Clarion XA5600A Cassette Deck
The XA5600 is an update of the XA5500 cassette mastering machine which hit the market last year as part of the complete Clarion portable recording system. The update has essentially concentrated on improving the Rhythm Machine function, which is now programmable instead of preset, and colour-coding has also been added to the front panel controls for easier recognition of what's happening and why.
The system basically allows for four separate tracks to be mixed down to a normal format stereo cassette. Built-in rhythm machine, analogue echo effect, and a stereo seven band graphic equaliser plus facility for external effects loop, are all included in the design of the Clarion. Inputs are by ¼" jacks to the front panel or phono connectors at the rear. The latter include inputs from external functions (phono etc.) and also the input and output of a four track tape machine (specifically the Clarion XD5500, the XA's companion unit which combined with the Clarion speakers make up the complete system). The ¼" jacks to the front panel are for input straight to the mixer and are fitted with a switchable initial gain control from 3mV (normal) to 150mV (low).
The cassette unit itself is FG servo driven with a single Sendust Record/Replay head. Cassette speed is switchable from 1⅞ ips to high speed 3¾ ips, with a fine (pitch) control which offers +/-10% variation in the preset tape speed. Eq/bias can be set for use with either Normal, Ferrichrome, Chromium Dioxide or Metal tape types.
Transport controls are well situated below the tape, and are all light action microswitches. Record mode is selected by pressing both Record and Pause buttons, which sets the unit to Record standby, but if the tape has been record protected, then just the Pause light will come on. Recording can now begin by simply pressing the Play button. Record Mute cuts out the signal but continues erasing the tape, thus sections of silence can be inserted between tracks or movements. These spaces can be detected by the Automatic Program Counter which can be set to stop or start recording or playing after a given number of tracks separated by at least four seconds, or so, of silence. This allows for easy location of a certain section of tape. Dolby B noise reduction is included and a mechanical tape counter is logically situated above the tape.
The mixer section has four identical channels. These contain a volume control for selecting basic mix level, treble, bass and pan controls plus a control governing the amount of effects treatment. Monitor and effects assignment are selected by three switches, the first of which allows for monitoring of either the signal coming from the front panel jack socket (mixer), the signal at the rear multitrack jacks or both. The other two switches select either internal or external effects treatment of either the mixer or multitrack signal, this allows any channel, containing two separate inputs, to be treated by one of two effects and monitored either before or after the effects have been added.
The main amp controls comprise of, Left and Right level, balance and two volume controls: one for volume control of the function inputs and the master volume control for record and monitoring level.
Four jack sockets are provided for connection of headphones, Rhythm Machine start/stop, and external effects send and return. There is even an external timer standby circuit which bypasses normal logic IC operation so that the Clarion will start to either record or playback when power is switched on. (Take care with this control and don't leave a non record-protected tape in the unit when power is switched off, otherwise you could find the the machine can start recording as soon as power is switched on and a treasured recording could be lost.)
The internal amp gives 30 watts per channel (peaking at 45) into 8ohms. Speakers can be connected directly to the back of the Clarion, or output phono's allow the signal to be taken to further effects treatments or an external amp.
External Input Function, Monitor, Rhythm Machine, and Internal Effects are all controlled by twenty eight switches, each with LED indicator. These are laid out on a control panel, colour-coded for easy identification of functions.
Four Function inputs allow the Clarion to be used as a standard home hifi amp, accepting inputs from Record Player (phono), Tuner and Aux input, as well as the Cassette switch used to select playback from the Clarion's own cassette deck. Any of these signals, except Cassette, can be added to the mixer signal and played back through the amp and/or recorded.
Monitor mode can be switched from 'all channels' complete with pan location, to 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, whereby these channels can be isolated and sent to Left and Right, working in conjunction with the switches on the individual mixer channels. Tape Monitor allows a signal from an external tape machine connected to two jacks at the rear, to be monitored and with Mixer Bypass selected just the signals from the four function inputs (phono etc.) are monitored. The Graphic Equaliser, though, can still be used at this stage.
The Internal Effects unit is an analogue echo with two echo settings controlled by three vertical slider pots at the top righthand corner of the Clarion's front panel. These control the number of echo repeats, intensity and level. This can give a good range of effects from a definite echo to a slight warming in tone, delay time being continuously variable - between 80ms to 200ms. Echo 2 setting gives a single regeneration and only Delay Rate and Level can be varied, Intensity being inoperative. A very handy feature of the Clarion.
The Clarion XA5600 has its own built-in rhythm machine that operates along the lines of the popular 'Dr. Rhythm' device. Three basic sounds are available: Bass Drum, Snare Drum and Rim Shot plus Accent which adds 6dB of emphasis to the signal. Eight separate rhythms (six 16 step and two 12 step) can be programmed using four memories, each with two programs (A and B). Each program can be thought of as a bar in either 4/4 or 3/4 time with semiquaver divisions. If both A and B programs are selected, at either write or playback stage, two bars of music is produced, A followed by B. The rhythm program memories are backed up with three 1.5V batteries effectively making the memory non-volatile.
The preset sounds are as good as most of the smaller rhythm units of this type (the Rim Shot sounds like a pretty good cow bell) and generally all sounds are quite suddenly clipped off. The only particularly successful instrument is the accented Bass Drum, which has a good rich bassy sound. Unfortunately, echo cannot be added to the rhythm machine, which for some reason was only available as raw mix in output channel 3 on the review model(!).
Last, but by no means least, the Clarion has a built-in seven band graphic equaliser. The use of 16kHz as the top centre frequency is, I think, a little suspect; even on a system such as this one, I reckon top boost at 10kHz and a pretty sharp low pass filter at 16-18kHz would be more useful. EQ can be switched in or out of each channel independently and used either during record or playback which is a pretty sensible facility.
Generally speaking, anything that can be done with a 4 into 2 mixer and a two track mastering machine can be done on the Clarion, and input jacks are arranged so that once plumbed in nothing needs to be repatched, although mixer inputs can be changed easily via the front panel jacks if required.
A two track master can be built up from more than just the initial four tracks by returning the stereo output of the Clarion to two channels of the four track machine used, leaving the other two tracks free for further recording. Using a good quality tape at high speed with Dolby, sound quality compares very favourably to a reel-to-reel machine.
Both external and internal effects can be used at the same time (though not to the same track) allowing for example, a vocal line to be thickened slightly by internal echo, and the instrumental backing to be treated to something a bit more drastic externally.
The applications of this machine are numerous and although the controls are not particularly well laid out, the design of the machine is centred upon ease of use of the facilities available.
The Clarion is designed for the home studio market. The Function modes accepting input from a record player etc. although not something you will need for general studio use, are really a bonus which would hardly reduce the price of the unit if removed. From the studio point of view, taking the features in step, you have: a 4 into 2 mixer, with two separate inputs to each channel, Analogue Echo, Rhythm Machine, stereo Graphic Equaliser and a high speed tape deck. For someone starting out with no equipment, the Clarion could be just the thing, but if you already have a decent mixer and a cassette deck which gives good quality cassette copies, you might want to think again where to spend your hard earned cash.
The recommended retail price including VAT is: XA-5600 £999.00.
Further details from Rose-Morris, (Contact Details).
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Review by Glenn L. Hughes
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