn't individually switchable; instead, it is switched in blocks of eight channels. Dynamic mics wired for balanced operation should be untroubled by phantom power, but as the manual rightly points out, unbalanced mics, turntables, preamps, CD players and such like should never be connected to mic inputs that have their phantom power switched on, as circuit damage could result.
Constructionally, the M‑2600 is strictly speaking non‑modular, though each block of eight channels is mounted on a separate panel to simplify the manufacture of the three available versions: 16‑channel, 24‑channel and 36‑channel. In order to satiate the desire for ever more line inputs at mixdown, there are six stereo returns which can be used alongside the monitor inputs and channel inputs to handle either effects or other line level sources. Acknowledging the fact that most users own a mastering machine plus a cassette deck, the M‑2600 has provision to connect a 2‑track machine plus one other stereo external device. The 2‑track outputs are on balanced XLRs at a nominal +4dBu level, so Tascam obviously envisage pros using this desk, but the outputs are also doubled up on phonos at a lower level for the benefit of the rest of us. Similarly, the external inputs are on phonos, as indeed are all the multitrack inputs and outputs. This may initially seem a trifle non‑professional, until you glance at the back of nearly all the budget multitrack recorders, which are invariably bristling with phonos too.
Cosmetically, the M‑2600 is a fine example of how clearly a mixing desk can be set out when the designers really try. Although the armrest isn't padded at all, it does have a moulded slot for your pencils and biros to stop them rolling into the drummer's lager. Considering its Japanese origins, the M‑2600 feels like a very European, or even British, type of desk, and it may be that the Japanese designers are paying rather more attention to the comments and suggestions of their European distributors than perhaps they have done in the past.
Time now for the tourist trip around the controls, so for those who'd rather stay behind and write postcards, I'll see you at the bar later.
Both the mic and line signals share a common Trim control, with line operation selected by means of the Line button in the usual manner. Pad places a 20dB attenuator in series with the mic input, which is not only useful when miking extremely noisy things at short range, but also when feeding high output active DI boxes into the mic inputs. There's no LF roll‑off button and no phase reverse button, and though I can think of good reasons for having both, I must concede that few people seem to use either of them.
Being an in‑line desk, the ubiquitous Flip switch puts in an appearance, its function in life being to swap over the inputs to the Channel and Monitor allowing the console to be switched from record to mix mode without repatching. When mixing, the otherwise redundant Monitor inputs may be used to bring further line level signals into the mix, and for most project studio owners, this means sequenced MIDI instruments or effects returns.
Tascam have taken a quite different approach on the M‑2600, providing eight aux buses which are permanently addressed by two stereo sends and four mono sends.
The M‑2600 employs a 4‑band equaliser with two wide‑range, swept Mids. The High and Low shelving controls, operating at 12kHz and 80Hz, are set out as a pair above the two Mids, so that when the EQ is split the control layout remains logical. The swept Mids offer a cut/boost range of +/‑16dB, and their sweep ranges are 400Hz to 16kHz and 40Hz to 1.6kHz, which is more than adequate for them to function as full‑range equalisers when used on their own. Both the High/Low equaliser section and the swept Mids are fitted with Monitor buttons, enabling either or both to be switched into the Monitor signal path. The EQ In switch (when set to its 'out' position) bypasses the main channel signal path only; in conjunction with the 'EQ to Monitor' buttons, this provides every possible permutation of Main/Monitor EQ in or out.
A common way to arrange the effects send system on a budget desk is to provide more aux buses than send controls, and then use some kind of switching system to move the sends from one bus to another. Tascam have taken a quite different approach on the M‑2600, providing eight aux buses which are permanently addressed by two stereo sends and four mono sends.
Sends 1 and 2 are arranged as a stereo pair, with Level and Pan controls, fed from the Channel signal. Sends 3 and 4 are similarly set out but this time they are fed from the Monitor path. Normally, both sets of stereo sends are pre‑fade, enabling the user to set up stereo cue mixes from either the channel signals or the multitrack outputs, but a single Post button switches both stereo sends to post‑fade operation for use as stereo effects sends. As cue is only needed while recording, and given that you can never have too many effects sends while mixing, this would seem like a very good arrangement.
The remaining four sends are dedicated post‑fade effects sends, Aux 5 and 6 being permanently fed from the Channel signal path. Sends 7 and 8 are switchable, so that they can be fed either from the Channel or Monitor signal. Because so much is switchable between the Channel and Monitor path on the M‑2600, the Monitor section itself offers only Level and Pan controls plus an overload LED and Mute switch. The overload indicator only flashes when the signal exceeds 25dB above the nominal operating level, so there's no lack of headroom, and the Mute button has an amber status LED to signify that the signal is muted.
Moving down a little, we're back to the Channel controls, which also include an overload LED, Mute switch and Pan pot. The Direct switch sources that channel's tape output from the channel signal rather than from the corresponding Group, and a Solo button allows individual channels to be monitored in isolation via the control room monitors or headphones without affecting the mix going to tape.
The level fader and routing buttons are absolutely conventional, with the Pan pot being used to move the signal between odd‑ and even‑numbered Group pairs. In addition to the Mic and Line inputs, and the multitrack ins and outs, each channel strip has one Channel path insert point, and each block of eight channels has one miniature slide switch which activates the phantom power. A warning LED at the top of each channel strip shows when the phantom power is on.
This section is located below the eight Group meters and the main Left/Right meters (set for true PPM operation with 0VU around mid scale); these are set up to be directly compatible with Tascam's own DA88 digital 8‑track along with other manufacturer's digital recorders, even down to the overload LEDs. When you finally get down to the controls, you'll find the layout is clear and most are self‑explanatory, apart from the Aux Send section. All six sends (two stereo, four mono) have their own Level control, but the two stereo sends also have a Split button. When Split is down they work normally, but when Split is up, Aux 1/2 and 3/4 are combined to form a single stereo cue mix which can be accessed both by the Cue and Monitor signal paths. Similarly, when these sends are switched to post‑fade operation for use as effects sends, they may still be linked, thus enabling one stereo effects unit to be fed from both main Channel and Monitor signal paths. A L‑R Cue button enables the main stereo mix to be added into the cue system via Sends 1 and 2, which is a useful way to feed the performers a quick monitor mix based on what's already set up on the studio monitors.
Sends 5 and 6 each have a Link button to enable them to be added to Sends 7 and 8 respectively, in order to allow the same effects unit to be used on both Channel and Monitor signal paths, and all four mono sends have Solo buttons with Status LEDs. Directly below are the six Stereo Effects Returns. These each have Level and Balance controls as well as full routing to all eight Group buses and stereo Left/Right and Cue buses. Again, all have useful Solo buttons.
Having dispensed with the sends and returns, there's only a handful of controls left in the Master section, none of which should hold any mystery for those who have used a multitrack console before. The master Solo level control is accompanied by a large Solo status LED, while directly beneath is the Control Room Level control and bank of monitor source switching buttons. In addition to the main stereo mix, the control room signal may come from Aux 1/2, Aux 3/4, 2‑Track, or External, with a choice of Mono or Stereo monitoring. An integral Talkback mic can be used to 'slate' the tape — in other words, talk to all Group outputs plus the main stereo output for putting comments onto tape. It can talk to all the Aux buses simultaneously, or it can be directed to the Studio output via the TB button. All three buttons are non‑latching, as they should be.
The Studio feed has its own level control and a separate switch allows the Studio output to be switched off when not required. Normally the Studio output is fed the same signal as the control room, but even when Studio is switched off, the talkback can still address the Studio outputs. Separate headphone sockets and level controls are provided for the Cue and Control Room signals, with the Cue jack monitoring stereo send 1 and 2.
Insert points are provided for all Group outputs as well as the main stereo output and long‑throw faders are employed for all Channel, Group and Stereo Master level controls. A 'Group to LR' button is used to route each pair of Group faders to the stereo mix bus, and each Group fader has its own Mute and Solo button. The Stereo Master level control uses a single stereo fader, which makes matched fades easier to create, but it does prevent you from tweaking the left‑right balance.
With such a conventional layout, there's no problem in finding your way around the M‑2600, which means that you can get on with the business of mixing with minimal reference to the owner's manual. Like most of the better mid‑priced consoles, the M‑2600 is sonically very clean, and the mic amp noise comes within a scant few dBs of technical perfection. There's plenty of signal headroom (courtesy of the unusually high 19.5V power rails, giving a clipping level of +23dBu), always the sign of a well‑conceived design, and the EQ has a positive yet warm sound to it — something I've always rather liked about Tascam consoles.
During recording and mixing, either section of the splittable EQ can be moved into the Channel or Monitor signal path. While this isn't as flexible as having full EQ on both signal paths at all times, it's a workable compromise and one that most in‑line console users have to live with. The auxiliary send arrangement is both generously appointed and well thought out in terms of linking between Monitor and Channel sends, while the inclusion of six fully routable stereo returns is a real bonus for those desperate for a lot of inputs in a little space.
On a top class professional console build quality is something that can almost be taken for granted, but that's not always true at the more affordable end of the market. However, the M‑2600 is beautifully engineered, the pots are firmly mounted, and all the controls have a uniform, consistent feel to them. While styling is always a matter of personal taste, I liked the mid‑grey theme and the use of more subtle colours on the control knob caps. The legending is clear without being garish, and the knobs themselves have both marker lines on the caps and arrowheads on the skirts. The armrest and end‑cheeks are plastic mouldings, but aside from their aesthetically pleasing shape, they also have an interesting tactile quality, almost like hard rubber. Whatever the material is, it seems very resistant to marking or scuffing.
The M‑2600 breaks very little new ground in the way of mixing concepts, but rather takes the approach of combining familiar features in a familiar format, with the minimum of complexity. There are some innovative features, such as the Aux linking system, but what the M‑2600 really offers is versatility combined with ease of use, lots of sends and lots of inputs. The Master section must be one of the simplest around, and though it doesn't include a test oscillator, I can't think of much else it doesn't do. The other aspect I liked is that both the EQ and Aux sections are strong, whereas some manufacturers tend to compromise one or the other on their lower cost models.
There's very little to criticise about the M‑2600, though I personally would have liked to see a Phase switch included. All in all, it's an immensely practical desk, it sounds great, and it looks good when you're working at it. Because the 8‑bus mixer market is more crowded than Madonna's dressing room after a gig, the M‑2600 may not have an easy ride. But having used it, I feel it has a lot going for it.
- Clear control layout.
- Warm‑sounding, splittable EQ section.
- Loads of useful aux sends.
- 6 stereo returns.
- Excellent build quality.
- No phase switches.
- No test oscillator.
- Not exactly compact.
One of the most elegant and comprehensive implementations of the 8‑bus concept in this price range.