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Tascam MSR16

The Alternative

So far, affordable 16-track has been a one horse race and all the money has been on Fostex. But now the odds are getting more interesting as a lively young thoroughbred from the Tascam stable enters the starting stalls. David Mellor assesses the form.


So far, affordable 16-track has been a one horse race and all the money has been on Fostex. But now the odds are getting more interesting as a lively young thoroughbred from the Tascam stable enters the starting stalls. David Mellor assesses the form.

Do you remember a time when there was no such thing as affordable 16-track? A time when any self-respecting engineer wouldn't dream of using a multitrack tape recorder which used tape any narrower than two full standard British inches? There were some manufacturers who tried to buck the system and squeeze 16 tracks on to one inch tape, with a certain degree of success. But the excitement when Fostex introduced the B16 - offering 16 tracks on half-inch tape - was quite something. There were many established engineers doing John McEnroe impersonations and enquiring whether Fostex were entirely serious. But more importantly, many more musicians and aspiring studio owners looked at the B16 and saw it as the ideal means of recording music, the way they wanted to do it.

Nowadays, instead of the B16, we have the E16 - but the choice has remained the same: Fostex or..? Well, there hasn't been a choice. Fostex have had the field entirely to themselves, and their 16-track recorders have sold more or less by default. Fortunately for us, the B16 and E16 are damn good tape recorders, so we can count ourselves lucky, both as producers and consumers of the enormous variety of music they have encouraged.

It has been a source of puzzlement to many people why Tascam have not provided Fostex with any competition in what is obviously a very lively sector of the market. There is no doubt that Tascam have the technology, but in between their Portastudio products and their increasingly impressive professional multitracks they have appeared unwilling to compete as seriously as many would have liked. The Tascam 34 and 38 four and eight-track machines have served many owners well, but no-one would claim that their performance is exactly world-beating. Ask any owner about their zero-stopping shenanigans! When it became apparent that Tascam were going to launch a 16-track on half-inch competitor for Fostex, my feeling was that it was going to be pretty difficult for them to match the standard of the E16. But now that I have given the new MSR16 a thorough going over, I am pleased to be able to report that anyone contemplating a ½" 16-track purchase is going to face a very difficult choice.

HEAVY METAL



Next time you bump into a professional multitrack recorder (you'll be the one with the bruises), count the number of handles it has - most likely four. Take this to mean that it takes four people to shift it. The reason pro recorders are big and heavy is much the same as the reason why a Massey Ferguson tractor is big and heavy - they both have a tough job on their hands.

Just because a multitrack is aimed at the lower price end of the market doesn't mean that it is going to take on a task any less difficult. Indeed, the precision demanded by the narrow track width makes the job more arduous and requires high quality, robust construction. The Tascam MSR16 is compact, but it's a heavy brute nonetheless. During the course of the review the Tascam made the round trip from the floor to the test-bench twice: once with assistance, the second time with the hissing sound of breath escaping between tightly clenched teeth. You certainly get plenty of metal for your money.

Traditionally, the professional tape recorder has had very few controls on its top panel (as opposed to the domestic variety, which has far too many for its own good!). I might be tempted to say that there is only a real need for basic transport controls plus a Record Ready switch for each channel. But as you can see from the photograph, the MSR16 is bristling with buttons and switches. Do they all have studio-useful functions? Let's start at the top and work our way down, and see what's what...

THE TAPE MECHANISM



Passing by the NAB spool centres to the tape transport machinery, we see a number of rollers. The outermost are the tension rollers, which even out fluctuations in tape tension which could lead to uneven tape/head contact. The right-hand tension roller is also the switch for the capstan motor. When the roller is in the down position, as it would be with no tape threaded, the capstan motor is switched off, saving wear and tear on the bearings. Take a closer look at the machine and you will notice that there are moving metal plates behind the slots in the panel in which these rollers swing up and down. An example of attention to detail, in this case one which prevents studio dust from getting in where it shouldn't. I notice from diagrams in the manual that these rollers have position sensors which enable the machine to adjust the tape tension according to how much tape is on each spool. Some budget recorders make do with just a fixed 'round about right' tension setting.

The two larger rollers have special functions. The one on the left is a flutter damping roller. As tape leaves the supply spool, and is unsupported, there is a risk of vibration being set up in the tape which would interfere with the correct recording and reproduction of sound. You can't have too many rollers in the tape path. They really do make an audible difference. The right-hand roller has another function besides smoothing the way for the tape. It also has to operate the tape counting mechanism, so that motion of the tape can be converted into minutes and seconds information, to tell you where in the song you are.

It must be difficult to make a tach roller (as it is often called) that works well, because I have seen several that don't. I could tell you about the service engineer who advised me to use fine sandpaper on a tach roller (on a fully pro machine) to improve its tape gripping performance until a replacement of superior quality became available! I could also tell you that the replacement didn't work as well as the sandpapered old one!! Tascam have certainly mastered the art of tach roller design (ie. they've found the right sort of rubber) because I marked a point on the tape, shuttled the tape backwards and forwards over its full length for a good five minutes, and when I returned to zero I was within a centimetre of the original mark. That is excellent performance for a function which is vital to the smooth running of a session. Another sign of quality tape handling is when a machine doesn't screw up your tape when you accidentally pull out the mains plug during fast wind, and the MSR16 definitely doesn't (as I found when I tried the experiment with 28 quid's worth of my tape).

Moving inwards, the pinch roller and capstan are of a conventional design (Tascam will probably tell me they have several patents covering fine points of detail!). The headblock, too, is pretty much what you would expect. There are two heads, Erase and Record/Playback. It used to be the case that recording and playback heads had to be made to different designs to work properly, but I would be most surprised if anyone could find fault with the head performance here. There is, I observe, a space for a third head. My eagle eye spotted this by the fact that there is a hefty lump of metal exactly where the third (playback) head would normally be. Could Tascam be thinking of an upmarket 3-head version? There are some situations where it could be useful - especially during line-up.

The headblock is mounted on a sturdy slab of aluminium, which seems very unlikely to distort as a possible result of machine abuse (such as throwing it around in the back of a van). Adjustments to the heads are, I have to assume, rendered unnecessary by intelligent design. In fact, there are just two azimuth adjusting screws ('azimuth' is the angle of the head gap in relation to the direction of tape travel, and has to be a precise 90 degrees if tapes are to be transferred elsewhere and replayed successfully). Other recorders have height, zenith and wrap adjustments which are three more things to worry about.

The last point to mention on the subject of the tape path is the headshield. This retracts fully into the body of the MSR16 and returns at a touch. It is an elegant device which protects against hum fields on replay, yet allows excellent access to the heads for editing, with space below to mount a ½" Editall. I have to say that it's not the easiest machine in the world to edit on, because the tape tends to slip when you let go of either of the reels to make your Chinagraph mark. On a stereo machine this would be a problem, but multitrack editing is rare enough to let me say that the editability here is just good enough.

BARGRAPHS



The mechanism of the tape recorder is vitally important. If that is not right, then no amount of electronic wizardry will make a useful machine. Having said that, there's no harm in having a few clever functions, is there?



"It has been a source of puzzlement to many people why Tascam have not provided Fostex with any competition in what is obviously a very lively sector of the market. There is no doubt that Tascam have the technology..."


As you would expect, there is a full complement of 16 bargraph meters. None of those nasty VU types whose inaccuracies can lead an innocent engineer astray. Each bargraph has 12 segments calibrated from -20 to +8 (decibels of some sort I assume). Hooking up my trusty test set, I found that the zero LED (the first red one) took a level of -10dBv and the +8 LED took a level of -2dBv to coerce it into an illuminated condition. This tells me two things: 1) that this is a machine living in —10dBv operating level territory; and 2) that the scaling of the LEDs is as accurate as my test set. Both of these points were expected, but I do like to check.

Beneath the bargraphs are the Record Ready switches and their associated LEDs. And now, on to those interesting buttons at the bottom...

CONTROL FUNCTIONS



Going from left to right, the Pitch button selects between Ext, Fix and Vari. Where 'Ext' is external control, 'Vari' brings the pitch control knob into operation. There is a fair range of varispeed amounting to some 15% up or down. Can I put in a bid for the Mark II model to have fine and coarse varispeed, so that you can set any tape speed between 25% and 200% of full whack? It's not a mark against Tascam, because I can't think of any comparable recorder that has this feature (apart from my Revox PR99 and the controller I knocked up for it), but it can be a useful source of weird effects. Associated with the pitch control is the Display switch, which changes the function of the tape timer from minutes and seconds to a display of the amount of varispeed, given as a percentage. A useful feature if you ever need to go back to a tape and run it at the exact same speed you had set before.

Although not a matter of concern for many people, there will be some who will thank Tascam for providing two tape speeds, 7.5 and 15 ips. I know for a fact that no Sound On Sound reader is penny-pinching enough to use the lower speed as a money saver, but there are circumstances where a longer maximum continuous running time is essential - film dubbing, for example. Tascam will clinch the sale here where the opposition fails.

Moving along, the Sync Lock function is a goodie. What's the most important track you ever record on tape? Apart from the one take that the vocalist managed to get right, it's undoubtedly the timecode track. Erase that by accident halfway through a sequenced project and you are in deepest water. Sync Lock disables the dbx noise reduction on track 16, which is essential for proper recording of any sort of sync pulse. Not only that, you have to set track 16 in Record Ready mode, before you press Sync Lock. This means that you can stripe the tape with code, track 16 will drop out of Record Ready, and then until you deselect Sync Lock, you will not be able to re-record on track 16, thus potentially saving your bacon.

MONITORING ARRANGEMENTS



Passing by the dbx switching, which doesn't need explanation, we find the complicated stuff. Complicated for me to explain that is, easy once you have the hang of it.

It's all to do with the MSR16's monitoring arrangements. 'All Input' is simple, because it switches all 16 inputs to the MSR16 directly to the outputs. More complex are the 'Auto Input' and 'Insert' buttons. Let me start like this...

Most multitrack recorders these days have some switching arrangement by which individual outputs from the machine take either the Incoming signal or the signal off the tape. Obviously, this is necessary so that you can monitor when overdubbing. But the precise way in which this switching needs to be carried out depends on your mixing desk, and what it is capable of. The good news is that with the Tascam MSR16, you can have it any way you like.

Table 1 shows how the system works with all combinations of Auto Input and Insert on or off, and also with all the transport modes of the tape. If the table looks complicated, that's because it is complicated. You'll have to take my word for it, until you get your hands on the machine and can try it for yourself, that it can handle any monitoring situation you'll need.

Probably the most useful is Auto Input. With this on, you get the input to the machine on any track switched to Record Ready, except during Play. This means that you can hear exactly what you are sending to the machine through the monitor inputs of your desk, and adjust the sound appropriately. When you go for a take - let's say it's a drop-in - then you hear the tape until you hit the Record button, whereupon it switches once again to the input. When you rewind to listen to the results, just press Play and the monitor will switch back to monitor the off-tape signals all by itself.

The final two buttons in this row are Edit and Spool. Edit puts the machine into - wait for it - Edit mode. As is normal, the tape lifters retract so that the tape is against the heads, but the reel motors do not turn. Edit points can be found by the conventional tape-rocking method. If you press Edit and Play together you enter Dump Edit mode, where the tape plays but the take-up reel does not turn. This is the feature radio stations use to junk those interminably boring passages in interviews that they don't want to broadcast. As a bonus, the Edit mode can be used in conjunction with the Record button to achieve 'spot erase', where you can remove very short bits of recordings, such as clicks, that you don't want. This takes more practice than the manual suggests, but the technique could find a lot of use once mastered.



"Some of the smartest features of the MSR16 are to be found in the autolocate section... Tascam have excelled themselves here."


Spool is used in conjunction with the Fast Wind controls and results in a more moderate winding speed. You use this at the end of a session to store the tape neatly on the reel (if you use American tapes, that is. European tapes, such as Agfa and BASF, wind perfectly smoothly at high speed).

AUTOLOCATION



Some of the smartest features of the MSR16 are to be found in the autolocate section, over on the right. Tascam have excelled themselves here. They have obviously been working on this system for some time, because it is identical to the autolocator used on their 8-track cassette deck, the Tascam 238 [reviewed SOS Aug 88].

The first step in MSR16 operation is, obviously, to thread the tape. Then you wind it on for about 30 seconds, and press Reset and Load together. This sets an 'absolute zero' beyond which the tape will not spool, regardless of wherever you might subsequently zero the tape timer. No more flapping tape embarrassment.

The MSR16 has three memory locations: Zero, Memo 1 and Memo 2. The RTZ button returns the tape to timer zero from no matter where it might be. Likewise, the Loc 1 and Loc 2 buttons return the tape to Memo 1 and Memo 2 respectively. Sensibly, the MSR16 knows when to decelerate the tape from Fast Wind, so it always hits the mark spot on with no shuffling backwards and forwards.

Subsidiary functions are, Repeat 1-2, which plays the tape from Memo 1 to Memo 2, rewinds then plays again - useful for rehearsing a take. Also, Auto Play which, when active, sets the tape automatically into Play mode whenever it locates to zero or a memo point.

SILENT PUNCHING



The MSR16's automatic punch-in (gapless) will come as a boon to the engineer tired of manually punching in for the umpteenth time. The important point to consider is whether or not it works as well as it needs to. If the automatic punch-in was not at least as good (consistent, too) as the manual way of doing things, then it just wouldn't get used. The key is in the timing. My earlier remarks about the accuracy of the tape timer apply here.

Punch-in is as accurate as any music studio is ever likely to need. 'Trustworthy' would be another word for it. Here's how you do it...

The first thing is to set the punch points by using the Rehearsal function. In Insert monitoring mode, set the track you are working on to Record Ready, press RHSL (rehearsal), then Play. When you hear the intended in point, hit Record. At the out point, hit Play. After a three second post-roll, the tape will rewind ready for auditioning. Now the punch-in can be rehearsed as many times as necessary before committing any music to tape. All by itself, the machine will switch the monitoring from tape to input and back again, then roll back for another go. When the punch has been rehearsed to the nth degree of precision, pressing Auto In/Out will commit the deed to tape, then wind it back so that you can audition the result.

I can't imagine that automatic punch-in could be any easier. Apart from pressing RHSL and Auto In/Out at the appropriate moments, there is no extra work for the engineer to do that he wouldn't have done anyway using the old manual method. And there is the bonus that the machine rewinds automatically.

(For use in conjunction with video, punch-in points would have to be set via timecode, rather than by the method described here, to achieve the necessary frame [1/25th second] accuracy).

JUDGING PERFORMANCE



I was quite surprised to find myself saying so much just to describe what this tape recorder does. In the bad old days, the reels went round and that was about all that happened. Tascam certainly had their thinking heads on when they put this one together, because every function on the MSR16 is very usable in a working situation. It would be easy to dream up a load of ideas that are not particularly relevant - just extra clutter. The MSR16 is miles away from being technoflash of that sort. But what does it sound like? Isn't that the key issue?



"Tested with high frequency tone, even edge tracks were very acceptably free from dropout."


TASCAM MSR16 SPECIFICATION

Frequency response:
(15ips) 40Hz to 20kHz +/—3dB at 250nWb/m = 0VU
(7.5ips) 20Hz to 16kHz +/—3dB at -10VU (not stated whether dbx on or off)

Total harmonic distortion:
<0.8% @1 kHz at 0VU

Signal-to-Noise: (ref. 3% distortion)
15ips; 108dB (A weighted with dbx), 65dB (A weighted without dbx)
7.5ips; 105dB (A weighted with dbx), 60dB (A weighted without dbx)

Crosstalk: (adjacent channels) better than 48dB (1kHz 0VU)

Erasure: better than 70dB (1kHz +10VU)

Wow and flutter:
15ips; +/-0.06% (DIN)
7.5ips; +/—0.08% (DIN)

Equalisation: IEC

As well as 32 phono sockets for audio, the rear panel has connectors for a synchroniser (the forthcoming Tascam MIDIizer) and remote control. There is also a ¼" jack socket for footswitch activated drop-ins.

Take a look at the technical spec. I checked out points like frequency response and distortion, and they fell well within the limits shown. In fact, I measured the distortion at full level on the meters at 1 kHz and got a reading of 0.5%. It wasn't until I raised the level to 6dB above that, that I reached the scrunch point of 3% (this was on Ampex 456 tape, by the way). Measurements are not everything, of course, but they do help show that this is a machine capable of quality every bit as good as most fully pro machines - subject only to the extra noise produced by the narrow track width. And the dbx type I noise reduction copes with this as well as any dbx-based recorder I have heard.

Some things don't show up in specs, however, like how good the machine is at bouncing on to adjacent tracks. You might expect to have some head crosstalk, but at sensible amounts of mixer gain things were quite OK. Another point is consistency of the output. Tested with high frequency tone, even edge tracks were very acceptably free from dropout. Also, some machines will give a noticeably wobbly output on tone if you push and prod them in various sensitive parts of their anatomy (well, wouldn't you?). But, as I said, the MSR16 is well enough constructed to eliminate this problem.

Day-to-day care is well planned for. The front panel hinges down (and do you notice the buffers that it rests on, so as not to damage any controls?). Behind this panel there is excellent access to all Record/Replay adjustments. They are not identified, but all it needs is to suggest to Tascam that they print an identification list on the rear of the hinged-down panel (there's plenty of room) and I'll bet they do it.

In conclusion, all I can say is that this machine was a pleasure to use, if only for a short period, and to review. Perhaps one day it will be your pleasure to own.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£4999.95 inc VAT.

TEAC UK Ltd, (Contact Details).

TABLE 1: MSR16 MONITORING VARIATIONS

STOP STOP/REC READY WIND WIND/REC READY PLAY
No output Input No output Input Tape
INSERT No output No output No output No output Tape
AUTO INPUT No output Input No output Input Tape
AUTO INPUT+INSERT No output Input No output Input Tape

PLAY/REC READY RECORD
Input Input
INSERT Tape Input
AUTO INPUT Input Input
AUTO INPUT + INSERT Tape Input



Previous Article in this issue

Trackman Sequencer

Next article in this issue

Doctor Jurgenbüster's Casebook


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 - Dec 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Review by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Trackman Sequencer

Next article in this issue:

> Doctor Jurgenbüster's Caseb...


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