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Cassette Multitrackers - Buyer's Guide

Every Current Model Reviewed

All you need to know about choosing a cassette multitrack, plus concise reviews of every current model on the market.

With so many cassette multitrackers on the market, finding one with the right mix of facilities for your needs can be a daunting prospect. Paul White and Derek Johnson help you navigate the maze.

The beginner to recording in the '90s will almost invariably start his or her recording career with some form of 4-track, cassette-based studio system. Most people refer to all such machines as Portastudios, but this is, in fact, a trademarked name belonging to the TEAC corporation. As no official generic term exists, refer to these machines as cassette multitrackers, a brief description of which might be: an integrated package comprising a multitrack cassette recorder and a mixer. The majority utilise a 4-track cassette mechanism alongside a small mixer, though 8-track versions are available for those willing to pay the extra; however, for the purposes of this article, all general observations will refer to 4-track systems.

Market Research

While those with more advanced needs have a fairly well-defined choice of recording equipment, particularly tape recorders, the entry-level user is presented with around a dozen models of cassette multitracker from which to choose. All offer the common facilities of recording and replaying up to four separate tracks of audio, and all have some means of mixing the separately-recorded tracks into stereo, after which they may be re-recorded onto a stereo tape recorder. Why, then, are there so many models offering different facilities and spanning a considerable price range?

As with so many things in life, the answer has to do with cost, and while all the machines appear to perform the same basic function, variations in features and sound quality do exist. All the really low-cost machines are limited in that they can record only two tracks at any one time. This represents a significant cost saving at the manufacturing stage and presents no problem to the user recording his or her music in layers, rather than all in one go. The process of building up a piece of music a few tracks at a time is known as multitracking, and is the established method for producing contemporary music, though classical music is, by-and-large, recorded as a single performance. For live recording, a multitrack machine is useful, as it allows the individual instruments (or groups of instruments) to be recorded onto separate tape tracks, allowing the musical balance to be changed at the mixing stage. For this application, a machine capable of recording all four tracks at the same time is essential.

The next area of possible compromise affects sound quality. A conventional cassette deck runs at a tape speed of 1 7/8 ips, which is very much slower than a professional studio, open-reel recorder. The more up-market 4-track cassette systems run the tape at twice normal speed — 3 3/4ips — which provides better sound quality, usually by way of less background hiss, and a brighter top end. The only down side of a high-speed machine is that the tape only lasts half as long, and, because all four tracks are recorded in the same direction, a C60 cassette used at high speed will provide just 15 minutes of recording time. Some machines also have a halfspeed function to provide longer recording time, though this is at the expense of sound quality.

Because of the technical problems involved in making a cassette recorder play back on some tracks while simultaneously recording on others, it is not possible to get the same sound quality from a standard-speed multitrack cassette machine as from a good, conventional stereo cassette deck. Though the results produced by a standard-speed multitrack machines are not actually bad, high-speed machines invariably turn in a noticeably better performance. As a rule, the standard-speed models are more suitable for producing simple music demos or for use as compositional aids, while the high-speed machines can be used to make more elaborate demos or even recordings for commercial release. Though none of the cassette multitrackers are strictly suitable for making professional-standard recordings, many independent cassette and record releases have been made on such equipment, with surprisingly good results.

Noises Off

All but the very cheapest cassette recorders use noise-reduction systems to reduce the level of background hiss that is a by-product of all analogue tape recording. The slower the tape speed, the greater the noise problem — which is why any cassette machine used without noise-reduction will be too hissy for serious recording work. The most famous name in noise reduction is undoubtedly Dolby, who have five different systems in production, if you include their professional studio systems.

The most common of the noise-reduction systems is Dolby B, though the newer Dolby C is to be found on many modern hi-fi cassette machines and on some cassette multitrackers. Working on the principle that hiss is only a problem when there is no sound loud enough to cover it up, all noise-reduction systems work by recording the quieter, more vulnerable sounds onto tape at a higher level than they should normally be, so that they are relatively loud compared to the background noise. When the tape is replayed, the opposite process is applied, restoring the original level of the recorded sound but similarly reducing the level of the tape hiss during quiet passages. Because the human hearing system is more susceptible to high-frequency noise, which is perceived as hiss, Dolby noise-reduction systems take account of the frequency content of the sound being recorded when applying processing. By contrast, the alternative dbx system treats all frequencies equally — it only addresses sound levels.

The type of noise-reduction system employed depends on both the cost of the product and on the preference of the individual manufacturer. Cheaper machines tend to use the older and slightly less effective Dolby B system, while the more sophisticated models tend to employ Dolby C or dbx. These two latter systems both work well, and after listening to many machines fitted with both systems, I have to conclude that neither system offers significant advantages over the other. However, the results do vary from model to model, so you might find one dbx machine sounds better than another Dolby C machine, or vice versa.

There is no necessity, at this stage, to go further into the workings of noise reduction, but it should be stressed that it has to be switched on both while recording and while playing back. Failure to do this will result in the sound being either dull or over-bright and hissy, depending on whether the noise reduction was switched on during recording or playback.

Transports Of Delight

Having established that more money usually buys better sound quality and the ability to record four tracks in one go, what other considerations are there? Some machines have what are known as soft-touch tape transport controls, while some of the cheaper models have mechanical transport buttons that are rather clunky to use. You'll also find the type and quality of metering varies across the range, as does the type of tape counter, which can be anything from a mechanical digit counter to an electronic display which reads out in true elapsed time. You may see a cue and review feature mentioned in connection with certain models, and this is simply the ability to hear the tape playing while in fast forward or rewind mode. Though the sound will be grossly speeded-up and quite unintelligible, it is quite adequate for locating the starts or ends of pieces of music.

A further refinement on some machines is the provision of some kind of autolocation — the ability to store a tape counter location, to which the machine can be made to automatically fast-wind and then stop. This can be very useful if you consistently need to return to the same point on tape, such as the beginning of a song or the start of a solo. Machines with this feature generally include a return-to-zero function, which does exactly as the name suggests and winds the tape to the zero counter location before stopping it for you. This can be zeroed at the start of each song, leaving the autolocator free for marking the start of the solo or whatever, or it may be set once at the beginning of the first song on the tape and then left alone. Some machines have the ability to play a specific section, rewind, and then play it again indefinitely until stopped, which is useful for rehearsal purposes. Some top-of-the-range models link this facility to an automatic record function, which puts the machine into and out of record at the desired locations, quite automatically. For the solo player with both hands full of guitar, this can be a distinct advantage!

Mixing Matters

All cassette multitrackers have some form of mixer section, which really has two roles to play. The first is to accept signals from microphones or instruments, mix them together, and then route them to the appropriate track or tracks of the tape recorder section for recording. At the same time, the mixer has to provide the user with some means of hearing what has already been recorded while new tracks are being added or overdubbed. This process of hearing the ready-recorded material at the same time as adding new material is known as monitoring, and is often accomplished using headphones.

At the bottom end of the multitracker scale, you may be restricted to plugging in just two signals at the same time, whereas on more up-market models, there may be four or more input channels which can be routed to the tape tracks simultaneously. These channels may or may not be equipped with some form of equaliser or tone control, and on the very low-cost machines, it may only be possible to equalise the whole, finished mix rather than separate tracks. In fact, the ergonomic gymnastics performed by the designers of the cheaper machines, in their quest to provide the most flexibility at the lowest possible cost, can be quite confusing.

All Mod Cons

A facility which any budding recordist will come to find indispensable is the means to plug in external effects units. Except on the cheapest machines, there should be one (or ideally two) effects sends per mixer channel, but you should also check out whether there are sufficient effects return inputs to handle the outputs from stereo effects units. The most common studio effect is digital reverberation; since reverb units invariably have stereo outputs, even if only served by a mono input, a single effects return input is a limitation.

Some models are fitted with separate output sockets for all four tape tracks, which means that signals can be plugged into an external mixer, if so required. The provision of these so-called direct outputs can be an important consideration when running sequenced MIDI instruments alongside the tape machine, as most multitracker mixer sections have insufficient inputs to handle all the necessary extra sound sources; the answer to this problem is to use an external mixer to increase the number of inputs available. Even though you may have no need for direct outputs when you first buy a multitracker, you'll be glad of them if you ever have to expand your system.

If your multitracker is to be used alongside a sequencer, them it will be necessary to record a synchronising code onto one track of the tape machine, in order to make the sequencer run in sync with the tape machine. These sync codes are also known as time code and there are various types, of differing complexity. Some machines have specific provision for recording sync codes, in that they allow the noise-reduction system and equalisation to be bypassed and the sync signal to be taken from the tape machine via a separate socket. This is very important, as some noise-reduction systems, dbx in particular, can corrupt the time code signal to such a degree that it is unusable. Dolby C, on the other hand, usually has no detrimental effect on time code but even so, a separate output socket is still vital. The sync code is recorded onto one of the audio tracks, usually the highest-numbered one, so it is essential to be able to access it separately — you wouldn't want to hear time code in your final stereo mix! For those of you who have never heard the sound of time code, it's a high-frequency buzz; if you've ever dialled a fax machine by mistake, you'll know what I mean.

Insert points are a useful addition to any cassette multitracker, especially if you want to record vocals with the use of a compressor, since insert points allow external processors such as compressors, gates or equalisers to be plugged into individual mixer channels, either during recording or while mixing. They are invariably in the form of stereo jack sockets, where the two sets of contacts handle both the 'send' out to the processor and the 'return' signal from it. This requires either a specially made up lead or an adaptor plug that combines two mono leads into a stereo jack. On a true studio mixer, there is an insert point on every channel, but on cassette multitrackers, they may either be absent altogether (on the lower-cost models) or provided in some compromised or limited form. If you only need a musical notepad, one of the low-end machines with minimal facilities will be perfectly adequate, but if you want to make serious-sounding demos, then think hard before you spend your money.

There are other little differences that will crop up between one model and another, with some of the top-end machines offering computerised signal routing and MIDI control. However, we've covered the main facilities you're likely to require, and the best advice that we can give you is to plan for your future needs, not just your present ones. For example, you may be tempted to go for a more expensive cassette multitracker with a large mixing section because you run a MIDI sequencing system or are planning to buy one soon.

But before you do decide, ask yourself whether you are still going to run out of mixer inputs in six months' time or so — if the answer is yes, or even maybe, then consider a more basic cassette multitracker with direct outputs, so that you can run it with an external mixer which does have enough inputs. Given the extra flexibility provided by even a modest external mixer, I'd recommend you consider this option very seriously.

The Bottom Line

When choosing a cassette multitracker, you can spend anything from around £200 to over £1000, depending on your budget and your needs. If you want to go eight-track, then you can pay from around £1000 to £2350 — but if your requirements are already making heavy demands on the mixer facilities offered by the top-end machines, then I do urge you to consider seriously the alternative approach of buying a separate tape machine and mixer. This may not be quite so tidy and will involve a certain amount of wiring, but in the long run, I feel the added flexibility is well worth it.

During the course of this article, we've looked at the main features and facilities offered by all the popular cassette multitrackers currently available; this should certainly place you in a better position to decide which one is right for your present and immediate future needs. To help you compare the more important points, the table provides the relevant information at a glance. Whichever you choose, cassette multitrack systems represent an ideal introduction to the art of multitrack recording, enabling the user to become familiar with most of the recording techniques practised by professional recording engineers.

We've asked our team to put all the most popular current models through their paces, and here are their results — a unique opportunity for you to directly compare quality and features before making your choice.

Features Comparison Chart

Mixer Inputs
Number of Tracks
Simultaneous Recording
Tape Speed
Noise Reduction
Aux Sends
Aux Returns
Insert Points
Direct Tape Outs
Footswitch Record
AutoPunch In/Out
Sync Code Compatible
VAT Inclusive Price
Fostex X18 4 4 2 N B X 1 1s X X X £260
Fostex X26 2+4 4 2 N B 2 1 1s X X £329
Fostex X28 4+4 4 4 N B 2 1 1s X X £339
Fostex 280 8 4 4 NH C 3 2 1s X £658
Porta 03 2 4 2 N B X X X X X X X X £234
Porta 05HS 4 4 2 H dbx 2 1 1 X X X £329
Tascam 424 4 4 4 LNH dbx 2 1 2s X X £469
Tascam 464 4+4s 4 4 NH dbx 3 2 X £680
Tascam 644 8+8 4 4 NH dbx 3 2 2s £1056
Tascam 488 12 8 4 H dbx 2 2 X X X X £1174
Tascam 688 10+10 8 8 H dbx 3 2 2s £2349
Vestax MR300 1+4 4 1/2 N B X X X X X X X £234
Vestax MR44 4 4 4 NH dbx 2 1 1s X X £411
Yamaha MT120 4 4 4 NH dbx 5 1 1s X X £399
Yamaha MT3X 6 4 4 NH dbx 2 1 2s X X £599

Interpreting The Table

A ✓ indicates that the feature is present
An X indicates that the feature is absent

In the Noise Reduction column, B = Dolby B; C = Dolby C; dbx = dbx.

In the Tape Speed column, L = Low speed; N = Normal speed (1 7/8 ips); H = High speed (3 3/4 IPS).

The EQ column provides the number of bands in the equaliser section, though you may need to refer to the text to find how the equalisers are organised.

The Mixer Inputs column provides the number of mixer inputs, but not all may be able to accommodate microphone inputs. Where there are a certain number of full-function inputs plus a number of lesser specified ones, this will be designated by two numbers, for example, 2+4. In some cases there is little distinction between aux returns and mixer inputs, so check both columns. Where a mixer channel or aux return is in stereo, the number will be followed by the letter 's'; for example, 2s.

All the models apart from the Tascam Porta 03 Ministudio were fitted with varispeed, so this point was omitted from the table. Where a machine is ticked as having insert points, refer to the text to find out how many of the channels are so equipped.


Fostex X18

This is a very basic entry-level 4-track, making it ideal as a musical ideas book, educational tool or compositional aid.

Most multitrackers have moved away from the idea of battery powering, because the batteries tend to be expensive and shortlived. However, the battery-powered X18 comes with a mains adaptor, so there's no need to buy shares in Duracell. As seems universal for entry-level machines, the X18 runs at the standard tape speed and employs Dolby B noise reduction. A simple mechanical tape counter is fitted and there are no frills in this department, though the LED level meters are quite good for a low-cost machine.

Recording is limited to two tracks per pass, while all four input channels may be routed to tape during recording. The input channels are very basic, with just level faders, pan and monitor levels on offer, but at least it's logical, the main restriction being that only channels one and two have the three-position gain selectors which make them able to handle mic inputs.

Varispeed is fitted, as is the ability to work with sync tracks, but as expected, there's no equalisation. Though there's no dedicated aux send section, you can use the monitor section for this purpose while mixing and there's a stereo effects return. Fostex obviously expect that this machine will be used for teaching, as an extra rear-panel input labelled 'Teach Buss' allows a signal to be routed exclusively to the headphone outlet, allowing remote communication in a system where several units are in use. Considering that this is one of the cheapest machines around, it offers reasonably good sound quality and, more importantly, a simple and logical routing system. It has a few quirks, but less than most.

£260 including VAT


Fostex X26

Based on a standard-speed, 4-track transport, the X26 uses Dolby B noise-reduction and has no fancy transport facilities such as return-to-zero, autolocate or auto punch-in/out. The sound quality is a little better than that achieved from the very low-budget machines and the mixer section is rather more useful. Up to two tracks may be recorded at a time.

The mixer has two main input channels, which can accommodate both microphone and line-level sources, plus four more inputs which will only accept line signals. All the channels have access to the aux send buss, while four level controls double as a monitor section during recording and the mix section during the final mix; this limits the way in which an attached effects unit can be deployed, but not seriously. Direct tape outputs are fitted for use with an external mixer, and the stereo mix buss has a two-band equaliser which can also be used while recording. This is less versatile than having EQ facilities on all the input channels, but is welcome nevertheless. The machine has a separate, stereo effects return. Power is supplied via an external mains adaptor.

As entry-level machines go, this one sounds quite reasonable, and the operating system isn't too daunting for the first-time user.

£329 including VAT


Fostex X28

Again a standard-speed, Dolby B machine, the X28 allows simultaneous recording on all four tracks, with a mixer section expanded to accommodate four main input channels and four line channels. This time there is a return-to-zero facility and the controls are soft-touch, logic types, though for no obvious reason, you have to switch in the Dolby every time the machine is switched on. There's no Cue and Review, but there is provision to use a remote footswitch for punch-in/out, while power is provided via an external mains adaptor. Again, there are direct outputs for each of the tape tracks, for use with an external mixer.

All eight channels are fitted with an effects send and pan controls, while the effects return is stereo. The two-band equaliser is exactly the same as that available on the X26, but can only be used on record when up to two (odd and even-numbered) tracks are being recorded. If you need to record three or more tracks in one pass, then the EQ is out of bounds! The metering is carried out via an LCD window rather than the more common bar-graphs, and it is possible to record a sync code onto track four. The extra inputs make the X28 useful as part of a small MIDI system.

Sound quality from this machine is similar to the X26, but since it's a standard-speed machine, it doesn't rival that of the high-speed machines, which invariably have a brighter, clearer sound. In some ways it falls between two camps, because it is a little costly to choose as a musical notepad, but seems short of the quality and expandability that would have made it useful as part of an expanding home studio. The X28 has also been accused of being rather convoluted in use, and though I know this has been done to squeeze the maximum flexibility from it, it could confuse the newcomer to recording.

£339 including VAT


Fostex 280

This is the top-of-the-range Fostex multitracker and has the benefits of Dolby C noise reduction and high tape speed. All four tracks may be recorded simultaneously, and the transport section includes a three-position locator memory and the ability to perform automatic punch-in/out with rehearsal. LED-ladder metering is provided for all four tracks plus the stereo master, and varispeed is fitted, as is the ability to select punch in and out using an optional, external footswitch.

The mixer has four main mic/line channels, plus four more line-only inputs, which are restricted in their pan assignment to left, right or both. All four main inputs have three-band equalisers with sweep mid-range controls, and two effects sends are provided, aux 1 doubling as a monitor control during recording. All eight channels have pan and mute facilities and the master section includes proper send master level controls and stereo aux returns. Monitoring is more comprehensive than on most multitrackers, and there is provision to record a sync code or to interface with a dedicated Fostex sync unit. The machine may also be brought under computer control, via the optional Fostex MTC1 interface.

This is a very neat and good-sounding machine suitable for quite serious demo work, but I do find the lack of any insert points frustrating — even two would have been OK. In all other respects, this is a good compromise between an all-singing, top-end machine and a good recorder with a simplified mixer.

£658 including VAT

Tascam Porta 03 MiniStudio

Tascam Porta 03

This little machine is one of the lowest-priced cassette multitrackers around and most definitely falls into the musical notepad category. Up to two tracks (microphone or instrument) may be recorded at a time, while the recording section is based around a 4-track transport running at the standard speed and using (switchable) Dolby B noise reduction. Transport control is via mechanical keys, and though the sound quality isn't up to that of the more costly machines, it is quite adequate for getting your musical ideas into a coherent form. The tape counter is a simple three-digit mechanical device, with a reset button.

As you might expect on a machine at this end of the price range, extra features are pretty few and far between; there's no footswitch option for hands-off recording and no varispeed. The metering has been pared down to a simple pair of LEDs (green denoting enough level and yellow too much!) and there's no facility at all for recording a sync code. There's also no equalisation, no effects send facility, no direct outputs and no insert points, so any effects you do use will have to be recorded as part of the original sound. When you come to mix, you can adjust the relative level and left/right pan position of the four tracks but that's really about it. There's no official way of bouncing tracks, but it can be done using an external patch lead; pan the channels you wish to mix all to one side and then feed the corresponding output back into the required input.

Having spent most of this piece telling you what the Porta 03 hasn't got, I feel it still represents very good value for money, in that it is easy to use, the sound quality is reasonable and it does facilitate the organisation of your musical ideas. You can also play and multitrack over conventional stereo recordings made on your hi-fi, which could be useful. The 03's limitations are mainly in terms of expandability, so you can't add effects or equalisation as you mix and you can't take the tape outputs into a larger mixer until you've already mixed them into stereo. As a musical notepad, the Porta 03 is close to ideal, but it isn't really suitable for use as part of a growing home-recording system. The unit runs from an external power adaptor or an optional, external battery pack.

£234 including VAT

Tascam Porta 05 MiniStudio

Tascam Porta 05

More up-market than the Porta 03, the Porta 05 offers more in the way of features and sound quality, though, naturally, it's also somewhat more costly. The 05 is still limited to recording a maximum of two tracks on any pass, but the 4-track tape transport runs at high speed with dbx noise reduction, giving a tangible improvement in sound quality. The tape counter is still mechanical, but compared to the 03, the machine is simply bristling with features, and proper bar-graph metering is fitted for all four channels.

The mixer section has four inputs, all of which can accommodate line inputs and two of which also double as microphone inputs. Each channel has a single effects send control and a cue level control, which is used to set up the monitor mix while overdubbing. There are just two equalisers, but these may be used during recording or mixdown, and they offer both high and low (treble and bass) control, making them quite useful.

No insert points are offered, which is a limitation if you want to use a compressor, but with a little routing ingenuity, you can get direct tape outputs for three audio tracks plus a sync track, which means that your system has room to grow. One oversight is that the effects return is only mono. This prevents you from making the best use of digital reverb, which sounds so much better in stereo. Even so, there are ways of getting around that, as you'll find out if you keep an eye on our letters and tips pages.

Cue and Review is implemented but produces rather a loud result, so it's best to work at a low monitoring level when using these facilities, to safeguard both your tweeters and your ears. There's a remote punch-in socket which takes an optional footswitch, allowing you to get in and out of record without using your hands. A pitch control is provided, useful for tuning recordings to fixed-pitch instruments such as pianos.

Sequencer users will be glad to know that sync is catered for, the sync output emerging from a rear-panel phono jack, and for those who want to know what an improvement dbx makes, there's a switch that allows you to turn it off! The Porta 05 runs from an external power supply.

£329 including VAT

Tascam 424 Portastudio

Tascam 424

The Tascam 424 brings the Portastudio concept rather more up to date, and as the price gets higher, the compromises get fewer. Accordingly, the 424 has the ability to record on all four tracks simultaneously using dbx noise reduction. Unusually, the machine works at three tape speeds: standard, half-speed and double-speed. This gives the user the opportunity to extend the recording time of a tape when using the machine for sketching out new songs, but by the same token, the high-speed option can be selected for working on serious demos. The transport controls are all soft-touch types, while varispeed and the ability to cycle around a specific section of music, bounded by the zero and cue locator points, are included.

The stylish, wedge-shaped package is distinctly different in style to the Porta series of products and contains a four-channel mixer section set out very much like a conventional, separate mixer. All four channels have mic and line inputs; two additional stereo inputs, insert points on two channels and direct tape outs are also provided. During recording, these extra inputs may be used to provide the cue mix, while during mixing, all eight inputs may be used to add effects returns or sequenced instruments into the mix. Specific provision is made for recording sync codes, with separate in and out phono jacks being provided for this purpose. Cue and Review are omitted from this model.

The sound quality at the 424's higher tape speed is really very good, but the lower tape speed is only of use when you really are desperate to save tape. However, it could be useful when recording live gigs for later analysis, where the long playing time would be a real bonus. The inclusion of insert points and direct tape outputs makes the system expandable.

£469 including VAT

Tascam 464 Portastudio

Tascam 464

It would appear that Tascam have combined features from the 424 and the more sophisticated 644 to produce a less-costly 4-track system that retains many of the advanced features of the 644, with the exception of that machine's computerised routing and muting. The recorder section can record all four tracks simultaneously, and runs at either standard or high speed, using dbx noise reduction, with LCD meters showing both the track levels and the monitor outputs. The tape counter works in real time, and all the transport controls are soft-touch buttons. There are two locator points, in addition to return-to-zero, and these may be used for rehearsal of a designated section or to drop the machine into or out of record automatically. A footswitch facility is provided for hands-off punch-in/out and varispeed is fitted to the transport.

The mixer has four main mic/line input channels fitted with XLR mic inputs, with four more stereo channels, giving a total of 12 inputs in all. All the main channels have three-band equalisation with a sweep midrange, and all but the last pair of channels (11,12) have two aux sends. Channels 5,6 and 7,8 have two-band equalisation. Provision is also made for monitoring a two-track recorder, which is very sensible. Sync in and out jacks are provided, and all 12 input channels can be mixed with the three audio tracks on tape when a sync code is being used.

At the higher tape speed, the machine produces excellent sound quality with low background noise.

£680 including VAT

Tascam 644 MiniStudio

Tascam 644

At over £1000, this is Tascam's flagship 4-track and is very strong on features. In a departure from the traditional Portastudio format, it feels very much more like a multitrack recorder built into a traditional mixer. The recorder department utilises a 4-track, dbx deck with the speed switchable between normal and high. There is an internal 'smart-FSK-type' MIDI-to-tape synchroniser, and punch-in and out are gapless. Three location memories are available and the machine has the ability to automate punch ins and outs. A rehearsal mode is also available. Other neat features include a bi-directional shuttle dial for precise cueing; a footswitch option; and varispeed. The mixer section has eight channels with mic/line inputs (two of which accept balanced microphones), and each channel has a three-band equaliser with a sweepable mid-range plus two aux sends (one pre-fade for foldback and one post-fade for effects). A further eight inputs with level and pan controls double as monitors during recording and additional inputs at mixdown, so if you add in the two assignable stereo returns, there's a maximum of 20 inputs into the machine.

Routing, return assignment, monitor/line input selection and muting is controlled via an internal microcomputer, which opens up the area of MIDI integration and control. The internal memories may be saved as 99 snapshots or scenes, controllable by the 644 or directly over MIDI from an external sequencer. LCD windows are used for metering, the real-time tape counter and programming the routing/muting. Though there are no direct tape outs as such, the insert points can be used to take the direct channel signal to the outside world, should the necessity arise.

This is a beautiful machine and, providing you are certain you won't outgrow the mixer, an excellent choice for the serious home tape/MIDI studio. It is compatible with the more recent Tascam accessories such as the MIDIizer, and there is an optional remote control and scene-change footswitch. On the other hand, if you feel the mixer might not be big enough to accommodate future needs, then consider saving up for a Tascam 238 8-track cassette machine and a separate mixer.

£1056 including VAT

Tascam 488 8-Track Portastudio

Tascam 488

The 488 is the first true Portastudio to utilise the eight-track cassette mechanism. Compared against Tascam's more costly 688 Midistudio, also offering eight tracks, some compromises have been made. Sound quality is similar, though the mixer facilities of the 488 have been reduced to maintain a selling price close to £1000 and only four tracks can be recorded in a single pass. A high-speed transport is used, which is fitted with dbx noise reduction and has varispeed. Metering is via an LCD panel, and two locator positions are accessible, as is a return-to-zero function, which enables a section of the recording to be looped for rehearsal purposes.

The mixer has eight main inputs, but only two have mic inputs and trim controls. The equalisation is a simple two-band affair and each channel has two aux sends, though curiously, the way in which they are arranged means only one per channel can be used at any one time. There are no insert points or direct tape outputs, but the two sets of stereo aux returns means that there are 12 inputs into the mixer. Separate sync jacks are provided, to allow a sync code to be recorded on channel 8, and a punch in/out socket is provided to take the optional footswitch.

So long as you don't want to record a band using several mics at once and don't need to be able to record more than four tracks in one go, the 488 represents excellent value and is capable of making very impressive recordings.

£1174 including VAT

Tascam 688 8-Track Midistudio

Tascam 688

Essentially, the 688 has the same layout and features as the 644 but incorporates the 8-track, high-speed dbx cassette deck pioneered in the 238 recorder. The number of mixer channels has been increased to 10, so if you count the dual input and the aux returns, that's a maximum of 24 inputs. The most obvious physical difference between the 644 and 688 is that the 688 has a meter bridge equipped with 10 LED bar-graphs, which is nicer than having to work with the LCD meters; otherwise, the facilities on offer are much the same. A welcome touch is the addition of channel insert points and direct tape outputs, allowing the recording to be mixed via an external mixer. Surprisingly, even though there are eight tracks occupying the same space on tape as four tracks on the previous models, this restricted track width has caused no reduction in sound quality, which is subjectively similar to 4-track.

£2349 including VAT

Vestax MR300

Vestax MR300

Originally known as Vesta Fire, Vestax have been building cassette multitrackers for many years and their MR300 is about the least expensive, entry-level machine on the market. As expected in this price range, it uses a standard-speed tape transport with Dolby B noise reduction, has a mechanical tape counter and can record a maximum of two tracks per take. In fact there's only one main mic/line input, so if you want to record more than one instrument at once, you need to use the additional two line jacks which merge with the main input signal. The lack of level controls on these inputs means that the source needs its own level control, but otherwise it's no problem. Normally you can only record on one track at a time, but a convoluted patching process allows the inputs to be routed to, and recorded onto, tracks one and two simultaneously.

When mixing, the levels can be controlled but there is no easy way to pan the sounds - tracks one and two are pre-panned left and right, with tracks three and four located in the centre. Recessed pan switches can be used to change this pan assignment, but as these require the insertion of a sharp instrument such as a screwdriver, most users may not feel it worth the effort.

Interestingly, the MR300 has an inbuilt five-band stereo graphic equaliser, but its usefulness is severely compromised by the fact that it can only be used during the mix and not at all during recording. Track bouncing can only be achieved by patching the outputs (all panned to one side) back to the input, and the manual makes no mention of this procedure, which is a bit remiss. Other features include sync output on track four and a switch that allows stereo tapes to be played.

The sync system isn't properly thought out, the equaliser location is silly and the monitor arrangement a trifle weird but, despite its convoluted nature, the MR300 represents very good value as a musical notepad. My main reservation is that it isn't a particularly logical machine to use, especially for the newcomer to recording. Power is via an external mains adaptor.

£234 including VAT

Vestax MR44

Vestax MR44

The Vestax range has been considerably slimmed down of late, and the MR44 is now their top-of-the-range 4-track machine. Unusually for a cassette multitracker, it is rackmounting, with all input and output connections along the lower edge of the front panel. In terms of facilities, it represents a significant improvement over the MR300 — though it is more expensive. The MR44 offers a dual-speed transport, giving 1 7/8 and 3 3/4ips operation, with dbx noise reduction. A MIDI sync in and out is provided. All four tracks may be recorded simultaneously, and the logic-controlled tape mechanism provides a return-to-zero facility; varispeed is available. The tape counter on board is digital rather than mechanical, and similarly, level metering is via LEDs. A 5-band equaliser is provided, but note that this is a global, rather than a per-channel effect, and is usable only when mixing and not while recording. The MR44 has direct outputs for all four tape tracks, though no insert points are provided. For punching in and out, there is a footswitch socket.

For the price, the MR44 seems to offer a good range of facilities, and the doublespeed option should ensure improved sound quality.

£411 including VAT

Yamaha MT120

Yamaha MT120

The MT120 is the recent replacement for Yamaha's previous and popular MT100 MkII. While it shares many features with the MT100 II, this cost-effective machine also boasts several improvements. The tape transport is dual speed (1 7/8 and 3 3/4 ips) with a plus or minus 10% varispeed control. Noise reduction is dbx, switchable on track four for time code, though the dbx may also be switched off globally. All four tracks may be recorded in one pass, and direct outs are also provided. There is an auxiliary send with stereo return for effects, and the 5-band stereo graphic EQ is, again, a global facility. The three-digit tape counters mechanical in operation. Unusually, a wired remote control is available for use with the MT120, and in another departure from the multitracker norm, the 120's power supply is internal, obviating the need for a bulky external AC adaptor.

Yamaha's usual high standards of construction and attention to detail are evident in this new model, and the wired remote is a surprising but welcome touch.

£399 including VAT

Yamaha MT3X

Yamaha MT3X

This model sets itself up in almost direct competition with the two similarly-priced models from Tascam and Fostex and features four-track simultaneous recording, a dual-speed tape transport and dbx noise reduction. Power is from an external mains adaptor.

Bargraph meters are fitted, as is tape varispeed, and there is status LED indication of the main transport modes. The tape transport features return-to-zero plus an auto drop-in/out facility, but this has no rehearse mode, making it imperative to take care when using it. Cue and Review is implemented and this time is quiet enough not to damage your monitors or your ears. Track four may also be used to carry a sync track.

There are six input channels, but only two may be used with microphones, and the channels are provided with a two-band equaliser plus a pair of effects sends. Extensive use is made of recessed slider controls, in order to keep the unit compact, and there are two sets of aux returns, both in stereo. The separate monitor section also uses sliders.

This price range is a fiercely-contested area of the market, and the competing machines, particularly the Fostex 280, appear to offer just slightly better facilities. Even so, this is a very good and sensibly-priced machine and has the additional pair of aux return inputs in its favour.

£599 including VAT


Fostex UK, (Contact Details)
TEAC UK (Tascam), (Contact Details)
Vestax Europe, (Contact Details)
Yamaha (Yamaha-Kemble), (Contact Details)

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Recording Musician - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Recording Musician - Jul 1992

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