Tascam 112 cassette
Gareth Stuart investigates Tascam's latest stereo cassette mastering machine and learns why pro equipment nearly always carries a pro price tag.
Gareth Stuart reviews Tascam's latest offering and learns why 'professional' machines nearly always carry a 'professional' price tag!
The Tascam 112 is a "professional 4-track, 2 channel recorder/reproducer" retailing at £459. That's Tascam's own description. Let's now pinpoint those features which do or do not justify the 'professional' tag.
Turn on the power, and the twin VU meters and digital tape counter light up. As VU meters give a lower reading on average programme material than on steady tone, Tascam have incorporated peak-reading LEDs to warn you of overload at +8dB input level which could result in distorted recording.
The central tape counter gives a four digit LED display. I compared its counting speed, or clocking rate if you prefer, with the mechanical three digit type on my Tascam 122 (the 112's more expensive predecessor). Apart from giving a more visible readout, the main difference was that the 112 clocked up the digits at a rate approximately three times faster than the analogue type. Over an arbitrary test of three minutes, the 112 clocked up a tape count of 232, compared to an analogue 71. This higher clocking rate, which works out at about 1.3 digits a second, could be very useful for finding certain events on the tape more quickly, and more accurately than on the analogue system.
Working our way down the left-hand side of the machine, we next come to a green LED with 'HX Pro' above it. Whether or not you use noise reduction when making a master stereo recording, this system will operate whenever the transport enters the record mode. If you're at all worried that any other cassette systems you might replay your tapes on won't have Dolby HX Pro, don't be - Dolby HX Pro requires no decoding process. Once the tape is recorded with it, the improvements will be realised when playing the tape back on any machine.
Dolby HX Pro is a system which allows for, and corrects, the phenomenon of self-bias. To explain bias, self-bias, and the Dolby HX Pro solution, let me step aside and let Tascam do the honours:
"Bias is a very high frequency signal generated within a tape deck and recorded on the tape simultaneously with the programme material. This inaudible signal allows a low noise, low distortion recording and flat frequency response. Different magnetic tape formulations require different amounts of bias for optimum performance (eg. Maxell UDI position-normal, TDK SA high bias position Type II...). Unfortunately, the bias level is often influenced by the signal being recorded. The high frequencies contained in some music act as bias. This unpredictable source of bias is added to the existing bias, resulting in a loss of high frequency response - this is called self-biasing. The Dolby HX Pro system monitors the high frequency content of the programme material and adjusts the recorder bias oscillator to maintain a constant total bias level. The result is improved high frequency response and lower distortion." Now you know!
On the bottom left of the machine is a pitch control facility. It can change the tape speed by +/— 12% - in musical terms that's about two semitones. This could be very useful for supplying 'reference', or perhaps I should say, 'practice' tapes to people owning fast or slow-running tape decks... particularly to pianists, where a quick retune isn't feasible. It could also be used as a varispeed function for creating an aural illusion of sea-sickness - but that might not bear thinking about.
One point I'd like to make about the transport controls is the extreme quietness of their operation - no thuds or clunks. Another point is about the 'cueing' facility. This is very useful if you need to scan through the tape at high speed, in search of a particular sound or moment, and relocate that moment aurally rather than resetting the tape counter and selecting the return-to-zero mode.
For instance, while transcribing music or speech, you may want to return frequently to the start of a phrase or sentence. To 'cue', you simply depress Pause, then hold down either Rewind or Fast Forward; as soon as you lift your finger, the tape will stop. Combining this facility with the high clocking rate of the tape counter allows you to pinpoint such moments very accurately. With quick fingers, I found it possible to nudge the tape back and forth in just under half-second steps.
Above the transport controls is the cassette holder. Its plastic cover may be removed for the cleaning and demagnetising of the tape heads. A point here very much in the 112's favour is the unimpeded access to the heads. In domestic cassette machines (ones that don't pee on the lounge carpet!), this access is made awkward by thoughtless design. Perhaps I should say that since the heads are so easily got at on the Tascam 112, cleaning should be carried out using cleaner fluids and swabs (can't say I've thought of cotton buds as swabs before!) and a hand-held demagnetiser... I mean, there's little point in you buying the 112, with this well-designed facility, if you're just going to pop in a crappy Bib head cleaner cassette... is there?
Positioned centrally on the 112, underneath the tape counter, are a couple of pushbuttons controlling zero return and counter reset (to 0000). When Zero Return is depressed, a red LED lights up. In this mode, when cassettes are rewound, they stop automatically when 0000 is reached. However, tape inertia may cause a slight over-shoot depending on the amount of tape on both reels.
Now look to the three knobs under the VU meters, and the left pushbutton labelled 'Output'. As this cassette machine has two tape heads (ie. Erase, and Record/Playback), the Output button becomes a useful facility. When it's depressed (ie. in the output mode), it allows you to adjust the Left and Right channel input level knobs, and monitor that level on the VU meters without having to hold the tape on Pause and Record. So, assuming levels have been established, you're now ready to record - you run the machine in record mode, and lift the Output pushbutton. This puts the machine into sync mode.
In sync mode, the input signal or reproduce signal are selected synchronously with the switching of the transport mode. In other words, the Output button in sync position monitors the input signal being recorded, and in playback mode the level coming off tape. (In playback mode, the Output knob controls both the VU meters' response to pre-recorded programme material, and the output volume.)
We're on the home straight now... The Input pushbutton allows you to choose whether you send your signal to the machine via RCA jacks (phono sockets) on the rear, or via standard jacks on the front. Remember, these inputs are for line level signals, and even though the front jack inputs look similar to microphone inputs, if you do insert microphones directly you'll only be able to record at an extremely low level.
The three (orange) pushbuttons grouped under the heading 'Tape' let you select the different preset bias settings, for when you record using either normal, chrome dioxide, or metal tape.
The next pushbutton controls the MPX (multiplexer) filter which you only need to use when recording FM signals (from the radio, not your DX7!!) with Dolby noise reduction. The filter "eliminates the pilot tone (19kHz) and subcarrier tone (38kHz) FM programmes contain." The Dolby system won't function correctly if you don't use it.
The last couple of pushbuttons switch the Dolby noise reduction in/out, and select the type - Dolby B or C. Nearly forgot, there is also a stereo headphone socket, as you'd expect...
There are two aspects that I'd like to come back to now: first, the fact that the 112 is a two-headed machine, and, second, that it has preset bias controls. It's with regard to these points that I question the 112's 'professional' claim.
Regardless of the recording quality, which I'll mention later, the Tascam 112 doesn't allow you to monitor the signal quality coming off tape at the time of recording (being only a two-head system). Okay, so maybe a few test runs might seem practical to you - record 30 seconds worth, play it back, check the quality, and then carry on with the recording - but what happens, say, 2 minutes 57 seconds into the recording where the tape has been accidentally damaged in the factory, and your precious recording is fast becoming unpresentable?
On the 112, the only option you have open to you is to trust to luck, as you can only monitor the input signal. When you play it back later, or indeed the studio client you've sold the cassette to plays it back later and finds several hiccups in the sound quality at 2 minutes 57 seconds... what happens then? Apologies, and wasted time making complimentary copies are hardly standards which constitute professionalism.
Now, with regard to the preset bias controls; in my opinion, a preset is only a rough guide in matching the amount of bias individual tapes need. For instance, take a TDK D46, D60, and D90 - all classified as 'normal position'. They, in fact, all have different bias characteristics. This question of accurately setting the bias is touched upon on page 2 of the owner's manual. Tascam point out that "if you open up the 112, and your attempts at such things as re-bias and record EQ trim are unsuccessful, we must make a service charge to correct your mistakes."
What a nuisance having to open up the machine to set the bias. It certainly is unpractical once the thing has been installed in a rack. I took the lid off and had a good look inside, but I didn't, and wouldn't, touch a thing. The bias and EQ 'tweek' points weren't labelled as such, rather they had part/place numbers such as R279, R280, R283. The block diagram in the manual indicates three potentially 'tweekable' bias points (for the three different tape characteristics), but doesn't offer a key to the part/numbers on the circuit board.
In an attempt to give a balanced argument on this bias issue, there is a case for setting the bias for one brand of tape and tape length, then sticking to it! However, this to me seems very inflexible. On my Tascam 122, as I mentioned earlier - the more expensive counterpart of the 112 - it is possible to set the correct amount of bias via adjustable controls on the front panel, which is very useful. And, should you need to adjust anything internally, everything is labelled clearly - in English. That explains the price differential...
Now for a quick record/replay session with the 112. I say quick because, apart from the fact that it's obvious straight away whether tapes have been recorded well or not, there are very few controls to fiddle with.
I popped in a TDK D90 cassette, selected the 'normal' bias position, checked the input level to make sure the peak LEDs in the VU meters didn't flash too often, and made a quick recording - first with Dolby B, then Dolby C.
Before trying other tape types, I thought I'd make a reference recording using my Tascam 122. I popped in the tape, adjusted the bias to suit this particular tape and proceeded with the recording, monitoring its quality immediately - listening to the sound coming off-tape, ie. off the third head. The result was a crystal clear recording, with a crisper response on the high frequencies and firmer, more clearly defined bass.
Other tapes I tried on the 112 were as follows: TDK D60 (normal position), TDK SA90 (high position Type II high bias), TDK HXS60 (high bias chrome), TDK MA-X60 (Type IV metal position), Maxell UDI90 (normal position), and a Sony HF30 (normal position).
Without a doubt, I achieved the best results using the TDK SA90, recording in the chrome tape position.
1. Peak LEDs in the VU meters.
2. Clear tape counter display, and its fast clocking rate.
3. Dolby HX Pro and noise reduction options.
4. Pitch control facility.
5. Quiet transport and easy access to the heads for cleaning/maintenance.
6. Tape cueing and zero return facility.
7. Ability to send a signal to the machine via the front and rear inputs.
8. MPX filter - for accurately recording FM broadcasts.
9. Solid construction and 19" rack-mount facility.
10. Recording quality - this was very close to that achieved on the model 122. A point in its favour, since that machine costs £420 more!
1. Two head design - stops the recording being monitored off tape at the time of recording.
2. Fixed bias - not allowing the setting of precisely the correct amount of bias for each tape type.
3. Lack of information concerning the bias and EQ calibration points on the circuit board.
As you can see, the Pros outnumber the Cons, which is good news for Tascam and the 112. However, as the points against the machine in my opinion carry more weight concerning its professional status, I would suggest you think very carefully before buying it for such use.
From the value for money aspect, regarding its recording and playback quality, I can't deny that the Tascam 112 is a high quality stereo cassette machine, and as such a good buy.
RRP £459 inc VAT.
Distributed by Harman Audio UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Feature by Gareth Stuart
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