Tascam break from the crowd with their new USB 2 multi‑channel audio interface.
To judge by the recent crop of interfaces that have arrived for review at SOS Towers, many manufacturers seem to be converging on the same, near‑identical feature set. Focusrite, M‑Audio, Presonus and Echo, among others, have all released multi‑channel devices that connect via Firewire, with eight analogue mic/line inputs complemented by one or more banks of eight‑channel ADAT optical digital I/O, plus four or five pairs of analogue line outputs and a couple of headphone sockets.
However, these interfaces are only any use to you if you have a Firewire port, and the long‑term future for this standard is not looking particularly rosy at present. Nor does the paradigm of having all one's analogue inputs as switchable mic/line sockets suit everyone, so it's refreshing to encounter an interface that doesn't swim with the herd.
Tascam's US2000 breaks with convention in several ways. First, it connects via USB 2 rather than Firewire. Second, it only has two switchable mic/line inputs, but these are complemented by six dedicated mic inputs and six full‑time line inputs, making a total of 14 analogue inputs. There's no optical digital I/O, but a stereo coaxial S/PDIF input and output are available. There's also, thankfully, an IEC mains socket, so no need for wall‑warts or line‑lumps. The output side of things, meanwhile, is relatively sparse: there are four line outputs, plus a stereo Monitor output, which duplicates the first output pair and is mirrored on a solitary headphone socket.
In many ways, then, the US2000 is similar to Tascam's earlier US1641 (reviewed in the June 2008 issue of SOS). With its higher price, however, come some significant changes. Hardware metering has been improved, with five‑segment LED ladders for every input and output channel. The preamps have also had a major spruce‑up, and are now said to offer better quality and lower noise. The switchable mic/line channels are also new, and so too is the layout, whereby only these two inputs are located on the front panel. The US1641's MIDI I/O, meanwhile, is absent, but to compensate, there is now a pair of insert send/return jacks for mic/line channels 7/8.
Also worthy of comment are the two small switches beneath each input and output pair. One set of these allows you to switch phantom power in and out for each pair of mic inputs independently — hooray — and switch each pair of line inputs between +4 and ‑10 levels. The other, meanwhile, relates to the US2000's highly unusual approach to providing zero‑latency monitoring.
What's unusual is precisely that it does provide true zero‑latency monitoring. Almost all competing products ship with control-panel mixer software that allows you to set up one or more low‑latency cue mixes, but cue mixing in such an environment still takes place in the digital domain. There's no control-panel mixer with the US2000. Instead, all the inputs are routed to the Monitor output and the headphone socket in the analogue domain. The tiny switches beneath each input pair set whether odd- and even‑numbered inputs should be treated as either half of a stereo signal and thus panned hard left and right, or whether they are mono signals to be panned centrally. The only additional control the user has over this monitoring arrangement is global adjustment of the relative levels of the input signals and DAW outputs 1/2 in the monitor path.
Installation under Windows is a little bit fiddly, requiring you to plug, unplug and then plug the unit in again before rebooting, but I was up and running within five minutes. The control panel software is incredibly minimalist for a 16‑input device: you can choose from five buffer size settings, with the middle 'Normal' setting the default, and set the sample rate and whether the unit should derive its clock source internally or from the S/PDIF input. And, er, that's it.
My PC was happy to run all day at Normal latency, but only worked for a few minutes at the lowest setting without complaining, before Cubase freaked out and needed to be restarted. It wasn't visibly stressing the CPU meter, so I'm not quite sure what the problem was. Tascam told me that an imminent driver update, which should be available by the time you read this, will improve latency and stability.
If you're just using one or two of the inputs, latency need not be an issue in any case, as the direct monitoring works fine. If you are recording a band, however, you can forget it, because there's absolutely no way to change the levels of individual inputs within the monitor path. The Input level control simply turns them all up or down simultaneously, which makes the direct monitoring unusable when more than a couple of inputs are in play. If you want to create a monitor mix, you'll need to swallow the latency and do so in your DAW.
I haven't heard the US1641, so can't do a direct comparison, but I was very happy with the quality of the US2000's preamps. They top out at the usual 60dB or so of gain, and remain clean and quiet all the way up. I was initially worried about the lack of any pads, but encountered no problems close‑miking a very loud drummer, so there will be enough gain range for everyone except those who like to use condenser mics on snare drums. (This is not true of the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, for example, where the six pad‑free channels sometimes can't cope with close‑miked bass or snare drums.)
I was less taken with the new metering, however. For one thing, the LEDs are tiny. For another, the lower four rows are all an identical orange colour, the top row of red LEDs indicating clipping doesn't stand out clearly, and there's nothing to differentiate input and output channels. And for another, the LEDs are recessed behind quite deep holes in the metal casework, meaning that if you look at the US2000 from any sort of angle, nothing is visible at all and the unit appears to be switched off. Not ideal.
Tascam also depart from convention in assigning their switchable mic/line/instrument 'super channels' to input pair 7/8, where every other manufacturer on the planet makes them the first pair. I can see Tascam's logic, as conceptually the 'super channels' fall between the dedicated mic and line inputs, but users who want their DAW to default to these channels will need to do some configuration work.
Where possible, I like to test multi‑channel interfaces in a situation where they're performing to their full capabilities, so as well as testing it in my home setup, I used the US2000 to make the rock-band location recordings described in last month's cover feature, with a small rackmounting mixer feeding the line inputs. The experience left me with mixed feelings about the unit.
Most importantly, perhaps, its sound quality is fine: any deficiencies in the recordings I made with it owed nothing to the US2000's audio circuitry. In some respects, moreover, its flexibility exceeds that of its competitors. I like the fact that phantom power and line-input sensitivity are switched in pairs rather than globally, for example. The US2000 is also very easy to use. When testing other interfaces, I've sometimes wasted precious minutes of session time attempting to figure out obscure features of the control-panel software. There are no obscure features in the US2000's control-panel software.
Unfortunately, however, the main reason for this is that there are almost no features at all in the US2000's control‑panel software. What flexibility it boasts in other areas is, for me, outweighed by the fact that you can't set up a low‑latency cue mix. In a critical recording situation, I don't want to have to risk running at a latency my computer can barely handle just so that I can perform cue mixing in my DAW. The approach to direct monitoring used here works OK on small interfaces like the Digidesign M Box, but isn't adequate for multitrack recording.
There are other things about the US2000 that make me unsure what role Tascam intend it to play. It's lovely to have six dedicated line inputs — but with only four outputs in total, there's limited scope for using them to patch in external effects units. Alternatively, if we're intended to use the line inputs for synthesizers, it would be nice if they had given us some MIDI outputs to drive those synthesizers. And having only one headphone output on a 16‑in/out unit seems stingy to me.
Finally, I had initially intended to praise the US2000's industrial design and build quality, as to the casual eye it's both very good‑looking and nicely put together. But then I attempted to remove a couple of XLR cables from the front‑panel sockets. I couldn't do it. Nor could my glamorous assistant Steve. Nor could anyone else on the session. Swords have parted company with stones more easily. In the end, we had to physically take the review unit to bits in order to get them out.
Overall, then, I think the US2000 would not be my first choice for recording bands and other situations where true multi‑channel capability is needed. Competition at this price point is very strong, especially if you're considering Firewire as well as USB 2 interfaces, and potential buyers will need to consider whether the US2000's dedicated line inputs outweigh its lack of cue-mixing functionality, small number of line outputs and non‑existent ADAT expandability. That said, it's simple to use, sounds good, and offers more analogue I/O than most competitors, so the US2000 could be a good studio option for someone who doesn't do a lot of actual multitrack recording, yet wants to leave a number of synths and mics plugged in permanently.
Multi‑channel USB interfaces are still relatively thin on the ground compared with Firewire devices, and seem to vary a lot more in their feature sets: the only interface that's particularly similar to the US2000 is Tascam's own, earlier US1641.
Edirol pioneered the use of USB 2, and their current flagship is the UA101, which provides 10 analogue inputs and outputs plus S/PDIF and MIDI I/O, though it has only two mic preamps. M‑Audio's Fast Track Ultra 8R, meanwhile, offers eight analogue inputs with mic preamps, eight outputs, S/PDIF and MIDI.
RME's Fireface UC just exceeds the US2000's I/O count, offering 18 ins and outs in total. Eight of these are analogue, with two mic preamps; you also get eight‑channel ADAT, stereo S/PDIF and MIDI I/O. Another interesting competitor for the US2000 is ESI Professional's ESU1808, which provides 16 analogue inputs — two with mic preamps, two intended for guitars, four unbalanced line inputs and eight balanced line inputs — plus MIDI and S/PDIF I/O. Finally, MOTU's UltraLite Mk3 Hybrid provides a total of 10 inputs and 14 outputs, again through a combination of mic, guitar and line‑level socketry.
USB 2 audio interface
- Compatible with: Mac OS 10.4.11 or later, Windows XP SP2 and Vista SP2 (32‑ and 64‑bit in both cases).
- Analogue inputs: 14 (six XLR, two combi jack/XLR with insert points, six balanced jack).
- Analogue outputs: four, on balanced jacks, plus additional Monitor output pair duplicating outputs 1/2.
- Headphone outputs: one.
- Mic preamps: eight.
- Digital I/O: stereo coaxial S/PDIF.
- Good sound quality.
- Rugged good looks.
- Includes six dedicated analogue line inputs, with sensitivity switchable in pairs.
- Refreshingly different from the herd, and a welcome alternative to Firewire.
- Low‑latency monitoring is unusable in most multitrack recording situations.
- Metering disappoints.
- No ADAT multi‑channel digital I/O.
- Only one headphone output.
- Only four line outputs, and no MIDI.
- Review unit wouldn't release XLR plugs.
Tascam's design team are singing from a different hymn book to their competitors. They have created a multi‑channel interface that has plenty of unconventional features, but it is compromised by its inability to properly create a cue mix.