Will Yamaha's MT8X depose Tascam's 488 as the market leading cassette 8‑track? Paul White casts a critical eye over this aggressive newcomer and discovers that the answer is far from cut and dried.
If you're already a 4‑track user, then you're probably already thinking how much easier life would be if you had eight tracks to play with. But will eight tracks help you make a better recording — do you really need the extra tracks now that you have a MIDI sequencer running all your synths and samplers directly into the mix. And is the sound quality likely to be better, the same or worse? After all, if you go for a cassette 8‑track, you're cramming twice as much information onto the same width of tape so something has to give — doesn't it? If it helps you decide, I can confirm that 8‑track is significantly more than twice as flexible as 4‑track. With a four‑track machine, you're very restricted as to how you can bounce tracks, especially if one track is being used to carry time code, and because of the limited number of tracks, bouncing is invariably a necessary evil. With one track already sacrificed in the name of time code, you're limited to recording two tracks, bouncing them down to mono, and then recording new parts over the two original tracks — not much room for manoeuvre at all.
With eight tracks, you still have seven tracks left after recording your time code, and that leaves plenty of scope for creative track bouncing in both mono and stereo. And if you're running your sequenced parts live into the mix, there may be no need to bounce at all, which helps maintain the highest possible level of sound quality. But how does the sound quality fare with eight narrow tracks on cassette? Because the tracks are narrower, if all else remains equal, there's an automatic 3dB increase in background hiss, but with powerful modern noise reduction systems, this isn't a limiting factor. All the 8‑track cassette units I've tested so far have compared very favourably with equivalent 4‑track models in terms of both sound quality and noise.
It remains true that an open‑reel machine will produce noticeably better‑sounding recordings — not significantly so in terms of noise, but they do produce a more faithful rendition of the original sound, partly because of lower distortion and partly because they tend to have wider bandwidths enabling them to handle high‑frequency signals with greater accuracy. On the down side, an open‑reel machine plus a suitable mixer is going to cost significantly more than a cassette multitracker, it takes up more space, and you'll need yards of cables to patch the lot together. The multitracker does offer the very positive benefit of plug‑in‑and‑play performance, which can be vitally important when you have a flash of musical inspiration and need to get it onto tape before you forget it.
Since TOA bowed out of the 8‑track cassette market, Tascam have had enjoyed a monopoly in this section of the market, and though they produce several models based on their 8‑track mechanism, only their 488 is directly comparable with (and therefore by implication, threatened by) the MT8X. Tascam's 488 appears to be heavily discounted at the moment which actually makes the newcomer slightly more expensive.
Yamaha's MT8X is a shining example of a plug‑in‑and‑play 8‑track — just plug in the mains, plug in a pair of headphones and you're ready to record. Like Tascam's cassette 8‑tracks, the MT8X runs at double the normal cassette speed, which means a 60‑minute cassette provides just 15 minutes of recording (cassettes only play in one direction on a multitracker). The recorder is set up to use Chrome bias (Type II) audio cassettes, and the use of a Permalloy head suggests that a usefully long head life can be expected. The head itself is made of staggered sections to reduce magnetic interaction between adjacent tracks, allowing a frequency response up to 14kHz or so, though this may be slightly reduced when the dbx noise reduction is switched in. The choice of dbx noise reduction was obviously made on the basis of performance and price, and though most people would agree that Dolby S produces a more transparent sounding recording, dbx does turn in a very creditable noise performance at a much lower cost.
The MT8X is set out very much like a conventional multitrack mixer, so any techniques you learn here can be transferred directly to a 'recorder‑plus‑mixer' setup if and when you take the next evolutionary step. Up to four tracks can be recorded at one time and, of course, all eight tracks can be played back simultaneously when you come to mix.
The mixer section comprises eight channels, four of which have Mic/Line inputs and four of which are line only. Mic/Line channels 1‑4 have input Gain trim controls with Adjacent Clip LEDs, while the Gain trim control can handle both mic and line levels without switching. Channel 8 has a stereo input, which is useful if you're handling pre‑recorded material or a stereo electronic instrument, and there's a Sync switch on this channel which bypasses the noise reduction and EQ for the reliable recording of timecode. The mic inputs are on unbalanced jacks, but with the short cable lengths used in home recording, this is unlikely to present a problem. However, there is a risk of interference when recording live with long cable runs.
All eight channels have Hi and Low equalisers, but the first four channels also have Mid controls operating at 1kHz, all the EQ controls providing a cut/boost range of 12dB. Channels 1 and 2 also have insert points, allowing effects or processors to be inserted into the signal path either while recording or while mixing. The routing and panning arrangement is exactly the same as you'd expect to find on any typical multitrack mixer, but as you can only record four tracks in one go, the mixer needs only four group buses rather than one per tape track. Routing buttons select buss pairs 1,2 or 3,4 and the Pan control is used to direct the signal between odd and even numbered buses. Four rotary controls act as Group Master level controls and a single ganged fader handles the overall stereo level.
One slight departure from tradition is the lack of Left/Right routing buttons; all channels are permanently routed to the Left/Right buss so there's no need for switches. A push button switch at the bottom of each channel strip switches from Mic/Line to Tape input so that the channels can be set to receive the off‑tape signal once recording is completed.
Each channel has two post‑fade aux sends for use with effects; there's no aux fade master level control so you'll need to use the input level control on your effects unit to control the overall effect send level. However, the two effects returns are stereo and have a full complement of level and routing buttons, enabling them to be routed to either bus pair. As with the input channels, the returns are also permanently routed to the stereo mix bus.
The monitoring system on the MT8X is both simple and flexible, largely because any of the five possible monitor sources can be selected simultaneously, but also because of the choice of headphone or conventional (amp plus speakers) line‑level feed. The monitor source options are: Groups 1,2; Groups 3,4; Stereo Mix; 2‑Track In and Cue.
This machine is aimed unashamedly at the entry‑level 8‑track market, but used with just a little care it is capable of producing very fine demos.
The Cue mix is set up using eight short sliders located below the display window, and these provide a mono monitor mix. The internal monitor switching is automated so that you always hear, for example, the off‑tape signal from ready recorded tracks while recording new parts or running up to drop‑ins — there's no complicated monitor switching to worry about. In theory you could use the Cue mixer to provide a mono mix of the tape tracks while using the main mixer channels to add sequenced MIDI instruments to the overall mix, but this would be rather limiting. For use with a MIDI sequencer, a small keyboard line mixer plugged into the stereo input of channel 8 would make more sense — if track 8 was being used for time code, channel 8 would be free for this purpose.
The tape transport is essentially a two‑motor system augmented by a further motor to physically move the head assembly towards the tape. One motor runs the capstan and one runs the takeup reels; unlike Tascam's arguably more advanced transport, Yamaha rely on the cassette's own pressure pad to maintain adequate tape‑to‑head contact. The tape is prevented from wandering over the head by a couple of guide pins which form part of the head assembly.
Below the cassette well, which is fitted with a lift‑up cover, is the display, a two‑colour plasma readout which integrates both numeric and metering functions. The tape counter part of the display is large, clear and operates in real elapsed time, while other window sections relate such information as auto punch status and dbx on/off. The usual Varispeed option of +/‑12% is provided and there are two tape locator points in addition to a return‑to‑zero function. The tape can be made to cycle between locator points for rehearsal and there's also an automatic punch‑in/punch out facility, which is invaluable for those who are working alone and who have their hands full of instrument. As an alternative, punch‑ins may also be executed manually from the control panel or 'footually' via the Punch I/O footswitch socket. As ever, the footswitch is optional — and while on the subject of options, a wired transport remote is available for those who need it.
Yamaha's MT8X is a shining example of a plug‑in‑and‑play 8‑track — just plug in the mains, plug in a pair of headphones and you're ready to record.
Tracks are put in ready‑to‑record mode by means of four rocker type switches which can be used to select tracks 1/5, 2/6, 3/7 and 4/8. Pressing a switch a second time cancels the record status and any tracks 'armed' for recording are indicated by flashing red circles around their respective track numbers in the display window. I'd have found discrete LEDs adjacent to the switches rather more attention grabbing, but the chosen method is both streamlined and cost‑effective.
All eight tape tracks feature direct tape output sockets, something I've always considered very important. This enables recordings to be remixed via a larger, more sophisticated external mixer if required, something that may well be desirable if a lot of sync'ed MIDI sequencing is going on at the same time.
Using this machine is very straightforward, though there are one or two minor departures from tradition that are worthy of note. I've become used to machines where you punch in by holding down the Play button while hitting Record, but on the MT8X, moving from Play into Record is a one‑key operation — you just hit Record. This system is used on some of the more professional studio machines, but they tend to arrange the Record button so that you're unlikely to operate it by accident. On the MT8X, the Record button might be considered a trifle 'exposed.'
To punch out of record, a single stab at the Play button will do the trick, again a feature found on many pro machines. While punching in proved virtually seamless, I was less impressed by the gap following a punch‑out; this appeared to be in excess of half a second, which means you have to pick your moment very carefully.
Of course, sound quality is a major concern with all recording equipment, and I was interested to see how serious the limited audio bandwidth would be in practice. As it transpires, there is a difference in brightness between the source material and the playback, but it isn't nearly so drastic as you might imagine. Similarly, the dbx doesn't have too serious an effect on most sounds so long as you don't insist on recording' into the red' all the time. Bouncing tracks does cause a noticeable deterioration in quality, especially on bright or percussive sounds, so it's best to leave these sounds unbounced if at all possible. In practice, you can happily bounce things like keyboard pads or backing vocals, but steer away from drums, percussion and lead vocals — and don't bounce anything more than once unless you're really desperate.
In the final analysis, this machine is aimed unashamedly at the entry‑level 8‑track market, but used with just a little care, it is capable of producing very fine demos. It has the same sophisticated transport locate and auto punch in/out features of many of the top‑end open‑reel machines, and I particularly like the way the mixer topography follows that of a conventional studio mixer. Indeed, the whole styling of the machine inspires confidence. The tape controls are excellent and include many professional features, including the ability to select Play after you've hit RTZ or Locate so that playback starts as soon as the desired location is reached.
The designers have missed few tricks, though I thought they could have devised a system to allow the unused channel inputs and Cue faders to be used as additional line inputs while mixing. As it is, if you have more than one or two sequenced instruments, you're going to need an additional submixer. At the asking price, the competition between Yamaha's MT8X and Tascam's 488 is set to be pretty fierce, but I'd advise you to try both side by side before you decide which one is right for you. There are slight differences in both features and subjective sound quality, but the ultimate decision probably boils down to personal taste rather than any obvious paper advantage that one machine might have over the other.
dbx is often accused of spoiling transient sounds such as drums, but every form of noise reduction exacts a price. Even so, I found the problem far less serious than some people claim so long as you keep the meters out of the red when recording. If you work in the red, then all that happens is that the dbx magnifies the effects of tape compression and makes the sound appear 'squashed'. Some sounds are OK squashed, but drum sounds tend to lose definition and become dull. By recording at a more modest level, the tape is used in its linear range, which produces the best subjective results. And because dbx is so effective at reducing noise, you don't need to work 'in the red' to come out with a quiet recording.
- Easy to use.
- Well‑featured mixer section.
- Sophisticated transport and locate features.
- Virtually seamless punch‑in.
- Long gap after punching out of record.
- Bright or percussive sounds tend to lose some of their crispness.
- Unbalanced Mic Inputs.
The MT8X is a well featured and sensibly priced entry‑level 8‑track system ideally suited to the production of high quality demos.