Yamaha MT1X Portastudio
Yamaha's latest incursion into the portastudio market looks like something out of Alien. Does it sound out of this world too? Richard Walmsley has a close encounter of the reviewing kind
Considering the large impact Yamaha instruments and musical devices have had in recent years, it's something of a surprise when you realise the comparatively low profile they've shown in the home recording sphere, or more specifically in the domain of the 'portastudio'. Of course they have been making cassette multi-trackers for some time now, but the rather more stolid, rack-mounted format which they have been sticking to has failed to set market trends in the way that the portastudios of Tascam and Fostex have.
This perhaps is one of the reasons behind Yamaha's new MT1X, whose design and general spec fits in much more comfortably with the standard image of the portastudio as most of us know it.
Yamaha have always made smooth looking instruments. In fact their style has now been copied by many other manufacturers, so synonymous is it with professionalism. The MT1X is no slacker in this department, and indeed it looks as if the company is consciously searching for an image that sets it apart from the PortaOnes and Fostex 250s of this world for, in fact, these machines are the ones that Yamaha will have to confront if they are to wrest any share in the ever-expanding home recording market.
The MT1X is black, cool looking, and roughly the same size as the PortaOne. Like that machine it has a 4:4 mixer, and a normal (domestic hi-fi) speed tape recorder. Unlike the PortaOne, its metering consists of four very inconspicuous bar LED type meters, and it has nothing of the colour coded, user friendly styling that has become common in cassette-multitrackers.
In fact it looks darned weird – so black you could almost fall into it, and so hi-tech gothic you could have nightmares about aliens lurking within it.
In actual fact, the manual supplied with this machine is one of the least patronising, and therefore in my case, one of the least helpful I've come across. One good thing in its favour, though, are the copious circuit diagrams which are always much more helpful when trying to overcome belligerent silences, or wayward bouncedowns. The rest the manual is somewhat sketchy so here's a quick tour of the nooks and crannies that I've so far discovered.
First of all you stick your input into one of the four ¼" jack sockets on the front panel. Provided you are in a well-lit room you will be able to discern among the shades of velveteen black a switch marked Tape Off MicLine, which in this case (since you are beginning your happy process) you place in the MicLine position. Now if you want to hear something of what you are recording two options are open. Firstly you can monitor over headphones, in which case there is for your convenience a range of controls enabling you to hear separate levels for each track and to decide in which ear (or combination of the same) you will hear your sounds.
Before you can do this a new technique of dextrose manipulation will have to be mastered; you place your thumb firmly on the pan or level control (just as if you were opening a milk bottle) and then turn in the required direction, for these controls cannot be gripped on the sides since they are more or less flush with the unit.
Some people (such as I) object strongly to having to use headphones during these stages of the recording process. Not only are my Koss Denim Easy Listeners extremely uncomfortable, but they also make me look an absolute... beginner. I like this machine therefore, because its second option enables you to monitor through speakers via the Stereo Out or Aux Send outputs without automatically bouncing the signals down.
Now, by the aforementioned input selector switch you'll find two fader type controls: one the main channel fader, the other the input gain fader. Above it you will find two Eq faders, and by their side the stacked LED meter and an auxiliary send fader. In the middle of this lot is the pan control for the channel which is another flat pot as seen on the monitor section.
That is basically what comprises each of the four channels on the mixer, and as you can imagine with no colour coding, no friendly shaded bits between seven and eight on the faders, and no tacky VU meters to make believe you're at Sarm West, it gets pretty damn confusing unless you're used to working control panels in braille.
The mixer section is completed by a master fader, a phones selector switch to decide what signal (mixed or monitored) you listen to over the phones, four record select switches, a meter select switch (to measure input/tape levels, or stereo mix levels) a flat phones level pot, and auxiliary send and return master faders.
The mixer on the MT1X is in fact fairly sophisticated. Unlike many of the cheaper, shoulder slung portastudios, the signals off tape can be routed through the eq sections for mixdown, the aforementioned advantage of being able to monitor over speakers is possible, and there are two effects returns enabling effects to be mixed in stereo at mixdown.
In addition to the obvious power switch, and the socket for 15 volt DC power pack, the back panel has two phone stereo out sockets as is standard on most portastudios, four tape phono outs for use with an auxiliary mixer, direct dubbing etc, and three quarter inch jack sockets – one send, two returns – for effects. Lastly there is a pair of phono sockets marked Sync In and Out which also provide a clue about a similar switch on the top of the unit.
The MT1X has been designed for use with an auxiliary piece of equipment called the YMC10, which has the virtue of being able to convert MIDI sync signals to analogue compatible FSK. The circuit is allied to channel one on the mixer and track one on the recorder and is basically a means of routing a sync track signal through the machine with all important level control without having to rely on a whole section in the mixer (which would put the price up) and without using up the effect send facilities completely. It also makes the machine sound modern now that phrases like SMPTE and "Oh God; you program the drums first?!" I have crept into the conversation of musicians.
The recorder itself is an unpretentious affair; a servo mechanism suffices for the head mechanism, with the usual mechanical-type controls, and there is a plus or minus 10% pitch control, and DBX switchable in or out (very useful, but not unique in its price range). One absolutely well good feature though is a Zero Stop facility on the tape counter – switchable on or off – which is a rare feature of machines in this price bracket, and a truly endearing one at that.
Unfortunately, in their quest to restyle the portastudio as we know it, Yamaha have made the cardinal mistake of putting a clouded plastic cover over the cassette recess, which apart from all the practical problems about not being able to see the tape, also tends to alienate one from the workings of the machine.
Of course it's a truly modern idea to economise on time by carrying your studio around with you, thus combining time spent waiting for inspiration with time spent waiting for public transport. Personally though, I've never been sold on this idea; I'm always afraid they'll both come at the same time. Nevertheless, in keeping with the style of this machine, Yamaha are supplying the obligatory over shoulder holder strap and battery pack.
My less pedestrian use of the machine, however has proved satisfactory although the rather ambitious and confusing layout and design is in my view a fault. As you would expect from Yamaha, the quality of workmanship is extremely high enabling quick and clear recording; the stacked meters are of course not quite so easy to relate to as VUs, but in all probability are more accurate.
Nevertheless the MT1X's style, pedigree and good looks haven't persuaded me to venture out with it swinging under my arm; I lost my heart to something cheaper and tackier.
However, its brick-like construction inspires great confidence – its knobs are extremely unlikely to drop off – for anyone who likes their portastudio to swing as much as them.
Review by Richard Walmsley
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