Making Tracks with the Vesta Fire MR1
A rack-mounted cassette multitracker for the home recordist.
It seems surprising that Shino who have brought us so many high quality budget effects units should have taken so long to break into the multitrack recorder market, but perhaps they have been waiting for everyone else to make their mistakes first.
The idea behind the MR1 was to produce a 6:4:2 mixer plus a 4-track recorder in a single 19" rack mounting format, whilst still allowing independent use of the mixer for maximum flexibility. All four tracks of the recorder can be used simultaneously and there is, in fact, provision for up to 12 inputs which can be mixed down onto these 4 tracks. The recorder is automatically compatible with both high (chrome) and normal bias tapes, runs at 3¾ ips and uses DBX noise reduction. The whole caboodle takes up 5 units of rack space (8¾") but is also provided with feet for free standing use.
Six input channels are provided on the MR1 with the possibility of taking up to 12 input signals. A standard ¼" jack socket is provided on the front panel below each set of its respective channel controls and a signal presented here will first encounter that channel's Trim control. The Trim adjusts the input gain over a range of 50dB and will accept inputs from dynamic microphones up to nominal -10dB line levels. From here the input signal from the front panel next meets the input level control. It is at this point that a signal from one of the six phono socket line level inputs on the back panel may be introduced.
Consequently, by adjusting the relationship of the trim and input level controls, two signals can be mixed into each input channel if required. At this point on each channel, a limiter is encountered whose operation is indicated by a red LED at the top of each channel. There is a limiter sync switch adjacent to the channel six controls which will link the operation of all six limiters together to prevent any leaping about of the image when any of the channels are being used as stereo pairs.
A signal present at any of the six input channels may now be routed to any of the four tape tracks by use of the Track Select push buttons. Each of these four buttons on each channel has an associated red LED status indicator that shows at a glance which inputs are routed to which tape tracks. As well as routing the input signals to their chosen tape tracks, a line level output corresponding to each tape track is presented at the four phono outputs on the back panel. In terms of the mixer these can be thought of as sub-group outputs.
After being routed by the track select switches, the input signals encounter a quadruple ganged Master Input control which dictates the overall signal level to the tape and line out sockets. It's possible to adjust the apparent threshold level of the limiters by sympathetic use of the input level controls which are situated before the limiters, and the master input control which lies after them. By increasing the master level and decreasing the input level the overall gain can remain the same but effectively put the limiter threshold level high enough so that it can be considered as being out of circuit.
On the rear panel are a set of insert points for each input channel. These take the form of six pairs of phono plug-in metal links. At this point any external processors can be patched in to provide EQ, compression and/or any other effects.
That about wraps up the 6-4 section of the mixer, so now on to the 4-2 part.
A set of four dual concentric pots are situated in a vertical line to the right of the mixing section next to the tape section. These are designated Track Level and Pan. The lower and fatter end of each shaft operates the centre detent panning for each track and the narrower top part controls the level. Tape tracks one to four are fed via their respective track level and pan controls, through a dual ganged Master Output control to a pair of left/right master output phono sockets on the back panel. These master outputs are also fed to a stereo headphone jack socket and level control on the front panel. A push switch with green LED indicator is also provided here which will sum the headphone outputs to mono.
The tape recorder section of the MR1 looks and feels rather more substantial than some other manufacturers' efforts with this type of machine. All the usual transport controls are provided and sport fully logic controlled light touch push buttons with integral LED indication on the Play, Pause and Record controls. A fluorescent four digit tape counter has been incorporated along with both Reset and Zero Return buttons. Next to these is a green LED which indicates the automatic bias and EQ selection for chrome and normal tapes. The final control, to the bottom right of the recorder section, is the pitch control. This takes the form of a centre detent pot which offers ±12% control over the tape speed. A cunning little feature is incorporated into this control whereby it can be recessed into the front panel on alternate pushes in order to avoid accidental alteration of its setting.
The recorder is of the two head variety, one to record and play back and the other to erase. The track format is standard for this type of recorder making use of the full width of the tape for the four tracks and the DBX type noise reduction is permanently in circuit, with no manual override.
Now we come to the interesting bits concerning overdubbing and mixing, for which each manufacturer has its own preferred system. For basic track bouncing and mixing, the manoeuvres required by this Vesta Fire unit could not be simpler or quicker, however, the provision of a couple of extra input channels on the mixer allow for some quite involved procedures to be performed.
When actually recording tracks, any of the six input channels can be routed to any of the four tape tracks by pushing the appropriate track select button as described earlier. A set of four Record Function push buttons, which each relate to a corresponding tape track are situated above the master input control. These each have an associated red LED which flashes when the record function button is pressed and remain on when recording is actually taking place on that track, instigated by the simultaneous pressing of the Play and Record buttons. Thus a guitar on input channel five can be recorded onto tape track two by pressing the track select two button on input channel five and the record function button relating to channel two.
When mixing down, this can be done directly to the left and right outputs using the track level and pan controls as previously described. Alternatively, the outputs from the tape tracks can be returned to input channels one to four using the Input/tape push switch at the top of each of these channels. With the tape signals now returned to the input channels they are no longer confined to track level and pan controls one to four respectively but can be routed using the track select buttons to any or all of the outputs. In this way track bouncing is made very simple. If, for example, tape tracks one to three are to be bounced to track four, then input channels one to three are switched to tape and track select button 4 is pushed in each case. Record function button four is then pressed and the input channel level controls effect the mix onto tape track four. The advantage here of having extra input channels is the possibility of adding more than one new sound during the bounce. This technique can also be extended to the mix whereby, having filled all four tape tracks they can be routed back to the input channels to give at least two more inputs on mixdown.
The record function buttons are a little more involved than they appear at first. Apart from preparing the appropriate tape tracks for recording they also switch the monitoring between source and tape whilst ensuring that each of the four large, illuminated VU meters is responding to the signal being monitored. With the recorder in any mode other than Play or Record function buttons should be in. During play or record, however, the monitoring is from tape with the buttons out or from source with the buttons in.
This brings us neatly on to drop-ins which are instigated by pressing the Record and Play buttons together but without any of the Record function buttons engaged. In this state the LED on the Record button will flash until one Record function is pressed. When this is done, the relevant tape track goes into record and the monitoring of that track switches from tape to source - unless, that is, the remote drop-in socket is used. In order to accomplish drop-ins with a footswitch there is no need to use the record button, only to prepare the machine by pushing the appropriate Record function button. With the footswitch connected the recorder continues to monitor from source, even with the tape running, up until the footswitch is hit (or kicked) when it will again revert to source monitoring. This may seem like a lot of verbiage concerning four small buttons but the key to the proper functioning of the MR1 lies here and an understanding of these record function buttons makes the operation of the whole unit very easy.
The first point to mention about using this Vesta Fire unit is that its facilities and functions are a bit different from other similar devices currently on the market. It's more logical to use than those machines where you have to keep switching sides of a stereo buss to lay tracks, and consequently much quicker, leaving one less open to fervent discussions concerning who just laid a duff vocal over someone elses best lead break ever Neil! On the other side of the coin, it has no integral EQ facilities, thus necessitating the use of patching and outboard equalisers. This could be argued both ways; for the chap who wants to put together a quick demo to show the band how they ought to be playing his song, or the group for whom Porta... really has to mean portable, then integral EQ really must be quicker and easier. However, the MR1 offers rather better quality than that required for knocking up a quick demo and it's not really designed as the ultimate in portability. It could also be argued that having one or two good quality equalisers which can be patched in as and where appropriate could prove more cost effective than a set of possibly less versatile ones permanently employed on each channel.
The provision of insert points on every channel does, to some extent, reduce the need for auxiliary sends and returns although it makes the use of one effect for more than one signal simultaneously rather more complicated to set up. This may not be a problem for some users, however, as by the very nature of multitrack, often only one track is laid at a time. You might think that the problem of having no auxiliaries might arise again on mixdown, however, the provision of the two extra input channels goes some way towards offering a solution to this. If, for example, you have filled your four tracks with drums on track one, bass on track two, keyboards on track three and vocals on track four, then for the mixdown these could be routed back through the first four input channels and assigned to the track level and pan outputs in the following manner - drums and bass to number one and keyboards and vocals to number two. This would leave track level and pan numbers three and four free to use as returns into the left/right stereo buss at mixdown. If an output is now taken from line-out number two and fed to a reverb unit, for example, then the reverb outputs could be returned via input channels five and six routed to track level and pan numbers three and four respectively and so allow stereo reverb to be added to the keyboards and vocals during mixdown. This isn't really an ideal situation as the relative levels of effect send are going to be limited to the relative levels of the keyboards and vocals in the mix, however, it does illustrate some of the extra versatility that is offered by the provision of extra inputs and outputs on the MR1.
Of course, the sound quality from any tape machine must be uppermost in the mind of any prospective user and, taking into account the limitations on track width imposed by the cassette medium, the Vesta Fire MR1 performs admirably. The sound reproduction is bright and clean and the DBX noise reduction allows for a wide dynamic range to be recorded without the tape noise becoming too restrictive. It also means that a good number of bounces can be thrown around without any trouble. A little flutter was evident on very bright sounds on the edge tracks but this varied from tape to tape indicating the importance of always using good quality tapes and for as few times each as you can afford. Most of my tests were carried out very reliably on TDK-SA tapes although the manufacturers recommend the use of the SA-X or the Maxell UD XL IIS in order to attain peak performance. When you consider the minute track widths and relatively slow tape speeds involved in cassette tape reproduction, I really think the quality of just what can be achieved is often under-appreciated. And while we're on the subject of tapes and tape heads, it seems a good time to mention that the cassette door cover on the MR1 clips off making it very easy to get at the heads for cleaning purposes.
There are many schools of thought regarding the pros and cons of the various Dolby and DBX noise reduction systems. Suffice it to say that with regard to the machine in question the DBX seems to do a very good job and, try as I might, I could not get it to misbehave.
Mechanically the MR1 is tough and well built. It looks and feels very smart and the meters are a good size and adequately responsive. A very functional layout has been achieved and everything has been logically arranged for ease of use. The only things which are a bit awkward are the dual concentric pots used for the track level and pan controls.
If the lower pan section is set anywhere other than its centre detent position it gets shifted when the top level section is adjusted. However, during mixdown these controls can often be set and left, and the input channel level controls can be used for any adjustments during the mix.
I'm a little puzzled by the choice of limiters for the input channels, not because it's a particularly bad idea in itself, but because their recovery time is so long that they are likely to spoil the sound more than the peaks they are supposed to prevent. One effective way to use them though would be as peak indicators. Using the master input level control, they could be set to fire only when levels get a little too high and in this way they could be used to complement the meters by aiding speedy level setting for percussive sounds prior to takes.
The provision of a footswitch control for both pause and punch-in is very useful for the solo operator, and the zero return is another valuable feature although the numbers do tend to drift slightly over the length of a tape.
The ease and speed with which overdubs and bouncing can be carried out aided by the track select and record function switches was quite impressive. However, to get the best use out of the MR1 I would recommend the use of a patchbay, especially to ease the plugging and re-plugging of the insert points, which are likely to come in for a lot of use with this machine.
In the MR1 we have the basis of a high quality, cassette based 4-track facility. With the preferred minimum additions of a patchbay and some form of equaliser, one small rack can contain the heart of a functional studio. This is, of course, assuming that a prospective buyer does not already own some sort of mixer, because even the most modest of mixers, when coupled with the MR1, would open up its capabilities enormously.
If you're thinking of setting up a 4-track studio and can't stretch to the added expenses and space involved in open reel recorders, but require better quality than the run of the mill cassette based system, then the Vesta Fire MR1, offering greater scope for expansion than some of its more dedicated counterparts, would be a very useful place from which to start building.
For further details contact: MTR, (Contact Details).
The Vesta Fire MR1 multitrack recorder retails for £689 including VAT.
Review by Martin Sheehan
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