Have you always wanted a 24-track studio but could never afford the gear? Well now, maybe you can. David Mellor looks at a package of equipment that offers 24 tape tracks at a budget price.
Twenty-four is a magic number in the studio world. When you can count the VU meters on your multitrack tape recorder and arrive at that total, you know that you are in the big league at last. But 24-track tape recorders are expensive. Even a second-hand model will set you back almost £10,000, and the price of 30 minutes' worth of 2" tape has been known to make accountants weep.
But why does the greater part of the music industry regard 24-track operation as standard? It may have something to do with the nature of musical arrangements: you need a certain amount of complexity to provide substance, and also adequate elbow room in which to spread your ideas. Sixteen tracks would be just enough for most pieces, but 24 tracks provide that little bit extra. Of course, there are such things as 32-track and 48-track machines, but now we are talking about the end of the music business where they say 'Cost? Who's counting!'.
So far, the manufacturers of low-cost recording equipment have not entered into the 24-track arena, although I am certain that companies such as Tascam and Fostex could produce an affordable 24-track machine, possibly using 1" tape, if they wanted to. [Funny you should say that. See news of the Tascam 1" 24-track in this month's 'Shape Of Things To Come' -Asst Ed.] But could there be other ways to reach the magic 24?
It should be obvious to most people that money is not being thrown around by consumers in such large quantities as it was a year ago. This means less money being spent on musical and recording equipment, and therefore less money reaching the manufacturers to be invested in more research and development. It also means that retailers are having to work harder to earn a living, because equipment doesn't just jump off the shelves any more.
This actually seems to be having some beneficial effects for consumers of musical and recording equipment, because some retailers are offering better deals or special packages. The approach seems to be that by packaging the equipment in more interesting ways, the customer gets not only a better deal but also something that perhaps would otherwise not have been available.
The package that interests us here is two Akai MG14D cassette-based 12-track recorders and an Applied Microsystems CM200 synchroniser. If that sounds like a mouthful, try saying it this way: a 24-track tape recorder. Now that sounds more appealing, and even more appealing is the price: £5000 plus VAT. You could, of course, have put together a package like this yourself - the equipment has been available for some time. But in the first place you would have had to realise that such a thing was a feasible proposition, and then carry out considerable research finding a suitable combination of boxes. Synchronisers, by the way, are complicated gadgets to hook up and use, and expert assistance is essential when you set up multi-machine systems. In this case, Soho Soundhouse have already done the donkey work for you. All you have to do is pay the money, then take home a full set of equipment, cables and connectors, ready to set up in your studio.
At the heart of this 24-track system is a pair of Akai MG14D cassette-based 12-track recorders. When I say 'cassette-based' I do not, of course, mean the compact cassettes that you slot into your Walkman. These cassettes are of a special type - they use ½" tape and look not dissimilar to a video cassette. It seems likely that cassettes in one form or other are the recording medium of the future - the latest and most highly developed professional digital video recorders are cassette, rather than open reel, based, and I see no reason for audio to progress in any other way.
However, cassette-based recorders do lose out in some respects. Open reel tape can be physically manipulated in a variety of creative ways, whereas cassette-based recorders need sophisticated electronic control to achieve the same ends. You can't perform the full range of open reel tricks on the Akai MG14D, tape editing for instance is ruled out - but mark my words, the days of spinning reels are numbered.
The MG14D is a large (5U high) rackmounting unit. It's heavy too, weighing in at 23kg. I hope that Akai have got their structural calculations correct, because there's a lot of weight hanging on the front panel when the unit is rack-mounted in the conventional way. The legend 'Akai Professional' appears in red letters on the front panel, and the professional tag is justified by the fact that when you look at the back of the unit, you are greeted by XLR inputs and outputs. Since I have a continuing dislike of phono connectors, and have complained about their presence on other machines, I must congratulate Akai on their wisdom. What is more, the input and output circuitry is balanced, enabling interference-free connection to a balanced system.
XLR connectors are a plus, but to integrate with phono-based 'home' systems, gold-plated phonos are wired in parallel. This raises an interesting point: if a high impedance phono input is linked to a low impedance XLR in this way, will not the interference picked up at the phono input (high impedance inputs pick up more electrical noise than low impedance ones) degrade the performance of the XLR input? The answer is yes, unless you insert the shorting phono plugs that Akai provide to cure the problem. Full marks for completeness.
Around to the front again, the cassette is inserted in the loading mechanism from above, and the tape is threaded automatically round the heads. The head assembly, which is located just below the cassette and slightly to the left, is just visible through the 'smoked glass effect' plastic section of front panel which covers it. This can be easily removed to reach the heads for cleaning. There are three heads. Erase, Record/Play, and an extra head for two control tracks - more on which in a moment. Cleaning the pinch roller is slightly more tricky, but not impossible. The head azimuth can be adjusted without removing the panel - this is made possible by holes in the panel through which a screwdriver can be inserted.
Coming back to the heads, the Control Track head allows the recording of a further two tracks, making this a 14-track tape recorder. However, the two extra tracks are not for audio - one is used to record a sequence of pulses to drive the tape counter, the other to record a sync track from an external source (probably SMPTE/EBU timecode). This means that the MG 14D can always perform as a true 12-track recorder. As you probably know, a conventional 16-track recorder has only 15 audio tracks available if timecode is recorded on one track. A 24-track machine similarly becomes a 23-track recorder if timecode is used. Keeping the obnoxious SMPTE/EBU 'screech' to a dedicated head also has advantages in terms of reduced susceptibility to crosstalk (ie. it doesn't bleed through to the adjacent tape tracks).
Once you have unwrapped your first Akai MK20 cassette, there are a few chores that need to be done before the MG 14D recorder is ready for work. The first is to rewind the tape, which unusually is supplied fully wound. Perhaps an initial winding improves handling? Tape winding is infuriatingly slow if you are used to reel-to-reel - a 10-minute cassette takes two minutes to wind through, whereas my reel-to-reel machine can whizz through a 30-minute tape in this time.
After rewinding, the control track(s) needs to be striped - even if you don't need to use SMPTE/EBU, the other control track must be striped with the unit's own pulses in order for the tape counter to operate properly. The MG14D has two tape speeds, and you must decide which of these to use before striping the control tracks. This should not be too difficult: 7.5 and 3.75 inches per second (ips) are the speeds on offer. Any sensible recordist would immediately reject the slower speed unless recording duration was of paramount importance. The cassettes provide 10 minutes of recording time at the higher speed (7.5ips), and 20 minutes at the slower.
When the tape is striped, it's all systems go and the MG 14D can be used pretty much like any other multitrack recorder. Monitoring arrangements are fine, and noise reduction is dbx Type 1, individually switchable for each track.
What does it sound like? Unfortunately, not having another manufacturer's dbx-equipped recorder to hand, I couldn't make any direct comparisons. It is not up to Fostex E16 standard sonically, but within the limitations imposed by the 7.5ips tape speed it is on a par with a dbx reel-to-reel machine. (The track width, by the way, is greater than on Tascam's MSR16 16-track ½" tape machine.) The Akai machine passed my standard test for bouncing onto adjacent tracks - often a source of problems on other machines - and I could detect no edge track roughness. In short, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Although not part of Soho Soundhouse's '24-tracks for £5000 plus VAT' system, the ML14 autolocator is a valuable addition at a modest £399 (inc VAT). The ML14 works as an extension of the control track/tape counter system, as opposed to the way the SMPTE/EBU-based Fostex 4050 (for the Fostex E16) operates. Since the counter works on pulses recorded on the tape, rather than a potentially wandering tach roller, location is very accurate - there is no overshoot at all.
The ML14 duplicates all the controls on the MG 14D apart from the dbx switching, which would not be in frequent use anyway. The bonus is in nine programmable memories which can be used for location, repeat play, punch-in/out and playback mute.
Location and repeat play are common facilities which work as expected. The automated punch-in/out is a very valuable feature, especially when recording live instruments or vocals (and for the self-op musician it certainly beats footswitch operated punch-in - although that is also provided should you need it). Up to four punch-in regions can be defined for multiple punch-ins in one take. Punch-ins can be rehearsed, with the appropriate monitor switching, without going into record.
Playback mute offers the possibility of semi-automated mixdown. Once again, four regions can be defined, each with a different combination of track mutes. This is not as versatile a system as a mixing console with MIDI-controlled muting, such as those in the Soundtracs PC MIDI range, but it does have valuable possibilities.
This unit must be the current holder of the Golden Rose award for worst user manual, but fortunately the CM200 itself is simple and straightforward to set up and operate. A complete explanation of what a synchroniser is and does must wait for another time, but briefly, a synchroniser of this type is connected to two tape machines - two Akai MG 14Ds in this case - and sends whatever transport instructions (play, record, rewind etc) that are input to the 'master' machine to the 'slave', so that both operate in tandem. Also, the synchroniser listens to the SMPTE/EBU timecode recorded on each tape and ensures that the slave is running in precise sync with the master at all times. In effect, all you do is operate one machine, the CM200 will look after the other.
The usual problem with synchronisers is that different tape recorders have different synchronising requirements. This means that any synchroniser must have a variety of interfaces available to link up to your Akai, Fostex, Tascam or whatever. Typically, you would order the synchroniser with the interface you require. To cope with this situation, the CM200 has a library of interfaces already provided, in software - you just dial up the one you need. Of course, with a package such as this, the interface is already chosen, removing one chore that you would otherwise have to deal with. The other essential part of the interface is a cable with the right connectors on the end, but once again this is provided with the Soho package - so no problem.
We shall see how the CM200 performs when the system is set up...
Figure 1 shows how the system should be set up. It initially takes about 10 minutes to get things up and running. There are two ways you could look upon a system such as this: (1) as a 24-track tape recorder, albeit divided into two 12-track packages; or (2) as a two machine master reel/slave reel recording system, like the pros use to turn two 24-track recorders into a 48-track set-up. Let's see how method 1 works...
Assuming that the tapes in both machines are striped with control pulses and SMPTE/EBU code, you are ready to start recording. As usual, recording can start from track 1 on the master recorder, and then on other tracks in numerical order (funny how the old rule of never putting important stuff on the edge tracks went out of fashion when SMPTE came in). Up to track 12, you do not need to have machine 2 running, so the CM200 would not have 'Lock' selected. Operation so far is smooth and easy.
When the time comes to record track 13, the second (slave) recorder has to be put to work. This is a one-button job on the CM200. The first problem you find is that the autolocator is plugged into the master recorder. If you operate the controls on the slave, it comes out of lock. What you have to do is press Play on the master (or autolocator) while holding down Record on the slave. Never mind, you'll get used to it.
What you will find, now that you have two machines running together, is that your whole operation is slowed down slightly. It takes up to 15 seconds for the two machines to lock into sync, during which you will hear the slave slewing up and down in pitch like a drunken male voice choir. Now to put that into perspective, a 15-second lock-up time is not slow in comparison to the time that is normally spent shuttling tape back and forth, and that is 15 seconds maximum. Lock-up can sometimes be achieved in five seconds or less, depending on the particular sequence of operations. But if you are used to working with just one machine, you will definitely see the drawbacks to this procedure.
The alternative way of employing the two recorders is to use the concept of a 'master reel' and a 'slave reel'. The first 12 tracks will be built up on the master recorder. When those tracks are full, they are mixed down onto two tracks (for stereo) on the slave. Note that this is a rough mix and will not be used in the final version. Now the master reel can be put in a safe place and the slave reel placed in the master recorder, and you are back to dealing with just one machine for the next 10 tracks of overdubs. When it comes to mixdown time, the master and slave reels are put back in their respective machines, sync achieved and mix, mix, mix!
...to 16-track, to an expensive 24-track? Put it like this, where else are you going to get 24 tracks for this kind of money? Two-machine working does have its disadvantages, but if you need those eight extra tracks over 16-track (and don't forget that timecode is recorded separate from the audio tracks), this Akai MG14D/Applied Microsystems package may be the only affordable way to do it.
Thanks to Soho Soundhouse for the loan of the review equipment.
Review by David Mellor
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