Eight-track cassette recorder
When the first Portastudio was launched, it caused a revolution in the recording industry - now you can put eight tracks on the same tape. Vic Lennard punches in.
With the four-track cassette boom over, the race is on to corner the market in eight-track cassette machines. Toa's offering is the MR8T.
THERE AREN'T MANY pieces of equipment which require 4U of rack mounting space, but this happens to be one of them, and at a weight of just under 25lbs it will need one strong racking system to hold it. The recorder uses a split head system (odd numbered tracks on one head and evens on the other) to record eight tracks onto a standard chrome cassette at twice normal speed (9.25cm/sec) and utilises dbx for noise reduction.
The front panel is split horizontally into two halves. The top half has eight meters each with 12 segments ranging from -20dB to +8dB and a push button on each track for recording selection. The bottom half is itself in two parts: the left-hand side has the standard tape recorder controls, a memory locator and zero set buttons next to a digital counter which can read in either revolutions or time elapsed from zero setting. The right-hand side has a mixer section with eight rotaries each for record level, monitor level and pan. The final functions are sync on/off for track 8 which will automatically turn off the dbx noise reduction on this track, and a headphone socket with level control.
The rear panel has phono sockets for line in and out along with a send and return insert point for each of the eight tracks, the latter of which can be used on either recording or playback. As the MR8T is intended to be suitable for use without an external mixing desk, there are left and right monitor outputs whose levels and stereo imagery are controlled Dy the relevant functions on the front panel. Sync in/out for track eight and a jack socket for footswitchable punch in/out, two 8-pin DIN sockets labelled "input" and "output" and a similar socket marked "deck cont" complete the rear panel. The DIN sockets are intended to be used with an optional assign unit, MR8A, which is not yet available, while the "deck cont" socket allows the front panel functions to be remote controlled - essential if the unit is racked on the other side of the studio.
YOUR METHOD OF laying down tracks will depend on whether you're using the MR8T with a mixing desk or without. If a desk with eight group outputs is being used, simply route the sound sources for the first tracks to be recorded into the relevant groups on the mixer, each of which will be connected to one of the line inputs on the recorder, and prepare for recording by pressing the Record Ready button at the foot of the bar meters. Unless the Record button is depressed there will be no signal registering on the meters. And unless the Pause button is pressed the tape will be running. This means that the heads must be in contact with the tape before you can monitor signal levels - far from an ideal situation. Having set this up, adjusting the Record Level rotary will allow the input to be satisfactorily metered. Recording the first take and rewinding the tape to the start to playback uncovers the next problem - the Monitor Level rotaries control the meters on playback, meaning that it is impossible to ascertain the precise level at which the track was recorded. This will not be a problem on a new machine, but will make any wear on the head - often showing itself by a change in levels on record/playback - difficult to confirm. Monitoring previous tracks when overdubbing presents no problem - adjust the monitoring levels on the recorder for existing takes and go through the same procedure again.
The method for working without a mixer differs in that a little more planning is required due to the lack of EQ on the MR8T. The largest number of different instruments likely to be recorded at the same time is when the drums and percussion are being recorded. These tend to be the first to be recorded, unless a sync code has been laid down and the drums are being played in real time to a click or with a drum machine or sequencer. Let's say that the drum source has a stereo audio out and assignable individual outs as well, and that the drums are to be recorded on tracks 1 and 3 as a stereo pair. This means that the remaining six inputs can be used to provide the mix for the tracks to be recorded - run the stereo audio outs into inputs 2 and 4 and, perhaps, the bass drum into input 5 and the snare into input 6. Assuming that some degree of tone alteration is desirable, this can be achieved with a parametric equaliser via the send/return insert point. Alternatively the send of, say, the snare could be connected to the input of a reverb unit whose audio outputs are routed to inputs 7 and 8 - effectively turning the insert send into an individual auxiliary send.
The monitor outputs on the rear of the MR8T can now be connected to inputs 1 and 3, and the monitor levels and panning of inputs 2 and 4-8 set to achieve the desired mix. All that remains is to make the recording. There is, however, a fly in the ointment. To hear the inputs where the MR8T is being used as a mixer, the Record Ready buttons have to be depressed on those tracks. This means that all inputs have to be recorded onto tape. Now, while it's easy enough to wipe the unwanted tracks (in this case tracks 4 and 8), it is inconvenient and time consuming. What a shame there isn't a facility for using the mixer section separately.
This process becomes more difficult after tracks have already been taped and have to be monitored, because it cuts down the availability of inputs on the mixer section. It is certainly a little awkward to work in this manner, but it is possible and removes the added expense of a separate mixing desk.
Mistakes? Punching in and out can be achieved in two ways; set the recorder into record mode by pressing in both the Record and Playback buttons, and then push in the relevant Record Ready button when required. Alternatively, use the footswitch socket on the rear panel to select record mode on the preset track at the punch-in point. Punch out is the reverse of either of these - personally I prefer the latter method as the Record Ready buttons below the meters have a fair degree of travel and I found it difficult to accurately judge using them.
Finally, mixdown. With a mixing desk this presents no problems, without one the stereo monitor outs have to be routed to a stereo cassette (or reel-to-reel) deck with any desired effects utilising the individual sends and returns. Track 8, if previously used for a sync code, can now be used as a spare input for a reverb unit or any other signal processor.
YOU MAY WELL be asking yourself why record a stereo pair onto tracks 1 and 3 instead of tracks 1 and 2. A look at the record/playback head configuration will explain this; the split head groups the odd and even tracks together, meaning that recording a stereo pair on 1 and 3 will leave a greater gap than doing so on tracks 1 and 2 - leading to less crosstalk and a better stereo image.
Bouncing tracks together will benefit from a similar approach, namely bouncing odds onto evens or vice versa. Without an external mixer, this is achieved as follows; using headphones, set the monitoring levels and pans of the tracks to be bounced down and connect the monitor outs to the inputs of the required tracks to be recorded on.
Bearing in mind the amount of rear panel patching that has been going on in the last couple of sections, I would firmly recommend the use of a patchbay with the MR8T to make life easier.
THE FIRST PROBLEM that is immediately apparent is that there is a click through the monitoring system every time one of the recorder functions is selected - not damaging, but bloody annoying.
Using a "Thats" EMX60 chrome cassette, various programme sources were recorded trying odd or even tracks for stereo pairs as well as a mixture of an odd and an even track. From a sound quality point of view, I found it very difficult to distinguish between the different recordings although the stereo image did appear to suffer when adjacent tracks were recorded on at the same time. Still, from an ease of use angle, I would be satisfied with the results from using adjacent tracks.
"The split head groups the odd and even tracks together - recording a stereo pair on 1 and 3 leaves a greater gap than tracks 1 and 2, giving less crosstalk and a better stereo image."
Disparity between edge and centre tracks is always going to be of concern when considering the 8-track cassette format, but there is practically no difference on this machine. In fact, sonically the MR8T is on a par with the best cassette multitrackers that I have come across. And while there is a slight top end loss, it is so marginal as to be of almost no consequence.
There is one aspect which reared its ugly head on test and that is crosstalk - the ability to hear an adjacent track. Having put a time code down on track 8 at -3dB, the breakthrough onto track 7 over a piano of no great dynamic range was substantial - certainly enough to be heard on mixdown. More to the point, great care was required to ensure that peaks of above +1dB were limited, as this tended to emphasise the breakthrough onto an adjacent track, irrespective of whether it was odd or even. Still, when time code was run onto track 8 at -3dB and 16th hi-hats onto track 7 at +5dB, the sequencer stayed in perfect sync, meaning that the problem doesn't audibly affect the first of adjacent recorded tracks.
Following on from the above, bouncing tracks together gave satisfactory results as long as the levels on tape were kept relatively low, and the track being bounced onto was not an adjacent track. Drop ins and outs were of a reasonable speed, although they have to be effected in advance, giving a time delay which takes getting used to.
A-B TESTING OF any two machines is immensely difficult, but as the MR8T and Tascam's 238 (reviewed last month) are presently the only eight-track cassette recorders available let's run through their respective performances.
Using a Soundtracs 16:8:16 desk, the eight group outputs were run in parallel into the inputs of each machine. The line outs were then sent to the 16 monitors.
Unless Record and Pause are pressed no signal registers on the meters - so the heads must be in contact with the tape before you can monitor signal levels on the desk with the Tascam taking 1-8 and the Toa 9-16, all EQ being bypassed and levels set the same. A song on Hybrid Arts' SMPTETrack sequencer was then run down onto the machines keeping any tone alterations and effects identical for both. On playback, the machines were compared both with each other and with the original sound sources (which were still being run from the sequencer as Track 8 was used for a SMPTE code). Cassettes used were "Thats" EMX60s.
Stereo pairs on both machines were run onto adjacent tracks to make an accurate comparison easier. Below are listed the results of the exercise.
Listening to the edge tracks, the TOA gave a very slight difference between tracks 1 and 2 while on the Tascam, track 1's level was down about 3db and lacking in top end.
The MR8T exhibited a slight boost in lower mid-range and slight lack of top-end quality. The Tascam's top end sounded quite harsh - like the record bias had been set incorrectly.
The MR8T did not suffer unduly from crosstalk and was at its best if the adjacent track peaked at a maximum of +1dB. Good though the Toa was, I found it difficult to detect any evidence of crosstalk on the 238. Putting it in perspective, while crosstalk is important when listening to a track "solo" or when comparing it with the original sound source, on a final mix the stereo image is likely to be only slightly affected - and remember, we're talking about eight tracks on 1/8" of tape.
Moving on to the noise reduction, the MR8T gave the slight "pumping" that is usual from dbx systems; on the 238 this was more audible, especially on the edge track with percussive sounds.
On a purely sonic basis, the MR8T sounded better to these ears. The reasons for this are, I believe, threefold; the heads on the Tascam are Sendust, while those on the Toa are Permalloy which, from past experience, tends to give better fidelity (although it's not as hardy). Secondly, while both machines use dbx, they utilise different ICs, and those on the Toa appear to give better results. Finally, Toa have ensured that the gap between the edge track and the edge of the tape is sufficient to give good sound quality on that track while Tascam have gone for a slightly wider gap between tracks to improve crosstalk.
THE MR8T IS an enigma. Excellent sonically, but lacking in the graces which would take recording from being hard work into the realms of enjoyment. The mixer section is a good idea which can represent a substantial financial saving, but should be both more flexible and independent from the record functions. A facility to select monitoring from input or tape for each track would be a start, followed by a single auxiliary send buss and an extra stereo pair of monitor outs to save the hassles of continually disconnecting these on the rear panel when recording.
At present the Toa MR8T and Tascam 238 are the only eight-track cassette machines available, both are good although there are significant differences between them. What the future holds for this new generation of multitrack recorders depends on whether other manufacturers pick up on it and what further developments can be made around the format. Oh yes, and you.
Review by Vic Lennard
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