TASCAM SX-1 Digital Production Suite

Just a few years ago, it would have taken a sizeable budget and a sizeable room to accommodate all the tasks available from the TASCAM SX-1. From tracking to mixing, from effects processing to automation (with moving faders), from DAW-style editing to MIDI sequencing, and even CD-burning capabilities; the SX-1 offers all the tools necessary to record a quality project in a single affordable ($5,999) unit.
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Second OpinionThe TASCAM SX-1 gives the impression of a high quality professional product that is unique unto itself. In this case, I'm not sure if this is a good thing for TASCAM. Imagine the iconic all-in-one Portastudio, which has always been synonymous with TASCAM, revamped for high-end professionals. The problem is that the advantage of portability, and an inexpensive price are gone. It's like trying to sell an oversized luxury Volkswagen Beatle.

The SX-1 combines two of TASCAM's premier products - the mixing section is right out of TASCAM's DM-24 digital mixer, and the hard-disk recorder takes its power from the MX-2424. One down side of the mixer is that, like the DM-24, there is no dedicated solo button for each channel; rather the mute buttons must be toggled into solo mode. As a hard disk recorder the SX-1 is as powerful as the MX-2424, but limited to only 16 tracks. At this price, 24 tracks should be mandatory.

- Robert Brock, Digital Department Head

I love the fact that the SX-1 has an external screen option, and that a mouse and keyboard can be plugged directly into the unit. The interface for the VGA monitor boasts a colorful and well laid out system. Unfortunately the dedicated quick access buttons on the front panel only control the small, built-in LCD display, so I found myself reaching for the mouse a lot. This makes it feel more like working on a desktop computer, which is why it is hard to see the advantage of the SX-1 over a computer-based system with a control surface. Such combinations offer much more flexibility for the same, or even less money. The main advantage of the SX-1 provides is that you don't have to configure anything yourself. If you want the features of digital technology, but don't want to build a system yourself, then perhaps the SX-1 is for you.

- Jason Losett, Instructor

I'm happy to say that the MIDI sequencer is one of the better ones I've seen on a dedicated piece of hardware. It won't compete with the better computer based sequencing programs, but it is very capable of meeting the basic needs of MIDI based music composition. I especially liked the nondestructive MIDI tools.

- Chris Bailey, MIDI Instructor

In collaboration with the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, one the country's leading pro audio teaching facilities, PAR has introduced a regular series of in-depth reviews conducted at the Conservatory's state-of-the-art teaching faculty in Phoenix.Just a few years ago, it would have taken a sizeable budget and a sizeable room to accommodate all the tasks available from the TASCAM SX-1. From tracking to mixing, from effects processing to automation (with moving faders), from DAW-style editing to MIDI sequencing, and even CD-burning capabilities; the SX-1 offers all the tools necessary to record a quality project in a single affordable ($5,999) unit.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, project studio, broadcast

Key Features: 16 mic/line inputs; 24-bit; 48 kHz sample rate; 40 GB hard drive; CD-RW drive; MIDI sequencing; integrated LCD screen; motorized faders; jog/shuttle dial; expansion slots

Price: $5,999

Contact: TASCAM at 323-726-0303, Web Site.
Features

The SX-1 is an all-in-one music production center, ideally suited for the songwriting home-engineer. The 24-bit, 48 kHz system offers 16 mic/line inputs with phantom power available in banks of four. The outputs on hand are stereo output (XLR, RCA), studio output (two sets of TRS), Aux 1-4 Out (TRS), and two headphone jacks. Not to mention the 16 insert points! There is also a set of lightpipe in and out to provide a purely digital path. As is common with TASCAM products, the SX-1 is equipped with expansion slots to provide for additional inputs and outputs (ADAT lightpipe, TDIF or AES/EBU).

As well as being a fully functional mixer/hard disk recorder, the SX-1 is a powerful MIDI sequencer. As such, a single MIDI in, four MIDI outs, and a dedicated MTC In (MIDI Timecode) port are provided. For word clock, there are three BNCs - in, out, and through. Last, but certainly not least, the SX-1 is a computer and therefore has a standard VGA monitor output (as well as built-in LCD display), two PS2 ports (for the mouse and keyboard), a set of video in and through jacks and a SCSI 68-pin connection for adding an external hard drive (though the SX-1 does have a 40 GB internal hard drive). Additionally, the SX-1 allows you to load software and perform project backup/restore via a CD-RW and even provides a 5.25-inch drive bay where a standard Data Express removable drive system is installed in the SE model.

The Control Room section of the SX-1 is simple to use and rather flexible. There is a dedicated section for both the studio and control room output, each capable of accepting input from the following sources: stereo, cue, Aux 1-2, Aux 3-4, Aux 5-6, 2trk/CD, Digital In. The Studio Section allows for talkback to be added to the mix, while the Control Room Section provides an option for large or small speakers (TRS) as well as Dim and Mono.

The SX-1 is a fairly easy to use production environment. In general, the SX-1 follows the same logic as TASCAM's previous family of digital mixers (DM-24, TMD-4000, TMD-1000) in that by using soft keys in conjunction with the LCD display you can access every function of the unit. However, the SX-1 is fully equipped for use as a computer with standard connections for a VGA monitor, keyboard, and mouse. In this mode the SX-1 shows its true capability and, honestly, becomes easier to use.

In Use

While tracking, I found the top panel access to the mic preamps to be convenient. Though the mic-pres are not earth shattering, they are clean, relatively transparent, and certainly useable. The routing of the SX-1 may be its best feature, for you can truly route any input into any track on the HDR as well as route any HDR output (including aux sends) to any physical output. Included in this flexible routing is the capability for an effects processor to accept input from any the aux sends, from the inserts, from the track output, and even from the input (by using mixer bypass mode). As a locator, the SX-1 has common features needed for a professional environment - 999 locate points, pre and post roll, and loop playback.

In mixdown, The SX-1 is again very simple to operate. The output of the HDR is naturally fed to the second bank of touch-sensitive faders; and each track is provided with four auxes, an insert point, and solo/mute buttons. The automation system follows traditional concepts - providing capabilities for automation write, update, and trim on both a global and a per fader basis. If you are using the VGA system, it is possible to draw break-point automation (as is common in DAWs) on every track. Though usable, I found the on screen automation tedious and frustrating to use. Adjusting the resolution of the breakpoints, the motion of the pencil tool, the need to go to a different page to automate another track all seemed unnecessarily difficult. Though an experienced user familiar with the logic of TASCAM would have no difficulty accomplishing their goals, I would imagine the complexity and counterintuitive automation system would confuse a novice.

As I mentioned, the routing of the SX-1 is perhaps its most attractive feature. Simply put, any input may be routed to any track; and any track or aux send can be sent to any output. Correspondingly, the faders can be programmed in a user fashion to control any aspect of the mix desired - simply select the input and output of the desired fader and begin changing level. By default the fader banks receive signal as follows: Layer One - Source 1-16; Layer Two - HDR (17-32); Layer Three - Aux Returns 1-8 and Group Master Faders 1-8; Layer Four - Buss 1-8, Aux Masters 1-6, and Two Cue Masters; Layer Five - Layer Eight are dedicated for MIDI channels in banks of 16.

The effects processing section of the SX-1 is also truly impressive. Onboard, there are four virtual effects slots that can accommodate up to four processors at a time (with some limitations) . But the most notable part of the effects system is that like the DM-24, the effects include the full line of TASCAM processing, the Antares Mic Modeler, Antares Speaker Modeler and TC Electronic Reverb. These three third-party processors remove the need for the user of the SX-1 to have outboard processing - a good move for an all-in-one unit. One severe limitation, however, is that the TC reverb takes up two of the effects slots - meaning one reverb and only two other processors (or just two reverbs) are available at a given time.

The SX-1 boasts editing capability common in most DAWs. Again, though present, I found the editing capabilities to be awkward and difficult to use. Though the logic being used is similar to that of our major DAWs, the execution of said logic leaves something to be desired. The process of making selections is not as intuitive and more difficult than need be. Again, an experienced user who is familiar with the logic of TASCAM will have no problem figuring out how to do what they want, but a novice or someone with limited experience editing digital audio will find the process utterly confusing.

As a MIDI sequencer, the SX-1 is a very capable machine. The sequencer can support up to 128 tracks (with 64 MIDI channels of output) each able to send signal to any of the four MIDI out ports. As mentioned above, there is a dedicated MTC in port for slaving the SX-1 to another device via MTC (the MIDI equivalent of SMPTE). Most traditional sequencer functions are available on the SX-1; quantization, transposition, step-write record, an event list, and the generation of click track (complete with count-off, accents, and options for when the click will playback). Most noticeably absent, however, are an arpeggiator, a pattern mode, and a score editor - granted these are specialized features not needed for the mass user, but would be nice to see. The MIDI side of the software is a little friendlier than the audio side, but it is more like working with keyboard workstation than with a DAW. That is, you must go to a new tab for each MIDI ability rather than having a dedicated screen with all functions immediately available. Again, though usable and certainly better than using the LCD display, I found the interaction with the software to be unnecessarily cumbersome.

The SX-1 also contains an impressive library that allows you to store all processor settings as well as routing configurations. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the library is that you can setup the SX-1 to do a library recall as an automation event - so you can change a EQ from one preset to another within automation. Or even call up a different routing configuration in the midst of a mix.

I should also mention that the SX-1 does provide capability for surround sound, but obviously an expansion card would be needed to provide convenient input and output - though it is possible to use the aux sends outputs, so you could send L and R to the stereo outs and C, LFE, LS, RS to the individual aux outputs.

Being that the SX-1 is a computer and a HDR it makes sense that there is a powerful native file management system. One can store sessions to the internal 40 GB hard drive or backup each session to a CD-RW using the onboard CD-RW burner. It is possible to load files from an existing session into a new session; however no option is provided for merging pre-existing sessions. Probably the weirdest feature of the whole device is that there is no way to hard save your session. The SX-1 automatically backs-up after every change, so there is no need for a manual save. However, one can imagine the confusion that the lack of a save feature brings to an engineer who has imprinted it on their mind to hard save after every significant move.

Summary

In general, I found the SX-1 to be a nice amalgamation of recording and songwriting necessities in a fairly convenient and easy-to-use package. The SX-1 is the beginning of a new niche market - the non PC-based, all in one recording studio. Though this studio-in-a-box concept began with TASCAM's Portastudio, the SX-1 takes that concept to a new level of power and professionalism.