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Tascam US428

USB Digital Recording Interface By Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser
Published May 2001

Tascam US428

Tascam's versatile US428 combines the duties of audio interface, preamp, MIDI interface and MIDI fader surface at an attractive price, and has generated a lot of interest from musicians. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser test it with the Mac, while John Walden reports on the PC situation.

Now that so many of us have made computers the centrepieces of our studios, to some extent the makers of those computers can dictate important aspects of our recording practice. Apple, in particular, have now completely abandoned serial and SCSI interfaces, substituting USB and FireWire, so many Mac musicians are resigned to fitting in with the new interfaces when they upgrade their computers. FireWire looks to have the best potential for audio and MIDI interfacing, but products supporting it have been slow to appear. Not so with USB, which is now standard on all new Macs and PCs and was seized upon by some music manufacturers quite early, especially for MIDI interfacing, and which is now also being exploited for audio.

Enter the US428, created by Tascam and computer audio hardware specialists Frontier Design Group. This attractive multi‑purpose box acts as an audio interface, so users won't need to install an audio card inside the computer; it also incorporates two sets of MIDI In and Out, for 32 MIDI channels, and undertakes hardware MIDI controller duties for your sequencer. At present, the US428 works best with Steinberg's Cubase VST family, though specific support for some other applications is being developed.

The 428 promises to be a very useful device, but the story isn't without its less bright side. Early 428 Mac drivers were apparently not quite up to the job, and when Paul Wiffen got hold of a 428 for his series on using new Macs for music (November 2000‑February 2001) he had problems with it — MIDI performance was so bad that he didn't even try the audio side. It was difficult to tell at that stage whether these problems were down to the 428, the drivers, Cubase VST v4.1 (the current version at the time), or USB itself, but when Cubase v5 appeared, Paul tested the 428 again and found the situation much improved, though the control surface still wasn't working correctly. Now it's time for a full road test of the US428, and to ensure that this review will inform both Mac and PC users, SOS has asked a PC user to contribute his experiences to a review otherwise centred around the Mac. Note that our comments on the 428's functionality refer to Cubase v5 running on an Apple G4, unless otherwise stated.

Nuts & Bolts

The US428's Control Panel shows basic operational settings. The current state of the unit's Input Monitor mixer is also reflected in this window. Beneath the control panel is the window which shows which bank of controls in Cubase the 428 is currently referring to.The US428's Control Panel shows basic operational settings. The current state of the unit's Input Monitor mixer is also reflected in this window. Beneath the control panel is the window which shows which bank of controls in Cubase the 428 is currently referring to.

The metallic blue 428 resembles a Portastudio, which is sensible as many of us are familiar with such machines. It features eight channel faders and a master mix fader, a channel select/record enable and mute/solo switch for each channel, plus three continuous knobs for EQ control, a pan knob, transport controls, and a large multi‑purpose data wheel which mainly lets you shuttle quickly through whatever session is open in your sequencer.

The 428's audio interfacing specification is similar to that of a portable multitracker. The four analogue inputs are configured as two with XLR mic and balanced jack connectors and two with an unbalanced jack socket, switchable for guitar DI use; all four have an input gain control with signal and overload LEDs. There's no phantom power, though, which seems a shame when the 428 is otherwise so self‑contained. Analogue outputs simply consist of a pair of phono outs, for routing the stereo mix to monitors or master recorders, and a headphone socket. Both outs have their own level control.

Digital interfacing comprises co‑axial S/PDIF digital I/O. A switch next to the second pair of analogue inputs allows you to use the S/PDIF In instead of that pair (input trim pots, incidentally, have no effect on incoming digital signals), while the S/PDIF output feeds a stereo mix to a digital mastering recorder. Last up on the connectivity front is dual MIDI I/O.

The US428 package includes a CD‑ROM containing audio and MIDI drivers, a US428 Control Panel and Steinberg's Cubasis VST for PC. A Mac version of Cubasis has been promised since before the US428 became available and has still to surface. If and when it does, registered owners will receive a copy. The latest 428 package apparently includes BIAS's Deck LE digital recording software for Mac, but it wasn't in the review bundle. The Mac software with the review machine was preliminary and didn't have the latest drivers, so we downloaded the v2 Mac drivers from Tascam's web site. The package is rounded out by an external power supply, one USB cable, and a concise manual which concentrates almost exclusively on using the 428 with Cubasis VST for PC, but is well‑presented and helpful.

Installation of the included software on the Mac is quick and easy, but be aware that one or two teething problems may arise. If your computer isn't equipped with any other audio software or hardware, chances are that there will be no issues. Otherwise, it may take a few goes before you get the audio, MIDI, sync and control settings right — but this kind of task arises whatever hardware is being installed.

US428 As Audio Interface

PC users get a bundled version of Steinberg's Cubasis VST (seen here in the background behind the US428 Control Panel) which offers eight‑track, 16‑bit audio recording and support for the US428 as a MIDI hardware controller.PC users get a bundled version of Steinberg's Cubasis VST (seen here in the background behind the US428 Control Panel) which offers eight‑track, 16‑bit audio recording and support for the US428 as a MIDI hardware controller.

The US428's audio side communicates with a Mac via Apple's Sound Manager, or the Steinberg‑developed ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) protocol. When the 428 is interfaced with Cubase, up to four channels of 16‑ or 24‑bit audio, at 44.1kHz or 48kHz resolution, can be recorded simultaneously. With other applications (such as Cubasis) this may be limited to two channels. In any case, only two channels of audio — the stereo mix — can be played back via the 428. Note that though a choice of bit depths and sample rates is available, only one bit depth and sample rate can be used in a Song.

The audio level entering the computer is governed by the US428's input trim controls, not its faders, but the first four faders (and pan and mute controls) can be used to set up a monitor mix of incoming audio, if the Input Monitor button is pressed. This feature allows you to monitor audio practically at source without it having to pass into and back out of the computer, avoiding overdubbing latency problems. Cubase has a zero‑latency option for ASIO‑compatible audio hardware (which the US428 is), but this disables access to plug‑in and send effects. Monitoring directly via the US428 maintains access to Cubase's effects, though the processed portion of the signal will have a latency delay of around 50mS. However, when just adding a little monitor reverb to a vocal during recording, this delay shouldn't be too much of a problem. To mute the latency‑delayed audio while allowing it to be processed by send effects, select the Pre Fade send option in Cubase for the send effects being used, and mute the target audio channel in Cubase's mixer.

Latency can be managed with the US428's Control Panel; it's preset to 1024 samples (producing the 50mS latency in Cubase), but there are options for 128, 356, 512 and 2048 samples. The 128‑sample option yields a virtually unnoticeable latency of under 9mS, but this may cause problems with some computers. Our G4 handled it, but our G3 Powerbook didn't, suffering clicks and noticeable artifacts in the recorded audio. The Powerbook seems to work fine with the 512‑sample setting, resulting in a just‑about‑manageable latency of around 26mS in Cubase.

We found audio recording via the 428 worked perfectly, even tracking four channels simultaneously at 24‑bit. The mic amps are slightly noisy, but nothing terrible, and overall sound quality was absolutely fine. The 428 was also happy to play back its two audio channels alongside MIDI channels while more audio was overdubbed — see the MIDI section for more.

Post‑recording, there's another handy side‑effect of the US428's Input Monitoring. During mixdown, the 428 can mix four channels of MIDI‑sequenced instruments alongside the audio being played back by the sequencer, with level, pan and mute control. The advantage of this approach (as opposed to routing the instruments' outputs through VST's mixer via the 428's audio inputs) is that it saves processor overhead and takes some strain off the USB connection. Audio being mixed by the 428 won't be treated by software effects or EQ, so if you need that you'll have to route the audio to VST mixer channels. One thing you can't do with the 428 is process individual audio tracks externally (which we can with the send/return system of our Digi 001 setup).

Obviously, the 428 is optimised to work with Cubase (and selected other applications — see 'Wider Support' box), but even those not directly supported should be able to have their audio routed through the US428, via Sound Manager or ASIO. We successfully routed the stereo out of Propellerhead's Reason through the 428, after placing the US428 ASIO driver in Reason's ASIO folder. We also recorded samples with the shareware audio editor D‑Sound Pro v3.5.1, and played them back via Sound Manager. However, though D‑SP worked, we couldn't find a way to monitor from within the software during recording (we monitored direct via the 428 instead), or get incoming audio to register on D‑SP's input meters. The moral of the story is that full functionality with the US428 may depend on application‑specific driver development.

MIDI Interfacing

The US428 provides two guitar DI inputs and two XLR mic inputs, though there's no phantom power for condenser mics.The US428 provides two guitar DI inputs and two XLR mic inputs, though there's no phantom power for condenser mics.

For many users the 428's 32 MIDI channels will be enough to obviate the need to purchase another interface, unless they need the kind of patching/routing options offered by sophisticated multi‑port MIDI interfaces. On the Mac, the US428 requires OMS (Opcode's Open Music System). The brief dr iver installation process puts the 428 drivers in all the right places, including your OMS folder. Once they're installed, you can choose the US428's two sets of I/O in just the same way as any other MIDI interface attached to your computer.

Though USB offers a lot more bandwidth than the traditional serial interface, we were worried that asking it to manage audio and 32 MIDI channels, plus MIDI clock, simultaneously, might overload the system. However, we were pleased to find that filling all 32 channels with very busy MIDI activity didn't make the US428 fall over: there was occasional flamming and smearing, but overall timing integrity remained intact with Cubase playing 32 channels of continuous 16th notes at tempos between 40bpm and 300bpm, and with only 24 channels of MIDI activity, we didn't notice even these artifacts. We were also able to synchronise our Boss DR660 drum machine to this dense MIDI performance, with only slight sluggishness noticeable at higher tempos.

To test the US428's ability to handle as much MIDI and audio as possible simultaneously, we recorded the audio output of three synths playing the 32 busy MIDI channels described above, and the DR660, to four audio tracks, while the 32 MIDI channels were playing back and the DR660 was sync'ed. On playback, MIDI tracks and audio tracks sounded perfectly together, with no flamming beyond that already appearing in the MIDI parts. The DR660, however, couldn't sync properly at all, either during the recording process or on playback. Even muting the audio tracks left the DR660 struggling slightly. At worst, DR660 drum notes were randomly cut short, and the pattern was one to two beats behind everything else.

However, we were deliberately attempting to cause trouble for the US428 by creating very abnormal situations. As well as this completely artificial experiment, we recorded a normal song, with five audio tracks and six MIDI tracks (plus sync'd DR660), and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were listening for anomalies, because they just weren't occurring. We were successful in managing an equally normal session with our G3 Powerbook.

MIDI Control

The US428 succeeds in recording four 24‑bit audio tracks simultaneously while playing back two and providing 32 MIDI channels, all from one USB port.The US428 succeeds in recording four 24‑bit audio tracks simultaneously while playing back two and providing 32 MIDI channels, all from one USB port.

As you might expect, the MIDI control side of the 428 is its most heavily Cubase‑optimised aspect. When used with Cubase, the 428 is capable of controlling up to 64 audio mixer channels and up to 64 channels in the MIDI Track Mixer. It manages this with bank switching, so that eight hardware faders and sundry other controls can access many virtual mixer channels. Two arrow buttons scroll through the banks; you're told which bank you're in by a couple of LEDs on the 428, and more precisely by a floating window (installed with the US428's driver software) in Cubase itself.

Once in a bank, you select a channel to be controlled by pressing the Select button above the channel's fader. Now you can access, for that channel, a pan pot, four bands of parametric EQ and four auxiliary sends. Each band of EQ has its own switch; pressing it causes the three continuous knobs to manipulate gain, frequency and Q (bandwidth) for the selected band. Each band can also be enabled/disabled from the 428, as can aux sends, and when an aux send is chosen, the data wheel alters its value. (Cubase users may wonder why there's only access to four aux sends, when the software offers eight. We did!) MIDI Track Mixer control is limited to level, pan, mute and solo for each channel.

Comprehensive access to the software's transport facilities is offered, including play, stop, record, return to zero, and rewind/fast forward. The data wheel, as mentioned earlier, allows you to scroll rapidly through a Song. Limited autolocation is available, with the Locate left and right buttons, and you can als o set left and right locate points on the fly from the 428. Three 'Function' buttons appear to have no effect on the Mac Cubase, but the manual notes that they open the audio mixer window, open the aux send window, or toggle between open windows on the PC version of Cubasis VST. It would be great if they did the same in Cubase on the Mac.

Of course, the movements of the 428's faders and other controls can be recorded into a VST Song, to enable automated mixdown, and it's here that having hands‑on access to multiple faders comes into its own. If only the US428 had eight pan pots as well... Note that there's currently no way to control VST effects or instruments from the 428.

Overall, the MIDI control system is easy to understand and works well, and when you get used to the assignability the 428 certainly beats doing the same jobs with a mouse. It would be more useful, though, if pressing a 428 channel select button called up the Channel Settings window for the relevant mixer channel in VST. Maybe this is something Tascam could add later? Also, the record enable buttons didn't work for us: the currently selected channel's record LED was always on, and pressing the Record button had no effect.

Plans are afoot to integrate the US428 with other MIDI + Audio sequencers. Drivers and help files for MOTU's Digital Performer are available on Tascam's web site, and dedicated drivers for PC favourite Cakewalk and Emagic's Logic family are said to be in an advanced state of development, with an interim solution for Logic at Tascam's web site. With our Pro Tools LE software we were able to exploit a special JL Cooper CS10 emulation mode which provides more control over the Pro Tools mixer, transport and, surprisingly, plug‑in parameters than you get in Cubase (though PT LE won't record audio through the 428, as it's dedicated to the Digi 001 hardware). There are plenty of help files on line to help you keep track of the way in which much of this control is achieved. It appears that audio can be recorded into Pro Tools Free via the US428 and Sound Manager, but we couldn't test this.


Not only is this a review of a new bit of kit, it's also partially a review of USB for MIDI and audio — or at least, our experience of it. We've been using a simple USB MIDI interface from Midiman for a while and after some initial problems (remedied by a new driver) have found it absolutely fine, so we were hopeful for the US428. However, the issues around a combined MIDI and audio interface are more complex. Can USB cope with multi‑channel MIDI and audio recording/playback, with proper MIDI timing accuracy and glitch‑free audio?

We'd have to answer a cautious 'Yes', on the evidence of using the 428 with Cubase v5. In our studio, with our particular collection of hardware and software, with our sessions and experiments, our concerns over USB essentially disappeared as the US428 allowed us to track MIDI and audio largely without any problems that we wouldn't have had to tackle with our usual studio configuration. The notable exception, explained earlier, was sync'ing our drum machine with an artificially demanding audio/MIDI composition.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to predict the functionality of computer‑based equipment, with the many permutations of setup out there, but Mac users are probably better off than PC users in that at least their computers are usually made by one manufacturer. It would still be wise to try to see the 428 working with your setup before you buy it, but if it works with other Macs as it worked with ours, it does indeed offer Cubase users (and possibly musicians with other sequencers) a tidy, effective solution to USB audio and MIDI interfacing, with the useful bonus of hardware controls. We tested the 428 with a 450MHz G4 Mac (384Mb RAM, Mac OS 9.0.4), and a 400MHz Pismo G3 Powerbook (192Mb RAM, Mac OS 9.0.4).

Tech Spec

  • A‑D conversion: 24‑bit, 64 times oversampling.
  • Sample rate: 44.1 or 48kHz.
  • Signal processing delay: less than 2mS.
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz.
  • Total harmonic distortion: <0.07 percent.
  • Senstivity of input jacks A and B: variable between ‑47 and ‑16dBu.
  • Senstivity of XLRs A and B: variable between ‑63 and ‑16dBu.
  • Nominal line output level: 6dBV.
  • Line output noise level: ‑99dBV (A‑weighted).

The PC Musician's Perspective: Using The US428 With Windows

There are still many compatibility issues surrounding USB on the PC, and when the connection is being pushed to its bandwidth limits (as can well be the case with a combination of MIDI and audio data), problems can arise. For example, operating system support for USB in Windows 95 is not terribly robust. Windows 98 First Edition, 98 Second Edition (SE) and ME have shown gradual improvements in this respect, but there are still issues surrounding particular USB controllers built into different motherboards. I was interested to see whether the US428 would overcome the obstacles, and how well it would integrate with the (currently PC‑only) customised version of Cubasis VST.

One of the obvious advantages of USB devices is that, in principle at least, they should be easy to install. The printed manual and packaging supplied with the review unit recommend a 300MHz Pentium II, 128Mb RAM and a fast EIDE hard drive. This documentation also recommends Windows 98 First or Second Edition but not Windows 95. With this in mind, I tried to connect the US428 to a PIII 800MHz machine with 512Mb RAM, Windows 98 First Edition and a non‑Intel USB Controller chipset. Installation of the US428 drivers and Cubasis went without a hitch.

However, as soon as I started Cubasis it was obvious that all was not well and, essentially, there seemed to be no communication between the PC and the US428. Checking the Tascam US web site provided some explanation. First, unlike the enclosed packaging, the web site states that Windows 98 First Edition is not recommended and that the Second Edition or ME should be used (hopefully these details will be updated on the US428's packaging and documentation). Second, a newer release of the ASIO drivers (version 2.0) was available for download. Armed with this information and the new drivers, I then repeated the install procedure on a more modest PIII 450 PC with 128Mb RAM, an Intel‑based USB Controller chipset and Windows 98 Second Edition. On this machine, communication with the US428 was initiated without any problems at all. I suspect the difficulty with the first PC was simply an OS issue, but Tascam's web site makes clear that some USB controllers are also problematic.

The supplied version of Cubasis VST provides a maximum of eight, 16‑bit, mono audio tracks and two bands of parametric EQ per channel. It also only allows two tracks of simultaneous recording, and so does not support the possible four‑track recording potential of the US428. This said, it was immediately obvious that the combination of the US428 and Cubasis forms a very neat and efficient working environment. A little experimentation with the various audio and MIDI inputs and outputs demonstrated that, in subjective terms at least, the audio quality was very respectable, with no obvious noise problems.

The control surface is certainly effective for driving Cubasis, although there are still many functions that do need mouse control. For example, a track has to be selected in the Arrange Window via the mouse to make it 'record‑enabled'. However, once this is done, the transport controls on the US428 can then control all the usual playback functions and the record button initiates a recording onto the selected track. Using the channel faders to balance a mix was straightforward, as was using the Bank buttons to toggle between the eight audio tracks and MIDI tracks 1‑8 or 9‑16.

Perhaps the biggest time savers were the mute/solo options and the ability to tweak EQ and effects sends directly from the US428. The mouse has to be used to open an EQ panel for a track, but the US428's EQ controls then take over, and operate in a very intuitive fashion. The Mute buttons do exactly what would be expected, while pressing the Solo button on the US428 turns them into solo buttons rather than mutes. The display on the on‑screen audio mixer is updated to reflect the mute/solo status of a channel.

Without motorised faders, toggling between different banks of channels can leave the hardware fader positions out of sync with those on screen. Pressing the Null button allows faders to be repositioned to match the on‑screen settings but without sending any data to the PC. This is helped by the Select and Rec LEDs, which light up to indicate whether the hardware fader is below or above the on‑screen position.

In the supplied version of Cubasis, both mono and stereo recording worked really well. The US428 avoids some latency issues by providing direct monitoring of input signals (ie. the input signal is passed directly to the US428's line outputs as well as to the PC via the USB cable). Testing a MIDI click track against an audio recording of the same click track showed very solid timing between the two with no obvious drift, but closer inspection of the audio click revealed it was some 50mS behind the beat on the test PC. Latency figures of this order would certainly be an issue for some software synth users (although, of course, this figure includes MIDI as well as audio delays). However, responses to fader movements were very good, both for MIDI and audio tracks, and in the latter case certainly good enough for real‑time mixing within Cubasis.

Like Paul Wiffen (as reported in his February 2001 tests of the US428 with Cubase 5.0 on the Mac), I was able to use Cubasis to play back a fairly busy, 16‑track MIDI mix along with eight audio tracks plus VST effects without any obvious signs of USB bandwidth overload.

Clearly, support within other sequencer applications will be an important factor in how well the US428 sells. As on the Mac, Cubase 5 on the PC now has support for the US428 and offers 24‑bit, four‑track recording and four bands of EQ on each audio channel. Tascam's US web site lists other applications that currently offer US428 support (see the Wider Support box) and users posting to the US428 Forum have reported some success with Cakewalk Pro Audio v9.

At the time of writing, the list suggests that Logic is supported on the Mac but not on PC. As Logic was installed on the PC test system, I gave this a go using the ASIO v2 drivers. The results could be described as mixed at best; Logic consistently reported a loss of sync between MIDI and audio playback and no worthwhile recording could be achieved. This result was interesting because Emagic have a successful US428 compatibility test posted on their web site for a 733MHz PIII Windows ME PC and were able to play back some 30 16‑bit audio tracks along with some native plug‑ins, while recording four new 16‑bit audio tracks. They also reported an audio‑to‑MIDI latency of under 6mS so, with the right hardware, support for Logic on the PC is clearly a possibility. Tascam are obviously very keen to see third‑party support for the US428, and they have made the unit's MIDI implementation readily available for such development work.

As a bundle for a newcomer for whom eight audio tracks will be adequate, the US428 has a lot to recommend it. With Cubasis VST and on the right PC hardware/OS combination, it works really well and even better support is available in the full version of Cubase 5. For existing users of other PC MIDI + Audio sequencer applications the situation is less straightforward but Tascam's web site is a good source of information on the latest developments.

More difficult to predict for all potential purchasers of the US428 is the issue of USB compatibility with their particular PC. Clearly Windows 98 SE or Windows ME are the preferred OS options, but the USB Controller chipset within the PC will also influence how successfully the US428 (or any other USB‑based MIDI + Audio interface for that matter) may perform. There is considerable potential in the US428 and it could make an excellent front end to a portable DAW using a PC laptop, but a realistic demo using your own computer hardware would be very reassuring before you part with your cash. John Walden

Wider Support

Tascam's web site provides a useful source of technical information on the wider support available for the US428. This includes a user email forum with plenty of anecdotal information about the problems (and many solutions) encountered by individual users, a list of USB Controllers that are recommended and a list of the software that currently supports the US428. At the time of writing, the latter includes the following:

  • Digidesign Pro Tools (Mac only. Controller support in all versions: audio in Pro Tools Free only, via Sound Manager).
  • Steinberg Cubase VST v5.0 (Windows and Mac).
  • Steinberg Nuendo v1.5 (Windows only: Mac version released soon).
  • Emagic Logic Audio (Mac only: Windows support expected soon).
  • BIAS Deck LE v2.7 (Mac only).
  • MOTU Digital Performer v2.7 (Mac only).
  • Minnetonka MXTracks (Windows only).
  • Native Instruments B4 (Windows and Mac).


  • Tidier than installing PCI cards.
  • MIDI and audio interfacing plus MIDI controller functions all in one box.
  • Works well with Cubase.
  • Friendly, hands‑on feel.
  • Two guitar DI inputs.


  • No phantom power on XLR inputs.
  • Going mad with the MIDI and audio eventually caused it to lose external sync.
  • Mac users don't get Cubasis yet.
  • May offer only basic functionality with sequencers not specifically supported.
  • Supplied PC version of Cubasis does not support simultaneous four‑track recording, 24‑bit audio or more than eight audio tracks.


An appealing solution to the problem of MIDI and audio interfacing on USB computers, at present likely to be most relevant to Cubase 5 users who don't need more than stereo audio playback.