Hands On: Tascam & Fostex 24-Tracks
Fostex G24S & Tascam MSR24S Multitracks
David Mellor spends some time with some heavyweights of the recording world, 24-track Dolby S multitracks from Tascam and Fostex.
In the world of recording, 24 is a magic number. Only a few years ago all musicians aspired to record in a 24-track studio. If you could tell your friends that you had been recording 24-track then you would be a local hero and beautiful women would faint at your feet (at least you hoped they would). The reason for this high regard for what seems to most people to be quite a nondescript number is that 24-track multitrack recorders used to be incredibly expensive, therefore studio rates (and studios then were few in number) were very high. You had to have major backing to be able to afford to record in such a lavish manner. Ordinary mortals had to be content with a measly eight tracks (16-track recorders were also uncommonly expensive).
Fortunately, Fostex turned conventional wisdom upside down with the introduction of their B16 16-tracks-on-half-inch tape recorder. This, perhaps more than any other piece of technology, was the motivating force behind the home and personal studio boom of today. Happily, the dark days of megabucks multitrack recording are gone and largely forgotten — although you can still pay a lot of money if you really want to. Anyone who has a serious mind to do so can save up enough money to spend a few hours in a 24-track studio emulating the greats of yesteryear (or, more usually, finding out that getting a good result is harder than you thought it would be).
There are plenty of 24-track studios using secondhand two-inch machines that in their prime would have been considered the height of technology. Other studios, perhaps more private studios than commercial ones, have chosen to buy a modern 24-track recorder rather than an antique. Modern means — besides the fact that you buy it new rather than used — that you don't get the luxury of recording fat tracks on two-inch tape, but you also avoid the expense, and the machine itself doesn't take up an acre of valuable floor space. Buying or hiring a modern 24-track machine means either the Fostex G24S or Tascam MSR24S, the top of the range multitrack models from the two companies who have championed affordable recording.
I have chosen to illustrate this Hands On piece on multitracks with these two machines because, other than very well-used two-inch recorders, there are no affordable alternatives for many studios. (I'm leaving low cost digital multitrack out of the equation for the moment because no matter what its potential benefits may be, no one can say that it is an accepted format yet). Also, despite their relatively low cost, they offer features which have parallels with multitrack recorders which are in the very top flight — machines such as the Studer A820 and Otari MTR90. No one will pretend that the sound quality is every bit as good, but under normal conditions the differences are very small, and I would say that if you can't make a hit record with a Tascam or a Fostex machine, then you're not going to able to do it with a Studer or Otari!
Before multitrack recording was invented, the whole band used to have to play together and record at the same time. Can you believe that? Adding a vocal involved mixing the backing track with the live vocal onto a separate tape. The equivalent of drop-ins could be performed by repeating the sections as necessary and editing this tape. Now we simply record track by track until the producer is satisfied or the tape is full (which do you think usually comes first?). But this isn't the whole story. Once you rise above the level of cassette multitracks (with which I'll assume you are already familiar) you need to start worrying about the problems the real world is going to throw at you. Here are three: the tracks will not all be equal in sound quality; the various signals going through the recorder will tend to 'fight' with each other; the machine might not be working at its best. I would say that in multitrack recording these are the three major difficulties. Let's work backwards...
I don't doubt that manufacturers of multitrack recorders would prefer me to pretend that mechanical problems never occur, but I have to be realistic and say that there is not a tape machine in the world — at any price — that will carry on working forever without any problems. Often in a studio a machine is kept working even though there is obviously something wrong, either because the studio owner hasn't noticed a gradual decline in performance, or because the thing is still recording and playing on all tracks (or at least most of them) and taking it out of service for however long the repair takes would be considered uneconomic. What you need to know as a user of the machine is what is likely to happen and at what point you have to say that the machine isn't fit to be used.
It would be quite unusual for a multitrack recorder to be working only on some tracks. Electronic components, once they have got over the 'infant mortality' stage tend to be very reliable. It's more likely that there will be a transport problem, since the interface between mechanics and electronics is not yet a fully mature science. The multitrack you find yourself using may snatch at the tape when changing between play and wind. If this is so, then pressing stop between all operations may make things a little smoother. If this doesn't work then you have to consider whether the machine is likely to damage your tape. This would be the ultimate agony, especially if you were adding tracks to a tape which already had perhaps hundreds of man-hours of work on it.
The other common mechanical fault is wow and flutter. There's nothing you can do about it if you notice it, but as soon as you do ask the studio manager for a refund and some free time after the machine has been fixed. There is a third category of problems with tape machines which comes into play after many years of hard use. This category includes the notorious 'violining' effect where the tape sticks against the guides and howls as monstrously as a cheap fiddle played by an eight year old. Put as much distance between yourself and this machine as possible. That's the only remedy.
The recordings you make on multitrack tape don't just sit there quietly until you command them to speak. They chatter amongst themselves, spreading the latest gossip from track to track. "Want to know what's going on on track 14?", says the crosstalk messenger. "There's a hi-hat that'll tell you all about it". The first rule of crosstalk avoidance is to use noise reduction. The second is not to put anything bassy or percussive next to the track you use for SMPTE timecode. The third is to consider not putting anything light and delicate next to something loud and thrashy. Crosstalk can also cause a problem if you try to copy one track onto an adjacent track (this can happen when you mix — or bounce — tracks together to make extra room on the tape). Since the record signal in the head can be as much as 40dB louder than the playback signal, it's not unreasonable to assume that it can leak into the adjacent element of the head. This circular path can create howlround which may be cured by not bouncing onto adjacent tracks, or by reducing the record level.
The performance of the edge tracks on a multitrack tape is not as good as the other tracks because of head wear, poor head to tape contact or damage to the tape, the remedy is simple: don't put anything important on the edge tracks.
The Tascam MSR series recorders are all impressively chunky. They give you a feeling of confidence that your tape will be in good hands, so to speak. Once upon a time Tascam hamstrung themselves, in my opinion, by insisting on incorporating only the dbx noise reduction system in their equipment. Over the years I have found it difficult to be polite to dbx because, although it's usually better than no noise reduction at all, it is markedly inferior to any of the Dolby noise reduction systems (apart from the most crude test where the noise level is measured with no signal present). But now Tascam are offering their 24-track pride and joy with Dolby S which puts it electronically on a par with Fostex, and allows Tascam's proponents to claim that it might even have the edge.
Let's suppose you are confronted with a Tascam MSR24S, either in a studio or as a piece of equipment on hire. Even if you know tape recorders, you need to know the precise details of its operation, and the advantages it can offer. Step 1 is to know that the recorder itself must not be mounted on top of the separate power supply. Unfortunately there are two clashing 'obviouses' here — 'obviously' the two units match and 'should' be racked together, and obviously the power supply will create a hum field that will be picked up to a certain extent by the heads. The latter is the more important. On the back of the machine, you might be inclined to check the Input Link switches. These can parallel the inputs to tracks 1-8 to 9-16 and 17-23. Unless internally modified, track 24 is left independent for timecode. The next step is to load a fresh reel of one-inch tape.
When you're sure that the tape is loaded correctly, press the Load button. This is a clever (and useful!) function which automatically spools approximately one minute into the tape then sets absolute start and end points with 30 minutes of clear recording time between them. Once this is done, you can't accidentally run the tape off the spool — something which studio customers always seem to relate to the word 'amateurish' for no particularly good reason. Obviously, you will want to get the tape off the spool at some point, and there is a Spool button to do just that. Press Spool, then Fast Forward or Rewind, and the tape will glide at approximately one third of normal wind speed to the end. There are other functions related to these buttons, but they're really only useful if you want to focus your skills on the niceties of tape machine operation rather than recording in general.
I won't explain the obvious features of the Tascam MSR24S because you'll be able to see them for yourself on the front panel. But there are some functions which are valuable but need a little effort to understand. One of these is the monitoring system. Modern multitrack recorders have automatic monitor switching so that some of the work of the engineer is handled without physical effort. On the MSR24S there are three switches:
All Input. This button has no useful function. (Tascam would probably disagree.)
Insert. The output of all tracks is from the tape, except those which are actively being recorded (not just record ready) where the output is connected directly to the input. With this on, you can record and hear the musician playing, then rewind and hear the performance without having to reset anything.
Auto Input. The monitor on all record ready tracks switches to input in every mode except play. This mode keeps musicians very happy (if you are recording keyboards in the control room or you choose to source foldback only from the output of the multitrack) since the last thing that should happen is that they are cut off from their instrument at any time other than listening to a take.
One of the MSR24S's big features, something which Tascam include on other multitrack recorders, is an inbuilt automated punch-in facility. This is driven from the tape counter rather than timecode, so it isn't absolutely accurate, but when I tested it on the MSR16 and MSR24 (the same as the MSR24S, but without Dolby S) I found it accurate enough not to feel the need to worry about it. If you use it regularly then you get the hang of it and you won't have to refer back to the manual each time. It works like this:
You first set the punch points by using the Rehearsal function. In Insert monitoring mode, set the track you are working on into record ready, press RHSL, then Play. When you hear the intended in point, hit Record. At the out point, hit Play. After a 3-second post-roll, the tape will rewind ready for punch in rehearsal. 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 absolute precision, pressing Auto In/Out will commit your playing to tape, then wind back automatically so you can audition the result. I think this is pretty simple, and there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of making a mistake and erasing something important.
Obviously there is much more to the Tascam MSR24S than I have space for here but it's time to move on to Tascam's rival, Fostex. Did I say rival? The parallel development of these two companies has created a new and important market niche that many manufacturers would envy, and has brought benefits to very many people involved in music.
Where Tascam's machine is relatively simple and straightforward, the autolocator-equipped Fostex G24S is potentially more complex — to the point where you may decide to ignore some of its features. You have to read the manual once however just in case you get caught out, as was I when I first experimented with the G16 and a pre-production copy of the manual. I couldn't understand why the fast wind speed was extraordinarily slow. I thought I had a faulty machine, but a quick call to Fostex put me straight. Apparently some mischievous person who had borrowed the machine previously had accessed the second level functions and set the wind speed to its lowest value. Although I had tried everything before calling for help, I didn't have the appropriate pages of the manual and didn't know such a thing was possible.
My slight inconvenience points out a problem with the design of many types of current equipment — if you can only find out about a feature through the manual, what happens when you don't have the manual? Although original owners will have theirs in a safe place, I would guess that many actual users of the equipment will not have the benefit and will therefore have to guess how some of the facilities work.
Having said that the G24S isn't as simple as the MSR24, the fact is that comparing the basic machines without accessories, the Fostex can do more. And with the installation of a relatively inexpensive circuit board, it can synchronise to timecode from a video recorder, or it can be controlled from a computer running Steinberg's Cubase software. Let's go through the basic operating procedure:
I'll assume that you don't need to be told how to operate the transport controls. But since there's an autolocator staring right at you, you won't be able to avoid wanting to use it to best advantage. The main function of the autolocator is, of course, to memorise positions on the tape by their counter value and to be able to wind directly to them whenever necessary. There are 10 memory locations; probably the easiest way to set a position is to wind the tape to the desired point, press Hold, then Sto (Store), then select the number of the memory location you wish to allocate to that position. There are two ways to locate to these stored positions. The first is to press Recall, then the number of the point you wish to locate to, then Locate. It's a 3-key operation but keen users will find out from the manual how to enter '2nd Mode Function' and enable Direct Locate Mode. 2nd Mode Function is where the complexities start, I'm afraid.
Other standard autolocator functions include a user-definable pre-roll, auto return and auto play between cue points. To set the auto return memory, Press RCL then Auto Rtn; press the CLR (Clear) key then the number of one point, then the minus key, then the other point. Press Sto (Store). Now the Auto Return and Auto Play keys will operate between the two points you have set. It may be surprising to learn that the G24S does not have automatic punch in and out, considering the level of provision in other areas. For this you need the accessory synchroniser card.
What I have to say about timecode applies to the G24S, the MSR24S, and in fact to all other multitracks. Record timecode without EQ at a level specified either by the manufacturer of the recorder or by the manufacturer of the synchroniser. If in doubt set it to around -5dB to -7dB on the recorder's own meter. If you have sync problems, experiment with a higher or lower level. If you have Dolby C noise reduction, you can leave it switched on for the timecode track (on some machines it's either all tracks on or all tracks off, so you don't have the choice). If you have dbx or Dolby S then you should switch it out on the timecode track. Both machines featured here have a setting where the noise reduction can be switched out on track 24 only.
It's interesting to speculate in which direction multitrack recording will go. One thing's for sure: no matter how sampled, synthesised and MIDI-ised we become, there will be multitrack recording of one form or another, whether to tape or some kind of disk recording system. Elsewhere in this issue you can read about the relative merits of analogue and digital multitrack. But whatever the merits of digital, analogue multitrack is established, and it works. It won't disappear overnight, and I think that Fostex and Tascam will be producing quality analogue machines for some time to come.
Gear in this article:
Feature by David Mellor
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