Vestax MR44 Cassette Multitrack
A no-nonsense, rack-mount multitracker with an attractive price tag.
If you're in the market for a cassette 4-track, there are many to choose from. Does Vestax's MR44 offer anything significant to tempt the prospective buyer? Derek Johnson racks it up and checks if out.
Vestax have carved a small niche for themselves in the recording market by providing cassette multitrackers for those on a tight budget. To be honest, some of their past machines were stripped down so far in the way of facilities that they really only functioned as the most basic of musical notepads. This is not in itself a bad thing — at least basic multitrack recording was made available for minimal outlay; in a way, you could say that Vestax helped to pave the way for the democratisation of multitrack recording — but these basic machines could be quite quickly outgrown by the purchaser, who inevitably felt the need for more flexibility and features.
Vestax's most recent entry into the multitrack fray, the MR44, could modify the common perception of their products as cheap and cheerful, but ultimately limited. It's a machine which, superficially, appears to have much in common with their rack-mounting MR66 six-track recorder. However, while it obviously has two fewer tape tracks, the MR44 does in fact feature a fully-functioning mixer rather than the basic facilities offered by the MR66.
The package is rack-mounting, is very light, and takes up only 3U of rack space if so mounted (that's 100mm high and 482mm wide). Power comes from an external 12V pack, which helps keep the weight down. However, the PSU plugs into the front of the machine, which may not be the most logical place if the MR44 is rack-mounted.
The MR44 looks pretty good. Vestax products in the past have had the air of budget hi-fi about them, but not here: what you see is what you get. There are no flash bits masquerading as something useful — everything on the MR44 has a purpose. If there is a non-sequitur, it is the rather bizarre provision of two parallel send sockets on the sole auxiliary send.
The control surface itself is divided into fairly logical sections, and everything — including all inputs and outputs — is available on top; no rooting round the back to plug and unplug cables on this unit. Starting at the left, there's the four-channel mixer section. From the top of each channel strip, there's a three-way selector for channel input source, which can be either a tape track or a mic/line input. The third, off, position is the closest the MR44 comes to having a track mute switch. Next in line is a trim control, used for setting the gain when the input selector is set to mic/line. Each channel has an auxiliary send control (for effects processing), a pan pot (for stereo placement), and finally a real fader for overall level (volume) control of the channel. The input jacks — which serve for both mic and line inputs — are found at the bottom of each channel strip.
The next mixer strip after the main input channels contains the master fader, above which is the auxiliary return level control (there is no master send control) and four record select switches. These switches route the signal from the input channels to individual tape tracks or an overall left/right mix — all four inputs could be mixed to stereo if you wanted, for example, or all onto one track, or onto the individual tape tracks. There is a socket at the bottom of this strip as well, but it is not for headphones — it's the punch in/out socket.
This brings us to the centre of the front panel, and the four rotary monitor pots, used to set the level of the monitor mix in the headphones (and monitor out sockets) while overdubbing. This middle area also features the LED bar graph meters and the 5-band stereo graphic EQ. The meters can be switched to show the level of each track, or the level of the overall stereo mix (on meters one and two).
Also in this vicinity is the (non-real-time) digital tape counter, with attendant counter reset and return to zero buttons. The EQ has a defeat switch, as does the dbx noise reduction, and the tape speed switch is also here — the choices are 9.5cm/sec or 4.8cm/sec.
The next, and last, section is the tape compartment, underneath which are the expected transport controls. These are of the soft touch electronic variety, rather than the mechanical type usually found on budget equipment — a nice touch. Last of all are the pitch control (+/-1% in either direction) and headphones/monitor level control, and the headphone socket itself.
The connectors, which are spread across the bottom, are all phonos, apart from the jack sockets that make up the mixer inputs, the punch in/out socket and headphone socket. There are a stereo pair each for line outs, monitor outs, aux return, and, as mentioned earlier, two aux sends. Four individual tape outs are provided, as well as sync in and out. So as you can see, the MR44 has quite a lot going for it.
All the facilities one would expect from a multitracker with any pretensions to usefulness are provided: all four tracks can be recorded at once, each track has an individual output, there is an auxiliary send with stereo return. But one compromise has been made; there's no individual EQ on the channel strips, which is a shame. The global stereo graphic is better than nothing, but I'd like to have seen bass and treble controls for each channel, or at least a basic 'tone' control. There are ways of treating individual tracks, but only during the initial recording stage and track bouncing; there's no opportunity for 'fine tuning' individual tracks at mixdown. Still, it's a lot better than nothing, but calls for a little bit of ingenuity and planning on the part of the user.
Using the MR44 was a fairly satisfying experience, though the first part of my review time with the machine was marred by some bad crosstalk and an odd tendency for the bias current to not fully erase what was previously on a piece of tape. I also discovered that the meters are not as accurate as they could be during recording, and that a little trial and error is required to discover the ideal recording levels. Once I'd got the hang of it, recording went smoothly, with only minimal crosstalk evident, and the combination of double speed and dbx noise reduction makes for reasonably quiet operation. To be honest, while I found one, possibly two, bounces to be acceptable, going any further did yield quite noticeable degradation and noise, but for demos this should be adequate; the famous '10 musical tracks out of four tape tracks' bouncing trick is eminently possible with a little pre-planning (see box). This is explained reasonably well in the manual, and involves no track being bounced more than once.
One noise problem that cannot be ignored is the rather obvious whine which operating the controls produces. This doesn't actually get recorded onto tape, but there is obviously something going on electronically, probably with the soft touch controls. This is more mildly irritating than a major problem, but I'd rather it wasn't there.
One of the features that was most welcome on the MR44 was the ability to mute tracks during mixdown using the input selector switch in its off position. It's just a little more awkward to use than conventional mute buttons, but it does the job.
Not having tone controls on each mixer channel meant a little bit of messing about to get the best sound on tape, though the global 5-band stereo EQ can be used to treat individual tracks during recording. Similarly, effects can be added during basic recording as well as during mixdown. These limited, though welcome, facilities work fine for the solo musician making demos. If more than one musician is involved, then it gets a little more tricky: the effects can be recorded in stereo, and the EQ can be used in stereo, but I'd suggest that both EQ and effects should be used sparingly, since they can't be changed later.
The MIDI sync input on channel four seemed to work fine; although there is no separate channel 4 dbx defeat switch, I suspect that the noise reduction is actually out of circuit when the sync option is used. Drop-ins are no better or worse than the majority of double-speed cassette multitrackers and, providing care is taken (drop in on a drum beat to hide the almost inevitable click, for example), good results are possible. Bouncing tracks — for example, recording three tracks and 'mixing' them onto track four — did result in a slight loss of treble, but the result was basically good. When recording in stereo, it's possible to use the graphic EQ and the auxiliary send, so tracks recorded in this way can have effects on them if you like.
I'll be honest: my initial impressions of the MR44 were not good. It does have some idiosyncrasies that need to be understood before work can begin in earnest. However, once these are out of the way, it's a great little performer for the price. It's such a simple design that you're forced to be a bit inventive, and this is no bad thing. That's not to say that it isn't flexible: it does, after all, allow you to record on all four tracks at once, to record and bounce (with effects and EQ, albeit slightly compromised). If the EQ configuration was my least favourite feature, the best thing about the MR44 was the layout, with all knobs, sliders, LEDs, and sockets being available on the front panel. This makes using the MR44 a lot less confusing than it could be.
It's hard to know how to sum up a product like this. It certainly seems to have a lot going for it and, although I've made a couple of negative comments, I have to say that I have a certain affection for the MR44. The lower end of the market for cassette multitrackers is crowded, but I found the MR44 capable of holding its own and performing well, with no immediate worries with regard to long-term reliability.
Schools on a budget may find the format attractive, since it has no hidden functions, and can be operated on its back or on edge, making demonstrations fairly visible. It also doesn't cost too much. The sync options and direct outputs make the MR44 an ideal bet for the heart of a small system that may grow in the future, since an external mixer can be added later and synchronised sequenced MIDI-driven material can be played along with the main multitrack tape.
Sound quality is acceptable, especially at the higher speed of 9.5cm/second. Personally, I would think of the low-speed setting as a source of special effects or use it only for rehearsing complicated parts. Chrome cassette tape is not the most expensive recording medium in the world, and I think any savings made by recording demos at normal speed would be outweighed by the obvious drop in sound quality. All cassette multitrackers are set up to work with chrome, Type II formulations, and the 'name brands' seem better able to stand up to the stress of rerecording tracks or shuttling back and forth while practising drop ins. Ferric tape is not recommended and will certainly produce an inferior result.
All in all, I was much surprised with the MR44. In spite of a crowded market, I think this machine is definitely worth a listen — in fact, shopping around could turn up a machine at rather less than the full retail price, which makes it an even more attractive proposition. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, as they say.
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Review by Derek Johnson
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