Marantz's first cassette multitracker made quite a stir on its launch last year, with its eye‑catching retro styling and round VU meters — and it sounded good too. Derek Johnson takes a look at its lower‑cost brother and finds it shares much of the same appeal.
Marantz surprised everybody when last year they released their first cassette‑based multitracker; even more suprising was the fact that it was actually very good — though it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise, since Marantz do make exceedingly good hi‑fi equipment. However, the PMD740 (reviewed in SOS August 1993) was a bit of a departure, both in concept and execution — who could forget those deliciously retro moving‑coil VU meters?
Well, it's a year hence, and we have another Marantz multitracker to look at. The new PMD720, while sporting a lower price tag, offers a similar control surface, similar electronics and (most importantly) a similar sound to the first machine. The PMD720's facilities have been stripped down, but that is reflected in the lower retail price. When I say stripped down, I don't mean compromised: this machine offers a two‑speed transport, simultaneous recording on all four tape tracks at once, eight mixer channels, dbx noise reduction and sync facilities. The four main mixer inputs offer mic or line operation, while channels one and two feature balanced XLR connectors and insert points. The remaining four inputs are configured as two stereo channels. In common with the PMD740, the new machine features one effects send (with stereo return), comprehensive monitoring, and two stereo headphone outputs. The facilities that are missing don't make an awful lot of difference to the 720's performance, but they are worth noting — see the accompanying box.
The PMD720 is very comfortable to use, with logical layout and ergonomic design. I plugged it in, tuned up my guitars, whacked down a drum pattern, and a couple of hours later I had a pretty funky finished track — the PMD720 is as easy to use as they come. However, I found one or two omissions to be operationally stifling. First of all, one effects send is simply not enough. While it is possible, with planning, to use the send and the insert points on channels one and two to stretch the effects possibilities by adding effects as you record and bounce, nothing beats having an extra effects send. Secondly, the 720's meters do not turn red when the machine goes into record. This was one of the most attractive features of the PMD740, providing an instant visual indication of what's being recorded where. On the 720, all you have is a single LED over the record button, and a visual indication from the rather small Record Select buttons — and it's quite easy to absent‑mindedly neglect to put these buttons into their correct state, because all that happens when they are switched to Record mode is that a small blob of red paint becomes visible through a hole — there's no LED or light of any sort.
One point of interest to synchroniser users is that the 720 lacks separate sync sockets. Rather, in Sync mode, individual outs 3 and 4 function as sync in and out respectively, and when used in this way, individual output 3 is disabled. I wonder how much money that saved?
The 720's noise reduction, like the 740, is dbx, and it works well. I recorded a drum machine (a test which should reveal shortcomings like 'pumping' in a noise reduction system), and found no problems in spite of pushing the levels consistently into the red. Since there is no peak indication, you have to trust your ears as to when distortion is approaching, but I found the VU meters to be a perfectly adequate barometer. Just out of interest, I dug out a couple of old 4‑track tapes recorded on another dbx‑equipped multitrack, both single and double speed. The tapes played back flawlessly.
Punching in and out can only be done by ear (gone are the automated transport features of the PMD740), but I find that this is often the best way to do it anyway. There can be a noticeable gap when punching out, but practice makes the best of the situation — punching in and out is always fraught on cassette multitrackers, since even at double speed, the tape isn't moving all that fast.
Although the manual which comes with the PMD720 is friendly and chatty, its organisation could be a little better. For example, the section that tells you what all the buttons do starts on page 18, rather than right at the beginning — and I do miss an index. However, all the help and info you need is in there, and it's well‑illustrated.
In spite of a handful of moans, I was impressed by the PMD720 — it's fun to use, and it sounds great. The meters give a fair indication of what's going to tape, the dbx noise reduction does a fine job of masking hiss, and the microprocessor‑controlled transport is really responsive. If I was being picky, I'd comment on the sticky faders, although they did seem to loosen up during the review. Sound quality after bouncing is remarkable: bouncing three tracks plus an overdub onto track four produced a backing track that sounded virtually as good as the originals. Apart from the lack of stereo, you'd hardly know the difference. It's even possible to go one bounce further without seriously compromising the sound quality of the end result.
I found that with the EQ flat, the resultant sound did tend to a slight plumminess, giving the bottom a definite enhancement. This is no bad thing in general — recordings are warm and have an attractive bass presence — but if you're looking for accurate rather than attractive, or want a bit more high‑end sparkle and detail, then you'll have to work a little harder with your source sounds and the EQ, which just happens to be very musical and effective.
Had this review happened a couple of months ago, price would have been very much an issue: the PMD720 used to retail for £649, which, to be honest, was steep. However, UK distributors John Hornby Skewes have recently slashed £100 off that price, which makes it a much more attractive proposition. I daresay that if you shop around, you may find an even better deal.
Marantz's new baby has a lot to offer — the PMD740 was a personal favourite, and in spite of the simplified layout, the PMD720 gives me no real cause to change my opinion.
The four mono mixer channels each feature the following:
- Input selector switch — mic/line, off or tape.
- XLR switch (channels 1 and 2 only) — switch between jack or XLR input.
- Trim control — sets how much level goes into the channel, between line and mic level.
- 2‑band shelving EQ — 10kHz, +/‑10dB and 100Hz, +/‑10dB.
- Effect (auxiliary) send.
- Pan pot
- Faders — nice and long.
The two stereo channels feature just a fader and an assign switch each — signal can be sent to the stereo bus or headphone cue.
- Four VU meters, nicely lit and visible from a distance.
- Effect return and headphones level knobs, plus phones selector.
- Sync, dbx on/off, and meter selector switches — the latter shows individual track level, or left and right output on meter 1 and 2, cue on 3 and effects on 4
- Tape counter and memory function — return to zero and stop or RTZ and enter play.
- Tape cue knobs — cue level for each track sent to phones when relevant switch selected.
- Pitch and speed controls — +/‑10% varispeed, and normal and double speed are available.
- Record select controls — safe; direct (mixer channel 1 goes direct to tape track 1, etc); left bus (tracks 1 and 3); and right bus (tracks 2 and 4). Use the pan pots to select which mixer channel is routed to which tape track.
- Simultaneous recording on all four tracks.
- Two headphone sockets.
- Punch in/out socket, for use with a normally open, non‑latching footswitch.
- XLR socket, jack socket and stereo jack insert socket on channels 1 and 2.
- Mono jacks on channels 4 to 8.
- Phono sockets for direct outs and stereo master output.
While the PMD740 and PMD720 are housed in largely similar cases, there are features missing on the new machine, obviously to allow it to be sold at a lower price. For example, the 720's VU meters don't go red when in record, it has no Dolby HX Pro noise reduction, and offers only one headphone level knob, as opposed to the two on the 740. It also loses the automated transport options of the 740, and has a simplified EQ. In addition, it has no master effects send control, is fitted with two balanced XLR inputs rather than the PMD740's four, and doesn't offer the separate sync sockets and independent level control for code playback which the 740 has. The 720 also lacks the stereo line input plus level control and dedicated mono monitor output found hidden at the back of the 740. However, the 720 also sells for £150 less than the 740!
- Excellent recording quality.
- Logical and easy to use.
- Stylish and well‑built.
- Only one aux send.
- External power supply.
- The meters don't turn pink when going into record.
- No peak indication.
While the price may make some people think twice, you do get a lot for your money: excellent, noise‑free sound quality, ease of use and solid build. Definitely one to consider if you're moving up from an entry‑level machine, and perfect as a first‑time buy if you've a bit of extra cash.