Fostex MC102 Keyboard Mixer/Cassette Recorder
What a good idea — a stereo mastering cassette machine and a mixer in a compact rack package!
"Why doesn't someone make a line mixer with a built-in cassette deck?" wondered Derek Johnson. "We have," said Fostex...
Once you've bought your first multitracker, you're on the slippery slope: it won't be long before you realise that the cassette on your home hi-fi is somewhat inadequate for mastering, and you'll also want more mixer inputs. This is especially the case if you get into recording groups of other musicians or working with more than a couple of MIDI synths and a synchroniser. How nice it would be if there was a product that solved both problems. Surprisingly enough, that's exactly what Fostex have done with their new MC102 keyboard mixer.
The MC102 looks like just what it is: the chimeral offspring of a cassette deck and a line mixer, mounted in a rather attractive 3U package. In spite of the name, which leads one to believe that Fostex have produced a 10 input, stereo output mixer, the MC102 does in fact have 12 inputs (more on this later). And don't let the epithet 'keyboard mixer' put you off — the MC102 is potentially useful to musicians and recordists of all types.
Ergonomically, the MC102 is divided into three sections: first of all, there's the cassette compartment and controls; in the middle is the monitor section, with routing switches, LED level meter and a big friendly volume knob; last there's the mixer section. The cassette deck is a fairly standard machine, not unlike that found in many a budget hi-fi. The differences are that it has a varispeed control (+/-10%), and is unalterably set for use with Type II (Chrome) cassettes only; it also has switchable Dolby C noise reduction. Transport controls are mechanical, rather than soft touch electronic, but they have a shallow travel so that it doesn't take much effort to get them working.
The mainly monitor section in the centre features a record indicator LED, a peak-reading LED level meter, mechanical tape counter (but no return to zero function), a volume knob and a couple of other smaller knobs. There is a headphone level control and an auxiliary return level control — you'll find only one, stereo, auxiliary return. The other knob is the monitor control (which controls the level to the monitor out sockets, connected to your monitoring system), and below this are a number of buttons, which switch various signals — the cassette deck, the stereo output from the mixer section, and/or both auxiliaries — to the monitor output. This would lead to some interesting sub-mixing and stage monitoring possibilities.
The mixer section could be seen as being divided into two, since in addition to the 10:2 line mixer section, there are two further inputs capable of handling guitar and mic inputs. The main 10 inputs are about as simple as they come: level control, pan pot, two aux sends and a solo button — a very welcome addition to a product at this level. Perhaps Fostex could have included a mute switch as well? The two auxiliaries, however, are the cause of the first real let-down of the MC102: both auxiliaries share one pot. Turn it to the left for aux 1 and to the right for aux 2; there is no way of using both at the same time on one channel, which is a shame.
Overall, the 10 inputs are arranged in two rows of five. The last two inputs, labelled A and B, are placed between the main mixer and the monitor section, and in addition to the facilities just noted, offer a two-band EQ (centred on 100Hz and 10kHz) and a trim pot providing an input level of between -60dB and -10dB, making it suitable for electric guitars and most mics. All inputs can be instantly recorded onto the cassette deck, with no special routing necessary.
Connections are nearly all at the rear: the 10 main inputs have their jack sockets here, as do the aux sends. As mentioned earlier, there is only one, stereo, auxiliary return — use two stereo effects processors, and the return of one unit will tie up two mixer inputs. Additionally, there are the monitor outputs (with volume controlled by the monitor knob on the front panel) and the main stereo out (controlled by a large knob on the front panel). The remaining connections are also at the front, namely inputs A and B and the headphone socket.
So what can the MC102 do for you? If you need additional inputs and a mastering cassette deck for your recording setup, the MC102 is handy, especially if you're working on a less than generous budget. Use the sync option available on most cassette multitrackers to drive your MIDI sequencer and/or drum machine and route the MIDI-controlled sound sources through the MC102 at the mastering stage. Provided you have another cassette deck, multitrack recording without a multitrack is possible by recording your initial backing onto the MC102's cassette, and then playing along with that while recording onto your external cassette deck. A little care can yield good results using this technique, although more than a couple of generations of such bounces can lead to audibly distracting amounts of hiss.
Equally, if you're a MIDI musician with no recording equipment, the MC102 offers basic mixing for your various sound sources — many multitimbral synths have multi-effects built in these days, so the compromise on the auxiliary front shouldn't prove too restrictive — and the result can be instantly recorded to cassette all in one compact unit. Live performers will also welcome the MC102's facilities: it could be used as a central mixing point for all band members, and fed out to the main PA, again with instant recording available at any time. Alternately, the cassette section could be used to play backing tapes, for that kind of performer, or inter-song atmospheres. For those singing along with backing tapes, the MC102 will even take a mic directly, albeit on a phono socket. The ugly head of karaoke rears itself as well, but we won't go into that. The Japanese may be responsible for many things that are spiritually uplifting, but karaoke is not one of them.
Of all the facilities available, the best are the two auxiliaries, the solo buttons and the built-in cassette deck. The cassette performs well and actually sounds pretty good (the manual quotes a frequency response of 40Hz to 14kHz), although it's physically not up to professional standards. It's a simple one-motor device, with two easily-cleanable heads and a main drive belt that is very accessible, due to its small size, and could be easily replaced without dismantling the MC102. It's definitely more than you can reasonably expect in a £400 mixer!
There is a down side — the MC102's knobs are fiddly, and both auxiliaries share one pot, so that only one can be used for each channel at a time. The manual also claims that the MC102 provides a "pair of independent aux send and receive circuits", which is not the case since there is only one dedicated auxiliary return; use two aux sends, and the second return eats up a couple of main mixer input channels. (Mind you, this does mean one aux return can be treated by the other auxiliary processor, or fed back into itself for interesting noise.)
The routing of the cassette deck's output is also a little eccentric — getting a stereo mix at the stereo output of both the mixer section and cassette together is simple, but not quite logical. You need to connect the monitor outputs (which carry the cassette signal) to a pair of mixer channels, which is not very elegant but does allow the cassette to be treated by external signal processing. A combined cassette and mixer signal can be output via the monitor output, but any changes in volume made with the Monitor level control alter the level of both sections, meaning that each channel on the mixer needs to be reset individually.
I feel that Fostex could be selling themselves short by referring to the MC102 as simply a 'keyboard mixer'. In fact, the manual does offer a number of options that go beyond this description, and potential users will find many more. Certainly, keyboard players will be ideally served by the MC102, but so will many other musicians and home recordists. I think many of us would be glad of an extra cassette deck and an extra dozen inputs never hurt anybody, especially mounted in a package such as this.
The minor problems I've pointed out shouldn't cause anyone major operational aggravation, and overall, Fostex's little toy will appeal to many. It's a simple to use, reasonably affordable and convenient piece of hardware, just made for instant demos.
We don't often make reference to how a product may actually manage in the marketplace, but I can't help feeling that the MC102 will be almost as attractive to retailers as the musicians they're selling to; a versatile first-time package could be based around the MC102 bundled with a budget cassette multitracker, plus a multi-effects unit, a pair of headphones and the odd bit of cable.
The bottom line is that the MC102 is a fun, exceedingly useful, inexpensive and compact production tool — Fostex should be applauded for coming up with such a laterally-conceived machine. I loved the idea of the MC102 when it was announced to the press, and I still think it's pretty cool after playing with it for a while. Recommended.
Fostex MC102 £399 including VAT.
Fostex UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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