June 2005

Tascam FW-1804 Recording Interface

Tascam's FW-1804 enters the crowded market of computer-based recording interfaces as an easy-to-install, easy-to-use centerpiece for a studio in need of an audio interface with MIDI capability.

Unlike some other recording interfaces of its size and ability, the FW-1804 requires no separate PCI card to be installed in the computer it's connected to. It takes advantage of high-bandwidth, high-speed Firewire and connects directly to a computer via a six-pin Firewire plug, which could also make it a great portable device, as it can be hooked up to different computers with ease. But that's not really the case. The unit's rackmountable housing and the placement of its main inputs and outputs on its backside don't make it the best choice if portability is your chief concern. Whereas some other devices like it give you a microphone input or two on the unit's face, saving you the trouble of reaching behind the rack to plug in a microphone, the FW-1804 has just one line input on its front. This is of course perfectly acceptable if you intend to slide it into a studio rack and have it stay there, which is what it seems designed for.

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Tascam FW-1804
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the back of the Tascam FW-1804

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The FW-1804 is best put to use in a studio setup that is more or less static. It can be installed on both Mac and PC platforms; the one thing to make sure of is that your computer has the six-pin Firewire input and not the four-pin variety (a six-pin to four-pin adapter could be used, but might negatively affect performance).

The four XLR/phono inputs the FW-1804 has are equipped with phantom power and, if you are familiar, feature the same preamps as Tascam's FW-1884 surface controller interface. After using a variety of mikes with the 1804, I began to prefer its preamps to those in my mixing board. They maintain a clear and noncolored sound even as you push them into the upper gain stages. Tascam also gave each of these channels a phono insert jack for the connection of an effects processor, a compressor, etc.-something to give the signal some color or shape before it hits the analog-to-digital converter.

Four phono line inputs make for a total of eight channels of traditional audio inputting, and additional inputs accept coaxial S/PDIF, ADAT light pipe, MIDI and word-clock connections. These special inputs all have corresponding outputs; the main audio outputs are a pair of phono outputs for connecting to a mixer or a set of studio monitors. In addition to the line input on the unit's face are a headphone out, gain adjustment knobs for each audio channel, a phantom power switch and three buttons that control whether the 1804 monitor output delivers the sound from the computer, the inputs or both. Though I still would like to have an XLR inputs on the face, there is something be said for the 1804's sleek and uncluttered look.

The FW-1804 ships with a CD containing Cubase LE software, a MIDI-enabled recording platform that can handle 48 tracks. Sure enough, as soon as it was loaded onto my laptop and I plugged in the Firewire and a microphone, I was tracking a guitar and soon listening to it play back through headphones plugged in to output on the 1804's face. But it can't always be so easy. While I did have a similarly easygoing experience with the free, downloadable version of Pro Tools, the 1804 wasn't initially a big fan of a couple of older software titles: Sony Vegas or Sonic Foundry's Acid. These programs recognized the 1804's presence right away for both input and output, but on playback the output occasionally emitted glitchy bursts of digital noise that brought to mind images of Stephen Hawking clearing his throat. Thankfully, after consulting some help files and a friend, the problem was corrected and it wasn't the fault of the 1804 at all. Thus compatibility issues with whatever software you intend to run with the 1804 shouldn't be a problem-but still I think it's best to check with Tascam and/or the software manufacturer before making the plunge.

There are four MIDI outputs on the back of the 1804, and while I never maxed the thing out with a load of MIDI connections, it never gave me any indication that it wouldn't be able to handle as much as it can take. Keyboard parts that I played into Cubase via MIDI and later played back through a MIDI output never hiccupped or showed signs of latency.

At $749 list price, the FW-8104 competes with a number of high-quality interfaces that offer more or less the same features and functions-they all begin to look the same when you stare at a catalog. But this is one that stands out as a solidly built interface that delivers a professional sound with a wide range of input and output options, and one that works from the start without hassle.

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