Clarion Recording System
Recording system review
The Clarion, newly introduced by Korg suppliers Rose-Morris, is intended to fill a gap between the basic multitrack cassette machines — the Teac Portastudio, Fostex Multitracker and so on — and full-scale recording systems consisting of open reel four or eight track tape machines and full-spec mixing consoles. The aim is portability, versatility and quality in equal measures, and unlike some other products, the complete Clarion system is sufficient in itself to produce master tapes, as it includes recording and mixing facilities, an echo unit, a rhythm unit, signal processing, amplifiers and speakers. Since the component parts can also be bought individually, however, we'll look at them one at a time and consider the overall system later.
The main unit of the Clarion system is the rather oddly named XD-5500 4 Channel Sound Create Machine. Basically it's a four-channel cassette recorder running at double speed (3¾ IPS) and with Dolby noise reduction for increased recording quality. It has four Input/Output channels with selectable input gain, and a push-button operated logic tape transport.
Controls in rough order from left to right are as follows, keeping in mind that almost every function on the Clarion has an associated LED to indicate operation. Next to the power switch at the upper left is a Pitch or Speed Control slider, mounted horizontally and with a centre detent to return to normal speed. This has a range of plus or minus ten percent or so, and has the usual applications in being able to record out-of-tune pianos or for that matter vocalists, for special effects, or to add a little excitement to a slow-paced track. There's a tape counter (which surprisingly is of a conventional mechanical design) and Reset switch, and eight pushbuttons controlling various record and playback functions. These are Memory Stop (stopping tape travel when the counter reaches 0), Dolby NR, Mix Down (switching in the outputs from each channel ready for a mix) and Line; when Line is selected it's possible to switch on Monitor for any of Tracks 1, 2, 3 or 4.
Next to the tape transport is an 8-pin DIN Remote socket, compatible with a remote control unit supplied as an option. The recorder controls are overseen by IC logic to avoid damage to the tape, and are Eject, Record (with a red LED), Pause (with a yellow LED), Rewind, Stop, an unlabelled control for Play (with a green LED) and Fast Forward. The Record control isn't of the one-touch variety, and the FF/Rew controls aren't of the Cue/Review variety. Sound from the tape is still audible in the FF and Rew modes, however, and this can be alternately very useful or very annoying.
There's a single vertical Output Master slider, coupled to a headphone monitoring socket. Not only does the Output Master have an optimum level of 7-8 marked by a shaded patch alongside it, but also it contains a small plastic slider which can be used to mark any alternative level. All eight Input/Output channels have a similar slider, an excellent aid to memory and a good indication of the thought which has gone into the Clarion's design.
The four Input/Output channels are identical. A vertical 12-segment LED display gives the usual VU readings, and below this there are three Mode switches. These are Record, Play, and Send, of which only one can be selected at any one time; Send allows the channel to be treated by an effect during mixdown, and the LED above the Record switch flashes while in Standby mode.
Below the Mode switches are horizontal Pan sliders with a centre detent, and below these the matching vertical Input/Output sliders. The input socket is a standard ¼" jack, and next to it is a Low/Normal Gain switch for selecting high or low impedance instrument inputs. Since the system is cassette-based with only two heads, there is, of course, no necessity for simul-sync or more complex monitoring selectors.
The back panel of the XD-5500 uses phono sockets for Mixdown Left and Right outputs, and also four in/out pairs of phono sockets for the four tracks. It's stated power consumption is 30W.
The XA-5500 Hybrid Multi Mixing Machine, to use its full title, can sit either above or below the XD unit, and carries out the mixing, equalisation and mastering functions needed for a complete recording setup, and in addition some special extra functions not found on any other recording system.
Basically it consists of a stereo tape deck running at normal or double speed, a four-channel mixer with two-band equalisation, a stereo graphic equaliser, an amplifier, a rhythm unit and an echo unit. Again we'll look at the features in a rough left-right order.
Next to the Power switch is a Meter Select button, assigning the dual 12-segment LED display either to cassette output (from minus 20 to plus 8dB) or to amplifier output (0.001 to 45W into 8 ohms). Below the LED displays are a selection of function switches as follows: APC On/Off activates the Auto Programme location facility, which detects blank spots on the tape and so makes it possible to rewind to a specific drop-in point to listen to an overdub. Twelve numbered LEDs and Up/Down selector buttons allow the number of blank spots counted to be decided; while the tape is running the drop-in point to be found cannot be altered. This is certainly an excellent system, much more versatile than the basic return-to-zero memory and ideally suited to quickly checking out the opening of each track on a long session.
Other controls are for MPX Filter (for recordings made off radio transmissions, remembering that the XA can act as a perfectly conventional stereo cassette machine) for Dolby NR, and for Normal, Ferrichrome, Chromium Dioxide or Metal tape types.
There is a button to select High tape speed (indicated by a red LED) or Normal speed (green LED), and a mechanical tape counter, with reset button. Next to the tape transport itself is another 8-pin DIN Remote Socket, and the tape transport controls are as for the XD unit. The exception is a useful Record Mute button with an associated red LED, which allows the tape transport to continue while disabling the record head, allowing the creation of blanks between tracks or passages.
The two graphic EQ's have seven bands with vertically mounted sliders having a centre detent, representing centre frequencies of 63Hz, 160Hz, 400Hz, 1kHz, 2.5kHz, 6.3kHz and 16kHz. The cut or boost is stated as 10dB, and each graphic can be switched in or out as desired.
To the right of the graphics are the echo controls for Repeat, Intensity and Speed, and the rhythm unit controls for Volume and Tempo. The echo is an analogue unit equivalent to stand-alone designs selling for perhaps £90. It gives a maximum delay of around 200mS, fifteen to twenty echoes at full intensity, and a reasonable metallic reverb at faster settings. Pushbuttons below it select Echo Off, Echo 1 or Echo 2; in Echo 2 mode the Intensity control is inoperative and only one echo (slap-back at varying delays, in other words) can be obtained.
This is a preset design offering Beguine, Bossa Nova, Bossa Rock, Rock, Swing, March, Waltz-Rock and Waltz, with Start/Stop control and an LED which flashes at the start of a bar. The sounds are acceptable with careful equalisation; the bass drum gives a satisfying thump, the claves on Beguine and other rhythms are excellent, but the snare and hi-hat are fairly ordinary with only a faint metallic effect. The range of tempi and composition of the patterns is good, but there's no fill-in and a Disco rhythm is a notable omission.
The rhythm unit's output can be assigned to any one of the four channels, but not to any combination of channels. Other pushbuttons on the central bank are Monitor Select (All Channels, Channels 1 and 2, or Channels 3 and 4), Tape Monitor, and Mixer Bypass. Function Select controls comprise Off, Cassette, Phono, Tuner and Auxiliary.
Using these controls in combination, the XA unit can be used as a conventional cassette deck to record off a record deck, tape input or radio, and to replay these recordings via the built-in amplifier without passing through the mixer Alternatively it can be used to mix down and monitor stereo or multitrack signals from the XD or other units, either using or bypassing the mixer and in each case recordings can be made at normal or double speed. Clearly it's a highly versatile unit compared to a conventional cassette machine.
The XA's mixer has four identical channels. These have quarter inch jack inputs with a Low/Normal input gain switch, and rotary pots for Input Volume, Treble, Bass, Effect Level and Pan. There are also three slide switches associated with each channel. These are Monitor (signal from mixer only, from multitracker only, or both), Effect Assign (to mixer output or multitracker output) and Effect (internal or external).
These controls in combination allow either the internal echo unit, or an external unit (connected via the quarter inch jack send and return sockets) to be assigned to a recorded track or a live track, before or after equalisation, with monitoring of either the treated or untreated version. These features usually appear only on relatively expensive mixers, and so can be seen as quite a bonus here.
Each of the rotary controls has a silver-grey knob with a flattened face, an unusual design and one that's reasonably pleasant to use. The layout of the controls isn't particularly attractive, however: they tend to form a cluster rather than a straight line as on larger mixers, and so are overcrowded and difficult to locate and adjust quickly.
The remaining controls refer to the tape transport itself and its output to the power amplifier. They comprise a Left and Right Record rotary, an overall Balance rotary, and a Main Volume control, which is a single rotary with a larger knob to control both channels of the power amplifier, which is rated at 30W per channel (peaking at 45W).
There is a Timer Start rotary switch with three positions, Record, Off and Play, which allows the Clarion to be activated by a mains timer, and jack sockets for footswitch start of the rhythm unit and for headphone monitoring. In addition there's a pitch control for the tape transport, a rotary pot with a centre detent giving a variation of plus or minus about 15 percent on High or Normal Speed.
The rear panel of the model examined carried a 300W AC unswitched power supply socket for the XD unit, but as this apparently cannot be cleared for use in the UK it will not appear on the final version. Spring clip connectors for the colour-coded speaker leads and an earthing tab are the only other rear panel features apart from phono inputs and outputs. These are 4 inputs and four outputs for the multitracker; 2 line outputs; 2 tape monitor outputs; 2 Auxiliary inputs; 2 Tuner inputs; and 2 Phono inputs. The unit is rated at 90W.
Clarion have had long experience in speaker manufacture, particularly in car stereo applications, and their speaker units are of very high quality. The 8 ohm designs specified for the unit have a 12" bass driver, and midrange plus treble each with adjustable level pots. A plastic grille snaps easily over the front of the speakers, which although only of chipboard construction are coated in a smart metallic silver-grey material to match the main units.
The speakers are rated at 30W with a maximum of 60W, and have spring clip connectors for the connecting leads. Roller-mounted stands are available for the speakers which lift them about 8 inches from floor level, but these don't lock onto the speakers in any way.
The optionally available roller-mounted rack unit holds the XD-5500 and XA-5500 with either unit in the upper position, as they are of identical size. The units slip easily into place, and aren't clamped in any way. The heavy duty rollers on the rack do have a locking device, however; construction of the rack, like the speakers, is of plastic-coated chipboard, but it seems very sturdy and certainly gives the units a sophisticated appearance. Both units can be free-standing as well, having carrying handles for portability and rubber pad feet for protection, and weighing about 25 pounds each. The rack unit has a ventilation grille on the top face which is very poorly secured on the model we examined, but apparently this too has been corrected in production models.
It's difficult to take into consideration all the possible applications of the individual Clarion units for different musicians, so let's assume it's being used in its complete form by a soloist or small group. Firstly, it has all the facilities to produce a normal-speed cassette master other than a couple of guitars or keyboards, microphones and leads. The rhythm box is a useful backing instrument if great creativity is not required in the percussion department, and there's no reason why audio-triggered sequencers shouldn't be driven off it.
The echo unit gives some very respectable effects, and for demo or sketch pad purposes it's fair to say that no other echo or reverb would be needed; any noise it produces is probably less than that inherent in the cassette medium.
The multitracker is fast in operation, responsive within the logic-defined limitations of its main controls, and capable of reel-to-reel quality if using double speed together with Dolby. The LED meters are highly visible, although a choice of peak reading would have made them even more attractive.
The mastering cassette deck too is pleasant to use, and quite apart from the fact that it can be used as a conventional hi-fi it has recording aids — such as the autolocater, varispeed, Dolby and remote — which together make it hard to beat. The graphics work up to specification, and can be highly effective in making up for any deficiencies that may be felt to exist elsewhere in the system or in the player's instrumentation.
The mixer unit is extremely versatile. It should be possible, for instance, to add a touch of echo to a vocalist's foldback, often a very desirable quality, without the echo going onto tape, or indeed vice-versa. It can't be pretended that the mixer is easy to use or logically laid out, however. In an effort to save space it's been somewhat crammed together, and the fact that all the controls are an identical silver-grey colour on a highly reflective silver-grey panel makes it pretty difficult to make adjustments under studio lighting.
Control design is horribly inconsistent from one unit to another — using a slider on one unit and a rotary on the other for varispeed, for instance — and some additional panel markings would make it easier to appreciate the positioning of control functions of the different sections. Some design ideas — such as the widespread use of centre detents and the markers built into the XD's sliders — are very praiseworthy, however.
For group usage there's an optional four-way headphone splitter, for soloists there are remote controls and a rhythm footswitch (although not a drop-in footswitch), and Clarion also make a range of microphones including reverb mics.
The quality of the Clarion is very high indeed, probably equalling reel-to-reel units if carefully used. Worries about the instability of alternative tape running speeds seem dispelled by this unit, which is rock-steady at all speeds. Many of the facilities offered are simply not available on any other home recording unit, and for looks and visual appeal the Clarion is unequalled.
There do seem to have been some compromises in layout and ease of use made in favour of physical appearance (for instance the odd placement of controls on the mixer channels) but these would be partially overcome through familiarity. There's little excuse for the lack of colour coding on the controls or for the failure to divide up the sections more clearly however — the rhythm unit and echo unit controls are a case in point, as they are adjacent to each other but not very clearly discriminated.
The quality of the amplifier and speakers is excellent, with a very full bass, and would certainly be sufficient for any mixing down that you'd ever be likely to do. Certainly the Clarion is going to represent the luxury end of the cassette multitrack market for some time to come, and in fact there wouldn't be a lot of point in designing anything more sophisticated without going to an open reel specification. Whether it's significantly more portable than a four-track reel to reel machine and a compact mixer is also open to question, although in non-mobile applications it certainly looks more impressive. Overall the Clarion system gives the impression of a high-quality product looking for a market, but whether a significantly large market exists remains to be seen.
Further details from Rose-Morris, (Contact Details). Recommended retail prices including VAT are: XD-5500, £659. XA-5500, £1059. Rack unit, £149. XS-5500 Speakers, £439/pair. Remote Control, £29. Rhythm Footswitch, £17. Four-way headphone brancher, £17. Stereo headphones, £49.
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Review by Mark Jenkins
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