Four Track Cassettes
A survey of all the popular machines including TEAC, Fostex, RSD, Clarion, Yamaha and Cutec
With a gallon of coffee and a C60 to keep him going, Mike Beecher samples ALL the popular four track cassette decks for features, price and performance.
Most musicians know what multitracking is all about these days, yet it was almost by accident that it started. The hi-fi world had progressed through monophonic sound to stereo and was on the way to making something big out of quadrophonics – four speakers, one in each corner of the room.
But the extra complexity was enough to sway the majority back to stereo. Nevertheless, there were musicians and studio engineers who had found an entirely different use for Teac's first 4-track, reel-to-reel machine – as a self-contained multitracking home studio.
The success of Teac's A3340 4-track was assured by its use as a serious multitracker, so the 4-track became the creative tool for musicians to compose an entire piece of music, or make a new arrangement of an old tune by adding instruments, voices or effects individually, rather than recording everything at the same time.
If you're able to play a number of instruments, you could be recording a bass line on track 1, then the chordal harmony on track 2, percussion on track 3, and a solo instrument or vocal line on track 4. This is all possible because a multitracker can let you hear your previous tracks on headphones, whilst recording the next track, or overdub, exactly in time, or in SYNChronisation as it's called.
Tracks can be re-recorded separately until you're satisfied or you can use a track bouncing technique called 'ping-pong'. This method enables further tracks to be added by mixing, say, three tracks onto a fourth (and adding another live track) until you're ready to do the final mixdown. Now the four tracks (which could contain up to 10 originals) are carefully balanced to send to a stereo cassette or reel-to-reel as the final master recording.
So that's really what multitracking is, whether you're using a 4, 8, 16 or 24 machine.
Teac brought out the first 4-track recorder using cassette tape and called it the 144 Portastudio. A number of other manufacturers have since recognised that reasonable cost, portability and an element of miniaturisation were important factors in this growing home user market, leading to the appearance of several other cassette multitrackers ranging in price from £300 to £800, all aimed at creating what Fostex term "personal multitrack" for the budget-conscious musician's home studio.
It's fair to say that, whilst Teac started it all, another Japanese company, Fostex, have since made multitracking accessible to all with their £299 X-15 4-track portable. There's also their A-8, the only 8-track using ¼in tape, and their latest B-16 16-track machine. If you're wondering how Fostex caught up so quickly, it has a lot to do with the fact that some of Teac's chief engineers left the company to operate the rival Fostex Corporation. Still, both remain the strongest contenders in multitrack, with Teac providing the largest range of tape recording machines. But what about the new entries – do they offer worthy alternatives? To help you make up your mind, let's take a look at the cassette multitrackers that are available with some useful comparisons.
Here are the current 4-track cassette machines, their prices, and One Two review issue number.
Yamaha MT-44: £399 (No. 4)
Cutec MR-402: £395
Tascam 244 Portastudio: £699 (No. 1)
Tascam 234 Syncaset: £575 (No. 5)
Clarion XD5: £454 (No. 3)
Aria R504 Studiotrack III: £474 (No. 9)
Fostex 250 Multitracker: £575 <4703>(No. 3)
Fostex X-15: £299 (No. 3)
RSD Studio 4: £799
Prices can be misleading, because recommended prices (as quoted) are not always adhered to and the basic format, whether 19in rack mounting, table top, portable or a component in a complete system will always be an important factor. Of course, good sound reproduction is essential too, but more often than not this will come about by getting sufficient 'clean' signal onto tape rather than the recorder's extended frequency response.
The Yamaha MT-44 is part of a complete cased system (the Producer Series) which contains a 4 into 2 mixer with graphic EQ and a patch unit to do all the switching. Similarly, the Clarion XD5 is part of a complete hi-fi studio system, including master stereo recorder, rhythm unit, echo, 4-channel mixer, 7-band stereo EQ, 30W stereo amp and optional matching speakers.
Table-top types are the Cutec MR-402, Fostex 250 and Tascam 244 (the latter two offering all the multitrack mixing you'll probably need). Nineteen-inch rack-mount versions are the Tascam 234, Aria R504, and RSD Studio 4, and the carrying-strap portable is the Fostex X-15.
All these use standard ¼in cassettes as the recording medium, running at one or two speeds – either the normal cassette speed of 1⅞ inches per second (ips) or at 3¾ips. (Sometimes these are shown as 4.75 and 9.5cms per second.) Normal speed lets you play your ordinary stereo cassette tapes and therefore makes the recorder more versatile, while the top speed should extend the high frequencies to give a better sound quality.
The Yamaha MT-44 and Fostex X-15 only have the slower speed, while the rest run at 3¾ips. In order to get 4 tracks onto cassette it is only recorded on in one direction and so the machine is categorised as a 4-track, 4-channel type.
The other facility related to speed is the Pitch Control. This allows you to change the overall pitch of the recording, with an increase or decrease in speed as the pitch changes up or down. At first you might think it's just a gimmicky effect, but it can often be used to trim up pitch, to help master fast passages (provided the instrument tuning is matched to the slower, new pitch), and to put out the final mixdown slightly faster to give a tighter feel. Plus or minus 10% from normal speed is the accepted norm, although if you want more you'll get 15% from the Tascam 244 and 12% from the Tascam 234.
All the manufacturers recommend that C60 or C90 cassettes are used – C120 tape is too thin to withstand the back and forward treatment it'll get – and the tape should always be high bias CROw (Chromium Dioxide), well known for its extended high frequency response and bigger signal capacity.
Looking a little more closely at the transport, these are all mains powered units except for the Fostex X-15. This is the only truly portable 4-track machine available, having a battery pack that neatly extends the case a couple of inches. An optional AC converter to its 11-15 volt DC requirement helps during long monitoring sessions. The RSD Studio 4 also has a 48V phantom supply for powered microphones. Power consumption is pretty well the same at around 30-35 watts. Cutec's MR402 takes 38W and Aria's R504 is the meanest with only 20W.
All systems use a logic-controlled transport that uses an FG (frequency controlled) servo-assisted capstan motor. The latter drives the pinch wheel that makes contact with the tape, and the servo assistance ensures a smooth pick-up of the tape from the soft touch buttons that operate the transport.
Fast wind is done by another DC reel motor and Teac have also introduced a third DC control motor that effortlessly puts the headblock (holding erase and combined record/playback head assembly) into play and record.
Tape counters are usually 3-digit mechanical types which are inevitably not as accurate as electronic versions that do not rely on belts or pulleys to transfer the counting from the motor. Both Tascam machines (244 and 234) and the Fostex 250 score here by using 4-digit fluorescent or LED displays.
Apart from the Fostex X-15, some kind of memory is provided, such as return to zero on the counter which is an obvious asset when constantly going back and forward during multitracking. (The Tascam 234 is the most versatile here.) The logic control also allows jumping from one mode to another, for example, without calling stop before going from fast forward into play. Fast wind time for a C60 cassette appears to be virtually the same for all machines (80-90 seconds).
Another essential feature for correcting part of a track rather than do the whole of it again is the Punch-In external footswitch.
This will change the mode during play to instant record and out again, while you supply the correct notes on top. Fostex have a rather wobbly 'orange' that 'puffs' a lever inside the X-15, while the others more sensibly use a standard make/break footswitch. The Yamaha MT-44 and the Clarion XD5 have this external function omitted, although they can both punch-in from the transport itself.
When surrounded by instruments in your home studio, it's handy to have a remote box for controlling the tape transport from wherever you're playing. Apart from the Clarion and the RSD, they all have an optional remote controller (cable linked).
On the physical side, each weighs around 9kg, with the Cutec the heaviest at 10kg and Aria the lightest mains unit at 7.5kg. All adopt RCA phono connectors for most in/outs except mike which has standard jack inputs (RSD use XLRs on mike inputs to provide the phantom supply).
It's worth pointing out the unusual 4-way touch panel that Yamaha use which is easy enough to operate but may not suit everyone. They've also put in a 4-track sensoring system and a mute switch for silencing lead-in to a recording.
Getting down to recording tracks again, all machines will take up to four tracks in record at once, except for the Fostex X-15. This records on tracks 1 or 3 and/or tracks 2 or 4. The Tascam 244 also has a safe mode between record and playback which is useful. Yamaha and the Fostex 250 show operating modes by coloured LEDs, or illuminated VU meters. Since overdubbing is the name of the game, all the selections are usually built-in to the unit. Most have an extra stereo mix output called Cue or Aux send, in addition to four line ins, four mike ins, and four line outs. These enable stereo or mono signals to be fed to a stereo recorder for the master and also, in some cases, a mix, on record, of an auxiliary effect such as reverb, echo or some other FX treatment. Both the Tascam 244 and Fostex 250 have some useful extras here, like direct feed out of the mike/line signal on each input, a mono mix of all channels for musicians to have on phones while adding more tracks, and aux send and return (pre or post the channel input fader). The Yamaha, MT-44 really does need its mixer and patch bay or some home-brewed mixing/switching box to get the best out of it.
As far as input levels are concerned, there are two factors to check – the sensitivity of the mike input and the available headroom before a mic, line or tape input will overload and cause distortion. Keeping an eye out for the latter is made much easier by the provision of input stage overload LEDs, as provided on the Tascam 244 (it also has them on the master fader).
Mike input sensitivity for them all is between 1 and 3 millivolts (mV) which is fine for most purposes (the lower the value, the more volume you'll get out of your mike). Yamaha's MT-44 has line in only on the deck as they expect you to use it with their mixer. Tascam's 234 Syncaset quotes the lowest value of 0.3mV.
Line inputs and outputs can handle signals of over 5 volts nominal (average) output and this is usually around 0.3V. You'll also see in manufacturers' specs that levels are matched to impedance – between 10k and 60k – and simply give a guide to the mike/line source impedance that will produce the best level matching.
If you're using microphones, monitoring is best done via stereo headphones to avoid feedback of the signal you're listening to onto the tape through the mike. In the home studio setup you'll no doubt spend a lot of time with the cans on – be warned that a lot of high level, continuous headphone listening really can affect your hearing. On the other hand, you may have had the frustration that you get with some hi-fi cassette decks where volume is inadequate.
When multitracking, details of balance between tracks is all-important, so I prefer a variable headphone output to allow quiet passages to be checked, and so on. One hundred milliwatts (mW) is the standard level at eight ohms, and all have variable volume setting, with the Tascam 244 and Fostex 250 throwing in a second phone output which is handy when working with someone else and speaker monitoring cannot be used for some reason.
Tidying up of the signal tone is only possible on four machines, although the Clarion and Yamaha systems cater for EQ in their other system parts. The assumption is that you've got your signal tone and quality right before inputting it to the multitracker. Both Tascams, both Fostexes and the RSD have the added bonus of built-in EQ (tone equalisation). Tascam's 244 offers two parametric EQ controls for adjusting highs between 1k and 8kHz and lows between 62Hz and 1.5kHz with boost or cut of 15dB. That's ideal for peaking up the signal selectively or tuning out undesirable hums. Fostex's 250 has a fixed 4kHz high peaking control plus a low 300Hz shelving (ie affecting frequencies below) with a boost or cut of 12dB.
RSD's Studio 4 has treble/mid/bass EQ, plus or minus 16dB, so there's a lot of variation here. Because overdubbing one track on top of another can reduce the original track's highs, Cutec add a slight treble boost in the process. I like to do this during recording, but I'd rather be making the choice of boost myself.
The long and short of this is that if you've got a reasonable EQ system on a mixer or whatever, prior to feeding to the multitrack, you can get around not having this facility built in. But if you do have it, you'll probably find you can't do without it – especially on mixdown for giving the bass drum more 'oomph' or brightening up the vocal line.
Some kind of noise reduction (NR) is definitely a must on cassette multitrack and, with the proviso that it is correctly set up, of course, you can reduce background noise considerably as well as increasing dynamic range. The Cutec MR402 has no NR at all, while the new Aria has its own system that boosts mids and highs during recording and compresses them on playback.
The Tascam 244 and 234 both employ dbx type II noise reduction which compresses and expands the dynamic range of the whole signal during record and playback, and therefore does keep distortion and hiss well down, bringing about a possible 90dB dynamic range (that's a big variation in volume level during playback).
Dolby B is the most widely used system and Dolby NR is the basic noise reduction system. Both are quite acceptable for most home studio recording, although the newer Dolby C will give a significant KMB improvement in noise reduction over Dolby B.
Here's the rundown on Dolby: Yamaha MT-44 – Dolby B & C; Clarion XD5, RSD Studio 4, Fostex X-15 – Dolby B.
Checking out frequency response and other technical specs can often be misleading, so if by this time you've got one or two machines in mind, you'd be well advised to go and hear them for yourself. For example, I notice that the Tascam 244 has a quoted frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz. Most of the others state a 40Hz to 14kHz bandwidth, but again, there is not really much in it, in practice. Aria quotes 50Hz to 13k and the X-15 has 40 to 12.5k at -10VU.
Distortion (Total Harmonic Distortion or THD) is measured at 315hZ or 1kHz, 0VU level and all give a 1 to 1.5% value except Tascam, who quote a good 0.05% at 1k.
Signal To Noise varies quite a lot and very basically gives an indication of how far background noise is kept below your music. On a rising scale, the quoted S/N ratios are: Cutec 54dB, Fostex X-15 60dB, RSD 63dB, Clarion 64dB, Yamaha 67dB, Aria 70dB, Fostex 250 71dB, Tascam 244 80dB, and the 234 95dB (the higher the better, with NR, if incorporated).
Wow and Flutter – the variation you get as the tape transport runs during record and playback – is much less of a problem than it used to be; a sustained acoustic piano note usually brings out the wobble if W&F is poor, but all these machines seem to be adequate. The effect of a signal spilling onto an adjacent channel to the one recorded on is called Crosstalk: the Fostex X-15 is adequate at -40dB, the 250 is at -45dB, Clarion and Tascam 244 at -60dB, the 234 at a good -70dB, and the rest at -50dB.
There are still a lot of people who prefer VU meters to LED bargraph displays, and a built-in peak LED in the meter is a great help in catching fast transients from percussion and synth attacks. A good bargraph display will exhibit a fast transient and slow decay, so in many respects overcomes the need for a peak LED.
Some illuminate their meters only when in record or selected mode, and four of either type are provided except for the X-15, which is restricted to two 12-segment LED bargraph metering. The LED bargraph types are Yamaha, Clarion and RSD. The others are VU types with Tascam 234 and Fostex 250 having peak LEDs in addition.
One final point before leaving the cassette machines – it is often easier to adjust track levels with sliders rather than rotary knobs, so if you use a machine with the latter it is a good idea to have a separate mixer in your recording set-up.
The alternative to the cassette machine is, of course, a reel to reel tape recorder, and if you're looking for something beyond four tracks you'll have to choose reel to reel. The current reel machines available are:
Tascam 34: £1025 – ¼in tape, 10½in max reel
Tascam 44: £1D50 – ¼in tape, 10½in max reel
Tascam 38: £1989 – ½in tape, 10½in max reel
Tascam 48: £3060 – ½in tape, 10½in max reel
Tascam 58: £3980 – ½in tape, 10½in max reel
Fostex A-8: £1259 – ¼in tape, 7in max reel
Otari MX505-Mk 1118: £3427 – ½in tape, 10½in max reel
Fostex B-16: £2925 – ½in tape, 10½in max reel is currently the lowest cost machine. Other studio machines are available.
Apart from the price, you may have to consider different criteria when looking at reel machines.
Rack-mounting options are usually offered and the electronics should be accessible enough to make calibration checks when required. Single cards or panel removal to get at rows of presets are usually ideal so that things like bias can be adjusted for a new high energy tape, and so on. A built-in test oscillator (1k/10k selectable) is useful for setting up levels prior to recording, and the headroom on these machines can be considerable – up to 28dB can be expected on inputs that can be balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA phono at the two standards of +4dBm and -10dBv respectively.
Tape handling is all-important and is usually taken care of by optically spring-loaded motion-sensing guides. NAB spools are desirable and tape start-up time is critical for dropping into a precise part on the tape. Two fast wind modes are sometimes employed to help with editing – either 'rock and rolling' your way through the tape or doing 'dump edit', where motion sensing is defeated to allow cut tape to be sent through the transport. Hall effect switches remove clicks on and off, and a built-on splice block and manual tape lifter (including audio unmute cueing) also aid editing.
The FG DC servo transport should be easily accessible – with features such as liftable headplate and plug-in headblock, with good depth base (around 5mm), closer heads for more precise punch-in, pitch control and selective sync on each channel also important.
Tape counters use an optical tachometer system counting in minutes and seconds, with RTZ (return to zero) and STC (search to cue) locating. And extras like SMPTE time code handling, remote controller and external dbx control and/or built-in NR complete the package.
Choosing the right multitracker for your home studio, be it large or small, is a major investment for any musician, so check out the features carefully, visit your local dealer and hear a selection and then you'll be sure of making the most of your money. And don't forget that many of today's successes have been recorded on 4-and 8-track.
Thanks to suppliers Rockbottom, (Contact Details) for Clarion, RSD, Yamaha and Cutec; Gigsville, (Contact Details) for Aria; Turnkey, (Contact Details) for Fostex and Otari; and Harman UK Ltd, (Contact Details) for Teac/Tascam.
Gear in this article:
Feature by Mike Beecher
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