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Oriental Intrigue

Already assured their place in history for inventing the Portastudio, Tascam have also given us a one-inch 24-track machine and now the "Midistudio'. Tim Goodyer visits Japan to find out more about this revolutionary company.


"AS HE STARES optimistically into the future, Spalding is thinking constantly of designs", or so one of the many Japanglese phrases symptomatic of the current Japanese fascination with Western phrases would have us believe. This appropriation of the English language is invariably exercised in the interest of styling and marketing - anything from Art coffee to With Class cigarettes - and inevitably at the expense of grammar and obvious meaning. Not that spotting these delights of bastardised English was the sole reason for Teac inviting a party of select British music journalists to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, but it certainly provided one of the sources of entertainment.

So, what do we know about Teac? Well, they're probably best known in common-or-garden musicians' circles for having invented the Portastudio - the first four-track, cassette-based home studio. With this alone, the company revolutionised the recording industry. So significant a development was it that the "Portastudio" part of its title has fallen into popular usage to describe any cassette-based multitrack machine - rather like the terms "Biro" and "Hoover" have been appropriated to describe bail-point pens and vacuum cleaners. Prior to this, Teac's A3340 and A3440 reel-to-reel four track recorders were to be found in many four-track studios alongside the company's two-track mastering recorders. Following the 144 Portastudio, the company adopted the name Tascam for its music division and continued to innovate in an almost alarming fashion. The 144 was followed by a series of improved and varied Portastudios as well as the budgetline Porta-series. The Tascam 238 saw no less than eight tape tracks fitted onto the domestic Compact Cassette format; the MSR16 accommodated 16 tracks in a halfinch reel-to-reel format and the MSR24 was the first 24-track one-inch machine to appear on the market - causing further upsets in the recording studio business. More recently the term "Midistudio" has been used to describe Teac's four- and eight-track cassette machines that feature an unprecedented integration of MIDI into personal multitrack machines - incorporating such refinements as semi-automated mixing and MIDI synchronisation in a single recording unit. The MIDIizer, meanwhile, is a comprehensive synchronisation unit capable of controlling tape transport functions and syncing to both SMPTE and MIDI - and the Midistudios come already equipped to interface with it. Then there are the company's lines of less revolutionary multitrack recorders, mixing desks (including the very cost-effective rackmounting, MIDI-controlled 20-input MM1), two-track cassette machines and the new DA30 DAT machine. Not a bad record by anybody's standards.

Meanwhile what we didn't know about Teac turned out to be pretty revolutionary too; did you know the company have developed data systems used for the training of pilots for the McDonnel Douglas F4 Phantom, for example, or that they are currently manufacturing in excess of one million 5¼ and 3½ floppy disk drives every month? Neither did we...

The Teac story began back in 1953 when three Japanese engineers pooled their resources to involve themselves in the development of a professional stereo tape recording system. The prototype of the company's first commercial stereo tape recorder was built by one Tomoma Tani and went into production in 1957 as the TD102. Today it is the elder brother of Tomoma Tani, Katsuma, who is the Teac Corporation's president. Originally called the Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Company, Katsuma Tani suggested to the visiting British that the initials might equally stand for Technical Experience, Ability and Creativity. It could be that he's been talking to our friend Spalding...

From these humble beginnings, Teac have become specialists in magnetic media. Although the development of a stereo recording system might suggest pursuing the sound recording angle to you or I, Teac concentrated on the industrial applications of magnetic storage. In 1961 this resulted in a licensing agreement with computer giant IBM to manufacture tape memory systems. In 1964 they produced the first slow-motion video recorders for use in broadcasting the 18th Olympic games held in Tokyo. This line of video machines went on to become a part of the space program.

Alongside the various tape storage devices manufactured by the company - Winchester disks, digital cassette data streamers, PCM recorders, video cassette-based communications recorders - it is with floppy disk drives that Teac have had their greatest commercial success. At the time of our visit 900,000 disk drives were being produced every month. These units find their way into a surprising quantity and variety of other manufacturers' equipment and help make Teac Japan the foremost manufacturer of data recorders. By the time you read this the production will have topped the 1,000,000 mark. Then there's Teac's hi-fi range to consider...

The company consists of three separate divisions - audio-visual, instrumentation and data storage production - and Mr Tani was eager to make clear "we want to be number one in every area".

But the hospitable Japanese had more in mind than facts and figures when they decided to entertain the cream of the British hi-tech music press. First on the itinerary was a film dubbing studio, an audio-visual school and a commercial 24-track studio all in central Tokyo. The film studio, called TAVAC (Toei Audio and Video Arts Centre), specialised in dubbing cartoon soundtracks and professed to be the largest film company in Japan. While certain aspects of the various studio suites we saw were certainly impressive, the greatest surprise came in the form of the older technology still in use. Much of the recording was still taking place on 16mm film sync'ed with mechanical sprockets. At the other extreme, one of the TAVAC suites gave us our first sight of the Tascam DA-800-24 DASH machine. DASH - or Digital Audio Stationary Head - is a new digital multitrack format capable of putting up to 48 channels of digital audio onto half-inch tape without needing to use the rotating head systems presently employed in R-DAT machines and video recorders. The standard is currently being supported by just three manufacturers - Sony, Studer and Teac - the DA-800-24 being Teac's 24-track application. Apparently the error correction on the machine is such that the tape can be edited using a good old-fashioned razor blade.

Moving on to the Chiyoda Institute of Technology, we found a well-equipped facility (part of a larger educational complex) that offered recognised courses in industry, art, audio-visual arts and design. Courses run for two years, with a third optional year, and take students direct from high school at 18. Funding comes entirely from the students' fees which come in at a tidy 1.6m Yen (around £6000) per course. The school has been running for over 30 years and is the most prestigious Japan has to offer. Of a total capacity of 400 students, there are just 250 places on the audio-visual course. It's fair to say that the UK has nothing that comes close to this facility; not only does the course appear exhaustive in its coverage of the area (starting with basic electronics and working through to the psychology of audio-visual arts) but it is incredibly well equipped. Apart from a fully-equipped television studio and editing suite, there is a recording studio kitted out with Tascam DA-800-24 DASH 24-track and ATR-60-61 16-track machines; Soundcraft 200 series desk, Macintosh SE running MOTU's Performer and Composer, and Blank Software's Alchemy software; several Akai S1000 samplers and MPC60 sampling drum machine; Korg M1; Yamaha DX7 II; E-mu Emax and so on. And this is for learning... If it's any consolation, after their intensive education, graduates can expect to start work on around 140,000 Yen/month (around £7000 per year).

The last of the studio visits took us to Nota Studio: a privately-owned 24-track in central Tokyo. Again the Teac presence was inescapable, this time taking the form of an M700 desk and ATR-80-24 multitrack machine. The surprise awaiting us here was the size of the studio - or lack of it. The reason given was the cost of real estate; expect to pay around £180 per hour next time you're recording in Tokyo.

The object of these visits was to demonstrate Teac's presence in a variety of recording environments; this they did. A few years ago, Seigen Ono (some-time David Sylvian collaborator) told me that recording studios all over the world are alike because the gear was common to them all. While not untrue, this certainly doesn't take into account other social and economic factors which are reflected in the studios' working environment.

NOT CONTENT WITH having impressed us with the results of their efforts, our Japanese hosts were eager to take us further into their operation by showing us the factory installations at Iruma and Muriyama. Here a variety of the company's equipment is manufactured and tested. Much of the manufacture is typical of many modern production line factory methods enabling efficient assembly of large numbers of pieces of equipment. Less typical is the extent to which Teac's units are tested during and after assembly. Such is the extent of the long-duration testing of disk drive insert and eject mechanisms that the test equipment is showing advanced signs of wear itself. The value of this rigorous testing is borne out by head of Teac UK Bob Thomas' claim that he has no problems with equipment returns.

It was at this stage of the visit that we were introduced to the effervescent Mr Tani. Although his English isn't up to the standards of some of his younger colleagues, his vigour and enthusiasm for the music industry are unmistakable. This encounter was one of several during which both Japanese and British parties were able to level questions at each other: "how much life is there left in magnetic tape as a recording medium?", we enquired. "More than my lifetime' came Mr Tani's reply. "What about alternative methods of data storage?', we suggested. "It's prohibitively expensive at present", we were told. "Will Teac be on the case when it arrives?', we wondered. Of course they will.

What much of these open question-and-answer sessions revealed was that many of our lines of enquiry had already been investigated by the diligent Japanese R&D departments and were quite within the reach of present technology - if we, the consumers, were prepared to pay for it. Here, it seems, magnetic tape still offers the most cost-effective way of offering both analogue and digital recording to you and me. They have the technology; we're short of the cash. What the Japanese definitely did have for us, however, was a sneak preview of some of the company's forthcoming equipment.

Carefully covered in dust sheets (in best TV-melodrama style) lay the next generation of Tascam recorders and mixers. With obvious satisfaction the units were uncovered. Starting at the bottom of the range...

New to the Tascam Porta-series is the Porta 03 Ministudio, an entry-level, four-track, two-channel personal multitracker with switchable Dolby B noise reduction. Expect it to cost around £229. Next out from under the sheets were a pair of Portastudios, the 424 and 488. The 424 is a four-track machine, the 488 an eight track, featuring four-channel and eight-channel mixers respectively. Both units have switchable dbx noise reduction and will sync to MIDI clock. UK prices are anticipated to be £479 for the 424 and £999 for the 488. Both these units and the Porta 03 should be available by Christmas.

Moving over to mixing desks, one of the demands created by Teac's own budget 16- and 24-track machines (as well as Fostex' B16/E16/G16) is for a similarly cost-effective mixer. Enter the Tascam 2500-series desks. The 2516 is a 16:8:16 format desk designed to complement a 16-track recorder, while the 2524 is a 24:8:24 format desk intended to do the same for Teac's MSR24. Both are in-line monitor desks featuring four auxiliary sends, and three-band, three-sweep equalisation. Perhaps most significantly of all, the 2500-series incorporates the 99-scene mute memory system (all channels plus aux returns) introduced on the MM1 and more recently seen on the Midistudio series. This facilitates partial mix automation that can be integrated into a MIDI sequence if required. Availability is projected for late this year or early next year, while the price is promised to be "competitive".

Still on the mixing desk trail, the session's final secret was the top-of-the-line M3700 desk. As a follow up to the company's M3500-series desks, the M3700 inherits their in-line configuration, eight sub-groups, linear faders and so on. What it offers that's completely new is its automation system. Unlike the 2500-series mute automation, the automation system on the M3700 is capable of storing fader information (VCA), channel, monitor and aux mutes, and equalisation on/off. Storage of mix automation information is facilitated by the 3.5" floppy drive fitted on the right of the desk above the sub-groups, and a mix can be synchronised to tape using SMPTE, MIDI timecode or MIDI clock information. The automation system will work either in snapshot mode, where all mutes and fader settings are stored as a scene or as a dynamic real time performance. In scene mode the 3500 offers 99-scene storage capacity which can be recalled by (amongst other things) MIDI program changes - like the MM1, Midistudios and 2500-series desks. Still under development for the M3500 is a flying fader system, which will bring it in line with the facilities offered by already-established automated mixing systems. The price of the M3500 has yet to be set, but it should become available sometime in 1991.

Leaving the dust sheets on the floor, Teac's staff led us away for their final demonstration: their MSR24S. The machine could be explained away simply as the MSR24 (one-inch 24-track machine) fitted with Dolby Labs' budget version of their SR noise reduction system, but that would be to ignore the implications of a system that made 24-track recording as cheap as the MSR24 but used a noise reduction system which allowed it to approach the performance of digital recording systems. Much argument has taken place about the relative merits of digital systems and Dolby SR-equipped analogue systems, but they have always accepted the necessary expense. The MSR24S, however, looks set to upset the recording business once again.

On the basis of the demonstration we heard - Recording and playback of CDs and a drum machine including A/B comparison of material - there was no appreciable difference in signal quality except with the drum machine which actually sounded better off tape with Dolby S treatment. If the system takes off in the domestic audio market, watch out for cassette performance comparable to that of DAT machines.

All business done, the weary British press were on their way home - taking in some of the tourist sights in Nikko and enjoying a little more generous Japanese hospitality on the way. Apart from witnessing some of the effects of the worst typhoon Japan has seen in 15 years, all that was left for us to do was reflect on the events of the past week. You know, if Spalding isn't a victim of a Japanglese translation or a figment of a Japanese imagination, he probably works in one of Teac's R&D departments. They too have their sights set optimistically on the future...

Thanks are due in particular to Mr Tsuda, Mr Miyata, Mr Hanabusa and Teac UK's Bob Thomas for a valuable insight into their company and an enjoyable trip. By the way, take no notice of any stories you may hear circulating in music circles about MT's editor dressing up as a Geisha - they're probably true.

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Roland SPD8

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Dec 1990

Feature by Tim Goodyer

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> Roland SPD8

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