Which One Would You Choose?
Is it possible to get expensive sounds from inexpensive equipment or is the poor person's multitrack merely an expensive toy? David Mellor looks at three entry-level recorders - Tascam Porta 05, Fostex X30, and Yamaha MT2X - and asks 'Which one would you choose?'.
I had a few household chores to do before starting work this morning. I had to hoover the carpet, put some petrol in the car, and lay down a few tracks on my portastudio - or do I mean vacuum the carpet, fill my tank with motor spirit, and make music on my multitrack cassette recorder?
The fact is that Hoover, Petrol and Portastudio are all trading names for specific products from particular manufacturers. 'Petrol' has long since passed into common usage and 'Hoover' is well on the way. Teac/Tascam certainly had a stroke of inspiration when they christened their first - in fact, the first - 4-track cassette machine the 'Portastudio', because that invented word neatly encapsulates the essence of the machine. All you need to record music, apart from the instruments, in one compact box. Clever.
Other manufacturers were not slow to catch on but, of course, they couldn't call their products Portastudios, and had to resort to such terms as 'Multitracker' or 'Multitrack Cassette Recorder'. I bet they wish they had been first on the scene!
Anyone who has the misfortune to know me will be aware that I rarely have a good word to say for the Compact Cassette tape format (see 'How It Works - The Cassette Recorder' for my reasoned arguments on that subject). I am prepared to make an exception, however, for the portastudio - you know what I mean! - because it is so damned handy. I gave the earliest Tascam model, the 144, a miss because it was obvious that, although they were onto something big, it hadn't quite been properly thought out. When Tascam superceded that model with the 244, like many others I dug deep in my wallet and bought one. But why should I do this when I had access to professional studio facilities? The answer is simple - with a handy gadget such as this, it is possible to try out ideas to one's heart's content amidst all the normal home comforts. Either that or just have the machine wired up and ready to grab an idea as it arises, and keep it to be worked on later.
I did eventually sell my 244, in a rash moment, but I have corrected that error in the form of a Fostex 160 which gives me all the facilities I need as a sort of 'musical notebook' and certainly works hard for its living. I wouldn't expect to produce any finished work on it, but as a quick, simple way of laying down ideas it is invaluable.
There are quite a number of 4-track cassette recorders on the market at the moment, and the choice is not quite as simple as it once was. This review concentrates on the lower price bracket, on the sort of machine that will be bought by the person wanting the cheapest way into multitrack, or the person who - like myself - wants a cheap 'notebook'. It's hard to satisfy all requirements, and diverse solutions are to be expected. The latest models from Tascam, Fostex and Yamaha are the contenders here. I'll say now that I intend finding a clear winner - one machine which would satisfy me - but it should be remembered that the reviewer's opinion is just an opinion. Personal requirements differ and, at the end of the day, a would-be purchaser is going to have to decide for him or herself.
This is definitely the smallest and lightest of the three packages, and if you want to use it as a Mega-Walkman, then don't let me stop you - don't forget to pack a generator.
I don't think Tascam would mind me saying that the Porta 05 is about as basic a machine as you could get, and still have it perform a useful function. Facilities are few, yet nonetheless effective.
On the front of the machine are four standard jack sockets for Line and Mic inputs, plus a headphone socket neatly picked out in an attractive red for ease of aim. On the side there are connections for left and right Line Out, Effect Send and Return (one of each), Sync Out and remote Punch In/Out. I'm not altogether sure why the connections have to be a mixture of jack and phono, but they are. I could see the point if there were more connections, like on the bigger machines, but if this is meant to be as simple as possible, then surely it would be even simpler to have all jack sockets? Never mind, in my business it pays to have adaptor cables of all kinds in immense quantity. Maybe one day this will not be necessary.
At first sight, the controls bear all the hallmarks of modern design - attractive but unusable. All the rotary controls are very low profile, certainly nothing to grab in handfuls. There is, however, a little knobble on each one which is quite easy to push round with a finger or thumb and, in practice, they gave no problems. Let's take a look at the architecture of the machine.
Probably the easiest way to describe the way in which the Porta 05 is organised is to go through the recording and mix procedures, to show what the possibilities are. There are four input channels, so I'm going to be adventurous and describe how to record a multi-instrument MIDI sequence onto tape, together with a few overdubs.
Let's start by plugging the drum machine into channel 1, a bass synth voice into channel 2, and a chord progression into channel 3. I want to record all three onto one track, so as to leave three 'clean' tracks for later additions. The record buss is stereo - left and right - so I can record on track 1 by panning all the instruments hard left and switching the RECORD FUNCTION switch of Buss L to RECORD-READY on track 1. All I have to do now is press START on the old sequencer and watch the meters on the Porta 05 to check that my levels are OK. There are four LED bargraph meters which can display either the input signal level on each of the four channels, or the level on the left and right busses.
When the sequence ends, hopefully I have a well balanced recording of my backing track on track 1 of the cassette. To add an overdub to this - which I shall play live - I need to hear the track I just recorded so that I can play along to it in time.
Having found the MONITOR switch, I need to set it to CUE (as opposed to REMIX or EFFECT). Now I can hear track 1, controlled by the TAPE CUE knob in channel 1. I can also hear the input signal in any or all of the four channels, albeit in mono only. All I need do now is reset the RECORD FUNCTION switches to RECORD-READY on track 2 and off I go for a take. Oops! I nearly forgot that since the left buss only goes to tracks 1 and 3, and the right buss goes to tracks 2 and 4, I need to pan my input signal hard right.
After a few passes, and a few more overdubs, I have filled the four tracks of the cassette with my latest composition. Now it needs to be mixed down onto a separate stereo tape. For mixdown, for which Tascam use the archaic term 'Remix', I set the MONITOR switch to, indeed, REMIX. This has the effect of shutting off the TAPE CUE controls and letting me hear my recording in the fullness of stereo. If I move the faders up and down a bit I should get a good balance.
I could have mentioned the EFFECT and EQ controls earlier, because they can be used while track-laying if need be, but that would have complicated matters. The equaliser controls are, strangely, a feature of the busses rather than the channels, so you are faced with the choice of EQ-ing as you record, or not being able to EQ individual tracks separately, only en masse. Obviously, it costs less to provide just two equalisers rather than four. If you want to EQ each channel, then I'm afraid you will just have to go for a more upmarket machine.
The EFFECT control, more conventionally known as an 'auxiliary send', does come in one-per-channel quantity. The Effect Return is mono only, so you can't have any of that all-enveloping stereo reverb, but once again you pays your money, you takes your choice, etc.
So much for the basics of the Porta 05. There are one or two points which need to be expanded upon. Firstly, the input switching. Tascam have opted not to provide a panel-mounted switch to choose between the input jack socket and the output from the cassette as the signal source to the channel. This is selected automatically for you by either having a jack in the input or not - the Porta 05 assumes, rightly, that if you are plugged in, then you want to record what you are playing rather than use the cassette as the channel's source. Secondly, the only way to monitor for overdub recording is via headphones, because the TAPE CUE control does not send any signal to the phono socket outputs.
Other features include switchable (ie. on or off) dbx noise reduction, variable tape speed control, and a mechanical zero-return tape counter. The level in the headphones, incidentally, wasn't loud enough for me - and I'm not as deaf as all that yet. Price: £329 inc VAT.
I could have gone through these machines in alphabetical order, but instead I chose to increment by size and facilities. The Fostex is therefore bigger and offers more functions.
The principal drawback of the X30 is that it only has two inputs. These can be routed to all four tracks as necessary, but you can only record two instruments at a time. I might be tempted to say that you shouldn't expect any more for the price, but seeing as Tascam seem to have managed it, I think Fostex ought to have attempted a shoehorn job.
At first sight, the Fostex X30 looks like the product of a design department high on cactus juice! There are no rotary controls. Not one. I have to say that I was somewhat intimidated by this at first, but despite appearances, once you get used to the layout it works surprisingly well.
There are more holes in the Fostex than in the Tascam - in a similar variety of types. A full complement of quarter-inch jacks would have made it only very slightly larger, but much more reliable and easier to use.
On the front are jacks for the two inputs, headphones and punch in/out footswitch. On the rear are four Direct Output sockets - one for each track of the tape, Sync In, Buss In left and right, and Line Out left and right.
The operations of recording and mixing are rather similar to the Tascam because, once again, the EQ section is on the busses rather than the channels. Both inputs have switchable microphone and line level matching. They can be panned to either the left or right buss.
On the top right of the machine are two track selector switches which let you select RECORD-READY on one or two simultaneous tracks. There are three headphone monitoring options: TAPE, MIX and LINE. TAPE lets you hear the output of what is already recorded on the cassette via a Gain and Pan control for each track - this is an improvement on the Porta 05 because it makes stereo monitoring possible. LINE monitoring, as it suggests, connects the headphones to the input channels only. MIX combines the two. One tiny extra is that if you are in the TAPE monitoring mode for overdubs, when you drop into record then the sound you are laying down onto tape is also passed to the headphones, along with the tracks already recorded. This is a useful mode during punch-in operation.
As far as loudspeaker monitoring goes, there is one switch for NORM(al) and REMIX. Pressed to NORM, then only the inputs go to the monitors. Pressed to REMIX, then tracks recorded on the cassette, plus any inputs, all go to the monitors.
This system is rather similar to the Tascam. Basically, if you want to use these machines then you have to have a pair of headphones handy, otherwise you are in trouble. I suspect that I would take a jack from the headphone outlet and run a line to my amp. How many engineers monitor on headphones? Not many.
The punch-in system on the X30 is an interesting feature. It would be rather time-consuming to explain how it operates but, basically, there is the useful facility to rehearse and punch-in before doing the deed for real. As you are probably aware, punch-ins (drop-ins) can be tricky and it is very easy to unintentionally erase a piece of good work while trying to correct the bad. When the rehearsal feature is selected, punch-in proceeds as normal, and the part you want to redo disappears while you play over it. The only difference is that it only disappears from the monitor mix, not from the tape. If you get it wrong, then no harm is done. When practiced sufficiently, you can reset to the normal punch-in mode and do it for real.
The effect (or auxiliary) send on the Fostex X30 deserves a special mention - there isn't one, so all those fanciful ideas I had of adding different amounts of reverb to each instrument suddenly evaporated. The individual track outputs are used as the effect sends, so only one can go to the reverb unit at a time, unless a submixer is used. Effect returns are via two sockets known as Buss In. There are no level controls for these, so hopefully your reverb unit will do this for you. Alternatively, the two input channels could be used as effect returns during mixdown.
Choice of noise reduction can be either Dolby B or Dolby C - or 'off' if you have masochistic tendencies. Other features include a mechanical tape counter with zero stop, and a variable speed control. The headphone level still wasn't loud enough. Price: £340 inc VAT.
Judging by its size, you could melt this unit down and make two X30s, or possibly two and a half Porta 05s!! Whereas the other two multitrackers looked unusual, design-wise, but turned out to be very usable, this one is definitely below the line on this point. Put it like this, the first thing you will need to start working with the MT2X is a bright light. It's black - very black - with dark green legending. What's more, the designers have chosen to make the machine very 'knobbly' with the result that there isn't much flat surface for lettering, so the print has to be very small. Most of the controls are linear operating, with the knob protruding just enough to get a hold. The remaining rotary knobs are of the low profile Tascam type, but not nearly as easy to operate. I find this poor design strange, because Yamaha are usually very sensible in this respect.
What you get for the extra bulk (and money) are extra facilities over the other two 4-trackers. There are six input channels and a stereo auxiliary return. Channels 1 and 2 each have a gain control separate to the fader, for adjusting incoming levels from Mic to Line, and also an LED clipping indicator. The other channels are dedicated line inputs. Equalisation is of the conventional one-per-channel variety, with a high frequency and low frequency control on each. One auxiliary send per channel too.
Connections on the front are for input channels 1 to 6, headphones and punch-in/out. On the rear are two auxiliary returns, one auxiliary send, stereo out left and right, four individual tape outputs, and sync in and out. Front panel connectors are jacks, rear panel ones are phono, apart from the auxiliaries.
There is a choice, when recording with the MT2X, of the conventional multitrack cassette method, where any or all of the channels can be mixed down to the left or right stereo busses, which are then switched to the required track. Alternatively, each of the first four input channels can be switched to record only to its corresponding track. This way, you can record all four tracks at the same time, but not mix channels. There is a full complement of four meters on this machine.
In exactly the same way as the Tascam and Fostex, output to the monitoring system is channels only. It is not possible to overdub and use loudspeakers as monitors. Keep those headphones handy, where all the options are available.
If I seem to have less to say about the Yamaha MT2X it is only because much of what I have said about the other two machines concerned operational procedure, which I would only be repeating here. In some ways, the Yamaha is in the great tradition of 4-track cassette recorders, following on from the Tascam 244 and Fostex 250. It does its best to be a normal recording studio squeezed into one box. The Porta 05 and X30 take home recording into another field altogether. Whether this is desirable, I shall argue later.
Other facilities on the Yamaha include switchable tape speed (9.5 or 4.8 cm/s - double-speed or normal, in other words), a mechanical zero-stop tape counter, and a pitch/speed control. Noise reduction is by dbx and is switchable. The headphone level, by the way, was wonderfully loud. Price: £599 inc VAT.
Let's start with some things all three machines have in common. First off - tape speed. All these recorders can push tape through at the conventional cassette speed of 1⅞ inches per second (4.8 cm/s). This means that you could record a tape on one of these and later play it back on your conventional hi-fi deck (albeit only two tracks). Only Fostex provide the industry standard Dolby B noise reduction though. Don't you dare send anyone a demo tape encoded with dbx - if the A&R man likes it, you'll have to spend the rest of your career playing through a dbx encoder!
Another, less favourable, feature in common is the use of lettering moulded into the plastic case, rather than printed in a different colour. It doesn't need an eye specialist to tell you that black on black is very difficult to read. My solution is to rub over the raised lettering with a wax pencil. It may not look too flash but at least you can see what the markings are. I think this point is particularly important in the case of a multitrack cassette recorder because, unless you are using it with a patchbay, a lot of plugging and unplugging is bound to be necessary. Ease of use is paramount.
Maybe, as a bonus, I should have done interesting tests like a comparison of the performance of the cassette transport mechanisms. Hang on a minute, let me look a little closer...
Now isn't that interesting! Each of these machines appears to have an absolutely identical mechanism. So much for competition in the audio industry. The heads are more revealing. Tascam's are labelled 'Tascam', Fostex's are labelled 'Fostex', and Yamaha's are labelled... well they're unlabelled, but don't they look like the Fostex heads? It's amazing what you can find out with a little observation.
I also observed that each machine had special facilities for recording and playing back sync pulses, so there should be no problem there.
To choose a multitrack cassette recorder requires a serious perusal of the manufacturers' literature. It really isn't enough to fiddle with one for a few minutes in a shop (although you can do that as well), you need to know exactly what facilities you are getting for your money. I hope I've been of some help.
I'd now like to talk briefly about the potential purchaser of a machine such as these, because there is another factor to be considered. Many people regard the multitrack cassette as their introduction to recording techniques, as well as a tool for musical experiments and the production of demo recordings. Is it not the case then, that if a machine is designed to be like an actual studio in miniature, then moving up the ladder will be a straightforward matter of adding to existing skills? Of the three recorders in this survey, only the Yamaha MT2X comes close to fitting this bill. It doesn't come as close as the old Tascam 244 which, apart from the lack of proper loudspeaker monitoring, really did hit the nail on the head. Almost every feature and procedure on that machine had a parallel in the professional environment. It was more expensive, of course.
The Tascam Porta 05 and the Fostex X30 are not to be considered as pro studios in microcosm. They might be ideally designed - each in their own way - to do their intended job, but procedurally they are not an ideal education. This is mainly in connection with having the EQ in the buss rather than in the channel.
Having commented on that special case, it remains for me to choose the real winner of the bunch. For me, that honour goes to the Fostex X30. Why? Because it sounds best, thanks to Dolby noise reduction. The dbx noise reduction of the other two may have the edge decibel-wise, but listen to the noise pumping and decide for yourself. (Try recording a deep bass synth note for the most telling effect.) Many people seem to dislike Dolby. Let me say that any problems of dull sound encountered with a Dolby cassette deck are always due to poor lining up or lack of head cleaning. With a multitrack cassette deck, which comes already lined up for a particular make and type of tape, and which will always be well looked after(!), there should be no problem.
Of the other two machines here, it is the Yamaha that has the next best sound, probably due to the faster tape speed. The Tascam model didn't seem to get the dbx encode/decode process quite right, playback of music displaying a distinct unevenness in level.
So, to the winner the spoils. If the other two manufacturers get themselves clued up on noise reduction then things may change. Until then, let your ears decide. Whether the rawest amateur or the most seasoned pro, once you have one of these machines, you will never want to be without it.
Gear in this article:
Review by David Mellor