The TASCAM SX-1 Digital Production Environment

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by Steve Cunningham

The idea of an all-in-one dedicated workstation is an attractive one, and several companies offer them in various configurations and sizes. This month we’ll look at TASCAM’s entry into the fray — the SX-1 Digital Production Environment.

The SX-1 is simple enough to describe. It combines a 16-track digital hard disk recorder/editor with a built-in CDRW drive, a 40-input digital mixer with dynamics and EQ on every channel, and a MIDI sequencer. While the unit has been shipping since late last summer, the price of the base unit has recently been slashed from $8999 to $5999. This puts it more in line with competitive products, and with a street price under five grand, it’s now a good candidate for production folks. How does it stack up?

A REALLY BIG BOX

The SX-1 is a large piece of gear. Weighing in at 117 pounds in its shipping box, the SX-1 takes up 38 by 30 inches of real estate in the studio. Everything needed comes in the box, including a black keyboard and mouse, with the single exception of a VGA monitor (this accessory is essential as we’ll see). TASCAM sent me a stock SX-1; there is also a version called the SX-1SE that includes a removable SCSI hard drive. This is in addition to the internal 40GB hard disk that is standard in both machines.

Once I’d found space for it, setting up the SX-1 was not difficult. The center of the rear panel looks mysteriously like the business end of the average PC, with peripheral ports for the keyboard and mouse, a VGA port for the monitor, a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port, a SCSI port, and lots of expansion connectors for future use. While plugging in the monitor, keyboard, and mouse, I took note of a slew of MIDI In and Out jacks, eight-channel ADAT digital in and out ports, S/PDIF in and out connectors, and connectors for video sync, time code in, word clock in and out, and a cascade port that will let a TASCAM DM-24 digital mixer act as a “sidecar” to the SX-1 in a future release. Clearly TASCAM has big plans for this piece as time and software moves forward.

Finally, there are three slots for optional 8-channel I/O boards that come in all flavors, including analog, ADAT digital, AES/EBU digital, and TASCAM TDIF digital. A total of 32 channels of ADAT Lightpipe digital I/O would certainly be a thing of beauty for me, but for review purposes, I simply hooked to the standard ADAT I/O and word clock ports so the SX-1 worked with some of my digital toys.

The SX-1 reads and writes in the same way as the TASCAM MX2424. On the internal FAT 32 drive it writes Broadcast Wave files, and on an HFS-formatted SCSI drives it writes Pro Tools-compatible Sound Designer II files. It records 16 or 24-bit audio at either 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rates, or at 96kHz on just eight tracks.

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LOTS OF BUTTONS

The main panel is home to seventeen moving faders, one each for the 16 input channels plus the master. These faders have chromed caps that allow for touch automation functions. Above each fader are nicely lit buttons for Record, Select, and Mute. The buttons are solid, with a positive click that lets you know you’ve hit the target. Between the buttons and their associated fader are two LEDs, one to indicate that you’re recording mix automation information, and the other to indicate signal presence and overload. Over the master fader are three different buttons — the top puts all tracks in Safe mode, the next is Select, and the bottom one transforms all the channel Mute buttons into Solo buttons. There’s also an LED here to tell you you’re recording automation on the master fader.

Above these faders are sixteen rotary controls (that’s knobs to you regulars) that have dual functions and LED position indicators around them. One of two buttons to the left of these determines whether they’re sixteen pan pots, or one Virtual Channel Strip. In the latter mode, the knobs make up three bands of parametric EQ and six aux sends. These conform to the now-familiar “select and tweak” model for digital mixers, and work on whichever channel is selected (using the Select button). The sixteenth knob either remains a pan pot for channel sixteen or controls panning of the cue mix, depending on the setting of the other button. Believe me, it’s more complicated to explain than it is to use, thanks to the LED indicators around the knobs. These give a quick visual indication of which mode you’re currently using.

The right side of the main panel contains the standard transport buttons and a slew of mode buttons. These control what is displayed on the built-in LCD display and on the VGA monitor, as well as controlling mix automation, editing, punch in and out, looping, locate and audition functions. There’s also a panel of buttons for accessing Libraries of stored settings for routing, EQ, dynamics, and effects. And above the transport buttons is a jog/shuttle wheel and a 10-key pad. Lots and lots of stuff is going on here.

The raked front panel is home to the metering and counters, and even more mode buttons. You’ll find source and level controls for monitoring and headphone outputs, as well as the buttons choosing between monitoring on the “Large” outputs (connected to your big soffit-mounted speakers) or the “Small” outputs (connected to your nearfield speakers). The LCD display is also here, along with four knobs just below it that let you scroll through functions and change values. And on the far right you’ll find the built-in CDRW and a panel for the removeable SCSI drive, if you’ve bought that.

Across the top panel are the 16 analog inputs. From front to back, each input features a Trim control that adds as much as +56dBu gain to the input signal, a mic preamp input with XLR connector, a balanced TRS line input, and an unbalanced TRS insert jack. There are four switches for phantom power, with each switch enabling four channels’ worth.

At the rear of the top panel you’ll find two headphone jacks, Studio Outs on balanced TRS jacks, two sets of balanced TRS Control Room Outs (one labeled Large and the other Small as noted above), the main Stereo Outs on balanced XLRs and unbalanced RCAs, analog 2 Track Ins on RCAs, and four Aux Outputs using balanced TRS jacks.

Having all the analog inputs and outputs on the top panel has definite advantages for re-patching the SX-1, although it can also contribute to a sense of clutter. It’s nothing that a little cable dressing wouldn’t cure.

FIRE IT UP

Having connected everything, it was time to fire up. The LCD reports various diagnostics on boot-up, and recalibrated the faders. This entire process takes a few minutes, so patience is a virtue. It’s important to note here that there’s a process to turning the SX-1 off as well — the Shut Down button is on the sloped panel, and it must be held for three seconds to initiate the process of turning the machine off.

Once the SX-1 was up and running, I immediately began recording. At least, that’s what I wanted to do, but could not until I had created a new “Slot,” which according to the manual is “a container that  Takes can be loaded into or create on.” A Slot on the SX-1 can contain digital audio or MIDI data, which in SX-1 speak is a Take, which is the same as a track on other systems. Then there’s a Clip, which is the raw audio file from a Take or from importing from a CD. It’s all a bit confusing at first. But when you consider that the SX-1 can record up to 999 “virtual tracks,” any 16 of which can be played out, it starts to make sense in terms of file management.

Once I had a couple of Slots, I recorded a stereo Take. The sixteen analog inputs are routed by default to the sixteen hard disk tracks for recording, and are controlled by mixer channels 1 through 16. On playback the hard disk tracks are controlled by mixer channels 17 through 32. So once I’d recorded the Takes, I used the Fader Bank’s Bank Mode button on the panel to switch the sixteen faders from representing 1-16 to representing 17-32. Bring up the first two faders, and there’s my recording. You have to turn up 17-32, because those are the tape monitor channels of the mixer.

All of this became abundantly clearer when I began relying on the VGA display. The MIXER view shows all 32 channels of the mixer on one screen, and it’s vital to keep confusion to a minimum, especially when you begin changing routings. However, you can press the OVERVIEW button to get a similar view on the LCD display, at a much smaller size.

See, it’s possible to route anything to anywhere in the SX-1. If you’ve a mind to, you can actually route the talkback mic to a hard disk track for an effect. But all of this flexibility comes at a price — it’s easy to become disoriented, and while the VGA display is very sharp, the text is sometimes small and hard to see, especially on that MIXER page.

EDITING

Things went much better for me on the TRACKS page, which is where you do most of your edits. The upper part of the screen shows all the tracks and waveforms, and the lower portion shows a close-up of the currently selected track. Here the SX-1 works like most software editors; click and drag to select a region, then use the onscreen Edit menu to select cut, copy, paste, or whatever. There are lots of key equivalents that cover nearly every edit operation, and the hardware buttons on the front panel work too. The waveform views can be zoomed in or out, either horizontally or vertically.

I was less enthused that I had to grab the mouse to select a region before I could edit it quickly. To do the same thing using the dedicated buttons, you have to scrub to the beginning, press the CAPTURE button, then the EDIT START button. Then go to the end, press the CAPTURE button, then the EDIT END button, then the edit button for the operation you want to perform. It’s a pity, because the quality of the audio scrubbing on the SX-1 is excellent, and the jog and shuttle wheels work as expected.

All edits are automatically crossfaded, and once done you can readjust the edit if the default is not to your liking. The SX-1 gives you both Undo and Redo, as well as an Edit History display that allows you to jump backwards to a specific edit in one step.

Since all tracks on the SX-1 are mono, if you want to edit a stereo track you have to select the region in one channel, then hold the shift key and click in the other channel. Call me spoiled, but I’ve become used to editing on single tracks that are stereo. Despite the extra step, editing two tracks this way produced identical edits on both channels.

MIXING

The SX-1’s mixer is superb. Modeled on TASCAM’s successful DM-24 board, it’s a 40 input digital console configured as a 32x8x2 mixer with 8 aux returns. There’s a compressor on each of the 32 input channels, as well as the above-mentioned 3 band parametric EQ. And the sound of the mixer is first rate, with excellent converters and above-average-sounding dynamics and EQ. The fader automation is easy to use, activated by the faders themselves or by using a Pencil tool on the VGA display to draw an automation curve.

The SX-1 comes with a good selection of effects, including chorus, flanging, phasing, delay, an exciter, and more compressors and de-essers. It also comes with a mic modeler and speaker modeler from Antares Software, as well as an excellent Reverb by TC Electronics. The only things missing are some sort of noise reduction, and time compression and expansion. But the latter is promised in the next

software release.

CONCLUSION

The SX-1 is spot-on for music-oriented project studios. After all, I haven’t even mentioned the 128-track MIDI sequencer that’s built into the unit. But for those of us who do meatball editing, it’s a tougher call. The mixer is stunning, and the recorder is very capable. But audio editing could be much easier than the SX-1 makes it. Hopefully this will be addressed in the next software release.

One serious issue any potential SX-1 buyer must consider is the choice between dedicated and proprietary, versus flexible and open-standard. The SX-1 is not an entirely closed system, but it is not a user-configurable personal computer either. The SX-1 runs on an operating system developed by Be, and appears to be a Unix variant. This won’t mean much to a user, but it does mean that plug-ins like those included by Antares and TC must be specifically written for the SX-1’s operating system. This probably means that there won’t be as many additional plugs available for it, if there are any.

Tascam is preparing to release software version 1.5, and it may well be available as you read this. This version promises to address many of the promises made by all the connectors on the rear panel. Most important would be the ability to transfer files via FTP from the SX-1 to a PC for further processing.

The SX-1 is certainly a powerful machine, and it’s one of the best all-in-one workstations I’ve ever tried. But there are compromises here, and you’ll need to try it for yourself before you decide.

The TASCAM SX-1 retails for $5999. For more information, visit www.tascamcontractor.com.

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