Features, flexibility, and quality combine in a competitive DAW.Yamaha's impressive AW4416 Professional Audio Workstation takes portable digital studios

Features, flexibility, and quality combine in a competitive DAW.

Yamaha's impressive AW4416 Professional Audio Workstation takes portable digital studios to a new level. With features worthy of a professional recording studio - including an extraordinarily flexible 24-channel digital mixer and a 16-track hard disk recorder that can record on all 16 tracks simultaneously - it offers quality and control that are tough to beat for the price.

The AW4416 records 16- or 24-bit uncompressed audio at 44.1 or 48 kHz. You get stereo digital input and output, built-in SCSI for backup, dynamic and scene automation, motorized faders, and a bevy of handy sampling pads. There's plenty of processing power, too, including two onboard multi-effects processors and 4-band parametric EQ and dynamics processing on each channel. If you fill the slot in the front of the unit with an optional CD-RW drive ($200), you can take your music from inception to CD without leaving your desk.

The machine does have its limitations, especially with regard to editing, but it is impressive nevertheless.

AT FIRST GLANCERight away, I was impressed with the AW4416's appearance (see Fig. 1). Banks of buttons and knobs spread across the surface of an attractive silver wedge. A soft rubberized mat surrounds the faders and transport controls. Labeling is clear and easy on the eyes. Everything feels solid, too; the buttons offer a reassuring resistance, switches emit a satisfying click, and the knobs appear robust. This machine came to play.

I like to dig right in before cracking a book, so it was fortunate that Yamaha taped a note in a conspicuous place, warning of disaster if I powered up before installing the hard drive. Up to 64 gigabytes can be installed on easily swappable 2.5-inch IDE drives. Installing the drive and the optional CD-RW burner was not too much of a challenge, but give the job to a tech if you're easily intimidated.

AROUND AND AGAINInputs 1 and 2 on the rear-panel jackfield sport both XLR and TRS connectors with insert points (see Fig. 2). The remaining inputs just have TRS jacks, but their levels range from -46 to +4 dB, still good enough to function as mic preamps. (Yamaha used TRS jacks to save space.) This arrangement works if you're wiring up a room with a patch bay and the necessary cables, but I'd like the option of plugging all my mic cables directly in to the AW4416. In addition, the lack of full-featured microphone inputs meant that when doing multitrack remote recording, I had to use an auxiliary mixer to record a rhythm section, which was kind of a blow to the all-in-one philosophy.

All channels feature dedicated trim pots and peak LEDs on the top panel. A rear-mounted switch handles phantom power for inputs 1 and 2, but I wish there was a status LED.

Input-channel 8 has a second unbalanced 1/4-inch jack for electric guitars, basses, and other electric instruments. Naturally, I checked this out right away. I plugged in my trusty Gibson ES-150 and inserted an amp-simulation effect from one of the onboard processors. The quick-and-dirty crunch sounded pretty good, though it wouldn't fool a purist.

Directly below the inputs are a pair of RCA tape-out jacks, four unbalanced 1/4-inch Omni assignable outputs, and a pair of +4 dBu balanced TRS monitor outs. Why does Yamaha use both balanced and unbalanced connections? Is the unit intended for consumers or pros? The answer, of course, is that it's suitable for both types of users.

Rounding out the rear panel are two option slots, a stereo headphone jack, S/PDIF in and out, word clock in and out, jacks for a footswitch and a 9-pin mouse, a serial connection for a pre-USB Mac or PC, and a SCSI port. There's also a trio of MIDI jacks.

A glance at the front panel reveals the AW4416's heritage. If you're familiar with Yamaha's digital mixers, particularly the 02R, you should feel right at home.

Measuring approximately 3.5 by 4.5 inches, the main display handles anything from waveform displays to information about routing to silly little graphics. Kudos to Yamaha for getting so much information into such a small space. There are three ways of accessing different pages: pressing a selection button repeatedly, pressing function keys immediately below the main display, or using the optional mouse. A second display is dedicated to showing levels for the recorder tracks and main outputs, counter location, clock source, and other useful details.

The AW4416 has more than a hundred buttons and knobs, including four knobs dedicated to hands-on control of pan and parametric EQ. Some buttons control seemingly unrelated functions; for example, the EQ button also accesses pages for fader and mute groups. Likewise, the Dynamics screens contain pages for channel polarity and track offset. It may take a while to get used to this sort of multilevel functionality.

The 60 mm motorized faders serve a variety of functions, operating inputs 1 to 24, aux sends or returns, and returns from the recorder. Change a scene or mode, and the faders instantly jump into position, eliminating any doubt about their settings. Watching while they magically retrace a complex mix is downright hypnotic.

FLEXIBLE ROUTINGFlexible signal routing is the AW4416's key strength. Mixer input choices include those you'd expect - analog ins, S/PDIF in, the sampling pads, the option slots - and one you might not: an internal metronome (see Fig. 3).

The multiplicity of output routing options conjures up some interesting scenarios. You can use the option slots to transfer all 16 tracks to a pair of ADATs, which lets you archive your tracks to inexpensive S-VHS tape and to send them to another studio, for example. You can route an aux send through S/PDIF to and from an outboard effects processor and use the main outputs as an extra headphone mix for that picky banjo player.

Up to 20 routing maps can be stored for instant recall. This is handy if you're faced with numerous patching situations in your daily routine. Unlike user patches for scenes, EQ, dynamics, and effects - which are saved as song data - the routing libraries are always available.

TAKING IT ALL INThanks to the default busing assignments, basic recording tasks are relatively painless. These defaults are all many users will ever need, but almost any kind of busing and routing option is easy to set up and store for later recall (see Fig. 4).

The transport section features friendly tape-style controls. A matrix of buttons manages loops, auto punch, and up to 99 locate points per song. Auto punch is superbly easy to use: I was able to set punch-in and punch-out points, then roll back and fix a mistake in less time than it took to write this sentence.

With the ability to simultaneously record on all 16 tracks, the AW4416 is a serious contender in the desktop-studio world. Quick Record makes recording completely trouble free: pressing one button arms all 16 tracks and routes the inputs directly to the recorder, with a choice of inputs from the analog jacks or the option slots. The Quick Record feature wasn't especially useful, though; rarely do I find myself in a situation where I don't need to assign tracks in a more organized manner.

Each of the 16 physical tracks has up to 8 associated virtual tracks, and there is a stereo track for the finished mix. The virtual tracks let you record multiple takes and later choose which to include in the mix. This greatly expands your options. Of course, only one virtual track may be played at a time for each physical track.

Virtual tracks can be a real problem solver. I knew I could construct a lead vocal track from alternate virtual tracks by copying them to two or more open tracks, then editing those down to a single track. Once I'd filled all 16 tracks, though, I was initially perplexed by how to accomplish this task. Eventually, I simply copied them to another track's virtual tracks, made my edits, and replaced the original vocal track with the edited version.

Up to 30,000 songs can be stored on the internal drive. That ought to be enough for just about anybody. A 12 GB disk affords about 140 minutes of 44.1 kHz recording time at 16 bits. A song is stored as a Yamaha-specific type of WAV file, but support should be implemented for standard WAV import and export by the time you read this. Song files can be written to and restored from the optional internal CD-RW drive or any supported SCSI drive.

Songs with multiple word depths and sample rates peacefully coexist on the hard drive. The CD-RW drive doesn't handle sample-rate conversion - selecting 48 kHz brings up a reminder that you won't be able to burn a CD - but multiple dithering options are supported for the stereo digital and option-slot outputs.

A few dithering choices are downright odd, such as 17-, 21-, and 23-bit rates. Even members of Yamaha's tech support scratched their heads when asked what these rates are good for. One nice feature is that the AW4416 dithers on the fly when burning a CD, so you can take advantage of 24-bit mixing.

SLICING AND DICINGEditing takes place on three levels: Tracks, which run the length of a song; Parts, sections of contiguously recorded audio; and Regions, by which Yamaha means a unit of time. Incidentally, this wasn't the only time I encountered a specialized meaning for a common term. Another example is "optimizing," which refers to clearing a song's undo/redo buffer rather than performing a hard disk management routine (see Fig. 5). I wish Yamaha would stop using common terms in nonstandard ways; it is unnecessarily confusing.

I was not impressed with the implementation of the track-editing features. I was particularly disappointed to find that audio is muted when you hit the Edit button, so you can't hear what you're doing until after you've done it. Regions for editing must be selected in the Tracks page, the place in which recording occurs, rather than in the Edit pages. Repositioning markers requires quite a bit of shuffling back and forth. Because the key to successful editing lies in setting accurate markers, I found myself taking careful, handwritten notes. The AW4416 works more like a digital version of a cassette ministudio than a full-fledged random-access audio editor.

In a typical editing session, you might select the beginning and end points for a Part or Region, choose from several options, hit Execute, exit, and listen to the results. This is somewhat awkward, though admittedly it beats using a razor blade. Editing options include Name, Erase, and Copy, as well as various methods for moving data forward or backward in time. You can also shift the pitch and compress and expand the time base while editing. However, I was not completely satisfied with the results of these two functions.

I didn't get the hang of using the Nudge function, which loops a portion of the audio - the default is 100 ms - immediately before or after the current cursor location. The idea is to listen to the loop and use the Cursor/Jog and Shuttle dials to home in on an edit point. Nudging allows you to find locations for edit markers or auto punch-in/out points. With the counter display set to Measure, you can Nudge one beat at a time - but with a loss of accuracy. This feature was more difficult to use than it should have been.

Many operations seem much more complex than they need to be. Because there's no way to connect a QWERTY keyboard, for example, even something as simple as naming a track involves a multitude of button pushes and cursor moves.

SAMPLING AND SEQUENCINGAdvance publicity about the eight sample pads generated a lot of curiosity. After all, Yamaha has years of experience in both sampler and sequencer technology. You may be hoping these pads can replace your rack-mount sampler, but I wouldn't make any plans to sell the old warhorse just yet.

Samples up to 90 seconds long can be loaded from an existing track, WAV files, or audio ripped from a CD, and then be triggered from a pad. Without a waveform display, sample editing is extremely limited. For example, trimming a half-second means spinning the data wheel through as many as 24,000 samples. At about 20 samples per rotation, this takes awhile. It would be easier to copy a sample to an audio track, perform the edits, and then load the sample back to the sample pad.

I was similarly underwhelmed by the rudimentary sequencer that Yamaha includes for recording sampler data into a song. Unlike a true MIDI sequencer, pretty much all it does is record on and off points for the pads. With no input quantization, accuracy is especially critical. Editing is limited to erase, copy, and paste. If you're looking for a groove box or an onboard drum machine, forget it.

What are the sequencer and sampler pads good for? On one song, I copied a vocal chorus to a pad, thereby freeing up a track. On another, I flew in ambient swooshes from a sample CD. These capabilities are handy, but the inclusion of a full-function sequencer would make this unit a must-have.

There is hope. When I asked Yamaha if it had any plans for upgrading the sequencer in a software revision, the reply was, "That's a good idea. We'll look into it."

EFFECTS AND DYNAMICSThe two internal effects processors owe a lot to Yamaha's SPX-series effects units. At 32-bit resolution, they sound as good as or better than anything found in the average personal studio.

The processors generate the standard complement of effects, including basic reverbs and enough dual effects in series and parallel to cover most chores. You get modulation-type effects such as chorus, flanging, phasing, rotary speaker, and ring modulation. Stereo delay times can be as long as 1,350 ms. Dynamic filter, flanger, and phaser use an envelope follower to respond to the strength of audio signals, and you also can modulate them using MIDI Note-On Velocity messages from an external controller.

The dynamics processors provide compression, expansion, gating, and ducking. Forty preset dynamics programs are tailored for particular instruments, vocals, and voice-overs. These can be applied to the input channels, the tape returns, and the stereo and bus outputs.

If you're so inclined, you can get deep inside the processors and save custom patches (see Fig. 6). However, the effects libraries are stored as song data, so you must remember to copy them to a new location before deleting a song.

The unit's MIDI implementation is good but not great. You can use MIDI to change scenes from an external device, synchronize the AW4416 with an external device, and control the AW4416 using MIDI Machine Control. MIDI data flows through the In and Out/Thru ports or directly to a host computer, using the serial interface (if you can still find a computer with a serial port). A third MIDI Out port is dedicated to sync through MIDI Time Code. Although I had no trouble connecting my PowerBook, I soon learned that the AW4416 behaves better as an MTC master than as a slave.

Unlike the faders in many digital mixers and portable digital studios, the AW4416's faders do not send MIDI controller data. This would be a useful function, and I hope it will be implemented in a future update.

MIX MASTERI will admit it: I love mixing with the AW4416's automation and moving faders. Of course, as with all love affairs, it has not been smooth sailing all the way.

In attempting a mix involving both recorded and MIDI tracks, I was surprised to learn that the automation didn't extend to the inputs. Ditto for aux sends and returns, making it difficult to fully utilize the internal effects. The only work-around was to create scenes with the desired changes, which caused problems down the road.

Otherwise, the automation is fairly easy to use. I particularly liked being able to customize, on a fader-by-fader basis, the time it takes faders to return to their previous levels after punching out. There is a similar option for setting fade times between scenes. This option is deep because times are set individually for each input and return. Curiously, aux sends are exempt from this automation, too.

Once I was satisfied with a mix, I recorded it to the dedicated stereo track. Next, I looked into mastering and writing a CD, only to find I needed to set EQ and compression before I recorded the stereo track. That was where having multiple scenes became a problem. I had to duplicate my settings in each and every scene used in the mix; otherwise they'd revert back to defaults. If you're going to use the AW4416 to mix down any number of songs, you just have to accept the way it's designed to do things.

It was odd that there was no way to vary the length of time between songs on a CD. With Track at Once recording, the pause is fixed at two seconds, but the Disc at Once mode appears to default to zero. Because discs recorded in one continuous pass are preferred for duplication, this could be a serious shortcoming. The only way to keep songs from bashing into each other is to append time to the end of each stereo track. Even worse, there is no way to preview the playlist. I'd suggest using the internal CD-RW drive for making backups and discs for your friends. Have critical projects professionally mastered.

HOW'S IT SOUND?As a test, I simultaneously tracked a live band to the AW4416 and a first generation ADAT at 16 bits. Surprisingly, the tape tracks had more sizzle, especially on the cymbals and rhythm guitar. I hadn't expected that; after all, the Yamaha unit is much newer. Recording at 24 bits sounded better, thankfully.

This makes me question the desirability of recording an all-acoustic folk or jazz project on the AW4416. Sessions involving electric instruments and lots of processing worked just fine. Tube fans won't be thrilled with the EQ or dynamics, but they do get the job done.

Don't forget that the option slots open up the possibility of using high-end digital converters. I'd certainly want to have a multichannel outboard preamp on hand, too.

EXPANDING YOUR WORLDThe AW4416's two option slots accept a variety of mini-YGDAI expansion cards, ranging in cost from $269 to $369. Three of the cards are digital audio interfaces. The MY8AT provides eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O. The MY8TD is a similar interface for Tascam TDIF. The 8-channel MY8AE is an AES/EBU interface that requires a breakout cable, an additional $199 bite.

The other three cards are analog interfaces. You get eight inputs on 1/4-inch TRS jacks with the MY8AD, and the MY4AD gives you four inputs on XLR jacks. If you need four analog outputs on XLR jacks, you can use the MY4DA.

I borrowed a Lightpipe card from Yamaha to transfer tracks to and from an ADAT XT20. Installing the card and setting the clock source was a snap. I easily flew in rhythm tracks recorded on ADAT at the start of a new song.

To take advantage of some enhanced editing features, I also used a MOTU 2408 audio interface with Digital Performer. I synchronized the two systems using MIDI Time Code, using the AW4416 as the master. Because resolution is measured in frames rather than samples, I had to take extra care that my edited tracks didn't shift relative to the rest of the performance, but it worked.

MANUAL WOESConsidering the deep interface, it's too bad the three manuals do not offer enough guidance. The Reference Guide is organized in the order that buttons appear on the unit's surface. Worse, it only covers features that appear in the display screen, leaving out large portions of the interface.

The hefty Operations Guide takes a more functional approach, but many things aren't fully covered there, either. My frustration grew as I kept riffling through first one guide and then the other.

The Tutorial introduces a few basic mixing techniques. However, it's not particularly useful, considering the huge depth of this product. Because it uses a demo song found on a CD-ROM, the Tutorial is meaningless without the optional CD-RW drive.

DEEP AS A WELL?In spite of annoying manuals and a very tough learning curve, I have enjoyed using the AW4416. However, it may be too deep for some users. Most folks want something that's ready to use right out of the box - instant gratification is what made cassette ministudios so cool. Although you can be up and running on the AW4416 relatively quickly, it is also easy to get frustrated and confused. Just ask anyone who was within earshot of me on my first few days.

Frustrations notwithstanding, in many ways this is the ideal rig for the serious home recordist. You can still get a lot of use from it without ever plumbing the depths.

The AW4416 is one serious machine. It could easily find a home in a variety of pro studios, either as a primary or secondary recorder. In fact, with two expansion slots, pro-level routing, and onboard effects, it's a great buy just as a digital mixer; the recorder is a bonus! By connecting outboard mic preamps, this would be a great live remote rig. Just don't expect to use it on an important session the day you unpack it.

A few features don't live up to their promise. In particular, the sampling pads could be better implemented. Mastering internally also leaves a lot to be desired. But all in all, the AW4416 more than delivers on the promise of an entire studio's worth of gear in one tidy package.