Vestax MR66 6-Track Recorder and RMC88 Studio Mixer
Put these two together and you have a flexible recording and mixing system.
Shirley Gray checks out the complete recording system from Vestax: a 6-track cassette recorder, and an unusual mixer designed to offer full eight-track routing for little more than the cost of a simple stereo mixer.
Vestax have been building cassette multitrack machines for many years, mainly directed at the budget and entry-level markets, though they haven't previously been known for either mixers or for 6-track cassette recorders. Indeed, six tracks on cassette hasn't been a particularly popular standard with manufacturers, probably because of the additional cost over 4-track, and perhaps the feeling that this format is just a little maverick and unusual — though the 6-track cassette recorder, in its cost-effective incarnation as the Sansui MR6 and WSX1, has found much favour on the second-hand market, with used models coming up infrequently and being snapped up quickly. It may be argued that six tracks is a good compromise between quality and cost, though in the case of the MR66, the cost is coming dangerously close to what you'd expect to pay for an 8-track recorder.
The MR66 is a rackmounted, mains-powered unit featuring dbx noise reduction, pitch control, built-in 6:2 mixer, 34-terminal patchbay, sync facility and two-speed operation (normal and double speed). Since the basic mixer is built in, with a 2-track mixdown machine you have a complete, albeit rudimentary, recording setup. Tape output and line input jacks allow connection to an external mixer such as the RMC88, although, of course, any other mixer with at least six channels could be used. There's not much to speak of on the back panel of this unit; just a socket for the mains lead, and two phonos which provide a stereo line output. All the other controls and sockets, as well as access to the tape deck and transport controls, are found on the front panel.
As is common with this type of machine, the tape deck has two heads; one for erase and the other for record/playback. It also has two motors, which is a good sign — when manufacturers want to cut corners they often make do with only one, and performance seems to suffer. The frequency response of the MR66 is given as 20Hz-18kHz which is presumably (they don't say) for its faster speed, while the signal to noise ratio is 95dB (with noise reduction switched in).
The pitch control is rather neat; when not in use it lies flush with the front surface — to alter it, you press it and it pops out ready for action, you give it a twiddle, then if you want you can pop it back in again so that it's protected against accidental knocks. You can have up to a major third of pitch shift, which is more than enough to tune your recording to non-standard instruments. An Eject button opens the door automatically and a rather nice feature is that you can slide the door off for easier cleaning and demagnetising.
Selecting a track for recording is achieved via the six Rec Function buttons, and any combination of these may be selected, making it possible to record all six tracks simultaneously if required; the corresponding LED(s) flash to indicate record-ready mode. There's a level meter for each track, and each can individually be selected to show Input level or Tape level. Trim controls adjust the level of the input signal to compensate for the difference between line and mic levels, and Level controls vary the amount sent to tape or to any of the output sockets. This section of the MR66 is beautifully laid out with the meter, Record Ready light, Meter changeover switch, Trim control, Level control and Mioline Input jack socket for each track arranged logically in vertical columns. A Master level control dictates the total amount of signal going to any of the outputs. For monitoring purposes, each channel has a dual pot, the inner shaft being the level control and the outer shaft, complete with centre detent, being the Pan control. The tape transport controls are the inevitable Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop, Play, Pause and Record, record mode being entered by pressing Record and Pause followed by Play. Punch-ins can be performed in the usual manner by pressing Play and Record simultaneously, pressing Play to punch out. There's also a socket on the patchbay for a remote footswitch for punch-ins, in case you've run out of hands, and another one for operating Pause. The tape counter is an electronic four-digit LED display which can show tape position either in tape turns or minutes and seconds. Associated with this is a Reset button (to reset the display to zero), and a Zero Return. Using the Memo button commits a particular point on the tape to memory, and the unit will also search for this point. If Rtn Mode is selected the tape will search and commence playback upon reaching either Zero or the Memo point.
On the right of the tape deck are buttons for power on/off, Tape Speed High/Low, dbx In/Out and Monitor Stereo/Mono, which selects a stereo or mono signal on the headphone socket just below it. This socket has an associated Monitor level control. For recording in conjunction with a MIDI device you'll probably want to record a sync code onto one of the tracks. The reliability of these codes is often adversely affected by noise reduction systems, so to get around this you can bypass the noise reduction circuitry on Track 6 using the Sync switch. There's also a control for the level of the sync code off tape.
Now for the patchbay, which is one of Vestax's brighter ideas, in my opinion. There are six Line Ins, which are assigned directly to the associated recording tracks, and six Tape Outs which you'd use in conjunction with an external mixer. Six Auxiliary Sends and Returns allow you to patch effects in on each individual input channel; I think these have been labelled rather misleadingly, as their use is more like a conventional Insert point. Master Out Sends and Returns (L and R) can be used for effecting the entire stereo mix off-tape — for example, adding Aural Excitement or compression. Master outputs are used to connect to the inputs of a 2-track machine for mixdown; the Monitor Outs are parallel to these and would normally be connected to an amplifier and speaker setup.
I like the layout of the MR66; everything's logically arranged and clearly labelled, and Vestax haven't tried to cram too much into too small a space on the front panel. The meters are helpful; levels above 0dB are automatically held for around a second, which serves as a warning that you're overloading the input. The tape counter LEDs are rather deeply set, which causes a problem if you want to have the machine more than about a foot above or below eye level, as you then can't read it. The tape transport is pleasant to use and the memo point is easy to set; a light flashes on the tape counter to show you it's done. However, on the review model, I couldn't make the Zero Return or Memo Return modes work!
The quality of first-generation recordings made with the MR66 is fairly good, with only a slight subjective difference between the original and the recording. The recorded sound seems a tiny bit harsher, which may be a by-product of the dbx noise reduction. Having said that, the dbx does its job, keeping the noise levels extremely low. Drop-ins and outs are imperceptible, with no noticeable glitches or clicks, which is good news. Also there's very little bleed-through from track to track, another positive attribute of the use of dbx noise reduction. One rather disturbing thing was that on pressing Play there was a short pause after the tape started playing before any sound was heard. In addition, the headphone amp was noisy and not representative of the signal coming from the main outputs; it suffered interference from the capstan motor and the Rec Function LED circuitry, producing a rhythmic click.
Using the sync facility was a doddle, and the fact that there's a control to boost the sync track output means you can record it on tape at a lower level, keeping sync signal bleedthrough to a minimum. However, without employing an external mixer, there isn't any way of mixing sequenced instruments with the tape tracks. Bouncing is possible without using an external mixer via patch leads connected between the left and right outputs and the line ins of the tracks you wish to bounce to, but the quality of even the first bounce is not too impressive; quite a lot of top end is lost and the signal loses its smoothness, but at least the bottom end stays punchy. I must be honest, though; if I owned this machine I would try not to bounce at all.
The RMC88 mixer is also rackmounted and is an 8-channel desk with two group outs (A and B, used mainly for sub-grouping channels/bouncing tracks together) and two Master outs (L and R). Though it isn't much more complex than a standard stereo mixer, it incorporates a simple form of routing which allows you to get the input signals onto different tape tracks without too much effort.
All the audio sockets are practically arranged along the top of the panel, so if you were to use this with the MR66, the mixer being underneath, you wouldn't have lots of leads trailing all over the place getting in the way. Each channel has a separate Channel/Tape Output, Line In and Tape In, so that you can leave the latter connected permanently, which is a practical bonus. The first four channels have XLR mic inputs and a switch to select between the mic and line inputs, though there's no phantom powering on the mic inputs. The rest of the features are common to all eight channels.
There's an Input Level control, a switch for selecting between Tape In and Line or Mic In, three-band EQ, three Aux sends, the first pre-fade (its level being unaffected by the position of the channel fader) and the other two being post-fade for use with external effects units. A Pan control sets the left/right position of the channel's signal in the stereo picture on mixdown and selects between groups A and B when routing signals to tape; the channel fader sets the channel's output level. A peak LED shows when the channel signal is in danger of overloading, while a PFL button allows a channel to be monitored in isolation and a switch in the master section puts the channel signal level up on the meters, which is useful when setting up the input gains at the start of a session.
Two buttons, labelled L-R and A-B, facilitate routing the channel signal to one or both busses. There's no channel mute button as such, but you can use the appropriate buss button for shutting off the output of a particular channel by re-routing it to the other pair of busses, which is useful during bouncing or mixdown.
In the master section, the sockets include two pairs of inputs and outputs for the A-B buss and the L-R buss, and the three Aux Outputs with associated master level controls. The meters consist of two 10-section vertical LED columns, green below 0dB and red above, and these can be switched between reading the PFL level and the master output level. A headphones socket is located on the front panel and there's a level control and a switch enabling it to monitor either the A-B buss or the L-R buss, as well as two sets of double faders, one for the A-B and one for the L-R buss. In addition, there are eight numbered squares above the master faders, each containing an A/B selector button and a Mute button. These relate to the tape outputs, not to the channel inputs, and are part of the novel routing system — as will be revealed shortly.
The routing system of this desk is quite unlike that on a conventional multitracking console and is more closely based on what you might do with a simple two or four-buss console and a handful of patch-cords. In effect, the additional switching eliminates the need for patch-cords.
The first way of getting a signal to tape is to press the Ch Out button on an input channel, which routes the channel signal directly to the correspondingly numbered tape output. For example, pressing Ch Out on channel 5 would send the channel signal to Tape Out 5, which is located directly above it. The Ch Out switch also removes the Tape Out from the bussing system so that no other signal can be routed to it.
When two or more channels need to be routed to a Tape Out, the A-B buss system is used; the channel routing buttons and the pan pot are used to route the signal to either the A or B busses, and then the (as yet undisclosed) switching system is used to direct the output from the required group to the required Tape Out. I can think of lots of ways of taking care of routing, but the method chosen by Vestax isn't remotely like any of them! Essentially, both busses are available to all tape outs and the selector switches in the eight little squares are then used to select whether a particular output should receive signal from buss A or B. The eight Mute buttons are then used to prevent the buss signal going from any outputs you don't want them to. In other words, if you want to route channel 6 to Tape Out 8, the Ch Out button on channel 6 must be up (off), the L-R button must be down and the pan control set to select, for the sake of our example, subgroup A. The selector switch in the little box relating to Tape Out 8 should also be set to A and its Mute button turned off. All other Tape Outs to which group A is routed should be muted, or the same signal will be routed to several tape tracks simultaneously. If this sounds rather confusing, the reality is a lot more straightforward than the written instructions.
The mixer has no tape monitor section, so in order to hear what you've recorded, you have to switch the appropriate channels to Tape mode. This is fine, but if you've filled up seven of the eight tape tracks on an 8-track machine (and this mixer could be used with an 8-track recorder) and then want to record more than one channel onto track 8, you're stuck unless you decide you can manage by only monitoring some of the tracks as you overdub. In practice this isn't a huge problem, as the later overdubs tend to be single parts anyway.
The RMC88, like the MR66, is clearly laid out, and the routing system is adequate and not too confusing once you've figured it out — but the lack of a monitor section is a little restrictive. It's also worth pointing out that there are no insert points, which is a bad omission. Vestax have undoubtedly designed the mixer to complement the MR66, which does have insert points, but to make this a commercially successful product, more thought should have been given to its usefulness with non-Vestax tape machines.
I liked the fact that there were separate tape inputs and line inputs, though some of the routing has to be done with patch leads, which is a bit tedious. For example, if you want what's on the A-B buss to go to the L-R buss, you have to physically connect the A-B Out to the L-R In — there is no 'A-B to L-R' button, which would have been a logical inclusion.
Although there are three Aux sends, there are no returns, so you have to return any effects through channels on the desk or through the Master L-R inputs. If you were using this desk in conjunction with the MR66 you would be taking up six tracks for the tape, leaving only two spare for effects. You could get around this by feeding the output of the mixer into two of the line inputs of the MR66, using the four remaining line inputs for the effects returns, but the provision of a couple of dedicated stereo returns would have been very welcome.
For me, the worst thing about this mixer is the EQ. It seems to me that Vestax have chosen rather narrow bands for each of their ranges rather than the more usual (and subtle) shelving high and low controls. This works OK on the bass control — you can add lots more thump to the bass drum without the sound becoming woolly — but on the mid control this has the effect of making a snare drum sound like a clap or making voices just plain honky. The high EQ peaks at around 8kHz, which can sound very harsh unless used in strict moderation. Additionally, the headphone amp was rather short on level, even with my extremely efficient Sony cans, which usually blow my head off — the volume was just about adequate when I had the level flat out.
Anyone in the market for a 4-track is bound to be tempted by the thought of having six tracks instead, and if you have a MIDI setup which you could sync to tape, the idea of having five tracks to play with instead of three is likely to appeal. The MR66 has the advantage of being pleasant to operate as well as being quiet, but its recording quality can only be described as fair, and if you're determined to bounce tracks together on a regular basis, then be prepared to accept less than first-class results. Also be prepared to have to figure out for yourself how to add effects afterwards (read on and I'll tell you), or else keep this review handy, because they don't tell you in the manual!
I'm not a fan of dbx noise reduction, which this unit employs, though it can work very well on machines designed to take full advantage of it. When it comes to budget recorders, it seems to me that the alternatives have less of a detrimental effect on the signal, especially when bouncing tracks, where you put the signal through the encode/decode process more than once. The on board mixer is so basic that I would say that an external mixer is pretty well a necessity, especially if you're planning to sync to tape as described, but if you plan to buy your studio gear in stages, it does get you up and running straight away.
Having Insert points on each input is useful if you want to record effects to tape, but, with the possible exception of a little vocal compression, most of us prefer to add them later. The only way to add effects to individual tape tracks on mixdown is by feeding the Tape out to a signal processor and returning the signal to the Line Input, or you can effect the entire stereo mix via the M/O send/return loop. But to add reverb, for example, to some tracks and not others (which is a pretty normal thing to want to do, after all), you have to use an external mixer. The Return to Zero/Memo point would have been a useful feature had I been able to get it to work, but it's probably fair to assume this is a one-off problem peculiar to this particular machine.
The patchbay is a good idea; at last someone's realised that we want all the sockets in one place, not strewn about along every spare surface wherever they can manage to get them to fit.
The mixer has some handy features and novel routing capabilities, but it falls far short of being a serious multitrack console. The basic sound quality is perfectly adequate, but the design is badly let down by the unsubtle EQ and the complete absence of dedicated aux returns or insert points. As a partner to the MR66, this little mixer makes a lot of sense, but as a standalone multitrack console for use with a different 4, 6 or 8-track recorder, it falls rather short of the mark.
The MR66 works well as a concept, but its price, given its facilities and audio quality, is quite unrealistic, even in the light of current exchange rates — for a couple of hundred pounds more, you could get a Tascam 488 8-track, which has a respectable mixer section as well as two more audio tracks. Having said that, if you shop around you should find you're able to acquire an MR66 for a more attractive price, in which case it may be worth consideration. Its sensible layout and ease of use are commendable, and the basic integral mixer is usable while you save up for something more flexible. Its weakest point is sound quality which, while not actually bad, does suffer noticeably when bouncing tracks.
At the time of writing, Vestax announced the MR66S, which appears to be identical to the MR66 except that it is fitted with a sync interface allowing two or more MR66s to be synchronised together to form a larger multitrack system. This requires one track on each machine to be used for sync code, but other than that, no additional hardware is required. This is a valuable feature which I'm surprised hasn't been taken up by the other major manufacturers.
Vestax MR66 £1027.54; RMC88 £495. Prices include VAT.
Vestax Europe, (Contact Details).
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Review by Shirley Gray
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