Reviews: It ain't easy to keep with this year's models, but the solution is here, with these mini-reviews of every portastudio currently available.
Though we've known about this for some time no review samples have yet materialised and so all we have to go on is a quick look at an exhibition and the word of the manufacturer. The 614 appears to be a four-track version of the MG1214 12-track cassette-based system that Akai shocked the world with a while back. It has six mixer inputs with two-band sweepable eq, two independent auxiliary sends, a pan control and a two-bus routing system. It uses dbx noise reduction and can run at either 1⅞ips or 3¾ips.
The most unusual feature is the existence of an onboard microprocessor that governs channel/track routing, multifunction autolocate with multipoint search to cue, search and play, loop and programmable and rehearsable drop-ins and drop-outs. I can't find out just how flexible the channel/track routing is but it does seem that there are only two routing buses although there's probably a direct channel to track facility to make things a little flexible as with its big brother. Two of the mixer inputs also feature balanced XLR mike inputs, and there is effectively an extra track on which to record timecode making it possible to sync up MIDI systems (drum machines, sequencers etc) without wasting a track. That's a very big plus when you only have four tracks to start off with.
I wasn't totally convinced about the MG1214 even though it has some good facilities. However, the same facilities applied to the portastudio and at such a very reasonable price, gives this the possibility of being the best value upmarket system available. Still, as they seem to be taking a while actually getting the final product out, perhaps we should reserve judgement and refrain from making such rash claims. Could be good, though.
Although AMR, a subsidiary of Peavey, did show prototypes of their DCR 421 portastudio last year, they never went ahead with production and so there are none to be had new or second hand. At present they have no definite plans for the future models.
The RMX64 is shortly to be discontinued but it is safe to say that during its short life it ruled supreme over the portastudio domain. It includes virtually all the features to be found on the Tascam 246 with the notable exception of a memory facility on the tape transport in addition to its RTZ. This means it isn't possible to cycle round and round between two points in a song — a rather sad omission considering the rest of the machine. It's got two-band sweepable eq with a choice of peak or shelving characteristics, two auxiliary sends, comprehensive metering, very flexible channel/track routing, switchable tape speed (1⅞ips or 3¾ips) and is operationally sophisticated but simple. It's also got no less than four headphone outputs, solo buttons on the input channels, balanced mike inputs on XLR connectors with 48V phantom powering for studio condenser mikes (!) and its four monitor channels can be used as extra inputs or effects returns on mixdown.
Physically it is pretty massive weighing in at very considerably more than the 246 and stretching the definition of 'portable' to the extreme. Though mechanically and electrically sophisticated the standard of construction is not totally convincing with ill-fitting knobs and non-positive transport controls.
This is undoubtedly the ultimate portastudio to date and apart from stretching the definition of portability it also stretches the humble C format cassette to its performance limit and perhaps beyond. Can four tracks and the, at best, limited sonic performance of the domestic cassette warrant having such huge sophistication built around it? Is it perhaps like having a Rolls Royce body with a Mini engine? The fact that it's being pulled off the market possibly suggests that it was a little too sophisticated and that it fell between the two stools of being a convenient, inexpensive demo tool and a serious production facility. At this price you could really start to consider a second hand Fostex 8-track system. Either way it certainly brought a touch of class to the world of portastudios, brief though its stay was.
My original review of the Cutec portastudio was not overly complimentary. It came out back in the old days when the Fostex 250 reigned supreme and there was little competition about. This is the first opportunity I' ve had of looking at the new Cutec MR404 and I am pleased to say things are looking up.
Sophisticated, multi-function complexity is all very well if you understand it and have a bent towards the technical, but I know many would-be home recordists who look upon the average semi-sophisticated portastudio in awe and, though they would dearly love to join the Do It At Home Club, they simply can't face all them buttons. At the same time a machine has to have the basic performance standards and facilities to make it a useful musical tool. As far as price goes the Cutec falls quite neatly between the top and bottom of the market range and offers good basic facilities plus — and this is the point — an unusual level of operational simplicity.
Each of the four input channels has an input trim, two-band fixed eq, a pan pot and a main channel fader. Whilst tracking there are four buttons to determine which tracks you wish to monitor, and switching between tape and line-in whilst recording is effectively automatic. There's a fifth button for monitoring the stereo bus during mixdown — it's extremely logical and difficult to mess up. Each track has a three-position toggle switch 'Rec-Play-Send' the first two positions of which are self-explanatory and the third is used to allow any or all four channels to be routed to a single track, and also allow tracks to be bounced. Again it's actually difficult to go wrong and for the inexperienced beginner many minutes/hours of staring at a painfully silent machine could be avoided.
Recorded sound quality is good partly thanks to a 3¾ips tape speed, and the dbx reduction is unusually effective keeping noise levels low whilst refusing to pump or breathe even when subjected to the worst of a drum machine. It can be switched out if required.
You can get machines with similar features (eg the Tascam Porta One which also has a battery power option) for less money, but if you want good basic facilities, good sound and simplicity of operation is important, the Cutec wouldn't be a bad bet.
The X-15 was revolutionary in that it was the first truly portable, battery powered portastudio. It is somewhat limited in that there are only two mixer inputs, although in recognition of this Fostex themselves brought out a low cost (£59) four channels mixer/compressor called the MN-15 to act as a submixer and of course a compressor. Even if you add the price of the MN-15 to that of the basic machine the total RRP is still only £308, which is very good value. The X-15's two input channels are referred to as A and B and are accessed via a pair of ¼" jack sockets on the front face of the unit. Each channel has a switch to allow it to accept either unbalanced microphone or line level signals plus fixed treble and bass controls. The signal in channel A can be routed to either track 1 or track 3, whilst that plugged into channel B can be routed to either track 2 or 4. This means that mixing more than one source on to a single track is impossible without the aid of a submixer. In place of the standard electronic footswitch for dropping in and out there's a device similar to a normal stills camera remote release cable, but operated pneumatically via a rubber bulb. It's a bit clumsy and makes smooth drops a bit tricky.
The portability and simplicity of use of the X-15 is still quite striking and at £249 it is still considerably less than its nearest price rival, the Vesta Fire MR-10. Another limitation is the use of Dolby B noise reduction, the positive aspect of which is that it is compatible with standard domestic machines. Both the Porta One and the Tecson offer considerable advantages over the X-15 and if you're looking to achieve any kind of sophisticated production standards it is certainly a better bet. If you simply can't afford the extra money, the X-15 is still a very effective and convenient sketch pad with which to try out simple arrangements.
Still the cheapest, a fact that is reflected in its rather lightweight construction, limited mixing facilities and Dolby B noise reduction. A very good sketch pad and still very good value. For a little more sophistication at a slightly higher price take a look at the Vesta Fire MR-10 and going further up market, the Tascam Porta One or the Tecson.
This is the latest addition to the Fostex range and a full review will follow next month. It fits inbetween the X-15 and the (also very recent) 260 and is in fact more or less what you' d expect as a compromise between the two.
It runs at 3¾ips with Dolby C and is thus capable of producing as good a basic result on tape as the 260. Its four channels feature input trim, two-band fixed eq, and can be routed via a two-bus system to any two tracks. This is basically the same system as found on the 260 (explained below) and although there isn't full routing it is possible to record on all four tracks at a time using the direct channel to track facility. No real limitations, then. Just as with the old 250, each channel has a single auxiliary send intended for foldback whilst recording tracks and for effects send during mixdown.
It's a little early to say anything too definite about the 160, but at this price, as a simplified 260 still running at 3¾ips with the well proven Dolby C, it should offer serious competition to the Tascam Porta One.
After the 160, the 260 is the most recent addition to the Fostex range and supercedes the 250. A fuller version of this review can be found in last month's IM&RW. The 260 is sleek and modern looking with a raked control panel and a curved cassette compartment cover in smoked perspex that lends it the appearance of some kind of racing machine. Cosmetically it's taken a leaf out of the new Seck mixer's book and features a similar breed of slick new control knob and a generally pleasing pastel colour scheme. Its top surface area is marginally greater than the 250 but its streamlined design gives it a less bulky form and all the controls are well laid out with plenty of room for access.
If you're used to using the more 'normal' portastudios, the 260 takes a bit of getting used to, although it isn't long before it all falls into place and what at first seemed like rather boringly different operational tactics on the part of Fostex proved to be highly ergonomic and flexible.
Four proper mixer channels are augmented by an extra couple of line-in phono sockets which I'll come to later. There are only two group buses via which to route channels to tracks but each channel can also be routed directly to its corresponding track (1-1, 2-2 etc), and thus there are few practical limitations. The only theoretical limitation arises when inputs five and six are brought into play. The level and pan controls for each of these allows them to be fed into the stereo channel/track buses and thus in any of the above permutations these can be added to either or both buses. This four plus two layout isn't quite as flexible as having six complete input channels as found on the Tascam 246 or the Audio Technica AT-64, but it's considerably less expensive and in practice it simply means that you may have to think and re-plug a little more but finally it isn't likely to cause any serious limitations.
Once underway, recording, playing back and overdubbing are all very effortless with the switching between line-in and tape replay being handled automatically (a big plus) so that all you have to do is go into record, play your instrument, rewind and hit the play button, etc, etc, until you get the part right. There's no messing about with changing channels if you're doing several guitar parts on different tracks, the routing facilities allow you to leave the guitar in the same input.
As you would expect there is a single unbalanced ¼" jack input socket for each of the main channel inputs which are situated on the front edge of the machine making plugging and replugging easy. These inputs are intended to cope with the whole possible range of mike and line inputs which they did manage to do, although there wasn't a great deal of headroom and plugging in an electric guitar directly required a certain amount of level juggling between input trim, channel fader and guitar volume to avoid slight overload distortion even with the LED meter peaking below the 0VU. The situation persisted when it was fed from the DI output of a high quality guitar combo, and so it wouldn't appear to be a problem of impedance mismatch (the input impedance is 50k ohms) but rather one of pure level. This was a nuisance but didn't finally stop me doing anything, and once I'd found a working gain structure, keeping the levels down a little produced a very acceptable result. The eq is two-band sweepable providing ±15dB covering the ranges from 80Hz to 1.2kHz and 700Hz to 10kHz. It would have been nice to have had an extended bass range to allow the rolling off of hum and rumble, but in practice it worked well and sounded reasonably musical. By giving full boost at around 7kHz and 1.2kHz, and adding a little chorus pedal and digital reverb I achieved the full, bright sound I was looking for.
Listening to a snare in isolation coming back from tape the Dolby C did pump a little, though not at all badly relative to other systems. The noise level was not stunningly good but even after a few bounces the cumulative hiss wasn't too obtrusive.
Dropping in and out is very simple. Each track has its own Record Read/Safe button and associated LED and if these are selected for Record Ready and the Play and Record transports buttons are depressed the relevant tracks will go into record. Alternatively, these Ready/Safe buttons can be used to individually drop tracks in and out of record on the fly. Pressing the transport button when in Stop will instantly give you line-in for those tracks that are Record Ready selected. Bouncing and mixing are also operationally very simple and straightforward.
Slick, ergonomic design, good eq, two aux sends plus stereo cue, Dolby C, six inputs, flexible routing, good metering, reasonable price: all in all a very good balance and a great improvement on the 250.
This machine has been on the market for many years and was in many ways ahead of its time and was always said to be a bit over the top and too highly priced. It's more or less been taken off the market now, although Studiomaster will continue to build them to order for a short while longer — at a price.
It's always had six channels, six balanced mike inputs with switchable 48v phantom powering and still features the most comprehensive eq to be found on any portastudio with sweepable mid and bass plus a treble shelving control, an arrangement taken from the very successful Studiomaster range of mixing consoles and one capable of great musical effect. It has two auxiliary sends and four separate channel/track routing buttons on each input channel plus fifth ones for L & R on the channels 1 to 4 for remix. Having thus routed the channels, there are two more group faders providing control over group outputs 1&3 and 2&4 with metering being via four LED ladders.
It's a 19" rack mount but is very different from the Tascam 234 in that it has a panel depth of 15.75" (9U) and the face plate is a single anodised metal sheet with the exception of the cassette compartment. Compared with today's upmarket models it's rather spartan looking and lacks certain operational sophistications such as a tape position memory, although it does have an RTZ.
If you want a new one of these you'll have to be quick, but at the price it is probably a little outstripped by the Tascam 246, with its weakest point probably being its use of Dolby B noise reduction. I've known people get very good results from these machines, however.
The Porta One could reasonably be seen as an upmarket Fostex X-15. At around £421 it costs considerably more, but for that you get a number of significant extra facilities including better routing, better noise reduction and improved overall signal control. Its size and weight are slightly greater: 13" x 19 13/16-x 2¾" and 7.7lbs as opposed to the X-15's 11½" x 9 x 7¾" and about 6.5lbs, but it's still not a great deal to lump around, especially considering what it's capable of.
It runs at the domestic speed of 1⅞ips (±15% varispeed) and thus can be put to work as part of a hi fi set up although the use of dbx noise reduction (which can be switched out) makes it a bit dodgy for Dolby encoded tapes. The dbx on this model seems to be particularly effective and doesn't suffer from the nasty pumping side effects sometimes found on the 244.
It has four complete input channels accessed by four mic/line ¼" jacks on the front edge of the machine each of which features an input trim, fixed two-band eq, pan, a channel fader and a 3-position Mic/Line-Off-Tape channel source selection switch with fluorescent position indicators as a power saving alternative to LEDs. Though better than the X-15 the routing isn't entirely comprehensive working, as it does, via a two-bus system: the left hand bus can be routed to either track 1 or track 3 whilst the right hand can go to either track 2 or track 4. In this way, although it isn't possible to send all four channels simultaneously to all four separate tracks, all four channels can be sent to any one track.
Another significant improvement on the X-15 is the use of a normal electronic drop-in/out footswitch system as opposed to the rather clumsy mechanical device found on the X-15. Metering is via four very slightly angled, illuminated moving coil VU meters (as opposed to the X-15's two LED ladders). Personally I find LED ladders superior especially for self-op work when half the time you're peering across the room trying to see how the levels are doing as you record, and I did find this mildly irritating. It seems to me that the whole of the Tascam portastudio range would be better off with LEDs (at present they all have moving coil VUs). All the controls are well constructed and smooth in operation. The knobs are unusual low profile rubber things — very robust and practical for location work and also nice to use. As with the X-15, in order to save on costs and on power consumption (with batteries that's important) the transport controls are not electronic logic, but instead use a system of mechanical controls that activate a servo mechanism which drives the head assembly against the tape. The transport is generally solid and responsive.
I very much enjoyed using this machine again. If you're looking for a combination of portability, good sonic performance and a reasonable level of facilities, this is a very good bet, although it is worth noting that there are no auxiliary sends as found on all of the more expensive 'full-spec' systems.
This is the newest thing in the book and the machine that fills the gap between the Porta One and the ever-popular 244: the Porta Two. It's Tascam's response to the growing interest in the use of MIDI systems synced to tape and hence has an extra two inputs for all those MIDI'd instruments and an input specifically designed for recording code to tape.
It looks very much like a Porta One except that it has the six full mixer channels (not four plus two auxiliary inputs as found with many other machines) each with input level trim, two band fixed eq, effects send, pan and channel fader. In addition to the effects send there is also a pre-fade tape cue (foldback). Channel to track routing is more flexible than with the Porta One: tracks one and three each have a 'Direct/Safe/Left' switch while tracks two and four each have a 'Direct/Safe/Right' switch. It's basically a two-bus routing system (L&R) with direct switches for channels five and six to allow all four tracks to be recorded on simultaneously. In addition there's a separate Sync Input for recording timecode to track four without taking up a valuable mixer channel. This intentionally has a minimum of circuitry but does include a band pass filter to help minimise data errors. There's also a Sync Out jack with its own volume control.
Channels one and two have insert points so that you can easily insert all those MIDI-controlled processors you've been buying, and there's also a stereo effects return to the main stereo bus.
Having not actually seen it I'll uncharacteristically refrain from making any sweeping statements, but this does look like a very 'competitive' machine. Having a slow tape speed and fixed eq keeps it out of the 'upmarket' bracket, but for the price it offers an unusually flexible range of facilities well targeted at the modern musician's production approach. Next month will see a full review.
The 234 has the distinction of being the only current 19" rack mounting four-track cassette system and it is the only one to offer deck-only facilities, ie it's got virtually no mixer facilities. Each track has separate mike and line inputs each on a ¼" jack and each with its own trim. The mike input has a high impedance and wide gain and thus will accept any low level signal from a low impedance mike to an electric guitar. There's also a dual concentric knob for outputs and pan for the stereo mixed output. But that's it, no channel/track routing, no eq, no auxiliary sends or returns — it needs some kind of mixer to work with it for all but the most basic applications.
It has been designed more for industrial or audio/visual work than as a songwriter/demo tool. Its appeal is in its rugged reliability in that it could be taken on the road for conferences etc without too much fear of breakdown. At £779, however, it isn't likely to be of much interest to most of you lot. It's of very sturdy construction, all metal with a very solid 5¼" high (3U) front face on which all the controls are mounted along with four illuminated VU moving coil meters.
The transport is rock solid, fast and responsive. It has a digital tape position counter with both a return to zero and a memory function. The combination of these two makes it possible to repeatedly cycle over a section of tape or simply to rewind to zero on reaching the memory location. Very useful for exhibition/presentation work, etc.
A very high quality machine with good performance and rugged construction, but its limited production facilities and relatively high price make it an unlikely choice for the average home recordist.
Some time after Tascam introduced the world to Portastudios with their 144, Fostex countered with their definitely superior 250. The 244 was Tascam's answer to the 250 and was for a long time undoubtedly the state-of-the-art machine.
One of the first things to be noted about this machine is its solid mechanical construction. The cassette housing opens and closes with a smooth, dampened action, and there is easy access to the heads, rollers and tape guides for cleaning and demagnetizing. The transport functions are fully logic controlled by a series of easy-touch controls and a digital tape position counter provides RTZ but no memory locate. For its time the 2-band, sweepable equalisation section was unusually comprehensive though today it is standard on a machine of this price. It uses two sets of dual concentric pots for compactness and provides a very musical ±15dBgain between 62 Hz and 1.5kHz and 1 kHz and 8kHz. There's a single stereo auxiliary send bus which can be used as two mono sends.
Something the 244 has over the Fostex 260 is an insert point on its input channels to allow compressors etc to be inserted in line easily. It was once the case that signal processors required a proper line level signal to work properly, but most of the modern home recording devices will work from the output of a guitar (or synth) and thus it is less important to have inserts. The 260 comes out on top in that it has more auxiliary sends which are still of great value when trying to use your effects to their maximum.
The metering is via four large illuminated VUs. As moving coil meters go these are very clear, but for me the LED ladders of the 260 are preferable in terms of visibility.
When continually recording and playing back short passages trying to get them right, the need to continually switch between source (your instrument) while you're recording and tape for playback is tedious, and the 260's ability to do that automatically is a blessing not to be found on the 244 which requires manual switching.
The 244 had a very good innings as primo portastudio and it is still a very good machine, but it now needs to be pulled up to date to be competitive with the 260 which offers more inputs, more facilities and a sleeker appearance — for less money.
This is the top of the range Tascam Portastudio and in the same way that the Porta One must be compared to the Teczon and perhaps the Fostex X-15 and the 244 must be compared to the Fostex 250, the 246 must be compared to the slightly later Audio Technica AT-RMX64. One major difference between the two is that the RMX-64 is very shortly no longer going to be available, although there may still be a few left in the stores.
The 246 might be casually summed up as a sophisticated 244 with six input channels and indeed the existence of the two extra full channel inputs was its major battle cry on entering the market. All six channels have the full quota of facilities: input trim, two-band sweepable eq, two post fade auxiliary sends, four separate routing buttons and smooth high quality channel faders. Apart from the extra two channels, there are two main differences here as compared to the 244: firstly the two auxiliary sends are on two separate knobs whilst on the 244 they were on a single dual concentric; and secondly the four separate routing buttons replace the relatively limited and fiddly two-bus channel/track routing system of the 244, providing total flexibility and operational simplicity. Small changes but refinements that actually make for a much smoother and less wearing operation over a long period. Each channel also has a stereo jack send/return insert point — just like a real mixer, and very useful.
The transport can run at either 1⅞ips or 3¾ips making it possible to work on tapes originated on a plebeian friend's Porta One or similar, although there is only dbx noise reduction to be had. This latter facility can be switched in for all four tracks at once or just for track one. Being able to switch track one out is useful because certain systems have trouble reading their timecode back off tape when it's recorded with noise reduction, and also people do complain about the tendency of dbx to pump with very sharp drum tracks.
As with the 234, the 246's tape transport has both an RTZ and a memory location and the combination of the two can allow you to automatically cycle between two points on the tape making practising a specific part over and over very much easier. If you've never used one I have to tell you it's a surprisingly gratifying feature.
Virtually everything about this machine feels solid, well built and well thought out. Although it was cheaper when it first came out its current price is similar to that of the RMX-64 and it has to be said that isn't quite as sophisticated — on the other hand it is still being made and is backed by Teac's well proven service network.
The 246 is a joy to use but for most home recording applications I find myself questioning the validity of spending almost £1200 on what has to finally be a four-track demo facility. If you saved a little longer you could think about setting up a very basic second hand 8 track — but then you'd risk it breaking down if it's been used for a few years before you get it. If you can afford it, this is a great Portastudio to use, but for the average home recordist the difference between it and the Fostex 260 is largely, though not entirely, one of convenience and ease of use.
The Teczon was launched in direct competition to the Tascam Porta One and is a very similar size and weight, offering similar features at a similar price. It runs at 1⅞ips and features Dolby C noise reduction resulting in a very good sonic performance and relatively little noise/distortion build up when bouncing.
Cosmetically the Dub is perhaps rather less sophisticated than the Porta One although it certainly is more colourful. It can take its power from batteries or the mains (via an optional adaptor). Its physical design, however, makes it less suited to location work in that its knobs are standard height and of hard plastic as compared to the low profile rubber controls of the Porta One. It comes with a carrying case and is indeed very portable, but it is a simple padded cover affair and the machine must be lifted from it for use as opposed to the Porta One's cover which is cleverly designed so that much of the machine's facilities can be utilised still in its cover from an over-the-shoulder position. The Dub's case does offer good protection, however, plus a pouch for the mains adaptor.
Each channel features input trim, two-band fixed eq, pan, line/mic/tape selector switch, a record punch-in button and what would be a channel fader except that it's a rotary knob. The channel to track routing on this machine is unusually limited in that, for the purposes of recording tracks, each of the mixer channels is permanently connected to its respective track, ie there is no channel track routing on record. Each channel does have a track select switch which allows tracks coming back from tape to be bounced down, and it seems madness not to adapt this facility to work when recording. Another significant limitation is that it isn't possible to individually control the monitor level of each track on playback whilst overdubbing. That can become very wearing if you're forced to listen to a percussion instrument or backing vocals up as loud as the lead parts.
The audio quality of this machine is very good, but the limitations concerning routing and monitoring plus the use of knobs as opposed to channel faders puts it rather far behind other units, particularly the Porta One and, though slightly more expensive, the Fostex 160, available at a similar price.
Launched over here in the spring of this year the MR-10 was looking to take over the X-15 market and is undoubtedly very serious competition. It's more or less a direct copy but, as a much later model, it benefits from its designers' knowledge of the market reaction to the X-15, and thus in some ways it actually has the edge — although you are asked to pay a little more for it.
Its layout is very similar with only two mixer input channels and limited routing via a pair of switches whereby Input One can be routed to track 1 or 3 whilst Input Two can go to track 2 or 4. This means that mixing a number of sources onto a single track or recording on more than one track at a time is not possible without a separate mixer such as the MN-15 produced by Fostex for this very purpose.
Vesta Fire have also threatened to introduce a similar mixer expander which will cleverly connect into the system via a five-pin DIN plug already fitted to the MR-10. However, nothing has materialised as yet.
Operationally the MR-10 is as simple as its rival with each channel comprising two-band fixed eq and input level trim, and there's a separate monitor section with four level controls and four pan controls and this is also used for mixdown. Sound quality is good considering a tape speed of 1⅞ips and benefits from the use of dbx noise reduction as opposed to Dolby B used on the X-15, although this does make it slightly less compatible with domestic hi fi machines. Other advantages over the Fostex include having four VU meters as opposed to two, two stereo inputs for a record deck and any auxiliary source such as a drum machine, synth or tape deck. An important facility when you only have two proper mixer inputs. Also, the drop in/out footswitch is electronic as compared to the rather clumsy mechanical affair to be found on the X-15. At present the MR-10 can only work via its mains adaptor, although, once again, a battery pack is threatened.
I've never enjoyed any great empathy with the Vesta Fire sense of aesthetics and this is no exception. It's the brightly coloured, Toy Town knobs concept which I feel detracts from the smartness and neatness of its overall design. Small point, though.
This is a very good machine and assuming that the battery pack and mixer expander will eventually show, it has the edge on the older Fostex X-15, although you must remember that it is considerably more expensive.
Having come down quite firmly in favour of the Vesta Fire MR-10 I have to say it seems that its success appears to be largely due to the fact that the designers had the Fostex X-15 to base it on. I say this because the MR-1, its big brother, is an example of how to fall between every stool available.
It has six mixer inputs which puts it in the upmarket bracket with the Tascam 246 and the Audio Technica RMX-64. The first four inputs feature the unlikely luxury of having built-in compressors but none of the inputs has any eq or auxiliary sends. To me this shows a profound lack of understanding of the home recording process. One compressor is probably enough to serve most portastudio users but it's of the utmost importance to have some control over the tone balance of everything you record, and with effects being such a major part of modern production, not having any auxiliary sends is a major drawback.
The compressors themselves have set parameters and as always they are bound to be a compromise and thus not ideal for any specific operation. It is actually possible to adjust the effective threshold of the compressor by changing the input levels, but the attack and release time are fixed and can play havoc with the dynamics of your playing under certain circumstances. A separate set of eqs is available but at around £90 per channel plus power supply, they make the price even more prohibitive.
Each mixer channel has an input/tape switch, four channel/track routing buttons, an input level trim and a main record level pot — not a fader, but a rotary knob. It's a 19" rack mount design and considering the limited features it measures a rather bulky 19" x 8¾" x 8¾" and its all-metal construction makes it commendably robust but heavy. Again, as with the MR-10, I can't share any enthusiasm for the cosmetics which offer a rather careless and unco-ordinated combination of reds, orange, grey, black, white and blue.
Though simple to use and solidly constructed the MR-1 seems to completely miss the needs of the home recordist, going too far in some directions and not far enough in others. Not a machine that I can easily recommend to the average songwriter, although it might possibly have some industrial applications.
And finally Yamaha came out with a portastudio that reflected their usual flair and eye for the market. Though a little more expensive the MT1X is priced and physically proportioned to challenge the likes of the Tascam Porta One and the Teczon Dub 4x4, and also features the ability to run via a mains adaptor or an optional battery pack, with shoulder strap for portability.
It has four inputs with two band fixed eq, one auxiliary send, one stereo auxiliary return, input trim, channel fader and LED bargraph metering (x4). All sounds more or less as you might expect, but the unusual thing is the layout and the cosmetic. The whole thing is made of matt black plastic — it's like a large piece of sculpted coal.
Apart from the LED meters, the only relief is the turquoise lettering, and that's fairly subtle. There's something almost sinister about it, but it does look sleek and unlike any other portastudio. The layout is unusual in that all the channel controls, with the sensible exception of the pan, are faders including the input trim, eq, auxiliary send and naturally the main channel fader. The pan controls are virtually flush with the base surface, but aren't actually too difficult to operate. You may think that with everything, including the controls, being all black, things might get a little confusing. But surprisingly it's all very clear after a very short time although I can't say the faders are actually much of an advantage over rotary controls, and it is having some of each type that helps break up a control surface and keep sections clearly divided. It's not really a fault, as such, although I don't think the opaque black cassette compartment cover is a very good idea, it's surprisingly off-putting not to be able to see the tape rotating.
To the right, above the cassette compartment, is the monitor section with four sets of level and pan controls offering easy, comprehensive off-tape monitoring during track laying.
The use of dbx noise reduction is a rather questionable decision. Yamaha's original systems favoured Dolby and certainly Dolby C has proved to be very effective in this area. Perhaps there are some commercial influences at work here; I find it hard to think that someone would change from Dolby to dbx for performance reasons. Even so I must say that the dbx works reasonably well on the MT1X.
A very unusual feature is the provision of a separate sync input which is designed specifically with the Yamaha YMC10 converter in mind which converts MIDI data to and from a form recordable on analogue tape. The extra input is allied with track one and provides a means of recording code without taking up a valuable channel with eq and auxiliary sends, etc.
In its own unique way the MT1X is a very good machine with at least all the facilities you'd expect for the price, although only you will know whether or not you can live with its rather stark, forbidding appearance. It really is the opposite end of the scale to the Teczon in cosmetic terms.
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