If you're already running a MIDI studio on a budget and want to add a handful of tape tracks, the Vestax MR200 could be the answer. Nigel Lord checks out a cassette multitracker that won't cost you much more than £300.
With a MIDI sequencer taking care of most of your music, a handful of tape tracks may be all you need to complete your demos - enter Vestax budget multitracker.
VESTA, VESTA FIRE, Vesta Kozo... Vestax. I have to say, if the Japanese manufacturer responsible for the equipment released under each of these labels were a band rather than an electronics company, the first thing I'd advise them to do would be to decide on a name, and stick to it. The second thing would be to decide on an image and stick to that. I doubt if anyone out there has two or more pieces of Vesta equipment which actually match in terms of front-panel layout and graphic design.
That said, it's also unlikely that anyone who's been involved in hi-tech music and home recording over the last few years hasn't either owned, or at least used, equipment with the Vesta prefix on it at some time or other. Since the mid-'80s the Shiino company of Japan have consistently released equipment which set a standard in terms of cost/performance that their more identity-conscious rivals could rarely match. And where there's a chance of saving money without sacrificing quality, who cares about panel lettering?
Knowing comparatively little about the inner workings of the Japanese electronics industry, I'm not entirely sure whether that same Shiino company is behind the present "Vestax" incarnation (the rear panel label refers only to the rather mysterious "Vesta Corporation"). Looking at the MR200 four-track cassette multitracker in front of me, however, I'd say we're in classic Vesta country: obvious mass production without the obvious compromises in design or quality of construction. But, to quote a well-used reviewer's cliche, appearances can be deceptive, so let's take a closer look...
It's fair to say that, in common with much Vesta equipment we've seen over the years, technical innovation is not high on the list of priorities here. What we have in the MR200 is pretty conventional multitracker technology: offering few of the kinds of facilities by which manufacturers could honestly lay claim to that elusive "studio in a box" title, but clearly going further than the bare bones designs on which it is just about possible to record a four-track demo.
For example, in keeping with most budget designs, the MR200 restricts you to simultaneous recording on only two of the four tracks. But, with four line and two auxiliary inputs in addition to the main input pair, you can mix a total of eight signals onto each of the tracks at any one time. EQ is not available for Line or Auxiliary signals, but these do have individual Level controls, and also Pan controls in the case of Line inputs.
The full complement of controls for the main input pair comprises input fader, Trim control (to cater for output levels from microphones, keyboards, guitars and so on), and Low and High frequency EQ. These provide cut and boost of around 1OdB at 100Hz and 10kHz and are centre detented for flat response. A single Master slider provides control over the main stereo buss both onto tape and to the L/R Line Out sockets - which, like most of the in/out connections on the MR200 are via RCA phono sockets mounted along a recessed panel across the top of the unit. The exceptions to this are the main input pair, Punch-in/out and Phones sockets which are all quarter-inch jacks situated along the front edge.
Amongst the array of phono outputs along the top, are four Tape Out sockets (associated with the four tracks of the tape deck) through which it is possible to mix down using an external desk. This, in the absence of any playback EQ on the MR200 itself, could prove to be an extremely useful feature, and gives you the option of upgrading the mixer at some future date if you're happy with the performance of the recorder.
The onboard mixer is configured so that the Line controls - Level and Pan - double as Track controls during mixdown or whilst monitoring on overdubs. In this latter situation, however, Line Inputs 1-4 cannot be used, so you are restricted to overdubbing via the main input pair and/or the Aux inputs. Bouncing down - or ping-ponging as the Japanese like to refer to it - is also possible, provided the Remix switch (just above the Auxiliary level controls) is switched to Off.
The usual switching functions associated with monitoring are obviated on the MR200 by the simple expedient of leaving all inputs routed through to the main outputs (and headphones) at all times. For the most part, this works well enough, and the beginner shouldn't be left scratching his or her head wondering why the hell everything's plugged in but nothing is coming out. On the other hand, it does mean that if, or perhaps I should say when, you need to listen to a signal in isolation, everthing else has to be turned down or disconnected. And there's also the problem of feedback when using a microphone and monitor speakers. (I'd therefore suggest the use of mics with an integral on/off switch in case you're at the opposite end of the room when the speaker cones hit the front grilles.)
IN COMMON WITH most four-track machines, the record selector buttons take the form of two three-position switches for tracks 1/3 and 2/4 with a Safe position in between. The MR200 doesn't stretch to individual LED indication of the track(s) currently being recorded (it's left to the switches themselves to reveal a rather indistinct red warning strip), but a flashing LED does alert you to the fact that one (or both) of them is in the Record position, and this stays on continuously when the main Record button is depressed.
Just above the track selector buttons is the ubiquitous tape counter and reset button, and to their right are switches for the dbx noise reduction circuitry and the meter display. Set to TRK, this displays Track 1-4 playback levels and/or Line 1-4 input levels on the VU meters. Set to PGM (presumably an abbreviation of ProGraM), it displays the main stereo output bus and/or the main input pair on the first two VUs.
And speaking of the VUs, as you can see, the MR200 comes equipped with four good of fashioned meters - there isn't an LED ladder in sight. They're fairly small, and they aren't illuminated, but they are real meters and they have needles that move in time to the music - and shoot into the red, if you don't keep an eye on them.
Another feature from yesteryear, though not quite so welcome, I suspect, is mechanical control of the cassette recorder. If I were in a charitable mood, I'd describe these as positive, at any other time I'd have to say they were pretty heavy going - particularly the play and fast forward/rewind controls. Obviously, logic-controlled electronic switching would be out of the question on a machine at this price, but after almost thirty years of cassette technology, I think we've a right to expect mechanical controls to be smoother than this.
And on the subject of cassette controls, there is no provision for cueing in either direction on the MR200, so locating a particular section of a song for punching in, for example, could prove to be rather time-consuming. But this is more than compensated for by the two-speed operation of the cassette deck. Of course, given the dramatically improved audio performance at 9.5cm/s, I wouldn't have thought it likely that anyone would want to record at the standard 4.75cm/s cassette speed unless they're planning a concept album of over 22 minutes 30 seconds (one side of a C90 at twice the speed). But having the slower speed available does make it possible to play standard stereo cassettes on the MR200 - and even overdub them using the two unused tracks, if you wish. (Remember though, that the four-track format allows recording in one direction only, and that the dbx noise reduction included here is quite incompatible with Dolby B or C).
"To have had a machine offering this sort of quality at this sort of price would have been considered a minor miracle just a few short years ago."
I was also pleased to see that whatever economies had been made in the design of the MR200, they didn't extend as far as the Pitch control. I've always thought pitch variation an extremely useful facility on tape decks of this kind (though this is not always appreciated), and there is certainly considerable creative potential when this extends to ±15%, as it does here.
THE MR200 IS set up for "high-bias" tapes only, but of course, this doesn't just mean chrome dioxide any more - there's currently a wide variety of non-chrome, high-bias tapes to choose from which should provide excellent results. In the course of this review I used Maxell XLII cassettes and found them quite suitable for the job, exhibiting none of the exaggerated top end of certain chrome tapes.
This made it much easier to assess the MR200's response which, all things considered, was everything you could reasonably expect. I certainly wouldn't take issue with the quoted frequency response of 40Hz-18kHz at the higher speed - or indeed, of the reduction to 12kHz at the lower speed. However, this clearly illustrates the necessity of running at 9.5cm/s when multitracking - particularly where overdubs are involved.
Equally creditable are the 1% total harmonic distortion figure and the 85dB s/n ratio made possible by the noise reduction circuitry. As mentioned earlier, this is a dbx system and seems particularly well-suited to the MR200. In fact dbx seems to have shaken off the reputation for the unpredictable side-effects it was associated with a few years ago, when, driving it directly from a drum machine (for example), would induce breathing and pumping effects which did little or nothing for your rhythm tracks.
A further pair of phono sockets is provided for the connection of an external Sync device to Track 4. This is designed to bypass the dbx circuitry to prevent it interfering with the sync code. Simple really, but anything which makes striping a track that bit less hit and miss has got to be welcome.
Punching in using a footswitch (...my footswitch; the Vestax unit is an optional extra) proved trouble- and, more importantly, click-free. And notwithstanding the limitations of the system I outlined earlier, the continuous monitoring of all inputs and playback channels means there's no switching to worry about.
In fact, this is in many ways the most straightforward multitracker I've encountered in terms of signal routing and general operation - though given the state of the instruction manual, this is perhaps just as well. It tries to be informative and outlines various recording scenarios, but it's badly written, inaccurate and quite inadequate for the job. Any equipment aimed at the beginner's market should be accompanied by a comprehensive manual which anticipates the sort of questions the novice is likely to ask. However straightforward the MR200 might be, signal routing and dual function controls can often be rather confusing until you get used to them. Fourteen-page pamphlets in pidgin English do not help.
And I have another grouch. It is my 'umble opinion that supplying any piece of equipment with its power supply as an optional extra is quite unacceptable in this day and age (unless, of course, it is battery-operated). In the case of the MR200, this is particularly unforgivable as the unit requires a DC voltage of 12-15V, well above the more usual 9V supply. It seems to me that having to shell out extra cash for a power supply (without which you cannot use the MR200), will encourage people to experiment with the adaptors they may already have, and with the proliferation of AC supplies at various voltages, not to mention the non-standard wiring of the two-pole plugs, this could be potentially disastrous.
AS WITH MOST budget multitrackers, the MR200 includes few facilities which could be said to make life easy for the aspiring multitrack recordist. Clearly, that's not what this sort of machine was ever intended to offer. Its budget status has been achieved almost exclusively at the expense of the labour-saving features offered at the "quality" end of the multitracker market. What we have to judge is just how it stands up after each of these facilities has been stripped away. And the answer is, pretty well.
Within its class, it really would be difficult to fault the MR200. At the risk of falling back on another well-worn reviewer's cliche, to have had a machine offering this sort of quality at this sort of price would have been considered a minor miracle just a few short years ago. These days, of course, we've become almost cynical about personal multitrackers - or at least, the demos that are produced on them. But it's as well we remember just what is on offer in a machine like this and how affordable it has been made for us.
All you will ever do with the MR200 is produce reasonable quality four-track recordings, but from a machine that takes up considerably less than a square foot of table space and which won't set you back much more than 300 quid, that is achievement enough.
Price £320 including VAT
Gear in this article:
Review by Nigel Lord
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