The MR402 is a self-contained 4-channel multitrack cassette recorder and mixer produced by the Japanese manufacturer, Cutec. It is primarily intended for use as a home 'demo' recorder by solo musicians, bands and songwriters.
The machine is of similar size to other cassette based multitrack units (47 x 11 x 30cms) but is constructed from metal, not plastic, having a pleasant greyish brown finish with wooden end cheeks. This gives a feeling of substance to the unit even though it only weighs 10kgs — 1½kgs more than the Fostex Multitracker. Nevertheless, the MR402 remains a portable item of equipment.
The cassette section is housed on the right of the sloping top panel. Raising the cassette lid reveals a standard cassette transport system with erase and combined record/playback permalloy heads. Access to these is not easy which makes it less likely that people will bother to clean and demagnetise the heads regularly. The cassette tape runs at 3¾ ips — twice normal speed, for increased fidelity and in one direction only. The unit will accept C90 high bias type cassettes such as TDK SA, but Cutec do not recommend using C120's as the tape is too thin and stretches easily. A C90, however, will give you about 22 minutes' total recording time.
No noise reduction is employed in the unit, which is unusual in a cassette based system, but test recordings proved to be of perfectly respectable quality without it.
A power on/off switch is situated on the top right of the panel, alongside which is a Memory Stop button. When depressed the latter automatically causes the cassette tape to halt at the preset zero, and makes it an easy matter to find the start of a take for example. A mechanical three digit tape counter with zero reset button is provided for convenient location of track positions. A digital readout would have been better especially when the unit is being used in a darkened live performance situation. An orange coloured Pitch Control knob with centre detent for normal (3¾ ips) speed, allows the tape to be speeded up or slowed down by 10%, which is approximately two semitones. This can be utilised either for tuning sounds on tape to other instruments or for effects creation. Recording a guitar on two tracks, one after the other but slightly detuning the tape when recording the second part, results in a useful chorus sound for example. A more 'musical' pitch shift such as a major 3rd or 5th perhaps, would have been a better proposition.
Below the cassette transport are the usual array of function buttons: Eject, Record (with red LED), Pause (with green LED), Rewind, Stop, Play (green LED) and Fast Forward. These are all logic controlled with a slight delay occurring between function selection and initiation. In order to enter the record mode, Play and Record must be pressed simultaneously which is a cumbersome task when one hand is used, as the two controls are fairly widely spaced. Pause stops the tape temporarily, leaving the functions active, but cannot be engaged from either fast wind mode. The cassette switches itself off when either end of the tape is reached, so that the heads are not in contact with the tape for any unnecessary length of time.
The remainder of the machine is concerned with the four channel mixer. Clearly located on the front edge of the unit are four ¼" jack Mic inputs (-60dBV), one for each channel and a jack socket which feeds a pair of 8 ohm stereo headphones.
The top panel itself is carefully laid out with four identical channels and a master output/monitor section. These are colour coded in pale green and violet respectively, and make a pleasant change from more sombre colours.
Starting at the bottom and working upwards, each input channel has a smooth action, 45mm long fader which controls the record level of the Mic or Line input signal, and is calibrated from 0 to 10 up the right hand side. The fader knobs themselves are upright which makes them difficult to slide with the tips of your fingers. They would have been better if they lay flat as on the Teac and Fostex models.
Above the fader is a beige coloured rotary knob labelled Output Level which controls both the level of the off-tape signal and the Send volume. The orange Pan control above this sets the position of its associated track in the stereo field whilst monitoring or during final mixdown, and has a centre detent. Finally, three chrome pushbuttons above the Pan control select the channel status — either Record, Play or Send, and a fair-sized VU meter indicates the signal level of whichever mode has been selected. The VU meters unfortunately aren't angled towards the user but are illuminated when power is on.
The Master Output channel is situated between the input channels and cassette section and has a single ganged fader for master level control of the stereo mixed signal.
Selection of channels for headphone monitoring purposes is achieved by pressing the Monitor button and any combination of the four Track buttons, but this only gives a mono signal. Stereo monitoring is possible, however, by pressing the Mixdown button at the top of the Output channel, in which case the stereo sound is determined by the Pan and Output Level pots on each channel.
No equalisation controls are provided which helps to keep the top panel uncluttered whilst also cutting cost. This lack of eq. is not really a hindrance in terms of sound quality, as the Cutec compensates for the usual treble loss that occurs during track bouncing by adding its own high frequency boost — a clever touch. The lack of equalisation forces the operator to concentrate on his sound at source. All too often people record instruments with very little attention to the sound and then try and modify things later when they ought to obtain the desired sound from the amplifier or instrument first, before recording takes place. It is possible to link an external equaliser, but this shouldn't really be necessary.
Rear panel phono sockets are provided for the four Line In and Line Out signals (-20dBV). These can be used to link the MR402 to an external mixing desk for live performance recordings for example, or to an effects device for treatments. Two pairs of Mixdown Out (-20dBV) phono sockets allow connection of the machine to a monitor amp and speakers and also to a master stereo cassette or open reel recorder for final mixing. A Remote Footswitch jack socket enables the tracks to be punched in and out of Record mode, having first selected Record on the relevant front panel channel.
The beauty of the MR402 lies in its versatility and simplicity of operation. The logical ergonomic layout of controls make the unit particularly fast when layering tracks. Using a Prophet 600 and the MR402 a stunning demo tape was concocted in under thirty minutes, the quality of which was well above that of most pre-recorded cassettes and indistinguishable from many open reel demo recordings.
With power on and a new cassette loaded, recording an initial track is simply a case of connecting a mic or instrument, adjusting input levels, selecting the Record status on that particular channel and setting your headphone and channel output levels as desired. Reset the counter to zero and press Memory Stop, then activate Play and Record functions and the tape rolls. When complete, rewind the cassette, press Play on the channel status button and listen to the playback.
Once three tracks have been recorded they can be bounced down onto the remaining track. This is achieved by selecting Send on tracks 1, 2 and 3 and Record on track 4 for example. Tracks 1, 2 and 3 should be panned left and 4 right, having first selected Monitor and Track 4 pushbuttons. This lets you concentrate on the overall mix of the three tracks without hearing the originals. Entering record mode will then bounce these tracks onto the fourth, allowing you to record over the first three tracks again.
As with the Fostex 250, it is possible to record on all four tracks simultaneously, though many permutations are available using the Send button to route a signal input and the Record button to determine its destination.
At every stage of recording it's possible to utilise all four Mic or Line inputs for adding further sounds to the off-tape signals. For example, when recording your first track, up to four inputs can be recorded onto the one track. Then when bouncing 1, 2 and 3 onto track 4 say, three more instruments can be balanced using channel 1, 2 and 3 faders and combined with the pre-recorded signals onto the fourth channel. Thus at every track bouncing stage up to 6 separate groups of signals (3 live, 3 recorded) can be bounced down! Versatility indeed.
Obviously careful track planning and balancing needs to be done to get the best out of the machine, but this facility does provide a wide scope for the solo electro-musician using synthesisers, drum machine and sequencers.
The metal casing of the unit above the cassette transport section became unusually hot after only one hour's use which may have an undesirable effect on the tape; Cutec should look into this.
The MR402 has a recorded signal frequency response of 14kHz which isn't at all bad for a multitrack cassette system, and signal to noise ratio is quoted as 54dB. Test recordings from the Cutec proved of respectable quality and certainly comparable to other personal multitrack cassette systems, which is praiseworthy when you consider the lack of noise reduction circuitry. The Cutec sells for around £150 less than its competitors and with the money saved you could quite easily buy a good quality stereo cassette recorder on which to master.
Its extreme versatility, good sound quality and simplicity of operation make the Cutec MR402 hard to beat for the price.
Recommended Retail Price of the MR402 is £450 inc. VAT. It is distributed in the UK by MTR, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby
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