Revox PR99 Stereo Recorder
Studio owner Dave Simpson relates his experiences with this 'workhorse' of the studio.
"The Revox PR99 was designed with a single goal in mind; to offer a fully professional recorder at a modest price, and to do so without compromising a commitment to engineering excellence that has made Studer Revox the world's most respected name in audio recording". So reads the blurb on one of the ads for the PR99 I saw recently. I will tell you now that I am a confirmed cynic in the face of the glossy hard sell. I must add, although it pains me to admit it, that it's all true - every word of it! Doubters amongst you - read on!
Revox are well known for the reliability of their machines, and although this is difficult to subjectively review, suffice it to say that in all the years that I have owned Revox tape recorders, not one has ever gone wrong, including the PR99 I now own. Enough said on that point. A further point deserving of brief mention are the amazing number of variants available. I am not going to list them all, but I will point out that the machine I am reviewing is the standard ½ track model, with a choice of 15 ips or 7½ ips.
The machine has a brushed aluminium fascia, which to my mind looks rather better than the plastic of the A and B series machines. Inputs and outputs are on the top (when standing in an upright position), which makes life easier than on the B77 where they are on the back and difficult to get at when in situ. The controls (which I will come to in a moment) are located in a wide band along the base of the front, with the VU meters and transport buttons to the right. For those of you lucky enough to have the money and space for a rack, flanges for rack mounting are built into either side of the body (and very pretty they look too).
On the base are calibration screws for setting up the recorder; not only are these very accessible (field adjustable is the term Revox use), but practically everything that matters can be calibrated to line up with your existing equipment, including not only the VUs themselves, but the peak indicator LEDs built into them. This is obviously useful, particularly in these days of 'professional' and 'home recording' equipment standards. The explicit instructions given with the PR99 enable any competent user to line up the machine himself, and to bias it for any particular brand of tape.
On the left hand side of the control panel are grouped the output controls, together with the two pushbuttons controlling the speeds, and the master power switch. A similar toggle switch, marked 'reproduce' or 'input/sync' allocates input or output mode as required, and is located to the right of the power switch.
Five modes of reproduction are available; these are all controlled by a detented potentiometer, allowing selection of stereo, mono, reverse, channel one or channel two. Above this is a double pot controlling output levels to both channels. Although alignment markings are provided on these, I would have liked to have seen a detented pot used. This would have made lining up of the outputs that bit more certain.
To the right of the headphone socket, located in the bottom left hand corner, is a pushbutton marked UNCAL. This allows you to choose between calibrated or uncalibrated output. In the calibrated position, line output is internally adjustable from -20dBu to +9dBu referred to operating level. In the uncalibrated position an extra 10dB of gain is available through the front panel control. The button itself is of the false LED type, in which an orange disc appears within it when depressed, allowing instant visual identification of position.
This button is more useful than it might at first appear. I keep it depressed when in normal use, secure in the knowledge that the PR99 is lined up correctly. If extra output level is required by using the machine in its uncalibrated status, depression of the button and adjustment of the output control will cope with every eventuality, and instant lining up is possible by returning the button to the calibrated position.
A screen-printed line separates the input from the output section. A five position detented pot similar to that in the output section allows switching between five different input modes; line, mic (both high and low), transfer between channels (for sound-on-sound operation) and 'off', where the input is shorted. (I am sorry to show my ignorance, but I am not quite certain of the reason for this last one; I can forsee no eventuality which cannot be handled by the input level controls). There is a separate input switch for each channel, so it is possible to use two different input sources recording simultaneously. There is also a separate input level knob for each channel.
In addition, each input channel has a large on/off switch, linked to a pretty red light. (Thats 'pretty' as in attractive - not 'pretty' as in very!). Any of you who have ever erased a recording by accidentally putting a recorder into the 'record' mode will realise just how useful these switches are. By switching each channel off at the end of each take, accidental erasure is prevented; even if the record and play buttons are depressed, no recording takes place. (You must of course remember to switch them on when you wish to record the next track; I have to admit that on at least one occasion I have completed a difficult mix only to discover that the tape was still blank!).
Either side of the input selector knobs are standard jack sockets for microphone inputs. The high and low impedance input selector is applicable to these. As with the output section, there is also an input calibrate/uncalibrate button. In the calibrated position, line input is set to a standard reference level internally adjustable from -10dBu to +10dBu referred to operating level. In the uncalibrated position an extra 10dB of gain is available through the front panel control.
This facility is even more useful than in the output section; if used in conjunction with a mixing desk, the PR99 can be lined up with the desk internally, and then if a different input level is temporarily required adjustment can be made via the input level pots whilst in uncalibrated mode. Instant line up is then accessible for normal mixdown merely by pressing the calibrate button. (The alternative on machines not equipped with this facility is to re-align the machine, or to search out two felt pen marks on the front panel and align the input levels with these!
To the right of the input controls are standard format tape transport controls, with electronic motion sensing and logic control, giving a smooth tape path even in the face of operator error. (Other people's of course - not mine!).
Above these are two large and easy to read VU meters. I must admit that I am not a great fan of such meters, preferring LED bargraphs or PPMs, which are easier to read. However, these, as well as being of a decent size have peak LEDs in their centres, user-calibrated from a plate under the machine (They are factory set at +6dB. Both these factors make the meters more useful. It is worth pointing out though, that if used with a master quality brand of tape, Revox recorders are renowned for their ability to tolerate high level inputs. Using Agfa PEM 468, I have recorded with the needles banging against the right hand side of the meters and still incurred no distortion. Such a practice is not to be recommended though!
Immediately above the VU meters are two buttons, one marked 'reel size', by which the tension relating to large or small reels is selected, and the other marked 'tape dump'. This latter button defeats the take-up reel motor, enabling a tape to be 'played' into the waste basket. In other words, by pressing the play button, the tape passes past the heads as normal, but instead of being taken up by the right hand spool, it falls on to the floor (or into a waste basket). On other machines, the right hand spool rotates at high speed which can damage the motors. The tape dump facility I have found fairly useful in as much as it both enables spools of waste tape to be emptied (without having to centre them on a pencil and spin them around), and editing is possible without using a take up spool for the waste material.
Continuing our voyage around the Revox, on the left hand side of the headblock are two similar buttons marked Ch1 sync, and Ch2 sync. Depressing either button causes that particular track to be monitored via the recording head, thus eliminating the time offset which would occur if the reproduce head were used.
I will not go into detail concerning the sync buttons, or indeed any other facility as far as actual use is concerned. What I will do though, is to list the various possibilities the PR99 affords.
1. Recording on one track while listening to the other track.
2. Copying from one track to another.
3. Copying from one track to another whilst mixing in an outside source (voice-over music for instance).
4. Half track and full track recording.
5. Recording a signal adding echo at the same time.
6. Adding echo to an existing recording.
7. Using the recorder as an external echo machine in conjunction with another tape deck.
8. Mending my bike.
Pretty comprehensive huh?
Continuing our journey to the centre of the Revox, we have two final features left to visit. The first is the headblock, situated above the control panel. The faceplate is flat facilitating easy editing, a situation further improved by the inclusion of an edit mode switch, just below the actual tape heads. Sliding this activates the tape lifters, allowing the tape to pass over the heads even in the stop mode. At the same time, the latching function of the fast wind and rewind buttons is defeated allowing back and forth manual shuttling of the spools, allowing an exact edit point to be found and marked.
To the left of this switch is the light sensitive tape sensor mechanism. The tape breaks a beam of light and thus activates the motors. The advantage of this system is that transparent tape can be spliced into a recording in order that the tape be stopped at a given point. It would have been nice though, to have been provided with a switch to defeat this; it is standard practice to leader a tape with green at the start and red at the end, with white separating any tracks. Some green tape is designed not to let light through, and this is fine. However, some green leader tape is semi-transparent, and this has the effect of shutting of the tape transport system as soon as you lift your finger from the play key, which can be frustrating!
Finally, above the headblock is the proverbial mechanical tape counter. Although accurate, my great criticism of such counters isn't the fact that they are mechanical, but that they count the tape in arbitrary units which do not transfer when the tape is placed on another type of machine. A real-time counter would not only go a long way towards solving this problem, but it would prove of considerable value as a facility in its own right. I am aware that you can buy a gadget that looks like part of a dentist drill which fits on the side of the machine and acts as a real time counter; I just think that it would be rather nice if Revox built one in.
That's about it. Like the proverbial word 'democracy' the PR99 can mean all things to all men. Construction is of the highest standard; you get the feeling that the switches would double as football boot studs. If anything is capable of producing a signal, then the PR99 can record it, and once recorded it can be output to most sources. Everything it does, it does well, and although there are few fancy gadgets such as built-in varispeed, as Studer themselves succinctly put it; "the PR99 was not built to compete in a great 'bells and whistles' contest"! (There is, I must point out, a socket for an external varispeed unit).
Unfortunately, in the spirit of honest reviewing, in spite of being faced with this amazing and versatile machine, I must end on something of a question mark. The appearance of the Sony digital two track recorder has placed some uncertainty over the future of such machines for mastering. They cost roughly the same, but the Sony is rather superior as far as performance is concerned.
This is a problem for the future though. At present, the PR99 is far more versatile than the digital system, and has proven reliability. This latter point also means that second-hand PR99's are very good value for money, increasing the competitive edge over the digital alternative.
The uncertainty of which I have just spoken must not be allowed to diminish what is a near perfect two track machine for the price.
The Revox PR99 has a recommended selling price of £1437.50 inc. VAT.
Details from F.W.O. Bauch, (Contact Details).