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Just when you thought you had me pegged as a computer guy I have to burst your bubble a little bit. Today's multi track recorders are cool, and like their DAW counterparts, they have become increasingly powerful over the past few years. But like any other piece of gear we decide to run with, multi-track recorders vary in quality quite a bit. Manufacturers are stuck in a three sided dilemma. Can they make an operating system that has enough functions to do the job well without alienating people with bizarre menus and sub menus? Can they manage to put in preamps and converters of sufficient quality without letting the price reach the heights where only rich people can afford them? And finally, can produce a build quality where the unit can function day after day, with appliance like reliability? Every multitrack on the market is a compromise. I am happy to report that I found a decent one that meets the above challenges, the Yamaha AW1600.
I've had my eye on the Aw1600 over a year before I got this one, and had gone through a few other multi tracks on the way. My objectives for the piece were as follows.
1. I wanted a simple box I
could set up quickly for song sketches, and jam sessions.
To my surprise I found the sound of the AW1600 excellent. Better than I expected. My first test was playing my classic guitar through my Sennheiser MD421, a mic I thought would punish the preamps with its high gain requirements. To be sure, I did have to crank the gain almost to the max, but not all the way. Had I pushed it any more the hiss would start to get audible. So it just squeaked by. Condenser mics will be no problem with the AW1600, and since the MD421 made it, I doubt that the sm57 would be a problem either.
How would I subjectively rate the preamps? Well, they aren't going to match the muscle or finesse of the FMR RNP's. They didn't quite have the gain of the Mackie XDR, but they sounded richer and smoother. The were close to the preamps on my MOTU 828mk2, the MOTU being a tad bit quieter at high gain, but I am perhaps splitting hairs here. On playback, which was through two KRK RP6 powered monitors, I was surprised and pleased at the richness of the sound. There was no evidence of crappiness, other than my playing. But I would not know for sure till I heard them in my DAW room. That's next!
With a multi
track you can set up and
Transferring to DAW
Connecting by USB was easy. Driver installation on my G5 was easy. A new hard drive appeared in the Finder about two seconds after connection. Exporting the files was simple. But then they wouldn't play! Uh oh. Logic and Peak both complained they were 32 bit files. What!? I should have read the manual. I had missed a point about "exporting" them first to the "transport" directory, where they are apparently made into bonafide 24 bit files. Once I did that, the transfer was smooth. I was even able to drag audio files straight into onto logic's audio tracks where they played from the AW1600's internal hard drive. Faultless. Not a hiccup, stutter, crack or crinkle.
When I heard the tracks through my HR824s I was very pleased. They sounded great in the quiet confines of my DAW room. The AD converters in the AW1600 had done a great job. I feel confident that if I do use the same preamps I use on my DAW the AW1600 will be on a level playing field with the rest of my system and be able to do critical sessions anywhere I want. Its good to know I can make good recordings straight out of the box though. Ah, the joy of a 24 bit recorder. You can also choose 16 bit if you want, but in my tests so far, the sound is not as good. Choosing 24 bit, as is typical, halves the number of playback tracks to 8. However, the number of tracks you can simultaneously record is 8 whether you choose 24 bit or 16 bit.
That Syncing Feeling
Ok, off to the next step, can we get the MTC and MMC thing working with the DAW? For the uninitiated out there, that stands for MIDI Time Code (which is where a timing clock on one machine regulates the clock of another) and MIDI Machine Code (which is where the transport of one machine starts the transport of another). First try: glitch city, but again, it was my fault. I neglected to make sure they were using the same clock SMPTE protocol. Once established sync was smooth. No glitches, transports were locked. There was a bit of slowness on the the AW1600 keeping up with my starting and stopping logic like it had been drinking coffee all day. On a full rewind over a 3 minute song it took the AW1600 about a second to settle in where it would play, but it did not affect audio. It made me fondly recall old tape multi tracks chasing SMPTE, lol, but no, it was not that slow. Overall, high marks on sync.
The Ergonomics of Use.
I was able to record on the AW1600 without reading the manual except for a glance or two. Of course I was doing a lot of hunting and pecking around, but was still able to figure most of it out. But keep in mind, if you are new, the AW1600 is a complex device with a lot of functions, you really should read the manual. The manual is pretty good, for a Yamaha. One thing I love about the unit is the controls are really placed well on the surface. The hands almost intuitively know where stuff is, which leads to some fast button pushing. In Yamaha's true style there are a lot of alert boxes wanting you to confirm loads, saves, recording, accessing the library of effects. The sheer number of alert boxes is a bit extreme, so I was happy when i found the preference that turns off many of the confirmation boxes. A little quirky thing they do, again in true Yamaha style, is when you make an error, Yamaha will scold you with an error message. Its kind of like your father correcting you. Where you would normally see "OK" or "Exit" to clear the box, the developer wrote in: "Oh I see!" What is this, are they becoming comedians over there in Japan? Maybe they should have added a little "boinnggg" sound too. Or have a little sample shout out "RTFM, stupid!" Lol.
Onward to the Land of Effects.
Yes there are plenty of effects in the box, and they are overall good sounding, quiet and can be subtle and musical. You get EQ and Compression on the track level and two sends to effects of your choice on the bus level, with internally routed returns. The tracks and pads can each have their own EQ and compressor, which is nice if you want to mess with stuff. The eq is what you'd expect, comparable to simple DAW 4 band parametric types. The controls seemed a bit lo-resolution, maybe due to the low resolution if the display, but they were quite tweakable. There are also mastering processors. You get a limiter that acts like an iron wall if you want it to. Use that one gently, or not at all. Ditto for the compressor, which is not exactly gentle with the sound. Yet, the compressors were effective. For those who need it there is a bank of 40 presets to get you up to speed.
You can use the aux outs to send to an external effects unit and bring it back on unused channels if you need more effects. Yamaha says the effects processors are two independent SPX processors. (Yamaha sells an expensive multi effects unit called the SPX2000, which is the modern version of the "classic" SPX90 that came out in the mid eighties.) The reverb was good sounding and classic SPX all the way--hall, room, stage, plate, gate, early reflection and reverse+gate. All the standard SPX delays and some good sounding combination effects. Plenty of guitar and vocal effects, modulations and pitch based effects, and even Yamaha classics like "Symphonic", which dates back to the 1986 SPX90. Resonant filters too, for those who like squelches. The effects as a whole are good enough to mix down inside the AW1600 and get excellent results given you don't use too much. And there is a library of presets for everything. You can make your own presets and save them, another DAW like touch.
Other Features-The Pad Sampler
There is an onboard "Pad Sampler" with 4 pads. You can record directly to the pad or load a sound clip, of which there are 250 MB pre installed on the factory hard drive. You can also import from CD or from any recorded track to the pad. You select the source and the in/out times and then import. Once you get your pads setup, you can tap 'em, slap 'em, stutter them and blips shows up on the scrolling grid. Its like a mini-sequencer, just for the pads. Its cool, like working MPC style. Peeps doing hip hop will like that. You can load up some drum phrases and lay them down, then rap and add bass and keys later. While this feature not going to make people rush out to dump their MPCs on ebay, with a little ingenuity, one can make whole productions with just an AW1600 and a couple of CDs of audio loops. I did some truly wack cut n paste stuff, taking one of my songs and putting snippies on the pads, then using the slice function on its audio. Loop, EQ, Gate and yer glitch'n like a DJ turntable. Combine that with the job/shuttle function to scrub through your song, you could actually use it as a remix tweakbox for adding BT like glitches. I was not expecting this kind of functionality.
Finally, there is a "Pitch Fixer" for vocals. Have not tried it yet. I remain firm in the belief that absolutely nothing can fix my vocals. Boinnggg!
Buttons and faders have a positive smooth feel.
The Build Quality
The unit has an onboard CDRW that records at 8x. Reasonable enough. The tray is the thin kind of plastic that pops out an inch or so when you press the button. I always worry that I am going to break that kind of tray, but many of the multi-tracks I have tried do it that way. Whatever happened to the old fashioned motorized tray? Otherwise the build quality of the unit is rugged. All the knobs feel good, the buttons are positive, and the faders are smooth and offer good resistance. The AW1600 does not get too hot and while you can hear the drive working, its not going to get in the way. There were no hums or hisses emanating from the unit, even with the master fader maxed. If I had the monitor knob way above halfway and the preamp gain all the way up there was substantial hiss on the output. I find the unit sounded its best not connecting from the monitor outs but using the aux line outs. The difference was subtle, but there. So it could be that active output attenuators are messing with the signal. But if you keep the master fader at 0db (where it should be) there is not a problem.
Ins and Outs
You get 8 analog inputs on balanced combo jacks that can use XLR, TRS or TS cables. Outputs (4) are balanced 1/4" for TRS but you can connect to unbalanced gear if you need to with TS cables. and there is an instrument input for guitars and basses. Nice touch. There is stereo coax s/pdif i/o as well, important if you want to use some high end converters with it someday, like I plan to. Of course there is a headphone jack, which is unfortunately tied to the monitor outs. That means you can't turn off the signal to the monitors while recording without turning off the phones. There is a hardware MIDI in and a single out/thru jack, and a USB port which has dual functions of MIDI i/o and file transfer. No ADAT i/o, which is perhaps the only feature this box lacks, but the fast USB file transfer more than makes up for it.
Summing it all up
By the way, the AW1600 is currently winning our poll as the optimal multitrack recorder in the $1k to 1.5k range. Ok there are only 11 votes so far. The competition in this class of 24 bit multi tracks includes the Tascam 2488 and the Korg D3200 both which offer more tracks. I've used the Tascam extensively, which is also a really good unit for the cashola. I think the Yamaha sounds a shade cleaner and is definitely easier to use. Can't comment on the feature-packed Korg as I have not tried that one. If you have a comment on that post it in our multitrack forum.
Who needs an AW1600? I think its a great box for the person who is in a small band who wants to record sessions. The AW1600 is a really fine songwriting tool, more that what you need for just rough sketches. Add a keyboard with a sequencer like the Yamaha Mo, Korg TR, or Roland Juno and you'd be able to do complete sounding productions with ease. I'd have no reservation about using it live for backing tracks or recording from the house console. I think it will be perfect for recording living room jam sessions, which is one of the things I plan to do. Its small and light enough to be portable without being too light or plasticy, and its big enough where you don't feel cramped when using it. Best of all is the sound, given you don't push the output too hard. Don't think its going to be inferior sounding compared to a DAW with an average audio interface. If you've got the chops for real time recording, this box is going to please.
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