Once upon a time, budget 4-track cassette recorders were hissy, hummy things with clumsy buttons that went clunk, sound quality that seemed something of a contradiction in terms, and drop-ins that were so noticeable you wished you'd kept the mistake. Technology marched on, thank goodness -- and now, in common with our favourite washing powder, the new, improved versions of top brand products have, when you look closely, less and less that's really new to shout about. Lucky for the consumer, as technology progresses, more advanced features end up on budget machines where previously they would only have only appeared on more expensive models.
SOS reviewed the original MT120 back in early 1992, and although it scored very high on sound quality, and had the luxury of a graphic equaliser and a remote control, there were a few omissions in other areas which seemed a little short-sighted. But it looks as though Yamaha took our comments seriously, because their update, the MT120S, incorporates the major features missing from its predecessor.
The (self?) congratulatory blurb at the front of the manual declares that no other multitrack recorder offers the straightforward simplicity and ease of use of the MT120S, which is quite a bold statement when you consider the competition. So what dazzling improvements have Yamaha come up with in the last two years?
In appearance, this model looks almost exactly the same as the old version. It includes a basic 4-channel mixer, each channel having mic/line input, input fader, switch to select mic/line, tape or off (useful for muting individual tracks during mixdown), aux send, pan control and output fader. There's no individual equalisation; tonal modification is only possible via a stereo 5-band graphic which acts on the stereo bus. In practice you can EQ each individual signal as you record it (provided you don't want to record more than two tracks at once), but not as you mix down. You can, however, EQ the whole mix -- the graphic bands are 100Hz, 400Hz, 1kHz, 5kHz and 10kHz. A separate monitor section with a fader for each track allows you to set up a monitor mix of the tape tracks for use when overdubbing. The single master fader controls master level to tape and also the output of the stereo buss.
The aux return is stereo, but for use with mono effects units, the left return used on its own sends the mono signal to both left and right mix buses. A single headphones socket is provided, which you can use to listen to the monitor mix and/or incoming signals when overdubbing. Setting up levels is facilitated by the inclusion of a fairly standard metering section comprising four LED peak meters, one for each track, and a switch to convert the first two to the stereo bus level. Noise reduction is dbx, which you can switch off totally or just switch out on track four when you're using a synchronisation code. Simultaneous recording is possible on all four tracks -- some budget recorders only allow a maximum of two -- and two tape speeds are available: high (giving you superior quality and lower background noise levels), and normal, so you can play back your ordinary tapes on it -- but without Dolby noise reduction, of course, since Dolby and dbx are definitely not compatible.
Punch-ins are possible in three different ways: using the tape transport controls, the individual channel Rec switches, or a footswitch. There is also an optional remote control unit, allowing you to operate the tape transport controls at a distance limited by the length of the connecting cable.
Closer inspection reveals the only visual difference between the 120S and its predecessor; an extra pair of sockets on the rear panel which are labelled Stereo Sub In. These are additional inputs to the stereo bus which make it possible to plug in the output of an external mixer, multitimbral synth module, or extra stereo effects return, while you mix down. This is an extremely important addition, making the recorder considerably more flexible; the only way to add extra stuff in the mix using the old version of the MT120 was a bit of a bodge involving the monitor outputs, which unfortunately meant that your tape tracks had to be panned straight down the middle in the mix. Now, with two dedicated inputs, the idea of losing one of the four tracks to a synchronisation code and running a sequencer playing the backing track in the mix becomes a more feasible option altogether. Also, because the MT120S has Tape Outputs, you could use an external mixer to mix the tape tracks, bringing the stereo mix back through the Stereo Bus inputs, freeing up the on-board 4-channel mixer to add four more signals as you mix.
The tape transport controls are of the feather-touch microswitch type rather than the 'practical but clunky' mechanical variety. Pressing Record and Stop together gets you into another new feature: the Rehearsal Mode. This allows you to practise and perfect your drop-in technique before commiting yourself to something irreversible. The method used is exactly the same as dropping in for real, except that the record indicator lights up in yellow instead of red. People who are colour-blind might find this a problem! Unfortunately, if you're using the remote, you're still stuck with red only, so you'd have to get in the habit of looking at the indicators on the machine instead, which is a bit of a shame. Incidentally, the 120S also boasts a cue facility, allowing the monitoring of tape on fast forward and rewind.
I performed the studio test with Ampex tape and don't have any complaints about the sound quality of the 120S; it came up to the rather high expectations I have from Yamaha. The input preamps have reasonably low noise levels, while the dbx noise reduction reduces tape noise substantially, without imparting any unacceptable side effects. Much more control is possible over EQ to tape with the 5-band graphic than with the usual 2-band Hi/Lo controls, which means that the 120S allows a greater degree of creativity -- though if you're not careful you can be tempted into altering the sound out of all recognition! The downside is that once your tracks are on tape you're pretty well stuck with what you have, because individual EQ control is not possible on mixdown.
The overall feel of this unit is sturdy and strong, with smooth, positive faders, and pots that rotate easily with just the right amount of friction. The tape transport buttons have a pleasant light touch with a satisfying click.
It was easy to set up and record on the MT120S without any reference to the manual (not recommended!), but one point I found distinctly annoying was that with the remote footswitch plugged in, the Rec light blinked all the time when just in Play mode, even with no channel Rec switches selected. I found this most distracting when I came to mix, to the extent that I felt the need to unplug it, which led to much grovelling about on the floor searching for its plug next time I wanted to punch-in.
With a code recorded on Track 4, hooked up to the sequencer and a couple of modules, I was quickly able to produce a pretty decent demo of my latest song. I used rhythm guitar, lead guitar (bounced together with chorus and echo added to the lead), two vocal tracks (with added stereo reverb on mixdown) and a full stereo backing. I used the new Stereo Bus inputs for a Roland CM300 and an Alesis SR16 (plugged into the inputs of the CM), so that they were both in stereo. Setting levels and recording were both very easy to do, and dropping in and out produced no click, though there was quite a large gap at both the start and end of the drop-in, even on the high speed -- more than an eighth note (half a beat) at 120bpm.
It's rather heartening to discover that some manufacturers actually take note of criticisms and choose to modify their products accordingly. The addition of two bus input sockets on the rear of the MT120S means that you can add two new signals (or, with an external mixer, as many as you've got channels) as well as having a stereo effects return on mixdown. This increases the flexibility of the machine when used in conjunction with computers/sequencers and multitimbral sound modules, making it possible to create a really impressive, full, backing track without any sacrifices. I was, however, quite surprised to find that Yamaha haven't improved on the printed technical specifications of the MT120 in any way.
The Rehearsal mode saves a lot of trial, error and frustration in setting up levels and determining punch-in/out points, especially when first using the machine. I think Yamaha should consider updating the remote to take account of this feature, and an electronic tape counter would look far more up to date than the mechanical counter which is currently fitted. And, if an electronic counter was fitted, there would be the possibility of including lots of other goodies, such as auto-locate, auto punch-in/out, auto-repeat, auto-rehearse... OK -- maybe not in this price range, but technology does have a habit of getting cheaper.
I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend a trial of the Yamaha MT120S if it is in your price range, or even if it's less than you were looking to pay for a 4-track; the sound quality is extremely good for a budget machine, and you could always spend the difference on another sound module or a better microphone!
Input Impedance (all inputs): 10 kOhm
Input Level: -56 dB (Gain Max) to +10 dB (Gain Min)
Output Impedance (all line outputs): 1kOhm
Output Level (all line outputs): -10 dB
Phones Output: Load impedance 8-40 Ohms, max output level 45 mW per channel
Tape Speed: 9.5 cm/s, 4.8 cm/s
Varispeed: +/- 10% approx.
Wow and Flutter: less than 0.12% WRMS (4.8 cm/s)
Frequency Response: 40Hz-18kHz (dbx out, 9.5 cm/s +3/-5 dB) 40Hz-13kHz (dbx out, 4.8 cm/s, +3/-5 dB)
Distortion: 1.0% (400 Hz, -13 dB Rec level, dbx on)
S/N ratio (3% THD level): 85dB (dbx on, IHF-A)
Channel separation: Better than 65dB at 1kHz
Erasure ratio: Better than 70dB at 1kHz
Record/play head type: 4-channel Permalloy
Erase head type: 4-channel Ferrite
Tape type: Chrome (70 microsec EQ)
Dimensions: 410 x 80.8 x 237 mm
Weight: 2.6 kg
4-track simultaneous record.
Built-in graphic equaliser.
Good sound quality.
Mechanical tape counter.
No individual channel EQ when mixing.
A very easy to use and versatile multitracker suitable for
stand-alone use as well as in the context of a MIDI system.
£ MT120S £449 inc VAT.
A Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK), Sherbourne Drive, Tilbrook, Milton Keynes MK7 8BL.
T 0908 366700; Product info line 0908 249194.
F 0908 368872.