Over the last five years, quite a few DAW controllers have come onto the market that offer up such features as motorized faders, shortcut and transport buttons that give direct access to commonly used production functions, rotary virtual pots for pan, EQ and the lot... but, I've yet to see a package that offers the cost- effective features and multi-functionality of the FW-1884 from the collaborative team of TASCAM and Frontier Design Group.

For starters, the FW-1884 is a PC/Mac, 24-bit, 96 kHz, FireWire audio interface that offers up to 18 inputs and outputs. The best part is that eight of the inputs are high-quality mic preamps with XLR inputs, phantom power that's switchable in banks of four, balanced 1/4'' line inputs, a 1 MΩ guitar impedance input switch on Channel 8, and analog inserts on every channel! The next bank of eight I/O channels is accessible via ADAT Lightpipe. The FW-1884 finishes off with an S/PDIF digital I/O that can be accessed via either the Lightpipe or coaxial ports. Eight balanced analog and headphone outputs allow for program monitoring in either stereo or discrete surround, and four MIDI in and out ports are also included.

The mixer top face is basically built in three sections. The center section includes eight virtual input strips with 100 mm touch-sensitive motorized faders, select/solo/mute buttons, a virtual rotary pot (for control over pan, effects and other parameters), and an input gain control. The right-hand section is used for master gain, transport/locate controls, record track arming, parametric EQ control, and global system settings, while the left-hand section is made up of two control groups. The top-left section is used for assigning the strip encoders (rotary pots) to panning or any of eight auxiliary send busses. Pressing the "flip" button will conveniently swap the channel and rotary faders, letting you fine-tune a parameter via the long-throw fader. The second left-most section is made up of a bank of 14 shortcut buttons that give instant access to many of the more common cut/paste/save/marker commands (and they've even thrown in a shortcut that gives you instant access to the DAW's control panel).

In short, the FW-1884 slices, dices... and is available at a list price of $1599.00... but wait, there's more! This puppy actually can work in three modes. 1. Under "Computer" control it acts as a standard interface/ controller device. 2. Since it has all the I/O and control trimmings of a digital mixer, the folks at TASCAM/Frontier have included a "Monitor Mix" mode that allows the unit to act as a stand-alone digital mixer that can be used without the computer. 3. Since most communications with the host DAW are made via MIDI SysEx commands, the FW-1884 includes a "MIDI Controller" mode that can translate fader moves into user-programmable commands that can be used to edit the parameters on a MIDI instrument or device. My basic take on the FW-1884 is that it is a cost-effective powerhouse for those who are beginning to build a DAW- based working environment. In short, it's perfect for the intermediate to advanced "beginner" that doesn't have an interface or a controller.

Upon loading the software into Steinberg's Nuendo (the FW-1884 can be used with any high-end native DAW), the first thing I did was test out the mic preamps. The design of the mic preamps was a shared effort between Frontier and TASCAM's R&D department in Tokyo. It's clear they did their homework because the preamps sound great. The motorized faders were fast, responsive and not nearly as noisy as those on my Mackie Control. I also found that the jog wheel would shuttle/jog around a Nuendo session far better than my Mackie. At this point, I have to fess up and say that Nuendo (like several other DAWs) doesn't directly support the FW-1884 controller interface. It's my understanding that only Sonar, DP and Logic currently have direct support. (Sonar and DP use plug-in apps that were written by TASCAM. Emagic wrote their own and provided it to TASCAM for the installer CD.) All other workstations must use the FW-1884 in a Mackie Control or HUI emulation mode. Although this forces the FW-1884 to act much like a Control, it's not a major downfall. Besides, FW-1884 native support for the other workstations is in the works and will hopefully be available this year.

On the doggy-downer side, I really have to say that the downfalls are amazingly minor. Noticeably lacking are any alphanumeric readouts or surface setting displays (although I don't find this to be a huge drawback). The FW-1884 gets around this by offering a pop-up window program (called SoftLCD), that displays on-screen readouts for any parameter that's being varied.

Since all of the I/O connections are physically tied to the controller, the FW-1884 will most likely be placed in the center console position and won't be moved around the room. (I really like the fact that my Mackie Control is small and free enough that I can roll it around the room on a stand.) On the other hand, in a stroke of pure genius, the FW-1884 was designed so that its side panels can be removed and one or more eight-channel sidecars can be docked to the main surface through the use of special docking feet... making for an expandable surface that looks and feels like a single unit.

Truthfully, this all-in-one device is amazingly cost- effective, versatile and expandable. If I didn't have all of the component parts already, I'd probably buy one myself. ($1599 MSRP; www.tascam.com)

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More