Yamaha Four Track
Home recording goes modular.
Think of four-track cassette machines and your mind will probably wander (eventually) to such names as Teac and Fostex, for it was these companies, more or less, who pioneered the way of the Portastudio.
A new name in this most convenient of recording media is Yamaha — and when you think about this Japanese lot's experience in hi-fi (since the Sixties?) and musical instruments ('since 1887' as they've always been plastering over brochures and ads) it all leads to a fairly logical involvement in musicians' recording.
Yamaha have indeed been at it for a while, launching their Producer series earlier this year. But it's only recently that their four-track recording system made up of several constituent parts of the series has been on sale, despite earlier One Two spottings at the Frankfurt show back in February.
The Yamaha four-track cassette system consists of the MT44 cassette recorder, the MM30 four-channel mixer, the PB44 patch-bay interconnector and router, and the RB30 rack to put it all in. Enough letters and numbers for you there?
The whole system in the 'rack' is going to cost you around £700, as opposed to something in the region of £600 for comparable all-in-one packages from the makers mentioned at the beginning (and a few more). One advantage with the Yamaha modular system is that you could upgrade the mixer, say, and not have to renew the whole set-up. And as we shall see, this may not be a bad idea.
You could, by the very nature of the separate units, use one or two of the bits on their own should you feel like it. The MT44 on its own looks much like a fairly mode-ish cassette machine, and you could, perhaps, use it to record four individual instruments straight in, with no treatment, and then transfer to another cassette deck. But you'd have no control over relative levels, stereo positioning, eq, and so on, and you couldn't go beyond four musical parts. If you already have a mixer, of course, you could improve things no end, and the MT44 would be a wise move.
What One Two did was to take a long look at and listen to the whole system — MT44/MM30/PB44/RB30 — to get the feel of Yamaha's home recording intentions. And we found a pretty fascinating mixed bag.
The first thing to do is to put the RB30 rack together to take all the units in one nice neat package. The rack comes MFI-like in separate pieces of plasticised chipboard that you, too, can put together in the comfort of your own home with just a Philips screwdriver and the appropriate accompanying curses.
Actually it took me about half an hour to put it all together satisfactorily — cross-stays meet side panels in a harmonious manner, and there are little foam pads strewn around to take the strain of mixer, patch-bay and cassette machine. These items go into the rack according to a prearranged pattern: mixer bottom left, patch-bay bottom right, cassette top left, and accompanying "accessory box" (ie they had some space left in the original design) top right.
You should be sure to route the mass of wires correctly around the stays to the various components — the brochure for the rack says to "confirm the porper (sic) wiring order by referring to the attached label". Having realised that there were no little labels on any of the wires, I panicked at the thought of having to trace each one to its correct destination. Then, fortunately, I noticed that by "label" they meant a destination is printed on the end of each cable near the plug. Breathe big sigh of relief, especially when you consider that there are eight phono plugs for the MT44 and a mixture of 12 phono plugs and seven jack plugs for the MM30.
So, up and running. And, impatient bugger, you want music straight away, right? Just for you, Yamaha include "Cue!", a four-track demo cassette with an appalling voice-over chap going on and on with each sy-lla-ble-care-ful-ly-en-un-ci-at-ed but still managing to bury the mind-numbing script beneath his mid-Atlantic drawl. So skip the vox and listen to the instruments in such arresting selections as 'Fusion', 'Pops', 'Rock' and 'Synthesizer Music' (these last two with transposed instrument information on the label, by the way). It does at least get you into the general idea of the machine, so some marks to Yamaha — after all, you could always tape over the thing later.
Then on to your own creations, you know? The exciting bit. The reason you've bought the thing. Mistakes are made, coffee is made, and you recognise slowly but surely that Recording Man will eventually evolve into a five-handed beast (at least), with a DI socket above each ear and a special nasal attachment that cleverly scoops... the information? Sorry. Where were we — oh yes. Initial fumblings.
Making recordings is easy once you've come to terms with the control combinations required and the logical order of proceeding. And at least the terminology and labels spread over the machine seem geared for musicians to use, not scientists. It's a system, sure, and while rules are not always the best of bedfellows with music, here they are at least a partial necessity. Up to a point. There will, I assure you, be moments when you know you've pushed all the buttons in the right order, and still there's no sound coming out as your eyes flicker across the panels. Then you'll notice in a flash that you haven't plugged your bass in. Silly!
This sort of thing merely serves to accelerate the rush of creative juices around the system.
How about recording something? Good idea. First things first — a drum machine pattern onto track one. How predictable can I get? You can't hear the drum machine pattern...
So the jack lead from the knocking box is plugged into Mixer Input 1 on the patch-bay, the Mixer Out selector goes to 'Tape" so that the signal is sent to the MT44, and the mixer's input selector is set to "Line". This all ensures that the boom-kaff-boom-kaff goes onto tape track one via the mixer.
On the tape machine itself, the record pad is touched to put it into record-hold, so that you can set levels on its meters without actually running tape, and channel one's playback/record selector is set to — guess now — record (good!) turning its LED from green to red at a stroke. Pretty.
Now channel one's input fader on the mixer is pushed up and the recording level knob on the MT44 turned up until we get a meter reading that gets us slightly into the red portion (top three) of the LEDs on the meter. Touching the 'play' arrow on the control pad of the 44 switches from record-hold to record, and behold, the tape she run and the sound she is recorded. (Of course you remembered to set zero on the counter before we started.) Your drum pattern down and all over, it's touch the 'stop' square on the control pad, back to zero having set the Zero Stop, and here we are at the start of the tape with the drum machine recorded.
I repeated the process for electric bass on track two and a poly keyboard on track three. Now comes the clever bit: a bounce (or 'ping-pong' as Yamaha call it) to track four. In other words the three separate recordings on tracks one, two and three are mixed together using the mixer's controls as you see fit, and rerecorded on to track four. You do this by setting channel four's input selector on the mixer to 'Line', and the other three to 'Tape' — in other words the new input to four, and off-tape stuff from one, two and three. The pan controls on the three channels to be combined then become routing switches and, with alterations to the patch-bay's routing selector too, the new three-part signal is sent to track four on the MT44.
So I then had three spare tracks at my disposal: I put another two poly keyboard parts on tracks two and three, and did another bounce to take them, combined, to track one. Still there? I finished with two separate guitar parts on tracks two and three, and therefore ended up with two combined keyboards on track one, electric guitar on tracks two and three, combined drum machine, bass and keyboard on track four.
Mixing the recording involves transferring to another cassette deck, adjusting levels, tone, and echo of each track via the mixer and patch-bay.
Yamaha suggest you use the phono-equipped sockets called "Line Out" on the patch-bay for this, but for some things I preferred using the 'Stereo Out' jack sockets as the level here was controlled by the Master Volume fader. I did, though, have to find a couple of jack-to-phono leads from my extensive collection.
Tone (or eq as the flash will have it) is limited to one control on the MM30 — you really could do with more than this for mixing flexibility. And the built-in echo is somewhat restrained too — I tried adding some to the drum machine track earlier and didn't like it much — it seemed a little jerky and unnatural somehow — but it worked better on guitar and keyboard parts. The graphic shapes the overall eq and should be used carefully — sudden leaps sound most odd. I could live without it.
Speaking of the drum machine, I also noticed a strange difference between the live sound and the sound recorded with Dolby 'C' noise reduction — quite subtle, and only apparent if you listened at fairly loud levels, but definitely there. It's what is sometimes termed 'pumping' or 'breathing', apparently. Basically, you can hear the noise reduction working. It's very difficult to describe, but made the toppy part of the drums sound alternately enclosed and open.
So I tried Dolby 'B' — same problem, more hiss. No Dolby at all obviously removed the pumping, but hiss became pretty unacceptable once you'd layered up and bounced a few times. So Dolby we must, and perhaps not be too fussy — I shouldn't exaggerate this, it was only a very minor irritant. But an irritant nonetheless.
With the system you get three separate brochures/manuals: each covers the control functions thoroughly and intelligently, although the MT44's seems a little light on practical information. What is lacking is an overall system guide, telling you how to make everything work as a whole. This is a necessity for something as potentially complicated as a four-track cassette package. There are hints and schemes secreted away in various corners of the three brochures, and Yamaha's 'Multitrack Guidebook', available free from them, is, while well-intended, still not enough. I dare say the translations are being made even as I write.
After this short test-drive, it's apparent that the Yamaha system is capable of much longer and exciting journeys. From what I've seen and heard I would imagine that, if you bought the whole system, you might find relatively quickly that the mixer was a touch limited in relation to the rest of the set-up — an early investment in this department would be well advised. Some shops seem to imagine that a lot of us already have good mixers anyway, and will be doing their best to sell us an MT44 seulement (maybe a patch-bay too, as we're in the door). They might be right.
Marketing schemes aside, the Yamaha MT44 makes a sensible basis for a four-track system. It seems to lose nothing in quality by running at normal cassette speed, and makes a small gain by its compatibility with existing stereo tapes (though you'll need a second tape machine anyway to get the best from the system).
The patch-bay does a good job too. Perhaps Yamaha really ought to make available a combined mixer/patch-bay for use with the MT44, featuring improved mixer facilities and integrated routing and switching. But they certainly seem to be on the right track.
The MT44 four-track cassette machine (full recommended retail £399 inc VAT) will double as a standard stereo cassette machine being compatible with standard head arrangements and, unlike most other four-track systems, will run at the standard 1⅞in/s speed. The majority of other makers opt for double-speed (3¾in/s), claiming improved quality. The faster the tape goes past the heads, they say, the greater the area over which you're spreading the sound, and hence heap good quality.
So with the MT44 you can play your fave old stereo (mono even, Phil) cassettes quite happily — and you'll have Dolby 'B' or 'C' to toy with too. When you move into four-track mode you naturally have to tell the machine, so you stick one of the hundreds of sticky striped rectangles Yamaha supply with the machine to the B-side of your new cassette, bung the (chrome works best) cassette into the 44, and presto! Four-track operation. Why you couldn't simply have a switch to change functions is beyond me — a self-adhesive (decidedly tacky) rectangle it is, then.
Transport control functions are on a touch panel giving play, rewind, fast-forward, and stop, with a tab to the right activating record. There's a mute button to inject silence where appropriate, and a handy pair of return-to-zero functions: either rewind to zero and stop the tape, or rewind to zero and immediately commence play. I couldn't find a way of returning to zero and starting record automatically, though.
Also right handy is a ±10% speed control, either for pitch effects or for 'correcting' tapes from machines which have a small speed error. A headphone socket with a level pot is close by. Seven-step LED meters for each of the four tracks sit over record/play function switches and record level knobs, and on the back are in/out sockets (phonos) and a remote socket for the RC10 control unit (not tested, available 'soon').
The MM30 mixer (full recommended retail £199 inc VAT) has four channels, each with a level fader, a 'pan' control for stereo positioning or routing during bouncing of tracks, an echo level control working in combination with the built-in echo's associated fader, a single tone control cutting or boosting top-end frequencies, and an input selector choosing mic, line (ie, whatever else you plug in), or tape machine. There's also the echo fader just mentioned, an Aux In fader so you can add, say, a second cassette machine or another instrument (without eq or pan control) to the mix, and a Master Volume fader. There's a six-band graphic equaliser too, offering ±12dB at 60Hz, 150Hz, 400Hz, 1kHz, 2.4kHz, 6kHz, and 15kHz on the master output, and stereo seven-step LED meters.
The PB44 patch-bay (full recommended retail £79 inc VAT; with RB30 rack £149 inc VAT) comes ready wired with a heap of spaghetti hanging out the back. There's an array of sockets and switches on the front so you can interconnect and line up the various parts of the system in any way you'll need: overall inputs for Aux (see mixer) and main mixer inputs; outs for line, stereo and headphones; insert point jacks for recording and mixing so that you can patch, say, FX units here rather than between instrument and mixer input; and an associated routing switch for each channel.
Review by Tony Bacon