The Big One
Tascam MSR24 24-track 1" Tape Recorder
Ever since the dark ages, prophets and soothsayers have been forecasting the Big One. Well here it is - Tascam's 24-track on one inch tape recorder. David Mellor investigates.
It was only a matter of time before an enormous gap in the studio equipment market was filled: the gap between half-inch 16-track recorders, such as the Fostex E16 and Tascam MSR16, and the fully professional 24-track models of companies like Studer and Otari. Cost-wise, we are talking about a big difference - well into five figures. The only alternative so far has been a second-hand 24-track machine, such as an old 3M or MCI. But as good as such tape recorders may have been in their prime, the depredations of age can eventually only lead to embarrassing faults cropping up during sessions. Thanks to Tascam, there is now an alternative at an attractive price/track ratio: the MSR24.
The MSR24 is the MSR16's big brother, and shares many of its features. The major difference, apart from the extra eight tracks, is the use of one inch tape. If you work it out, the width of tape for each track is increased over the 16-track version, therefore tape noise should be a touch less on the MSR24. The recorder is not so much a technological breakthrough (except perhaps for the fact that the machine is squeezed into a 19" rack-mounting case) as a logical development, and something a lot of people have been waiting for.
Let's examine for a moment why 24-track working is so important. Reason number one is that 24 is a good number of tracks to handle almost any musical arrangement with a minimum of track bouncing. It also allows some 'elbow room' to keep alternative takes of the same musical line. Reason number two is that the format of 24 tracks on two-inch tape is very much an industry standard. You can record some tracks in one studio, then transfer to another for overdubs, perhaps on to a third for mixing, with no worries about compatibility. The Tascam MSR24, with its one-inch tape, will obviously not give this degree of compatibility, but if you really wanted to mix your one-inch tape in a top-class automated studio then the Tascam is portable enough - flightcased for preference - to do this reasonably conveniently. Format wars - especially digital formats - in studios are making compatibility less of an issue anyway.
There is one misconception that often crops up which I can quickly lay to rest. Many people presume that a 24-track studio - ie. a studio equipped with a 24-track tape recorder - is necessarily better than a studio with a less impressive number of available tracks. A studio with a good, well-maintained, 16-track recorder, with a good mixing console, good outboard gear and acoustics, will always beat a ropey studio with a worn out 24-track machine. All other things being equal, a studio equipped with a Tascam MSR24 will have a very slightly better sound to one equipped with a Tascam MSR16. The slight difference is due only to the extra track width on the wider tape, and should amount to just a decibel or so less noise.
One of the most distinctive construction features of the MSR24 is its packaging in two boxes. The extra box (not shown in the photograph) contains the power supply. For many smaller items of musical and recording equipment, separate power supplies are a curse of inconvenience and unreliability. But sometimes there can be excellent reasons for doing it this way. In the case of mixing consoles, for example, power supplies are often kept separate to keep hum out of the sensitive mix buses. In the case of the MSR24, this method of construction reduces the size of the machine itself and keeps the weight down to a one-person lift.
The power supply itself is a 3U rack-mounting box which can be conveniently located at the bottom of a 19" equipment rack, out of the way. (In fact, the manual forbids placing the power supply directly below the multitrack. This may be because of the heat it generates, or perhaps the magnetic field.) The power supply has only one control - mains on/off - as you might expect. It also has an array of LEDs to monitor the various voltages present at the output and to show the integrity of the five fuses. The fuses are easily accessible by removing two hex screws and hinging down the front panel. Their values are marked on the printed circuit board.
Connection to the mains is via a standard IEC cable. Power is supplied to the recorder itself by a hefty multicore with large screw-down 'D' connectors. One slight difficulty is caused by the power connector on the machine being much larger than the screw-on plastic feet (supplied in a plastic bag) can cope with. To operate the MSR24 in the more convenient horizontal position (ie. on its back) requires a hole in the bench top to make way for this connector. Of course, it would be better still to cut a big hole in the bench and drop the whole machine in, so that it rests on its integral mounting flanges.
Turning to the MSR24 itself we find a particularly solid looking, and feeling, chunk of metalwork. Removing the top panel (by taking out six hex screws and removing the pinch roller) we find that the major transport components are mounted, directly or indirectly, onto a quarter-inch thick sheet of aluminium. While this is not as substantial as the castings used by some high-end multitracks, it does look adequate for normal studio use.
The two heads are mounted onto another quarter-inch piece of aluminium. The azimuth adjusting screws are easily accessible (although on the review machine one screw was attached to the head wiring by a blob of 'Loctite' - or its Japanese equivalent). All else was very neat and tidy.
Putting the top cover back on and looking at the rest of the transport features, the essentials are the substantial tension arms, which have soft buffers at the limits of their travel, to reduce the possibility of being bent by the tape snatching that can occur on any machine if the tape is by chance not properly threaded. The flutter damping roller on the review machine was rather stiff and did not turn in fast wind and rewind modes. I assume this is a one-off problem on the review machine, and not present on other samples of the MSR24. A roller in this condition would eventually wear unevenly and cause 'wow' in play and record modes.
There is a pop-up headshield similar to that on the MSR16. It retracts fully into the body of the machine and snaps back up at the push of a finger. There is sufficient space for a one-inch editing block to be mounted in front of the heads, without it getting in the way of anything else too much.
Over to the right is the tach roller, made with the super non-slip rubber that other manufacturers are probably analysing right at this minute (return-to-zero and other tape locate functions are very accurate on all of Tascam's current models, within half a second on this particular example). The right-hand tension roller is also used to detect whether a tape is loaded. When a reel is threaded and the tension taken up, it enables all the transport functions.
The meters and controls are on a separate panel on the front of the MSR24. This panel is attached by two hex screws and it hinges open. (Hex screws, by the way, have the advantage of not easily being damaged, as often happens to crosshead screws. The disadvantage is that you have to use exactly the right size key.) There are - you guessed it - 24 LED bargraph meters each with 12 segments. As is common practice these days, they are aligned so that you can take the level all the way up to the top of the red section without incurring noticeable distortion (techno-boffins will be interested to know that the highest LED indicates a level of approximately 630 nWb/m on tape. Modern tape is good for levels a few dB above even this).
Lifting the hinged meter panel reveals a neat stack of printed circuit boards, trimmers and test points uppermost. There are 12 trimmers for each channel. The labelling of the trimmers is just a little congested, and care would have to be taken to avoid turning the wrong one by mistake and perhaps upsetting previous alignments. It would be better if Tascam stuck a large printed guide to the trimmers on the inside of the meter panel. There is plenty of flat space for one. To the left of the 24 sets of channel trimmers there is another set for adjusting the servo-controlled tape transport in the various modes of operation. It is wise not to touch these unless you have the manual and the appropriate tools to hand.
On the rear of the MSR24 are 48 phono sockets. It is a pity that Tascam haven't followed Akai's example on their MG14D (two of which can be synchronised to give 24 tracks; see SOS September 1989) and provided XLR connectors instead of phonos. XLR connectors are much easier to use, easier to solder, more reliable, and offer the possibility of interference-rejecting balanced inputs and outputs [they're also more expensive, and it is doubtful whether there is sufficient room for 48 XLR connectors on the rear panel - Ed.].
Also on the rear are multi-pin 'D' connectors for remote control and synchronisation. There is also the usual, and essential, quarter-inch jack socket for connecting a drop-in footswitch. When being used with an eight bus mixer, inputs 9 to 16 can be linked to inputs 1 to 8, and inputs 17 to 23 linked to inputs 1 to 7, via two rear panel switches. (As supplied, track 24 is not linked to track 8 but is kept separate for use with a sync pulse. The linking of track 24 is available as a modification.)
The Tascam MSR24 has most of the features you are likely to need, and a few more just in case. Convenience feature number one appears when you load a new reel of tape. When you have threaded the tape securely onto the take-up spool, press 'Load' and the transport will shuttle the tape forwards for about a minute, and thereafter confine the tape to the one minute to 31 minute zone, preventing accidental spooling off. If this doesn't suit you (it should suit most users fine), then an alternative is available so that when you fast wind to either end of the tape, the reels automatically slow down for the last minute of tape, preventing it flapping and making a fuss when it spools off.
Once the tape is loaded, you then have the choice of low or high speed (7.5 or 15 ips) operation. Many users will appreciate the extra recording duration offered by the low speed. Variable pitch (+/-15%) is set on the front panel, or an external reference may be chosen. The dbx noise reduction is switchable in groups of eight tracks. If sync lock, described shortly, is selected then dbx is automatically set to Off on track 24, regardless of the settings of the other tracks.
Other interesting transport controls (apart from the locate/punch-in functions described elsewhere) are the Spool switch, which sets the winding speed to about a third of normal, thus ensuring a smooth wind when using tapes such as Ampex 456 and Scotch 226.
The Edit switch has a variety of modes:
(1) When locating an edit point manually, the tape lifters retract and the spool brakes disengage. An equal amount of torque is applied by the motors to both reels so that 'rock and rolling' can be done with one hand, left or right. The sound from the tape is clearly audible in this mode - not so with some machines - but there is a sense of 'fighting' against the action of the tension arms, making it just a little difficult to get to exactly the right spot.
(2) If either wind button is pressed while in edit mode, the tape will spool slowly while still pressing against the heads. The tape resumes normal edit mode when the wind button is released.
(3) If the tape is stopped and slackened off so that the right-hand tension arm is in its off position, the tape may be manually pulled through while listening to its output. This is useful for quickly dumping an unwanted section of the recording.
(4) An alternative to the above is a conventional dump edit mode, where the tape plays normally but is not gathered up by the take-up spool. Again, this is useful for getting rid of tape, but in a more civilised manner.
(5) Spot erase is a useful function for removing unwanted clicks, breaths, wrong notes, or anything else which happens too quickly to erase by momentarily punching in. This would normally be done by marking the position of the unwanted noise on the tape with a wax pencil, then manually winding the tape past the erase head in spot erase mode. The MSR24, unfortunately, puts a click on the tape when you exit record in this mode. You can eliminate this click by continuing to move the tape as you leave record mode, but this makes your erase less precise. Spot erase works with practice on the MSR24, but other machines that ostensibly do not have this function can be persuaded to do it, and do it better.
(6) The final function in the long list of jobs done by this unassuming little Edit button is simply to retract the tape lifters during fast wind, so that you can hear where you are. A filter cuts in automatically so that you don't blow your tweeters with too much high frequency.
Sync Lock is another excellent Tascam feature found on the MSR24. Have you ever accidentally erased your timecode track? No, me neither. But I would prefer to have that potentially troublesome circumstance eliminated to the very outermost reaches of possibility. The Sync Lock button on the MSR24 not only switches off the dbx noise reduction on track 24 but makes it impossible, intentionally or otherwise, to set that track to record-ready mode. Your sync track is safe.
There would be little point in owning a 24-track tape recorder if it didn't produce the right sounds. Fortunately, tape recording is a well-developed science and the limits of the possible are continually being pushed by all manufacturers in all price ranges. Listening tests convinced me that the Tascam MSR24 was well up to standard in frequency response, noise, modulation noise, crosstalk, and smoothness of reproduction. Entry and exit from record mode is click free, and punch-in is as gapless as you could expect. Bouncing onto adjacent tracks, which on some multitracks causes high frequency howl-round in the record head, is eminently possible on this machine. Mechanically, the operation is very positive and confidence inspiring.
If this machine has a drawback, it is the dbx noise reduction system which, although it silences passages where there is no music, covers every sound with a slight but noticeable 'sheen' of noise. The dbx Type I system employed here is billed as a professional noise reduction system, as opposed to the domestic Type II, but to my ears does not perform audibly as well as 'domestic' Dolby C.
Even so, the basic performance of the MSR24 is very sound. The days of half-inch 16-track being the home and budget-pro studio standard must surely be numbered. With their new multitrack, Tascam have made 24-track operation available to hundreds, possibly thousands, of musicians and studio owners for whom it was previously out of reach.
£8399 inc VAT.
Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Mellor
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