RETAILERS are not exactly the most critical bunch of people when it comes to pointing out the shortcomings of a particular piece of equipment. They're usually more interested in what comes out of your wallet.
So when a certain studio equipment retailer admits in an ad that "initial response" to the Akai 12-track mixer-recorder "is often sceptical", you can be sure that scepticism exists in rather large quantities in the vicinity of this chunk of Japanese gadgetry.
And chunk it most certainly is. Evidently this is Akai's bid to stop the rush to miniaturisation as practised by most of their compatriots. The 1212 is bloody enormous, in fact. (Place six LP covers face down on it, in two rows of three, and there's still some Akai poking out at the top and bottom.) It also weighs a ton (OK, Akai, a touch under 85lbs actually). I had great difficulty in moving the thing single-handed. Most of the time I shifted it by turning it over slowly, end over side, side over end, and so, slowly, on. Me no Popeye, sure. But heavy it is.
It comes in an even huger flightcase but I left that behind as it wouldn't fit in my average-sized hatchbacked car (even with the back seats down). It fitted in OK sans flightcase. But let's not get too physical. Just bear in mind that this ain't no Portastudio, this ain't no fooling around. Some unkind colleagues have even bandied about the term "White elephant" in its presence. Elephants? I juggle with elephants.
The Scheme, at least, is familiar: one (big) self-contained unit, with everything you need to record music. There's a mixer, 12 channels of it, lots of features, well designed, in fact, and an expensive plastic pad along the front to lean against just like in expensive studios. Next, down the right, is the tape recorder. You record up to 12 tracks on to non-standard Akai ½in cassettes which look a bit like video cassettes. But, crucially, they're not video cassettes. Nor any other kind of tape cassette you've ever seen before. Also, afore we leave this bit, there's a very comprehensive memory system, flash location indicator, and full set of transport controls, all below the cassette housing. Well made. Well done.
Up at the back, so to speak, are all the input/output sockets. The bit where all your leads plug in and out. Accessible and visible. A Cannon socket for mike in, with jacks for the rest (line in and effects sends and returns). There's also some phonos for line in and out, effects and all the overall stereo interfacing, further over to the right. Remote socket, and a single phones socket, are on the front.
So yes, they seem to have it all here. It's laid out with humans in mind, music-making humans at that, and my table creaks under its substance.
So let's make some music on it before it is no more. It sounds good, in fact. Very good. There's dbx noise reduction, oft criticised in other set-ups for its tendency to breathe. But full marks to its performance here — we gave it the customary flailing drum machine test and it dealt with the fiendish hi-hat pattern exceptionally well. To be frank with you, switching between the recorded track and the original live instrument on various programmes gave some of us the jitters. Damned good recording quality, what?
The cassette shimmies along at 7½in/s (you can switch down to 3¾ if you wish), so that helps quality along too. But it means that you only get 10 minutes from the supplied MK20 cassette (20 minutes at 3¾). Tweak the varispeed up full whack and you're down to less than nine minutes. Let's hope Akai get some longer cassettes out, otherwise this will impose a severe limitation on the 1212's uses. What about that album-side-length suite you're knocking out?
The meters are bar-LED types, usefully stuck down the bottom end of the mixer, just above the faders, for easy viewing. There's a naughty red section above the green, and a helpful overload lamp too. Very good. Also liked the three "parametrics" (only the usual two-way sweeps, in fact), overlapping to give you good coverage from 40Hz to 15k.
But the faders themselves were rather short in travel — not even 2½in — and felt decidedly wobbly. And the inline style mixer will only really suit those on their way up to the Akai, not necessarily those cutting across or peeping down.
The tape loads like a video — up comes the drawer for you to bung the cassette into. Oh dear, a few more seconds wasted. But quicker than lacing reels, surely? Just.
The memory is, as I've said, comprehensive. But in practice it's baffling. There are two levels: an eight-position "note-pad" type, which you use by hitting buttons as the tape plays back, marking useful spots for fast recall (plus a ninth position which you can change later); and a "write-in" type where you tap in timed locations ("01:45" for one minute 45 seconds and so on), with similar nine-position storage. I kept wiping memories and calling up the wrong location or memory "level" from the shared buttons. It's as detailed as you'd need, but not so user-friendly.
A screen below gives you playback/record functions for the channels and tells you buss status, too, at a glance and a click. There are also useful buttons here for "soloing" (tap a button for the track number, and as long as you depress it that track alone will be fed to your monitors) and for keeping you from recording over gems (called, accurately enough, an "anti-record" switch). You can automatically put down control codes on to the tape to fire the timer/memory functions and, usefully, a sync pulse from your synth or drum machine for sequencing and syncing, both without using up any of the 12 tracks.
The 1212 is too expensive for a machine so unusual in its choice of recording medium and so self-assured in its insistence on everything being exactly what you'd want. The tried-and-tested formula of reel-to-reel tape machine plus separate mixer still wins.
One hopes that Akai will learn from this well-intentioned but shaky first step and produce machines less dependent on exclusive media. They obviously have it in them to make some very good recorders.
MG1212 recorder £6000
CONTACT: Akai UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Tony Bacon
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