The portastudio meets the computer.
In spite of USB's lukewarm reception in some quarters, innovative developers continue to do amazing things with the beleaguered protocol. Tascam's US-428 digital-audio workstation (DAW) controller, which was developed in partnership with Frontier Design Group, manages to squeeze six 24-bit audio streams, 32 MIDI channels, and a sizable amount of control information through the USB pipeline. The Tascam unit not only fulfills USB's promises of cross-platform compatibility, hot-swappability, notebook and desktop interchangeability, and easy configuration but also exceeds the bus's charter as a pathway for low-bandwidth devices (see Fig. 1).
The Tascam US-428 is a good choice for someone building a home studio around a desktop or notebook computer. Its combination of audio interface, MIDI interface, sequencing software, and control surface provides a complete package at an affordable price.
The Tascam unit's A and B inputs consist of two balanced XLR mic connections and a separate set of two balanced ¼-inch TRS line connections (see Fig. 2). You could actually use both sets at the same time, though Tascam doesn't recommend doing that because the signals are summed in each channel, which may cause distortion. The C and D inputs are unbalanced ¼-inch connections that are switchable between line-level and high-impedance settings. The digital input uses an S/PDIF coaxial connection, which takes the place of the C and D analog inputs when selected by a front-panel button.
That complement of the Tascam US-428's input connections lets you record various sources — such as keyboards, guitars, mics, and DAT recorders — without much fuss. The only caveat is that if you want to use a condenser mic, you need an outboard phantom power supply.
A front-panel trim-control knob is provided for each input channel; input-level LEDs indicate signal presence and overload. The Signal LED lights up when input exceeds -42 dBFS, and the Overload LED warns of anything more than -2.5 dBFS. When digital input is selected, the trim controls on inputs C and D are bypassed.
Only one pair of audio output channels is available on the US-428, but it's available at three stereo connections: a headphone jack, analog RCA jacks, and a coaxial S/PDIF jack. All three outputs carry the same signal simultaneously, so you can split the signal to different destinations. For example, you could easily have the RCA outputs connected to your control-room monitors while recording the digital output to a DAT deck. Separate line out and headphone volume controls effectively give you independent level control over the three outputs, because the level of the US-428's digital output is determined by the application's master output level.
Four MIDI ports (two In, two Out) round out the Tascam US-428's back panel, providing 32 independent MIDI I/O channels. The US-428 uses MIDI for its control protocol, but the signal is carried by the USB connection, leaving the MIDI ports free for keyboards and other devices.
The Tascam US-428's control surface is a model of efficient design. Everything is close enough to everything else that you can operate it with one hand while your other hand is on your computer keyboard or mouse. That was my preferred mode of operation, because although the US-428 provides a great deal of control, it still falls short of completely replacing the traditional keyboard-and-mouse interface.
At your fingertips are eight channel faders and one Master fader. Each channel fader has an associated Mute button and Select button. The Master fader has two buttons that control the behavior of the channel faders' buttons: the Solo button switches the Mute buttons to function as Solo buttons, and the Record button works with the Select buttons to record-enable tracks. The Tascam unit provides only one Pan knob; it affects the selected channel.
Standard transport controls are located within easy reach of the faders. Raised markings on the buttons make it possible to operate the transport without looking. Buttons above the transport controls let you set locate points and jump forward or backward to them. Bank increment and decrement buttons move the focus of the faders left or right to any set of eight adjacent onscreen MIDI or audio channels. Above the Bank buttons, a Jog wheel doubles as a data-entry wheel.
The Tascam US-428's EQ section provides quick access to useful tone-shaping functions. Buttons let you select among four frequency bands; three rotary knobs are dedicated to gain, frequency, and Q (bandwidth) for the selected band. To the right of the EQ controls are four Aux buttons, three assignable Function keys, and the Assign button that determines which other buttons are active.
As a notebook-recording enthusiast, my initial fascination with the Tascam US-428 was based on its merits as a USB audio interface. Getting four channels of 24-bit audio into my laptop while monitoring two 24-bit output channels sounded like a dream come true. The dream faded a bit, though, when I learned that I would have to upgrade my operating system to use the device.
Initial publicity for the Tascam US-428 (as well as the box and manual I received with the review unit) claimed compatibility with Windows 98. However, Microsoft's implementation of the USB protocol didn't deliver acceptable results with the first edition of Windows 98, so when Tascam added Windows ME and Windows 2000 support to version 2.0 of the US-428 drivers, it stopped supporting anything prior to Windows 98 SE. Tascam's Web site now makes that clear.
I therefore plugged the US-428 into my desktop computer running Windows 98 SE. The Tascam US-428 driver showed up in my audio and MIDI programs and worked perfectly as an audio and MIDI interface, even in programs that don't yet support its mixing and transport controls.
Like most current audio interfaces, the Tascam US-428 features direct-input monitoring to avoid the latency of monitoring an input signal after it has been digitized and squeezed through the CPU. When you press the Input Monitor button, the unit's first four faders control the direct-output level of the four inputs, letting you set up a monitor mix quickly and easily. Those settings are reflected in the US-428's Control Panel applet (see Fig. 3). The Control Panel applet also lets you save as many as four snapshots of input-monitor level, pan, and mute settings and load any of those or your last-used settings on startup. Unfortunately, the snapshots are available only through the Control Panel software and not directly from the US-428 control surface.
As an audio interface, the Tascam US-428 doesn't disappoint. Its preamps and converters have a nice neutral sound comparable to other similarly priced audio interfaces. To start coloring the sound, use a tube preamp connected to the US-428's balanced ¼-inch line inputs. In the unlikely event that you decide the unit's A/D converters are the weak link in your recording chain, use the S/PDIF jack to input signals from a standalone converter.
Mixing with the Tascam US-428 is a cool experience for anyone who has ever cursed the impracticality of mixing with a mouse. Eight channels are within your control at a time, and the next eight channels are only a button press away. You can automate fader and knob adjustments (to the extent that your software supports them), though the US-428's faders aren't motorized and therefore won't track previously written automation.
Nevertheless, just controlling Start, Stop, Record, and Locate functions from traditional transport controls is much better than clicking on onscreen graphic representations. Using keyboard hotkeys for transport functions has become second nature to me, but I still find the Tascam US-428's transport controls more comfortable.
That liberating experience didn't come without a price, though. After my initial successful installation of the US-428, I suddenly discovered that the controls no longer affected the software. The audio interface worked, MIDI communication was fine, and the software seemed to behave properly if I used the mouse and keyboard.
The Tascam tech support people were helpful and attentive, but at first, they were at a loss to identify the problem. In the full version of Steinberg Cubase VST, you select the US-428 as a VST Remote device, but I was using the bundled version of Cubasis VST (a special version called Cubasis VST US-428), which, according to the manual, “will automatically recognize the US-428 as a remote controller unit.” It did recognize it for the first day or two, but then it developed amnesia (a software, not a hardware, problem). At any rate, no setting was available to cause Cubasis to recognize the control surface.
The telltale clue came when, in frustration, I reopened the Cubasis demo song and discovered that the remote controls worked properly. I deleted the data from that song, saved it as a Cubasis default template, and the problem was solved. Cubasis starts from a template called DEF.ALL, and the automatic recognition of the Tascam US-428's control features is built into the template that ships with the bundled version. My DEF.ALL file must have become corrupted. After I reverse-engineered a new one, however, everything worked properly.
Because Cubasis VST US-428 is installed from a single archive file, you can't simply go to the CD and retrieve a fresh DEF.ALL file if you run into problems. You will have to back up your DEF.ALL file as soon as you complete the software installation; then, you can restore the file easily.
ALL MIXED UP
Without motorized faders, updating mix automation can be difficult. The moment you move a fader, it starts writing its current value, and the odds of that value matching the current written value can be pretty slim. To solve that problem, the Tascam US-428 lets you match the faders with existing automation. The Fader Null button “disconnects” the faders, so you can adjust them to the currently written value. In that mode, the Record and Select LEDs serve as up and down indicators, letting you know which way to adjust. When you match the current value, both LEDs light. That is also handy when you switch from one bank of faders to another.
Using the EQ and effects controls was a bit less convenient than using the faders and the transport controls. One reason is that the controls don't work exactly as described in the documentation. Another is that the sequence of keys that you must press is a bit strange until you get used to it.
To adjust an EQ setting, press the desired channel's Select button, followed by the Assign button, and then the button for the desired EQ band. Cubasis VST supplies just two EQ bands, though the US-428 has four dedicated EQ-band buttons. (High-end programs such as Cubase VST make use of all four bands.) To enable an EQ band, press Assign again, followed by the High or Low band button. With so many button presses, setting the EQ can be cumbersome, and important details about using the buttons are frustratingly absent from the documentation.
The aux sends work similarly; you use the Aux 1 or Aux 2 buttons to enable them (four buttons are available, but Cubasis VST supports only two sends). The Jog/Data wheel controls the send level when an aux send is active, or you can use the mouse to adjust the send level. Unfortunately, no control for channel-insert effects is available, nor is there any way to select a plug-in or control its parameters from the US-428 under Cubasis VST.
WIDE WORLD OF SUPPORT
My beefs about the Tascam US-428 are pretty minor and are mainly aimed at the bundled Cubasis VST application. If you use the US-428 with more sophisticated software, your experience may be significantly different.
Tascam deserves accolades for trying to generate widespread support for the US-428. Its control protocol uses MIDI controller and SysEx messages similar to those used by the JLCooper CS-10, offering developers a familiar foundation from which to work. Tascam's Web site lists the support status for popular applications and offers documentation and support files necessary for using the US-428 with those programs.
Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer and Digidesign's Pro Tools use the Tascam US-428 in ways that go beyond the basic functions that Cubasis VST implements. They use the available buttons in combinations that activate zoom controls, data-selection controls, and plug-in-parameter controls. With those programs, the US-428 really starts to earn the name DAW controller.
Unfortunately for PC users, Cakewalk's Sonar is limited to a user-developed StudioWare panel. Although much credit is due to the user who developed the panel, it has some bothersome quirks. For example, it delivers sluggish response and needs to be jump-started by a sequence of button presses each time it's opened. (According to Tascam, Cakewalk has promised a greater level of support in the near future.)
One appealing application is the pairing of the US-428 with Native Instruments' B4 virtual tonewheel organ. By selecting the B4 protocol in the US-428 Control Panel applet, you can use the channel faders to control the organ's drawbars. Various buttons and knobs control vibrato on and off, motor speed, percussion, and amp settings.
A year ago, I would have considered buying the Tascam US-428 for its audio interface alone, but the competition has heated. My enthusiasm for the US-428 as a home-studio starter kit is dampened by the choice of Cubasis VST as the bundled software. In addition to points already mentioned, Cubasis VST lets only one stereo or mono audio track record at a time, wasting the US-428's four-input capability.
Even though the US-428 has been on the market since September 2000, the promised Mac version of Cubasis VST is not available as of this writing; Tascam provides Mac users with BIAS Deck LE instead. In fairness, though, those bundled entry-level programs are intended to offer users an introduction to computer-based recording and perhaps whet their appetites for more powerful software that can take greater advantage of the hardware.
As a hard-disk recording interface, the Tascam US-428 manages to pack a good deal of functionality into a unit with a reasonable price tag. The versatile audio I/O options and excellent audio quality are big assets, and the control surface is generally well designed. If it works well with the software you like to use, you'll be delighted to reduce your mouse dependency. As support for the US-428 grows, it should become even more tempting.
Brian Smithers is associate course director of MIDI at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida. Contact him through his Web site,http://members.aol.com/notebooks1.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: PPC; 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended); OS 8.6.1 or later (no OS X support); USB port
PC: Pentium/200 (Pentium II/300 recommended); 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended); Windows 98 SE/ME/2000; USB port
Analog Inputs(2) balanced XLR mic-level; (2) balanced ¼" line-level (+4 dBu); (2) unbalanced ¼" switchable between line-level and high impedance (-10 dBV)Analog Outputs(2) unbalanced RCA (-10 dBV); (1) ¼" stereo headphoneDigital I/O(1) S/PDIF coaxial RCA stereo in; (1) S/PDIF coaxial RCA stereo outResolution16-bit; 24-bitSampling Rates44.1, 48 kHzFrequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (+0.5, -0.3 dB)Total Harmonic Distortion<0.07% @ 1 kHz (mic A/B to line out)Noise LevelBetter than -88 dBu A weightedMIDI I/O(2) In; (2) OutDimensions11.5" (W) × 14" (H) × 3.25" (D)Weight4.5 lbs.
digital-audio interface/control surface
FEATURES3.5AUDIO QUALITY4.0EASE OF USE4.0VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Sounds good. Simple USB connection. Automated mixing capability. Great laptop audio solution. Flexible audio inputs. Control protocol open to third-party developers.
CONS: Bundled PC application doesn't record four simultaneous inputs. Setting EQ and aux sends is cumbersome. Documentation is incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.