By Steve Cunningham
In the beginning, there was the reel-to-reel tape recorder and the mixing console. These had buttons and faders and knobs. We used them every day, and we all became fast and accurate with them. We could adjust the mid EQ on the music channel without even looking at the board. We could dead pot the VO channel at the right moment while watching only the meters. We were the equivalent of touch-typists, and it was good.
Then came the digital audio workstation with its keyboard, mouse, and monitor. It had no buttons, no faders, and no knobs. There were some exceptions, but those workstations that had buttons, faders, and knobs generally cost our station owners dearly. So many of us had to abandon our friendly controls, because yea and verily we lacked budget. We had to adapt, and we did.
Recently several companies have brought forth control surfaces to lead us out of the fader-less desert and into the promised land. Among these is Tascam with their US-428 Digital Audio Workstation controller. Jointly developed by Tascam and Frontier Design Group, the US-428 is both a controller and an audio interface, providing four channels of audio input and two channels of audio output, all at 24-bit resolution. All audio and control signals (which are actually MIDI controller change messages) are carried over a single USB connection to the computer. This makes the US-428 ideal for use with laptops and smaller computers that lack slots, like the Compaq iPac and the Apple iMac and Cube.
The US-428 is compatible with Windows 98 SE or ME (Second or Millennium Editions). In addition, Windows 2000 is now supported with the release of the Windows 2.0 driver. According to Tascam, Windows 98 First Edition and Windows 95 are not supported due to their limited implementation of the USB protocol. On the Macintosh, the US-428 will work with any Mac which supports USB, running under Mac OS 8.6 or later, although Tascam have not yet tested the US-428 with Mac OSX. Technically the US-428 itself has no requirements other than a USB port, although the usual requirements for your particular workstation software still apply.
The US-428 package includes a CD with the necessary USB software drivers for Mac and PC, a wall-wart power supply, and one USB cable. Also included is a version of Steinberg’s Cubasis VST for the PC, which supports eight tracks of digital audio and 16 tracks of MIDI. The Mac package includes a CD containing BIAS’ Deck LE software, which also supports eight tracks of digital audio. Both Steinberg and BIAS include discount coupons in the box for upgrading to more capable versions of their software.
Currently there are several other programs that support the US-428. On the PC, these include Steinberg’s Cubase and Nuendo, Minnetonka’s MxTrax, and emagic’s Logic Audio. On the Mac, there’s ProTools (audio only in PT Free), Cubase, Logic Audio, and MOTU’s Digital Performer. Support for other products is expected shortly.
THE CONTROL SURFACE
The US-428 is compact, measuring about 14 inches by 12 inches, and comes in a pleasant metallic blue color. The mixing section is organized like most digital mixers, with dedicated faders and Channel Select buttons that make a given channel active for editing EQ, aux settings, and so forth. On the left of the US-428 are nine 60mm faders, one for each of the eight channels plus a master fader. Above each channel fader is the Select button and a yellow indicating LED, a red Record LED, and a Mute button with another yellow LED. Above these are four knobs for adjusting the input trim on each of the four input channels, four green signal LEDs that light up when the input level hits -42dBFS, and four red overload LEDs that turn on when the input level reaches -2.5dBFS.
Above the master fader are master buttons for record and solo. To enable a channel for recording, you press and hold the master record button while pressing the desired channel select button. The master solo button activates soloing, and causes the mute buttons above each channel to act as solo buttons instead. To the right of these is a button that determines whether inputs C and D receive their signals from their unbalanced analog inputs or from digital S/PDIF.
On the right side you’ll find the transport buttons, the detented jog wheel, and buttons for setting and recalling locate points. The US-428 simply controls your workstation, so the number of locate points you can store is dependent on the capabilities of your software. Next to the locate buttons are two bank select buttons to switch between groups of eight faders when mixing large numbers of tracks. Although both Cubasis and Deck LE are limited to eight tracks of audio, the full versions of these programs can take advantage of the bank select feature.
Next to the jog wheel is a panpot, which affects whichever mixer channel is currently selected, and buttons for input monitoring and nulling the faders.
The input monitoring button behaves as you would expect, switching between source and recorded audio. The null button helps you set the US-428’s physical fader position to match the on screen fader’s position. When you press and hold the null button, the selected channel’s yellow Select LED and red Record LED light up. If your physical fader is higher than the on screen fader, only the red Record LED will light. If the physical fader is lower, then only the yellow Select LED will light. When they both light up, the two faders positions match. This function is useful when you’re switching banks, since the new bank’s fader positions may not match their physical counterparts on the US-428.
The EQ section is topmost on the control surface. There are three knobs that control EQ frequency, gain, and Q, and four buttons to select from four different bands. These are labeled high, mid-high, mid-low, and low. Next to the EQ section are three aux send buttons and two knobs that control aux level and pan. Near these are three function keys and a button to assign them to particular functions based on your audio software program. Unfortunately at this writing, neither the included Cubasis or Deck LE programs have implemented these function buttons. According to the developers, they will be supported in future releases of the software.
Above these are knobs to control the line level output and the headphone output. Finally, along the top are activity LEDs for USB and for each of the two MIDI inputs and two MIDI outputs.