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Revox C278

For A Few Dollars More...

What price a reputation? The Revox brand name is well established and very well respected, but the new model C278 8-track costs a lot more than the Fostex and Tascam equivalents. David Mellor asks whether it is worth the extra.


What price a reputation? The Revox brand name is well established and very well respected, but the new model C278 8-track costs a lot more than the Fostex and Tascam equivalents. David Mellor asks whether it is worth the extra.

A number of years ago, before home recording was a financially viable proposition, if you asked any budding musician what gear he would ideally like to have, he would probably reply: 'A Fender Stratocaster, a Marshall stack and a Revox.' Somethings have changed: Fender now source guitars from Japan and Marshall make practice amps (!). But some things remain the same: the Revox reputation for quality is still what it was - the large quantity of 15 to 20 year-old Revoxes still in service testify to that.

My first serious tape recorder was a secondhand Revox G36, predating not only the B77 but the A77, too. The only time it let me down was when I recorded an organ recital from an operating position under the organ loft. The organ's electro-mechanical action created so much electrical noise that the tape was covered in clicks. (The moral to that tale is to always use balanced equipment on important location recordings - you live and learn.) But it is not only the Revox name that holds the key to the reputation. It is the fact that if anything should go wrong with your machine, service is never a problem. Spare parts are still available for machines that are many years old.

Of course, the Japanese are competing. Tascam and Fostex in particular make excellent tape recorders, but a reputation takes a long time to establish and compared to Revox, they are newcomers to the low-cost tape recorder market.

If there is one other attraction to the Revox name, it is the link with the celebrated Studer brand - it's the same company. Studer, as you probably know, make no-holds-barred recording equipment priced right at the top of the industry. It indicates that they definitely know a thing or two.

My interest in the Revox C278 started when I first saw one at the AES exhibition in Paris last year. I was on the look out for a multitrack for Paddington College in London, who needed a machine that could stand up to some particularly hard wear and tear by students on their sound engineering course. Supplies of the machine are only now starting to filter through in volume, and my chance has come to give the machine a thorough test.

The C278 is one of a family of tape recorders - the C270 stereo machine and the C274 4-track being the other members. (The C270 and C274 use quarter-inch tape, the C278 takes half-inch). The C270 is one step up from the Revox PR99, now on its Mark III version (my six year-old PR99 MkI is still providing sterling service, incidentally). The principal improvements are servo control of tape tension and an overall chunkier build. I would guess that the range is aimed mainly at broadcasters and audio-visual studios who need quality tape recorders but can't justify going up to the much pricier Studers. How well it fares in music studios will be up to the marketplace. After all, the C278 is an 8-track for the price of a 16-track, virtually. But let's have a look at the machine itself and see what's what...

COMPACT DESIGN



The Revox C278 is compact and light for an 8-track. In fact, it is no bigger than you would expect a stereo machine to be. But even though it is light in weight, all the components look and feel very solid. That's a subjective point, but many people including me - will take it as a guide to quality. Other 8-tracks seem rather flimsy in comparison.

The top plate is satin finish aluminium, secured with hex screws. Substantial aluminium rack-mounting strips are bolted to the sides. The rear casing of the machine is plastic with moulded-in handles.

The NAB tape spool centres are of the usual Revox design, but fixed in place. There is only one tension arm, which smooths the supply of tape and whose position is used to calculate the tape tension necessary. The tach roller is partially hidden in an aluminium housing which, presumably, is there to protect it from damage.

The head cover is fixed - not hinged - and is very solid. It hides three heads - Erase, Record and Play - rather than the two heads provided on the Fostex E8 and Tascam TSR8 [reviewed last month]. This makes off-tape monitoring possible. There is a roller between the Erase and Record heads which smooths out any vibrations in the tape that would aggravate modulation noise. The heads are mounted on an inch-thick aluminium casting, which should give a firm distortion-free foundation for years of head stability. There is no head shield. The capstan motor is only powered in Record and Play modes, reducing wear on the bearings if the machine is left switched on continuously. To the right of the heads is a tape editing block.

Around the back of the C278, we find that the audio connectors are all XLRs - hooray! - mounted in a recess. The connectors plug in parallel to the top plate. This means that there is no problem from connectors that stick out if the machine is operated horizontally on a flat surface. If mounted in a rack, however, there would have to be at least 1U clearance above the machine. It would be as well to allow this for ventilation anyway. Inputs and outputs are all electronically balanced. Other connections include IEC mains, a 25-way D type and three DIN sockets (for monitoring and remote control - not for MIDI!).

CONTROLS



The lower section of the front panel has all the knobs and buttons you might need, and then some. The basic transport controls are on the lower left. They are mounted flush with the surface and I found them a bit on the small side. They also need a firm press, which caught me out on a couple of occasions, but I imagine it's something you would get used to.

Moving towards the right, there are eight level controls with Record Ready buttons beneath. It's unusual to find front panel level controls on a multitrack but they may have their uses. It is possible to operate the machine in Calibrated or Uncalibrated mode: 'Calibrated' means that input levels are set internally on a screwdriver-operated preset; 'Uncalibrated' switches level control to the front panel.

Metering is by eight LED bargraphs, each with 24 segments giving a very good resolution between -26 and +12dB. They have a peak hold operation, making levels very easy to read.

Above the basic transport controls is a tape counter and a selection of additional transport control facilities. The counter is quite versatile. It doesn't just time the tape (in hours, minutes and seconds) as it is going through, it can also act as a digital clock telling you the time of day - and the date, if you really want to know. Two tape locations can be stored. Counter Zero - Z-LOC - and one other position called A-LOC. The secondary position can be marked either when the tape is actually in the appropriate position, or it can be programmed in from any tape location. Programming the A-LOC position is a bit like setting a digital clock. Not so quick, but a lot quicker than winding to the end of a 30-minute tape. Obviously, you can locate to either LOC position. Alternatively, you can cycle continuously between the two, either in Play or Record mode.

One bonus feature of the counter is that it can calculate the correct tape time when you change tape speed. The C278 has two speeds selectable from the front panel, and if you were located at 00:01:00 at 15 inches per second, then changing the speed to 7.5ips would change the counter reading to 00:02:00.

Another feature, not usually seen, is an integral 'timecode' facility. I put it in inverted commas because it is not SMPTE/EBU timecode, but when using the C278 by itself it fulfills a useful function: The code is recorded on track 8, as you might expect, and provides an absolute time reference on the tape. This can be counter time or time of day-and date as well, if you like. Normal tape counters use only the tach pulses supplied by the transport to determine where the tape is. This is usually reliable enough, but not 100% foolproof.

To finish off the front panel description, over on the right are the speed controls. Varispeed is a very useful +50/-33%. Using both tape speeds (15/7.5ips), this covers a pretty wide range. Unfortunately, there is no display of the percentage change.

A potentially very handy feature is a headphone socket with a track selector switch. You can listen to the output of any individual track, either on cans or on an internal speaker. The quality of the speaker is probably worse than the tinniest of transistor radios, but if you were using the machine for location recording and you had a problem somewhere between the mixer and multitrack, it might just save your bacon by helping you to locate the fault.

INTERIOR DESIGN



If you unscrew the four hex bolts on the control panel, a couple of handles pop up on springs. The panel lifts up and hinges down. This must be the easiest access yet to line-up controls on a compact machine.

A full range of line-up trimmers is provided for both tape speeds, all of the more reliable enclosed type. An especially nice feature is the possibility of lining up to either the high level professional standard, or to the —10dB Tascam/Fostex level. All the trimmers are identified by a printed label on the inside of the control panel. There are also seven DIP switches to select extra functions on the C278:

- BATTERY switches on the internal battery - an easily replaced lithium type - to power the clock when the mains is switched off.

- PUNCH IN/OUT enables remote punch-in - perhaps via a footswitch - from the fader start DIN socket.

- SYNCHRONISER enables control by an external synchroniser or varispeed control.

- The two CAPSTAN switches select the various speed combinations possible - 3.75 and 7.5ips, 3.75 and 15ips, 7.5 and 15ips.

- LIBRARY WIND sets a slow wind speed so that tape can be wound into a smooth pack for storage.

- AUTO REWIND allows automatic rewinding of the tape if a length of clear leader is inserted near the end.

IN USE



The Revox C278 differs from its budget rivals in one important respect: it has no noise reduction. And since the eight tracks are crammed onto half-inch tape, 0.9mm per track plus guard bands, there is a noise penalty. The sound quality is very good, however, and if you can live with a bit of tape hiss - or can afford external noise reduction units - you will be well pleased. The all-important edge tracks are as smooth as the others.

The tape is very confidently handled. Autolocation is very accurate, whether or not the eighth track is used for the C278's integral timecode, but the final slow down and location of the correct point is a fraction slower than Tascam and Fostex machines can manage. Tape start is a bit on the slow side, probably because the capstan has to run up to speed when you hit Play. But there is a programmable mute function (separately programmable for each speed) which silences the audio for a period of up to 990 milliseconds while the tape gathers momentum.

Editing on the C278 is extremely good. Much better than the rivals, because you can (a) clearly hear what is on the tape, and (b) the tape transport helps rather than hinders you in the search for a good edit point. In edit mode, the tape is moved by manually rotating the right-hand spindle. You turn, the motors do the work. Actually, it would be better if you could turn the left-hand spindle and hold the Chinagraph pencil in your right hand - assuming you are right-handed - but that's a small point. For fast editing, without pencil marks, there is a pointer on the head cover. This pointer is exactly the same distance from the centre of the Playback head as the right-hand edge of the editing block is from the cutting groove. A nice feature.

For use in music recording, the C278 has one drawback: the sync frequency response (using the Record head for playback when overdubbing in time to other tracks) is not as good as the playback response. In fact, the spec states a bandwidth of 30Hz-22kHz +/-2dB at 15ips for playback, but only 100Hz-12kHz in sync. If you only intend to record eight tracks this is no problem, as the sync response is quite good enough for monitoring purposes and is irrelevant when mixing. But if you need to bounce tracks, as you inevitably will in 8-track music recording, the less-than-perfect sync response may cause problems. The answer would be never to bounce the bass track, or trebly instruments such as cymbals, but it is an undesirable limitation. Of course, this is the case because the Record head has been optimised for its proper function and the sync response has been deliberately curtailed to avoid causing other problems. But if Tascam and Fostex can build recorders with combined Record/Playback heads good enough for a full frequency range, then Revox ought to be looking into the problem, too.

Another problem associated with the C278 heads is internal head crosstalk. This happens when you bounce from one track to an adjacent track. This is a potential cause of speaker-blowing howlround in any multitrack. The response tailoring of the sync output from the Record head prevents damaging high-level high frequencies from escaping, but it doesn't prevent them causing problems on the tape. As I commented in my review of the Fostex and Tascam 8-tracks last month, with the Fostex E8 you can bounce adjacent tracks with a reasonable degree of confidence. On the Tascam you would need to take care: With the Revox, I am afraid you will need to take extra care, and back off the levels to be on the safe side. Track-to-track crosstalk on replay is about the level you would expect. External noise reduction would reduce this further.

These considerations lead me to think that the C278 is not intended for use beyond the normal limits of 8-track operation, but up to the level of recording eight separate tracks without bouncing, it is ideal. (I ought to mention one case where bouncing is possible with good results. That is when six tracks are mixed and bounced onto the other two, using the playback head, and those six tracks erased and recorded over - a standard 8-track process.)

WORTH THE EXTRA?



It depends what you want from an 8-track. Many people - including myself a few years ago - buy an 8-track machine because they can't afford 16-track. Well, if you can afford a Revox C278 then you can probably afford a Fostex E16 or Tascam MSR16, so the question doesn't arise. But many people and organisations have a specific need for a workhorse 8-track recorder. They don't need 16 semi-professional tracks with dbx or Dolby C noise reduction, but they do need eight solid, dependable tracks with the backing of a manufacturer that even the company accountants have heard of and respect. Although past reputation is no guarantee of future performance, it still counts for a lot in many people's minds.

Often, reviews end with the phrase, 'It was so good I bought one myself.' Well, I have gone one stage further than that - in the case of Paddington College (where I teach), I recommended it for purchase and thereby put my head on the chopping block if it fails to live up to expectations. It is not a machine for the home recordist, but in the pro environment the Revox C278 demands consideration.

P.S. When are they going to bring out a 16-track version?

FURTHER INFORMATION

£4810 inc VAT.

FWO Bauch Ltd, (Contact Details).

REVOX C278

Format 8 tracks on ½" tape
Tape speeds 3.75, 7.5 and 15ips, any pair internally selectable for front panel operation
Speed tolerance +/-0.2%
Varispeed -33% to +50%
Wow & flutter <0.05% (15ips)
Start time <800 milliseconds (15ips)
Wind time approx 120 secs (2500 feet of tape)
Equalisation IEC or NAB (modifiable by plug-in boards)
Frequency response
(3.75ips) 30Hz-12kHz +/-2dB
(7.5ips) 30Hz—18kHz +/-2dB
(15ips) 30Hz-22kHz +/-2dB
[all at -20 VU]
Sync response 100Hz-12kHz (15ips)
Distortion <0.8% (514 nWb/m at 15ips)
Signal-to-noise >62dB (15ips, IEC)
Channel separation >55dB (adjacent tracks, 1kHz)
Erase depth better than -70dB (15ips, 1kHz)


AUTOLOCATOR

The Revox 270 series autolocator, which may be used with the Revox C270, C274 or C278, plugs into one of the DIN sockets on the back of the C278 and provides full remote transport control together with simple autolocation facilities. The basic and extended transport functions can be controlled along with Input/Sync/Repro monitor switching. Record Ready switching is also available.

The autolocate function is a simple 9-position locator. Nine tape counter positions can be stored, on-the-fly or programmed. The tenth location - position zero - stores the counter value where the last recording started. This is updated with each new recording, which makes it very simple either to review the last take, or to re-take the recording.

There is a programmable rollback (or preroll), which may be initiated at any time. There is no provision for automatic rollback each time the machine is located.

Automatic punch-in is limited to the same degree of control available on the machine itself (Play or Record in loop mode). There is no provision for timed punch-in/out with pre-roll and post-roll as on the Tascam TSR8.

In use, the autolocator is a simple and effective device. Sophisticated it is not, by today's standards. But it works, and the price is well in proportion with the machine itself.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

The Strongroom

Next article in this issue

Orchestral Manoeuvres


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1989

Review by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> The Strongroom

Next article in this issue:

> Orchestral Manoeuvres


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