Field Test: Tascam FW-1884 Control Surface/Interface
May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Nick Batzdorf
FireWire Mixing and Automation for Your DAW
A control surface/FireWire audio/MIDI interface describes most of what Tascam's FW-1884 does, but there wouldn't be enough space on the box if the product name were to paint the whole picture of its functions. It's a 4×;4 MIDI interface/patchbay, 18×10 24-bit/96kHz-capable audio interface and motorized DAW controller. Essentially, the FW-1884 and a computer running ASIO-compatible DAW software can become an integrated production rig. In a second mode, the FW-1884 functions as a stand-alone digital monitor mixer, and in a third mode, it becomes a MIDI control surface. You can easily program sends for each physical control on the surface.
Connected to a computer, audio and data run down a single 6-foot FireWire cable. (Fifteen feet is the specified maximum.) You can use the FW-1884 on Mac OS 9 or X and Windows 2000 or XP. As of this writing, MOTU Digital Performer 2.7 and above, Emagic Logic 6.1 and above and Cakewalk Sonar offer dedicated FW-1884 drivers and can use its native control surface codes. For other DAWs, the unit emulates a Mackie Control or Mackie HUI.
PEAKING UNDER THE HOOD
The I/O comprises eight balanced XLR mic/line inputs with unbalanced inserts on a TRS send/return cable, eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O (switchable to S/PDIF optical), coaxial S/PDIF I/O and eight balanced TRS analog outputs. Phantom power is switchable in groups of four channels, and word clock I/O lets the unit play with other digital equipment in a larger setup.
The unit's monitor section offers a level encoder that can be switched to control two, six or all eight of the analog outputs. This allows it to be used for stereo, 5.1 surround plus cue mix or aux sends, or even eight channels of surround.
Surround monitoring makes the FW-1884 fit a number of post-production — related applications that don't need a conventional mixer, such as voice-over or Foley work. Its most likely application is for MIDI and overdubs in a musician's project studio, with the unit performing double-duty as a small digital monitor mixer for live gigs.
The FW-1884 comes with a teaser 24-voice version of Tascam GigaSampler software, which turns a PC with a GSIF-compatible soundcard into a disk-streaming sampler. If you use GigaSampler or other software instruments in a multi-computer setup, the FW-1884's ADAT Lightpipe port is a logical place to plug in a soundcard's outputs.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
It's easy to fill two MIDI ports if you have numerous software instruments running on a computer. But anyone who's using the unit's four MIDI I/Os will need more than its eight analog inputs to accommodate all of those synthesizers. In this instance, there are several affordable 8x analog-to-Lightpipe converters available on the market. An old ADAT you have hanging around would also unlock eight more inputs and may solve the problem.
The FW-1884's surface boasts nine touch-sensitive motorized faders: eight in the standard channel strips and a master, which isn't active in HUI mode because it's not part of the protocol. Like all control surfaces of this ilk, you can scroll the eight regular faders up and down in banks of eight tracks or one at a time, thus accessing many more than eight tracks.
There are eight rotary encoders that change function, depending on which array of lighted buttons you push: pan or auxes 1 through 8. A Flip button temporarily swaps functions, assigning the auxes to the faders and channel volume to the rotary encoders.
Other buttons include an array of keyboard equivalents — shift, option, cut, paste, etc. — and a button to call up the unit's control panel, which only worked at 44.1/48kHz sample rates under Mac OS 9 on the test Quicksilver PowerMac G4. Without listing all of the buttons and knobs, there's also an EQ control section with buttons to select the band and encoders to adjust the frequency, Q and gain; transport and shuttle controls; edit in/out points and nudging; and a rotary jog/shuttle wheel.
Whether the controls actually do what's screened on the surface depends on the software being controlled. This becomes a very minor issue after you spend some time with the unit as you don't look at the labels once you learn your way around.
The FW-1884 also has a stereo 12-stage plus overload meter, and signal present and overload lights on each of the eight channels. There are no V-pots with lighted spokes to indicate rotary encoder positions, nor are there electronic scribble strips that reflect the onscreen track names in the DAW.
To get around that, Tascam has written a rather clever program for OS X called SoftLCD that runs in the foreground and shows the name of the currently selected track. Some DAWs indicate, in one way or another, which eight tracks are remote-controlled. Digidesign's Pro Tools, for example, draws a blue line around the selected tracks. Between SoftLCD and your DAW's graphics, you shouldn't miss the scribble strips too much.
With the exception of the fader bank switches' location and operation (you must hold down a modifier to scroll by individual channels), the control surface's ergonomics are sound. I also agree with Tascam's choices regarding which features to implement or leave out, such as the decision to not make the control surface insert plug-ins remotely. Rather than overdesigning the FW-1884, Tascam correctly treats the computer screen, keyboard and mouse like the useful controllers that they are.
If you prefer to do less scrolling, Tascam offers an optional 8-fader add-on unit: the FE-8 Expander. You can connect up to 15 of them for that big 128-channel controller that you've always wanted.
To get a feel for the FW-1884's sound, I recorded cello, recorder, acoustic guitar, percussion, and sung and spoken voice into it. The FW-1884's sonics are clean and neutral, with an input path that's clearly better than the first-generation FireWire interface I used for comparison. Its mic pre's have about 56 dB of gain, which is healthy, and its headphone amp is powerful enough to drive low-impedance headphones at a decent level.
The performance of any native audio interface depends on the host computer, but I was able to record all 18 tracks at 96 kHz while playing back another 18 channels on a dual 1GHz G4 PowerMac. It wasn't hard to make the system gag at 96k by looping a two-bar section with a certifiably insane amount of automation, but at 44.1 kHz, a similar loop played back with only slight hiccups at the loop's beginning. If your computer is modern enough to have good FireWire implementation, then you're not likely to encounter glitches — unless the faders are doing aerobics.
MORE FOR YOUR MONEY
I checked the system on Mac OS 9 in a variety of programs — Steinberg Nuendo, Digidesign Pro Tools (in HUI mode), Emagic Logic and an old version of MOTU Digital Performer — without encountering any problems other than the minor ones mentioned above. Perfunctory tests (I only have one foot in OS X at this stage) showed it also worked fine with Logic Audio on Mac OS X Panther.
Retailing at $1,599, the FW-1884 sells for just over what you would pay for a comparable FireWire audio interface without a motorized control surface or built-in 4-port MIDI interface/patchbay. Tascam has hit the sweet spot for a lot of applications, making it a solid contender for a variety of users in search of a versatile DAW control.
Tascam, 323/726-0303, fax: 323/727-7635, www.tascam.com.
Nick Batzdorf is a composer, producer, engineer and writer living in Los Angeles.
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