Sansui WSX1 6-Track Recorder
Sansui mark their debut into the home recording market with the impressive WSX1. Incorporating the first ever 6-track cassette recorder, it also combines a 2-track master recorder, an 8-channel mixer, and built-in digital effects in a convenient package. Will it appeal? Dave Lockwood finds out.
The WSX1 marks Sansui's debut into the home recording market and is unusual on two counts: firstly, because it comes with a 2-track mixdown recorder built in; and secondly, because its multitrack format is the world's first 6-track cassette! An 8-channel mixer, built-in digital effects, and comprehensive patching facilities complete a powerful package that falls neatly between the top end of the existing 4-track market and component systems based on the new 8-track cassette machines.
Now that Tascam and Toa have demonstrated that a quite respectable performance can be dragged out of the humble cassette in 8-track format, you may be forgiven for wondering why Sansui didn't go the whole way with their machine. Why stop at six tracks?
The answer lies in the fact that there is one crucial difference between the WSX1 and the aforementioned 8-tracks: Sansui have managed to utilise a single multitrack tape head that can provide adequate performance at this track width, whereas the Tascam/Toa solution employs two separate heads, carrying four tracks each, placed a small distance apart along the tape path. With the latter system, nominally adjacent tracks are then divided up between the two heads in order to keep crosstalk, the main enemy with so many tracks on such a small head, to an acceptable level.
However, utilising two heads is not a solution to be adopted lightly. To start with it costs more, and necessitates the utmost precision in the tape mechanism, due to the increased potential for misalignment. Sansui's single 6-track head is certainly a remarkable development, for assessed on crosstalk performance alone, it surprisingly outperforms many 4-track cassette systems. Whilst not quite matching the very best of these units for frequency response, it still manages to out-spec the 8-tracks in this department, and subjective impression certainly backs up the figures.
The 6-track and 2-track tape transports occupy the upper right quarter of the machine, which is significantly larger than your average cassette recorder/mixer unit. The cassette recesses share a common lift-up cover, which doesn't really hinge back far enough to give you unhindered access to the heads and tape paths for cleaning and demagnetising. As this is critical to maintaining optimum performance on such a narrow gauge format, it should have been made possible to totally remove this cover for routine servicing.
The 6-track recorder is designated as Deck A, and is aligned for Type II tape only (chrome or equivalent). It runs at double speed (3.75ips, with a 20% varispeed) and employs Dolby C noise reduction, which can be defeated globally (although I certainly wouldn't recommend it!), or just on track 6 when using timecode or other sync tones. Deck B is the stereo mixdown machine, running at conventional speed. It employs either chrome or normal ferric tapes, and has a choice of Dolby C or B, or no noise reduction at all. Tapes no longer than C60 are specified for the multitrack, giving 15 minutes running time, whilst the stereo machine can accommodate C90s if necessary.
Two sets of transport controls are provided, one for each deck, although they share a common function display and counter. All visual feedback and metering on the WSX1 is handled by a very clear display strip, which runs right across the centre of the unit. The four-digit counter works in arbitrary units, not real time, and must be switched from one deck to the other when required. Unfortunately the counter facility for both machines is rather inaccurate, and particularly on the multitrack deck, its idea of zero seems to creep its way into the song while you work! There is a very useful 'rehearse' facility, which acts as a simple autolocate, enabling you to cycle automatically between two points, though the start of the cycle always has to be defined as zero, which is a bit of a pain.
All of the full-logic transport functions are activated by rather nice soft-touch switches, and some have a couple of hidden functions - entering fast wind in either direction without going through Stop gives you an audio cue signal, for example. The Mixdown switch automatically configures both decks for mixing, so you can just hit Play on either machine to start. Apart from the Rehearse function, Deck A also has a return to zero facility, though strangely, this does not seem to extend to Deck B. All in all, these are a decent set of transport functions, with a nice robust feel to the controls.
The other half of the WSX1 is taken up with the 8-channel mixer. All channels have the same set of functions, the only difference being the absence of a Tape Return switch on channels 7 and 8.
On channels 1-6, separate switches are provided for Tape on/off and Mic/Line on/off, rather than the obvious single Tape/Input switch. I can't quite see why, but it is entirely consistent with the rest of the machine, as all the switches are latching types which need to be switched off to disable a function. There are no mechanical interlocks, or electronic disabling of mutually exclusive functions.
The channel gain controls (Trim), with associated overload LED, work on the Mic/Line inputs only and seem to have an adequate range to handle most sound sources. Synths, drum machines, and DI guitars were all fine but, in common with similar products in this field, these are certainly not the quietest of mic amps I've heard. Channels 7 and 8 actually feature dedicated, balanced mic inputs, utilising XLR connectors on the rear panel. Balancing certainly helps to keep down extraneously induced noise, but there is no phantom power on these sockets. This is a shame, as it would have cost so little to add and would have allowed the use of good condenser mics, which improve the recorded quality of acoustic sounds enormously. If you are going to go to the trouble of including some XLRs, you might as well go all the way and offer phantom power.
A fairly standard two-band shelving EQ is provided with centre detented pots, giving 12dB of cut or boost at 100Hz and 10kHz. EQ slope is fairly sedate, rather more like a hi-fi amp than an instrument EQ, so don't expect to do anything too radical with it. It is nice and smooth, however, and works well at brightening or thinning out sounds without introducing anything nasty by the time you've bounced it a couple of times.
There are two effects sends per channel (post-fade, post-EQ), one of which is dedicated to feeding the built-in digital reverb/delay unit, with the other available for external patching via the send and return jacks. The internal effects are relatively quiet and clean, and eminently usable, so that you don't really regret not being able to patch out of this auxiliary. Three basic reverb types are on offer, with an overall Time control adjusting decay, which produce a pleasing range of effects across the three settings. Interestingly, although it makes no mention of this in the owner's manual, if no reverb program is selected (ie. all the switches are up), the unit functions as a simple digital delay, with a preset amount of feedback giving several repeats. As you can record the internal effects to tape, using the bussing system, it is possible to use the delay when track laying and the reverb for mixing, or vice versa. Quite a comprehensive facility really, and something to bear in mind when assessing the price of the WSX1.
The channel facilities are completed by short-throw carbon track faders, which I initially thought were unusually stiff, although I have subsequently formed the opinion that it is the design of the fader tops that causes this impression. Their top surface is only very slightly dished, which makes your fingertip prone to sliding off at the slightest resistance. The more conventional flattened 'U' shape fader top gives so much more leverage, it is unfortunate that cosmetic considerations have taken precedence over function in something as fundamental as this.
Just above the fader, a post-fade Solo switch is provided, which defeats all other signals in the monitor path. Finally, there is the stereo Pan control which, in the absence of any other form of routing, should tell you that this is only a two-buss mixer. Routing to tape tracks is achieved by the Record selector switches, where you are offered a choice of Direct or Buss signals for each of the six tracks. Direct always takes its signal from its matching channel number; if you want to Direct record on channel 1 then you must have your instrument plugged into input channel 1, etc. The alternative to this, and the facility that makes channels 7 and 8 usable, is to utilise the Buss assign method. All odd-numbered tracks pick up the Left buss, and all evens the Right buss, thus making routing of several inputs to a single track possible.
The eight Mic/Line channel input jacks are located on the front edge of the unit, along with the two headphone outputs and footswitch Drop-in jack, making re-patching for channel selection less of a chore than it might have been. Having pre-selected a track, you enter record mode via the large recessed Record and Pause buttons and then pushing Play. You can obtain level indication in Record/Pause but not monitoring on the individual Cue mix pots, which is odd.
Metering is handled by a bank of six rather nice, wide segment LED ladders, which turn from orange to red at the nominal 0VU. A temporary Peak hold facility helps out your persistence of vision and, although small, I found these very easy to work with. Track status and transport functions are handled by a similar window within the display strip. The individual record indicators are large enough, but I think I would prefer something a bit more dramatic to occur when you are actually recording. As it stands, all that happens is that a very small little red circle stops flashing. If you think it would be impossible to not know when you were recording, then obviously you have not yet stepped on your drop-in footswitch by mistake!
The rear panel handles the rest of the connection facilities, beginning with a fixed mains lead for the internal power supply (round of applause for Sansui!). Six Tape Out phono sockets give you access to a direct feed from the multitrack for utilising a more sophisticated mixer during mixdown. Alternatively, they can be used as individual sends to outboard effects, for there are plenty of options in the returns department. Three stereo pairs of phonos, marked 'Aux', can feed either inputs 7 and 8 or access the mix buss directly. There are no level controls for these, however, so you are dependant on your effects device having an output level control. A more interesting application would be to utilise these returns as inputs for MIDI gear, driven 'live' via tape sync. That sort of set-up would certainly use the WSX1 to its full potential, although the manual chooses to deal only with recording re-triggered MIDI gear onto the multitrack recorder, which is surely missing the point. Certainly the designers must have given some thought to this kind of use, for there are dedicated Sync In and Out sockets provided, along with a Sync Out level control. Activating the master Sync switch in the main control area not only disables the Dolby C on track 6, as mentioned earlier, but also deselects that track from the monitoring.
In spite of the problems I was anticipating from the narrowness of the track format, the WSX1 handled timecode remarkably well. Monitoring the adjacent track (track 5 in this case) whilst you are laying code will lead you to believe that it is not going to work at all, for the monitored crosstalk level is high enough to make you think you are listening to the wrong track. On playback, however, provided you have recorded the timecode at a sensible level, the amount of breakthrough is very low indeed. The provision of the Sync Out level control lets you record the code at the lowest possible level on tape that will let you recover it in decent shape (around -6 on the meter I found to be optimum), making up the gain that the external sync device requires on the way out. If you had to record code at high level on the WSX1, I think you would run into problems, but as it is, the arrangement works fine and is an immense asset to the machine.
There are two sets of main outputs (phonos), designated Mixer Out and Stereo Out, although their functions are quite different. Mixer Out picks up the left and right busses, after the master left and right faders, and is paralleled to the 2-track (Deck B), but will also output any individual tracks using the buss assign feature. Nevertheless, this is the signal you could use to employ an external mixdown recorder if you wanted to. Stereo Out, on the other hand, takes a feed after the ganged Stereo Master fader, which has its own large LED output meters. This is rather strange as this is really nothing more than a monitor output, with source switching to select between mixer output, Deck B output, or the signals at the Aux In sockets. In fact, the biggest and most important looking meters in the system do very little; they do not, as they should have done, indicate the level of the feed to the 2-track deck. To do that you must use the bank of track meters switched into their second mode - where they show stereo buss, effects send, cue, and sync levels.
Associated with these two sets of outputs, and adding further to the confusion, are two sets of stereo insert points (send and return on phonos), designated Processor 1 and Processor 2. Processor 1 works on the mix buss and thus can be used on signals going to tape, but its effect will not be audible via the Stereo Out route, whereas Processor 2 only works on the Stereo Out and can't be inserted in the buss path at all. These facilities have not quite been optimised; it ought to be possible to monitor the effect of anything across the stereo buss, whilst there aren't too many forms of processing one would choose to have solely in the monitor path. The processors can be switched in and out individually from the front panel, however, which makes me doubly sorry that they are not both across the stereo buss.
There is also something slightly amiss with the monitor switching in this area, for selecting Stereo Out into the headphones with all faders down seems to result in a very distorted low level breakthrough signal. It doesn't find its way through to the 2-track, fortunately, but it shouldn't be there.
The remaining socket is a dedicated Tape Cue Out on ¼" jack, providing a mono mix from six dedicated tape monitor pots which feed the headphone sockets. Sadly, they do not also feed the Stereo Outs, which would have made the whole business of monitoring rather simpler. As it is, if you want the normal arrangement when dropping in, whereby you hear the line out signal until you enter record mode, when it automatically gives you line in, you are obliged to use the headphone facility. The most effective set-up I found was to use the headphone output as the feed to the monitor amp, for it has comprehensive source selection and a dedicated level control. If you were only recording a maximum of two sources at once, it would have been nice to be able to use channels 7 and 8 as inputs whilst using the others as a dedicated stereo monitor mix, with full EQ and effects. But, unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend it. Entering record on a track with its channel set to Tape produces an almighty howl of feedback, which is faithfully recorded onto tape. The drop-in performance of the review model was somewhat idiosyncratic, whether performed via the optional footswitch (momentary type) or the Record button. It produces seamless, click-free inserts on tape but puts such a big glitch in the monitoring that it becomes difficult to continue to play - particularly if you are not monitoring the instrument in any way other than through the recorder. It sounds like a very short-term complete interrupt, and I couldn't come to terms with it at all. Knowing that it is going to sound fine on tape is no consolation, and if this 'problem' is not unique to this one review machine, then Sansui really should remedy it.
You will have gathered by now that the WSX1 offers pretty comprehensive facilities, but none of this would count for much unless it could really deliver in the audio department, and it can certainly do that.
As some sort of benchmark, I can say that tape noise is subjectively no worse than the best of the 4-track machines of my experience (which means it is a great deal better than the worst of them). The hiss component is reasonably well tamed by the Dolby C noise reduction which, on very narrow and therefore inherently noisy track formats, is quite kind to audio signals, with a pleasing absence of modulation side-effects. The top end sounds sufficiently extended to make the quoted -3dB at 15kHz eminently believable, and machine noise (pick-up from internal motors, control circuitry, etc) is well down.
Another plus point for me is the low level of physical noise emanating from the unit. Although both capstans are driven all the time, there is none of that constant whine that you get when the casing vibrates in sympathy with the capstan motor - presumably thanks to the WSX1's size and solid construction.
The high quality of construction evident throughout extends down to the motor-driven miniature castings used for the head carriers on the 6-track. The 2-track deck is something of a poor relation in this department, having a rather more domestic looking transport, and not having the benefit of being double speed. It performs well enough, but whilst I appreciate that a switchable double speed option could result in incompatibility with the outside world when mastering, it would be very useful when bouncing between the two decks; something I am sure every user of this machine will be tempted to do.
The routine for bouncing back to the 6-track is not entirely obvious, but once you've discovered it, like many things on the WSX1, it is very simple and can be configured with a minimum of button pushing. There is a dedicated switch which treats Deck B as another of the auxiliary sources, so that it appears at the inputs of channels 7 and 8. Bouncing from track-to-track on the 6-track deck is also possible, and there seems to be no absolute requirement to avoid adjacent bounces - in fact, I couldn't upset the machine at all during bounce testing. The only limitation I would advise in terms of track placement is not to put drums (real or machine) on track 5 if you are using any form of sync code on track 6. Code bleeding into audio seems to be less of a potential problem than audio bleeding into code, on this machine, which is the way I would prefer it.
'Flutter', that most destructive of all phenomena that seems eventually to afflict all cassette-based multitrackers is - at present, at least - noticeably absent on the review model WSX1. I can't report on the longevity of the system, obviously, but I hope it's capable of staying that way. Only time will tell.
Despite the few points I have raised, I can honestly say that I have really enjoyed using this machine during testing. It has a good layout and the off-white coloured finish I find much easier on the eye than the usual austere black. It is a superb convenience package, which encourages you to make music as opposed to thinking about the technical aspect too much. Having two extra tracks does make life significantly easier than 4-track working, and with the potential for expansion via MIDI, I think the WSX1 warrants serious consideration by anyone planning a move up to an 8-track system.
The Sansui WSX1 is unique among cassette multitracks in offering the built-in mixdown recorder and digital effects. With the addition of just a microphone and a set of headphones, it represents the closest approach to the all-in-one studio concept we have yet seen.
£1437.50 inc VAT.
Fabulous Audio Technology, (Contact Details).
Review by Dave Lockwood
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