Already established in hi-fi, Sansui have made their musical debut in the form of a number of multitrack cassette machines, among them the WSX1. Nigel Lord reckons the "studio in a box" is finally here.
With the first personal multitracker came the phrase "a studio in a box", but Sansui's WSX1 may be about to claim the tag for itself.
IT DOESN'T HAPPEN very often. Just every once in a while there's a genuine buzz of excitement surrounding a machine whose design represents a significant departure from that which we've come to expect in a particular area of technology. At these times, the very act of lifting the equipment from the security of its packaging becomes a moment charged with expectancy which even the years surrounded by such equipment cannot dampen. The Sansui WSX1 six-track multitrack recorder provided just such a moment.
OK, since we're halfway there, let me fly in the face of the traditions of objectivity and impartiality established by technical journalists over the years by not pretending to be "reviewing as I write". I already know what I think of this machine, and I'm quite happy to tell you, here, in the second paragraph: it's wonderful. If you're on the verge of buying a multitracker, but are worried by the inherent limitations of a four-track format, this is the machine to go for. At the present time, there's nothing else quite like it.
There, that should have thwarted all those who drift straight to the conclusion at the end of the review. Now, if you'd like to find out why, read on...
AS MANY OF those who've made the plunge into home multitrack recording will know, the claims of a number of manufacturers to have produced "a studio in a box", whilst not actually misleading, are some way from telling the whole story. Quite simply, the mixer and four-track recorder which comprise the vast majority of these specimens, can scarcely be passed off as a studio in this day and age - no matter how good the basic quality of these machines is. Running (usually) at twice the normal cassette speed and being composed (obviously enough) of four separate tracks, recordings have to be transferred to a standard speed stereo format if they are to be, ahem... 'enjoyed' by the rest of the world. So a mastering machine of some kind has to be added to the setup. And, if it's to do the music justice, this usually needs to be something better than the average (hi-fi) MIDI system cassette recorder.
A further problem on some multitrackers is their inability to record more than two tracks at any one time; recording two or more instruments simultaneously invariably involves some form of submixing - which with multisynth/sampler setups so common, would seem to be essential for most keyboard players. Equally important would be some form of digital reverberation. This need not be particularly elaborate (most studio owners settle down to using no more than a handful of basic presets), but in the present music climate it really has to be considered essential.
So how much have we already had to add on to the basic price of the multitracker - £400 or £500? And we haven't even addressed the problems of monitoring yet. Clearly, the short-cut to reasonable quality demos which multitrackers appear to offer isn't quite the short-cut in terms of outlay it may at first seem. So how is Sansui's WSX1 any different? Well, with a full-function, eight-channel mixer allowing recording across all tracks simultaneously, an integral stereo recording/mixdown cassette deck, a built-in, high-quality digital reverb unit, and of course, the six-track cassette deck itself - the WSX1 could much more fairly lay claim to "the studio in a box" title which, if they're honest, has eluded most other manufacturers. And I haven't even mentioned the many features whose inclusion serves to make the machine such a delight to use.
Of perhaps greater importance to anyone for whom a machine like this would represent a long-term investment (and I think that would include most of us), is the simple fact that the WSX1 has an underlying feeling of quality about it. Beautifully laid out, I would be hard pressed to fault its basic ergonomics (oh, all right, some of the push buttons aren't mutually cancelling, which is a bit of a pain), but despite its complexity, few concessions have been made to the pressures of space. The central display strip which runs right across the unit packs a huge amount of information, and though somewhat novel in its choice of colours (predominately orange with areas of yellow and red), it's clear, easy to read and looks quite imposing.
SITUATED IN FOUR main areas to the top/bottom and left/right of the display are the principal sections of the machine - the mixer with associated monitoring and effects controls, the individual and master fader/panning section, the two cassette decks, and the tape transport and track recording controls section. Some of the connecting sockets are situated along the front edge (the eight unbalanced mic/line input jacks, the punch-in footswitch jack and the headphone jacks) but most are situated on the rear panel and we'll come back to these later.
Of the eight available mixer channels, six provide standard unbalanced mic/line input facilities (switchable to individual tape inputs from the six tracks of Deck. The other two, in addition to providing balanced XLR inputs on the rear panel, may be used as a stereo pair for the connection of auxiliary input devices such as CD players or external cassette decks. (Now why would anyone want to mix CD recordings with their own music?) Controls for each channel comprise Trim (gain), High/Low EQ, Reverb Send, Effect Send, Pan, and channel fader, and in addition there's an Overload indicator and Solo button.
A side effect of the non-cancelling push buttons, I mentioned earlier, is that the selectors for Tape (channels 1-6) and Auxiliary (channels 8-9) act as mute buttons if depressed when Mic/Line inputs are selected - and vice versa. I don't know if this is deliberate: certainly, no mention is made of it in the manual, but then, no mention is made of a number of things in this particular manual (and if you think you've spotted an area in which I'm somewhat less than glowing in my opinion, you're right).
The channel faders, though a little on the stiff side, have a good three inches of travel in which to do their work, and even with their generously-sized buttons are spaced a respectable distance apart. Certainly, they're leagues ahead of many multitracker offerings. Also to be commended are the extensive headphone monitoring facilities. Here, besides being able to monitor the output from both cassette decks and the main stereo out via headphones, it's also possible to listen in to the internal reverb and external effects sends. Not only that, but all these options are available in combination as well as individually, and there are sockets for two sets of cans just in case anyone else needs to listen in too.
As far as visual monitoring is concerned, the WSX1 doesn't stretch to individual meters for each input channel (but then, neither does my 18 channel Seck), so you have to keep a watchful eye on the overload LEDs. What it does provide, however, is meter indication of each of the six record or playback signals associated with Deck A or indication of the main stereo L/R buss, the external effects send buss, the internal reverb send buss, the cue out and sync out levels. In other words, the six LED meter ladders are dual purpose and are provided with a push-button switch to select between either mode.
"Besides being able to monitor the output from both cassette decks and the stereo out, it's possible to listen in to the internal reverb and external effects sends."
Next to this switch, there's another push button whose purpose in life is to make ready track six for recording an external sync track. It does this by the simple expedient of disabling the Dolby NR circuit from that particular track, which it also mutes from the mix during playback. No more Lewis gun sync pulses blasting your speaker cones into oblivion as you fight to get to the fader...
Two rotary controls and three small push buttons might not seem to offer the sort of facilities for creating the perfect ambience for your latest magnum opus, but between them these simple reverb parameters are capable of producing some very useable effects - from bright 'ringy' bathrooms through to dark cavernous halls.
Besides rotary control over time and level there are three basic reverb types selected by the push buttons and described in the manual as recreating a small room (1) simulating a larger room (2) and recreating a mid sized conference room (3). Now quite why reverb two "simulates" rather than "recreates", I'm not entirely sure, and neither is it clear why conferences have to be held in the room selected for reverb three. All I know is, despite their being mono effects, the basic quality is excellent throughout the entire reverb range. There's a noticeable difference in frequency response between the three settings (effect two being slightly brighter than effect three, which, in turn is slightly brighter than effect one), and this, in combination with the time control can produce a surprising breadth of variation. Occasionally there's a slight "boom" when switching from one effect to another, and there is a noticeable delay as the new setting is switched into operation, so it's not really feasible to be altering reverb type during recording. But as a basic workhorse providing good quality reverb with a minimum of fuss (and therefore freeing any external device for other duties), it cannot really be faulted.
Of course, you'd imagine that switching off all three push buttons would leave you with no effect at all - whoever wrote the instruction manual certainly did, and as a result, there's no mention of a digital delay effect which is automatically selected whenever the other three are not. Being adjustable from a few milliseconds to (I'd estimate) just over a third of a second, it doesn't cover a vast range - and it does autopan continuously from left to right - but it certainly came as a welcome surprise after I'd spent half an hour trying to work out where the hell it was coming from...
Finally, in this section we have the two rotary controls for (master) send and return of the external effects loop. Damned if I can think of anything very creative to say about them.
THE TWO CASSETTE decks, clearly labelled A and B occupy the top right-hand section of the WSX1, and share a common lid (not a very technical-sounding word, that). With the lid raised there is plenty of room for both cassettes and fingers, which presumably makes up for the fact that neither deck is equipped with an eject mechanism. The principal differences between the two (besides the obvious one of tracks) is the running speed of Deck A which at 9.5cm per second is twice the standard cassette speed of Deck B, and the fact that only C60 chrome or 'high' position tapes maybe used in Deck A whilst Deck B will accept normal or high position cassettes up to C90 in length. I have to say, the warning issued in the manual against using C90 cassettes in Deck A seems rather unfounded in this day and age. I'd have thought there were enough high quality types around which exhibit no tendency to stretch even at the reduced thicknesses demanded by the C90 format. But what the heck, you'll just have to avoid recording concept albums which run to over 15 minutes a side (remember: this deck runs at double tape speed).
And on the subject of high-quality cassettes, I'm not entirely sure if the omission of a metal tape position can be regarded as any kind of serious disadvantage. I'm damned if I've ever heard any subjective difference between metal cassettes and the very best quality non-metals. But I suppose that's an argument for the pages of the hi-fi mags.
One final difference between the two decks is the option of switching to Dolby B on Deck B which isn't available on Deck A - it's permanently set up for Dolby C. And curiously, the switch to disable the NR altogether is situated on the top panel (next to the B/C selector switch) for Deck B, but appears on the rear panel for Deck A. An afterthought perhaps?
Despite the decks themselves being located at the top of the machine, the transport buttons (all logic controlled) are conveniently situated down in the bottom right hand corner. In addition to the standard Play, Record, Stop, Pause and Fast Forward/Rewind controls, both decks include cueing functions (pressing fast forward/rewind whilst in Play mode), whilst Deck B features an extra button labelled Mixdown. When selected, this sets up the decks ready for mixdown (Pause on Deck A and Record/Pause on Deck B) and starts both when either Play button is pressed. A nice touch.
The electronic tape counter within the main display panel is situated in a central position relative to the decks for the good and simple reason it is shared by both. A selector button located just under the main stereo output meter displays is used to switch between the two, and next to it is a Reset button which sets the counter back to zero. In conjunction with this, there's a Zero Return button, whose function should, I think, be self-explanatory, and also a repeat play facility dubbed Rehearsal which allows you to set up a loop for continuous play. Another of those neat facilities which really do make all the difference during a long recording session.
Incidentally, Deck A also comes equipped with a pitch control which covers a very respectable ±20% range, and I suppose could almost be regarded as a creative feature in its own right.
"Mechanically it's hard to fault the WSX1 - the controls are positive and smooth, and the logic-controlled tape buttons give it a decidedly professional feel."
Under the general title of Aux Input (we're now over on the far right of the machine) are five switches: two to switch into circuit a couple of extra audio processors which may be connected in line with the mixer output (graphic or parametric equaliser or digital delay, for example) and three to select each of the Auxiliary inputs which may be connected to the stereo pair provided by channels seven and eight.
Determining where the signal from each input channel ends up is the work of the track record selector switches situated immediately above the the tape transport controls. In addition to sending each channel to its corresponding track on Deck A, it is also possible to direct them to a Left/Right buss, making it possible to record straight onto a stereo pair (the Pan controls determine the position of each instrument within the stereo field). Alternatively, you could, for example, record four separate instruments on tracks one-four, then mix them down to stereo on tracks five and six, leaving the first four tracks free for further instruments.
Just above the Track Selector Buttons are the corresponding Cue controls which allow you to set up a monitoring mix when overdubbing or punching in to an existing recording (this is, of course, dependent on Deck A being selected over in the monitor section). Finally, back in the centre of the WSX1 we have a pair of Master Level L/R faders which control the level of the signal reaching Deck B and a Stereo Master which determines the level of the main stereo output feeding the external amp/speaker system.
Rounding things off at the back of the machine are the XLR sockets for the balanced inputs on channels seven and eight and phono sockets for the connection of the external processors, auxiliaries, individual tape outs, stereo mixer outs, main stereo outs and sync in and out. The effect return loop is on standard jack connections as is an extra composite signal from the six Cue controls - presumably for foldback in split room studio applications. And last but not least is a 5-pin DIN socket to which is connected the MR6 expander unit. Expander? Sorry, didn't mention it? Well Sansui, it seems, have decided that the humble WSX1 is as well worth upgrading as any other piece of equipment these days, and rather considerately have designed a six-track expander for it, giving you access to ten tracks simultaneously (each recorder uses one of its tracks for a sync signal). Now that's what I call a home multitracker.
AH, BUT CAN you make high quality recordings with the WSX1? I think it's fair to say there's currently an implied standard behind the phrase "Portastudio demo" - and it's not a particularly complimentary one. But that has more to do with the person using the equipment than with the quality of the equipment itself. Having heard excellent results from the owners of some very modest machines. I am left to conclude that with the WSX1 in their hands, these same people could work minor miracles. From an audio point of view, it's a first-class machine: noise levels are impressively low and distortion is all but inaudible. The quoted frequency response of 40-15.000Hz for the decks is more than acceptable for cassette format recordings (let's not forget that the six tracks share considerably less than an eighth of an inch tape width), and with separation held to a creditable 65dB. It seems you're not paying the penalty for that extra couple of tracks.
Mechanically too, it's hard to fault this machine. The controls are all positive and quite smooth, and the logic-controlled tape buttons help give it a decidedly professional feel. I have to say, I've never been keen on cassette mechanisms which leave the capstans running permanently - and with a machine like the WSX1. which is likely to be used for a considerable part of its life simply as a mixer - this seems rather hard to justify.
Also hard to justify is an inadequate instruction manual on a piece of equipment costing in excess of 1200 quid - particularly when there are areas of its operation which aren't even covered in the text. The internal signal routing of mixers and multitrackers can often be confusing, and with the kind of advanced features included on the WSX1 (and, of course, with the extra cassette deck), this is especially true. I spent a considerable period of time, for example, trying to unravel the workings of the monitoring system - the fact the mixer provides two different sets of output signals, each of which may be routed through its own external processor, was an area which took quite a bit of sorting out initially. Yet nowhere does the manual attempt to clarify matters. If anything, it caused more confusion, which even the inclusion of a rather sketchy block diagram could not dispel.
But it would be churlish to allow this to take anything away from the machine itself. A little time spent investigating its potential and it wasn't long before I'd started putting together some excellent six-track recordings. The WSX1 represents a significant leap in home multitrack technology, which is all the more noteworthy for it being Sansui's first foray into this market. Of course, the good thing about a new company like Sansui is that they're not new at all - they've been plying their trade in the hi-fi biz for many years now. So despite the novelty of the WSX1, there's little chance of being left high and dry with a broken machine and a firm which went out of business two years earlier.
This is a hugely desirable piece of equipment. With an eight-track reel-to-reel system at home and no real use for the WSX1, I nevertheless kept looking over to my sadly under-used system and thinking to myself, when was the last time I actually used more than half a dozen channels simultaneously on that 18 channel desk? Do I actually need all eight of those tracks? I can think of no higher recommendation.
Price £1250 including VAT.
Gear in this article:
Review by Nigel Lord
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