Personal Multitrack Recorder
Built-in digital reverb and three - yes, three - speeds are just some of the facilities hiding inside this new cassette multitracker.
Multitracker or workstation? This new Vestax four-track has built-in digital reverb.
The market for cassette-based multitrack machines has been dominated in the past by large companies such as Fostex, Tascam and Yamaha with others such as Amstrad, Toa and Vesta Fire making their contribution in the last year or two. Despite claiming to be self-contained, having bought one of said units you would always need to invest quite a lot more money in some kind of reverb unit or be resigned to having unnaturally dry sounding recordings. It would seem to be quite a good idea, therefore, to incorporate digital reverb in with the package, obviating the need for yet more expense.
One of the first, if not the first to do so, is Japan-based Vestax who, I believe, are our old friends Vesta Fire under an updated name. Their new product, the MR-100FX, is along the lines of their MR10 series being fairly basic mixer-wise, but has the undeniable benefit of built-in digital reverb. It also has a choice of three tape speeds which is another unique feature. It's small and light, with dimensions of 336 X 64 X 205mm, weighing in at 3.5kg - very portable.
The connections are made either on the front side of the unit (these are all 1/4" jacks), or in a recess along the rear edge of the top face - bar the mains connection these are all RCA-type pin jacks (phono-type connectors) and are in full view in normal use.
Starting from the left we have the power input socket which is switched and has a status LED. The unit is mains-powered via a DC adapter supplying 12-15V. This is optional, you don't get one with the unit even though it is useless without, and using an apparently compatible supply can give problems as you'll read later. Moving on we find four Tape Out phonos, which provide the output from tape for each track for mixdown through an external mixer should you find this necessary at some stage.
Next are the Line Outs, Left and Right, giving a stereo output from the onboard mixer and these can be used either for monitoring via an amplifier and speakers or for mixing down when connected up to the inputs of a stereo tape deck. Following on, we come to the Line Ins 1-4 which are for use when recording instruments with line level outputs such as keyboards or drum machines. What comes next is definitely good news - two, yes, two mono Auxiliary Sends, but before you get too excited they are effectively paralleled and don't have independent level control. The Aux Return is stereo, left and right, so you could use the two mono sends separately, say with two DDLs set at different delay times, and return them separately one to each side of the stereo.
The last two connections in this group are to do with recording synchronisation codes so that a sequencer can run in sync with what's on tape. This code goes onto track four of the tape. The sockets are labelled Sync In and Sync Out, the former to receive the code from your external unit to record it onto tape and the latter to output the pre-recorded code from tape to your unit. The internal electronic path between the tape heads and these sockets is special in that it bypasses the noise reduction system, as these systems have been found in the past to interfere with the reliable operation of codes.
That's it for the top face connections, the remainder are on the front side of the unit and comprise two inputs which are compatible with both line and mic levels, a stereo Phones socket and a Punch In/Out socket into which you can plug the optional extra remote footswitch for hands-free recording.
In keeping with other similar units the device utilises High Bias, Type 2 (chrome) cassette tapes, dbx noise reduction is available and may be switched off if you require the unit to play back ordinary stereo cassettes. The deck itself has two heads (I know how it feels sometimes!) - one erase and one record/playback head, and one DC motor. The usual tape transport controls are to be found; Rec, Play, Fast Forward, Rewind, Stop and Pause. These are mechanical buttons and a fair amount of pressure is required to engage the function - they don't feel very nice to be honest. There is also a mechanical-type tape counter, with a reset button. As previously mentioned, three tape speeds are available: 9.5, 4.75 and 2.37 cm/s, with pitch control of ±15%. The Pitch Control itself has a centre detente to indicate normal pitch.
"Up to five different signals can be recorded onto one track; if you use the four Line Ins and one of the Inputs, they will mix together, which is useful."
The mixer section is fairly simple, and yet quite adequate for both recording and mixing. Overall level both onto tape and through the Line Outs as well as the Phones is controlled by a single Master Fader. Inputs one and two on the front panel may only be used to record onto tracks one and three, and two and four respectively. Each has a rotary Trim control to adjust the level of the incoming signal, compensating for differences between microphone and line levels. These channels also both have a Fader to set the level onto tape and two Equaliser adjustment controls - Hi which gives a boost or cut of up to 10dB at frequencies around 10kHz, and Low which provides the same range around 100Hz. These controls have a centre detente so it's easy to find the 'flat' position.
Moving over to the left we find two Aux Return level controls, Left and Right. This is to allow separate control of the left and right levels in case you were using the two Aux Sends to go to separate units. Above these is a Remix switch which is normally kept in the On position for normal recording and overdubbing, but is to be switched Off when bouncing tracks.
Further over we find eight rotary controls collectively called the Line/Trk Mixer. Four are marked Level and are dual purpose, adjusting either the level of playback of tracks one to four or the input level from the Line Ins. The remaining four are Pan controls used to create a stereo picture when mixing the four pre-recorded tracks down - this stereo signal then appears at the Line Out sockets for monitoring or mixdown - or to direct the Line In signals to either the left or right buss. Tracks one and three receive their signal from the left buss while two and four receive theirs from the right buss. Two switches select the track to be recorded onto. Each has three options. The first has: 1, Safe or 3, while the other has 2, Safe or 4. Selecting one or two of the four tracks causes an LED to flash and a bright orange strip to be displayed indicating which channel is selected. Up to two tracks (one or three - two or four) may be recorded onto simultaneously.
Also in this section are the pitch control, a volume control for the headphone socket, the dbx On/Off switch and a switch to determine the function of the meters. This gives you a choice between TRK and PGM. TRK is for displaying the playback levels off tape as well as the Line In 1-4 input levels, while PGM shows the levels of the left and right Busses. The meters themselves comprise 16 LEDs each, in groups of two, and indicate levels of from —20dB to +5dB. They also feature a peak hold so you don't miss any brief transient peaks.
Now for the reverb and Aux Send section. There are four dual-ganged pots, labelled TRK 1-4, one for each track, but they also apply to the Line Ins. The outer control is the Aux Send, determining how much of your external effect you want on that track, and the inner one determines the amount of internal reverb. With the flick of a switch the first two apply to the two front panel inputs instead. The internal reverb decay time is adjustable from one second to ten seconds which is a useful range.
OK, so that's our look around the MR-100FX - now for the important part, its performance test. Ergonomically all the controls and connections are easy to get at, laid out logically and nicely spaced out. The legend is easy to read and durable, and the switches and controls are easy to operate, one exception being the internal reverb send at the centre of the dual-ganged pot which is rather fiddly to use. Also on the negative side, the tape transport controls require quite a bit of finger power which can get tiresome and it makes you feel you might be straining some part or other.
"Incorporating reverb into a four-track cassette recorder is quite an innovation... it means you no longer have to tie up your effects unit to be the main reverb, and those just starting out don't have to suffer horribly dry recordings."
First generation recordings on TDK SA-X60s at high speed were very clear and practically hiss-free. Performance at the lower speeds was obviously not as good, and at the lowest speed, there was noticeable loss of tonal quality. There was no serious wow and flutter in evidence. After one bounce at high speed, there was a slight loss of the upper frequencies, but to be fair they recommend you compensate for this when making your initial recording by cranking up the top end a little by one means or another.
Up to five different signals can be recorded onto one track; if you use the four Line Ins and one of the Inputs, they will mix together, which is useful. Whatever you have plugged in any of the six inputs is continuously routed to the output, even when you are playing the tape, so there's no need for switches to select input, tape, mix or whatever as there is on other machines to cope with punch-ins. The drawback with this is that if you're using a mic and headphones to record, when you play it back through the speakers you have to unplug the mic or turn down the Input volume to avoid feedback.
The internal reverb is mono and has a pleasant plate-type sound, fine for vocals and other instruments, and it's not bad on drums. A little on the rattly side maybe but certainly usable. It may be added both when recording and when playing back, but you can't add it to the Input signal and the tape at the same time, or to the Input signal and the Line Ins at the same time.
Drop-ins are click-free but my one niggle with this unit was that there was quite a lot of hum when the unit was actually in record, and this was going onto tape. I must emphasise, however, that I was not supplied with the recommended power supply, although in theory the two I tried should have been adequate for the job being 12V regulated supplies. The manual specifies 12-15V supply and the recommended one is 15V. It's also possible that I had a faulty MR-100, I can't believe Vesta Fire, sorry, Vestax, would put out a unit with such a basic design fault, but in any case it's something that definitely wants checking out in the shop before you buy, even if just to confirm you've got the right power supply.
I also found the pitch control to be rather too sensitive around its mid-point.
There have to be limitations on these small systems in order to keep the price so attractive, and Vestax have gone for no EQ control on playback, recording on a maximum of two tracks at a time, and only two mic inputs as their major concessions to economics. The three-speed feature isn't as impressive as it sounds, after all you'd have to be pretty desperately short of tape to want to record at 2.37 cm/s (half the speed of a standard cassette deck), but it does allow you to record guitar parts at half speed, then double them up to impress your friends.
Incorporating reverb into a four-track cassette recorder is quite an innovation, and it'll probably attract a lot of interest, as it means you no longer have to tie up your effects unit to be the main reverb, and those just starting out don't have to suffer horribly dry recordings. I must say, however, that I was not impressed with the fact that you have to buy the power unit as an extra (especially as it meant I didn't get one!). Still, giving Vestax the benefit of the doubt with respect to the hum I experienced with both 12V supplies I used, the recording quality at high speed is reasonably faithful and true, and easily as good as the competition in this market sector. I expect all the other companies will watch this product very carefully to see if it takes off, and then, if it does, leap on the bandwagon with similar integrated systems later on this year!
The Vestax MR-100FX costs £500 inc VAT.
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Review by Shirley Gray
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