4 Channel Multitrack Tape Deck
Now it can be told. Martin Sheehan tells reporters of his secret life with a Teac A3440.
When you take recording seriously, a good multitrack machine is essential. Martin Sheehan tells HSR why the TEAC A-3440 satisfies his personal requirements to such an extent that he is unlikely ever to want to sell it.
The Teac A-3440 was the first multitrack tape deck to really bridge the gap between the professional and home studio; its predecessor, the A-3340S, was really an adaptation of a machine originally aimed at the embryo quadrophonic market. It became clear that quadrophonic sound was not going to take off in the way that some people had hoped and this left TEAC with a perfectly good 4 track, quarter inch tape format recorder on their hands and few people prepared to invest in an extra amp and pair of speakers to go with it.
"Aha" thought Teac, "I know, we'll stick a set of switches on the head block so that you can monitor from the record head and then lots of people can do their own multitracking".
The A-3340S thus entered the homes and hearts of many aspiring recordists. Teac were well chuffed with the response and went on to design a 4 track simul-sync recorder dedicated to easy multi-tracking and overdubbing. The layout for operation was simplified; the most obvious improvement being the removal of the four simul-sync slide switches from the head block and the introduction of a single "sync" push button. The quality of the monitoring signal from the record head of the A-3340S was good enough for time keeping when laying down tracks but its rather stunted bandwidth precluded any serious synchronised track bouncing. The reproduction quality in sync mode on the new model was vastly improved enabling synchronised track bouncing to be carried out with far greater preservation of signal quality though some deterioration in quality was still evident.
Headphone monitoring on the original A-3340S had been something of a hotchpotch; there were two headphone sockets labelled "front" and "rear" which were a clear giveaway as to the quadrophonic origins of the machine. Each socket handled the output from one pair of the 4 tracks so some form of mixing was required to monitor more than one pair of tracks at a time. The new model simplified this system down to one headphone socket fed by signals selected by four on/off push buttons, one for each track, and governed by one overall monitor level control. Other design updates were introduced such as a varispeed control, noise reduction insert points and remote control facilities. From the customer feedback generated by the A-3340S the Teac A-3440 was born. Not much of a difference in model number, but a world of difference in operation.
I have been using my Teac A-3440 for nearly four years now. I bought it back in the summer of 81. At the time it had no real competition. I wanted a four track tape recorder with as high a quality sound reproduction as possible within my budget, and at £890 with a remote control unit thrown in, the A-3440 was the only candidate.
There are a variety of applications to which this A-3440 is put. These include:
a) my demos, where quality, after numerous bouncing episodes, is a prime concern,
b) other peoples demos, where speed, resulting from ease of operation, is invaluable.
c) live recording, where reliability is essential and
d) for putting together A/V soundtracks where everything is important if you want to get paid for the job.
In all this time the A-3440 has only developed one fault. During one of my own sessions I noticed there was no output from track 3 when in sync mode. The reason for this was traced to a dodgy solder joint in the headblock wiring and was a small matter to fix. It is the sort of problem which could, however, be quite a hassle for someone who may have to send their unit away for repair, but I think one problem in four years is hardly worth dwelling on.
I decided some months ago that, after three years fairly frequent use, the A-3440 was due for a complete line-up. Out came the test tape, blinking and squinting as its eyes adjusted to the light, on went the scope and away we went. After three hours work it was debatable whether it had been worth the effort, it was almost a case of a twiddle for the sake of it! I had often wondered how much care is taken with factory alignment - it would seem that Teac do it properly.
The manual supplied with the A-3440 quotes an overall signal-to-noise ratio of 55dB. Looking at the standard S/N figures given for some contemporary tape decks this does not look too impressive. In practice, however, I have found it possible to build up quite a substantial number of layers on some recordings without being bothered by noise - and I hate noise! There is a very good DBX noise reduction system available to go with the A-3340 although I have never been driven to use one. Noise reduction and higher initial signal to noise ratios undoubtedly make multitrack recording much easier but there is still no substitute for optimising your levels in the first place. Maybe one day noise floors and overload distortion levels will be so far apart that the actual recording level becomes arbitrary, but until then I will keep one eye on the meters and both ears in the speakers.
The A-3440 will run at both 15 and 7.5 ips and will accomodate anything up to 10.5 inch reels. I am in the habit of running the machine at 15 ips for all the work I do but I have found the 7.5 ips option valuable when using other peoples tapes as the top speed of most domestic recorders is usually 7.5 ips. I had the misfortune, however, to be asked to produce a 7.5 ips copy of a particular tape, unaware of the fact that it had been recorded at 3.75 ips. There was no time to think about getting in a machine which played at this speed so I went ahead and played it at 7.5 ips whilst copying in on the A-3440 at 15 ips. Thanks to the dual speed capability of the said machine the result was a perfectly acceptable copy when played back at 7.5 ips.
The dual speed has also been useful for creating harpsichords out of finger picked acoustic guitars. Doubling the speed of a tape will double the frequency of anything recorded on it and twice the frequency of any note is the same note an octave higher. Consequently all instruments will remain in tune but will all be transposed up by one octave. This is all well and good so far as creating picolos out of flutes goes but when it comes to making four string basses out of six string guitars one has to be able to play like the clappers!
The A-3440 can be used standing vertically or lying down horizontally (the tape recorder, not the operator - Ed) I have used it successfully in both these positions when space and layout have dictated, but find an angle of 45 degrees to be optimum for both operation and access to the heads. Rather than attempt to balance the machine delicately on the back edge of its feet I had a rack built which is at chest height when I am seated leaving room for an amp, turntable and patch bay beneath (see photograph). I find this a very convenient way to work and would recommend this orientation of tape deck to anyone who is unhappy with their studio layout and looking for possible ways to improve it.
On a lot of the later introductions to the multitrack market, all level controls have been omitted rendering these machines inoperable without a mixer. My old faithful has got fully adjustable microphone and line inputs and outputs plus the headphone monitoring section. Notwithstanding the fact that my mixer is sometimes being used for other things I still find the odd occasion when it becomes beneficial to be able to plug a microphone straight into one of the four microphone input jack sockets on the front panel of the A-3440 and record some event unadulterated. Furthermore, an occasion springs to mind when, armed only with my trusty A-3440, a twelve into two mixer, a bunch of microphones and a pair of headphones, I proceeded to record a live rock band. Using a crossed stereo pair directly into channels 2 and 3 and attempting a stereo mix, via the desk, onto channels 1 and 4, I came away with the distinct impression that there must at least be something on the tape because I saw the needles moving. Time, space, ambient noise and the economic situation of the world in general often preclude any accurate monitoring at these 'damn hippy popstar' bashes (I know, I was that man). It was, therefore, with great delight that I heard intelligible noises coming off the tape when playing it back in the studio. In fact, the sound from the stereo pair on channels 2 and 3 was so good on its own that I only added the merest hint of channels 1 and 4 on mix-down. This is just an example of the fact that it is sometimes very handy to be able to plug the odd microphone straight into the tape deck.
Another reason I find the level controls on the A-3440 useful is that when nothing is connected to its four outputs at the patch bay, they are normalised straight through to a simple passive mix-down box which enables very quick rough mixes to be rushed off when the mixer proper is set up for another job. This facility is simple to build into any 'normalising' patch and is well worth the small effort involved. I also frequently use the headphone monitoring from the A-3440 thus leaving the monitor bus on my mixer free for use as an extra effect send.
Teac are currently producing a variety of tape recorders under the TASCAM name. Noise figures and sync mode frequency response are improved throughout the range, although as already mentioned, level controls have been done away with in most cases. Prices of these models are comparable with their respective predecessors of four years ago when my A-3440 was new. In real terms this means that the newer models are actually cheaper than the old ones. This has the advantage of second hand machines such as the A-3440 being offered at extremely attractive prices. Just flip through the ads in a current issue of HSR and see what I mean.
Whilst I would be very particular if purchasing a second hand tape recorder (wear being more likely to tell on this than any other item in the audio chain) any previous owner of an A-3440 would be sure to have been very fond of it and consequently likely to have treated it kindly. If in any doubt, the amount of visible wear on the heads and tape guides should give a fair indication of the general condition of the machine.
Fully professional results are possible with an A-3440 and whilst newer and better machines may grace this studio, I hope it will be to compliment rather than replace my current model. If you do find a second hand A-3440 it won't be my one!
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Feature by Martin Sheehan