Inside TEAC Japan
Ian Gilby pays a visit to TEAC headquarters in Tokyo, gets blown away by Dolby S noise reduction, and learns some little-known facts about a company destined to play a continued part in the development of recording technology.
On Christmas Eve 1956, Tomoma Tani, younger brother of TEAC president Katsuma Tani, finished assembling the three-motor, three-head stereo tape deck he had been building in the store room of his home. Upon hearing his brother's handcrafted tape deck in action, Katsuma was so impressed that he decided there and then to set up a company to manufacture his brother's design. Thus was born the Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Company, later abbreviated to TEAC.
In April 1957, a mere four months later, the new company's first machine rolled off the assembly line — the TD102 stereo tape recorder, the first of many products to bear the TEAC name.
In the ensuing 33 years, TEAC have released over 3,000 different products, been responsible for many technical innovations, and have built up an enviable reputation for their magnetic recording products.
The word was that TEAC had a bunch of new products ready to preview and something "very significant" to demonstrate, and what better way to do so than to fly the UK's pro audio press to Japan and let us experience it in person.
Upon arrival in Japan, our first revelation came when we learned that TEAC is in fact split into three divisions: Audio Visual, which encompasses the wide range of multitrack audio machines, hi-fi, video recorders, and laser disc players; Instrumentation, which primarily covers data and image recording devices for military use; and Data Storage Products, which is concerned with floppy and hard disk drive manufacturing, and tape storage systems for computers.
Over the ensuing days of our visit we were shown various aspects of each division, which helped us formulate a rather different picture of this enterprising company. Despite the breadth of products TEAC manufacture, the common thread is that they all involve some form of recording — be it audio signals, binary data, or images.
As with many successful companies, the driving force behind TEAC is its co-founder and president, Katsuma Tani, whose agile mind and unerring vision disguise his 71 years. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Tani was Research and Development Manager for Denon when, in 1951, he was approached by NHK, Japan's foremost broadcast company, to develop a magnetic recording system for archiving programmes.
In a rare interview (we were the first western journalists ever to visit TEAC headquarters) Mr Tani explained that TEAC's philosophy is to be "number one in everything we do" — a sentiment that was to be borne out many times in the course of our visit.
Glancing through the corporate brochure, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics stand out as a watershed in TEAC's history. Having developed and manufactured the very first 'slow motion' video tape recorders in Japan for use during the Olympic Games — a fantastic platform from which to parade their technical expertise to a worldwide audience — TEAC went on to develop and build a video cassette recorder for use in extreme environmental conditions, becoming the first of many TEAC image recorders to be employed on NASA space missions and in US military aircraft.
Innovation has been a key word in TEAC's history. The XR50, for example, was the first machine in 1980 to utilise VHS video tape for data recording. And let's not forget that trusty workhorse, the 3340, of course. Although originally intended as a 'quadrophonic' tape recorder for domestic use, its eminently affordable 4-track format helped establish 'multitrack' recording techniques in the mid-Seventies and paved the way for the much-copied 144 Portastudio. Unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in 1979, the 4-track cassette-based Portastudio almost single-handedly created the boom in 'home recording' products that has subsequently changed the face of recording forever.
TEAC's factory in Murayama, a suburb of Tokyo, was established in 1970 and is responsible for tape head manufacture and hard disk production. Despite the image most western people may have of Japan being a technologically advanced nation, the Murayama production and assembly lines were surprisingly well populated with human beings, not the automated robot machines some of us were half-expecting. We were shown the 8-track 'staggered' tape heads, used on the Tascam 238 and 688, being hand-assembled by young men and girls, who were painstakingly inserting the tiny elements into each head with the aid of tweezers and a magnifying glass.
As well as tape heads, the Murayama factory manufactures 20,000 hard disks per month (20Mb and 40Mb capacities only), the majority of which end up installed in NEC PCs destined for the home market. Although virtually unheard of in the UK computer market, NEC are Japan's leading supplier of IBM PC compatible computers. The hard disk mechanisms themselves are assembled by a team of white-coated workers, housed in a special 'dean room' elsewhere on the site.
Opened in 1963, TEAC's main factory in Iruma occupies 16,000 square metres of a 31,000 square metre site and houses some 650 workers. In addition to manufacturing laser disc players and open-reel multitracks, the factory presently produces over 900,000 floppy disk drives per month, with the one million target expected to be passed some time in October! If this sounds to you like a staggering amount, you'd be right. It makes TEAC the world's leading manufacturer of floppy drives. So how come most people are unaware of this fact?
The reason lies in the fact that TEAC drives are only produced on an OEM basis for computer manufacturers like NEC, AST, NCR, and Bull — TEAC do not market their drives directly, they are rebadged and sold under different brand names. In the floppy drive hit parade, TEAC are currently number one with 40% of the world's 5.25" market and 67% of the world's floppy drive market (5.25" and 3.5" combined). So next time you're dabbling inside your computer, take a dose look at the floppy drive mechanism — there's a good chance it'll be a TEAC unit.
A high level of quality control was evident as we toured the open-reel multitrack production line. In one area of the factory an ATR80 24-track was hooked up to a diagnostic machine, busily receiving the TEAC equivalent of an MOT. This takes between eight and 12 hours per recorder, depending on the model, and tests are automatically conducted on the tape recorder's audio performance, all electronics, and its most important mechanical features. An FFT analysis and test sheet is then printed out and kept as a permanent record of its performance.
Every multitrack is then placed in a heating chamber at 45 degrees centigrade and 'heat soaked' for 12 hours. If it passes this test unscathed, it moves down the production line to the tape head alignment stage. Here an audio signal is recorded on tape and a segment of the tape removed and placed under a Sony CCD video camera for visual analysis by an operator. The camera functions like a microscope, displaying a close-up of the tape's oxide layer on a monitor screen. Apparently, just by looking at the tape tracks in such fine detail, the engineers can tell whether the machine's tape heads are perfectly aligned or not.
As it transpired, the main purpose of our visit was to announce TEAC's incorporation of Dolby S noise reduction into a commercial product. This accolade goes to the Tascam MSR24S 1" 24-track, identical in all respects to the existing MSR24 but with built-in Dolby S instead of dbx.
TEAC have long established links with Dolby Laboratories — their A350 was the world's first cassette recorder to sport Dolby B noise reduction; they are also the world's number one manufacturer of Dolby-equipped cassette decks. It therefore seems only fitting that TEAC should produce the first ever multitrack tape recorder to incorporate Dolby's latest noise reduction system — Dolby S, the domestic version of Dolby SR.
As we gathered in the demo room, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that the assembled R&D engineers and sales managers treated us to an aural demonstration of Dolby S. They were obviously keen to find out what we thought, and were no doubt looking for affirmation of their decision to adopt the new format. Since the only two production models of the forthcoming MSR24S had been flown over to Los Angeles a few days earlier in readiness for their unveiling at the AES Convention, our demo necessarily made use of a standard MSR24 in a state of undress, with its dbx removed and the Dolby S circuitry connected in its place.
We listened intently as the tape rolled and the CD player stirred into action. In an amusing scene reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, one of the Japanese engineers held up 'Tape' and 'Source' signs at appropriate points, while another switched monitoring sources before our very eyes, informing us of which signal we were hearing. The fact that the poor soul got confused mid-way through the demo and momentarily displayed the wrong sign was testament enough that there was no readily discernible difference between the source signals and the Dolby S recording. The encoded signal sounded a wee bit brighter to my ears, but that's probably a welcome attribute anyway on a narrow gauge 24-track.
At the end of the demo Dolby S received an emphatic 'thumbs up' from everyone present, causing the TEAC staff to smile (and no doubt sigh with relief that they wouldn't have to rethink their marketing plans).
Talking of which, Dolby S will appear on Tascam 24-track and 16-track machines initially. The MSR24S is due for release in January/February 1991, with the MSR16S appearing in March. Dolby S will add a 25% premium to the MSR24, we were told, taking the ex-VAT price to just under £10,000. A small price to pay for the dramatically improved sound quality and enhanced performance which Dolby S brings to this machine. Nobody argued when Bob Thomas of TEAC UK proudly proclaimed that "thanks to Dolby S, the MSR24S 1" 24-track could now replace the 2" 24-track format."
The need to keep abreast of emerging technologies is of paramount importance in this game, and so the opportunity to meet the departmental heads of TEAC's Research and Development team was very much welcomed. Japanese companies can often appear faceless and foreboding to the western observer, being so remote I guess, so it was a rare honour to exchange views with the engineers who share the responsibility for creating some of the recording and computer products you and I are likely to be using in the coming years.
As was only to be expected, the R&D engineers were somewhat guarded in their responses to our questions, with our shrewd interpreter no doubt providing a succinct precis whenever a member of the R&D team gave more away than he should have done. This was possibly not as candid a session as one might have hoped for at the outset, but we nevertheless managed to glean significant indications as to where TEAC think the market is heading and what their intended role within it will be. The following questions and answers represent the edited highlights of the meeting.
Is Dolby S to be made available on machines other than the MSR24 and MSR16?
"The Dolby S circuit is still very expensive, so it cannot yet be introduced on 4-track and 8-track machines without increasing the price to prohibitive levels for those particular markets. Also, Dolby S is not allowed on so-called 'professional' products — Dolby Laboratories prevent this under the terms of the present licensing agreement."
What is the main functional difference between Dolby S and Dolby SR noise reduction?
"Dolby SR splits the signal into three frequency bands. Being the consumer version, Dolby S only has two bands. The crossover point occurs at 400Hz for Dolby S, and the bands are independent, allowing noise reduction to occur on the top band and/or the lower band as required."
Will Dolby S allow the creation of new consumer cassette recorders that can rival DAT for sound quality?
"Actually, TEAC have already shown a sample of a Dolby S stereo cassette machine at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in America. The machine's dynamic range is comparable to DAT but wow and flutter are higher. Dolby S is also still too expensive for consumer levels and DAT is dropping in price all the time. It is unlikely that a Dolby S 2-track would become a low-cost 'home studio' mastering format unless Dolby produce a single chip circuit for Dolby S. It presently requires three chips per channel."
Do TEAC have plans to introduce mixing consoles with a larger number of busses, ie. 16 and 24 bus, instead of the present 8-bus models?
"Only if the market demands them. We prefer to concentrate our efforts on mix automation, particularly moving fader systems. In fact, we have already developed and manufactured a moving faders system for our existing M700 console, and this will probably be released in April 1991. It was co-developed with Alps, the fader manufacturer. Beta test models have been installed in some Japanese studios for some time now."
How is R&D time split between developing new products and enhancing existing ones?
"50% on new things for the future and 50% on existing product enhancements."
In the UK at least, the Tascam name remains synonymous with high quality 'home recording' products, yet there is much more to TEAC than this. The launch of their £50,000 DA800 digital 24-track and DA30 professional DAT recorder is ample proof that TEAC have set their sights on gaining a larger slice of the pro audio market. Talk of a timecode DAT machine nearing completion and a moving faders system set for early 1991 release only confirms this. Furthermore, given their experience of laser disc technology, video recorders (did you know that TEAC codeveloped the U-matic format with Sony?), computer peripherals and data storage, TEAC look perfectly positioned to take positive advantage of the imminent boom in 'multimedia'.
The visit to Japan provided us all with a much wider perspective on the company's historic past achievements and present activities, leaving this writer at least with no doubts that the TEAC and Tascam names will remain in the forefront of recording technology — whatever form that might take — for considerable years to come.
During our visit we were given a sneak preview of some forthcoming Tascam products, which are summarised here. (The Dolby S equipped MSR24S is covered in the main text.) The majority are due out later this year, with the M3700 automated console set for January 1991 release.
Tascam's new 8-track is essentially a 688 MIDIstudio but without the MIDI routing controls and should appeal to musicians with more traditional recording requirements. It comes in a new light grey livery with more rounded lines and offers 12 inputs (eight mono plus two stereo), LCD metering, double tape speed, dbx noise reduction, three autolocate points, a repeat function, pitch control, two-band EQ, and two effects sends.
Simultaneous recording is possible on up to four tracks, and the rather neat Tape Mix feature allows an additional 12 live sources (such as MIDI virtual tracks or effects returns) to be mixed with the seven tape tracks while track 8 is used for the MIDI sync signal. £999 inc VAT.
The replacement for the Porta One, the 424 shares the same new design as the 488 in a smaller 4-track package. Eight inputs are available (four mono plus two stereo) with 4-track simultaneous recording, dbx noise reduction, two-band EQ, one effect send, pitch control, external sync capability, and the powerful facility to combine eight extra live sources with three tape tracks during mixdown. In addition to standard and double speed recording, a bonus half-speed facility is included to allow prerecorded material to be slowed down — ideal for working out those hard-to-play guitar licks! £479 inc VAT.
At £229 inc VAT, Tascam's new Porta 03 provides a cost-effective entry-level 4-track cassette recorder. Finished in the more traditional black plastic, it offers standard tape speed, switchable Dolby B noise reduction, a two-channel mixer section with input trim control, record track select switch, and fader; level and pan controls for each track, and a master fader.
Available in flatbed 16 channel and 24 channel designs to partner budget 16 track and 24-track recorders, the compact M2500 series features a versatile distributed in-line monitor configuration — as well as having as many tape returns as input channels, the monitors can be used to double the number of available input channels. The onboard mute automation system allows MIDI control of the 99-scene mute memory and real-time muting of individual channels. Four aux sends are provided per channel along with three-band (two sweep) EQ, insert point and direct out on each channel, two stereo and two mono assignable effects returns, built-in talkback mic, 10 peak-reading bargraph meters, balanced XLR mic inputs, 48V phantom power, PFL and in-place solo (with solo defeat), and 100mm Alps faders. No prices were given, but they promise to be "highly competitive".
Tascam claim that their new M3700 is "the world's first integrated automated console in its class". At under £10,000, it offers the same high performance 32 channel in-line configuration as the M3500, with the addition of 8-bit (256 step) VCA faders and electronic switches. The built-in 256K sequencer and 3.5" disk drive stores all automation data, including fader levels, channel mutes, monitor mutes, aux mutes, and equalisation on/off.
Two automation modes are offered. In Real-time mode the system operates against SMPTE/EBU timecode, MIDI timecode, or MIDI clock. Write, Update, Read, and Manual modes can be selected independently for each channel and group. In Write mode, faders only, switches only, or faders and switches can be selected. In Snapshot mode, all fader settings and on/off status of all switches are memorised as one 'scene'. Up to 99 scenes can be stored and recalled, and the fader level transition time from one scene to another can be adjusted between 0 and 25 seconds. A timecode generator is also built in making the M3700 completely self-contained.
Data from the faders and switches is available at the MIDI Out socket, for use with external graphic displays. Third party software is currently being investigated.
Feature by Ian Gilby
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