Akai MG1212 Multitrack
Combined 12-Channel Mixer/Recorder
A new cassette format 12-channel 'system' product, the Akai 'Micro Studio System' is unique - and costly. Julian Colbeck finds out what it has to offer the home recordist.
The MG1212 is the heart of what Akai call their 'Micro Studio System'. Central to this intriguing concept is the all-in-one MG1212 12-channel mixer/recorder, to which can be added a polyphonic synth (the AX80) and (originally) a music processor (the MS08). This last item appears to have bitten the dust as far as we in Britain are concerned, though; and Akai say they will be revealing a new version music processor in February.
The MG1212 measures 856 x 205 x 752mm and weighs 42kg, so it's no lightweight. However, it offers a major advantage over other (reel to reel) multitrack systems, being self-contained, ready 'plugged up' so to speak, and only requiring electricity and one of Akai's unique MK20 1/2" cassette tapes (RRP £15.49) before you can start recording. There was talk, early on, of Akai using a standard video cassette tape on the MG1212. Who began the rumour I'm not sure, but anyway, that ain't the case, folks - the tape cassette used is exclusive to Akai.
Tape is loaded via Akai's exclusive Lambda loading mechanism, and is gently lowered into place by pushing the 'Stop' button on the tape control panel - no outmoded manual pushing into place here! Once in situ the tape remains very stable, and Akai have managed to reduce modulation noise and improve sound quality by achieving excellent tape-to-head contact. A tape playing at 19cm/sec will run for 10 minutes - 20 minutes at 9.5cm/sec.
The overall layout of the MG1212 deserves high praise. The mixing section takes up much of the working area, with all the channel controls well spaced and clearly labelled. Channel inputs - normally at the back of most desks - have been placed on a lower ledge, above the input jacks, which makes it very easy to re-plug and see where everything is coming from and going to. Similarly, the effects busses, various outputs and sync in/outs connect within easy reach of someone sitting down at the controls.
The tape controls are set out on the right hand side and comprise normal tape functions of rewind, f/forward etc. They lie beneath a programmable track selector - for channel and bus assignment - which is aided by a large display screen that instantly shows all the routing configurations and status of each track.
This may sound a bit 'hi-tech' for those who aren't too sure of their recording prowess, but I can assure you it's far easier than the re-patching and switching you'd have to deal with on a conventional multitrack setup.
Then there's the computer-controlled Multi-Function Locator - in other words, a fancy tape counter with brains. And what brains! This concept allows you to hand over many of the 'hairier' aspects of recording to a computer. Although I realise that computers aren't infallible, I'd put my money on me making a mistake before it did!
The 'MFL' has several tricks up its computerised sleeve. For a start there are ten memory locations in which data may be stored. In these locations certain timings in a piece of music can be held, so that, say, number 1 will be the beginning of a first chorus. Press 'Memory Search' plus fwd/rew (depending on where you are) while on memory Lo. 1, and you'll be there in a trice. Useful, but no big deal so far. But there's plenty more! Repeats can be programmed so that the tape will automatically play from A to B, stop, rewind, and start off again, all without you having to do a thing. This, for example, would be very useful for running through guitar/synth solos; allowing you to work out what you're going to play without continually breaking up the flow.
Once you're ready to record, an automatic punch in/out can be programmed (set to the nearest second) which should take care of all but the tightest drop-ins. When it comes to final mixing, certain tracks or groups of tracks can be automatically muted, which again can save a vast amount of run-through time, and leave you free for the more artistic aspects of mixing.
The 'Time Counter' and 'Memory Counter' are both deadly accurate, due to their being locked by code. This 'Control' signal can be recorded when you first start taping, and merely involves remembering to press 'Cont'. You'll be pleased to hear that provision has been made not only for the control signal, but also for a sync code, to be recorded without eating up two tracks on the tape. Both have their own space, leaving you still with 12 tracks free to record on.
Each of the 12 input modules has an Input Selector (mic/track/line), Pad (0, -20dB, -40dB) and Trim (-20, 0dB). Inputs are balanced XLR mic inputs or jack line inputs, suitable for most instruments. Also on this lower ledge are Acc Send and Receive jacks, for patching in external effects devices on specific channels. There are three bands of parametric Eq with a +/- 15dB range. High covers 1.5kHz - 15kHz, Mid 350Hz - 5kHz, and Low from 40Hz - 800Hz, and there is an Eq cut on each channel. In use, I found the Eq quite severe - well, maybe 'highly responsive' would be a better way to describe it!
There are two effects busses, track level/pan control, pan/bus level control and channel fader. The peak level meters, set at the bottom of each input channel, seemed accurate, and there's a channel overload LED alongside. Even though your record status will be indicated on the channel/track selector screen, 'Rec' does light up on the channel when you're in record.
On the master module are sync track level control, effects sends and returns, track and monitor level controls.
I'd like to be able to report that my long-awaited solo album was dashed off in a day or so on the Akai, but the MG1212 is what they call 'hot property' at the moment, and my time was limited. But during the week that I had it adorning my front room, I found its whole concept and layout ideal for 'bits and pieces' recording - in other words, whenever I had the odd hour to spare. The basic recording functions, overdubbing, bouncing tracks and mixing down on to stereo, are all presented and executed with an alarming lack of hassle. I often wondered what I was doing wrong, because the whole process seemed to be too simple!
Okay, purists might sneer at the concept of 1/2" cassette tape - obviously it would make multitrack editing a bit tricky - but the spec, and my ears, tell me that you're dealing with a high- quality unit here. With its amazing ease of use, large (relatively) track/channel capacity, automation and high sound quality, the Akai is certain to appeal to recordists moving up from Portastudio-type machines. In essence, it combines many of the cassette-based 4-track machines' advantages with those of 'open reel' systems, and could well find itself being considered against a Fostex B-16 with a decent mixer. And if you are considering this against, say, the Fostex B-16/AHB 1616 (which I also regard as being very high class for the money), I think the following points should be taken into account.
In the MG1212's favour you have size and portability, ease of operation, and sophisticated computer control. Against this is the nagging worry of knowing that you can buy what seems like a more professional studio set-up for slightly less money, plus the fact of having to use Akai's own tapes, etc. Obviously, if you're already familiar with conventional multitrack recording (and not just on a Portastudio), then the attraction of the MG1212's incredibly straightforward procedures won't be so important. However, if you're not inclined to really learn about all the complicated ins and outs of engineering, but merely want to get on with the performance side of recording, then the extra money could be well worth it for the convenience value alone!
And in conclusion? Yes, it is worth noting that a Fostex B-16 plus, say, an AHB 1616 desk would probably work out cheaper. However, before the MG1212 is dismissed as overpriced, it should be pointed out that this unit is far easier to operate, undertakes a host of computer-controlled editing tasks that are unique, and is a good deal more portable. And that makes it well worthy of a close look.
RRP £5999.90 Inc. VAT
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Review by Julian Colbeck
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