Tokai SFX1 Magicalbox
Originally designed for private guitar practice, these useful little devices can make recording the electric guitar simplicity itself.
Only a few short years ago, the Tom Scholtz Rockman created quite a stir in the music industry with it's uncanny ability to produce a seemingly fully engineered guitar sound from a tiny battery powered box - but now oriental competition is getting in on the act. The latest of these Rockman look-alikes to reach our shores is the Tokai SFX1 Magicalbox and, because Tokai have gained an impressive reputation for producing high quality guitars and effects pedals at budget prices, we decided that it would be worth checking out in its capacity as an aid to home recording.
Like its American counterpart, the Tokai unit is about the same size as a Walkman-style cassette player, and comes complete with it's own pair of lightweight headphones. As previously mentioned, these headphone amps were originally intended for private practice but because they contain the type of signal processing commonly used in studios to create a contemporary guitar sound, they lend themselves equally well to recording.
Tokai's offering is powered by no fewer than eight size 'AA' batteries, though unlike many of it's counterparts it does not have any provision for connecting an AC adapter power supply so extensive use could be wasteful in terms of batteries; a good case for investing in a set of rechargeable batteries and a charging unit. The two part plastic case is completed by the addition of a steel clip, allowing the user to wear the device on his or her belt for truly portable use and maximum pose value.
The Magicalbox has a choice of two inputs. A standard jack socket is used for the main one and this is processed via the built-in effects. The second or auxiliary input is in the form of a 3.5mm mini-jack socket and this can be used to amplify a second sound source but cannot make use of the effects. This is handy if two musicians wish to rehearse using just one unit and two headphone outlets (stereo mini-jacks) are thoughtfully fitted in order to avoid the discomfort normally experienced when two people share the same pair of headphones.
The Magicalbox is activated not by the chanting of mystical runes as its name might imply, but by the simple expedient of pressing the power button, and a thumbwheel control is used to regulate the volume - though it always seemed to work the opposite way to the way I expected. No other variable controls are provided as everything else is selected by pushbuttons. Whatever effect you select, the sound is always subjected to a noticeable degree of compression which gives a bright and even sound but is susceptible to level pumping if your guitar has powerful pick-ups.
The most impressive effect is the delay, which is stereo but with only one setting; either on or off. Like the delay in the original Rockman, it uses a multi-tapped analogue delay line, and the various taps are hard panned to either side of the stereo image to produce a very deep, spacious effect.
Chorus is available in a choice of two settings, 'Normal' and 'Plus'. The 'Normal' setting is very subtle to the point of being shallow whereas the deeper setting is a little too fast and a little too deep for my taste. Something in between the two would have suited me better but such judgements are always subjective. The power LED flashes at the chorus modulation rate so that you know which setting you've selected.
Overdrive is also available in two levels which could generally be termed mild and severe; more of which later.
Of course I tried a selection of guitars to see how the device performed, and through the headphones provided it all sounded very flattering, both to the guitars and to my playing. What I really wanted to know, however, was how it would sound when plugged into my mixing desk. With great reluctance then, I curtailed my narcissistic musical pursuits and set about tracking down the Tandy's adaptor needed to convert the stereo mini-jack headphone output into a form my mixer would accept.
Once plugged into the mixer's line input sockets, panned hard left and right, I connected up my own trusty guitar, scraped the rust off the strings and commenced the ritual pre-flight check.
One problem these devices usually bring to light is that of background noise, but even bearing in mind the not inconsiderable degree of compression used, this is probably no more severe than would be experienced when miking up the average combo. Of course you still have to keep the guitar away from errant magnetic fields to avoid hums and buzzes, the Tokai's actual background hiss is tolerable if not exactly inaudible. Adding delay and/or chorus does not cause this state of affairs to deteriorate significantly, but the use of the overdrive, particularly at the high setting understandably makes things worse in this respect (though not seriously so).
A combination of delay and chorus creates a highly produced, almost Police type of sound which, with careful use of the mixer EQ section can give a fairly wide range of contemporary guitar sounds.
The 'Normal' distortion setting is to my mind a little anaemic but the 'Plus' setting gives a much more useable sound which lends itself well to further tailoring by the mixer's EQ. Combined with delay and chorus, the resultant treatment is a powerful invitation to try out all those old Pink Floyd solos.
It is difficult to get a decent heavy metal distorted guitar sound out of any of these little amplifiers, and that includes the original Rockman, but the distortion is nevertheless very useable and is certainly an improvement over other DI methods. It's probably fair to say, though, that it sounds more convincing on solos than on power chords.
The Tokai Magicalbox represents a useful addition to any home studio as it enables a professional guitar sound to be set up and recorded with the minimum of fuss and no sound leakage problems. If I had to make a comparison with the original Rockman. I'd criticize only the choice of chorus settings and the quality of the lesser distortion setting. The Magicalbox does however have one advantage, apart from the price, and that is that you can turn off all the effects except compression if you want to; with the Rockman you have to have delay or chorus or both. The stereo output does mean that you have to tie up two channels of your tape recorder if you want to record the guitar track in stereo and though it is quite possible to use the device in mono, you'll probably be reluctant to forego the impressive depth that the stereo output gives you. Finally, the Magicalbox can also be used to process other instruments such as keyboards, so it really is quite a handy thing to have lying around the studio.
At a recommended retail price of roughly £100, the Magicalbox costs far less than buying the effects separately and, minor criticisms aside, it really does help to make life in the studio easy and who knows... it might even tempt you into practicing more regularly!
RRP of the Tokai SFX1 Magicalbox is £102.81. Further information is available from Blue Suede Music Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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