A Powerful Combination?
Yamaha MT44D Recording System
To bring it inline with 1985's Hi-Tech image, Yamaha's MT44-based Personal Studio System receives a much warranted visual restyle. Gone too are the inadequacies of the old MM30 mixer to be replaced by the laudable facilities of a new 6 into 2 recording mixer—the RM602. The revamped MT44D also sports additional features such as a real-time digital counter whilst the new rack frame and patchbay, the RB35B, offer greater interfacing flexibility—including a sync-to-tape facility. Ian Gilby visited the Yamaha factory recently to discover whether these latest devices really are a powerful combination.
The words 'stylish' and 'impressive' best sum up the look and facilities offered by the new Yamaha MT44D Recording System. Their previous MT44 package suffered from too late an entry into the home recording field coupled with an astounding lack of insight as to the features required of a recorder/mixer combination aimed at this sector of the market. Those on offer at the time were simply too basic, displaying an ignorance of just how advanced the home recordist had become courtesy of Teac's Portastudio (which had already been upgraded by the time the MT44 first appeared) and Fostex's 250 Multitracker.
Mechanically speaking, there was very little wrong with the original MT44 apart from a sluggish tape transport and it is in Yamaha's defence that the latest offering has undergone a purely cosmetic redesign, merely to bring it in line with their Hi-Tech eighties image. And very appealing it is too. The decision to retain the modular concept - where each unit can be purchased separately when needed - is also a sound one; now it really is conceivable that somebody will buy the mixer on its own. Now for an appraisal of the new models themselves, beginning with the multitrack cassette recorder.
Much the same size as the previous model, the new MT44D is tastefully finished in black plastic. Operationally, it still runs at the standard cassette speed of 1⅞ ips and offers both Dolby B and the more upmarket Dolby C noise reduction facilities. Although designated a 4-track recorder, the unit still allows compatibility with conventional stereo cassette machines in that a stereo recording can be made on a regular machine then replayed on the MT44D on Tracks 1(L) and 2(R). Additional material can then be recorded on Tracks 3 and 4 of the MT44D - but remember that recording on Tracks 3 and 4 will erase whatever was on Side B of your original stereo cassette as in 4-track recording, the full width of the tape is used running in one direction only.
This has an added benefit for fans of musique concrète techniques as turning a 4-track cassette over reverses all recorded sounds, giving you an instant 'backward' effect when replayed. It's a good trick for making a boring drum machine sound more appealing as well. Record the drums on Track 1, and turn the cassette over. The drums now appear playing backwards on Track 4 and you've got three more tracks to fill up with conventional sounds.
Connections to the MT44D remain on the rear panel, using phono sockets for the four line inputs and four line outputs. Still no mic level inputs to be seen, meaning that direct connection of microphones is impossible without a mixer. What about those potential users who currently make stereo recordings with a pair of mics linked to a cassette recorder (church choirs, plays etc) and who would maybe like to dabble in multitrack at a basic level? The MT44D would have made an ideal purchase on its own - if only it were fitted with microphone inputs. What a lost opportunity...
An 8-pin DIN socket labelled 'Remote' allows connection of the handy RC-10B remote control unit which is identical to the original MT44's remote, only coloured black with 12 feet or so of cable. Best to check with Yamaha to see whether the old model remotes are fully compatible - it might well save a few pounds. As the remote works in parallel with the MT44D's transport function buttons, either those on the recorder or remote may be pressed.
Finally on the rear panel, there's a ¼" inch Punch In/Out jack socket that connects to the FS1 footswitch for silent remote drop-ins/outs when in record mode, and that's about it - apart from the 50Hz/60Hz Timer switch which, as all Hi-Fi buffs will know, is for those lazy people who wish to record Radio One's chart rundown whilst at work; it selects the correct mains frequency for an external timer unit that automatically switches the power on and off to the MT44D (pre-set for record) at an allotted time.
The front panel of the MT44D features a completely new layout. The cassette assembly is relocated to the left with the four peak response meters to the right and transport controls et al conveniently given a central position. All record information is now displayed on the perspex panel in bold, brightly lit red letters as opposed to the previous model's dual-coloured LEDs.
The record selector buttons for each track are nicely positioned directly below the fast-acting level meters which, incidentally, register orange for levels below 0dB and red for those above. Pressed in for record, the 'REC' indicator above each track button lights but only if the 'Rec/Pause' transport button has already been activated, as indicated by the appearance of the red letters 'REC' to the immediate left of the first level meter. Recording then begins upon pushing the Play button.
Yamaha have dropped the combined pressure pad transport control used on the original MT44 and opted instead for conventional light-touch pushbuttons. There are eight of these buttons, each of which is angled backwards slightly instead of being flush-mounted, which makes for easier operation I feel. In addition to the standard control functions, there are forward and reverse cueing facilities which monitor the tape in fast wind modes for quick and accurate location of specific points on the tape. It is possible to switch directly from fast forward mode to rewind, though strangely, not from forward cue to reverse cue without first pressing 'Stop'. The cassette transport mechanism itself is now far from sluggish (a defect once levelled at the original model) and there's plenty of access to the cassette heads to allow regular cleaning and demagnetising - an essential task on all cassette multitrackers if you ever hope to get the best results out of them.
The biggest visible difference to the new MT44D is the brightly illuminated four digit red display that dominates the centre of the unit. In conjunction with the four rectangular pushbuttons directly above the transport controls, it functions both as a digital tape counter and as a real-time digital timer dependant upon the setting of the 'Count/Time' button. If you can't tell just by looking at the readout which mode you're in, the words 'Count' or 'Time' are illuminated below it in red letters. A displayed reading of '01.59' corresponds to an elapsed time of 1 minute 59 seconds - quite straightforward. This function will undoubtedly find favour with all audio-visual users or indeed anyone who likes to keep an accurate record of each song's duration and for me is a very welcome addition.
Using the 'Reset' button, the count and time modes can be reset independently to '0000'. This too is useful, since you may wish to reset the tape counter to zero at the start of a particular section of tape but still have available an overall readout of the elapsed time of the whole tape - if you were trying to cut down the fadeout on a song so that it fell exactly within the total time allotted to the song, for example.
The final two buttons associated with the counter function are 'Zero Set' and 'Start/Stop'. With 'Zero Set' activated, in rewind or reverse cue modes the tape automatically stops when '0000' is reached. It proved highly accurate during my tests, repeatedly reading '9996' or '9997' regardless of how far on the tape was wound. The combined 'Start/Stop' button then dictates whether or not the machine rewinds to zero and stops, or rewinds and automatically enters the play mode again. A more pleasing system to operate than that of the old MT44 in my book.
I do have one reservation about the tape counter though, and that concerns the realtime display during fast wind modes. Since it is an elementary clock system that's used in the MT44D, unlike SMPTE code, it cannot give a correct real-time reading in all transport modes - only in play or record. This is hardly to be expected for the price mind you, as SMPTE readers-generators cost an arm and a leg. All I'm saying is that the elapsed time readout is of limited application and can prove misleading, since it stops where it was before entering a fast wind mode and continues where it left off when play mode is once again initialised. One to be aware of.
Finally, on the MT44D, the track record levels are set via small rotary controls neatly concealed behind a flip-down lid below the meters. A centre detented pot marked 'Pitch' also allows a ±10% fluctuation of the tape running speed for matching pre-recorded tracks to out-of-tune instruments or for special effects. There's also a headphone jack socket for stereo monitoring (Tracks 1 and 3 left ear, 2 and 4 right ear).
As to recording quality, the specifications boast an impressive signal-to-noise ratio of 67dB with Dolby C. In multitrack tests, this figure was pretty much borne out using a TDK SA60 cassette which fulfilled the High Bias (70μs EQ) requirements specified by Yamaha. Without Dolby, the signal-to-noise ratio reduces to 55dB - a marked difference which is clearly audible. Multitracking was definitely the best with Dolby C in circuit. All in all then, a much improved and highly commendable unit.
By itself, the RM602 is a good, compact 6 into 2 mixer that will probably suit the needs of those readers looking for an inexpensive keyboard sub-mixer for stage use. It really comes into its own, however, when linked to a 4-track recorder such as the MT44D.
Constructed from black, powder-coated metal, the mixer is approximately 13 inches square, compact and fairly lightweight (7lbs) and is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the MM30. All connections, not unnaturally, are unbalanced (single screen) and made via jack or phono sockets on the rear panel. There are six inputs, one echo send (stereo return) on jacks, tape inputs/outputs on phonos, stereo auxiliary input on phonos, stereo master outputs on jacks and phonos, a stereo insert on jacks, and separate monitor outputs on jacks. Pretty comprehensive, eh?
The six input channels are identical in most respects but I'll point out discrepancies as we proceed through the features.
At the top of each channel is a four position input selector switch which matches the sensitivity of the source signals to the mixer input, either -50dB (microphone), -35dB (guitars) or -20dB (keyboards and line levels). The fourth position on channels 1-4 ('Tape') selects the playback signal from the MT44D for mixdown purposes, removing the need for re-patching. The same position on channels 5 and 6 is specially designed for matching the stereo outputs from a turntable and is fully RIAA equalised. Another boon for potential audio-visual applications.
Equalisation on the RM602 is still not brilliant but at least it is two band, offering some 15dB of cut and boost at 10kHz and 100Hz - well positioned for cutting excessive hiss at one extreme or boosting cymbals etc, and for beefing up the bass end or reducing microphone rumble.
An echo or reverb device connected to the rear panel 'Effects Send/Return' sockets can be used to treat each input. A variable degree of each input can then be sent independently via the 'Effects' control to the processing unit for treatment and returned to the mix. There's master level control of the 'Send' and 'Return' signals for matching a wide range of equipment as well, while the provision of individual left and right returns is a nice touch for those who prefer stereo effects.
As the input faders are used on the RM602 to set record levels to the MT44D directly on channels 1-4, the RM602 sports separate 'Monitor Level' and 'Monitor Pan' rotary controls to allow you to set up a monitor mix of the input signals regardless of the level at which the input faders are set. Although common to most recording mixers, this feature was absent from the old MM30, so it's good to see Yamaha falling into line with good recording practice. Either input source or off-tape signals can be monitored on channels 1-4, whilst 5 and 6 allow monitoring of inputs or left and right stereo mix signals - very handy. The last rotary control is also labelled 'Pan' but positions the sounds across the main stereo output mix, not across the monitor mix.
Neither 'Pan' control has a centre detent but Yamaha have gone to the trouble of screenprinting a letter 'C' (for 'Centre') in the mid positon - just to remind us.
All faders, including the separate left/right master level controls, have felt inserts to keep dust from the slider tracks and are quite stiff. This may well be due to the fact that the RM602 I tried had only just been unpacked from its box and these will probably loosen up after continued use.
A stereo 'Phones' socket, well placed on the right front edge of the mixer, can be used to hear the monitor mix being sent to the separate monitor outputs available on the rear panel, and whose overall level is controlled by the 'Monitor' knob left of the power switch. Only the master output levels can be monitored visually on the mixer's two tri-colour LED meters which exhibit a similar peak-reading response to those of the MT44D.
If six inputs are not enough for you, provision has been made on the RM602 for an extra two mono (one stereo) inputs using the 'Auxiliary In' phono connections on the rear. A stereo cassette containing sound effects, or whatever, could be patched in here and its level mixed via the 'Aux In' knob above the master faders. An excellent additional feature that increases the flexibility of this little mixer.
If you wish to use the RM602/MT44D to record purely one instrument on one track at a time, things couldn't be more simple. Channels 1-4 automatically route their particular input to the corresponding tape track on the recorder (Channel 1 to Track 1 etc), all you do is set the track to 'record standby' mode, set your fader record level, press 'Play' and off you go. This is only the case, however, if the two 'Tape Out' selector switches located below the mixer's output meters are set centrally to their '4 Channel Record' position.
When it comes to bouncing several tracks down to one or two others (referred to as 'ping-ponging' by Yamaha), these 'Tape Out' switches must be utilised to route the main left and right components of the stereo mix to the required track of the recorder using the lower 'Pan' control. Switching the selector to R4 (Track 4) and turning the 'Pan' controls on channels 1-3 hard right, allows you to combine Tracks 1,2 and 3 onto Track 4. Since the bouncing operation relies on the stereo mix bus to operate correctly, it means you can add two extra 'live' instruments during any bounce, routed through channels 5 and 6 'Pan' controls to the record track(s). Incidentally, the same two selector switches let you configure the RM602 as a straightforward 6 into 2 mixer with additional left/right mix outputs routed to Tape Out sockets 1 and 2, or 3 and 4.
Use of these selector switches may well prove difficult for first-time multitrackers as the RM602 Operating Manual falls (surprisingly for Yamaha) well short of the mark in its description of their operation. Even I had to think twice before realising how they worked - and I'm supposed to know about such matters! They really are easy to use once the penny has dropped.
In terms of sound quality, I had no complaints at all about this mixer. It's very quiet (-122dB EIN) with no real crosstalk (signal breakthrough) problems to speak of.
This is a black, all-plastic rack frame with moulded carrying handles that houses the MT44D/RM602, and comes complete with a new patchbay and a slightly smaller than before, felt-lined oddments box for storing cables, cassettes, etc.
When in place, the MT44D overhangs the 'Input Select' switches on the mixer slightly, but it's not really a problem - you can still get at them. It also hides the rear connector legending on the top of the mixer which necessitates that all cables be plugged into the mixer before sliding it into the rack or else you can't tell which socket is which.
All rear panel connections, apart from the RIAA Phono inputs, are duplicated on the patchbay plus a few extras. The 'Stereo Insert', for example, that allows effects units such as a compressor or equaliser to be patched across the main stereo mix for total sound treatments, has individual left and right jacks on the patchbay for both send and return connections, but only a combined stereo socket on the RM602's rear.
The patchbay also comes replete with the necessary flying cables, clamped in place at the patchbay end, and terminated in moulded jack or phono plugs as required, all ready to connect to the mixer. But how do you know which patchbay lead connects to which socket? Easy. It's marked on the relevant plug.
The real bonus feature of the patchbay though is the 'Tape Sync'. Phono sockets are provided that link directly to another Yamaha new product, the YMC10 MIDI Converter, which takes MIDI clock information from MIDI sequencers and drum machines and converts it to an FSK (Frequency Shift Key) signal. Once in this form, the clock information can be recorded onto tape - the signal is automatically dedicated to Track 1 of the MT44D if 'Tape Sync' is switched on at the patchbay - offering full synchronisation of such devices to material subsequently recorded on the remaining three tracks.
This feature, in essence, exemplifies Yamaha's new-found understanding of the developing home recording scene. Fewer tape tracks are necessary with sync-to-tape facilities and MIDI-based instruments. If synthesisers comprise the majority of your sounds, then you can utilise a multitrack MIDI sequencer to control them (acting as a digital recorder), and continually modify sequences until everyone is perfect, sync them to tape whilst you add further taped tracks of vocals and acoustic guitars perhaps, then mix the whole lot down to stereo without ever committing a single keyboard sound to tape. The same goes for the drum machine.
This presupposes a large array of MIDI keyboards are on tap to generate the voice data for the keyboard lines, of course, but what with the prices of MIDI synths dropping like flies and the introduction of Yamaha's own TX7 FM Expander Modules in a couple of months, what I've described will surely become a reality.
It appears nothing can halt Yamaha's march of progress these days and on my brief airing of this recording system, they have definitely taken yet another step forward. Individually or together, there is a great deal of flexibility on offer, backed up by good sound quality, good design and a very competitive pricing structure. With that much going for it, how can it fail?
Prices for the various components are as follows and include VAT: MT44D £399, RM602 £249, RB35B £149, and YMC10 £99. Further details from Yamaha stockists or Yamaha-Kemble, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby