Field Test: Akai Professional DPS24Akai Professional's DPS24 builds on the company's DPS12 and DPS16 workstations with a lot of genetic material borrowed from its high-end post-production
Akai Professional's DPS24 builds on the company's DPS12 and DPS16 workstations with a lot of genetic material borrowed from its high-end post-production DAWs. The DPS24 is a standalone 24-track/24-bit recording/editing system with an intuitive interface specifically designed to produce and master music projects. Fully 96kHz native, the DPS covers all production steps from live multitrack recording to overdubs, editing, mixdown, mastering and final CD burning.
Amenities include professional analog and digital I/O; a fully automated, layer-switched, 46-channel digital mixer; a hard disk recorder/editor using uncompressed 16/24-bit linear resolution with up to 96kHz sampling (the number of tracks is halved at 96 kHz); and an adjustable, tilt-up 320×240 grayscale LCD screen to monitor/control all functions. The current Version 1.3 operating system accommodates an external PC to display a large color main screen with full metering, track/waveform view and more.
Software revisions slated for future release include enhanced PC/Mac connectivity. Also announced is .WAV file import and export to support file sharing with other systems. At press time, Akai had released Version 1.40 software, which adds dedicated SRC and dithered bit reduction and enhanced ak.sys support with onscreen editing. A V. 2.0 upgrade for 2003 will support 5.1 surround mixing using the main, near-field and stereo outputs.
The steel-cased DPS24 is solidly built and sized perfectly for desktops, with a compact 28×22-inch footprint. The machine runs slightly warm to the touch (no fan required) and, with internal 60GB hard drive, the DPS24 is quiet enough for acoustical recording right alongside it.
Rear panels are good places to assess the potential of pro audio gear. The DPS24 has 24 analog inputs available to the 12-fader mixer, each with an A/B switch to select between XLR combo jacks and line-only TRS jacks. All inputs/outputs are balanced; channel 12 also includes a ¼-inch unbalanced 1-Meg-ohm input for direct guitar recording. The first four inputs have 48-volt phantom powering and balanced send/returns to patch external EQs or compressors. I used my own mic pre/EQ/compressor chain (going directly to the A/D converter inputs) with good results, although I also liked the onboard mic preamps, which offer up to 70 dB of gain.
Besides the balanced stereo bus outs, there are +4/-10dB 2-track tape returns, an assignable aux input TRS pair to play stereo sources directly into the mix and four assignable external aux send outs. The DPS has a digital patchbay, so any standard default configurations can be changed and stored with each session or project. Comprehensive monitoring has outputs for main or near-field studio monitors. Plugging in my JBL LSR-28Ps powered monitors, I was set to go. Self-recording musicians will like the ADAT/LRC-compatible, configurable footswitch jack that offers hands-free transport operation.
The DPS can record 20 tracks by using the 24-track Transfer mode and connecting an outboard 8-channel A/D converter to the ADAT Lightpipe in/out ports. MIDI In/Out/Thru, a single wordclock BNC connector (software-configurable as input or output) and S/PDIF (co-ax and optical) ports are also provided, as are a PS2 ASCII keyboard jack for faster data entry and USB port for computer interfacing and/or transferring project files.
Four expansion slots handle various interface options: Combine the IB-24ADT 16-channel ADAT I/O card with the onboard ADAT port for a total of 24 ADAT channels. Other cards include the IB-24LTC SMPTE reader/generator and the IB-24SCSI Ultra-Wide SCSI interface.
The DPS24's 12 faders and stereo master fader — all 100mm, touch-sensitive motorized units — are recessed so that their chromed finger rests lie slightly above the console's surface. The faders' feel and spacing were easy to move with my average-sized hands. There are four main layers: 12 mic/line input faders, HD tracks 1 through 12, tracks 13 through 24, and a fourth layer that is divided between eight group masters and four stereo effects returns. A fifth user layer provides access to effects sends to external devices, aux bus levels, stereo aux return to the L/R bus and three faders for MIDI control, but can be reassigned by the user.
The top panel has mic/line switches and trim controls with signal presence and clip LEDs. All are analog, so these settings aren't saved with your project. Below these are 24 record/edit keys to select tracks for recording and editing. A quick scan of these buttons prevents you from recording over or editing the wrong tracks.
In all, there are 20 buses: eight groups (recording buses), four FX sends, four external FX sends, the main stereo bus and stereo solo-in-place monitoring bus. The Assign button routes fader inputs to buses that are hard-wired to hard disk recording track inputs. At first, I was a little confused about setting up fader-to-bus assignments, but then I discovered the helpful Mixer page, which traces and displays all signal levels from input to output.
In order to engage EQ/dynamics or automation processes, simply press any channel's Select button below the channel rotary encoder. This knob is used for either panning or FX send levels toggled by the master pan or aux 1 through 4 Send buttons. A cool addition would be a Flip function, where the rotary encoder's function is flipped with the channel fader's for easier and more precise control when automating FX sends or panning. Maybe in the next software rev.
In the DPS24's Q-Channel mode, any selected channel gets a row of 12 rotary controllers: pan pot, 3-band EQ knobs and four FX send controls. Q-Channel also offers an efficient means to quickly scan and adjust the EQ, pan and send levels of any channel in a mix. Every audio channel has a compressor or expander, followed by a noise gate. The EQ-comp/exp-gate order is always the same and can't be changed.
Activate Q-Channel mode and the LCD screen immediately shows track or channel number, pan pot position, recording source, attenuation, phase, fader level, gain reduction, EQ curves, compressor/expander and noise gate with their settings, all levels of the four FX sends and more. Stereo-linked channel settings are automatically duplicated, and all settings can be easily copied from one channel to another. With the current OS, snapshot pan position and fader level are also copied.
The 3-band EQ has two identical shelving bands and a parametric section, all with a 20 to 20k Hz range and 24 dB of boost/cut; the parametric section has variable Q from 0.1 to 10. The overlapping frequencies and Q ranges were great for radical sound twisting, yet gentle enough to brush up individual tracks. I was less impressed with the performance of the compressor, expander and gate. While they work as advertised, they sound fairly generic, leading me to rely more on my old outboard faves.
A tilt-up LCD screen shows stereo bus LED meters and a large timecode/bars and beats readout. Akai's years of experience in designing samplers, drum machines and DD Series post-production units result in a smart and logical layout. The LCD surrounded by six soft keys and six Q-Link rotary controllers is a winner.
Parameter changes, track naming, etc., on the LCD are via Q-Link navigation controls, which include velocity-sensitive controllers (these change values more quickly as the knob is turned faster), soft keys that change function for each selected screen and eight lighted buttons on the console surface for fast access to all main DPS functions.
The Main screen is a split-screen overview showing all input, track, bus, send and FX levels on the top with a tiny 24-track display beneath. The external display running on a USB-attached PC would come to the rescue here! On a bigger screen and in color, it shows all of this plus track names, counter times, edit points, disk space, time remaining, large VU meter bridge and more. This is a must for serious DPS24 users.
The Edit screen offers access to cut/copy/paste/move paste and offline DSP functions, such as time stretch, pitch shift, varispeed, bpm match, reverse and normalizing. Editing on the DPS is like using Pro Tools: Define a region and do what you will. You can edit over any number of tracks and then copy and use tracks from other projects. Although you can define a song tempo map with different time signature changes, there isn't a “snap-to-grid” editing feature. All editing is nondestructive, even if you erase audio. A Disk Cleanup “housekeeping” feature can delete unused audio later. The DPS24 constantly auto-saves any time a setup parameter is changed and cannot be defeated. Auto-save happens after each recording pass and edit, and when storing a locate memory or mix scene, a patch preset or an FX preset. There are 20 levels of undo — I used lots of them!
The Mixer view shows all fader movements and levels, and offers access to the patchbay where input channels, disk record and FX return sources are routed. The default setup worked fine, only requiring me to re-route a few recording buses to new tracks. Within Mixer, three solo modes (AFL, PFL, Solo-In-Place) can be selected. The first two are straightforward, but SIP uses a solo stereo bus with a separate solo level control. The soloed channel does not come up at the level you have it mixed but at the solo level setting. While mixing, this feature seemed useless; it wasn't any better than stereo AFL. Furthermore, there's no provision to solo “isolate” the FX returns other than soloing them every time you solo a music track. Hopefully, this will be sorted out with an OS update.
The DPS24's pro automation features include auto-drop in (using the touch faders), overwrite, trim and record off. The latter plays back the automation, but the changes are not added — a very good feature for me! You can automate EQ changes and FX level changes on top of snapshots. Using automation is easy as long as you remember the mode you are working in; here, undo comes in handy. After every automation pass, auto-save runs, momentarily freezing the stereo bus meters and everything else while updated information is processed.
A project contains everything that makes up your music composition. Besides automation data, audio, edit decision list, FX settings and track names, at least one snapshot mix scene called “00” is stored. This initial snapshot stores all fader positions, channel status, EQ/dynamics settings, FX — everything in a static file that is always recalled automatically when the song is put in play from the top. All further automation and later snapshots work from this initialized state. I like to get a mix completely together before engaging automation, but if you change basic running FX or EQs, restore them again at snapshot mix scene 00 or all changes evaporate as soon as you hit Play at the top. You can name, save and recall up to 100 mix scenes, which are ideal to preconfigure the entire system for different recording jobs, such as switching the DPS from Foley recording to multitrack music sessions.
Navigating LCD menus is via the familiar left/right/up/down four-button cursor navigator. There are my favorite Undo/Redo buttons and the Pre/Post-Roll buttons to set your preferred transport operation. The Auto and Input Monitor buttons can set up locked-input monitoring for pre-record rehearsal or conventional tape recording playback/record automatic-input monitoring. The numerical keypad is for typing in location points and the ± buttons are used for nudging In/Out edit points of a region, as well as Yes/No or FX On/Off, although it's not labeled that way. You can tag regions on-the-fly with the In/Out buttons and then fine-tune those points by scrubbing with the spring-loaded jog/shuttle wheel.
While in play, the rewind and fast-forward buttons operate at 5x play speed for cueing (normal wind speed is 10x) and the shuttle wheel runs at 2x; however, when the monitors play back at full volume at these speeds, it sounds like an old tape deck with a broken tape lifter. Another annoyance is that the rewind and fast-forward buttons latch until you press any other button. That's fine for normal winding — just like a tape deck — but from play modes, as soon as you let up on these buttons, you should be returned to play. With the timecode/bars-beats display main or edit screens showing exactly where you are, I don't see the need to hear anything at all, unless you are actually slowly scrubbing across a waveform with the jog wheel.
Without first reading the manual (my own self-imposed test), after I was accustomed to Akai's “screen conventions,” I was off to becoming a DPS24 whiz by using the soft keys, Q-Link, the channel-select buttons and the tape deck-like transport controls.
Recording with the DPS24 is wonderful: clear, noise-free with seamless punch in/out even during sustained notes. There is no diminution of processing features when using 96 kHz. The solid-feeling controls don't get in the way of hectic creative moments, and I liked the bulletproof reliability — everything always played back just as it went in. Any problems I had were always due to pilot errors. I never felt I was using a glitchy system; the DPS24 is rock-solid. Once I had a good recording level using the input faders in the first layer, I would simply flip back and forth between layers 2 and 3 to adjust mix and effects, etc. Keeping the input-record levels away — back on layer 1 — is a good design.
The DPS24 provides a total of 256 virtual tracks available across all 24 physical tracks. This is a completely different approach from other workstations I've used where a defined number (usually eight) of virtual tracks are allowed for each track. With the DPS, I could use two, 12 or 100 virtual tracks for my singer and only require a couple for my great guitar player.
From the FX page, I could select, edit, customize and store any of the 50 different effects from the 56-bit FX processor. Most sound good, although not quite as top-flight as what is available from dedicated external processors. There is even a well-featured pitch corrector that works to fix bad notes here and there.
You can mix to an external deck or to tracks 1/2 on the hard drive in a new project. Projects recorded at 96 kHz are mixed at 96 kHz with your choice of sample-rate conversion when you get ready to burn a CD copy; although with this OS, it is not possible to mix directly to the CD burner. Set up and name your new mix project or let it default to the project name plus “mix.” Just locate to the top of the song and push Play/Record (with no multitracks selected!) and you're recording your mix.
For mastering, the DPS24 has a multi-band compressor/expander (MBCX) that uses the same algorithm as Akai's QuadComp VST plug-in. Because MBCX requires all of the FX DSP to be available, there is no way to keep the four mixdown effects running and use MBCX at the same time — too bad. MBCX reminds me a little of the early TC Electronic Finalizers with four separate processors — LF, LMF, HMF and HF — each with their own adjustable crossover, threshold, ratio, attack, release and output settings. Applied to your stored, finished mix file, MBCX is a good tool with many useful presets to modify and rename. Like recording another mix to the hard drive, the same process happens; only this time, you recall and play your mix, set up MBCX and record it again. You'll have stored both the original mix and the mastered version — sweet!
Under the Setup page, the CD-Recorder page defines how a blank CD-R or CD-RW will be burned from your mastered mix. From the Project page, just select the order of mixes you'd like burned. The 40x-read/16x-write CD burner is also useful to back up project files. Future OS updates will allow, in addition to the SCSI or the USB ports, import/export of .WAV files. I used the burner for all of these tasks perfectly the first time — no cocktail coasters here! Strangely, there is no way to play a CD out through the DPS; you have to check your CD copies somewhere else or, as the manual sheepishly suggests, use the little headphone jack on the CD drive.
The culmination of years of experience manufacturing workstations and MPCs, Akai's DPS24 is noteworthy for its combination of excellent design, superior sound and modern features. Although still maturing in its software development, the DPS24 is a stable platform now and, with its open-end design, ready for a long, useful future with many free software/firmware updates coming all of the time. I liked the compact, self-contained design, the pro features and — after a short learning curve — the intuitive, logical operation. As tested here, the standard DPS24 retails at $5,499.
Akai Professional, 4710 Mercantile Dr., Ft. Worth, TX 76137; 817/831-9203; www.akaipro.com.
Barry Rudolph is an L.A.-based recording engineer. Visit him at www.barryrudolph.com.