Tascam Cassette Decks
Let's face it, every studio needs a master cassette deck. Paul Ireson takes a look at Tascam's new mid-priced two and three-head machines.
Mastering cassette decks fall firmly into the category of unglamorous yet essential studio equipment - they're not much fun, but you're sunk without one. Given this ubiquity, it's not surprising that manufacturers are constantly bringing out new models to suit every pocket, and Tascam's latest offerings in this field are the 102 and 103. The 103 is the more professional of the two, with a 3-head design and optional MPX filtering, but otherwise the two models are identical. Both have Dolby B and C noise reduction and HX Pro headroom extension, timer-controlled recording and playback, a realtime tape counter, and variable bias.
On first impressions, the decks seem a little flimsy. They are very lightweight, and the construction is distinctly 'plasticky'. More importantly, the transport buttons feel cheap, and don't look capable of withstanding heavy duty use in a studio - in this respect the decks appear more suitable for domestic or home studio use.
The Record button is particularly annoying, as it is very small and presents the finger with a thin, awkward profile. The Power on/off and Eject buttons are located one above the other on the left of the front panel. Personally, I am not too fond of this arrangement (as found on my own hi-fi tape deck), as from time to time I will press the wrong button by mistake, and turn the machine off instead of ejecting a tape.
The transport mechanism on both machines employs two motors - one for the capstan and one reel motor. A third motor to move the heads into and out of place would have been nice - as it is, solenoids are used, which treat the heads rather less gently. The decks' LED displays indicate what type of tape is currently loaded - detection is automatic, and Normal, Chrome and Metal tapes can all be catered for - what type of noise reduction is selected, and whether the transport mechanism is in play, record or pause mode. It also includes peak level meters and a counter readout. The 103 model also includes a Tape/Source monitoring indicator, and an MPX filter indicator.
Transport controls are located below the display, along with a timer mode select switch, counter controls and noise reduction in/out and Dolby B/C switches. On the far right of the front panel are a master record level knob, fine bias control, and left and right recording level controls.
When recording on the 103, you have a choice of either monitoring the input signal, or the signal on tape via the playback head. This latter option is generally preferable, as it tells you exactly what your recording will sound like when you play it back again. Off-tape monitoring also comes into its own when setting the fine bias of the deck, which determines the high frequency response of your recordings. If you switch between off-tape and source monitoring while recording some test material with which you are familiar, you can decide whether you would prefer a higher or lower level of high frequency components in the recorded sound, and adjust the bias control to produce the sound that you want.
Carrying out this kind of calibration on the 102 is possible by simply comparing recordings made with different bias settings, but it is not as immediate or as easy as tweaking the control whilst comparing an original with a recording as it is made.
The switchable MPX filter on the 103 is useful when making a Dolby recording of an FM stereo broadcast, as it removes pilot and subcarrier tones (at 19kHz and 38kHz) from the signal, both of which can affect the operation of the noise reduction.
Both decks have switchable Dolby B and C noise reduction, which is now a standard feature even on many domestic hi-fi cassette decks. For those who haven't heard the difference between the two types, it really is very noticeable - the recorded signal coming back off tape is significantly clearer and more dynamic with Dolby C than with Dolby B.
HX Pro headroom extension, as featured on both decks, is a refinement that improves the accuracy of any recordings containing a significant high frequency component. When any high frequency signal is recorded on tape, it acts as a bias which actually reduces the tape's high frequency response. HX Pro detects the presence of signals that will cause this problem and adjusts the deck's own bias signal accordingly. Tapes recorded with HX Pro will sound better on non-HX decks, as well as on HX-equipped tape recorders, as the technique does not use any kind of encoding/decoding - rather it deals with a specific problem with recording some frequencies to tape.
When making recordings, you can create 4-second blank spaces on tape simply by pressing the right-hand side of the Pause button when the machines are in record pause mode. This is very useful for creating silent gaps of equal length between recorded selections. Another interesting recording option is Timer recording: when these decks are plugged into a power socket with a timer switch, they can be set to enter either record or play when power is switched on - you could use the play option to wake you up in the morning (how about replacing your alarm clock's beep with The Ramones?!), or set the timer to record a radio programme when you're out. The Timer function can also be turned off entirely.
Both decks have tape counters that can provide a Tape Run Time or a Tape Counter Mode readout. Tape Run Time is an absolute time display, which only increments when the deck is in play or record - it will not keep up when the tape is fast wound forwards or backwards. The conventional Counter Mode follows all transport operations, and seemed to be very consistent in use, with almost no slippage. The decks do not have any return-to-zero function, which I would regard as a fairly significant omission - the function is a convenience, but a particularly useful one in a studio.
Overall the Tascam 102 and 103 offer surprisingly little for the money (£199 and £249 respectively) - their construction does not appear to be all that sturdy, the tape counter is basic, albeit accurate, and I think that for over £200 the 103 could at least have squeezed a third motor into the tape transport. Tascam make a good deal of excellent professional recording gear, but despite the relatively high prices of these decks, in terms of build quality and features they are domestic hi-fi cassette recorders rather than heavy duty studio equipment, and don't do the name on the front panel justice.
Tascam 102, £199 inc VAT.
Tascam 103, £249 inc VAT.
Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Ireson