Since their appearance in the early '80s, cassette-based 4-track recorders have offered the masses unprecedented access to multitrack recording on a cheap tape format. Yet there has always been a significant number of potential users excluded from this revolution, because although the cheapest cassette multitrackers are cost-effective, they still cost several hundred pounds. The industry's answer has been stripped-down and affordable units, typified by Fostex's X15. This machine, released in 1983 for about £300, has provided many with their first taste of home multitracking -- and lessons learned on simple equipment often prove of value as you move up the ladder.
It's into this entry-level market that Fostex's latest multitrack, the X14, arrives. This late-'90s answer to the X15 is even simpler to use and more stripped-down on the features front, alarmingly so in some ways. For example, the X15 offered noise reduction, 2-band EQ, varispeed and recording on up to two tracks at once. The X14, which also runs at normal tape speed, does away with noise reduction, offers no EQ, lacks varispeed and can record on just one track at a time. It also manages without effects sends, insert points and individual tape outs. We're in serious no-frills territory here.
But before you turn the page, we'll get to the good news: the X14 retails at £149, half the original price of the X15.
A positive side-effect of the X14's unpretentious simplicity is that there are no hidden depths: one look at the controls should be enough to tell most users all they need to know about the machine's operation. The mixer section comprises four sets of pan pots and level faders (with record-ready LEDs to the right), a track-record select switch, a built-in mic (with automatic level control) and mic on/off switch, and a master output level knob. A big friendly bargraph meter registers the level of any incoming audio signal. Connections are few, comprising a mic input (with gain control), a guitar/line input, a headphone socket, and a stereo pair of phono sockets at the rear, for connection to a cassette deck or monitoring system. The cassette mechanism comes with mechanical transport controls and a mechanical tape counter. Power is, understandably, external.
The manual seems to indicate Fostex's respect for all their customers, from entry-level to pro: it goes into surprising depth for such a simple machine, and is perfectly designed for the absolute beginner.
Recording is easy. First, decide whether you're using a mic (the built-in one, or an external one) or a guitar/line source (synth, drum machine or whatever). Then use the Rec(ord) Sel(ect) button to choose a track to record (it cycles through 'off' and the four tracks), press the record button, and go. There's no input-level control on the guitar/line input, so you'll have to get your level right at source, with help from the X14's bargraph meter. Note that you can't select a track to record on while record is engaged, even if the transport is paused. When you've finished with your first track, select the next track, turn up the volume of the first track and play along with it. Do this for four tracks, and you're ready to mix. This will be easy -- no pesky EQ or effects to worry about. Balance the level and pan position of your four tracks, record the result onto a stereo deck, and you're done.
Beyond this, there is nowhere to go: bouncing isn't possible, nor is recording in stereo -- though you could record a backing track on a stereo cassette deck, pop the tape into the X14 and overdub two more tracks. And effects could, of course, be patched in-line with the stereo output.
The built-in mic's not too bad, by the way, bearing in mind its close proximity to the tape transport, and that it's not exactly a studio mic. Beware of setting up a feedback loop between your monitoring and the mic, though, and watch out for the automatic level control circuit.
What can you say about a product that's this simple? It's cheap, does exactly what it says it does, and sounds surprisingly good, considering the lack of noise reduction. It's a pretty good bet if you want something compact to drag around on tour (though it doesn't run on batteries, unlike the X15), and the built-in mic means that if you simply must get that killer tune onto tape, now, the X14 will be ready even if you don't have a mic to hand.
There's little competition for the X14; only Tascam's Porta 03 MkII, offering Dolby B noise reduction and 2-channel recording for around £200, comes to mind. So if you want absolutely no fuss and no frills, and could do with saving 50 quid, the X14 is for you.
Cheapest multitrack around.
Very easy to use.
No noise reduction.
Records just one track at a time.
No battery operation.
The X14 offers reasonable sound, and the cheapest way into multitracking around. Good to carry around as a notepad, but probably not a serious musical tool.
£ £149 including VAT.
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