Revox B77 Tape Recorder
Few recording industry products have a reputation as untarnished as that enjoyed by the Revox B77. The model reviewed is a direct descendant of the original A77 of the early-seventies, which itself evolved from a line of valve open-reel machines with which the Studer-Revox company first made its name internationally.
The B77 can now be found in all manner of recording situations, from the most basic sound-on-sound bedroom set-up to the most sophisticated professional 24-track, where many Revoxes find use as echo machines even after the owners have upgraded their mastering equipment to £5000 broadcast standard.
So why is the B77 so popular?
Part of the reason must lie in the sheer size of the choice of different model variants available - to the potential purchaser. He can choose from high-speed 30 and 15ips models right down to special 'logging' machines for broadcast use that run at 1⅞ or 15/16 ips, plus all the speeds in between. Add to this the fact that most models are available in both half-track and quarter-track formats and you end up with just about the most comprehensive range of mastering machines available outside the realms of special-order custom designers.
That isn't the whole story, however. A big range doesn't guarantee a successful product unless that product performs competently at all parameters and in the most demanding situations. Happily, having used the review sample and several of its more elderly brethren over an extensive period and in a number of different situations, I can report that the B77 continues to fulfill these criteria admirably!
To the newcomer, the B77's array of front-panel controls may appear a little bewildering, but in reality (and unlike some previous Studer-Revox products which seemed to specialise in eccentrically or irrationally arranged function layouts) all the controls are logically set-out and easily mastered by even the most forgetful recordist. Broadly speaking, the panel is split into three sections: output controls, input functions, and tape transport controls.
Dealing with these first, all the transport functions are controlled by electronic logic, very much a novelty on machines of this calibre when Revox first introduced it a decade or more ago, but now a commonplace facility even on ordinary cassette machines of less than £150 retail value. What it means is that the machine 'remembers' every command you program in via the transport controls, so that if, for example, you press Play while the machine is in Rewind mode, the B77 will automatically play the tape as soon as the reels have come to a standstill.
As a safeguard against possible accidental erasure, both the Record and Play buttons must be pressed in order to get the Revox recording. The Pause button is located at the extreme left of the panel and possesses an action that is both easy and positive (indeed this is a quality shared by all the transport controls) and again thanks to the logic control, any transport function that is selected while the Pause button is depressed is stored 'in memory' and comes into action as soon as Pause is released.
Immediately above the transport controls are a pair of illuminated average-reading VU meters (one for each channel) each equipped with input peak of 6dB above 0VU.
As is so often the case with average-reading VUs, discovering just how far you can go 'into the red' without risking distortion is simply a matter of trial and error. Broadly speaking, undynamic (and therefore undemanding) material such as quiet acoustic guitar or solo piano can safely be recorded with an occasional flicker from either or both of the peak LEDs, while a little more care must be exercised when recording from, say, a multitrack feed of a rock band in full swing.
The centre section of the front-panel houses the input selection and level controls, separated into two groups for left and right channels. The two input level controls select which of five different inputs are sent to the B77's record head. In its normal role as a mastering machine, both left and right input controls are set to AUX, as it's to these input jacks that the outputs from the mixing console are connected.
For live recording, there's a choice of two positions for low- or high-output microphones, and unlike the AUX connectors, the MIC input jacks are located on the front panel next to the input selectors which saves time-consuming fiddling at the back of the unit. The other possible input selections are RADIO (for connection to a DIN- equipped receiver or hi-fi amplifier) and 'R-L' ('L-R' on the right channel) which is selected for bouncing recordings from one channel to the other.
As an additional measure to prevent accidental recording, each input channel has a 'record on/off' switch which must be activated for the B77 to go into record mode. This seemed an unnecessary hindrance at first, but after a while flicking the switches into their appropriate positions became second nature, and after one near-miss with a particularly important recording, I quickly became glad of the extra security afforded by the selectors!
Output controls are grouped in a section on the far left of the Revox front panel, labelled 'Monitor' by Revox. This houses a dual-concentric volume control which, like the twin input level pots, has a clean, precise action which competing reel-to-reels aspire to but never quite achieve. A five-position output selector (normally set to STEREO) provides also for mono, reverse, left-only and right-only output configurations. The all-important Monitor switch is located next to the overall power on/off control, this being switched to the 'input' position except when off-tape monitoring via the playback head is required during recording, when 'tape' is selected. Speed selectors (7½ and 15ips on the review model) complete the front panel controls, with the exception of the reel-size selector (for reels of less than seven inches diameter), varispeed control (which has to be activated via a separate switch to avoid inadvertent changes in speed) and an EDITOR slide-switch which engages the playback head and its internal amplifier even when the tape transport is in the Stop position. This enables the user to find a given point on the tape prior to editing simply by rotating the spools manually.
Splicing on the old A77 was always something of a problem because the hum-shields on the record and playback heads obstructed the course of the intending editor's chinagraph pencil! This problem has been alleviated on the latest B77, and as a further encouragement to creative editing, the manufacturers have now installed a splicing block - complete with stainless-steel cutter - immediately to the right of the tape guidance network.
However, although the block provided is perfectly adequate for an amateur, I would guess most pro or semi-pro engineers would use a professional steel block (such as that made by EMI) with a separate blade, the whole kit mounted on, say, the B77's headblock cover.
There are one or two other points worthy of mention.
First is that Revox have stuck with a mechanical four-digit tape counter at a time when most of their rivals have switched to LCDs. Personally I much prefer mechanical counters and that on the B77 proved extremely accurate except on unusually long fast winds, and is a great improvement on the electronic devices in this respect. (Reviewer waits patiently for angry letters to arrive on his desk and bricks to fly through the office window).
Another point is that the Revox's auto-stop function operates via an infra-red sensor which detects the translucency of leader-tape. The difficulty here is that if the tape is not wound on manually past the leader section, the Play function steadfastly refuses to operate. In theory it should be easy enough to remember to wind the tape on each time a new reel is to be played/recorded, but with someone unfamiliar with the B77's idiosyncrasies at the controls, it's all too easy to assume everything is working fine and then be stumped by what is an apparently insurmountable problem!
Once what few eccentricities the B77 possesses have been learnt and overcome, however (and it doesn't take long), the machine becomes a joy to use. As hinted at earlier, the transport works beautifully, and all the controls have positive, secure feel to them that encourages even the relative newcomer to use them with speed and confidence.
Tales of Revox decks lasting longer than the recording careers of their owners are legion, and certainly the constructional quality of the review sample was as good as it's ever been. Clearly Studer are not interested in sacrificing build integrity for the sake of saving a few Swiss Francs.
Yet interestingly, the B77 - in most of its commoner variants, at least - is now slightly cheaper than some of its competitors, and by all accounts sales have a positive, secure feel to them that months despite digital competition from Sony's PCM-F1 (fear of new technology in the marketplace?).
There's no doubt in my mind that this Revox fully deserves its position as the small-studio mastering standard, and if I was in a job that paid better than this one, I'd be waving my cheque in front of my local dealer's nose before you could say 'B77' Tonbandmaschine!
The 7/15 ips, half-track version of the Revox B77 tested here retails at £746.35 including VAT, and further details are available from the importers, F.W.O. Branch, (Contact Details).
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