Aria R504 Four Track Cassette Deck
Want a multi track cassette system? At the moment, and forgetting Akai's new and bizarre ½in set-up very easily, you're faced with a simple choice in the early stages of decision making. Do you want an all-in mixer-included unit like the Tascam 244 or the Fostex 250? Or do you want a mixer-less four-track cassette player/recorder like the Tascam 234 or the Yamaha MT44?
If the latter category attracts – and principle gains here are speed and ease of use, along with a small price advantage – then you'll want to hear Aria's new R504 deck.
It's a hundred quid cheaper than its only true rival, that out-on-its-own and more luxuriously equipped Tascam 234, and is the first tape-based recorder from Aria. They've previously specialised in vast, affordable ranges of electric guitars, only recently picking up on the home recording vogue, with a few bits of outboard gear having landed before this recorder.
I rather like the rack-mountable 504 – and mainly for its utter simplicity. OK, so there's more knobs on the front than on an active bass. Well, there's a logic to its functioning which runs through the controls, leaving me, at least, in the happy position of concentrating on the music when I use the Aria and quickly forgetting the rotaries, switches and meters minimally strewn around the front panel.
The double-normal-speed cassette mechanism is off to the left with a distinctly clanky feel and an undamped eject system. Underneath are the usual transport controls, with green LEDs for pause and play, and a red one for record. LEDs throughout (at least for the fast winds) would have been handy, but hardly a necessity. As usual for four-track cassettes, high-bias (70µs) cassettes suit the Aria's eq and bias set-up.
In the middle of the control panel you'll stumble over a simple return-to-zero array and an associated mechanical counter. It seemed quaint once more to see numbers turning over on wheels rather than the more usual flashing green numerals.
Close by is a ±10% pitch (speed) control, and underneath are monitor switches for each of the four channels plus a hear-all "mix" switch. Pots for the two types of output here will allow you to regulate the levels you'll send to your headphones (two jacks for harmonious duos), to your hi-fi, or (if you wish) separately to your mix-down tape. The options are there.
The business end is spartan. Each channel has: a VU meter for you to gauge the level of stuff you're recording or listening back to; a selector switch to choose "Rec" (when you're recording on to that channel), "Play" (when you're playing that channel back at any stage, or not using it), or "Send" (to bounce that channel to another channel – usually in combination with stuff from other channels too); an input level knob; an output level knob; a "pan" knob; and a jack each for a line input (guitar, bass, synth, etc) or a mic input (low impedance). It is also possible to record on all four tracks at once – handy for live recording.
In back, as our American cousins so inexplicably put it, are: sockets for effects interjection (a phono socket each in and out, which could mean some outlay for new leads): the two output pairs of phono sockets; a phono out for each channel individually for when you want to use a mixer; and a jack for an optional remote record footswitch (not tested).
Noise Reduction is necessary when you're multitracking on cassettes, because otherwise hiss and noise would build up each time you bounced tracks around. Aria seem to have saved some money here by devising their own NR system. There's none of the usual identifying labels of "Dolby" or "dbx" as you'd find on most other machines (dbx on the Tascam 234, or Dolby "B" and "C" on the Yamaha MT44, for example), so one can but conclude that Aria have done it for themselves. I did start to notice a build-up of hiss if I was at all lax in providing a high enough input level when recording.
But Aria's noise reduction does work, although their claim that it "reduces noise totally" is inaccurate. Not even the established Dolby or dbx can really do that.
Bouncing tracks – the creative way to use four-track cassettes and layer up more than the obvious four tracks of individual instruments – is very easy on the R504. Supposing you'd recorded bass and drum machine on to tracks 1 and 2. To send them combined to, say, 4, all you do is switch their select controls to "Send" and the pan controls fully left, while those of 4 are set to "Rec" and panned fully right. Record and play on the transport will roll the tape and combine the tracks on to 4, with relative levels pre-arranged and switches set for monitoring. The level arriving at the new channel (4 in this example) is preset, so you have to juggle the output levels of the channels being combined not only with this in mind, but also their relative balance to one another.
It's when you come to mix your four tracks on to your other stereo cassette machine (or reel-to-reel if you're flush) that the shortcomings of the 504's onboard switching become most apparent: This is where a mixer would come in particularly handy. Of course you can use the 504 without and still get relatively elegant results. But even the basic requirement of individual eq-ing of the tracks is impossible without a mixer. It depends on how good you want the results to sound; if all you need is a rough 'n' ready notebook then the 504 is fine as it stands.
The Aria's tape transport motor is very noisy, humming away as soon as the thing is switched on – it's so loud, in fact, that I reckon it could even find its way on to tape if you were recording quiet passages in the same small room as non-directional mics (not exactly an unusual occurrence in home recording). I actually found the "note" of the motor's hum put me off when I was trying to tune a couple of acoustic guitars to one another nearby the machine. This should definitely be attended to.
This machine turns out to be a workhorse four-track which one hopes can take the strain. It sounds acceptable given that it has a non-standard noise-reduction system, and is completely unpretentious. It looks like a recorder that has been in development for some time and that could soon be updated in a number of areas. But all the basic essentials are here. The 504 could be quieter – but it couldn't be simpler.
Review by Tony Bacon
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