8-Track Tape Recorder
Since its dramatic drop in price, the C278 is an attractive proposition to the private user who puts quality before frills.
The Revox C278 is a half-inch machine designed for the professional market — but significant price reductions now make it an attractive proposition for the private studio owner, as Paul White discovers.
It must be said at the outset that this tape machine was never intended for home studio use, and that some of the facilities we have come to take for granted in cheaper machines are notably absent. There's no MIDI control, no auto-locator and no auto punch-in, punch-out. Similarly, there are obscure data logging features that the home user will never need. But on the other hand, the machine is built like a tank and designed to work reliably for long periods of time. When first introduced, the C278 cost about the same as a budget 16-track recorder, but the price has now been cut, presumably to sell off existing stocks, before the model is superseded. At the new price, the machine competes more directly with existing open-reel 8-tracks. Though this model appears now to be available from only a few retail outlets in the UK, the large number of machines in question should ensure good supplies for several months.
As one would expect with Revox equipment, the C278 is built to an uncompromisingly professional specification, which is reflected in its original high price and large physical size. Running on 10.5" reels of half-inch tape, the Revox C278 is a dual-speed machine; in fact, two versions are available, offering either 7.5/15ips or 7.5/3.75ips operation. For serious recording work, the high speed model is the obvious choice.
Unlike semi-pro machines, the basic Revox has no built-in noise reduction system, though the Dolby HX Pro Headroom Expansion system is fitted, which extends the usable headroom at high frequencies.
The transformerless audio circuitry is also optimised to preserve the phase integrity of the recorded sound, a factor which may account for the 'thinner' sound of some of the narrow-format, semi-pro machines.
Unlike most budget machines, separate heads are used for record and playback; the record head can be used for playback in sync mode, but this results in a significant drop in audio bandwidth. This is fine for monitoring when overdubbing, but less useful when bouncing tracks in sync. For this reason, bouncing tracks is best accomplished by filling six of the tracks completely, then bouncing these down, in stereo, to the remaining two using the replay head. This will result in a timing difference between the bounced tracks and the original six, but as these are now free for re-use, it doesn't matter. Time code may be read from the sync head or the replay head and a tape splicing block is fitted as standard.
Punching in and out of record is very quiet and gap free, resulting in seamless drop-ins and, apart from the essential transport controls, the machine has a Return-to-Zero function and two locator points, providing the facility to cycle around a selected section of tape for rehearsal. Metering is via LED bargraphs and a wide range of varispeed operation is provided.
All the audio connections to and from this machine are on balanced XLR connectors and there are input gain trim controls, allowing the machine to be used with virtually any mixer. Likewise, the output level may be set by means of jumper connections to match the popular pro and semi-pro level standards (-10dBv, 0dBu and +4dBu). The review model was supplied set up for +4dBu operation.
The tape transport is typical of Revox in that it is built like a tank and runs like a Swiss clock. There is only one tension arm in the tape path, and the tape is held against the precision metal capstan shaft by a synthetic pinch roller. The capstan motor is servo controlled for speed stability, and separate AC motors drive the reels and provide tape tension. Both dump edit and spot erase modes are included and the tape counter works in true elapsed time.
One unusual feature of this machine is that track eight may be used to store data instead of audio, and an internal clock allows real-time information to be stored on tape. It's also possible to record a six-digit ID number and the data track may be externally accessed over RS232 from a computer. This code track facility isn't designed for machine synchronisation and I fail to see how it would benefit the typical recording musician. I foresee most users putting their own FSK or SMPTE codes onto track eight, but the facility is undoubtedly useful in specialist applications such as location film or broadcast work, where there is a need to name and date/time-stamp a recording.
"The tape transport is typical of Revox in that it is built like a tank and runs like a Swiss clock."
A phones output is provided, with a selector switch allowing individual channels to be checked — again useful when doing location work — and the splicing block is located beneath the right-hand tape reel. Access to the circuitry for service and alignment is easy, while various options (including the choice of speeds) may be implemented by plugging in the appropriate cards.
In the studio, the tape transport ran flawlessly and no amount of "bad driving' could provoke it into spilling any tape. Tape handling was smooth in all fast wind and play modes, and audio quality at 15ips was impeccable. With no noise reduction, some tape hiss is inevitable (even with the Dolby HX Pro system), but providing you run the tape fairly hot, the level of hiss is adequately low. I didn't get a chance to try the machine with a high-level tape such as 3M's 996, but judging from the reports on this tape, it should be possible to run the meters well into the red with no distortion, which would add a few extra dBs onto the signal-to-noise ratio.
The audio bandwidth is flat within 2dB from 30Hz right up to 22kHz, which is about as good as it gets for analogue recorders, and the fact that there is no noise reduction means that there are no unwanted side-effects to mar the transparency of the recorded sound.
The sync response fares less well, extending only from 100Hz to 12kHz, and though you could bounce from the sync head at a pinch. I'd rather not do so if I didn't have to. This aspect is undoubtedly the weakest point of the machine.
Anyone with previous experience of Revox equipment will know exactly what to expect from this machine. It has a bare minimum of frills, but it does what it does uncompromisingly and is built to keep on doing it indefinitely. It isn't fancy (other than in the obscure areas already covered), but if you need a professional quality 8-track that can really work for a living, this model has to be considered a bargain.
Thanks to Thatched Cottage Audio for the loan of the review model.
C278 £6384.95 including VAT.
Revox UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul White