Entering a market dominated by Tascam and Fostex, Audio-Technica have shot straight to the technical fore with their contribution to the 4-track on cassette recorder format, the AT-RMX64. A 'Rolls-Royce' approach to cassette multitracking it certainly is - but would a 'Land Rover' approach have been better? Asks Gary Cooper.
Apart from those machines launched by Tascam (the Porta-One, and the 246), the 4-track cassette market has seemed curiously static during the past eighteen months. True, Yamaha introduced their MT44D last year but, to be brutally honest, this was more a cosmetic update on their previous model than anything technically different. Peavey too have threatened to move into this league with their AMR machine series, but as yet little has been seen of these. Cutec, have also announced a contender, but that machine (as yet unseen by us) is really aimed at the mass - i.e., basic Portastudio - market. In fact it's John Hornby Skewes, best known for their Hondo guitars and Audio-Technica mikes, who have struck the first blow in the 'new generation' multitrack cassette market (the Tascam 246 notwithstanding) with their impressive new Audio-Technica AT-RMX64, which I've recently been trying.
By no means is the Audio-Technica a 'normal' cassette multitrack machine of the Fostex 250/Tascam 244 type. In fact the whole approach to this machine's design is quite radically different to anything we've seen before, not least in that it offers far more possibilities than the typical 4 inputs in, 4-track recording/overdubbing multitrackers. In fact (because of the way in which it's configured) the Audio-Technica could just as easily be used as a stage mixer or submixer, making use of its 6 inputs/twin returns format - although it seems unlikely to me that anyone would take such a sophisticated piece of tackle as this on the road, just to use it as a mixer. Mind you, the ability to do both that and make a master tape of your performance at the same time could be very handy indeed!
Basically, however, the Audio-Technica AT-RMX64 is a very sophisticated cassette multitracker and, whilst not suggesting that you ignore its other potential uses, it was this aspect of the machine's performance which I concentrated on most while I had a sample on loan from the importers.
Trying to squeeze every single feature of the AT-RMX64 into any reasonable length review is just about impossible. In essence it's a 6 input channel mixer, provided with some very advanced routing, Eq., send/return and other facilities, which feeds a beautifully constructed twin speed (1⅞ips & 3¾ips) cassette recorder, on which you can multitrack in the usual way (i.e., a la Fostex 250 or Tascam 244) as well as replay existing stereo or mono cassettes. I suppose that (logically) I ought to start with some sort of comment about how well (or otherwise) this machine is made, but real ly two words will sum it up best - Rolls-Royce. The casing is rigid and a very far cry from the sort of plastic framed 'that's good enough' construction we grown used to in this type of machine, and all the controls work with a positive and well engineered feel to them. This excellent quality of manufacture is carried over into every aspect of the machine; every button, rotary control, input and output socket - the whole structure feels like it's been made to do a professional job. It could be argued that it's almost over-engineered for typical home studio uses, but, as the cost seems to come more from the facilities that it offers rather than the engineering quality, this is no point to quibble over - rather it's one to be thankful for.
In our reviews of almost all the product we look at in IT, it's become customary at this point to start detailing, in words, what the individual controls do and how they're laid out. Unfortunately (from the point of view of the written word, at any rate), the Audio-Technica has so many controls that I found myself hopelessly confused once I'd written them down - and even more exasperated when I tried to arrange the controls and their functions into some sort of readable and logical written order. Therefore, instead of trying to list all the Audio-Technica's operating controls and facilities, I've opted to reproduce the layout from the accompanying brochure/handbook, which should give you a far better idea of how the machine is arranged and what it offers than any amount of verbal description can do.
As you'd expect, the proliferation of input connections are arrayed on the machine's back panel - and comprehensive is far too mild a word to adequately describe them. Just about any type of mike you can think of can be used with this recorder/mixer, from the cheapest electret condenser, through unbalanced types, low impedance balanced dynamics, even studio-class condensers requiring a 48v phantom power supply, and there's a top mounted LED to show you when this phantom supply is being drawn on. Twin send and return circuits (essential for use with good outboard effects and signal processors) are provided, as well as unbalanced sub outputs (phonos), tape outputs (phonos again), balanced sub outputs - the list goes on. The main function controls on the top fascia (again, as per our illustration) are equally impressive in their logical and easy to follow layout, as in their comprehensiveness. Each control works easily and effectively and, once you've begun to grasp the basics of how everything fits together in an operational sense, fails straight to hand. Obviously a fader control governs your basic channel level, and this is followed by (in ascending order) a solo/monitor button, channel 1-2 pan control, four output assignment switches and, next, the comprehensive Eq. system. This latter comes in two halves both featuring dual concentric pots; the lower pair comprising low gain and frequency controls, the upper offering high gain and frequency controls. In the 'rest' position, the centre knobs work to give the low frequency Eq control of a peak/dip kind, when pulled out it acts as a shelving type.
Two level pots come next (for sends 1 and 2) and above these are the vital three way selector switches governing line, mic and tape input selection, followed by an infinitely variable 40dB trim pan pot, enabling you to set the precise sensitivity suitable for your input source. Finally, a single LED per channel shows overload conditions.
The six inputs each follow this pattern and run from left to right. Above them reside four Vu meters (possibly a pity - there's a lot to be said for the greater practicality of peak types). Each Vu meter, incidentally, has push button switching to display either sub output or tape levels. To the right of the input channels come the outputs, complete with yet more flexibility in that they provide the solo pushbuttons, return gain/pan controls, output assignment buttons and so on.
Finally, a few vital statistics. The Audio-Technica will run at either standard cassette speed (1⅞ i.p.s.) or double speed (for improved sound quality) with ± 15% speed/pitch control. Furthermore it can be used to replay existing cassettes - even normal, commercially produced Dolby B processed stereo cassettes. Both Dolby B and C noise reduction types are built-in for recording and replay, and the quoted specs, for frequency response, wow and flutter (i.e., consistency of tape speed), signal to noise ratio, THD, channel separation and so on suggest recording and reproduction qualities which, from my tests, appear completely justified by practical use of the machine.
If you study the reproduced outline of controls on the AT-RMX64, it's easy to see just how advanced it is in terms of what it offers compared with any of the machines we've grown up on in this market. The question which kept bugging me during my tests on it, though, was how many of these facilities did I really need?
Contrary to what you might expect from being faced with so many knobs to twiddle, buttons to push and circuits to connect, the Audio-Technic isn't beyond the brains of anyone but a professional recording engineer to use. In fact, the instruction and guidance sheets supplied with my sample model were extremely clear and (accepting that I've had some lengthy previous experience with both a Tascam 244 and a Clarion system) I can't say that this machine presented any obvious difficulties in use. In fact, even if this was the first time you'd ever faced a multitracker, providing you took care to read the instruction sheets I'm fairly certain that you would find it quite straightforward to operate, if only in its most basic role. Having said that, real familiarity with the Audio-Technica would take you some time to develop. It's a question of the multiplication of facilities and options, really. The more there is to play around with, the more you need to know what you're doing and why, and it'll take several weeks' consistent use before you even begin to discover (let alone appreciate) some of the 'tricks' which you can get up too with this product.
You have to accept that you're not going to take this machine out of its carton and have it running within ten minutes. As with any 4-track recorder, time must be taken in reading the handbook, and the complexity of facilities offered by the Audio-Technica are such that even quite well experienced cassette multitrackers are going to find themselves resorting to the handbook time and time again until they begin to familiarise themselves with the principles of its operation. Once you have got to grips with this machine, however, its capabilities soon begin to impress. On an individual facilities level - the amount of Eq on tap, the routing options for external processors, the ability to use mikes from the cheapest electret condensers up through phantom powered pro-class types, the massive range of options available on sends and returns, the 'solo' facilities - this machine is in a class of its own in these terms, and only the most crazily biased fan of one of the other brands would find fault with what you can do with the Audio-Technica, from using it as a side or front of stage recorder/mixer to an audio-visual gem to the basis of a home studio which takes 4-track cassette about as far as you can go.
It's having the extras like gain controls per channel for each send bus on every input, pre and post Eq on the sends, the ultimately flexible monitoring facilities (which come in particularly handy on complex production/mixing tasks), pan pots for the returns, ultra-flexible headphone output/monitoring options, that make the AT-RMX64 what it is, a superbly capable machine of exceptional class.
Moving beyond how many different facilities the Audio-Technica offers, these qualities alone would be useless if the unit had a poor sound reproduction. It hasn't; the sound quality is superb. I used it not only for making 4-track master multitracks (using the recommended TDK SA tape) but also for re-mixing Dolby C encoded 4-track master tapes recorded on other machines and replaying stereo masters encoded in Dolby B and C noise reduction types - and never once was I anything less than highly impressed by the sound quality obtainable.
Soundwise, this machine probably takes multitracking on cassette tapes about as far as you can go, both in terms of sound and facilities. It's not so much that the AT-RMX64 has six input channels that makes it the advanced product that it is (after all, the Tascam 246 has that, and the addition of an MTR mixer to either a Yamaha or Cutec recorder will achieve the same basic spec.), it's more that the Audio-Technica will let you juggle the Eq. (tone) facilities like mad, apply outboard signal processors (reverbs, electronic delays, flangers etc.), direct inject drum machines, switch mixes from one to the producer, one to the musician (with separate headphone mixes if required) and very much more, all in one unit, whilst delivering its superlative sound quality which makes this such an advanced machine.
Yes, the Audio-Technica AT-RMX64 is undoubtedly the technical peak of 4-track cassette multitrackers so far, and has a level of facilities and potential some way in excess of anything else yet marketed. Having said that, does one need so much? With an RRP of £1199, the price of this product, however impressive, is several hundred pounds above that of the basic Tascam/Fostex 244/250 types, and while it offers a level of sophistication they do not even pretend to have, how many songwriters/musicians/home recordists need or want (let alone can afford) to go so far up in price for the extras which the Audio-Technica offers?
Whatever facilities for fancy Eq and patching the AT-RMX64 offers, the sound quality is inevitably limited by the best that can be obtained from Dolby C noise reduced cassettes - albeit recorded at double speed. It may be the most comprehensive 4-track cassette machine yet, but its sound quality is limited by the cassette medium, and there's no question in my mind (having used them all) that, in terms of pure sound quality, both the Tascam and Fostex are every bit as good. What the Audio-Technica offers over them is a level of facilities they don't have, but then again the Tascam 246 isn't so far away in terms of facilities, and can match the Audio-Technica's sound - given the caveat that Dolby C sounds better to most ears than the Tascam's DBX noise reduction system - for a fair bit less.
In the end, it is more the cassette medium than any individual recorder's qualities which draws the ultimate line. An 8-track open reel recorder (notably Fostex's A8 and at a not too dissimilar price, albeit that you need a mixer as an extra) must offer a better sound quality, which only the Audio-Technica's cassette convenience can counter.
For most musician/recordists I suspect that the Tascam 244 and Fostex 250 will still remain the basic choices, with the Tascam Porta-One and the Fostex X-15 filling in the down-market gaps (and that's not including Yamaha's MT44/D, Cutec's MR404 and the new Vesta Fire MR1!).The Audio-Technica certainly lets you produce tapes with a greater degree of sophistication than any of these machines, but you're paying a hefty price premium for the extras, and it seems to me that those who want to go much further into multitracking will probably be looking at 8-track, rather than paying so much still to be limited by what you can do on a cassette.
For those who value the convenience of cassette tapes, however, and who demand the ultimate flexibility of use with the best in engineering quality and a sound standard bettered by none, the Audio-Technica isn't so much more expensive than the other 6-channel input cassette machines as to rule it 'out of court'.
In the end, though, I can't help wondering whether the price level of the Fostex 250/Tascam 244 isn't as far as one should go with cassette tapes, and that any more money would be better spent moving up to eight track. Only you can say. Either way, the Audio-Technica AT-RMX64 is a beautifully made, great sounding machine with bags of facilities - and if 8-track open reel recording turns you off, you're unlikely to be able to do better than this excitingly different (and ultimately capable) machine.
RRP £1,199 Inc. VAT.
More details from John Hornby Skewes & Co. Ltd., (Contact Details).
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Review by Gary Cooper
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