12 Channel Mixer/12 Track Recorder
Unveiled in prototype form at the 1984 Frankfurt Music Show and now on general release, the MG1212 heralds Akai's re-activation of interest in the ever-growing home studio recording scene. Known to the populace through their quality hi-fi and video products, the home recording fraternity still associate the name Akai with that early pioneer of 'sound-on-sound' recording — the Akai 4000DS stereo reel-to-reel recorder.
Although light years apart, the MG1212 upholds the Japanese company's tradition (begun with the 4000DS) for convenient and easy operation. It also represents the first use of a half-inch audio cassette tape format on a multitrack recorder.
We gave musician/sound engineer John Harris two weeks to undertake the enviable task of checking out this unique machine's potential. Here are his findings...
The new Akai MG1212 looks rather like an overgrown Portastudio at first sight with its 12 channel, 12-track multitrack recorder combination. However, weighing in at a hefty 42kg 'portable' is something which it most definitely is not, unless you've got a personal road crew to cart it about for you. Coming with a price tag around £6,000, you would have to think hard before parting with your hard-won cash, considering that you could get a Fostex B16 and a 24 into 16 mixer package for the same money.
However, the Akai has many advantages over such a system. All connections between mixer and recorder are internal and the layout of the cassette deck, mixing section, connection panel, indicator and fluorescent display enables one person to operate everything easily. One of the most attractive features is the ten location memory system which offers the user auto-locate, repeat playback, punch-in/out, and playback mute facilities. The Akai actually has 14 tracks but one of the 14 is dedicated to a control code for the onboard computer, and another is intended for you to record your own synchronisation code to run drum machines, sequencers etc. So, in reality, you end up with a 12 track recorder as the sync-code track has no EQ section.
Akai originally intended their machine to use ordinary video cassette tapes, but the video tape manufacturers would not grant them a licence to do this it seems. So, being an enterprising company, they decided to design their own half-inch tape cassette which looks pretty similar to a standard domestic video cassette and uses cobalt high performance magnetic materials. The tape runs at two speeds and lasts for a mere 10 minutes at 7½ ips (19cm/s) or 20 minutes at 3¾ ips (9.5cm/s).
On first appearance the cassette housing looks very similar to that found on most home video recorders. A cassette is loaded automatically by pressing Eject, inserting the cassette into the holder and pressing Stop, so you need never physically touch the tape. A tape loading roller, which doubles as a tape tensioner, pulls the tape from the cassette and brings it in contact with the heads.
There are three heads: the erase head and two record/playback heads, one of which is specifically intended for the machine's control code and the user's sync-code. The last is a 12-track Super GX crystal ferrite head which Akai describe as having superior electro-magnetic transformation characteristics, and as being durable, resistant to dirt and precision made for high functionable ability. Access to the heads (for cleaning, which they recommend every time you switch on, and for head alignment) is via a perspex cover which can be raised.
As mentioned previously the deck is dual speed, and pitch control is possible by ±12% of the set speed. The pitch control knob and the tape speed select button are both situated to the right of the deck. Dbx Type 1 noise reduction is employed permanently, and this has a 2:1 compression/expansion ratio over the entire audio range, providing a noise reduction effect of 30-40 dB. The reel motor is a coreless DC type and the capstan is an FG servo DC motor, for the record.
The controls for tape transport and also the channel/track bus display and select buttons are all located together in a block to the right of the mixer faders. These have a feather-touch operation and are microprocessor controlled enabling direct function changing ie. it is possible to change from rewind to fast forward without pressing stop in-between. Also in this block are some other controls which I'll deal with later.
But first the tape transport controls which comprise Stop, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, Eject, Rec Pause, Cue and Memory Search. The first five of these are self explanatory. The Rec Pause button is used to enter record mode by pressing it and the Play button simultaneously and can also be used to pause the machine during the recording. Drop-ins can also be performed when the tape is playing by holding down the Play button and pressing the Rec Pause button at the appropriate point.
The Cue button is used to listen to the tape during rewind or fast forward and is useful for finding the start or end of tracks. Pressing the Memory Search button will cause the tape to rewind or fast forward to the time indicated in the Memory Time display. If you press Play during rewind or fast forward, playback will start automatically on reaching the specified time.
The channel/track select buttons are found above these controls, and are labelled 1 to 12 corresponding to the 12 channels on the mixer and the 12 tracks on the tape deck. They are most often used when selecting the tracks you wish to record on to. On pressing a button, the corresponding indicator in the bottom two rows of the display above the buttons changes from PB (playback) to Rec and starts blinking, lighting up fully when recording begins. Pressing the button again resets the display to PB. These buttons are also used in Solo mode and when using the buses.
The top half of the channel/track display shows the channels and tracks using the buses. The top two rows are labelled Bus A and comprise one row of 12 LEDs labelled Ch 1 through to Ch 12, with another row of 12 LEDs labelled Trk 1 through to Trk 12. The next two rows are labelled Bus B and are similarly labelled Ch 1-12 and Trk 1-12. There are also 4 buttons labelled Ch A, Track A, Ch B and Track B which are used in conjunction with the channel/track selector buttons to perform the bussing.
For example, let's say you wanted to use Bus A and Bus B to bounce tracks 1, 2, 3 and 4 in stereo on to tracks 11 and 12. (You cannot bounce onto a track next to one you are bouncing from by the way.) After creating your stereo mix using the faders and pan controls on channels 1 to 4, you'd press the button labelled Ch A followed by the channel/track select buttons 1, 2, 3 and 4; followed by pressing Track A and channel/track select button 11. To bus the other half of the stereo image you'd press Ch B followed by buttons 1, 2, 3 and 4, then Track B and channel/track select button 12.
Pressing the Set/Clear button completes the setting of the channels and tracks using the bus, and the bottom two rows of the display will show that tracks 11 and 12 are on record standby. The Set/Clear button can also be used to clear the channels and tracks by pressing one of the four buttons (Ch A, Ch B, Track A, Track B) corresponding to the channel or track to be cleared, followed by pressing this button. All the bussing can only be set when the deck is in the stop mode.
There are five more buttons to be found in this section: Solo, Anti-Rec, Auto-Manual, Sync and Cont. The Solo button is used to monitor the sound of a specified input module by pressing this button followed by one of the channel/track select buttons. That track will subsequently be isolated for as long as you hold down that button. Pressing the Solo button again cancels the facility. The Anti-Rec button is used to prevent accidental recording as you might expect.
Tape monitoring can be either manually or automatically selected using the tape monitor Auto/Manual button. The auto mode is selected when the button is first depressed, lighting the indicator, and returned to manual on a second depression. It enables you to monitor tape on playback and rewind, and source signals during eject, record, record standby and stop, of selected tracks chosen by - yes, you've guessed it - the corresponding channel/track select button (1-12).
The Cont and Sync buttons are actually record standby controls for the machine's internal code and a sync-code from an external machine respectively. On pressing one of these buttons, its LED starts flashing and will remain fully lit when recording begins.
The MG1212 uses its inbuilt code (which you have to record onto your tape) in conjunction with its memories to perform such functions as search (for zero or one of nine pre-programmed points), repeatedly playing and rewinding a certain portion, automatically punching in and out of record at specified places, and automatically muting a section. There are two digital displays, one labelled Time Counter and the other Memory Time, whilst a battery back-up system enables the contents of the memory to be retained even when the machine is switched off.
Once you have recorded the code onto tape, on playback the time counter will display the running time of the tape in minutes and seconds. (It is usual to set the time to zero at the start of the track, which is done by pressing Memo Clear followed by the button marked '0' found at the extreme left of the row of numbered buttons below the digital display.) If you rewind to before the beginning of the track, a dot appears at the top left hand corner of the display indicating that the time shown is negative.
There are two memory systems on the Akai. One is a manual system whereby you can specify a certain point in the track by typing in the time in minutes and seconds. To do this you use the Manu Memo button followed by four digits on the numbered keys (0-9). (3 minutes 10 seconds, for example, would be 0-3-1-0.) This time appears in the display labelled Memory Time.
The other system is an auto-memory system, into which you can programme 9 different times simply by pressing the keys marked 1 -9 at desired points in the track - either on playback or record. On pressing one of these buttons, the LED above it lights up and stays lit to show that a time is stored in that memory. This time cannot now be changed without clearing the memory first - with the sole exception of memory 9 which can be reset by pressing its button again. Memories can be cleared by pressing Memo Clear followed by the numbered key of the relevant memory. They can all be cleared in one fell swoop by pressing Memo Clear followed by the Memo All Clear button - the key marked '0' - this also resets the timer to zero.
You can use the memory facility to search for a specific point on the tape. First you have to get the desired time to apear in the Memory Time display, either by pressing one of the auto-memory buttons (0-9), or entering a time manually using the Manu Memo button as previously described. Once your desired time is displayed, pressing the Memo Search button will cause the deck to rewind or fast forward to the displayed time. You can also do what they call "reverse searching" which means searching back a certain amount from a time stored in an auto-memory. If, for instance, you want to go back to a point 3 minutes before a programmed time of 10 minutes, you press the button of that automemory, press the minus (-) button, then use the numeric keys to enter 3 minutes into the Memory Time display by pressing, 0, 3, 0, 0 in that order. Then, on pressing the Memo Search button, the machine will rewind or fast-forward to the point 3 minutes before 10 minutes ie. 7 minutes. Useful if your maths isn't too hot!
The memories enable the machine to play a certain portion of the tape repeatedly, rewinding and playing automatically. If you want to play from zero to a specific point in the track, you simply press Play and then press Repeat at the point at which repeat playback is to end. The tape will then rewind to zero and play through to this point over and over again until you press Stop. To cancel the repeat mode you have to press Memo Clear twice.
Repeat playing of desired portions of tracks that don't start from zero is a little more complicated and there are a couple of options. Each way involves setting two times, the start and end times. The first way is to use a time stored in one of the auto-memories as either your start or end time, and pressing this memory button to display the required time in the Memory Time display. Then set a second time (whilst playing the tape) by pressing the Repeat button at the other end (start or finish) of the section you wish to repeat. The machine will then repeatedly play and rewind between the two set times, which will be alternately displayed in the memory time counter.
Another way is to stop the tape at the beginning or end of the required section, and select an auto-memory corresponding to the other end of the required section. On pressing Repeat, the machine will repeatedly playback between these two points. With either method you can change the time you have programmed in by pressing an auto-memory button or the Manu Memo button whilst the machine is playing or rewinding.
Automatic punch in/out recording can also be carried out using the memories, although as all memory times are in minutes and seconds, punch in/out times can only be set to the nearest second, so tight drop-ins aren't really possible by this method. However, it's still very useful.
The punch in and punch out times can be set using either two auto-memories or the Manu Memo key and one auto-memory. Press the Punch In/Out button followed by the two relevant memory buttons. Then select the track(s) you wish to record on by pressing the track select buttons and press the Punch In/Out button once more. By rewinding the tape to a place before the drop-in point, and pressing Rec Pause and Play simultaneously, the tape will play from that point and will start and stop recording at the preset times. Pressing Stop and rewinding the tape also enables you to repeat the above procedure if required. Note well: if you select your recording track beforehand and forget to press it again during performing the above sequence, then recording will start immediately you press Rec and Play and will continue until you press Stop. This could be quite disastrous and, unfortunately, it's very easy to do.
Automatic muting during playback and bouncing may also be performed. Like the punch in/out facility, the procedure is to preset the start and end times of the portion of tape you wish to mute by using either two auto-memory buttons or the Manu Memo button and one auto-memory button. The operation procedure is as follows - press the PB Mute button, then press the two memory buttons relating to the start and end times of the section you wish to mute. You then set the track(s) you wish to be muted by pressing the corresponding channel/track selector, followed by the PB Mute button again. To cancel this mode press this button once more and that's it.
The mixer takes up about three-quarters of the 856(w) x 205(h) x 752(d)mm dimensions of the MG1212 and the front panel, finished in a dark grey gun metal with gold legend, is set at a convenient angle for operation. The control pots are brightly colour-coded orange (trim), peach (EQ), green (aux), white (track monitors), and light blue (monitor volume), with light grey level faders. Input and output phonos, XLRs and ¼" jack sockets are located on the back panel, above the mixer section, which is angled slightly away from the operator but still easily visible and accessible. Thus there's no awkward stretching and peering over the back of the mixer in a vain attempt to plug something into the right socket!
Each channel on the mixing desk is called an input module and they all correspond to track numbers on the tape deck because apart from the normal inputs, EQ, and auxiliary sends, they contain the track monitor/pan pots, the peak meter for setting up the level onto tape which is controlled by the channel fader below it, and a pan pot which doubles as a bus control for track bouncing. This type of design philosophy should be familiar to all Portastudio users.
The mic input (balanced) is accepted via an XLR socket, while line input is a standard ¼" jack and instead of a single insert point, each input module has an Acc Send doubling as a channel out, and an Acc Receive allowing you to patch in an effect or processor. The connection point is between the pre-amp and the parametric equaliser, but use of the channel output on its own will not interrupt a source signal. All the above sockets are found on the back panel.
A three-way switch selects whether mic, line, or track (playback) input is to be routed through the channel, although this switch does not govern the Track monitor level pot, referring only to off-tape playback using the faders for mixing or track bouncing. I found the choice of legend misleading in this instance and would have preferred the Track monitor section to have been labelled 'monitor mix' or something similar, instead of 'Track'.
The pad selector (0, -20dB, -40dB) damps the signal from the mic input while the trim control knob adjusts mic and line input levels over a range of -20dB to 0dB. After initial use for setting up a level into the mixer and thence onto tape, the trim becomes redundant as the playback level is then governed by the Track monitor or channel fader, dependant upon which is selected.
Dual concentric pots are used on the parametric EQ with the Level control cutting or boosting specific frequency ranges by plus or minus 15dB and the Frequency control setting the equalisation centre frequency within the following ranges:
Mid : 350Hz—5kHz
Low : 40Hz—800Hz
As you can see, there is a considerable frequency overlap which means that you could, for instance, use the Low control to boost lower mid frequencies leaving the Mid control free to concentrate on upper mid frequencies. With no overlap this would not be possible and so this configuration gives you more potential for creative use of EQ. Furthermore, an EQ cut switch enables you to check your creative EQ talents against the original (unequalised) sound.
Underneath the EQ are the auxiliary sends. Effect A is a dual concentric control over pan and level which can be used as either a stereo or mono send with a pre/post fade selector switch below it. Effect B is mono only but another switch enables you to use this send on the Track (monitor mix) section of the desk. Master output and input controls for both Effect A and B are located on the Master Module part of the desk. With limited space available on the panel for the important aux sends (remember, there are only twelve channels for mixdown so none can be given over to effect returns!), Akai have come up with a design which is both compact and easy to operate.
The policy of using dual concentric pots is continued in the Track monitor section which combines track level and pan. With this control you can monitor playback off tape or the source input when record standby is selected on the tape transport control. Each channel has a window with three illuminating displays relating to the recording process. The level of signal onto tape is shown on a peak level meter which is in the form of a stepped indicator displaying green up to 0dB and red above. There is also an overload indicator which lights up at a level 3dB below the saturation level of the amplifier, and a red 'Rec' legend is illuminated when the corresponding track is in record, or record standby mode. The fader below then controls record, track bounce, and mixdown levels and the pan control above it doubles as a Bus A or B selector, again for track bouncing which can be in mono or stereo.
Located between the main mixer panel and the tape deck, the Master Module contains the Effect A and B master output level controls and their respective returns. Effect A has two returns for its stereo send, labelled Receive 1 and 2, and in common with the Effect B Receive, they have dual concentric pots featuring level and pan.
Master level for the Track (monitor mix) section of the desk is in turn governed by the Monitor volume below it which has control of overall desk to speaker (and headphone) volume. However, if you wish you can make use of the separate Track Out facility available at the output stage to override the Monitor volume. A pushbutton switch selects whether you use the Monitor volume control for Track or Master (channel and fader) listening. Personally, I found I only needed to set this control to Master for mixdown or EQ'ing off tape, as nearly everything else could be monitored through the Track section.
Two peak level meters are selected by a three position switch to indicate Master output left and right, Effect A output, or Bus A (left) and Bus B (right) output levels. If you are using the Bus controls an illuminated 'Rec' is shown when you are in record or record standby mode.
One of the most interesting parts of the Master Module is the Sync Track level and monitor control section. Using (yes, you've guessed again!) another dual concentric control and selecting Sync on the Tape Transport control block, you can record your own synchronisation code onto the track designated for this purpose.
Two red indicators set at 0 and -10dB light up to show how much level you are putting onto tape. The output of the recorded sync track to your drum machine or sequencer cannot be altered by the MG1212 but you can monitor it off tape. Presumably the reasoning behind this is that you can check firstly, that the code has been recorded; and secondly, check for drop-out or other inconsistencies if you are having problems retrieving it off tape. I can't help feeling that the ability to alter the volume off-tape would have been a more useful addition. Input and output jacks for the sync code are on the rear panel.
Monitor, Track, Master Out, and Aux In are the only phono connections. Monitor and Track go out to your speakers, Master Out is for mixdown to stereo, while Aux In will accept input from tape machines, record decks, or more importantly - another mixer, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for expanding the mixdown capabilities of the MG1212. The Aux In level is then controlled from the master fader.
All the rest of the sockets accept ¼" jacks. The Bus A and B In and Outs allow you to add effects or use processing equipment when you are track bouncing. Effects A and B send and return jacks are also found here, but useful additions, if you are using another mixer but are short on effects, are the Effect A Mix 1 and 2 input jacks. These accept the output from the aux sends of another mixer and the signals are mixed into the Effect A stereo output.
Once you have waded your way through the (sometimes confusing) manual, and become used to the facilities offered by the Akai MG1212, you realise that recording with this machine is a pretty straightforward procedure.
I notice that some reviewers have criticised the lack of bussing facilities on the Akai (it only has Bus A and Bus B subgroup availability), which means that if you are recording a lot of instruments at the same time and wish to subgroup say, drums, or guitars and keyboards onto tape, you could have problems. In reality, I can't see that many people would want to subgroup anything more than the drums (perhaps into stereo) during initial recording, and as the input module channels are automatically routed to their corresponding tracks once record standby has been selected, the lack of subgroups shouldn't cause any difficulties.
As far as monitoring is concerned, I found that the machine would not monitor off-tape and allow you to play along through the corresponding input module when running in record standby, unless you have the Track as well as the Monitor outputs wired up. Otherwise, monitoring was straightforward.
Recording in both manual and automatic mode is smoothly accomplished with the extremely touch-sensitive controls and I could not detect any nasty, audible clicks when punching in or out.
One of the major drawbacks when recording on the MG1212 is down to the computer punch in/out which only operates to the nearest second. This means that you can only achieve tight drop-ins manually and what could have been an amazingly useful control has only a limited application. In fact, this could be said of the whole computer section which, while being easy to operate and accurate, has only limited uses. The best are auto-locate and repeat playback but the least useful is mute. As you can only programme one function at a time, the mute facility becomes virtually useless in a mixdown situation where its inability to mute different tracks at different points in the song makes it redundant. I would have much preferred a manual mute option.
Recording quality in general was good at 7½ ips and, when track bouncing, I found that the signal did not show signs of deterioriation until the third bounce. An arpeggiated Yamaha DX7 bell sound was still usable by the fourth bounce but by the second you could hear the dbx noise reduction 'breathing'. I was disappointed to find that at 3¾ ips tape speed I just couldn't record resonant sounds without break-up or without upsetting the dbx, and even at -15dB with the Trim control at -20dB, there was some distortion and excessive 'breathing'. Other sounds, although lacking a bit of sparkle in the high frequencies, were still generally good at this speed. I would say, then, that the quality is good enough for a rough demo at 3¾ ips but for more professional applications I'd stick to 7½ ips; that is, if you're not deterred by the £15 per tape price tag.
There are a lot of things I would have liked to have seen on this package, such as manual mute switches, and faster auto drop-in/out. The manufacturers have tried to make up for the lack of channels at mixdown by giving you lots of leeway in the effects send department. However, if you want to be able to EQ your effects returns, such as reverb - where you often need to get rid of unwanted frequencies or maybe add a little top, then you'll miss the extra channels. But there is plenty of opportunity for expanding the mixdown capabilities with another mixer which can be connected to the MG1212 via its auxiliary inputs.
As far as the tape is concerned, I'm sure that some people are going to find the cost prohibitive if they want to record at 7½ ips. Also this tape runs continuously against the heads in all function modes and although the manufacturers claim that the heads are made of an extremely durable material, I still found this a little disconcerting. Time will tell on this one. Editing is something which is not possible on this machine because the tape is enclosed, video cassette-style, in its compartment, and although you can get at the tape where it passes over the heads by lifting its perspex cover, you do not have access to the spools and therefore cannot cue it up.
Advantages of a system like the Akai MG1212 are to be found in the ease of operation and installation: no tedious wiring up between mixer and tape machine; no tape threading; all controls, inputs and outputs are within easy reach; and the actual business of recording is simplicity itself. Convenience is the name of the game with the exception of the mains, headphone, and remote sockets, all of which are positioned so low that you have to take the rather heavy beast out of its equally heavy flightcase in order to wire them up.
Two final criticisms concern the headphone output - it has no separate volume control; and the EQ - the lower part of the dual concentric pot - is too dark to see easily against the dark front panel in dim lighting conditions.
Akai have tried with this machine to make multitracking as easy as possible, but the prohibitive cost of the device and the special tapes required will render it out of reach of most home recordists. Apparently, Howard Jones has taken a fancy to this machine and it seems only the like of he, namely professional musicians with lots of cash, will be able to take full advantage of what if offers. Maybe some enterprising retailer will offer the MG1212 on weekly hire terms to the average home recordist, for it is he or she who should really have the benefits of such a wonderful system, not pro musicians who can afford plenty of studio time anyway. That's life I suppose. The concept is sound enough, let's just hope then that the MG1212 is the flagship of a coming armada of Akai recording products, sensibly priced to appeal.
The MG1212 retails for £5995 inc VAT. Full details on availability from: Akai (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details).