About six months ago, the fine folks at TAPCO (um... Mackie), sent me an awesome computer recording bundle that consisted of the Link.USB two-channel audio interface; Tracktion 2 software for multitrack audio and MIDI production; and a three-piece active monitoring system comprised of a pair of S•5 monitors and an SW•10 sub. Street price? $850 for the whole setup. A few years ago, that kind of price would not have bought you anything remotely near the capability and sound quality of this nearly-complete recording rig. Heck, all you'd need to add is a mic or two and a pair of headphones, and with a bit of practice, you could be recording and mixing your next album on this system.
Older readers might remember the TAPCO name from the '70s. Yup, it was Greg Mackie's company, before Electro- Voice eventually bought it. I'm sure I'm not the only Tape Op reader that recalls mixing on a TAPCO console. Anyway, the guys who now make up Mackie, EAW, and SiaSoft decided to resurrect the TAPCO name to represent a new line of affordable but highly functional products aimed at the working musician (as opposed to professional engineers). It's clear in the advertisements, in the product manuals, and on the website that TAPCO's message is about working hard and having fun doing it. And to that end, I think the items I'm reviewing here prove that TAPCO's products are extremely easy to purchase, configure, and use, and they're built to take a serious beating. Plus, their products look cool too!
Let's start with the S•5 monitors. They're active monitors with one 60 W amp for the 5.25'' woofer and another 60 W amp for the 1'' tweeter. Likes? They're easy to listen to. The first few times, I didn't feel like I had to spend a lot of time "learning" them, like I do most monitors. Neither the highs nor the lows are overhyped, and they're voiced similarly to Mackie 824s, which used to be my main monitors before I switched to ADAM S3As. (I love midrange!) There's a switch to tweak the tweeter by +/-2 dB if you find your mixes are translating too bright or too dark. Dislikes? They're beamy-not much dispersion. The voicing changes significantly as you move left/right. But most likely, the typical user will have these monitors at a small desk in a small room, where the limited size of the sweet spot will be less of an issue. With that said, when you are in the sweet spot, the imaging is pretty dang amazing, especially when the monitors are set up in free space with no reflective surfaces around. Any panning I did resulted in dramatically accurate placement in the stereo field. Despite their diminutive size, they can get uncomfortably loud when used with the SW•10 sub. In fact, I was unable to get the three-piece system to clip even with the volume at an earplugs-required level.
The SW•10 subwoofer has an active crossover with a frequency adjustment from 55 Hz to 110 Hz. The S•5 monitors have a surprising amount of low-end extension by themselves, so it was hard for me to choose the crossover frequency for the sub; the system sounded fine as long as I stayed away from the center-detented 80 Hz, which is close to the strongest mode in the room I had them in. (In my room, the system got a little muddy at 80 Hz.) With the crossover at the highest frequencies, the sub did start to sound tubby, so with the S•5s, it's probably best to set the crossover at about 90 Hz or below. One strange bass management feature on the SW•10 is the inclusion of separate crossover controls for left/right. Don't ask me why. Also, left/right labeling of the I/O on the back is reversed. If you follow the labeling on the back, your left and right cables to the S•5 monitors will have to cross over each other. I love the smooth, seamless, matte surface of the components. It looks great-almost like a computer rendering. And more importantly, the system sounds great.
The manuals included with both the S•5 monitors and the SW•10 sub have clear hookup details, including wiring diagrams for XLR, TRS, 1/4'', and RCA connectors. Furthermore, the manual explains some basic principals of acoustics to help with speaker positioning, but it doesn't always give the best advice. For example, an RTA is recommended for determining the frequency response of the subwoofer in the room to optimize placement, but it's better to use something with better low-frequency resolution. Even sweeping a tone generator at low frequencies would be better than using a typical RTA. The manual does explain the very useful trick of swapping listening and speaker position to help with placement; that's good advice.
I really like the form factor of the Link.USB audio interface-highly functional and cool looking too. The broad rubber surfaces with coin-sized bumps prevent the unit from slipping off the desk or out of your hand. It sticks well enough to flat surfaces that tripping over a cable will probably pull the cable out without dropping the Link.USB onto the floor. But too bad the rubber bumps aren't opposite each other top and bottom for precise stacking. Metal "roll bars" on the front protect the knobs in case the box does take a spill. And speaking of the knobs, they're similar to the ones on Mackie mixers; I like them because you can see and feel their position even in low light. On one edge of the unit is a pull-out stabilizer bar. Genius. Pull it out, twist it 90 deg, and let it snap in for edgewise placement of the Link.USB. Then twist it back when you're putting the sucker back into your backpack. Much cooler than the silly handle/prop thingie on the side of the Mbox 2.
The Link.USB has all the essential features for recording two tracks at a time. The two rear-panel Neutrik combo jacks can take phantom-powered mics, line-level sources, or hi-Z instruments. The Mackie- designed preamps sound clean, and the instrument inputs have extremely high impedance so your highs don't get lost. There's low-latency monitoring via a mix knob on front. And even the level controls for monitors and headphones are on separate knobs.
Installation on MacOS X is driverless. Just plug the sucker in, and drag the Tracktion application to your hard drive if you plan to use it. On WinXP, installation of Tracktion and the Link.USB driver is a painless, one-step process. I installed the Link.USB with Tracktion 2 on my Toshiba Portege laptop. Everything worked pretty much flawlessly, with no freezes or crashes. But I did discover one hiccup. When one application is already using the Link.USB for audio I/O, opening up a second application that tries to access the Link.USB results in lots of (loud) digital spit. Be careful! Also, I wish the ASIO/WDM driver specified actual buffer-sizes or gave estimations for latency instead of using simplified words ("highest", "higher", "medium", "low", etc.).
So that covers the hardware components. How 'bout Tracktion 2 software? Let me begin by saying that I really dislike using Pro Tools. It's got an archaic user interface, and Digidesign is probably too scared to change it because there are too many ass-backwards people who've learned to live with all the shortcomings of the crappy interface. For example, I hate switching between the Edit and Mix windows; why are we forced to think of editing and mixing as two different paradigms? I hate having to click on menus to change track height; why can't we just grab the friggin' edge of the track and stretch it up or down, just like we can do with a window? I hate having to do crossfades in a popup window; why can't we just grab the endpoints of an audio region and overlap/shape them any way we want? Heck, even my TASCAM MX-2424 hard disk recorder lets me do that! And with all the extra windows, menus, and tiny text, you're pretty much required to have two monitor screens to use Pro Tools effectively.
Tracktion, on the other hand, runs in a single main window. The idea is that signal flows from left to right. Therefore, there are inputs on the left. In the middle are audio and MIDI regions. To the right are filters (plug-ins, virtual instruments, meters, etc.) and outputs. At the bottom is a pane for tweaking properties of whatever you have selected. And at the top are tabs to access windows that you bring up occasionally (projects, settings). You can also create racks below the track area for assigning filters to send/return loops. The interface is "flat" and very simple in look-no brushed aluminum and no 3D effects-so if you're accustomed to the look of virtual knobs and buttons, you may find yourself having a hard time differentiating what's clickable and what's not. But that's okay, because you soon learn that pretty much everything is clickable and/or draggable, and the interface responds immediately in intuitive ways. For example, setting up a track is a snap: create the track; drag an input onto it; then do the same for outputs, plug-ins, and audio or MIDI regions. Audio regions can overlap, and you tweak crossfade ramps right on top of the track. And of course, resizing portions of the screen, including tracks, is a simple click-and-drag operation-as it should be.
Tracktion 2 adds a whole bunch of new features worth mentioning, so if you tried out T1 with the free authorization given to Tape Op readers a couple years back, you really should give T2 a try. For example, T2 can generate/chase MTC and send/receive MMC-great if you have external devices you'd like to use alongside Tracktion. T2 has integrated support for Mackie Control Universal; those who prefer hardware faders can rejoice. T2 reads and records Broadcast WAV files, so you can import time- stamped audio files from other applications. And it even allows playback and scoring of Quicktime movies (but very simplified-not for the pro). The MIDI editor is also vastly improved. You can freeze tracks to free up CPU resources. And the mix engine is now 64-bit. For a full list of new features, check out the website. Also, visit the website for a list of bundled plug-ins. (There's a plug-in bundle specific to the Link.USB.) Along with basic, built-in filters (EQs, reverbs, compressors, etc), you get a range of VST instruments, a suite of dynamics processors, and a multiband "mastering" plug-in.
I really enjoy using Tracktion on my laptop when I'm on the road. I'm no expert at it, but even after a few months of use, I'm making little workflow improvements here and there as I discover new features or new methods of accessing features. When that happens, I smile. When I have to go back to Pro Tools to work on a project in my studio, I find myself cursing more than I do smiling. What it really comes down to is this. With Tracktion, I feel like I can work the way I want to, even down to remapping the key commands. With Pro Tools, I feel like I have to work the way some programmer foreordained decades ago, back when the software was an editing program called Sound Designer for MIDI-controlled samplers. (Um... I was a programmer for Digidesign back then... so I'm partially to blame!!!) Admittedly, I'm not giving up my Pro Tools|HD rig for Tracktion-Mackie has a good ways to go if it wants to supplant PT or other mature DAWs- but for straight-ahead multitracking, editing, and mixing, Tracktion is loads more fun to use. If I were a musician recording at home, I'd definitely go with Tracktion.
(S•5 pair $350 street, SW•10 $350, Link.USB w/ Tracktion 2 $150; www.tapcoworld.com)