Four tracks made more affordable
The Japanese obsession with all things retro has reached the cassette multitracker. But is the beauty more than skin deep? Danny McAleer jumps on his Harley Davidson and takes the Marantz PMD720 for a long, hard drive...
The cassette multitracker still represents the cheapest and easiest way to get into audio recording, but as the expectations of recording musicians get ever higher, so manufacturers are having to improve both the sonic quality and the flexibility of their machines. The Fostex X18H is a case in point, offering high-speed recording for around £300. It shows how the manufacturers are responding to the challenge.
Marantz's latest offering, the PMD720, is not the most expensive of multitrackers, but fits into the market's middle ground, where you would expect machines to have a fair amount of features, as well as excellent sound quality. It combines an eight-channel mixer with a high-speed cassette mechanism in a distinctively styled package that gives more than a passing nod to the fashions of yesteryear. Given that you get so much for your money at the bottom end of the multitracker market, is it worth shelling out a couple of hundred more on an expensive machine? Let's find out.
With so many unnecessarily diminutive devices on the market, it's nice to come across a multitracker that doesn't require tweezers to operate. The PMD720 is not just a decent size, it also has a distinctly retro feel, with its round VU meters and black/gold colour scheme.
The seven faders represent four mono channels, two stereo channels and the master output. Each mono channel has, from the top, pots for trim, high and low EQ, effect send and panning, and a switch for flipping between tape and mic/line inputs. Not being a great fan of dbx noise reduction, I was glad to find that it's switchable. Having said that, you may as well choose a deck with Dolby to start with, if you particularly dislike dbx.
The tape counter is of the old mechanical type, which I would say is not good enough on a machine of this price. A digital counter not only provides a more accurate idea of tape positions, but also permits some sort of autolocate facility, which you would certainly expect from a 'professional' deck. Transport controls are logic-assisted, and are moulded into curvoid shapes, the combined FF and REW switch having a rocking action. The master section, above the tape mechanism, contains a pitch control (±10%), record select buttons, tape cue pots, and a tape speed (H/L) switch.
Connection-wise, there's two headphone sockets (nice touch - not all musicians play solitaire) and a punch in/out socket at the front, while all the remaining connections are made on the back panel. The eight inputs have jack sockets, while the first two have XLR sockets as well... if only these offered phantom powering as well. Insert points are also provided on the first two channels, and to the left there's the connections for an effects processor.
There is nothing inspiring or complicated about the actual functions on this machine. While there are useful features like insert points for effecting individual instruments, MIDI sync inputs, and two extra stereo inputs in addition to the usual four inputs, these are functions that seem to be standard on most multitracks nowadays. Having said that, the features it does have are implemented with a degree of finesse. The transport function buttons are quite nice to use and are responsive too, if a little oddly shaped. And having an eight-channel mixer is particularly helpful.
The most useful function on the PDM720 is the ability to route any of the mixer channels or combinations of channels via the stereo buss to any of the tape tracks. This way, you could probably get away with using only inputs 1 and 2, taking advantage of the balanced line inputs and insert points.
The sound quality is reasonable, and is enhanced dramatically when the dbx noise reduction system is used. Because of this, the noise reduction is more of a necessity than an option, the switch only really being useful for playing back tapes recorded without dbx. In operation, the slower tape speed of 1⅞ips is again only useful for compatibility.
The headphone monitor select switch gives you a choice of three options: a line out monitor, which identically reproduces in the headphone outputs the signals going to the main outputs, including all effects. The second option is the effects monitor. This is a rather nifty function that previews all the instruments routed to the effects, which is most useful for busy mixes where some sounds can become indistinguishable from using effects.
The third option is the Cue Buss monitor, which did not seem to work properly on the model we tested. When playing back the recorded tape tracks using the tape cue controls, the Cue Buss input acts as a headphone monitor where both these signals and all the mixer tracks are combined. On the test mode, all that seemed to appear in the headphones when this was tried out was a rather wimpy reproduction of the tape tracks alongside the mixer tracks. Obviously something is amiss somewhere.
The EQ section is a little disappointing in that it's only a two-band job and, whilst it gives quite pleasant-sounding results, you'd really expect to see something a bit more extensive on a machine in this price-range.
Overall, the PMD720 is a fairly reasonable multitrack with some pleasant aesthetic touches like the back-lit VU meters and the bizarre buttons, but it does lose out to some cheaper multitracks in the way of facilities. On a machine costing over £500 it's not unreasonable to expect a three-band EQ, and a digital counter with autolocate facilities.
Having said that, it's flexible in operation and the styling is attractive, if a little smooth around the edges. So what are you getting on this machine that you don't get on, say, a Fostex X18H? Well, you can record simultaneously on all four tracks of the Marantz, as opposed to two on the Fostex. And though the PMD720's EQ is not exactly ideal, the EQ on the Fostex is conspicuous by its absence.
Those are the fundamental differences between the two machines. Sound quality-wise, they are both very good, 'though for noise reduction I'd choose Dolby over dbx anyday. The Marantz is certainly a very capable machine that is straightforward to use and gives excellent results. But I can't help thinking what might have been...
Price: £549 inc VAT
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