First there was the 4416, then the 2816. Now Yamaha have announced a baby brother for their AW audio workstations, in the form of the AW16G.
When it comes to digital audio, Yamaha don't seem to like to let the grass grow beneath their feet. Hugh Robjohns reviewed Yamaha's AW4416 digital audio workstation in SOS November 2000 and the streamlined AW2816 as recently as SOS January 2002. A follow-up product has already arrived — the AW16G. The baby brother of the AW family has been designed to compete in the same general market as products like the Korg D12 (and the forthcoming D1200) and Zoom MRS1044, although, as the 16 in the name suggests, it offers a full 16 tracks of audio.
Hugh was clearly impressed with both the AW4416 and AW2816. The AW16G shares much of the core functionality of it's more expensive siblings, as well as many operational similarities with the 0-series mixers. So just what compromises in terms of the balance of features have Yamaha struck in order to bring the AW16G in under the critical £1000 mark in the UK?
How Does It Compare To Other AWs?
In essence, the AW16G provides a 16-track digital recording environment, offering a maximum of eight-track simultaneous recording. This is supplemented by two multi-effects processors, an independent stereo track for mixdown (meaning a separate mastering recorder is not needed), four-band EQ and dynamics processing on almost every track, a sampler facility, and a CD-RW drive for backup or for burning audio CDs.
In comparison with the more expensive AW4416 and AW2816, there are a number of obvious differences in the key features of the AW16G (see the 'Specifications In Brief' box). All audio is at 16-bit/44.1 kHz — there is no 24-bit option. The motorised faders of the earlier models are also (unsurprisingly) missing. The LCD display is smaller than the more expensive AWs but, being only fractionally smaller than that on the 01V, it is not so cramped as to make navigation around the operating system particularly difficult.
There are also fewer connectivity options; the AW16G has no SCSI port, To Host port, dedicated word-clock I/O, Omni outputs, inserts on any of the input channels or expansion slots for mini YGDAI cards. However, the AW16G does see the return of assignable EQ controls and Sample Pad functions that were present on the AW4416 but went AWOL on the AW2816 — both are very welcome inclusions here.
Anyone familiar with an 0-series mixer or earlier AW-series digital recorder will soon find their way around the hardware surface. Clusters of buttons on the left provide navigation through the various functions of the AW16G (Song management, CD burning, and so forth), while the bottom right includes the usual transport controls and buttons for setting markers and locate points. Channel and input selection buttons are located above and below the respective fader/gain knobs. These serve to select the channel or input and double as solo or mute buttons when the appropriate mode is selected via the Monitor button. The Selected Channel controls to the right of the LCD provide easy editing of EQ, dynamics, effects and pan for the currently selected channel. This operates in a similar way to the AW4416 or 01V, but pushing the knobs also provides rapid access to detailed editing parameters for the specific function via the LCD — very efficient.
Cut & Paste
Audio editing is a simple affair. Tracks or sections of tracks can be copied, deleted, moved, reversed, normalised, swapped, time-compressed/expanded or pitch-shifted. Start and end points can be specified for all these functions. With a little patience, you could easily comp a vocal from several takes using the audio editing facilities, but, as with most audio recording systems at this price point, the process is a little time-consuming compared to a computer-based editing environment.
The Track button options do provide a zoomable waveform display that has a Listen function and the ability to use the Data/Jog wheel to scroll through the waveform. However, this detailed waveform view is not available within the Edit options when setting start and end points for an edit. This does slow down the editing process somewhat, but it is easy enough to find the required start and end points via the Track waveform display and then enter the Edit options to actually carry out the required edit operation. Usefully, pressing the Mark button while using the waveform display will insert a Marker at the current cursor position, so this can help with subsequent editing tasks.
Despite fewer I/O options on the back panel, the eight balanced inputs should suffice for most purposes, given the likely target market for the AW16G. The first two inputs offer XLR connections with phantom power, while the others are on quarter-inch TRS jacks. The last input also has an additional high-impedance unbalanced jack to allow direct connection of an electric guitar. All input channels have four-band parametric EQ and dynamics available and, if required, one of the multi-effects units can be used to process an input signal. One of the obvious applications for this is when recording guitar via the high-impedance input. Hugh Robjohns was a little critical of the mic preamps on the AW2816, but this is somewhat less of an issue at this price point — their performance is perhaps best described as good without being exceptional, but when tested with a couple of mid-priced condenser mics of the sort found in many a home and project studio, the results were perfectly acceptable.
The 16 playback channels are configured as eight mono channels and four stereo channels, each of these 12 channels having its own fader. The final red fader controls the output level of the stereo buss. Again, each mono or paired playback channel has four-band EQ and dynamics. Each of the playback channels has sends to the two internal effects processors (if they are being used in send-return mode rather than as insert effects) and to the two aux busses. The Stereo/Aux Out jacks could then be used to feed external effects units (either two mono or one stereo unit), with the signals being returned to the mix via the AW16G's inputs.
The mixer features eight busses. The stereo buss combines all input signals, tracks, and so forth, and sends them via the stereo output channel to the stereo master track of the recorder or the Stereo Out jacks. As described above, the two aux busses can be used to send to external effects or, alternatively, to create a separate monitor mix while overdubbing. The two effects busses send signals to the internal multi-effects units. Finally, the L & R busses are used to route signals to other recorder tracks for the purposes of track bouncing.
The somewhat simpler nature of the mixer functions of the AW16G compared to the more expensive AW series units means that routing signals is not too traumatic an experience. The LCD displays are well thought out in this respect. For example, via the Quick Navigate Record button, a simple screen for connecting inputs to recorder tracks displays lines showing which input is linked to which recorder track. One small detail is a little irritating however; the AW2816 included a dedicated button that cancelled all the currently configured input routings, but this button didn't make it to the front panel of the AW16G, so a little LCD navigation is required to perform this task.
The AW16G features a very respectable MIDI specification. This makes it possible to synchronise the AW16G with the playback of an external device such as a MIDI sequencer via MIDI Time Code or MIDI Clock. With the former, the AW16G can act as either master or slave, but can only act as master with the latter. MIDI Machine Control (MMC) can either be transmitted by the AW16G, allowing it to start or stop the synchronised external sequencer, or can be received if control is required from the sequencer end of things. All of these settings can be configured from within a single set of screen options accessed via the Utility button.
This same screen also allows the AW16G to be configured to transmit MIDI Program Change and Continuous Controller messages for recording on an external sequencer. Program Change messages get the AW16G to recall mixer Scenes and this provides an alternative way of controlling the Scene-based mix automation for those users who prefer this method to manipulating the AW16G's internal Tempo Map.
It's also possible to transmit Continuous Controller messages from the AW16G for recording to an external sequencer, and these can then be replayed to provide real-time mix automation of some mixer parameters. The AW16G actually offers three modes here, each with a somewhat different mapping of physical controls to MIDI messages. Probably of most general use is mode one, where the AW16G transmits and receives on all 16 MIDI channels. The AW16G's faders transmit level changes for the 16 recorder tracks, while the selected channel controls can be used to send pan and effect send levels. Modes two and three transmit and receive on a single MIDI channel, the number of which can be specified by the user. These modes offer alternative MIDI controller mapping, providing access to things such as level, pan or effects sends for the Input and Pad channels, plus channel mutes.
Computer users will be happy to know that they can also use the AW16G as a hardware control surface for the virtual mixer in their software sequencer. Yamaha provide templates for this on the supplied CD, and these support Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar and Emagic Logic, automatically performing the MIDI controller mapping required. This is something I regularly do with Logic via my own 01V mixer and the AW16G did just as good a job.
Another useful function available via the Utility button are options for MIDI bulk dump. Effects library data and mixer Scene memories can be transmitted. This could be useful for recording such data on an external sequencer (for example, as a backup of all the effects library settings used stored with all the MIDI sequencer data for the same project) or for copying a library of Scene data between two AW16G units. The user has the option of sending all the Scene or library data, or just a selection. System data (essentially all the settings in each page of the Utility options) can also be bulk dumped.
Internal Effects, Recording & Sampling
As with the earlier AWs, the internal effects can be placed in any of four positions; as inserts to input channels, as inserts to playback channels, as 'mastering' effects across the stereo output or as send effects for global use by all playback channels. The latter would, of course, be most useful for a general reverb or delay effect.
A library of suitable presets is included for each of these four functions, as are presets for EQ and dynamics. The input presets include treatments suitable for electric, acoustic and bass guitars as well as vocals. Users can, of course, edit these or create and save their own input effects settings. The electric guitar presets include some basic amplifier simulation. The quality of these is more than adequate for putting ideas together and the cleaner tones work well enough, but the overdrive and distortion sounds are perhaps a little tame and fizzy in comparison with a dedicated amp modeller such as the Line 6 Pod. The overall quality of the digital effects is very good on the whole, although, as an owner of both an 01V and a DSP Factory, I'd be happy to complement the Yamaha reverbs with a nice Lexicon given the choice!
The basic recording process on the AW16G is very straightforward: input channels are connected to the required recorder tracks, and then effects, EQ and dynamics are selected as required. Setting up channels is fairly painless, despite a certain amount of menu scrolling, because of the soft knobs at the side of the display. As with the other AW-series recorders (and the majority of the AW16G's competition), there is a virtual track system for all the main recorder tracks and the stereo master track, making it very easy to record and compare alternate takes. Track editing functions for comping parts from multiple takes are fairly basic (see the 'Cut & Paste' box), but work well enough.
There is a certain amount of mechanical noise from the hard drive of the AW16G while it is spinning and this would require some isolation while making acoustic recordings. This said, the noise is less than that from an off-the-shelf computer system and, at this price point, there is certainly nothing to criticise in terms of the audio quality possible with the AW16G. Put a decent sound source in front of a respectable microphone and it is possible to capture some excellent results.
Two other recording features are worth further comment. First, the Sound Clip recorder provides a very rapid means to capture an idea. A performance up to 180 seconds in length can be recorded and then played back, trimmed and looped. This works well and is really useful for grasping that elusive bit of musical inspiration before it vanishes. The Sound Clip can also be copied to one of the 16 full recorder tracks for the idea to be pursued further.
The second welcome return is that of sampler facility found on the AW4416, which makes for some interesting additional creative options. For each Song, up to 44 seconds of stereo sample time can be allocated across 16 samples. These samples are organised into four banks of four and can then be triggered either for looped or one-shot playback via the four numbered pads in the Quick Loop Sampler section (located beneath the LCD). The playback of these pad presses can be recorded as a performance and replayed in sync with the Song (although it must be said that subsequent editing of a performance is a bit cumbersome). Each pad has it's own stereo playback channel (including EQ, dynamics and sends to the internal effects), effectively adding another eight audio tracks to a mix.
A modest sample library is pre-installed on the hard disk, consisting mainly of drum loops, one-shot vocal phrases and sound effects, and this suggests how Yamaha see the Quick Loop Sampler being used. You can create and edit your own samples or, via the CD drive, import WAV files from sample CDs (see the 'Internal CD-RW Drive' box for further details). An excellent further feature is the 'Slice' function for looped samples; this provides a basic Recycle-style means of automatically tempo-matching a drum loop to the tempo of the Song, and it does an effective job. The only catch is that switching between Pad Banks cannot be done on the fly — a Tempo Map event has to be created to perform the switch automatically during playback. This is a minor inconvenience, however, given the creative possibilities the Quick Loop Sampler adds.
Internal CD-RW Drive
As with many of the budget digital multitrack recording systems currently available, the AW16G has an internal CD-RW drive. However, where most other multitrackers offer this as a cost option, the AW16G is fitted with it as standard. It can be used for data backup from the hard drive, for burning audio CDs, and for importing and exporting WAV files.
Data backup worked a treat on the review model and offers great peace of mind. Both track-at-once and disc-at-once audio CD burning modes are provided. The ability to export WAV files for each of the 16 audio tracks within a song is also useful. I tested this by exporting a full 16-track song and then importing the WAVs into Logic on my own PC. Within five minutes I was tweaking Logic's mixer settings to recreate the same mix I'd had running on the AW16G. This function would be just the job for those wanting a respectable audio recording facility while on the move, but then wanting the advantages of the more flexible editing environment provided by a computer-based audio system for post-production work.
WAV files can also be imported via the CD drive, either to a track or to the Quick Loop Sampler Pads. With the latter, I was able to load up some audio drum loops from an Acid loop library. This worked well, with the AW16G recognising the tempo of the loop correctly — the only catch is that loops are restricted to lengths of one bar if the Slice function is to work correctly.
Automation & Mixdown
The AW16G is easy to integrate into a bigger studio system. It can sync to an external sequencer via MIDI as either master or slave. In testing with Emagic's Logic Audio v.5.2 on my own PC setup, this worked well and provided full access to transport controls via MMC. While the AW16G only supports Scene-based mix automation internally, when used with a sequencer it can receive real-time mix data of channel levels, pan and effects sends. Real-time recording of things like fader movements to Logic seemed a little sluggish, but playback of automation data to the AW16G worked a treat — for more information on these features, check out the 'MIDI Facilities' box.
Creating a final mix is very straightforward, using the same dedicated stereo track concept as on the earlier AW-series recorders. This is helped further as the stereo track also has eight virtual tracks, so it is possible to create alternate versions of a mix as required. The Scene-based mix automation system works well, providing 96 Scenes per Song. Settings for all channel and effects parameters can be stored within a Scene. During playback, the AW16G offers useful options for defeating the mix automation altogether or just for specific channels. As with other current digital multi-trackers, the ability to use virtual tracks and to perform track bouncing in the digital domain makes it considerably easier to build up complex mixes with the AW16G than with an equivalent analogue system.
As explained in the 'Internal CD-RW Drive' box, the audio on the stereo track of a Song can then be burnt to an audio CD in either track-at-once or disc-at-once modes. The latter obviously gives more control over the gaps between tracks. In testing, I had no problems playing audio CDs burned with the AW16G on a variety of domestic CD players.
I'm sure there are a good many SOS readers who can recall when a four-track reel-to-reel tape machine for use in a home studio cost about the same as the AW16G — no automated mixer, no effects units, no master recorder and certainly no sampler. It is very easy to lose track of just how far technology has improved the lot of the home studio owner. The AW16G represents another step along that path — it is quite remarkable just how much studio can be packed into a device that is about the same size as a large box of breakfast cereal!
Despite the obvious comments to be made about having to spend time navigating around the LCD, Yamaha have done an excellent job in making the AW16G easy to use. They have also turned up the heat in the sub-£1000 digital multitracker market. Not many years ago, people would have exchanged elderly members of their own family for a studio with these specifications! For those with a digital multitrack system high on their shopping list, the Yamaha AW16G is both competitively priced and very capable.
Specifications In Brief
- 144 storage tracks (16 playback tracks plus stereo master track, all with eight virtual tracks).
- Simultaneous eight-track recording and 16-track playback at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz.
- 32-bit internal processing.
- 24-bit linear A-D/D-A conversion.
- Around 60 track hours of recording time with supplied 20GB hard drive.
- 1000 Songs per drive.
- 36-input mixer: 16 playback channels, eight input channels, four stereo sample tracks and two stereo effects returns).
- 45mm non-motorised faders.
- Dynamics and four-band parametric EQ on almost every channel.
- Two internal multi-effects processors.
- 240 x 64-pixel LCD with contrast.
- Eight quarter-inch balanced TRS inputs, two with additional 48V phantom-powered XLR inputs, and one with an additional high-impedance instrument input jack.
- Monitor and Stereo/Aux outputs: unbalanced quarter-inch jacks at -10dBV nominal level.
- Optical S/PDIF input and output.
- MIDI In and Out/Thru sockets.
- Master or slave synchronisation via MTC with MMC support. Transmits MIDI Clock.
- Onboard mix automation using 96 Scenes per Song. Dynamic mix automation via MIDI.
- Four tracks of stereo sample playback, maximum 44 seconds sample time.
- Tempo map, including Scene and Sample Pad switching functions.
- Dimensions: 99 x 425 x 322mm (hwd).
- Weight 4.4kg.
- Fabulous combination of specification and performance at this price.
- Dedicated EQ, dynamics and effects controls welcome.
- Quick Loop Sampler offers extra creative options, and without stealing recorder playback tracks.
- Low-level hard disk noise (but no worse than your average computer).
- Amp modelling and reverbs perhaps not up to the standards of the Line 6s or Lexicons of this world.
The AW16G offers an excellent feature set at a very competitive price. Yamaha have raised the stakes in this area of the multitracker market.
Yamaha-Kemble Brochure Line +44 (0)1908 369269.