A New Track Record?
Yamaha MT1X 4-Track Cassette Recorder
MIDI 4-track recorder
Yamaha's first multi-track cassette recorders weren't too successful. Now they're trying again, this time with the highly portable MT1X. Is this the breakthrough they've been hoping for? Gary Cooper records his view.
Yamaha probably won't thank me for saying it, but I found it hard to get enthusiastic about their initial multitrack cassette recorders, the MT44 and the later MT44-D. Both needed substantial add-on packages to make them complete systems; they were limited to standard cassette speed operation and generally seemed weak side-by-side with the established competition from Fostex and Tascam in various technical and cosmetic ways. Somehow they just didn't seem as well thought-out as one expects products from this normally 'right first time' manufacturing giant to be. But make no mistake: Yamaha's latest entrant, the MT1X is a completely different class of machine from the MT44 family — even the first hour of using it showed me how much better it was than its predecessors, and how competitive it was in every respect with it rivals.
For many (most?) of us, the ideal cassette multitracker is going to be the one which is easiest to use. Again, I may not be winning friends among the manufacturers by saying it, but the quality of sound you can get from today's best machines is very comparable, and while there may be slight differences between the various noise reduction systems, the respective frequency responses, etc. etc., the limitations of cassette tape itself (especially when subjected to endless bounce downs) tends to mask any theoretical advantages of one machine over another. Probably what matters more to those of us who have to combine three difficult roles (player, engineer and producer) is how easily we can achieve the results we have in our heads. And here's where the MT1X scores in a very big way.
Not so long back I read another scribe's review in which he claimed that he found the MT1X difficult to operate — to which all I can say is that he can never have used any other 4-tracker! Beside any machine on the market (with the obvious exception of the operationally limited Fostex X-15) the Yamaha is a positive joy and delight to operate. Moreover, that pleasure is enhanced by a handbook which is an object lesson in simplicity and directness. Other manufacturers, please take note!
In terms of what you can do with it, the MT1X is a direct challenger to Tascam's best selling Porta-One (which we reviewed in our first issue). Like the Tascam, the Yamaha offers just the 'standard' 1⅞ ips tape speed, has four channel mixing facilities, DBX noise reduction and is a lightweight, portable recorder which can run either from the mains, or via an optional battery pack. The MT1X does, however, have a major trick or two up its sleeve, especially by being MIDI capable, a feature which I'll delve into a little further on.
Visually, the Yamaha is darkly handsome — very high-tech with a black plastic casing setting off the vivid green lettering. All the controls are sensibly labelled and logically grouped, with the four inputs, headphone outlet and punch in/out socket arranged on the front leading edge of the unit. Above the four inputs, each of the channels are, again, logically positioned. Line and Mic level signals can both be input, a small slider allowing you to set the most suitable sensitivity for the sound source you happen to be using at the time. Next, above a smooth-operating level fader comes a switch which you use to set tape/off/mic-line operation, with a dished button-shaped rotary control above these providing pan control.
The Eq controls appear next, as you'd expect; one 'Hi' the other 'Lo'. Neither is pronounced in its effect, and the frequencies controlled aren't specified in the Yamaha brochure. Nevertheless, the range of tonal versatility seems adequate for all but the most demanding tasks, and I can't imagine many potential owners finding this a major problem, if a problem at all.
Two final channel features round off the array, one a slider for aux level, the other a bar line of LEDs which turn from yellow to red as you overshoot the 0dB mark.
As all the channel facilities appear on the MT1X's left, the other main controls appear on, yes, you've guessed it, the right! Dealing with the bottom line first, these provide master level, aux master return and send levels, DBX on/off, monitor/mix/stereo selection for the phones, above which are headphone level, synch on/off (status indicated by a red LED), track record selector switches and meter selection. Moving further across, the Yamaha has the usual 'piano key' tape transport controls, a mechanical tape counter with a zero stop function and, above these, the last main group of operators — eight more of those delightful button rotaries, four for monitor level, four for pan.
With the inputs on the front and outputs on the back, the Yamaha is easy to figure out. You have a mass of possible connections offered for your enjoyment — and enjoyment really is the appropriate word here, because there's not a great deal that you can't persuade the MT1X to do, and do pretty easily at that. It was, however, in the area of facilities and their ease of use that I had my one and only criticism of this machine, and that was the annoying provision of only one headphone output and headphone level control. Over-dubbing (especially) usually calls for the machine operator (engineer/producer) to have one level, and the performer another. With the MT1X you'd have to route one set of cans from your Hi-Fi amp to do this, which isn't always easy or even possible. Yamaha obviously hope that anv musician who buys an MT1X isn't going to stop there, and so, very sensibly, they've made expansion of the machine and its interface possibilities very comprehensive indeed. In fact they've gone so far in this direction as to have produced a glossy colour brochure extolling the virtues of what they call their 'MIDI Studio System' which features the MT1X as the nucleus. Of course, you don't have to go all the way with Yamaha, but they are obviously hoping you will.
Soundwise the Yamaha is an excellent performer, very much on a par with the directly competing Tascam Porta-One. Helping this fundamentally good quality reproduction is the DBX noise reduction system, which worked extremely well, quite audibly better than DBX often does. I can't see why this should be (unless Yamaha's designers have come up with some new way of applying the DBX system), but whatever the reason, the MT1X didn't suffer from some of the annoying 'pumping' or 'breathing' sounds which are known to afflict other DBX-equipped systems, especially when being fed fast rising transient signals. Mind you, I have to say that, side by side, there really isn't going to be a noticeable difference between the Yamaha and the Porta-One. If there are differences, then they come in terms of their facilities.
One feature which the Porta-One lacks and the Yamaha offers is the ability to record onto all four tracks at once. Whether this matters to you as a potential buyer has to depend on the sort of uses you put your recorder to. It's not a feature which would cause me a problem if my machine lacked it, but it might be vital to some people, especially if they were into recording all four tracks live for later re-mixing. The MIDI compatibility, however, could prove to be a significant bonus, depending on what sort of outboard and or keyboard gear you owned. The MT1X is equipped so that when used with Yamaha's YMC10 MIDI Converter, you can synch together various MIDI'd items. The YMC10 turns MIDI signals into 'FSK' (i.e., recordable versions of the MIDI signal) which can then be re-used to synch-up and drive various MIDI wonders such as rhythm machines, samplers, keyboards etc. Again, for the right type of user, this would be a major boon; for others less so. I said earlier that Yamaha are obviously hoping MT1X buyers will eventually use their tape machines as the nucleus of a fullblown MIDI'd-up studio, and they've produced some tempting brochures to show what can be done, using an RX21, QX21 and DX100 as examples. Obviously, MIDI being the universal standard that it is, you're not limited to using only Yamaha products (not that it's much of a limitation!) and there are several tasty goodies on offer from makers like Akai, Roland and Alesis, to name just three, that I wouldn't mind incorporating in such a relatively high-tech setup.
Looked at as a basic 4-track portable recorder, Yamaha's MT1X is undoubtedly a fine machine, well engineered, quiet, versatile and easy to use. Speaking personally. I'd find it almost impossible to choose between it and the Porta-One, Each have small operational advantages over the other, but mostly they cross the finishing line abreast. If, on the other hand, you're already using MIDI gear, or you intend to head in that direction and want to develop your skills by using the MT1X's synch possibilities to interface sequencers, rhythm machines etc., then the Yamaha is the only cassette machine op the market yet capable of doing it. Judged in either role, the MT1X shows that Yamaha have, indeed, got it right this time round. That even includes the price, by the way. At an RRP of just £449 it's excellent value too!
RRP £449 inc. VAT
More details from Yamaha Musical Instruments, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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