Marantz Professional PMD740 Multitracker
The cassette 4-track is still the focal point of the home studio, and Marantz have produced a serious challenger to the familiar Portastudio. How does it measure up? How will musicians’ take to it? How does Nicholas Rowland do it?
Moving into a market heavily defended by the daunting figures of Fostex, Tascam and Yamaha, Marantz are set to enter battle with their stylish, new multitracker. Nicholas Rowland sees red and gives them the green light...
Despite the growing affordability of digital recording systems, the ever-faithful cassette-based multitracker continues to remain top of the list of Essential Purchases for many a perspiring artist. Versatile, portable and easy to use, these studios-in-a-box are simply too convenient not to have around when inspiration comes a-knocking at the door.
The latest company to come a-knocking at the door of the 4-track market is Marantz, with the PMD740 they launched at the AES show in San Francisco last year. While the PMD740 marks Marantz's debut in this area, it is far from a tentative dipping of the toes into these (somewhat crowded) waters. In fact, in terms of its retail price (£849) the PMD740 goes in with a bullet right to the top: above this and you're into 8-track cassette territory. Naturally you get a lot for your money: 6-input mixer section with 3-band EQ, balanced XLR connections and insert points on four of those inputs; a choice of normal or double speed operation; sync-code facility; plus auto locate and punch-in/out. Unusually, the PMD740 also combines a dbx noise reduction system with Dolby HX Pro.
All these virtues and yet more are highlighted on the accompanying demo cassette. This features a voice somewhere between David Byrne and Kermit the Frog singing the praises of the machine while accompanied by some rather dodgy synth music punctuated by bouts of raunchy guitar licks. You'll need to resist the temptation to throw up, especially over corny lines like "If you can dream, the PMD740 can make it real" and "We go the extra mile" - in reference to, of all things, the size of the fader knobs.
To be fair, the cassette would help multitrack virgins get to grips with the PMD740's various functions, but this pathetic line of patter really is quite unnecessary. On looks alone the PMD740 should sell itself.
Part of its undoubted charm are those VU meters which round off (literally) the chunky, ergonomic and slightly retro styling. On switching on you'll find these VUs glow a rather lugubrious green. That's until you switch to record mode, when the channels affected immediately change over to a glowering red. Well at least you can't say you didn't notice you'd accidentally gone into record mode.
The layout of the front panel follows classic lines: mixer section to the left, tape transport controls bottom right, monitor mix section top right. All connections are conveniently tucked away round the back... convenient, that is, until you want to repatch all your leads.
All six inputs of the mixer section cater for mic or line inputs, though only the first four have both (balanced) XLRs and (unbalanced) jack sockets with a button on the front panel to switch between them as appropriate. Inputs five and six are strictly 1/4 inch jacks only, but with the same full range trim control as inputs 1-4 will still accept a wide variety of sources.
Inputs 1-4 also have the added luxury of an insert point, allowing you to patch effects into individual channels. To my knowledge the PMD740 is the only multitracker at the sub-£1,000 level to give you this facility, a facility which adds considerably to the flexibility of the mixer.
Channels 1-4 also come with a 'grown up' 3-band, semi-parametric EQ section - an absolute necessity for any serious tweaking of sounds, whether during recording or mixdown. Hi and Low EQ controls are the usual shelving types giving 12dB cut and boost at 10kHz and 100Hz respectively. The sweepable mid range combines a +/-12dB gain control with a Shift knob covering frequencies from 160Hz to 7.5kHz. Next to this control you'll find a button bearing the mysterious legend - Q-Factor. It may sound like a mind-challenging Channel 4 game show or a new body gel by Abbatoire Garnier, but no... it is in fact a switchable bandwidth control.
I'll run that past you again, only this time I'll type more slowly. As you probably know, the frequency selected by the Mid EQ Shift is the centre point of a band of frequencies which spread either side. Normally, this group of frequencies is fixed by the manufacturer back at base: but the Q-factor control allows you to select between two different bandwidths: Wide - giving a roll-off of 6dB either side of the selected frequency - and Narrow with a 12dB roll-off.
By selecting the narrow bandwidth you can home in more precisely on specific voices or parts within a mix - a snare within a drum track for example - and then cut and boost accordingly. It really does work. The EQ section for inputs five and six is, by comparison, a rather mundane affair with just Hi/Low controls, offering 12dB cut and boost at 10kHz and 100Hz respectively.
All inputs possess just one auxiliary send - something of a downer, even with insert points on the first four inputs. By way of compensation both the effect send (mono) and the effect return (stereo) have a dedicated master volume control.
A pan control and channel fader round off our inspection of the mixer section - though it is perhaps just worth mentioning the stereo input you'll find round the back for patching in CDs, tape decks or the output from a sub-mixer for a keyboard rack. This input - with its associated volume control - is routed straight to the stereo buss.
Moving on to the routing system in general, the PMD740 offers direct or stereo buss assign or a combination of both. Direct assign - with input 1 routed to track 1, input 2 to track 2 and so on - would normally be used for simultaneous recording on all four channels. If you want to bring input 5 into the picture, you can assign this directly to either track 1 or 3, while input 6 can be directly assigned to track 2 or 4.
If you need to mix several instruments onto just one or two tracks, then you'd use the stereo buss assignment switches. In fact, these relate to the tape tracks rather than the inputs, but without getting into lengthy explanations, it's sufficient to say that the PMD740 generally proves pretty flexible. That said, a certain amount of lateral thinking is required when trying to assign certain inputs direct to tape tracks and the others via the stereo buss. Let's say you were recording a vocal on input 1 direct to track 1, but using inputs 2-6 to lay down a stereo mix on track 3 and 4. Because direct signals (in this case the vocal) are also routed to the stereo buss, you'll actually end up with the vocals on tracks 1, 3 and 4. Another limitation is that in direct mode you can't record effects using the effect buss. The signal will always be dry, unless you effect inputs 1-4 individually using the insert points.
As I say, lateral thinking is required, but then learning how to squeeze a quart out of a pint pot always has been one of the joys of multitracking, whichever machine you use. Usually, the problem is one of coaxing 64-track megamixes from a 4-track tape head. Naturally the PMD740 offers full track-bouncing facilities, including use of 3-part EQ as you bounce. For more ambitious projects, multitimbral MIDIphiles will appreciate the dedicated tape sync connections for virtual tracking - that horrible Americanism for running a sequencer alongside the tape.
This routes the incoming sync signal direct to track 4, thereby freeing up mixer channel 4 for other duties. There's a switch to disable the dbx noise reduction on track 4, plus a volume control for the sync output which helps you match levels to those of your synchronising device. (This usually involves turning the volume down rather than up).
Moving on to monitoring, we next encounter the four tape cue controls enabling you to set up a mono mix of what's on tape. However, if you want to hear how that fits in with what's currently going through the mixer you're better off listening in via the second of the two headphone sockets which are to be found on the front edge of the unit, each with an associated volume control on the front panel. Set to Cue, the output at Phones 2 will combine the stereo master output (in mono) with the tape cue mix. You can also set this to monitor the stereo master output and the effects return signal. Cans plugged into Phones 1 are always filled with the stereo master mix.
For a visual indication of levels, the VU meters can be switched to show either recording/playback levels for each individual tape track, or the levels for the left and right sides of the stereo buss, the effects return level and the cue buss.
So how does the sum of all these parts add up? First of all, in terms of sound quality the PMD740 is excellent. The objective figures say: frequency response using chrome tape at high speed is 40Hz-16KHz; signal-to-noise ratio is 85dB and distortion is less than 1.5 per cent. My subjective ears said that there was no appreciable difference between my CD player and the same piece of music recorded and played back on the PMD740. Comparing the Marantz to my trusty Fostex 160, it became obvious that the presence of the HX Pro system really does make a difference, allowing the PMD740 to squeeze more high end on tape. Be warned - it doesn't compensate for badly set levels.
The mixer section is particularly quiet, something you'll appreciate when it comes to bouncing tracks. Generally, with most multitrackers, the quality begins to tail off quite noticeably after the first bounce, but with the PMD740 you can keep most of the hiss at bay if you're careful with levels. Bringing in extra compression via the insert points also helps at this stage too.
Physically the PMD740 is a delight to use. The controls are all firm to the touch and the tape transport and auto locate features work impeccably. All in all the whole package has a reassuring feel of quality about it and possesses most of the classic multitracker virtues: flexibility, ease of use and an ability to interface with MIDI equipment via the sync and sub-mix connections.
While I've mentioned some of the quirks of the routing system, (no multitracker is perfect in this respect) these inevitably become easier to circumvent as time goes on.
The only serious problem is that while it looks a million dollars, it well-nigh costs a million dollars. For not too much more, you're looking at the cheaper 8-track cassette based systems; for considerably less, you've got the pick of top-end Fostex, Tascam and Yamaha 4-track machines, all of which have more inputs.
From my experience of its nearest rivals, however, I'd say the PMD740 definitely has the edge in terms of sound quality. If this is your main criteria then you can feel confident that with the PMD740 you'll get exactly what you pay for.
Price: £849 inc. VAT
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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