The Four Track Future - Where To Start With Cassette-Based Recording
Four-track Fandango - Gary Cooper looks at all today's choices for cassette multitracking
Until relatively recently, any musician wanting to record ideas for new songs, demo his band for submission to record companies or local promoters or just extend his abilities to playing multiple instrument roles, had to use a reel to reel machine. Nowadays, the cassette tape reigns supreme — especially in its multitracking role. The four track cassette-using Tascam M-144, launched in 1980, swung the multitracking door wide open and allowed an ever-growing stream of players to multitrack with a convenience, and at a price which had never been obtainable before.
But before getting down to looking at what's currently available for cassette multitracking, and seeing what you can actually achieve with it, perhaps we should go right back to basics first and check some of the fundamental principles.
Firstly, as we're dealing with cassette taped four track recording, let's start by looking at how the actual tapes are used.
In domestic stereo or mono recording the cassette tape travels at 1 7/8 inches per second and records on two tracks across half the width of the tape. The other half of the tape is used when you turn over to side B, allowing another two tracks to be recorded as the tape moves in the opposite direction. For multitrack use, all four tracks of the cassette are employed in one pass through the machine, and often any one or any combination of the tracks can be used at one time.
The multitracking aspect comes in the combinations with which the individual tracks can be used. A typical four track cassette session could record (one track at a time) three instruments on the first three tracks and then, using a built-in mixer where provided, blend those three tracks down to the fourth. This then allows you to add a fourth signal (maybe vocals) whilst the other three are being mixed down to the final track. After this, of course, those first 3 tracks are effectively free for further use.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that each recording increases the inevitable signal quality losses. This will stretch the abilities of the tape and the recording system generally to the limit. Furthermore, with each 'pass' tape hiss increases, which effectively imposes a limit on the number of times you can hope to repeat the process.
To combat this, two techniques are frequently used by manufacturers of tape machines — the first is a 'noise reduction' system, the second is to use double tape speed. Of the noise reduction systems currently available there are three which you'll find employed — Dolby 'B', the original system, generally regarded as having been significantly improved on by the more recent Dolby 'C' system, or DBX, found on Tascam gear.
It always pays to discover the most suitable tape for your machine (bias levels vary and one brand may prove more suitable than another) and it's certainly worth keeping your tape heads clean (use isopropyl alcohol or a branded type such as Teac's own or the one from BASF). Another 'must' is regularly to de-magnetise the heads (to remove spurious magnetic field build-up), and suitable units are made by TDK and BIB, to name just two.
Having decided that cassette-based four track is either as far as you need to go, or is as much as you can afford, there lies the problem of which of the machines currently on the market to go for. During the past year the situation where two machines were the only ones around (the second generation Tascam - the M-244 - or the Fostex 250) has changed, there is now quite a range. Furthermore you'll need a few extras. I've listed them below.
Good mikes are an absolute 'must' for home recording. Make sure that the output impedance of the mike is suitable for your machine; usually you'll be better off with low impedance types. Cardioid pickup response mikes are usually best as they have a deliberately restricted operational area and won't be as sensitive to extraneous noises. Of the cheaper mikes around, Audio-Technica and Aria are well regarded Far Eastern-made brands offering suitable models. Other makers whose mikes are well worth examining are Shure, Electro-Voice, Sennheiser and AKG — check out West Germany's newcomers M & B, which look interesting too.
Monitoring speakers aren't necessary, but relying on headphones isn't really sensible as they'll tend to give you a false impression of how your final mix sounds. Initially you can rely on decent quality hi-fi speakers, and may never need to go up to equipment from the studio gear makers. If you do intend to go beyond cassette four track, however, and want to get some good speakers first, try models from makers like JBL, Electro-Voice and Tannoy — be prepared to spend big money, though! If space (or money) is a problem, then Tascam and Fostex both offer tiny (but good) units.
Closed cans are the best for recording as you won't want your playback being recorded all over again when you're overdubbing! Try those from AKG, Beyer and Sennheiser.
Unless you buy a machine where a standard stereo cassette player is already built in (or supplied with part of the system, as it is with the Clarion) you'll need a stereo cassette player of reasonable quality. Because of the systems used, multitrack cassette masters usually cannot be played on normal machines. You can pick up some pretty effective models for not much over the £100 mark, but, if you can, try to get one with a 'three head' system. This enables you to check what you are actually recording at source, rather than off tape — an advantage if you're mixing down onto twin track cassettes.
Never waste money on cheap leads and plugs. They'll fail and cause you more hassle than they're worth. Look after them, keeping leads straight, not tangled or coiled tightly. With plugs and connectors, don't waste money on inferior quality types — they are never worth it!
Probably the easiest way to decide which machine to opt for is to define what facilities you need match what you want against what you can afford and then, if you're left with competing machines, look out for any friends who can pass on their experiences to you. Keep your eye on these pages for reviews too, and try to get to a retailer who can allow you enough time to play around — equipment as complicated as this cannot be bought after just a cursory glance.
The beauty of the Fostex 250 (undoubtedly the joint most popular machine alongside the Tascam 244) lies in its simplicity of operation. Like the Tascam machine, sales of the Fostex have been so good that supplies are always on back order — but that's for a very good reason; the Fostex works superbly well and is a most complete machine.
The Fostex will record onto any one or all of its four tracks simultaneously and uses cassettes running at 3¾ i.p.s. Noise reduction is by Dolby C and there are those who claim that this is more effective than Tascam's DBX. We've worked with both and feel that the Fostex's system does, in fact, have an edge over Tascam's DBX, although good results can be got with either system. In use, the Fostex is certainly more straightforward than the Tascam (a factor not helped by an over-thorough instruction book for the 244 which can put you off before you start!). Tone facilities are straightforward; just two pots offering 4kHz and 300 Hz operation. The machine, with its built-in mixer, is a delight to use. Metering (as with the Tascam) is via four Vu types, the machine is well laid out (more straightforwardly than the Tascam) and it is quick and simple to use, has a great sound quality with full facilities for multitrack recording and mixdown.
Against the Fostex may be the impression that it looks slightly less flash, but our experience with it would tend to suggest that there is no reason at all to believe that it is any less reliable.
The Fostex is easy to use and performs well. Is it a better buy than the Tascam? Frankly, only a lengthy personal test will tell, and some of your views would be based on how much easier the Fostex seemed to you to use, as much as on any difference in their sound quality. Sorry if that sounds like I'm hedging my bets, but that's just how my experience with both machines has gone. I did find the Fostex more straightforward to use and preferred (marginally) Dolby C to DBX. On the other hand, see the comments on the Tascam, below.
Like the Fostex, the Tascam is a complete machine, in other words you get full mixing facilities built in and a wide range of tone controls too. Whereas the Fostex has a fairly conventional Eq system, the Tascam features parametric equalisation, a more sophisticated tone control facility with + or -15dB on 62Hz to 1.5kHz of low and mid and a similar cut or boost from 1 kHz to 8kHz. This is, we have found, a particularly useful feature of this machine.
The Tascam is well made, looks it, and shares many features in common with the Fostex in terms of what you can do with it. I've personally used a 244 for not far off 18 months and have experienced no problems although I do, on balance, feel that it requires more thought to use than its rival. We initially reviewed the Tascam way back in Issue 8 of MUSIC U.K. and said at the time: 'the 244 is little short of brilliant'. Time spent with it then has changed my mind only in so far as I now feel that it can be tricky to use, but the brilliance still stands.
Cheaper than either of the two brand leaders, the Cutec has proved to be a popular machine, despite having some considerable limitations when compared directly with the Fostex or the Tascam.
The Cutec is really just a basic four track recorder, plain and simple, as there is no built in mixer. This could either be a limitation or a money-saver — it all depends on whether you currently own a mixer which you could use with it. If you do then the Cutec could prove to be a pretty reasonable buy.
Looking more rudimentary than the 'big two', the Cutec seems, for all that, to be well made. You are provided with four front-mounted fader controlled inputs and three buttons,'play', 'record' and 'send' for each track. The absence of a mixer means that you are limited to working with whatever signal you get from your mike or instrument (if you direct inject it straight into the machine) with no possibility of altering the sound either on recording or mixing or mastering.
Noise reduction is by an unspecified system which doesn't work too badly, although it isn't, from my limited experience, as good as either the Tascam's or Fostex's. The Cutec is probably of most use to the musician who already has a mixer, in which case it could be a good buy. A mixer designed to supplement the MR 402 was within days of appearing, however, when this article went to press. This will be called the MTR 642 and should retail for around £214. We hope to be able to look at this unit in the future. Watch the attractions of the Cutec's apparently low price, however, a mixer could add considerably to its costs and, even thus equipped, it would still be lacking other useful features.
Overall this is undoubtedly the most ambitious multitrack recording system to date. Even if it didn't work it would impress with its looks! Fortunately, it's at least as well made as it seems.
The Clarion system is literally that — a system, and you can buy it in several pieces. The basic starting point is the XD5 four track cassette recorder, featuring LED chain meters (better than most other people's Vu types). Facilities are impressive and the engineering quality is of the highest.
Possibly the major flaw (apart from its price) is that the XD5 features the older Dolby B noise reduction system and is so expensive.
The second part of the Clarion package is where the facilities really come into their own. This comprises not only conventional tone controls but also a 7 band stereo graphic equaliser.
More too, it has built-in effects (electronic echo and a rhythm unit). These aren't of the highest quality but they are useful to have.
The provision of a metal tape compatible stereo cassette deck (which will even run double speed on normal stereo tapes!) is yet another justification for the Clarion's price. Add to that a 30 watt stereo amp, pitch control, auto programme search facilities on the stereo cassette and the ability to use it with your record deck and you can easily see how it adds together to be a complete system.
Against that, however, is the cost, Dolby B and the fact that the built-in effects could be better. Our view (having been the first mag to have tested it, and having used one for several months) is that is both outstandingly made and well capable of impressive results — if you can afford the price. Probably the best way to look at it is as a replacement for your current hi-fi system, minus a deck, tuner and speakers — although Clarion even offer the latter!
This looks like possibly the Rolls Royce of cassette four tracks, but we'll have to reserve our comments on it as we've never been able to get our hands on one to review! In fact, the Studiomaster is very far from common, although conversations we've had with a few users tell us that they are more than satisfied with the results they've got from theirs.
The RSD machine offers a 6 channel mixer with balanced XLR connector inputs (always and improvement on unbalanced jack plugs). You can even use all six channels to record simultaneously on the Studiomaster — a unique feature and one which makes it a good choice for live use, under which circumstances it'll even double as a six channel mixer!
Metering is by LEDs and noise reduction is via Dolby C. Moreover you have excellent tone facilities too in the form of three band semi-parametric Eg. We'd like to be able to comment on this impressive looking machine and only hope that we can get our hands on one at some stage.
This is the newest machine on the market — and we've only just got one, so it's too early to pass comment on its abilities yet (watch out for a forthcoming review, though!). The Yamaha is a clever unit in that it offers a good basis from which to expand. Both Dolby B and Dolby C noise reduction are on tap, but the tape speed is a standard 1 7/8 i.p.s. and we are looking forward to seeing how this compares with machines which run at double speed — it could be a problem.
Metering on the Yamaha is by both LEDs and conventional meters and the machine looks like simplicity itself to operate. For Eq facilities on recording and mixing, you have to turn to either someone else's mixer, or the MM 30 mixer, which comes as an optional extra. On the face of it, the Yamaha could be a good entry point into the whole cassette multitrack business — but we'll know better when we've reviewed it. Keep your eyes on this space!
The most unusual machine of them all, the X-15 offers a unique set of facilities, making it almost more of a musician's notebook than a multi-track machine of the Fostex 250 or Tascam 244 type. The X-15 runs from either mains or batteries (making it very much a portable) and you can even run it from a car's cigarette lighter! Portability, rather than facilities, is the key to the X-15's success. Although the unit only offers two input channels it has a full four track capability and even manages to include + or -12dB of fixed band equalisation! Tape speed is a standard 1 7/8 i.p.s. and Dolby B noise reduction is included but, of course, this does enable you to use a tape recorded on the X-15 in a stereo player. Another useful facility is a really low cost device for tape drop-ins. Fostex have adapted an orange rubber bulb terminated air release (the sort of thing used on studio cameras) to provide this facility — like the rest of the X-15 it's brilliant in its conception.
The little Fostex (it measures just 3"x11½" x 7¾") is an ideal machine to learn about the idea of multitracking on, and its portability makes it almost worth owning in addition to a larger machine. The drawbacks with it are that you can only record two tracks at a time (which isn't the problem it could seem). Sound quality isn't quite as good as you'd get from the bigger Fostex (but look at the price) but the X-15's a great idea and is justifiably tremendously popular.
This is the latest machine on the market, and takes the four track cassettes in the opposite direction to the X-15. In essence the 234 is designed to form the basis of a more professional quality studio. It's rack mounting and comes as an almost bare recorder. The quality of the unit, Tascam claim, is higher even than the 244.
Like most of the best equipment, the 234 runs its tapes at double speed and also features DBX noise reduction (as does the 244, of course). The idea behind the 234 is to be an alternative to open reel four track recorders and thus the Tascam is designed to be used with a mixer, although basic mixdown facilities (but not Eq) are provided. Tape transport is microprocessor controlled, the 234 has a digital tape counter with a built-in memory recall system.
Technical specs look to be highly impressive on this new machine but its success will largely depend on how many potential buyers want to go to four track cassette recording in the direction the 234 indicates. Quite possibly a full 234-based system would have high quality ancillary effects and equalisation equipment running with it — and that's going to cost money. Maybe a move right up-market to eight track on ¼" tape (via the Fostex A8) could have more appeal? It looks like a grand machine, though!
That's the current situation — oh, except for. just one thing. Japanese guitar kings ARIA, have something up their sleeves. At the London Trade Show back in the summer, a mere drawing of an Aria multitracker drew orders from dealers like it was being given away! As yet no details are available, nor any mention of a retail price — but Aria are on the verge of unleashing a product which appears to have excited a large number of music shop owners. As ever, you'll read about it first in MUSIC U.K.!
In the meantime, based on the above you can now see where the market stands today. Our guide will help you work out what you need, what you can afford and what's worth looking at — the rest is up to you. In future issues we'll be exploring the subject of actually using this sort of equipment, as well as reviewing all the new gear as it appears.
In the meantime — happy multitracking!
Gear in this article:
Feature by Gary Cooper
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