With the preponderance of MiniDisc multitrack and computer-based recorders one might think the cassette four-track format was dead. Not true. Fostex, for one, is showing its commitment to the cassette four-tracker with the new X-34 recorder, as well as two other recorder models in the company’s line. The X-34 doesn’t stray far from proven cassette four-track formula, but it does offer considerable refinement over four-trackers of old.
The Fostex X-34 has a four-channel mixer section with high- and low-frequency EQ (at 100 Hz and 10 kHz, respectively). Each channel also has a monitor mix/auxiliary send that shares a single knob. The X-34 changes the knob’s role automatically as one switches between two different operating modes; two LEDs show which function the knob is currently controlling (aux or monitor mix).
A pan control places tracks in the stereo field on playback only – this control can’t be used to pan an input across two tape tracks during recording. At the bottom of each strip is a short fader for controlling playback and record levels for each channel, as well as a master fader for the stereo bus.
Two large level knobs set input gain into the mixer, with one knob handling inputs 1 and 3 and the other controlling 2 and 4. These input gain controls offer a broad range to handle all but the hottest line-level signal or weakest microphone. Both mixer inputs offer an XLR and 1/4″ jack, you can plug into one input or the other, but not both at the same time. The X-34 does not supply phantom power for condenser mics.
On the front of the recorder are four jacks that work as untrimmed line inputs for each mixer channel. If the back-panel jacks are used instead (with gain knob), these jacks become TRS insert points for the input signal. This permits patching in an EQ, compressor or any other insert effect while recording. Neat idea, I just wish Fostex could have found a way to make these inserts work for tape playback tracks as well.
When in playback mode, the mixer’s double-duty send knob controls aux level to a mono output. The mixer offers a stereo aux return on 1/4″ jacks as well, with return level control. Beneath the aux return knob is the X-34’s monitor level control. This knob controls the mixer’s monitor output level to a pair of back-panel 1/4″ jacks, as well as to the front-mounted headphone output.
In addition to the monitor output, the X-34 has a stereo record output on RCA jacks. Four RCA jacks carry direct tape outputs for routing tape tracks into an external mixer or recorder. Also on the back panel are a punch-in/out footswitch jack, power switch, Dolby NR on/off switch and connector for the recorder’s wallwart power supply transformer.
The X-34 runs the tape at double-speed (9.5 cm/s) for better noise performance, though its normal fix button drops the X-34’s speed down to normal for playback of standard cassettes. The recorder section offers Dolby B noise reduction, though it only works at the higher tape speed. Reduce the speed down to play normal cassettes and the X-34 automatically disables the Dolby noise reduction. The X-34’s pitch knob provides a generous range of -50% to +12%.
The Fostex has two buttons that make operation easy – track down and auto-bounce. The first button puts the X-34 in mixdown mode, with tape signals going through the channel faders, EQ section and pan knobs to the stereo bus. In this mode, the aux/monitor knob works as an aux send.
Each time the auto bounce button is pressed, the X-34 cycles through tracks 1 through 4 as the destination for bouncing the other tracks. Playback tracks go through channel faders and EQ sections. They are mixed, based on the fader settings to the destination tape track. The mixed signal goes through the destination track’s mixer channel on the way, which lets you adjust the mix’s overall level and EQ before it hits the tape.
In normal recording mode, a REC TRK button on each mixer channel selects the destination track for recording. Any channel can be routed to any tape track, even summing all four input signals to a single tape track. The monitor mix knob lets a cue mix be set up while recording, but disables the auxiliary send in the process.
Metering on the X-34 is simple but effective. Tape tracks and the stereo bus have five-segment LED level meters with indicators at -10, -5, 0, +3 and +6 dB. Just between the cassette door and meter section is a three-digit analog tape counter with reset button.
Considering the limitations of the cassette format, the X-34 does pretty well sonically. Noise is always the biggest challenge for such a small slice of tape, but the X-34’s Dolby B noise reduction and increased tape speed do an admirable job keeping noise under control. That said, one needs to hit the tape pretty hard to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. When bouncing, however, no amount of level will keep noise at bay – noise levels build up quickly with each bounce.
The stated frequency response of the X-34 tops out at 14 kHz (with no deviation listed), and I heard a definite loss of top end when initially laid to tape. Bounce once through the X-34 and the top end rolls off rather significantly. Coupled with the increase in noise, this rolloff will no doubt encourage X-34 users to keep bouncing to a minimum.
The X-34’s mixer is well-conceived and easy to use. The EQ section sounds good for this purpose, and the dual-purpose monitor mix/aux knob is a clever solution on the part of Fostex. XLR inputs and inserts are wonderful on the four-tracker, as are the direct tape outputs and simultaneous four-track recording capability. Faders are surprisingly controllable considering their short throw, and the buttons and knobs are sturdy and easy to adjust.
Within the limits of very simple recording and production, I didn’t find the X-34’s features lacking on any front. Noteworthy is the X-34’s gutsy little headphone amp, which did a good job driving even sluggish, high-impedance headphones to a respectable level.
After recording for a while with the X-34 a few minor quirks became obvious. First, though the X-34’s meters themselves work great, their layout can make it difficult to tell which channel is which. Better grouping of the stereo and individual track meters would help.
The track routing assignments for recording would sometimes shift without any buttons being pressed. Similarly, at one point I glanced up and saw two auto-bounce indicators lit, which isn’t even possible with the X-34. The recorder’s digitally controlled routing is nice, but it seems to experience the occasional hiccup.
Fostex’s newest four-tracker takes the cassette format about as far as it can go. It combines plenty of features with an easy-to-use interface, and offers sonics limited only by the tiny slice of tape it has to work with.
Which prompts the obvious question – does the cassette four-track format even make sense anymore? The humble cassette doesn’t even come close to the sound quality of today’s MD, Zip and hard-disk-based multitrackers. Many of these digital units offer eight or more tracks, advanced editing features and plummeting price tags. That’s pretty tough competition.
Whether the cassette four-track makes sense for you is a question only you can answer. If that answer is “yes,” the X-34 should definitely be on your short list of models to consider.