Field Test: Yamaha AW2400 24-Track Hard Disc RecorderNEW ADDITION TO AW SERIES BRINGS MORE EFFECTS, TRACKS AND I/O
Yamaha knows a thing or two about building personal digital audio workstations. In 2001, the company launched its AW Series, which was largely based on the prowess of its 02R digital console, 24-bit recorders, performance samplers, multi-effects DSPs and CD-R burners. Yamaha crammed all this technology into a gig- and travel-friendly package.
The AW2400 updates and improves on many of the AW product line's features. Backward-compatible with previous models, the new flagship boasts a series-largest 24-track 40GB HD recorder with superior-sounding mixing and flexible signal routing capabilities borrowed from the company's 01V96 V2 console. Other features include moving fader automation, four independent stereo multi-effects processors, eight microphone preamps, I/O expansion, an internal CD-RW drive, and data transfer and controller between computers and external equipment.
The 25-pound AW2400 has a 21×20-inch (W×D) footprint and measures six inches to the top of its highest knobs toward the rear. This space allows for plenty of front panel control without feeling crowded. Layout is logical with the all-important Work Navigate section directly to the left of an 02R-sized 320×240 backlit display for easy page navigation. Grouped functions such as mixer, transport/locate and data entry/control fill the bottom half of the panel. Selected Channel is a 4×4 matrix of parameters located to the right of the display for adjusting dynamics, aux sends, effects and pan/EQ settings for each channel.
By default, four soft knobs across the bottom of the matrix are assigned to pan, equalizer Q, frequency and gain duties, but take on respective parameters for the other three groups. Pushing these buttons toggles deeper pages to edit and assign effects for each of the four DSPs. Spanning the top-left of the panel are input gain control knobs with peak indicators and input-select keys; to the right are studio monitor and headphone gain knobs.
The AW2400 is the series' first unit to feature 100mm motorized faders, though they're still not touch-sensitive. In addition to a single stereo master fader, 12 channel faders are provided in five selectable layers: tracks 1 through 12; tracks 13 through 24; inputs 1 through 8/return 1 through 4; inputs 9 through 16/return 1 through 4; and master bus 1 through 2/aux send 1 through 4/effect send 1 through 4. A sixth layer is used to assign the faders to remote-control mode. The data-entry section features a 40mm non-spring — loaded jog nudge wheel with an adjacent cluster of nine user-locate keys that can be number-locked, doubling as a keypad for entering specific locate points in measure/beats. Track or song navigation is certainly one area in which the AW2400 excels, with a bounty of features including jump-to A/B, section loop/repeat, auto-punch in/out with jump-to in/out locate functionality and up to 99 markers per song with mark search. Tucked under the armrest on the right-hand side is the CD-RW drive.
The back panel sports balanced ¼-inch TRS and XLR mic/line sockets for each of inputs 1 through 8, with phantom power switchable on/off in groups of four; channel inputs 1 and 2 also feature TRS insert jacks. Stereo main out and monitor out are balanced TRS, while four unbalanced ¼-inch omni outputs are for auxiliary sends to outboard effects or performer mixes to recording room monitors, headphone stations, etc. Only a single headphone jack is provided, but I'm happy to report it has one hell of a hot output for a change! Coaxial S/PDIF I/O, MIDI In/Out/Thru, a footswitch and a USB 2 port round out the unit's built-in connectivity.
You can install one of Yamaha's optional mini-YGDAI cards in the expansion slot for additional I/O or functionality, including the MY16 mLAN or Waves Y96K DSP card. Older Waves and Apogee cards are no longer listed in the manual as being compatible.
An included CD-ROM has a backup for restoring the demo song that ships on the AW2400's internal hard drive; control surface profiles for Cubase/Nuendo (Cubase LE now included), Logic and SONAR; and a Yamaha USB MIDI driver. System requirements to use the driver are Windows XP and Mac OS 10.3. Once I got the USB driver running, I used it to update the AW2400 with the latest Version 1.13 firmware/OS from Yamaha's Website.
Up to 16 inputs (with expansion card installed) can simultaneously feed the 24-track recorder uncompressed 16- or 24-bit audio at 44.1 or 48 kHz, with one nasty caveat: In 24-bit mode, the total available tracks halve to just 12 and a maximum of eight tracks may be recorded at once. An independent stereo track exists per song, used mainly as a dedicated mixdown track. Eight virtual tracks are provided per physical track, including the stereo track (meaning, 26×8 in 16-bit mode), providing plenty of room for alternate takes and mixdowns. Independent of the main recorder and therefore not influencing its track count is a handy Sound Clip feature (with metronome) that's quickly accessible from the front panel, allowing you to capture up to three minutes of inspired moments per song.
All 24 tracks and up to 16 live inputs can be mixed for a total of 40 possible sources, internally processed at 32-bit. Routing is the most flexible it has ever been in this series. Effects can be inserted on inputs, tracks, stereo output, bus master and aux send channels in one of three positions: pre-channel EQ, pre-fader or post-fader. Dedicated compressor/expander blocks on each channel are always present and can be likewise inserted. Input channels also feature a gate. Channel EQ is 4-band parametric on all inputs, tracks, sends, returns and buses, with lo-mid and hi-mid bands providing peaking EQ, while the low and high bands can be shelving, peaking or HP/LP. In addition to the original AW Series EQ, a new Type-II EQ promises to more closely represent analog response. Also new is a dedicated PitchFix tool with formant correction.
The USB port is only for data transfer and cannot be used for audio streaming. By default, it handles MIDI messages, but can also transfer WAV files to and from a PC or Mac for storage or further manipulation. For example, you might transfer a recording made on the AW2400 to your computer and use software for advanced waveform editing as the AW2400 sorely lacks this crucial utility. It is also possible to directly access data on the AW2400's internal hard disk from the computer and edit the data in place.
The MIDI functions are pretty straightforward: You can synchronize operation with an external device; remotely control the AW2400's transport and automate scene changes and mix parameters; or launch MIDI Remote mode, turning the AW2400 into a physical controller for an external device, such as your favorite DAW application or MIDI sound module (using the MIDI Learn feature).
RECORD, MIX, BURN!
Cherished condenser mics in hand, I set out to record a highly dynamic session of hand drums, tambourine, acoustic guitar and female vocals “en ensemble” to test the chops of the AW2400's preamps. I can't say these blew me away, as they didn't seem to capture the warm, woody tones in the drums or Taylor guitar in the way I'd demand from a dedicated outboard. It is true, of course, that you cannot expect eight channels of $1,300 tube pre performance from a $2,600 solid-state DAW, either. But they did do justice to the vocals, which sounded sweet, natural and quite present. Thankfully, these pre's were much quieter than previous units I had experienced in the AW Series.
I then tried to compensate for some of the lost warm tones using EQ. I've found Yamaha digital EQ to be pretty sterile in the past, so I was excited to find that the Type-II EQ does have a deeper, more natural analog color that won me over. Once I moved on to record more tracks, though, I soon discovered the Type-IIs aren't available on input channels — for processor preservation, I assume. If you prefer or need a more transparent EQ, then revert to the original, but I still found transient smearing to be a problem with both types, particularly when I mixed a harmonically rich 24-track orchestral piece. I'm also dismayed as to why Yamaha still hasn't implemented simple gates on monitor channels as part of the inline dynamics section. Gates are available as an effect insert, but this seems like an unnecessary step given that they're available at input just the same.
Upon critical listening, you'll hear the hard drive ticking away under the hood more than you will the ultraquiet cooling fan on the back panel, but neither snuck their way into the recordings, even at 6-foot proximity. Mixing this and larger projects, the AW2400's transport, automation and scene recall system were straightforward and far more responsive-feeling than my experiences on earlier models, handling quick locate and demanding punch-in/outs without even a hint of lingering.
To my ears, the effects sound about the same as they always have in the AW Series: somewhat middling and benefiting from a dedicated outboard reverb or chorus on crucial tracks such as lead vocals. I did put the PitchFix tool to work with success and appreciated it being accessible without having to dig through effects menus. However, I do wish for a full-blown waveform editor and a MIDI sequencer onboard. And for the last gripe, why are we still living in an age of being limited to eight virtual tracks? There's got to be a way to implement dynamic track allocation from unlimited files on disk that is intuitive and practical to operate on a 5-inch LCD.
Mixdown involves selecting the channels you want to record to the stereo track (from track, input and effect return channels) with the Mastering Library as an option, where you can recall EQ and dynamics settings specifically for the stereo output channel. Finalized levels can be checked onscreen before you hit Mixdown Record, a real-time process. Burning audio CDs and backing up song files to CD-R was smooth-sailing and can be performed track-at-once or disc-at-once up to a maximum write speed of 8x.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS?
Minus my hankerings to sequence MIDI and perform advanced waveform editing onboard, you can't fault the AW2400 for not delivering on its promises. Operation is fast, smooth and intuitive, with solid recording and mixing clout, more effects provided than previously in the series and a 24-track count that should satisfy most everyone's needs.
Add to this the far improved channel routing and insertion flexibility, more robust tone of Type-II EQ, onboard mastering and the ability to burn demo CDs, and you have the most significant personal audio workstation at a relatively blockbuster price ($2,699).
Yamaha, 714/522-9011, www.yamahaproaudio.com.
Jason Scott Alexander is a producer/mixer/remixer in Ottawa, Ontario.