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This article was originally published in issue #38
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I’ve reviewed a couple of 'Studio in a Box' packages over the past year or two, and come to the conclusion that they’re quite a nice idea for someone just starting out. The idea is that you can open the box, plug in all the bits and start recording with no (or at least, little) additional expense. Generally there are a couple of minor extra bits that you need to add, like a mic stand and pop shield, but they certainly get you most of the way there.
This time out I’m looking at the Tascam TRACKPACK 2x2, and I think I’m going to give it an early award just for the name. 'TRACKPACK' - very nice.
OK, in the box you get a model US-2x2 interface, USB cable, TH-02 headphones, TM-80 condenser mic with a desktop stand and shock-mount and a mic lead, and download codes for both Sonar LE and Ableton Live 9 Lite DAWS (yup, they give you two of them). That means that you can start to record literally with just the contents of the kit (you DO have a computer already right?!?). If you feel that you need more to get started, there’s also a 4x4 version with a four input interface and two sets of mics (and accessories) and headphones.
Windows installation needs a driver download as usual, and this includes the settings panel where you get to select sample rate up to 96kHz, buffer size, decide if your inputs are a stereo pair or two mono and if your outputs are a mix of the inputs plus the signal from the computer, or just the computer output. Once the driver’s in place operation is as simple as plugging-in the USB lead and opening whichever DAW you choose.
The US 2x2 itself has a metal chassis with an attractive set of end plates that tilt the unit back by a few degrees, making front panel access just a little easier than if it sat flat on the desk. Around the back is the USB socket, power inlet (the unit is usually USB powered when used with a PC or Mac but you’ll need an optional PSU and a suitable camera adapter kit to use it with an iOS device), balanced line-outs to connect your monitors (or any other line-out you need), and 5-pin MIDI in and out so you can plug-in your old-school drum machine or synth.
The front panel holds the two channels’ combi input sockets, each with a mic/line or instrument switch, a gain control (up to 57dB) and signal present and peak LEDs. There’s also a phantom power switch that switches both channels, and over to the right are line out level, headphone socket and level, and a monitor mix control to balance how you hear your input/computer tracks mix. The USB synch light glows red, which had me troubleshooting to figure-out why it wasn’t synching until I eventually realized that it was working fine, so red means good!
The TM-80 mic that comes in the package is a cardioid pattern condenser with an 18mm aluminium capsule. It slips easily into the supplied shock-mount, and you’ll quickly understand why all the marketing pictures show it without the supplied 6 foot lead connected – you have to angle the mic backwards to stop the plug connector from snagging. This isn’t so much a problem if you’re doing voice-overs sitting at a desk, but is a bit restricting if you’re trying to balance it all on a chair and some books to get the right angle to record your acoustic guitar. It’s great that there’s a stand and shock-mount included, but a shame it isn’t a few inches taller.
The included headphones are surprisingly comfortable and I think they strike a good balance between isolation (they’re closed back designs) for tracking and detail for mixing, and between them and the US 2x2 you can get enough level to leave your ears ringing if that’s what you want.
Do we need to go through the specs? No, not really. They’re all plenty good enough to handle just about anything you’re going to want to do to do in a normal recording situation, so take a look at the Tascam website if you’re curious, but otherwise just don’t worry about them. The more import question is; “what’s the kit like to use?"
The interface is easy to understand, the control layout is dead simple, and everything works as expected. The mic will handle everything from loud guitar cabs to spoken word. It has a pretty flat frequency response with a presence lift in the 8-10 kHz air region, and sounds pleasantly open on vocal and acoustic sources. I was a bit less taken with the close-up sound on a driven guitar cab, but by moving back about a foot and putting it slightly off axis I found a sound that I was happy to use (this is often the case with even expensive condenser microphones - there’s a reason that engineers tend to use dynamic mics for this job). I actually took quite a shine to the headphones; mixing on cans is a bit of an acquired taste, but the good news is that they’re pleasant to listen to, so getting your head around (or into) what well mixed tracks from your music library sound like is enjoyable enough.
Can you really record with just what’s in the box? Yes, yes you can. Spoken word/podcast tracks are easily within reach, so long as you have a suitable computer of course, and with some instruments and musicians you can certainly record songs. Some additional kit will help; a longer mic lead and a full size stand and a pop shield will make using the mic easier, and most people prefer to mix on a set of monitors. That said, the TRACKPACK will get you started, and the parts are good enough that if you decide that you want to do more in future it will give you a decent base to expand from without feeling that you need to start all over again. Bear in mind that if you want it to be a bit more ambitious, Tascam also offers the TRACKPAK 4x4 version, too.