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The cost of home-recording equipment has dropped dramatically over the last decade. Digital multitrackers (devices that record more than one track simultaneously), in particular, have gone from novelty to serious replacement for the traditional studio.
When you consider that renting a studio with equivalent hardware to the Yamaha AW1600 can cost upwards of £100 an hour (in many cases £500 an hour might be a more realistic figure), recorders like this one begin to look increasingly viable. With the AW1600, you get a 16-track studio (eight when recording at 24-bit) packed into a desk not much larger than a briefcase. There's also a built-in CD-R drive for burning your finished mixes to CD.
While there's a burgeoning interest in PC- and Mac-based home recording, the integrated, solid-state nature of the AW1600 makes it an attractive alternative to the complications of software-based computer recording systems. If you want to spend all your time making music, without the hassle of maintaining a computer, solid-state is the way to go.
It's important to realise that while the AW1600 won't magically bestow you with the skills of a good mixing and mastering engineer, it will give you access to the same essential toolset these experts use. Though the traditional studio still has its place, and you'll probably want to use a professional mastering engineer at the end of the job, it's theoretically possible to record a hit single with the AW1600 -- the audio quality is certainly there.
You could never accuse a mixing desk of being clearly laid-out, these mixers are inherently daunting to the newcomer. But once you've realised that most of those knobs and sliders are repeated across the desk, one set for each track, the whole concept becomes a lot more manageable.
If you're familiar with the old Fostex four-track tape-based multitrackers, you'll have a solid grounding for getting to grips with the AW1600. The rear of the unit provides sockets for your instruments. This is the logical place to put them and keeps cabling out of the way of the front control panel. You can run cables off a desk from the rear of the AW1600 and across the floor to your microphones, as you would with a regular PA desk.
The sliders on the Yamaha have a fluid action, which allows for plenty of fine-level adjustment, there's also a series of rotary pot controls which let you adjust the input gain for each of your instruments or microphones. As with all the controls on the AW1600, these are sturdy and resilient to knocks. There's a small amount of lateral travel in the sliders and pots, but nothing that concerned us.
The red master volume control is clearly distinguished from the other sliders, making you more likely to check that it's not maxed out and about to damage speakers. The transport controls have been given clear, bold buttons on the lower right area of the desk. These are raised like computer keys and depress a satisfying 5mm when used. In the centre of the control panel there's a clear and bright LCD screen with big loop sample buttons beneath and EQ controls to the right.
The whole desk is encased in a very tough metal chassis similar to that seen on other professional studio equipment. Thick rubber feet on the underside of the unit keep it from slipping off the desk, but for work on location, you'll want to invest in a hard case to keep in safe during transit.
The AW1600 has been designed as a beginning-to-end solution to home-audio recording. Once you've recorded your instruments onto tracks you can mix, master and, finally, burn your songs to CD using the built-in CD-R/W drive located beneath the main control panel. A 40GB internal hard disk stores audio in the interim, and there's always the option to plug the AW1600 into your computer to back up the audio in WAV format -- it mounts on any file system as a generic USB drive. This also makes the AW1600 ideal for recording a live performance -- at a gig, for example -- then transferring your audio tracks onto a computer workstation for mixing and mastering.
There are eight XLR inputs on the AW1600, each with phantom power. Phantom power is used to power condenser microphones, which offer superior sensitivity to dynamic microphones like the ubiquitous Shure SM58 (which does not require phantom power). You can turn phantom power off for groups of inputs if you're using unbalanced (non-XLR) cables.
A four-band parametric EQ lets you tweak the tone of your recordings or filter out troublesome frequencies. The AW1600 also offers gating and a Hi-Z input for patching an electric or bass guitar straight into the desk. Impressively, you can assign compression to each input channel independently -- this is absolutely invaluable in ensuring that your recording is clear. Compression works a bit like a supernaturally nimble-fingered person constantly manipulating a volume slider to keep the peaks and troughs of your audio at a constant level. By using compression to reduce the dynamic of the waveform, often extremely subtly, you improve the captured sound.
You have a choice of 16- or 24-bit recording resolutions on the desk. The 16-bit option will give you CD quality sound, and the 24-bit option considerably more than that. Even if you're mastering to CD, you might consider recording in 24-bit mode for higher quality prior to mixdown. There is also the option to take your 24-bit recordings into a computer-based editor via USB -- from here you could conceivably master them to a higher-quality format like SACD.
Unusually, for a multitracker, the AW1600 includes an extensive loop-sampling interface. You can sequence these using the pad tracks, choosing from a pre-installed library of loops and effects totalling 250MB. These can be supplemented by your own recordings, or by loops from sample CDs.
The AW1600's most impressive features are to be found in the audio processing stage. These include reverb, delay, compression and chorus effects as well as basic speaker simulations for guitars. It's even possible to pitch-shift sections of a vocal performance to bring them into tune. Although the best policy would be to get a great singer to begin with, there's the option to tweak the occasional duff note and transform a performance.
We'd stop short of claiming that the AW1600 is definitively easier to use than a computer-based system -- but at least once you get to grips with it, it won't crash on you. The huge advantage of a hardware system like this is that it's dedicated to a single task -- recording audio.
Where a computer can suffer from numerous configuration problems, the AW1600 is rock solid. This, combined with the sheer portability of the unit, makes the AW1600 an extremely tempting proposition for professionals and enthusiasts alike. While professionals will use the desk as a solution to recording live bands and later transferring tracks to a computer, the home user can use it as a complete studio. Once we'd got to grips with the interface on the AW1600, we were only really limited by our own creativity -- it's an exceptionally powerful tool.
We experimented with the AW1600 in a podcast environment, using five condenser microphones and assigning compression to the audio tracks. The result was crystal clear sound, which sounded extremely faithful to the source. Though the AW1600 may be overkill for amateur musicians, and demands some attention to the manual, overall this is a very capable alternative to computer-based recording.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield