Clarion & Fostex
Clarion XD5500 4-track, XA5500 mixer. Fostex X-15
Just when the four track cassette market seemed ripe for a "Me Too" invasion — everybody knocking out cheap copies of the 244 and 250 — along comes the Clarion, a unique product from an unusual quarter.
This American firm is better known for its high class in-car entertainment set ups and as far as I know, has not previously ventured into home or studio recording. So it's not surprising that they've come at the problem from a different angle.
One expert explained the Clarion to me as the system for the reasonably well off musician whose missus (or old man) is fed up hoovering around the leads to the Portastudio.
So in two superbly machined racks fitting in a single slick castored stand, you've got a four track cassette, a four channel mixer, a stereo seven band graphic equaliser, a 30 watt stereo amplifier, a drum machine, echo unit and a stereo cassette recorder capable of running at the standard 1⅞ ips or the 3¾ ips alternative.
The interior linking is done by just four pairs of phono to phono leads so the only external connections are those to monitor speakers and the input cord from your guitar, keyboard or whatever you're recording.
But though designed to piggy back, there's nothing to stop you splitting the system, taking in external effects loops, sending the signal to an outside deck and so on. AND the Clarion can be used as a normal hi-fi with tuner, phono, and aux inputs for the 30 by 30 amp.
It's superb in principle and appearance, the drawback is price. For example the four track cassette alone without an EQ controls costs about as much as a 214 or 250 which both have them built in. Also the Clarion's Dolby B can't match the quality of the Fostex' Dolby C or the TEAC's DBX.
Let's take the four track first, known as the XD-5500 and occupying the top half of the rack. It has a jack input for each channel, switchable low or normal gains and excellent 12 segment LED meters. There's an input and output level slider for each channel and three switches — "record" (when recording), "play" (when playing) and "send" (when sending one channel to be bounced down to another). Couldn't be easier.
The motor transport has a slider for pitch control, logic operated fast forward, rewind etc so you can't screw up the tape and an eight pin Din socket for a remote controller.
Good ideas are having the input sockets at the front for speedy access and giving each slider a movable marker built into its track so you can shift them confidently up to pre-determined positions.
Disappointments are the tape counter which is the roll over sort, inferior to the LED readouts on Fostex and Teac and the method of monitoring.
I was surprised how much squeal leaked through when either rewinding or fast forwarding the tape. I know it can help you locate chunks of music, but it irritates the nack out of me.
The XA-5500 takes the lower slot in the rack, has a similar transport system, remote control socket, and tape counter.
It can be switched to accept normal/FeCr/CrO2/metal tapes, comes with its own Dolby B and a 12 segment automatic programme control that seeks out individual tracks.
To the right is the stereo seven band graphic with sliders at 63/160/400/1K/2.5K/6.3K/16K hz, which I must admit seemed strange spacings. Something at 50 or 100 to remove hum is always useful and there's an odd gap between 6.3 and 16K.
Still it's of enormous use and can also tweak the EQ of any records, tuners or tapes pushed through the 30W stereo amp.
Each of the XD-5500's four channels is mimiced here with an input socket, gain switch and level controls. This time they're on knobs rather than sliders and there are several more of them. There's a bass and treble control for example and an effects level which can be switched to determine the amount of built-in echo the signal gets, or the degree of treatment it receives from the external effects loop. The pan control also lurks in this area.
The drum machine has eight pre-set rhythms which are lodged firmly in the home organ tradition — beguine, bossa nova, bossa-rock, rock, swing march, waltz-rock and waltz. This is one time when Clarion's inexperience in the rock recording business has let them down.
There are two positions on the echo unit, the first producing the normal decaying bounce, while the second delivers a single slap back. It's kitted out with level, intensity and delay time controls and while it may not manage particularly long delays, it's surprisingly good at reverby ADT, if a mite hissy.
Those paranoic about noise can record their masters at 3¾ for the best results, though it means only other Clarion owners would be able to borrow them.
But for those who like to bounce four tracks down to onto two, then put those two back onto the four track again, it certainly helps improve the overall quality.
For anyone wishing to start a music room from scratch, the Clarion is a hefty initial investment, but should definitely be considered. However, if you've already got bits of stereo amps, spare cassette decks etc that can be cannibalised from the existing hi-fi you could end up paying twice.
After successful runs with the 244 and 250, it's time for Fostex and TEAC to move again, though signs are that both firms will be shifting in different directions rather than producing straight follow-ups.
TEAC are rumoured to be working on a rack mountable system with separate mixer and cassette deck sections. Meanwhile Fostex have made their plans plain in the form of the X-15 — a portable, battery operated deck... a four track Walkman, if you like.
You can only record on two tracks at once — 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 — and there are only two mic inputs mounted at the front. Similarly the bass and treble eq has been limited to a stereo pair for the tape playback. Each track still has its own gain and pan control for mix down, there's an array of phono sockets at the side for two line-ins, two line-outs and four individual outputs for the tracks themselves.
It might seem that the 250 has been hacked in half, but panic not. Fostex describe the X-15 as a "musical sketch book" — a cassette deck to be used on the move.
However, if you're thinking of popping down a couple of tracks on the X-15 then transferring the tape to your 250 to finish the job, forget it. This latest multitracker operates at the standard 1⅞ ips not the faster 3¾ ips of its bigger brothers.
But that DOES mean you could swap the tape to your Sony Walkman and listen to two of the tracks. Or if you've got a Walkman with built in mikes you could maybe record a live performance then finish it off on the X-15.
The battery pack takes eight HP-7s which the makers say should power the X-15 for about 30 hours. It screws onto the back and adds 1.8lbs to the 4.6lbs of the deck.
What's particularly satisfying about the X-15 is that Fostex have added a new dimension to four track cassette recording rather than simply updating already successful devices. £299
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