TASCAM FW-1884

Control surfaces such as Tascam's multifunctional FW-1884 were practically nonexistent five years ago. Today, most studios perform all their mixing and
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FIG. 1: FireWire connects the Tascam FW-1884 to a Mac or a PC, giving DAW users an 18-channel audio interface, a multiport MIDI interface, and a control surface with motorized faders. The top panel organizes controls in functional groups, with channel strips in the middle and transport controls on the lower-right side.

Control surfaces such as Tascam's multifunctional FW-1884 were practically nonexistent five years ago. Today, most studios perform all their mixing and other audio chores within a digital audio workstation (DAW). Audio I/O is still necessary, and for most work, tactile mixing control is preferable to mixing using a mouse and keyboard. Monitoring latency is a traditional weakness of DAWs.

Those issues, as well as the advantages of MIDI control, are addressed by the FW-1884 (see Fig. 1), which was codeveloped by Tascam and Frontier Designs. The control surface has motorized faders, as many as 18 channels of audio I/O, MIDI controller capabilities, a 44 MIDI router and merger, and extensive support for major DAWs. FireWire connects the compact desktop unit to a Mac or a PC. Furthermore, the FW-1884 works as a standalone 182 monitor mixer.

HOB KNOB

Buttons allowing access to various FW-1884 functions and essential keyboard shortcuts are located at the top of the panel's left side. The middle contains the channel-strip area, and the right side contains the master section.

Each channel strip has a preamp trim pot; a motorized, touch-sensitive 100 mm fader; Mute, Solo, and Select buttons; a rotary encoder; and signal present, overload, and record-ready LED indicators. You can add as many as 15 optional FE-8 expanders ($1,249 each) to the FW-1884; each expander adds eight more strips, for a maximum of 128 channel strips.

Two button arrays are located on the panel's left side. The top array assigns each channel's rotary encoder to control panning or aux-send level in the DAW. The Flip button swaps the fader and rotary encoder functions on a channel strip. The bottom array puts many fundamental keyboard shortcuts at your fingertips — cut, copy, paste, undo, loop, drop marker, and so forth — and offers modifier keys such as Shift, Control, and Alt/Command.

Master monitoring-level knobs are located at the top of the Master section. Below are knobs and buttons for controlling EQ and plug-ins. The motorized master fader is below those knobs. The transport section has traditional full-size transport buttons, an assortment of other transport related buttons (Nudge, Locate, and Set In and -Out points), a jog/scrub wheel, and control keys (cursor and bank-switch arrows). A group of eight buttons above the transport section perform system functions (clock configuration, monitoring control, and automation control). There are also buttons for selecting modes, status indicators for MIDI routing and digital connections, and two 12-LED ladders for master stereo output metering. The FW-1884 doesn't have a graphic or an alphanumeric display, but the supplied Soft LCD shows a scribble-strip-type display for the FW-1884's controls on your computer monitor.

SLIP OUT THE BACK, JACK

The FW-1884 accepts eight channels of analog audio in and out, eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe in and out, and stereo coaxial S/PDIF in and out. All 18 ports appear in your DAW like any other audio I/O. Each analog input channel has balanced XLR mic and TRS line inputs and a TRS insert jack. Both inputs are simultaneously active, so there's no mic/line switch. A switch on channel 8 turns the TRS input into a high-impedance (1 M) instrument input, essentially a guitar DI. You can switch 48V phantom power on and off in 4-channel groups. The FW-1884 converts analog audio to 24 bits at sampling rates as high as 96 kHz.

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FIG. 2: All of the FW-1884''s I/O connections are on the rear panel. Each channel has balanced 1⁄4-inch and XLR jacks that you can use simultaneously. Four sets of MIDI In and Out ports accommodate 64 MIDI channels.

In your DAW software, you can assign the eight +4 dBu balanced TRS outputs as combinations of stereo outputs, surround outputs, aux sends, and so on. Eight outputs allow you to stream stereo and 5.1 outputs simultaneously.

The rear panel has two FireWire ports, four MIDI In and four MIDI Out ports, word-clock input (with termination) and output on BNC connectors, a ¼-inch headphone jack, a ¼-inch footswitch jack, and a power switch (see Fig. 2).

DUAL-BOOT INSTALLATION

Hardware installation of the FW-1884 couldn't be simpler. All you have to do is connect it to your computer's FireWire port and to the rest of your equipment's MIDI, audio, and word-clock connections. For me, however, software installation was more complicated.

When I received my review unit, updated software was available; that's not uncommon with new products. First, I downloaded and ran a firmware update from Tascam's Web site. Because I was transitioning from Mac OS 9 to OS X on my dual-processor Power Mac G4/800 MHz, I ran the latest installers for both operating systems and the control-surface driver installers for MOTU Digital Performer (DP) — one for DP 3.1 in OS 9 and one for DP4 in OS X — in order to use Native protocol (I used DP versions 3.11 and 4.12).

Right away I encountered some setup problems as a result of incomplete documentation. Although DAW-specific application notes on the included CD-ROM contain important setup information, the FW-1884 Setup Guide never directly refers you to them. Furthermore, the application notes failed to list the files required for operation and where they should be installed.

In OS 9.2.2, the FW-1884 didn't show up in FreeMIDI even though the appropriate driver was in the proper location. After considerable poking around, I discovered two checkboxes in the FreeMIDI Preferences dialog box that enabled the FW-1884. Those settings were neither documented nor mentioned by any of the three Tascam support staff members I spoke with. In fact, according to Tascam, its support staff has never encountered another Mac OS 9 user with the same problem.

Fortunately, while I struggled with the OS 9 problem, I got the FW-1884 working with DP 4.12 under OS X 10.3.2, but I still had problems. DAW control and MIDI worked but audio did not. The FW-1884's inputs and outputs showed up correctly in DP's menus, but no audio was passing.

After I called tech support, I discovered that the FW-1884 had trouble working with my system's MOTU PCI-424 card and attached interfaces. Apple's Core Audio supports multiple audio drivers, and MOTU software can combine Fire-Wire and PCI-424-attached interfaces, but the problem was related to the hardware, not the driver. When I physically removed the PCI-424 card from my Mac, the FW-1884's audio worked fine. Tascam representatives say that they hadn't previously documented that incompatibility because they were unaware of it.

MAJOR MODES

Tascam divides the FW-1884's functionality into three modes: Computer Control (for DAWs), MIDI Control, and Monitor Mix. The FW-1884 can control DAWs using its Native protocol or it can emulate the Mackie HUI or Mackie Control protocols; my comments in this review apply to Native protocol.

In Computer Control mode, the channel strips control DAW mixer functions in 8-channel banks. You select which bank the channel strips currently control using the Bank buttons. The host software determines the number of banks, and as many as 64 banks are available in DP. Level, pan, solo, mute, and even track arming are instantly controllable. Onboard track arming speeds up recording sessions, and I'm happy to see that feature here.

The DAW you use determines which functions the FW-1884 provides. Tascam's Web site currently has downloads supporting Native protocol for DP (version 2.7 and above), Cakewalk Sonar (version 2.20 and above), and Emagic/Apple Logic (Platinum 6.0 and above). You can use the HUI or Mackie Control protocols for additional DAWs that support those programs.

In DP, the FW-1884 can drop loop and punch-in points and change automation modes and standard transport and channel functions. The implementation for Sonar appears to be similar. The Logic implementation is deeper and more complex.

MIDI Control mode allows nearly all of the FW-1884's physical controllers to become assignable MIDI controllers. You can program their assignments using the FW-1884's control software, which is accessed through the Control Panel shortcut button prominently placed on the top panel. Programming a number of MIDI controllers is tedious with any system, but it's not difficult on the FW-1884.

In Monitor Mix mode, the 18 analog and digital inputs are returned through the control surface's faders and mixed to analog outputs 1 and 2. The mix can also be routed to the S/PDIF and ADAT outputs. That mode is convenient for no-latency monitoring when you're recording into a DAW. Monitor mixing is a standalone function that lets you use the FW-1884 without having to connect the computer.

Once again, though, the documentation was confusing: the manual mentions that DAW audio is also mixed into the monitor mix, but it says nothing further, which left me sussing out how the routing and mixing worked. In addition, Tascam's Application Guide states that audio from the DAW can be mixed in the FW-1884 along with other inputs, such as an outboard reverb, and bused back to the DAW to be bounced to disk; there is, however, no way to bus the FW-1884's monitor mix back to the computer. Perhaps technical issues ruled out this feature, but it is a missed opportunity. You can mix 18 inputs down to 2, but you can't route that mix into the computer, which, for instance, precludes submixing a number of live drum mics down to a smaller number of DAW tracks.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

The FW-1884 has a mechanically solid, well-thought-out set of controls. It has the necessary hardware for a clean look and an intuitive feel at a good price, while providing sufficiently deep control to fulfill the device's raisons d'être. The trick is making deeper features accessible without digging through multiple levels of software, which is especially imperative since the FW-1884 lacks a display. Tascam performed well in that area: there are second-level functions for many buttons and controls, but it takes no more than one extra keystroke to access them.

One area that is lacking in good functionality is metering. A pair of 12-segment LED ladders can display the monitor bus output levels, but I'd rather meter individual channel inputs. Another disappointing feature was the lack of ability to locate markers in DP after you dropped them. I can control the transport, arm tracks, and drop punch or loop points from the FW-1884, but I had to use the computer to locate markers. Of course, nonsequential locating capabilities would require a 10-key pad, which is another feature that I missed.

The FW-1884 achieves ease of use and efficiency in part by not being overly ambitious in scope. In day-to-day operations with the FW-1884, you will still frequently use the keyboard and mouse, making their placement important. Although some operations, such as microediting automation data, are best performed with a keyboard and mouse, my preference is to do virtually all of my transport and location functions, track-record arming, and automation control without taking my hands away from the control surface. The FW-1884 does pretty well in that area, but it did not allow me to make time selections for editing, which caused me to have to switch back and forth between the control surface and the keyboard and mouse.

I could continue listing loose ends that I would have liked to see tied up (for example, the FW-1884 has a single-level Undo button while DP has unlimited Undo capability), but it is obvious that some compromises were necessary to keep the product affordable.

The DP applications notes mention using the aux 5 through 8 buttons as programmable keys, in conjunction with DP's Remote Controls window, to access functions not addressed by the FW-1884's dedicated controls. Aside from the fact that DP's Commands window replaced the Remote Controls window in version 3 a while ago, I expected that the programmable keys would be programmable. But there is no information on how to program them. I can, however, map them in the Commands window just like any other source of Mac keystrokes (or MIDI notes). That capability let me plug a few of the gaps I'd found, such as opening the Edit History window or grabbing the counter readout and copying it to DP's selection start or end fields. Had the manual simply stated “Use DP's Commands window to map the FW-1884's virtual Mac keys to additional functions,” it would have been a much clearer process.

Keep in mind that the FW-1884's sole purpose is to integrate with and enhance third-party products. That puts Tascam in the unenviable and challenging position of providing the ability to interface with different control protocols and accommodate each supported DAW's idiosyncrasies. I don't question the difficulty of following the lead of other companies in this quest, but in the end, the usefulness of the FW-1884 hinges on how deeply and smoothly it works with your DAW software and MIDI hardware, regardless of where the fault lies for limitations and problems.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

The FW-1884 is a good value and offers a well-rounded package of functionality. The A/D/A converters are of good quality, as they are on many recent audio products. The FW-1884's small footprint is ideal for studios in which space is a premium. The software is generally intuitive and easy to use (with a few minor exceptions), and the only genuine bugs I found were trivial. The multiport MIDI interface is basic but convenient, and it integrated easily with my MOTU MTP/AV MIDI interfaces.

I encountered my greatest difficulties with the FW-1884 as a result of missing or unclear information in the documentation. I've mentioned some examples, but I repeatedly encountered problems that were resolved once I either figured them out on my own or tech support provided undocumented information. For instance, although the DP applications notes mentioned assigning the FW-1884's master fader to various DP faders, the document never told me that unless the DP session had a master fader, the FW-1884's master fader would stay all the way down, effectively muting the FW-1884's stereo output. As soon as I put a master fader into the session, it was linked to the FW-1884's and worked nicely.

Before you purchase the FW-1884, be certain that it performs the functions that you want it to. Define your expectations, and then ask your dealer to demonstrate features or ask Tascam to explain them. Do not rely on the written materials to give you the whole story.

The documentation problems had a real impact on my experience with the FW-1884. As a result, I had to do a lot of detective work and tail chasing. The good news is that documentation problems should be the easiest for Tascam to fix. Even if the manual isn't rewritten (which would be the best solution), supplying more thorough application notes could help to minimize head-scratching and unhappy surprises.

Tascam has assembled a well-balanced and much-needed set of functions in a compact device at an affordable price. The FW-1884 is a product for its times and will meet the needs of many individuals who are trying to establish better control of their DAW-based studios.

Larry the Ohas been reviewing products for EM for a very long time.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Tascam

FW-1884
control surface/audio/MIDI interface
$1,599

FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE3.5AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Audio interface, DAW control, and MIDI control in one box. Good feel. Full-size transport buttons and smooth jog/scrub wheel. Works with most DAWs. Sampling rates to a maximum of 96 kHz. Remote track arming. Standalone mixing. Expandable.

CONS: Insufficient documentation. Minimal metering. Limited marker location. Incompatible with some audio cards. No graphic or alphanumeric display.

Manufacturer

Tascam
Tel.: (323) 726-0303
Web: www.tascam.com

FW-1884 Specifications

Sampling Rates 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz Sampling Resolution 24 bits Analog Inputs (8) balanced XLR, 48V phantom powered; (8) balanced ¼" TRS; (8) unbalanced ¼" TRS inserts Analog Outputs (8) balanced ¼" TRS; (1) ¼" stereo headphones Digital I/O (1) coaxial S/PDIF I/O; (1) ADAT Lightpipe (switchable to optical S/PDIF) I/O MIDI (4) MIDI In; (4) MIDI Out Other Connectors (1) word sync in; (1) word sync out; (1) ¼" TS footswitch; (2) FireWire Faders (9) 100 mm motorized, touch-sensitive Power 100, 120, 230, 240 VAC Dimensions 22.9" (W) ▸ 5.4" (H) ▸ 18.9" (D) Weight 22.7 lbs.