TASCAM DS-M71 Digital Surround Controller

The TASCAM DS-M7.1 Digital Surround Monitoring Controller ($1,899) brings professional, full-featured surround control to the project studio price range while, in some areas, outperforming controllers two to three times as expensive.
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I started my foray into surround-format mixing about two years ago. I was not far into the exploration when the need for managing the multiple sources, destinations and level configurations became obvious.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, post production

Features: Detachable front panel; up to 24-bit/96 kHz operation; full down mixing and bass management functions; standard I/O includes Console (TDIF), master recorder (TDIF, lightpipe, AES/EBU DB25), monitor insert (AES/EBU DB-25), monitor output (AES/EBU DB-25, Analog DB-25) and stereo control room input (1/4-inch TRS)

Price: $1,899

Contact: TASCAM at 323-726-0303 or Web Site.

Plus

+ Lots of connections options

+ Stereo and LCRS through 7.1 surround monitoring

+ Incredible price

Minus

- Surround sound monitoring is complicated

The Score: A bargain for what it does.
While some project-oriented digital mixing consoles and computer-based digital audio workstations provide multichannel mix implementation, it is rarely more than rudimentary. Unfortunately, dedicated surround controllers with comprehensive multiple format/multiple configuration switching and routing have been prohibitively expensive for many wishing to explore surround.

The TASCAM DS-M7.1 Digital Surround Monitoring Controller ($1,899) brings professional, full-featured surround control to the project studio price range while, in some areas, outperforming controllers two to three times as expensive.

Since the TASCAM DS-M7.1 surround controller is designed principally to upgrade digital consoles and workstations to support the many standard surround mix formats, it is natural that the unit performs most of its magic in the digital domain. And therein lies a good part of the cost savings that allow the unit's reasonable price point.

Features

The DS-M7.1 is an eight-in/eight-out digital audio controller that routes the source tracks to both a tracking deck and a mastering deck (AKA stem recorder), and to the surround monitoring system. A return/bus switch routes either the digital mixer's output bus or the return from the mastering deck to the monitor path. A stereo control room input allows an independent stereo signal to be monitored using the same amp/speaker setup without repatching.

The DS-M7.1 provides an eight-channel digital insert on the monitor path for the option of patching in a DTS or Dolby device to audition the effects of the encoding/decoding process without affecting the recording.

The DS-M7.1 supports 24-bit operation at the standard sampling rates found between 44.1 kHz and 96 kHz. Surround formats supported range from LCRS up to 7.1. Standard pull-up and pull-down operation is supported when using an external master clock source.

TASCAM managed to cram eight sets of eight-channel I/O onto the back panel of the three-rack-space-high unit through use of multiple DB-25 connectors wired in standard configurations: TDIF, AES/EBU and balanced analog. A pair of ADAT optical connectors is also included. Conceivably, one could have 66 channels of inputs (including the stereo control room pair) and 64 channels of outputs simultaneously hooked to an unexpanded unit, so the use of multipin connectors is not only warranted, but very much appreciated.

The DS-M7.1 back panel has three available expansion slots, which can be fitted with optional I/O cards that can be used as an alternative to the unit's standard I/O described below.

Audio inputs and outputs provided as standard on the DS-M7.1's back panel are as follows:

"Slot 1" is a DB-25 TDIF-1 connector for eight channels of audio to and from the digital console or workstation.

"Slot 2" is a DB-25 TDIF connector for eight channels of digital audio to and from the tracking recorder.

"Slot 3" is a DB-25 AES/EBU connector for eight-channel monitor path insert I/O.

"Master Recorder I/O" provides eight channels of digital audio to and from the mastering deck, internally selectable between TDIF, AES and ADAT optical.

"Monitor Outputs" provides eight channels of audio simultaneously on AES and analog DB-25 connectors.

Optional eight-channel expansion I/O cards include the IF-AD/DM ADAT I/O ($249); IF-AE/DM AES/EBU I/O ($299), which is eight-channel, high-speed mode compatible; IF-AN/DM analog I/O card ($499); and the IF-TD/DM TDIF I/O ($249).

Additional connections on the unit include the aforementioned analog control room inputs on balanced 1/4-inch connectors; a 3.5 mm TRS jack for dim and mute footswitch operation; an RS422 connector for extending the remote use of the detachable front panel; and an RS232 jack reserved for future use/software upgrades.

In Use

For such a complex monitoring tool, setting up the ins and outs and getting audio out of the unit was quick and painless.

I fed the TASCAM DS-M7.1 with six channels of digital audio (a 5.1 surround project) using a TDIF cable going from a Nuendo workstation into the TASCAM's Slot 1 TDIF console I/O. Likewise, I used a TDIF cable to go to and from a TASCAM DA-88 via the Master Recorder I/O (I later tested the Master Recorder optical I/O with a 20-bit ADAT).

I did not require the use of a tracking deck in this configuration, so those connections went unused (though I did later verify the operation of the interface). For monitoring, I opted for the default routing of 1-L, 2-R, 3-C, 4-Sub, 5-LS and 6-RS for the 5.1 setup.

A DB-25 to eight male XLRs snake was used to go from the DS-M7.1's analog Monitor Output connector to a small array of destinations: Channels 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 went into the XLR inputs of a Sunfire five-channel amplifier feeding five Westlake speakers in standard surround configuration. Channel 4 went into a Tannoy PS 110 B powered sub.

Which brings me to one of the coolest bonuses I found in the DS-M7.1: In surround setups where six channels or fewer are used, monitor output channels 7 and 8 can be routed to an alternate stereo speaker pair. An "Alt Spk" button on the control panel lets you switch between the surround monitor setup and an independent two-channel amp and stereo speakers - in this case a Hafler P3000 amp powering SP Technology's excellent Timepiece 2.0 speakers (see review in an upcoming issue of PAR).

I followed TASCAM's calibration instructions using the DS-M7.1's internal pink noise generator and a C-weighted SPL meter. Thoughtfully, there is a menu item "safety lock" feature that must be disabled before you can use the noise generator, thus preventing the premature loss of speaker drivers (and clients) by an inadvertent press of the test button during a high-SPL mix.

The front panel of the DS-M7.1 is detachable from the body of the unit for remote operation. I used a standard 15-foot RS422 extender cable as recommended by TASCAM to place the controls smack in the middle of the desk; the manual also includes specifications for making a longer extension cable to a maximum of 60 feet.

The control panel follows familiar conventions and as such, was easy to use. A 20 x 4 alphanumeric LCD indicates parameter settings, and changes are made using a dedicated rotary encoder and a series of dual-purpose (via Shift key) buttons. A separate rotary control and LED display provide stepped level control and large numeric display of the SPL. A set of nine dedicated buttons and respective LEDs provide visual indication of surround mode and active speakers; a global solo/mute switch determines the function of pressing any of the nine speaker buttons.

The set of five buttons below the LCD display, in conjunction with the shift and two cursor keys, allow easy navigation through comprehensive system setup, multichannel I/O, down mix and bass management menus. As there are a wealth of adjustments and options within the setup menus, I encourage those who are interested to read the lit on TASCAM's website.

Summary

The TASCAM DS-M7.1 earned its keep with its simple multichannel volume control and comprehensive I/O patching abilities. Those features alone immensely reduced tangle-related stress, and probably added years to my career endurance.

Once the DS-M7.1 was comfortably installed in my monitoring setup, the feeling was not dissimilar to getting a Herman Miller Aeron chair and wondering why you'd been torturing your body for the last - how many? - years!

Beyond the useful features mentioned above, its abilities to maintain an independent stereo monitoring system with the surround system; to replicate consumer bass management schemes (routing LFE channel to mains or deriving the LFE from the mains); to easily down mix from multichannel surround formats to fewer-channel formats (e.g. from 5.1 to LCRS, stereo or mono); and to insert a surround encoder/decoder in the monitor path push the TASCAM DS-M7.1 into the "best buy" category. For me, it was an obvious "must buy."