Clarion: Home Studio System
The CLARION Home Studio — Best yet cassette?
Since those far-off days when TASCAM sprang the original Portastudio on the world the market for demo making and general home recording on cassette has taken off in a way that, previously, nobody could ever have forseen. It's easy now to forget that the original cassette tapes were launched by Philips as nothing more than a low-cost domestic recording format, mainly intended to be confined to home use on portable mono machines. Yet nowadays the very best cassette players can almost equal the sound quality of traditionally superior reel-to-reel equipment and a whole generation of musicians has grown up relying on this rather primitive tape format to record its songwriting ideas and band demos on.
Hand in hand with the developments of tape quality, noise reduction systems and impressive specification stereo machines, has gone a phenomenal amount of work by Japanese Makers like Tascam and Fostex. These two, to date, have controlled the home demo cassette market until the last few months, when new machines have begun to appear from the giant Yamaha corporation as well as smaller outfits like Cutec.
At the same time as the technology which enables cassettes to be used for four track work gets better and better, manufacturers have been spreading their abilities down market, notably Fostex, with their brand new X-15 Tracker machine, bringing multitrack cassette recording to a market which could never, previously, have afforded it.
But what about the other end of the Spectrum? How much further can cassette tapes go? Could they be used in what amounts to a virtual home-studio set-up, giving the sort of facilities which one normally expects to find on four track reel-to-reel systems? One Japanese manufacturer who obviously thinks they can is Clarion, better known in Gt. Britain for its in-car entertainment systems, but now, via importers Rose-Morris and Co., hitting the market with what must be unquestionably the most sophisticated home studio on cassette system yet devised.
To review any of these Portastudio-like machines is never an easy task. The faults and favours of each model often don't come to light until you've been using them for several months. It's not just the sound quality that matters, there is also the 'X-Factor' of ease of use. How simply can you ruin a whole day's work by pressing the wrong button? How easy is it to set up a good foldback level in a hurry? Does it have a freak recording effect on any particular instruments? These are the sort of questions that have to be answered and it takes time to find those matters out.
Fortunately we were lucky enough to have the first Clarion in the country for quite some time before the machine was launched, or even announced, but that also, regrettably, meant that we were without an instruction book and (as anyone who's even tried using the Tascam 244, say, with its excellent manual will tell you) it's no easy task to get to the bottom of what does what without a lot of careful reading!
On account of that, and even notwithstanding the amount of time which Rose-Morris kindly let us have the machine, we wouldn't try to pretend that we have fathomed every function of the Clarion. At the time of going to Press we still hadn't received an instruction book and so we might have missed the occasional point. What we do offer, though is genuine (and sometimes hard won) experience with the machine — and maybe that's worth more than anything else?
First sight of the Clarion gives you some idea of just how advanced a system it is. And, yes, 'system' is the best term to describe it. The whole machine comprises two sections which can be purchased either on their own or together. These comprise a module which fits in the top section of the stand assembly, a basic four track cassette recorder, retailing at a recommended £659, a complete mixer integrated with an echo unit, rhythm box, master twin track recorder and power amp (for an RRP of £1,059) and a stand housing which enables the two units to be used as one easy to handle whole, selling for £149. To review the system best we've broken it down to its component elements and will cover each in turn.
"...'A SYSTEM' IS THE BEST TERM TO DESCRIBE IT"
Of those four track recorders that we've seen to date it has to be said that the Clarion is undoubtedly the sturdiest. The unit is finished in a dull matt pewter colour and is fitted with two excellent metal carrying handles, one at either end. The front panel on this section comprises access to the cassette compartment with various controls which we'll go into later.
You also have four input channels, very clearly marked, functional and easy to use. Each channel has twin sliders (input level and output level) plus a slider for stereo pan assign. Each channel also has simply marked buttons for record, play and send functions, and a nice looking, very easy to read LED ladder to set the optimum level on tape.
Each channel also has its own single jack socket input plus a switching system for low or high gain sources. In use we found these twin settings enabled us to use both low impedance mikes and high impedance direct injected basses and guitars, so you're well covered for all uses here.
Apart from a DIN socket for an optional remote controller, the other front controls are easy to use. You've a slider for tape speed (effectively a pitch control and marked as such) plus push buttons which govern monitor select for each track, line select, mix down select, Dolby in/out and memory function in/out. Memory function is by a standard mechanical system with a numerical rotary tape counter. In addition you have an eject button, pause, and very solid logic controls for rewind, stop, play and fast forward. Our overall experience with tape handling showed that they were effective in operation and gave us a lot of confidence in the high build-quality and reliability of the Clarion overall.
The rest of the functional equipment and facilities on this module are round at the back. They comprise twin phono sockets (in and out) for each channel plus a pair of phonos for send down to a mixer.
"THE MASTER CASSETTE RECORDER ON THE CLARION CAN RUN AT EITHER DOUBLE OR NORMAL SPEED ..."
This is the really unique feature of the Clarion. Like the top module, (that is, if you look at the two together on the optional stand), it is very well manufactured indeed with none of the rather offensive plastic quality which afflicts some other recording equipment currently on the market.
Just for the sake of being contrary (actually, because it's the bit which interfaces with the multi-track section up above) we'll cover the back of the Clarion Mixer first.
Here you have a socket for mains feed, four connectors for output to your speakers (these can either be from your own Hi-Fi system or can be bought as an optional extra from Rose-Morris as part of the Clarion system, in which case you can also get speaker stands with them). The output level obtainable here is quoted as being 30 watts per channel, which isn't massively loud but is quite satisfactory for most sensible domestic purposes.
Finally, on the back (or really perhaps it should be looked on as being on the base of the mixer housing) you have the phono sends and receives for the four track recorder module marked as 'in' and 'out' for the multi-recorder, labelled for channels 1 - 4. Next off you have, line out (left and right), tape monitor (left and right) inputs aux, tuner, phono and a ground switch.
At the front of the control section on the mixer (which angles very nicely up towards you when it's in its stand) is an array of switches and knobs which look more like it belongs on the control deck of the Starship Enterprise than on a machine to be used by a mere humble 20th Century musician. This isn't unique to the Clarion though — as most home recording gear looks a bit forbidding until you get the hang of it and the Clarion is no exception to this.
"...VERY SOLID LOGIC CONTROLS FOR REWIND, STOP, PLAY AND FAST FORWARD... WERE EFFECTIVE IN OPERATION..."
What you effectively have is a separate cassette recorder which can either be your basic domestic player or your mastering machine (or both of course) plus a duplicate set of those very functional logic buttons to control tape motion, but this time you also have a useful 'record mute' function as well. Up above the cassette unit lives another array of very complete facilities which include tape type selector (normal ferric, Fe-CR, CRO2 and metal) plus a control for automatic programme locate on a 'find the gaps between the tracks' basis (which we'll go into later) an MPX filter switch (for debugging Dolby signals recorded from your tuner), Dolby in/out and tape speed — yes, most helpfully, the master cassette recorder on the Clarion can run either at double or normal speed, suiting it for use as a high quality mastering machine or for use at conventional speed — you even have a variable pitch facility on it.
Over to the right of the twin track cassette is the mixer section itself. Here you have four channels each with a very impressive range of controls. Each channel lights (via a green LED) when it is selected and has three neat click-stopped knobs which give you effects internal or external, mixer or multitrack effects send select, volume for the channel, pan pot, treble, bass and effect level plus an input jack socket with gain select high or low. These facilities are duplicated for each channel in turn.
In addition to all this, the Clarion's mixer has yet another three sets of push buttons for overall function select (cassette/phono/tuner/aux), Monitor Select (all channels/1-2/3-4/Tape Monitor/mixer bypass). There are also sets of push button selects for built-in rhythm machine (rhythm channel select and then the rhythms themselves from beguine through bossanova, bossa-rock, rock, swing, march, waltz-rock, waltz) plus start/stop. You also have a fairly simple on-board echo system comprising two echo select buttons plus on/off and above them volume and tempo sliders for the rhythm unit and repeat, intensity and level for the echo.
At last (gasp!) there is a splendid built-in stereo graphic equaliser with left and right sections offering ±10dB across frequencies 63Hz, 160Hz, 400Hz, 1 KHz, 2.5KHz, 6.3KHz and 16KHz. Is that all? Well, not quite as there is, obviously, also a meter (horizontal reading LED type) for master cassette levels plus a scale to show you which automatic programme control you've set on the master cassette's memory function.
"THE MIXER'S FACILITIES ENABLE YOU TO GET A TREMENDOUSLY WIDE RANGE OF SOUNDS..."
In some ways the Clarion seems to be a strange mixture of the old and the new. The noise reduction system, for example, is the now dated Dolby 'B' system which is superceded by the Dolby 'C' on most domestic machines (including the Fostex 250 multitrack) or DBX (as found on the Tascam 244). And yet you have the chance to use metal tapes on the bottom master section of the machine, which, plus the double speed function, is giving you the opportunity to get a really good sound quality down on tape. But, when even cheap domestic machines offer Dolby 'C' these days, it's a bit of a pity to find the older type 'B' on offer exclusively here.
The multi-track unit furthermore, doesn't allow you to select tape type. We tried our sample with many different tapes and found it best on premium grade pseudo-chromes like TDK SA and Maxell UDXL II-S. Maybe you don't need a tape type select here as no-one seems to offer it as a choice on their machines?
Judged on its own, this multi-tracking section is certainly very well made but, like all such units seen independently, is of somewhat limited use unless you already happen to own a mixer to enable you to add tone and effects. Mind you, we did get really good results from it. The build quality seems to be reflected inside the Clarion as well as outside it and notwithstanding some fairly hard use we gave the Clarion, it certainly didn't either let us down or show any drop-off in sound quality.
Having your 'ins' and 'outs' to a mixer (either the Clarion's own or another type) in the form of simple patch up leads (the unit is supplied with nice quality leads already marked to show you which is for which channel) the machine is a doddle to use. You just input direct into the front, select the record function, set your levels, choose what monitoring you want, what panning and away you go. Notwithstanding the fact that you've only got Dolby 'B' the sound quality on good tapes is very impressive and the input gain seems suitable for any purpose whether mike inputs, instruments D.I.'d or whatever.
To send across to the next channel is also simple. You just select the 'send' button on the first track, link the channels via the patching leads, input your source, select record on channel two and so on. As always, successive mix-downs and re-recordings cost you a loss of overall quality but this is no worse than you would expect and the product is quite acceptable after, say, three tracks down to one (with another track added on the final recording track) and then another two or three on top. Any more than that and, really, you're stretching the limits of any machine a bit too far.
"YOU CAN EITHER USE THE MIXER SECTION TO PRE-SHAPE YOUR ORIGINAL INPUT SIGNAL OR DURING MIX-DOWN TO GET THE BLEND AND TONALITY TO THE SHAPE YOU WANT."
Overall our verdict on this unit would be that it's slightly expensive but very well made and capable of swift, easy use with impressive results.
Here the Clarion really comes into its own. You can either use the mixer section to preshape your original input signal or during mix-down to get the blend and tonality to the shape that you want (or both, of course.) Input can still be via the top multi-tracking section or through the mixer and then up via the patch cords to the multi-tracker. The facilities on offer are a bit of a strange brew in that what you really have here is far more than a mere mixer for the multi-tracker.
What you are actually getting for your £1,000 plus is almost a complete Hi-Fi system insofar as the Clarion offers its own built-in connections for a record deck, tuner and auxiliary of other sorts. The cassette unit is of a high quality and the provision of the auto search mode, which enables you to select, numerically coded, a point where the machine will return time after time is handy.
What you do here is punch a numbered button before a track starts (ie in the silent section of the tape) and this then is found whenever you want by re-using that number — a simple and most effective system.
"NO DOUBT ADDING TO THE OVERALL COST OF THE CLARION PACKAGE IS THE PROVISION OF EXTRAS..."
You also have a tape type selector for this recorder, again useful for optimising your signal quality, plus a variable pitch control, timer start (giving record/off and play) levels for record right and left, balance, overall master output volume and four jack sockets; rhythm footswitch, headphones (a four branch adaptor is an optional extra) plus outboard effects send and return jacks.
The mixer's facilities enable you to get a tremendously wide range of sounds from your signal source. You have the choice of using the tone controls on each channel either with or without the graphic and the tremendous options afforded for how you route the sound and just what and how you monitor it, means that the Clarion has a virtually unmatched flexibility. You do have to think about it first, though, as the chain of operations, whilst logical, does call for some careful consideration before use.
Having set what sort of sound you want (assuming you're using the mixer to send your signal up to the multi-tracker) you can then add echo if you want from the Clarion's built-in unit. This, to be scrupulously honest, isn't the World's most flexible echo system but it is there and we used it both for mild reverb on vocals and fully echoed guitar sounds. It could have been less noisy (although production models have, apparently, been improved) and it could have been more variable but it's, nonetheless, very usable and a worthwhile effect to have — possibly the most worthwhile effect you can have as the difference between dry and reverberated sounds is one of the greatest differences between very amateurish and quite professional results.
The rhythm unit, too, is rather spartan. You can remotely stop and start it (with an optional, low cost, extra) and it is fairly flexible insofar as it has a variable tempo control. The Japanese makers, however, could really do with a refresher course in suitable rock tempos and it is to be hoped that this feature might be up for improvement on future developments. Mind you, once more, the unit is provided and it's very surprising what can be achieved with it, especially if you use it for a very subdued rhythm in the back of a mix. Both mastering and mixing down on the Clarion are especially easy thanks to that almost infinitely variable patching system using leads rather than switches. The tonal range is remarkably good and whatever the presence or absence of complicated noise reduction equipment, so impressive is the graphic, for example, that it's surprising how accurately you can scrape a little hiss off the final mastering track without doing too much damage to the quality of the overall mix.
However you look at it, the Clarion is certainly a thoroughly well manufactured piece of equipment. It isn't the most up to date in terms of all its facilities but it does have some unique extras (like a twin speed mastering stereo cassette machine) which would cost you a small fortune were you to consider the alternative route of buying a more conventional machine) and adding this as a desirable plus to your stereo mastering machine (assuming you can find one with that facility, of course).
The mixing unit, furthermore, is so very capable that it really does enable you to almost professionally engineer your tapes rather than merely add dollops of tone here and there. True, the rhythm and echo sections aren't the ends of the World but they work fairly well and it's surprising how well the practice of having them can overcome any theoretical objections to them which a mere paper specification may appear to show).
No doubt adding to the overall cost of the Clarion package is the provision of extras like the power amp for output to your speakers. Whether you'd need this when most people already have their own Hi-Fi power and pre-amps which will do at least as good a job (often better) is open to debate. Again, you may count this facility as either a plus or a minus — it all depends on what you're using currently. If your existing Hi-Fi set-up needs replacing or is just a cheap one, then buy the Clarion, a pair of decent speakers, record deck and a tuner and you'll have everything you need for both a good home studio and a fine Hi-Fi system all in one room and looking very impressive to the neighbours! On the other hand, it's a shame that you have to buy the power amp and stereo cassette machine (however good the latter is) if you already have a decent quality stereo cassette recorder and Hi-Fi set-up.
In terms of its facilities and the quality of the results (the latter of which must, of course be the final point of any judgement) the Clarion is easily the most comprehensive machine on the market today. Some of these facilities you might want, some you might not, but, all stacked-up in its rack/stand system it's an impressive package, and not just visually. All we can say about how well it performed is that, once we'd got the hang of using it, we were making master twin track cassettes as good as we've ever done on anything else (save a little unwanted tape hiss courtesy of the Dolby B) but with better sounds, from the comprehensive Eq. than we've got before.
Buy the multi-track unit on its own and you have a good, flexible, well made recorder with a good potential due to Clarion's simple but wholly usable patch cord system of linking things up. Add the mixer and stand and you're moving into an odd mixture of half Hi-Fi system with a very good mixer and some reasonably usable effects.
The system as a whole is expensive and has its oddities. For all that it is very complete indeed and would be the ideal buy for the musician who really wanted to get the whole home recording on cassette scene covered with one unit which enabled him, at the same time, to replace half of his flagging Hi-Fi. Value for money depends on where you fit in terms of what you already have. But the Clarion, if you can use what it offers to the full, can make some excellent quality demos and that, after all, is what it's all supposed to be about.
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