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Monday, September 25, 2006

A New Generation Mixing Console And Recorder

An evaluation and production example with the Yamaha DM-2000 mixer and Tascam MX-2424

By Les Brockmann

Note: This article originally was published in the Society of Composers and Lyricists magazine "The Score", under the title "Two New Studio Workhorses". The Tascam MX-2424 recorder is now discontinued, and has been replaced with the X-48, which has similar features. The Yamaha DM-2000 is still available and, along with its smaller siblings the DM1000V2, 02R96V2, and 01V96V2, is still a very good choice for composers' personal studios or commercial facilities.

Have you ever gone to a live music show, and perhaps heard an instrumental part and couldn't figure out who in the band was playing it? Or maybe wondered why the lead singer seemed to be able to execute fancy dance steps and still sing smoothly without panting and puffing?

With the possible exception of Philharmonic concerts, the use of synchronized recordings to accompany or enhance live performers has gotten to be an accepted and important part of shows in many types of venues, including touring pop acts, musical theater, and tourist venues such as theme parks, cruise ships, and Las Vegas shows. In particular the tourism industry, in fervent competition for your leisure dollar, spends ever-increasing amounts of money to present extravagant and increasingly sophisticated productions.

The technical tools for creating music tracks for live venues have a lot in common with those we use for film and television scoring, particularly ever-increasing numbers of recorded tracks and mixing console channels. Recently I've encountered a couple of excellent new pieces of equipment that have been a real help in both my work with film music and music for live shows: the Yamaha DM-2000 mixing console and the Tascam MX-2424 hard-drive multitrack digital recorder.

For several years I've have the pleasure of working with Nelson Kole. Nelson is a terrific producer, composer, arranger, and pianist. He has worked or played for entertainers such as Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Ben Vereen, Frank Sinatra, and a host of others; he's currently the composer for Martin Short's "Prime Time Glick" series on Comedy Central. And he is one of the most in-demand specialists in the production of pre-recorded musical shows for live venues, for clients such as Princess Cruises. Recently an upgrade to his personal studio gave him and I the opportunity to select and evaluate a new mixer and recording machine and use them to expand our production techniques.

Our production of pre-recorded show music is quite like recording an album: We record everything, rhythm, sweetening, lead and group vocals, the works. We provide a mix on multiple separate tracks, so in the show they can hear or mute whichever parts they need. Usually when the show is staged there are lead performers who sing live, cast dancers who lip-sync group vocals, and sometimes a pit band or not. When I first started working on these some years ago, we would provide finished mixes on eight tracks of a Tascam DA-88. Later we went to 16 tracks, two machines running together. Now within the last year or so the clients have requested mixes separated out to 24 tracks! The DA-88s began to get tired and tedious; something better was needed.

An important tool for Nelson is Digital Performer, used for everything from building tempo and click maps and demos to many tracks of MIDI and audio production. Increasingly the show choreographers are demanding song productions that are copies of pop records, so we need lots of plug-ins and other tools to replicate this kind of sound.

Our typical process is to record band and singers in a commercial studio and then go to the personal studio for additional MIDI work, overdubs and mixing. I have long been a fan of operating recording machines using MIDI machine control, and a stack of DA-88s controlled by Digital Performer running on a laptop Macintosh was the system of choice for a while. Why not record directly into DP? In composers' studios I've done so without hesitation for several years, but haven't been able to come up with a really good transportable system.

Considering a new machine to record with, we discussed the choices. We knew we would like to have at least 24 channels of inputs and outputs. The first possibility: the purchase of a big ProTools system, mounted in a portable rack. However, we agreed that ProTools falls far short of Digital Performer in the important area of MIDI, and we are comfortable with Digital Performer for audio production. We thought about a system with DP and several MOTU audio interfaces. But I was uncomfortable with the audio latency when recording on a large number of tracks at one time, as we often need to. DP with ProTools hardware is possible but not entirely compatible. And it would have all ended up in a rack the size of a refrigerator, requiring cartage delivery every time.

As it turned out, Princess Cruises recently chose the Tascam MX-2424 for their audio systems in new on-board theaters. So we evaluated this machine and found it to be suitable for our needs as well. The MX-2424 has 24 inputs and outputs and can record in 24-bit digital audio on removable SCSI hard drives. I have found the machine to be very easy to work with, and the sound of the analog/digital converters, a generation newer than the venerable DA-88, is very big, clean, and punchy, with no latency.

The MX-2424 can operate stand-alone (and never crashes!), or it can be synced and controlled with an external computer via MIDI machine control. It can also communicate with an external Mac or PC via Ethernet; on the computer one can run a provided software called "MX-View" which gives much easier access to file management, many levels of Undo, and provides a graphic waveform display for every track, allowing audio track editing and volume automation. Although there are only 24 ins and outs, every channel can have multiple virtual tracks, organized as alternate "takes". The only limitation to this is that each channel can only monitor one take at time; there is no internal sub-mixing.

I took some time to learn and evaluate the MX-View application. It's designed to emulate a simplified version of a ProTools-like interface, although it doesn't have the sophistication that we are accustomed to in Digital Performer, ProTools, and others. One can do edge edits and time drags of audio wave forms, but MX-View lacks effective track grouping and snap-to-grid functions that would allow one to get very far into this kind of editing. (It's too easy to accidentally drag something out of sync it and have no way to get it back except for the Undo command, so you have to be careful.)

Still, as long as you're not expecting this to be a full-featured sophisticated workstation, it has a lot to offer for the price of just over $4,000. Our typical workflow is this: We take the MX-2424 to a commercial studio for live tracking of rhythm, horns, and vocals. I control it via MIDI machine control from a PowerBook running DP; MX-View can also run in the background on the same Mac and continuously show waveforms, and be available for simple editing and file management when needed. After tracking, in the personal studio I will transfer the tracks digitally into DP for any further editing, plug-ins, and mixing. (Since the machine saves SD-II time-stamped audio files in a Mac-compatible format, one can import tracks from the drive into DP or ProTools via the Finder; however after doing that once I found that it was more efficient to just route the machine's digital outputs through the mixer into the 2408 and copy the tracks into DP in real time.) Then, using a different drive cartridge in the MX-2424, I prepare the final mixes and record them back into the machine for delivery to the client.

Speaking of mixing, we had clearly outgrown the little 32x8 analog Mackie, so I set out to evaluate mixers. I've worked with a number of the new generation of digital mixers, and they offer a lot of nice features, particularly snapshot recall of settings. But most of them are too small for the needs of working composers. I had my eye on the Yamaha DM-2000 ever since the first product rumors. It's definitely larger than most, offering 96 inputs arranged in four banks of 24 faders. I was concerned about it still being an 8-bus board. Our goal was to be able to lay down mixes of as many as 24 tracks/stems at a time — could we do it?

It turned out that we could, and here's the secret: the DM-2000 has incredibly flexible routing of both inputs and outputs. First of all, any of the 96 + inputs and outputs (more when you count additional ins and outs from digital and analog two-track monitoring connections and eight analog "omni" outputs) can be routed just about anywhere. Every fader channel can be output to stereo, one of the eight buses, or "direct" which can be sent to any output on the board. In addition, besides the eight "official" submixing buses, I can derive additional stereo buses by reconfiguring any of the 12 aux sends (which can, again, then be routed anywhere). Using a combination of these various types of routing, plus the occasional sub-mix of similar tracks in Digital Performer, I haven't yet encountered a mix where I couldn't lay down all 24 tracks at once!

The DM-2000 has turned out to be great-sounding and powerful. It always runs in 24-bit mode; it can optionally be set to 96KHz sample rate but we haven't tried that due to the higher sample rate being incompatible with Gigastudios and other connected devices. But even at the standard 44.1, it sounds big and clean. It includes eight good-sounding multi-effects (reverb, etc.) processors, and flexible compression and gating on every channel. The moving-fader automation works very smoothly and professionally. And it can handle 5.1 surround monitoring, as well as stereo.

Our goal in creating mixes for the show venue is for their live-sound mixer to raise all 24 faders with a ruler and hear the mix exactly as we intended it, and then be able to change balances or routing as needed. So, as I set up a mix, I route all the sources to the various tracks of the MX-2424, with it monitoring "input". When laying down the mixes, everything synchronizes with MIDI or linear time code.

The bottom line: the clients have noticed and commented on a nice improvement in the quality of our finished productions. These two pieces of gear have substantially enhanced our workflow and sound.

This is not intended as an advertisement for any product. All products mentioned are trademarks of their various manufacturers. ©2003 by Les Brockmann

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