Yamaha Home Recording System
Yamaha to the Fore: 4-Track Examined
Yamaha's entry into the 4-track home recording market has been a long while coming. In fact the first rumours that a system from this manufacturer was on its way go back over a year, but it's only recently that any sort of supply has begun to arrive in the U.K. Even then I gather that they're still pretty much back-ordered to Japan — much the same as their competitors' machines are. What's gone wrong with the Japanese manufacturing industry (they are the ones who are always supposed to be able to deliver the goods!) is anybody's guess but, whatever has been holding these machines up, it seems to have affected them all, equally. Anyway, the Yamaha is here at last, and is on sale in several shops that we've seen — high time for a run-down on this latest entrant in the market for the ideal cassette based multitracking system.
Unlike the machines from current market leaders Teac/Tascam and Fostex, the Yamaha comes in several parts. The hub of the system is the MT 44 recorder. This is a fairly neat (although visually uninspiring) cassette recorder which has some distinctly unique features. To begin with it isn't just a 4-track machine. It offers the useful bonus of being able to function as a standard stereo cassette unit, although it is only suited for CrO2 type tapes — which is a pity bearing in mind how good low bias tapes like Maxell's XL1S have become - still. Anyway, the MT 44 is a well equipped machine with good facilities, including Dolby B and C noise reduction, pitch/speed variability of plus or minus 10%, a very clever 'touch plate' controlling tape motion, variable phones level, LED level indicators (better than Vu's, in most cases, as they detect peak signals faster and more accurately), 'return to zero' stop and/or play function, mute and a mechanical tape counter.
Do bear in mind, though, that you'll need a separate twin track machine for mastering onto, as you will, if you think about it, have to be able to replay your final bounced-down 4-track tape to a stereo machine for mastering. This is standard procedure, of course, but don't runaway with the idea that because the Yamaha will run twin track stereo tapes it dispenses with the need for a mastering machine — now that would be a clever trick!
Overall this is a decent machine but there are some oddities about it. To begin with (no doubt so that it can handle standard tapes, and possibly because it's cheaper to make it this way) it only runs tapes at the conventional 1¼ i.p.s. speed — obviously a minus point for the best signal to noise ratio (obtained on most machines in this market by running tape at double speed).
"UNLIKE THE MACHINES FROM CURRENT MARKET LEADERS... THE YAMAHA COMES IN SEVERAL PARTS."
Furthermore, the Yamaha uses a strange system to alert itself as to when either a stereo or 4-track tape is inserted. To convert it to 4-track you stick a piece of tape over the 'window' on the cassette tape housing. This, I assume, operates a blocking or reflective role on a photo-sensor. It's a clever idea and you do get a sheet of sticky tabs with it — but it, somehow, smacks a bit of a long way round to achieve this, to me. Anyway, the MT 44 comes with a short but excellent instruction book which even a clod-hopper like me could grasp and so I put the unit through its paces quickly and easily — and if you don't think that's an advantage over some of the other machines on the market, well, you're a fair bit smarter than me (not difficult, I'll admit!).
In theory you could use just this unit on its own to record with. But if you did you'd find yourself working with a maximum of four tracks with no mixing abilities to add Eq (tone) or any of the other desirable (essential?) features which make all the difference. To move up to that league you really need a mixer and so I wired-up the accompanying Yamaha MM 30, not a difficult task as the makers have, very thoughtfully, moulded numbers into the plastic caps of the phono connectors so that you can easily find which lead goes where — nice touch, that.
"THE MIXER SECTION OF THE PACKAGE IS SIMPLE IN THE EXTREME."
Anyway, to make life easier for customers who have bought the whole shebang at one go, there is also a distinctly chipboard-y rack system for the package, which tidies it all up and makes a lot of space for the PT 44 patch bay as well. I bunged the lot into place, took a deep breath and prepared myself for the usual battle I always seem to have when trying to get 4-track machines working. Surprise, oh glorious surprise! — the Yamaha is a piece of p.... — er cake to set up and get to grips with.
The Mixer section of the package is simple in the extreme (fair enough as it's pretty cheap for what it is). It comprises a basic four channels 'in', with relatively nice feeling fader controls, then pan pots (for channel assign or stereo positioning depending on how you're using it), echo (yes there's a BBD — bucket brigade device — echo built-in, which is useful to have on tap), tone control (definitely a weak point, I'm afraid) and an input gain level control. In addition (possibly there to compensate for the lack of comprehensive individual channel Eq facilities) the Yamaha has an integral 7-band graphic but, regrettably, this only operates as an overall facility, restricting you to altering all the sounds on the mixer, not any one channel on its own if you happen to be working several channels on at one time. Still, the mixer compensates, to some extent, with a nice LED metering stage plus more faders, this time for 'Aux in', 'Echo volume' and 'Master volume'. It's certainly a neat and tidy little unit and sells for a reasonable price. Furthermore, you can use it for other purposes than home recording with a 4-track machine. It'd make a useful small keyboard mixer, for example. For use as the sole mixer on a 4-track recording system it's really too limited to be of great use, though, despite its relatively low cost.
"... THE MIXER... YOU CAN USE IT FOR OTHER PURPOSES THAN HOME RECORDING..."
If you're feeling like using the Yamaha set-up for some really creative recording then I'd strongly advise that you bought yourself the third part of the package (and, fortunately, the cheapest) the PB 44 patch bay. This fits neatly into the end of the rack system and allows you to connect the other two units in more or less any manner you feel fit. In effect this is wired between the mixer and the recorder, expanding the range of connections you can make, especially with outboard effects units — compressors and suchlike. What you get here is a small, flat, box with a variety of inputs and outputs. There are four basic 'ins' (for mike or instrument feed-ins), four selectors for 'tape out' (left or right), accessory in/outs (two sockets per channel, naturally enough), two sockets per channel marked for 'mixer tape in' and 'tape deck line out' (mainly for effects use when using channels on their own) 'aux in' (very much up to you!), 'line out' (used for mix-down to stereo or another cassette machine), 'stereo out' (useful for output for Yamaha's optional powered monitors), plus headphones 'out' Unfortunately, the instruction booklet with the patch bay doesn't equal the extremely useful clarity of explanation that you get with the other two books and you, sooner or later, realise that what the package as a whole lacks badly is some sort of cohesive instruction manual. What you get may be a model of clarity beside the system booklet of, say, the Tascam 244, but it pales into insignificance next to the Fostex's brochure. More info, please Yamaha!
Anyway, with the system all wired-up and ready to roll I began to put it through its paces. Notwithstanding what I said about the lack of overall system and explanation I did manage to get to grips with it pretty quickly. That's fine for me, of course, because I've had a lot of experience with most of these 4-track systems — but what about the first-time user? I suspect that the patch bay, particularly, might look like a replica of spaghetti junction until you played around with it for a few days and began to suss-out what's supposed to do what! However, I suppose the complexity of the system isn't such that even a complete novice couldn't, eventually, begin to get some results out of it. It's more that a good instructive manual would help. So, what do you get when the whole package is up and rolling?
"HAVING SAID THAT, THE YAMAHA IS VERY GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY IN THAT IT CAN BE BUILT-UP IN A MODULAR FORM TO SUIT THE NEEDS OF EACH OWNER..."
For my tests I used one of the latest revisions of possibly my all-time favourite pseudo-chrome tape, the new TDK SA. This seemed (of the tapes that I tried) about the best to run the Yamaha with. The rest of the gear would be a bore to recount, but (just so you get some idea of what I was using) the mikes were my long-standing favourite Shure SM 57's, monitoring was via JBL 4311's - a combination, at both ends, which would reveal any apparent weakness in the package.
Track one was quietly played acoustic guitar (good for spotting tape speed errors, if not quite as useful as a piano for that test). The Yamaha passed well here, as did the Dolby C application employed. The system cannot, really, be run without some form of noise reduction as (like all multitrack systems) however heavily you load the tape, the hiss level builds up as you bounce across from track to track for the multi-tracking facility which is, after all, why we buy these systems in the first place. Dolby 'C' is so much better than Dolby 'B' that I can only assume that Yamaha have supplied this latter type for replay of any old tapes which potential users may have lying around recorded in Dolby 'B' days. Unlike DBX noise reduction, Dolby 'C' doesn't either 'pump' or 'breathe' (notwithstanding comments to the contrary in a certain other magazine review I've seen!). In fact if Dolby 'C' does have a fault it doesn't lie in this slight whispering or 'pumping' effect on replay — it's in the just noticeable treble loss and vague sense of lack of presence you get with both Dolby 'B' and 'C' — 'C' being infinitely the better of the two. 'Pumping' happens with compander systems — and that isn't how Dolby 'C' works! Ah well, put not your trust in false prophets! Anyway, how does the system sound? The answer has to be 'not at all bad' — although, it must be said, it doesn't have quite the sound quality of either the Fostex 250 or the Tascam 244, but, it's pretty good, and any signal quality loss I could detect was, I'm fairly sure due to the fact that the tape speed is half that of the other two machines.
"THE PATCH BAY COULD BE INCREDIBLY USEFUL AND IS WELL WORTH THE MONEY."
This, as I said earlier, will inevitably reduce the overall sound quality whatever the noise reduction system — and there's nothing that can be done about it, other than grin and bear it.
Having said that, the Yamaha system is very good value for money in that it can be built-up in a modular fashion to suit the needs of each owner — something which the other two brand leaders cannot equal. This is ideal for the potential buyer who already owns a mixer — especially if your mixer had better tone facilities than the Yamaha MM 30 offers.
Whether you should opt for this system, as opposed to the others on the market does very much depend on what equipment you already have. The full package price (including the patch bay and rack) comes to a hefty £747 and, at that price, the disadvantages of the system, in terms of its ultimate reproduction quality, probably outweigh the advantages of flexibility which it offers. On the other hand, if you were to already own a suitable mixer, were to dispense with the rack (a rather nasty and cheaply made unit for a price of, effectively, £70!) then you would be left with a low-ish £399 for the tape machine and £79 the patch-bay. That would come to £478, not at all a bad price for two nicely made units.
As a package I found the mixer adequate (no better; the echo was acceptable, just, and the channel tone facilities were on the weak side). The patch bay could be incredibly useful and is well worth the money. At a total of £747 for the whole shooting match, I'd find it hard to recommend against the cheaper Fostex and Tascam but, as a system of units then it's good value for readers who already have a decent mixer and would be content with just the MT 44 4-track recorder and the PB 44 patch-bay. The rack and the mixer I could do without — the rest of the Yamaha system on the other hand, seems like pretty good value and, for the right customer (preferably one who's already got some existing equipment) it's well worth investigating.
YAMAHA MT 44 4-TRACK RECORDER, (RRP £399.00 inc VAT), MM 30 PORTABLE MIXER (RRP £199.00 inc VAT), PB 44 PATCH BAY (RRP £79.00 inc VAT).
TOTAL PACKAGE PRICE (INCLUDING RACK SYSTEM): RRP £747.00 inc VAT.
Gear in this article:
Review by Gary Cooper
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