Ask someone for the name of a 1980s home multi-track recorder brand, and chances are you’re going to get one of three answers: Tascam, Fostex or Yamaha. These brands were undoubtedly at the forefront of the tape-based ‘portastudio’ market, with Tascam having come up with the Portastudio term, which was, whether they liked it or not, later applied in ‘hoover’-like fashion to the generic product.
But those who were around buying these things in the 1980s, especially if they were young and/or impoverished at the time, may well give you a different answer. The brand they recall best, may be that of Vesta Fire. Vesta Fire produced a range of home multi-trackers with a rather different budgeting strategy from the industry standard, and the baseline model was significantly lower priced than the equivalent from the Fostex range, which was generally accepted as the cheapest brand of the ‘big three’.
To flesh this out a little, with the actual UK dealers in 1988, a standard Tascam Porta One would sell at around £399. The very basic Fostex X15, meanwhile, would sell at around half that – a much more affordable £199. But Vesta Fire’s baseline offering, the MR-30, could be all yours for a remarkable £159 – the lowest price on the market.
So, these Vesta Fire jobs would have been pretty grim then? Well in truth, the entire market was pretty grim. I haven’t minced my words in the posts I’ve made about Tascam units, but let me stress that there were a lot of compromises in home four-trackers as a breed.
The image above shows three models of Vesta Fire multi-tracker in a 1988 UK advert. Other models were available, but I’m just going to discuss the ones shown, as they represent the ethos of the brand very well. The models depicted are as follows…
VESTA FIRE MR-30 (top right): Approx £159 at good UK dealers.
This was the most basic offering, and basic really was the word. It majored on a universal tone section described as a Graphic EQ, but in good old plain muso-speak better recognised as a bass, middle and treble slider. There were volume controls for each of the four tracks, plus a master output volume. There was also an input volume with a single LED level meter. You could only record one track at a time, with the intended routing selected via a set of function buttons. The product also came with Dolby B-type noise reduction, but could only record/play at regular tape speed. Mixing was entirely down to your ears, as the tracks had no playback level meters, and they had no pan controls either, so you couldn’t even attempt a proper stereo mix. Also, because you couldn’t adjust the EQ of each track separately, getting a mix to sound well balanced tonally was tough.
VESTA FIRE MR-10B (on the left): Approx £299 at good UK dealers.
This was a step up from the very basic model – particularly in its use of VU level meters for each track buss. These were normally associated with higher budget machines such as the Tascam 244 and 246. Unlike with the MR-30, there was a pitch variation control for sorting out tuning issues, and even more importantly, there were pan controls – on all tracks. There was a fairly liberal range of inputs and outputs for a cheapie device, although a lot were in phono line format rather than quarter inch jack. The mixer featured volume knobs rather than the more familiar (and probably more desirable) faders employed on the cheaper model. But more seriously, even though the instruments could be EQ’d on input, there were still no individual EQ controls per individual track output. There was, however, a remote control feature so you could drop yourself in and out, and dbx noise reduction was included, as opposed to the MR-30's less sophisticated Dolby B.
VESTA FIRE MR-10PRO (bottom right): Approx £325 at good UK dealers.
This was essentially the same as the MR-10B, but it had the feature of the moment: high-speed tape travel. With the tape running at double the speed, quality was undeniably and noticeably higher, although the ‘Pro’ designation could pretty obviously be taken with a pinch of salt. Like all budget multi-trackers, these were collections of cheap parts, sold at decidedly un-cheap prices. This model and the MR-10B undercut the ‘industry standard’ Tascam Porta One noticeably on price, but they weren’t anywhere near as well laid out, didn’t look as encouraging in ads, and certainly didn’t come with the same degree of hype. The music journalists' consensus was that the Vesta Fire MR-10PRO had a better basic sound quality than the Tascam Porta One (which frankly wasn’t that difficult), but it lacked the more popular machine’s control and ergonomics.
In their 1988 heyday, the Vesta Fire multi-trackers sold very well in the UK. The whole-of-year dealer feedback guide in Making Music (the musicians’ paper) listed the MR-10 and MR-30 as fourth and fifth bestselling recording products for 1988. They were only beaten by the Tascam Porta 05 (1st), the Tascam Porta One (2nd) and the Fostex X30 (3rd). That was a pretty serious performance on the UK market. Remember, this was a chart including every recording product – reverbs, computers, the lot. How indicative of the time it is that all of the top five placings were home multi-trackers.
It should also be noted that in a quick survey I’ve just done of 1988 secondhand columns, Tascam multi-trackers outnumbered all of the other brands put together by about two to one(!), and there wasn’t a single Vesta Fire to be seen. It wasn’t exactly a survey to end all surveys, but it’s fair to say that Tascam may have had more of a problem with customer satisfaction than Vesta Fire.
Vesta Fire’s success, however, was to be short-lived, and despite the whole-of-year placings, both the MR-30 and MR-10 had dropped out of the top five bestsellers by the end of ‘88. Flicking through the 1990 magazines, the Vesta Fires have no presence at all in UK dealer ads – not among the new gear anyway.
The real problem Vesta Fire had was that customers couldn’t demo multi-trackers side by side with their competitors in a shop. Dealers just wouldn’t have the time to organise full and proper record/mixing demonstrations for all customers – especially with gear costing less than a few hundred quid. That was a shame, because some of the supposed market leaders at various price points weren’t actually very good. In the end, it was largely down to hype, and clever marketing, and Vesta Fire stuggled to really whack potential buyers in the face with their offerings. They lived by price through 1988, but ultimately they died by price. Both the Fostex X26 and the Tascam Porta 05 ballparked the Vesta MR-10’s budget point, and won out on hype or brand trust. Meanwhile, recording was starting to change, and going into the ‘90s the home musician was becoming more ambitious as computers edged their way into the ‘mainstream’. Demand for tape multi-trackers was downsizing, and only the loudest shouters and most audacious hypers would survive.
An interesting memory though. Vesta Fire – not a brand you hear much about a quarter of a century on in 2014.