The Tascam Way (Part 1)
The Teac 80-8 tape machine, Tascam Model 5 mixer, and dbx DX-8 noise-reduction unit.
In part 1 of this article, Mel Lambert describes the Teac 80-8 eight-track and Tascam Model 5 8/4 mixer. Next month he'll go on to evaluate the combination and give a few tips for those of us who are new to multitrack recording.
You really have to hand it to Mr Teac. In a little over a decade he has managed to secure for himself almost an entire wing in the semi-pro recording equipment Hall of Fame.
Why am I enthusing so much over Teac gear? Well, as if the 4-track A3340 tape machine wasn't fancy enough to make you rush up and hug the aforementioned Mr Teac (a true 4-track machine with selsync and decent specification for under £700 — any cheaper and they'd be giving them away). In the early Seventies Teac unveiled the Tascam Series of properly integrated mixers, tape machines and accessories that was and still is without comparison.
Not that Tascam gear was particularly technically advanced; in fact, that wasn't their raison d'etre. No, the really impressive feature, and one that has been the main reason for Tascam's success, is their excellent value for money. The heart of Mr Teac's reasoning was that the performance/cost curve was definitely weighted towards the expensive end: he figured that 80% of the performance of recording equipment could be achieved at about 20% of the cost. And consequently, to balance the sums, the remaining 20% of performance accounts for the other 80%. In a nutshell, the second decimal place in the specification costs a hell of a lot more than the first.
Which, to me anyway, makes a lot of sense. After all, tape machines — even 8-track ones - have been around for a good many years now, and are almost boring in their basic similarities. Well, how many ways can oxide-covered plastic be dragged past metal heads at a constant rate? That may be a rather basic definition of a tape machine, but there is nothing about their design (including motion sensing and logic control of deck functions) that can't easily be copied by any competent electronics company.
And that's where Mr Teac stepped in. Using technology that had already been evolved (and we won't argue about who the initial innovators were; does it matter anyway?), they set to work on the Tascam Series. Where were the cost/performance savings made? Mainly in two areas. Firstly, Teac did away with expensive line amps and matching transformers on all the outputs, and designed all mixers and tape machines to operate at -10 dB, high-impedance levels; this in contrast to the conventional, 'professional' standard level of +4 dB into balanced, low-impedance loads. And if +4 dB levels were needed for a particular reason — for example, to connect a mixer's echo send to a particular external unit that just had to be fed at reasonably high levels — plug-in accessories were available.
The high-impedance approach also allowed cheaper phono sockets to be used for almost all input and output connectors. Secondly, the standard track format for Tascam tape machines was established as ¼-track on ¼-inch tape, and multiples thereof. Thus the Tascam 8-track uses ½-inch rather than the 1-inch tape found on more expensive machines. (Interestingly, the ¼-track format is beginning to become more accepted in professional circles since the introduction of the Telefunken M15A multitrack, which can record no less than 32 tracks on 2-inch tape.)
And being the company they are, Teac even followed up the launch of the Tascam range with a series of teach-ins and back-up aids for dealers, the reasoning being that such people should be able to demonstrate multitrack recording in their stores. The company even produced a full-length demo album recorded on basic 4-track equipment (including the ubiquitous A3340) just to prove it could be used for multitrack recording.
But the emphasis on value for money and customer education was only part of the story. Another facet of the Tascam approach was the compatibility of mixers and tape machines. All outputs on Tascam mixers were designed to be plugged straight into Tascam tape machines, and vice versa. Thus you don't need to worry if that particular mixer will interface with this tape machine. If both of them bear the name Tascam compatibility is assured (although that's not to say they won't function perfectly well with other makes of gear).
To see how the design philosophy works out in actual hardware, I borrowed a Tascam Model 5 mixer and 80-8 eight-track tape machine with an optional DX-8 dbx noise-reduction unit from Teac's UK agent, Teledyne Acoustic Research (ta, TAR). Before getting down to telling you how the gear measured up, I'll give a quick run through of the facilities to set the scene.
This 8-input/4-output mixer is of modular design with eight input modules, four submaster or group modules and a master module. A talkback module is available as an optional extra.
Working from the top, the input module is equipped with a 3-position microphone attenuation switch; a trim control; an input selector for 'mic', 'line' or centre-position (more on this later); pre-fader cue and post-fader echo send pots; a high-frequency equaliser control giving 15 dB cut or boost at 3 kHz or 10 kHz, a low-frequency equaliser control with 15 dB cut or boost at 75 or 200 kHz; 'solo' and 'direct' buttons, plus four buttons for routing the module's output to the submasters; a pan control; an overload LED; and the channel fader. The pan is automatically engaged whenever more than one routing button is depressed. For example, if buttons 1, 3 and 4 are set, pan will be between submaster 1 and submasters 3 and 4 equally. The centre position on the input selector has different functions according to the channel number. For channels 1 to 4 it connects to the 'tape in' jacks of the submaster modules; the centre position of channels 5-7 is off; and on input 8 it selects a built-in test oscillator housed in the master module.
From the top, the submaster or 'group' modules feature a 'buss/tape' switch that allows submaster or tape machine output (identical to centre position of input modules 1-4) to be assigned to the monitor section; a 'tape cue' potentiometer that mixes the signals from the 'tape in' sockets on to the 12-way cue system (eight input modules plus four submaster modules); monitor pan and gain controls; an 'echo receive' potentiometer and button to route it to just the monitors or to the monitors and program buss; and the submaster or group output fader.
All pretty complicated. It may be easier to understand, however, if the monitor section is considered as a separate four-input (submaster modules)/two-output (stereo) submixer. Thus the signals assigned by each input module to a particular submaster module can be mixed in level and panned between left or right monitor outputs. (To slightly confuse matters, the monitor signals are also tapped off after the level control, but before pan, and fed to a set of four output sockets. These facilitate quadraphonic mixdown, the overall level being controlled by a single potentiometer on the master module.)
Working again from the top, the master module is equipped with the test-tone on/off switch; the previously mentioned quadraphonic monitor control; a potentiometer and switch to select the studio monitoring between 'mix', 'cue' and an auxiliary input; another potentiometer and switch to select the control room monitoring between the same three sources; the 'solo' level control; and a master fader that controls the final output level of the four submaster modules.
The rear of the mixer is almost entirely covered with connectors — no less than 66 phono sockets, eight XLR connectors and three jack sockets. As there is a fair degree of replication, I'll deal with connections common to the input and output sections, and then consider the rest.
Connections to each input module are provided by four phono sockets and one XLR female socket. The latter handles the microphone input, and the four phonos are: 'direct out', which allows the post-fader signal from each input module to be fed to external equipment; 'line in'; and a pair labelled 'access send' and 'access receive'. These last two sockets are normally connected together with a short double-ended lead. However, they can be separated to allow post-fader signals from each input module to be fed to external signal processing equipment (such as limiters, graphic equalisers etc) and returned to be mixed at the same point in the signal path.
Connections to the four submaster modules comprise: two parallel outputs labelled 'aux out' and 'line out' giving access to the program buss of each module; a high/low switch that determines the level of the program output (either -2 dB or -10 dB); a 'monitor out' for quadraphonic monitoring; a 'tape in' socket that has been mentioned already; an 'echo receive' input; and a 'buss in' for cascading two Model 5s together. With the cascade facility the line or aux outputs of one mixer are connected to the program busses of the other giving a 16-input/8-output, semi-ganged mixer. Another example of Mr Teac's ingenious forward thinking.
The remaining connections consist of separate stereo studio and control room monitor outputs; a stereo auxiliary input (to allow, for example, the output from a stereo tape machine to be monitored during mixdown); echo and cue send; a headphone socket fed from an internal 1W amplifier connected to the studio monitoring circuit; and expander inputs and outputs providing cue, echo, solo and talkback interconnections to a second Model 5.
Finally, before passing on to the 80-8 tape machine, a word about the metering. The output from each sub-master module is connected to a separate VU meter fitted with a fast-acting LED peak indicator. A fifth, smaller meter can be switched to indicate the level of the cue or echo send busses.
From the photograph, it can be seen that the 80-8 handles 10½-inch NAB reels. Each track has an input level control, VU meter and overload LED. Above the eight meters, working from left to right, are the on/off switch (only one operating speed of 15 ips); a 'stop-at-zero' or memory switch below a 4-digit, resettable counter; eight 'function select' buttons and associated lamps; three 'output select' buttons and lamps; a cue lever that allows the tape to be brought into light contact with the heads for fast search and cueing; and the transport function buttons — fast forward, rewind, stop, play, record and pause.
On the rear of the 80-8 are to be found eight pairs of input and output sockets; a socket for the optional RC-170 remote control unit; and a socket for interfacing the machine with the DX-8 dbx noise reduction module to be described later.
The signal presented at the output sockets of the 80-8 is controlled by the three output select buttons. 'Input' is typically for testing or setting up the 80-8 and when depressed sends the input of all channels directly to the respective output socket; 'monitor' sends the signal from the replay head to the output sockets for monitoring off-tape; and 'normal' selects input, sync or off-tape signal to the output socket, depending on whether that track is in the record or replay mode.
The way in which the output select buttons work is also affected by the settings of the function select buttons. (Get's complicated doesn't it? But persevere, all will come clear in a moment.) When either input or monitor mode is selected, the function select buttons have the single purpose of determining the record status: up is 'safe' and down is 'ready-to-record'. In the normal mode, however, the function select buttons assume two, inter-related roles. Firstly, they determine the record status as above; and secondly, they set the monitoring status — up is sync-reproduce and down is source. To understand how it works, suppose you want to record on one track while listening in sync off the record head to a previously-recorded track. By selecting normal mode the output from the tracks set in record will be from the input, and that from the previously-recorded track will be in sync. All functions controlled by one button; that's clever.
In fact, the record mode can be entered in two ways. (Mr Teac never does things by halves.) The conventional method is to depress the function button on the required track - causing its lamp to blink - and then push record and pause together. When the play button is subsequently depressed to put the tape into motion the function light will stay on, indicating record has been entered on that track. Alternatively, to facilitate drop-ins, the function select switch can be left in the up position, and the record mode entered by pressing the play and record buttons together. At the appropriate time during the running of the tape, the function select switch can be depressed to enter the record mode while simultaneously switching the output from sync to source.
This unit is available as an optional extra, but for any serious recording it's really a must. The dbx system offers up to 30 dB of noise reduction each time you go on to and off tape, which means that more track bumping and remixes can be attempted before tape noise clouds the sound. Although no noise reduction system, including the more expensive Dolby A, can reduce tape and electronic noise to zero, every bit of reduction helps.
To put it as briefly as possible, dbx works by compressing or 'encoding' the signals before they are recorded, and expanding or 'decoding' them as they are replayed off tape. The Teac DX-8 module incorporates eight channels of dbx noise reduction that can be switched to either encode or decode.
Physically the module matches the 80-8 in width and depth; it even comes complete with wooden side panels for fixing to the tape machine. (The 80-8's panels are removed, it is sat on the DX-8 and the new panels form sides for the combined package.) On the rear of the module are four rows of eight phono sockets labelled 'encode out', 'encode in', 'input' and 'output'. The first row (encode out) are connected to the 80-8's input sockets with eight double-ended leads (supplied with the DX-8); the second row (encode in) to the machine's output sockets with eight more leads; and the third and fourth respectively to the output and inputs of the mixer. In addition, an octal (8-pin) socket connects via a special lead to a strange edge-connector affair behind a removable panel on the rear of the 80-8. This lead supplies information about the mode of operation of each individual track.
The front-panel has an on/off switch (and power indicator lamp) plus two rows of eight LEDs labelled 'encode' and 'decode' to show the status of each channel. When power is off, the inputs to the DX-8 are connected directly to the outputs, and the unit is inoperative. Turning on the unit causes the dbx system to come into operation. Now the mode of each track on the 80-8 — either record, replay or sync — will determine whether the signal to or from the machine has to be encoded or decoded. To give you an example, suppose we wish to record on tracks 1, 2 and 3 and listen in sync off the other five. Channels 1, 2 and 3 on the DX-8 will have to be switched to the encode mode, while the rest need to be in the decode mode to process the previously encoded signals coming off tape. Which is where the special lead connecting the DX-8 to the 80-8 comes into action. It automatically selects the status — encode or decode — of each channel of the noise reduction unit to suit the needs of each track. Very neat, and it does away with the operator having to work out what each channel on the DX-8 should be doing at any one time. Mr Teac's grey matter rules, OK.
Next month: how they all perform together
rrp Model 5 £1100/$1500; 80-8 £2200/$2650; DX-8 £770/$950
Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2
Gear in this article:
Review by Mel Lambert
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