With their latest recording tool, Tascam aim to entice hobbyists away from their cassette multitrackers and onto their computers.
Tascam's US224 Digital Audio Workstation Controller is a combined USB MIDI and audio interface and hardware control surface. It's effectively the little brother of their larger US428 controller (reviewed in SOS May 2001), and aims to offer some of the same functionality to users on a more limited budget. The US224 is compatible with Windows (98, 2000 and XP) and Mac OS (9.x, with OS X support in development), and comes bundled with a custom version of Steinberg's Cubasis VST MIDI + Audio sequencing software.
Tascam's stated goal with the US224 is to make the combination of computer and software as easy to use as a Portastudio, and its design is reminiscent of one of their more upmarket home multitrackers. There are the familiar tape-like transport controls, four channel faders, one master fader, a data wheel and various knobs and buttons. The whole unit has been very well put together and feels reassuringly solid, although still light enough to appeal to laptop users wanting to record on the move. The faders are not motorised, but feel smooth and positive, and compare favourably with those found on many larger mixing desks.
The back panel of the US224 is where your various signals find their way in and out, and the facilities are fairly comprehensive. Reading from left to right, you'll find a standard quarter-inch headphone jack, stereo analogue RCA outputs, a quarter-inch jack and XLR socket for each of the US224's two inputs, S/PDIF sockets for digital I/O, a MIDI input, a MIDI output and a standard type 2 USB port. Both analogue inputs can be trimmed to accommodate mic or line-level signals, and there are switches offering enough of a boost to allow guitars and basses to be DI'd.
The US224 cannot supply phantom power for any of its inputs, however, so an external preamp or power supply will be required for most condenser mics. The USB port not only carries data to and from the host computer, but also supplies all of the US224's power. That said, if you're attaching it to an external USB hub, this may need its own power supply in order to meet the US224's requirements.
Installing the US224's software is straightforward enough: an installer program adds the necessary device drivers to your system (including OMS drivers on the Mac), along with a simple Control Panel application. This allows you to select either analogue or digital I/O, adjust buffer sizes as required, enter 'US428 emulation mode' (see box), and it also includes a useful built-in guitar tuner.
The supplied version of Cubasis VST is significantly less powerful and sophisticated than 'grown-up' Cubase, but nevertheless serves as a simple, usable MIDI sequencer and eight-track hard disk recorder. ASIO drivers are supplied to allow for both 16 and 24-bit recording at up to 48kHz. The VST Mixer offers a basic two-band EQ for each of the eight audio channels, and a small selection of effects plug-ins covers chorus, delay, fuzz, reverb, and so forth. Most third-party effects plug-ins should also work, but VST Instrument plug-ins are not supported at all, which is a pity.
Provided the drivers have been properly installed, Cubasis automatically 'knows' about the US224, so you don't have to struggle to get hardware and software co-operating. The printed manual walks you through an example recording session in Cubasis, and the installer CD contains a PDF manual which covers things in a little more depth. Newcomers shouldn't find it too difficult to learn their way around.
Recording from analogue sources is straightforward: attach your guitar, microphone or other source to an appropriate socket, use the trim knob to set the desired level (and watch the red LED to make sure you aren't clipping), then hit the Record button. When you've finished, you can 'wind' back through the take using either the transport buttons or the US224's data wheel. To overdub, simply select a new audio track in Cubasis and start over. It's as easy as that. Seasoned Portastudio users should feel at home in no time.
The US224 offers 'zero-latency' monitoring of analogue input signals, which makes overdubs nice and easy. When the Input Monitor switch is active, sound received at the inputs is passed directly to the US224's headphone and line outputs, and the first two channel faders can be used to control monitoring levels. This avoids the processing delay that would be encountered when monitoring via software. For what it's worth, with the default buffer size setting of 1024 samples — and using Cubase VST/32 rather than the supplied Cubasis — the US224's total latency with my system was reported as being 49.161 milliseconds. This is certainly enough to make hardware monitoring seem like a good idea, although if your machine can handle the minimum 256-sample buffer size, latency will be a more manageable 12ms.
Recording from digital sources is basically the same, except that the trim controls have no effect, so recording levels have to be adjusted at the source, and there's no zero-latency monitoring.
When you've stacked up a few tracks and are ready to mix, you can take advantage of what are probably the US224's main selling points: its faders. Mixing with a mouse is something that some people clearly feel strongly about, and it could be argued that the whole point of a device like this is that it allows you to work with as little direct contact with your computer and its peripherals as possible. This is fair enough: not everybody feels comfortable with computers, and if you've grown up working with analogue equipment, you may simply feel more at home with a box with faders on it than with what the Americans call a 'Digital Audio Workstation'.
Of course, since the US224 has only four physical faders (while Cubasis offers twice as many virtual faders), you don't get quite the same degree of 'all at your fingertips' control as you would with a conventional mixer. That said, choosing which of the two groups of four virtual faders you want to control is only a matter of pressing the left or right Bank Select key, so it's not too much of an inconvenience.
If you're considering buying a US224 to use with a full version of Cubase, however, the shortage of hardware faders becomes rather more of a concern. You only need 16 VST Mixer channels on the go for things to become rather confusing. How many times did you press that bank key last time? Which of the four groups of four faders are you currently controlling? It's all too easy to find yourself reaching for the mouse to scroll the VST Channel Mixer window left or right, while jiggling a fader up and down and watching for movement. When you've caught yourself doing this four or five times, you begin to wonder if it wouldn't just be easier to give up and use the mouse for everything.
Moving from faders to pan pots, the US224 doesn't have any. In order to pan a channel left or right, you must first hold down the Select button in the appropriate channel strip, then spin the US224's data wheel left or right. This is a perfectly reasonable system, and arguably preferable to moving Cubase's rather tiny pan controls with a mouse. However, it's still very unlike using the pan pots on a real mixer, so if an authentic mixer-like experience is what you're after, you may be disappointed.
More straightforwardly, each channel strip on the US224 has its own Mute switch. To solo channels, however, you have to first activate the Solo button, which then changes the Mute buttons from being mute buttons to solo buttons. Again, this is no great inconvenience, but to me it feels like one button-push too many.
These niggles aside, the US224 works very well. Some of the first USB audio and MIDI interfaces to reach the market exhibited nasty quirks, and many people remain rather nervous about the USB protocol. However, in several weeks of testing, I experienced no problems at all with either audio or MIDI dropouts. Recorded sound is clean and clear, and I found myself able to work with the full eight audio tracks, and at least as many MIDI tracks again, without any bother. On perhaps two occasions my computer seemed to 'lose' the US224, but I strongly suspect that my USB hub was the culprit, and the problem was easily solved by flicking the unit's power switch on and off. No rebooting necessary.
To sum up, the Tascam US224 is a very well-built device, which integrates perfectly with its supplied Cubasis software. It performs well as a combined USB MIDI and audio interface, and does pretty much everything its manufacturers promise it will do. If you want to use your computer as a tapeless digital Portastudio for home or demo recording, and you find the idea of working with a QWERTY keyboard and a mouse really offputting, then the US224 could be what you're looking for.
That said, if you feel comfortable working with computers, you don't mind dragging virtual faders one at a time, and you'd like to be able to take advantage of more hi-tech stuff like virtual synthesizers and samplers, you should perhaps consider some alternatives before spending your money. A simple USB MIDI interface and PCI audio card can be acquired for rather less than the cost of the US224, leaving a few quid spare to put towards some more powerful sequencing software.
If you're already an established Cubase VST user, hoping to get a hardware control surface at a bargain price... well, you could buy a US224. However, given that it's limited to just four channel faders, and that switching between multiple groups of virtual faders requires a certain amount of button pushing, the US224 perhaps represents a false economy. If you really want a convincing hardware mixer surface to control your high-end recording system, you might be wiser to save up your money and investigate something with more controls, like Tascam's own US428.
£265 including VAT.
Tascam +44 (0)1923 438880.
- Apple Mac 'blue & white' 400MHz G3 with 448MB RAM, running Mac OS 9.2.1.
- Tested with: Steinberg Cubase VST v5.1.