So You Want To Buy A Cassette Multitracker
Cassette Multitracking Guide
A complete idiot's guide to buying a four-track cassette recorder, with hints on what features to look for, and a rundown of some of the most popular machines.
Right, you've got your amp, you've got your woofers and tweeters and you've got your bag on your head. All you need now is a four-track cassette recorder and you'll be in business, a musician with a studio system you can call your own.
So what's the problem? Well, simply that there are far more cassette multitrackers around than you thought there were, that the differences between them don't stop at price and colour, and that suddenly, you've realised you don't know enough to make a purchasing decision with any confidence.
If you're anxious about throwing money the wrong way, the first thing you need to do is decide what you want your multitracker for. Do you want a musical jotting pad? Do you want to produce high-quality, finished demos? Or do you aim to record master tapes for private (or public) release?
The more you pay out, the better the quality of your recording is likely to be — though as always, a plethora of facilities never guarantees superior results. But if all you want is a versatile, reliable blackboard on which to chalk up your musical meanderings, there isn't much point aiming for supreme quality. And in any case, the limitations of the four-track cassette format are such that your recordings are never going to be sufficiently high in quality to put Abbey Road out of business.
OK, let's look at some of the options available. The first thing likely to affect sound quality is tape speed. A standard cassette runs at 1⅞ inches per second, but in the interests of improving frequency response and noise performance, some multitrack manufacturers have opted to use a tape speed of 3¾ips. Mathematicians amongst you will realise that this is double the normal speed, so tapes used with these machines run for only half their usual time. In most cases, having buy twice as much tape is small sacrifice for the increase in sound quality.
A low level of background noise is essential for serious multitrack work, as you're likely to want to bounce two or three tracks down onto one in order to make room for more musical parts. And every time you do this, you add a bit of noise and lose a bit of quality. Unfortunately, the restricted width and low speed of cassette tape aren't really suited to keeping noise levels down, which leads us to the thorny topic of noise reduction.
All the most common NR systems use what's known as an encode/decode principle, which means you must both record and playback via the system to reap its benefits. Ignorance of this fact is the reason so many people complain that Dolby removes all the treble. In fact, Dolby emphasises low-level high frequencies during recording, and compensates for this on playback — so if you play a non-Dolby tape with the Dolby switched in, of course it's going to sound as though it's being played back through a pile of old socks.
Anyway, I digress. The three most widely used noise reduction systems are Dolby B, Dolby C and dbx.
Dolby B is the most widely-used domestic form of NR, or to put it another way, it's what you're likely to have in your hi-fi unless you bought it recently (in which case you may have Dolby C). It gives a perceptibly lower level of tape hiss than a system with no noise reduction, but a badly aligned Dolby B can lead to undesirable treble loss, and the newer Type C gives a further reduction in background noise whilst seemingly causing fewer problems of its own.
dbx gives the best noise reduction of all in terms of paper specification, but it does seem to cause more noticeable side-effects than either of the Dolby systems. It works by heavily compressing the signal during recording and then expanding it on playback, and if you were able to see the signal on the tape, you'd find that the difference between loud passages and quiet ones is much less than on a conventionally recorded tape. You should also realise that all these NR systems only suppress noise during quiet sections; when the music gets loud, the noise reduction has little or no effect because the music itself hides the noise. With dbx, you can sometimes hear the noise pumping up and down in level as the input volume changes, especially with bass instruments where there's little or no high-frequency content to mask the noise. In isolation this can be disturbing, but in a mix it's unlikely to be a problem. Percussion sounds, particularly those of drum machines, seem to lose their crispness when subjected to dbx, due to a variety of warmly disputed technical reasons which I won't go into here. That doesn't mean you can't record drum machines with dbx, but it does mean you have to be prepared for a slight tonal change, and maybe compensate a little by recording with a brighter tone to begin with.
I'd choose Dolby C, but there area great many people who'd argue the other way, and I've yet to hear the updated dbx Type II. Try to get some first-hand experience before you buy by asking for a demo involving a drum machine.
Tape type is also a significant factor, albeit one that's often overlooked. Most cassette multitrackers are set up to work with CrO2 (chrome dioxide) tapes, which give a wider frequency response than ferric types at the expense of additional head wear and, in many cases, a slightly inferior noise performance. Whichever you choose, make sure you stick to reputable brand names (TDK, Maxell, Sony and the like) as quality can vary enormously even from batch to batch of the same tape. If the user manual says your multitracker has been set up for a specific tape type, stick with that whenever possible.
And so we come to the number of tracks that can be recorded in one take. To save money, the designers of many low-end multitrackers fit four sets of playback electronics but only two sets of record electronics. This means that although you're perfectly free to build up your composition in layers, you can't record more than two tracks at any one time. No problem if you're working on your own, but a drag if you want to record an entire band in one take. If you think you're likely to be in the latter situation, make allowances for spending a little more.
Facilities for equalising sounds (EQ controls to abbreviation fans, tone controls to members of the anti-jargon lobby) vary from non-existent to comprehensive sweep EQ on all four channels, depending, again, on the market area the multitracker occupies. If you're just jotting down musical ideas, the lack of EQ shouldn't bother you in the slightest, but if you want to produce a high-quality cassette master and are anxious to have as much control over the final sound as possible, you'll need the best system you can get.
The first step up from no EQ at all is a basic bass and treble arrangement, sometimes effective on just two channels so that it can only be used during recording. Better is the system that gives you an equaliser for each of the four channels, so that you can add tonal correction when recording and when mixing.
Top-line cassette systems offer two-band sweep EQs, which let you adjust the frequency at which the tone controls work to suit a particular instrument. This may sound like a gimmick, but it's an extremely worthwhile facility, especially if you're dealing with miked-up acoustic sounds as opposed to synthesised ones.
Finally, a few words on the other facilities higher-priced machines might have. Tape transport controls vary from old-style, mechanical piano key types to logic-controlled soft-touch buttons, the latter being easier and quicker to use, but more expensive and not necessarily any more reliable.
Tape counters, too, maybe mechanical or electronic. Electronic counters with illuminated numerical displays are easier to read and usually more accurate than their mechanical counterparts. Also present on nearly all the machines in this round-up is some form of speed control, enabling you to tune your recording to a non-standard instrument like granny's old upright piano.
Tascam's new top-of-the-range 246 Portastudio offers all these features, plus no fewer than six input channels, which makes it a true mixer-based system rather than just a tape recorder with a couple of tone controls tacked onto it. These extra channels come in particularly handy if you want to synchronise a MIDI sequencer to a timing track recorded onto one track of the recorder, as in this way, you can add several more synths to your recording at the mixdown stage and feed them through the two extra channels. Yamaha are obviously aware of this trend as their new recorder — the MT1X — has an extra input channel dedicated solely to processing timecode tracks without causing data corruption, a problem you may encounter with some noise reduction systems.
Also present on the better models (and totally absent on many of the lower-priced machines) is a comprehensive auxiliary or effects send/return system, so that you can patch in external effects units. These allow you to add different amounts of effect to each tape track as you record or mix, and you can even use ordinary pedal effects for this purpose as the signal levels match home recording gear rather well: chorus units, delays and flangers lend themselves particularly well to electronic music production.
One last thing to check is that the machine you're considering has line outputs, so that the tape tracks can be fed into an external mixer rather than the built-in one. This can be a great help when you're doing serious recording work, as it's often possible to borrow a friend's mixer on the evening of an important mix and extend your facilities that way.
So, a quick look at a few of the machines currently available to see what they have to offer, and how they compare.
The original Tascam (aka TEAC) 144 Portastudio was the machine that brought multitrack recording to the masses. At an average selling price of around £500, it actually cost less than most decent two-track mastering machines, and was sufficiently well built for it to make a decent secondhand buy if you can find one cheap. It's now superceded and was limited to two-track recording. It used Dolby B noise reduction, though all later Tascam models were fitted with dbx. It ran its tape at 3¾ips, and featured a four-channel mixer section with equalisers for all channels. The newer 244 Portastudio (about £750) lets you record on all four tracks simultaneously, and has two sweep EQs plus an effects send control on each of its four channels. If you don't want a built-in mixer, Tascam's 234 (£650) offers the same recording facilities in a 19"rack-mounting package.
This was the Fostex company's answer to the Tascam Portastudio, Fostex being a firm set up by a breakaway group of ex-Tascam engineers in Japan about four years back. It features a 3¾ips tape speed, four-channel simultaneous recording and Dolby C noise reduction. Two-band EQ is fitted to each of the four input channels and there are auxiliary sends, as well as an electronic tape counter and a handy return-to-zero facility that ensures the tape rewinds back to the start of your recording automatically as soon as you push the appropriate button. Average cost is around the £650 mark, though a new model, the 260, is due to arrive on these shores in the Spring.
Whereas the early Tascams and the Fostex 250 were merely inexpensive, the X15 was simply dirt cheap when it appeared just under three years ago. It's still in production today (now you can get one for around £250), features Dolby B noise reduction, and runs at 1⅞ips. You can only record on two channels at a time, but there are two sets of bass and treble controls, and a provision to plug in an optional switch to perform remote drop-ins. The X15 is easier to carry around than any of the more complex machines (though the batteries weigh a ton), and although it was originally intended to fall into the musical sketchpad category, a good percentage of the X15's many buyers have coaxed some excellent demos out of their machines.
The Fostex-Tascam battle continues, with the Porta One being the latter's answer to the former's X15. It's already one of the most popular machines on offer, mainly because its compromise between facilities, quality and price (around £425) is a good one. Whilst you can only record on two channels at any one time, you do get a proper four-channel mixer with two-band EQ and an auxiliary send on each channel, dbx noise reduction is used and the tape speed is 1⅞.
This is the successor to Yamaha's first bash at a cassette multitracker, the MT44. Like its predecessor, it takes an unusual approach in that it has no built-in mixer at all. This gives you the option of getting as simple or as complicated a mixer as you need (and can afford), and just to make sure you don't go off spending your money with rival manufacturers, Yamaha also make a couple of custom-designed mixers. The MT44D runs at 1⅞ips, and has a switchable (between Dolby Band C) noise reduction system. The real-time tape counter is electronic, as are the input level meters (very sexy), and you can record on all four tracks at the same time if you have a mind to. Average price is around £400.
Yamaha's latest four-track cassette system (not yet in the UK in any numbers) sees the company switching allegiance to dbx noise reduction, but maintaining their preference for a 1⅞ips tape speed. Despite its budget price, the MT1X will happily record on all four tracks in one go if you want it to. Each channel has two-band equalisation and an auxiliary send control, and the tape transport incorporates a return-to-zero facility. Apart from its space-age styling, this machine appears to break no new ground except for the fact that it has that extra input channel for recording timecodes onto tape without corruption. We haven't, as yet, had an MT1X to play with, but it's worth checking out, especially if you're into MIDI sequencers and synths. RRP will be just under £450.
This is one of the latest and least expensive machines to hit the market, and comes from a Japanese (what did you expect?) company with a long history of making outboard effects gear. It uses dbx noise reduction in conjunction with a tape speed of 1⅞ips, and allows up to two channels to be recorded at any one time. The two EQ sections can only be used during record, not during bouncing or mixing down. Unusually, this machine has extra auxiliary line inputs, and two RIAA phono inputs for connection to a record deck. All in all, a surprisingly flexible machine for an RRP of under £285.
This is Tascam's latest model, and is one of the few personal multitrackers to go upmarket in the interests of offering more facilities. The 246 has six input channels, comprehensive routing and monitoring, and a flexible tape transport system that includes return-to-zero, cue memory, and automatic cycling between programmed points for practising drop-ins. Probably the most sophisticated cassette multitracker currently available — a fact reflected in its average selling price of around £1000.
The above list is by no means exhaustive, as in the main, I've stuck to machines I've become familiar with in the course of my duties editing E&MM's sister publication, Home & Studio Recording. Other systems available include Clarion's sophisticated XD6500, the first multitracker I know of to feature dbx Type II noise reduction; the Cutec MR404 (about £480), a budget machine with old-style dbx and a 3¾ips running speed; and two machines distributed in the UK by John Hornby Skewes, the Audio Technica RMX64 (£1100), similar to the Tascam 246 in that it offers a six-channel mixer section, and the Teczon TG44, another budget machine costing about £425.
Whichever system you choose, remember that it'll only ever perform as well as its operator: it's up to you to keep the heads clean and to feed it with decent tapes. The results you obtain will also depend on your understanding of the machine and the recording process in general: this includes things like knowing what recording levels you can get away with for different instruments, and planning which tracks to record in what order.
One thing is certain, though. No matter how much time you devote to choosing a four-track cassette machine, and how much money you spend on it, it won't be long before you're feeling the urge to move up to eight-track. Addictive, this recording business.
Feature by Paul White
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