No, this is not the rack-mounting version - it's a robust 14-track (at a push) multitrack recorder/mixer and computer-controlled patchbay rolled into one. Find out whether or not studio engineer Gareth Stuart reckons it could be a viable alternative to traditional reel-to-reel 16-track systems...
With the trend towards fewer tape tracks, and the convenience of having everything you need to record in one neat, compact package, Akai's 12-track recorder/mixer looks like it could give most 16-track systems a good run for their money. Gareth Stuart checks it out.
Thought about buying an Akai MG1214 12-track? ...No? ...Not too sure of its capabilities or intended uses? Well, start thinking about it. Akai had it on show at the APRS, and if you were one of the lucky ones who saw and heard it in action, then you'll realise what a handy machine it is. It records well - clearly and accurately, allows for a considerable degree of flexibility in mixdown, and offers a host of useful functions and facilities.
Akai see the MG1214 as a multitrack recording and mixing machine of mastering quality. If you doubt that claim, then let me pass on information I was given at the Akai stand (at the APRS exhibition): apparently, Sarm West - Trevor Horn's studio - has two MG1214s currently in use, and that two singles in the charts at the moment were recorded on MG1214s! But steady on, we're talking about a machine that costs £5,499.00 (inc VAT)! Looks like a lot of money... or does it? What is there to compare it to? Superficially, it seems to fit so neatly into the gap between 8 and 16-track machines, but that's a little misleading.
If you're looking to buy a complete system, by which I mean a package consisting of a mixer and a recorder, and you're not too worried about the non-standard tape format on the MG1214 (MK20 ½" cassette tape), then it gives 16-track packages a good run for their money. For example, a 16-track package from a reputable London dealer, comprising a Fostex E16 and a Seck 1882, costs £5514.25 (inc VAT) including the 'free' wiring looms. That's only £15.25 more expensive than Akai's asking price for the MG1214 but - and it's a big BUT - for that slightly higher price tag, you don't get a computerised patching facility and many other useful features, which I'll talk about shortly.
That's all I want to say about the price at this stage. Now, let me take you through what the MG1214 has to offer.
First, let me deal with the '1214' bit. The '12' refers to the 12-channel mixer section, and the '14' to the total number of tape tracks available - 12 for conventional multitrack recording, plus one for recording a control signal (which allows the built-in tape counter to count in real time) and one for recording potential timecode, be it SMPTE or something else. A point about this synchronisation track - if you don't intend to use timecode on any particular project, this track may be used as an additional audio track, giving a total of 13 tracks to record on.
Now, onto the mixer channels, starting with the top left-hand corner - the Mic input (balanced XLR socket). If you're not familiar with the term balanced, rather than explaining its working principles now, I'll just point out its two main advantages over its unbalanced counterpart. When other equipment is used in close proximity, it gives protection against induced signals from stray magnetic fields (ie. hums and buzzes) and it allows for extremely long cable runs - up to 300 metres without loss of signal quality. This should go a long way to please those producers who must have that authentic 'on top of a coconut tree' feel.
Be warned, the mixer section doesn't provide phantom power, so it's a no go for capacitor mics. I asked why, and the reply was that "nobody's asked for it". According to Akai, and I'm sure they've done their homework, studios tend to use dynamic mics for most applications, with the exception of (say) using a Neumann U87 for vocals, in which case you'd have to use Neumann's own phantom power supply. All I can say is that I must be the odd one out here, because apart from using one AKG D12 (dynamic mic), I use AKG 414s (capacitor mics) for everything!
Next socket down is the ¼" jack Line input, for your guitar, synth, or other audio source. The Acc Receive and Send/Channel Out jacks, below it, are for inserting one particular effects unit on one channel, such as a noise gate or compressor. If you haven't already come to use this type of facility on other mixers, let me tell you it's extremely useful, in that it allows you to put your main auxiliary sends and returns to full use, ie. you don't have to take up a main auxiliary with a noise gate, for instance, if you intend to use the gate on just one mixer channel.
On to the input module. First off, there are two 3-way slider switches, the uppermost of which decides what input is fed through to the channel (and controlled by the channel fader) - Mic or Line input, or a previously recorded track (ie. a playback track). The second, and lower of the two switches, is the attenuation pad, which governs the amount by which the Mic input is attenuated (ie. turned down). It has three selectable stages of attenuation: 0, -20, and -40.
The Trim pot is used to adjust the input level of the Mic or Line input. It's normally used in conjunction with the fader so that you have the optimum signal level recorded or mixed with the fader position set at 0, ie. 10dB below its maximum setting.
The parametric EQ ('parametric' meaning all parameters variable), also known as sweep EQ, enables an exact frequency or bandwidth (eg. 1kHz-5kHz) to be located for boosting or dipping. This type of equalisation has the frequency spectrum divided into several overlapping regions; in the MG1214's case 'Low' covers 40Hz-800Hz (+/-15dB), 'Mid' 350Hz-5kHz (+/-15dB), and 'High' 1.5kHz-15kHz (+/-15dB). The frequency you wish to boost or dip is continuously tunable through each region, using the appropriate pot. The amplitude of the peak or trough is also continuously variable, as is the sharpness of the peak. In gauging the 'sharpness', you emphasise an individual spot frequency, or particular bandwidth; this is carried out by setting both the 'High' and 'Mid' Frequency controls on one frequency (in the case of a spot frequency) and varying the levels on both pots by the same amount.
Below the three sets of parametric EQ pots is a pushbutton for switching the EQ in or out of the signal path through the channel. It may be an obvious point, and one which applies to all desks with this facility, but it is useful for comparing the 'straight' and equalised sound without having to reset all the pots to a central position.
Effects Send A has several uses. It's dual concentric and designed so that the inner pot controls the level sent to the signal processor(s), and the outer feeds level discretely to Send 1 or Send 2, or - in the case of a stereo device like a reverb that has stereo inputs - to adjust the stereo positioning of the signal being sent. The 'Pre/Post' button governs whether a signal is sent to an effect before or after the channel input fader.
Effect B is a standard mono effects send, in that the pot isn't dual concentric and that it acts purely as a level control. However, the output from the Effect B send jack (positioned in the centre top of the MG1214) has a paralleled mono output (ie. the one pot controls two mono outputs). Staying with this area of the MG1214 for a moment, the Effect B receive jacks are labelled 'Left' and 'Right', and their receive level is set by a single pot on the master module. This facility is configured in such a way that if a single mono signal processor is used (eg. Yamaha R1000 reverb), plugging its output into the left receive jack will automatically position that signal centrally in the mix. If using a signal processor with a mono input and stereo outs, such as the Yamaha SPX90, the left and right receive jacks will automatically position the SPX's outputs left and right in the mix. The third use is in the case of a signal processor with stereo inputs and outputs, where equal amounts of signal are sent to the left and right input channels, returned in a stereo format, and automatically panned left and right in the mix.
These well-designed features allow for a great deal of flexibility - in choosing what goes where and in what quantities. And having the facility to control the level of a stereo return on one pot, in the case of Effect B, is very handy.
The Track/Fader pushbutton is another particularly useful function, allowing you to choose which input (to any one channel) you'd like to send to a signal processor via the Effects B send jack. In the Track position it sends playback signals from the tape machine and, in the Fader position, sends signals whose levels are governed by the channel input fader.
When I've explained a few more controls I'll come back to this facility and outline its usefulness applied to a complex mixdown.
The Track Level/Pan control pot is used to adjust the monitor level from the deck during playback or recording, and the stereo imaging of the source input being monitored during recording. The Monitor selector of the master module must be set to the 'Track' position for this control to be used. It's a particularly useful facility in being able to gauge the levels and stereo positions of a rough mix, without affecting the levels being recorded on tape. And, due to the in-line design of these track monitors, when you come to start the mixdown using the channel faders rather than the Track Level pot, referring to your rough mix levels and positions is simplicity itself.
If the term 'in-line' is a mystery to you, I hope I can clear it up. All it refers to here are the track monitors. Rather than having an area of the mixer set aside specifically for the monitoring of playback signals, these track monitors have been embodied in the input channels, thus saving space. In this way, the monitor functions are said to be 'in-line' with the input channels.
Well-positioned just above the fader and behind translucent black plastic are the peak level meter (comprising 12 LEDs) and overload indicator, which display the all-important peaks of the recording or playback level. The overload indicator lights up at a level -3dB below the saturation point of the amplifier. The appropriate level is adjusted by the aforementioned Pad and Trim channel controls.
The Pan/Bus level pot is used either to adjust the stereo positioning of the various input channel signal (during mixdown) or the Bus level - Bus A or B - during recording. Let me just add something about its function as the A or B bus selector during recording. Say you're recording a stereo synth part - you'd plug the synth into the Line inputs of two channels. Before establishing the optimum recording levels, you must make sure that the left and right synth signals are to be recorded on two separate tracks. It's necessary to pan the left signal fully counter-clockwise to Bus A, and the right signal fully clockwise to Bus B. By doing this you guarantee that your input signals are recorded in stereo.
Finally, the input fader, which adjusts the output level from the input modules (ie. that particular channel's contribution to the overall balance)! In other words, a signal enters the input module (or channel) via the Line or Mic input. It is then sent on from that channel in degrees of level governed by the position of the fader, to the master module, from which point it is sent out of the desk as part of the overall output.
That deals with the input modules, now on to the input/output jacks of the master module, positioned in the centre top of the MG1214.
Starting on the top left with the phono sockets (referred to as 'pin jacks' in the Akai manual):
Monitor Out - you take your feed from this output to your amp for normal monitoring.
Track Out - explained in the manual as the "signal output pin jacks for track mixer. The output is a composite of the signals of the respective tracks." Well, this wasn't too clear to me, either... what it's referring to are the Track Level/Pan controls - the level of the track mix on the rotary pots, as opposed to the monitor mix on the faders.
Bus Out A & B (¼" jacks) - you'd probably never need to use these jacks in normal operation. However, in the case of running two MG1214s in sync, you'd take Bus Out from one MG1214 into the Bus In of the other. This facility would then enable you to record signals plugged into one MG1214 directly into the second MG1214. Its intended use is presumably to cut down on unnecessary re-patching. If you have your instruments and mics already plugged into one MG1214, then rather than unplug them and plug them into the second machine, you'd simply access the busses of that second machine via the Bus In connection. Makes sense really.
Effect A, Receive/Send - used to send and receive signal from connected signal processors.
Master Out (phonos) - described as "Output jacks for the master mixer." In other words, the MG1214's main stereo output (Monitor Out aside) intended to go straight to your stereo mastering machine (Revox et al).
Aux In - this connects external signals from other mixers (or effects) to the master bus input of the master mixer. The master bus input is controlled by the master fader on the master module.
Bus In - differs from Aux In in that external signals are connected to Bus A or Bus B. In the case of a stereo input, the signal would be connected to both Bus A and B. I'll come back to some possible applications of Track Out, Aux In and Bus In in just a mo'.
Effect B, Send/Receive - used to send and receive signals from either one mono or one stereo processing device.
Effect A, Mix 2/Mix 1 - if either a second MG1214 was used or a separate mixer, and the sounds on that separate mixer needed the same reverb as the sounds on the first, the effects send jacks of the separate unit would be plugged into these jacks. The signal inputs to these jacks would then be mixed with the Effect A output, via the Effect A send. This strikes me as a particularly useful feature. Recently, I was working with two Soundcraft Series 2 16-8-2 mixers - neither of which have this facility. This meant that the auxiliary sends of the second desk had to be sent to separate signal processors to be of any use... not ideal by any means.
Sync In/Out - used to record and play back synchronisation signals. The MG1214 uses a separate head from the 12-track head for the recording and playback of synchronisation signals. This separate head is used for both sync signals and the control signal and constitutes the 13th and 14th tracks. Having this facility means that the 12 other tracks are in no way limited when using various timecodes.
This is particularly pertinent when measuring the MG1214's recording virtues against existing 16-track machines. The point is that recording timecode onto the 16th track of a reel-to-reel recorder invariably renders the 15th track useless due to excessive crosstalk (especially in the case of SMPTE timecode). So you're left with only 14 tracks to play with - just two more than on the MG1214.
As well as having this sync track dedicated to recording timecode, the MG1214 is equipped for use with a synchroniser. A 15-pin D-sub type plug (fitted on the front of the machine, under the padded armrest) accesses the tape transport through eight of its 15 pins. If you needed to run two MG1214s in sync, you'd go about it in the following way: having recorded SMPTE timecode onto both machines' sync tracks, you'd plug the outputs of these tracks into the timecode read socket of a synchroniser, such as the Audio Kinetics Pacer or Adams-Smith 2600. You'd then link up the 15-pin plug of one of the machines to the synchroniser. This machine then becomes the 'slave', and it is controlled by the other machine (known as the 'master'), for completely synchronised operation.
This is the module positioned in the centre of the MG1214. Running down from top-to-bottom, it contains eight rotary pots. The first governs the level of the sync track during recording and playback. Monitoring the sync track would be useful, in the case of electronic metronome-type sync code, for potential use as a click-track as well as a synchronising signal.
The next five pots govern the effects sends and returns.
The final two pots, labelled 'Track' and 'Monitor', control the overall level of the track mix (governed by the Track Level/Pan control on each channel) and of the monitor mix (ie. the fader mix). In selecting which set of levels to monitor, you use the Track/Monitor pushbutton.
At this point I must bring in that promised example of the complex mixdown, which relates to the Track/Fader button on the input modules. To mix more than 12 tracks at any one time using just one MG1214, it's necessary to connect the Track Out phonos to either the Aux In phonos, or to the Bus In ¼" jacks. This allows you to monitor and mix a total of 24 inputs - 12 from the tape machine, and 12 from an external sequencer. For instance, say you have a bass drum recorded on track 1, and a sequenced synth melody input (via the Line input) feeding into channel 1; to listen to both tracks simultaneously, it's necessary to monitor the level and position of the bass drum on the Track Level/Pan pot, and the synth melody on the channel fader. In choosing which of these sounds will be sent to the Effects B jack, you depress the Track/Fader button. With it depressed (in the Track mode) you'll send out the bass drum, with it up (in the Fader mode) you'll send out the synth melody.
Any drawbacks? Well, yes... just one, but I don't think it's a justifiable criticism when you consider all the facilities you're offered for the price. The criticism is that in the case of my bass drum/synth melody example, it's only possible to add EQ to that signal which comes up through the channel input via Line In, which in this case is the synth melody. Can't have everything I suppose.
Meanwhile, back on the master module...
A couple of peak level meters show either the master level, bus level, or level of Effect A. A three-way switch lets you decide which one to monitor.
The three faders are (from left-to-right) Bus A, Bus B, and the master fader.
Now onto the heart of the multitrack control - the digital counter display, and computer-controlled tape transport.
Once you've recorded the control signal onto the control track of an unrecorded MK20 cassette, the time counter reads in minutes, seconds, and tenths of seconds. The counter to the right of the time counter - the memory time display, reads in minutes and seconds and, in place of the tenth of seconds digit, stores the appropriate memory setting number. Between them is the tape speed indicator, telling you whether you are working at 9.5cm/s or at 19cm/s. Fast speed gives you 10 minutes recording time at the full bandwidth, 50Hz-20kHz (for the best fidelity), and slow speed gives 20 minutes at 50Hz-16kHz bandwidth. The slower speed still gives very good quality. For your information, the price of an MK20 cassette is £15.00 - available only through Akai.
The row of pushbuttons, excepting the first two (Memo Clear and Manu Memo), involve similar working principles, and all rely on memorised counter settings as reference start and stop points.
There are two ways of setting memory times - either in real or step time. To set times in real time, you simply hit the Auto Memo buttons (0-9) as the tape is running and the MG1214 memorises the time at which you tapped the button. To set times in step time, you use the Manu Memo button and enter the appropriate settings using the same Auto Memo buttons. For example, to enter a memory cue at 1 minute 30 seconds, you press 0,1,3,0.
The obvious use of this function is as an autolocator - simply press any of the Auto Memo buttons (0-9), the memory setting corresponding to that button is then displayed, press the Memory Search button (the one to the right of Fast Forward), and the motors whirr into action as the tape nips either forwards or backwards to the chosen point.
The Memo Clear button serves two functions - to clear the memory, and to reset the time counter.
Before going on to talk about the punch-in/out, playback mute, and repeat functions, I thought I'd explain the Minus button with a 'for instance'. Say, you want to perform a drop-in at 1 minute 30 seconds, but need a few bars prior to that point to play along with the track in order to maintain a natural flow; the Minus button allows you to set up that point. You recall your memory number for 1 minute 30 seconds then press the Minus. The memory time reads zero so you tap in, say, 1 minute 20 seconds, giving yourself a lead up to the drop-in of 10 seconds. Neat.
Without describing in detail how to go about setting up automatic punch-in/outs, playback mutes, or repeats. I'll just say that in each case you select a start and stop point from the stored memory settings, and in the case of punch-in/outs and playback mutes, you specify the track which is about to be recorded over or muted, using the channel track display buttons (1-12). These automatic functions are particularly useful if you're working alone and need both hands to play. In the role of engineer, you may prefer to perform drop-ins manually - this is also possible, but, in the case of dropping in more than one track at any one time, you must first select those tracks you wish to drop in on, press Play, and at the appropriate point hit Play and Record. The drop-out is executed when you press either Stop or Anti-Record.
The playback muting function is not intended to be used as an automated mixdown facility... shame. No, what Akai intended here was for it to help during ping-pong recording (ie. track bouncing). Let me explain. In the manual, you're advised to avoid ping-pong recording/playback of neighbouring tracks. In other words, at the time of the ping-pong (bounce-down, if you prefer) of, say, tracks 7, 8, 9, 10 to tracks 1 and 2, it would be necessary to mute tracks 6 and 11 accordingly. The playback mute facility is capable of muting any number of tracks as it carries out its function, but the start and stop times of any single or multiple channel mute apply to all the tracks to be muted. In other words, what you can't do during a continuous mixdown is have, say, tracks 1 and 2 muted between 1-10 seconds, and then have 6, 9, and 12 muted between 25-27 seconds. You can only programme and carry out one start and stop mute at any one time.
On to the computer-controlled patching facility - what a dream! Let me quote directly from Akai's advertising blurb - "The MG1214 has a built-in computerised channel/track selector that lets you route any channel signal to any desired track with the simple push of a button." Incidentally, these are the buttons (1-12) just above the tape transport controls. To the right are even more pushbuttons. Apart from those which allow you to select which channel is to be sent and recorded on which track (ie. the buttons labelled Ch A, Track A, Ch B, Track B), there are four other buttons - Set/Clear, Solo, Anti-Rec, and Auto/Manual (tape monitor).
The Set/Clear button is used in setting up tracks to be recorded via the busses, and then to clear the record command when the process is completed. The Solo button works in conjunction with the 12 track selectors, and allows you to hear one particular track without having to fade down the others. The Anti-Rec button I think is self-explanatory - it's used to prevent accidental erasure of your hard work!
The Auto/Manual tape monitor, in its Auto mode (which you'd use with the monitor selector set to 'Track'), monitors the off-tape signals during playback, and the source input in eject, record, record standby, stop, fast forward, and rewind modes.
That about wraps up the functions and facilities available to you on this machine. Amazing.
So, with all that's on offer, plus its very fine recording capabilities, how do I rate the MG1214?
First class. It does the job, and does it well - there's no question about that. It's also very straightforward to operate and, at the price, compares very favourably with existing 16-track packages. I'm talking here exclusively about its facilities and recording quality. Now what about the practicalities of buying this machine?
I'm in the process of looking around at what's available at the moment in the 16-track field. So, am I going to buy an MG1214? The answer is 'No'. Why not? Because, for all my work to date, recording in the studio, I've used 10" reel-to-reel tapes. It doesn't make sense for me to change from a widely accepted, tried and trusted recording standard, to the Akai MK20 cassette format. What about all my existing tapes? If I needed to re-mix them, I'd either have to hire a machine, or book time in another studio, and that's not on.
This is very difficult really, because I hate to think that I'm holding back new technology. I'd love to have the facilities offered by the MG1214, and maybe if I was starting out now I'd choose Akai. But there you go...
While the review machine was with me I used it a fair bit, learning how to operate it in my own time, which didn't take long as it's so straightforward and logical, and putting it to the test in a couple of sessions. I thought it performed very well... no complaints, and the dbx type I noise reduction kept tape hiss to an absolute minimum. Certainly the people I recorded were very impressed with its audio quality.
So, apart from the non-standard MK20 cassette, any other quibbles?
Yes, the tape length. To get the best out of this machine it needs to run at the fast speed, which limits the length of tape to 10 minutes. For sessions with bands, recording three minute pop songs, maybe it wouldn't be such a problem. But what about recording longer projects? Take its obvious audio/visual applications: with its sync facility it could be locked up to a video machine with ease, but... 10 minutes?!
Finally, would I recommend that you buy the MG1214? Yes, if you were looking for a complete package, and felt that all those qualities it has outweigh the non-standard tape format. If you have faith in the Akai approach, and it suits your needs, you should buy this machine.
Price £5,499 inc VAT.
Further details from Akai (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Gareth Stuart