Since 1995 Ive focused on the repair of digital tape machines4mm,
8mm and S-VHSbut it wasnt always that way. Recently, three
projects jolted me back to my roots. A man gives his son a Tascam 80-8,
a church wants to digitize 40-year-old sermons, and a live Joni Mitchell
recording (from the Main Point in Philadelphia some 30 years ago) recently
arrived in the mail. These are reasons enough to compile some data and
take out my digital crayons
Meanwhile, neophyte analog freaks are scouring online auctions such as
digibid.com and ebay.com for pro and semi-pro classics. Unless they understand
what theyre getting into, I am afraid for them. Whether you already
own or are thinking about buying an analog tape machine, it is important
to know the maintenance issues, especially for that most expensive wear
item, the headstack. A deal is only a deal when you are capable of smiling
after the selling price is mated with the maintenance cost. Tape machines
have lots of electromechanical moving parts that wear out or get funky,
even from lack of use. If your budget is large enough for piece
of mind, Otari still manufactures the MTR-90 III multitrack and
inventory remains from Studers final production run in 1999.
Ive made one very broad assumption for this article, that a
new generation needs to become familiar with the nuances of analog recording
equipmentpro and semi-proincluding tape and the effects of
aging. The dividing line is track density: 24-track translates into three
tracks per 1/4-inch; semi-pro is four to eight tracks per 1/4-inch, referred
to as narrow format in this article. A table will be provided
in Part Two.
Part One will focus on analog idiosyncrasies, how to assess the machine
and what to do when the VU meters are dancing instead of standing at attention.
I will barely scratch the surface of alignment preparation before running
out of space in this issue. Part Two will cover electronic and mechanical
alignment. For a list of test equipment, check out the May 2000 issue
of Mix or go to www.mixonline.com.
At minimum, you should at least have an oscillator.
Few project studios can boast a full-time technicianlet alone
one with analog tape machine experience. Fewer experienced technicians
are willing to make house calls because older professional machines need
an overhaul, not a tune-up. You should establish a healthy relationship
with technical support personnel; they are human beings, after all, performing
a service that is a labor of love with skills that are becoming exceedingly
There are several third-party companies providing analog machine support
listed in the Selected Analog Recorder Parts/Service Resources
sidebar. Some, like ATR Service, will even send a shipping container.
For example, an Ampex ATR-100 shipping crate is $225 (an additional crate
for the pedestal is $75). Empty crates are shipped via UPS. Cargo Inc.
(www.cargo-inc.com) will ship an
ATR coast-to-coast for about $300 (insurance will vary). An Ampex MM1200
crate is $475; shipping is about $600.
On the upside, analog machines will continue to be serviceablenow,
after 20, 30 or 40 years and in the futurebecause they mostly consist
of hardware that any skilled machinist can re-create. (No digital format
will be as easy to support after manufacturers throw in the towel.)
On the consumer sidefor the quarter-track stereo format, at
speeds of 7.5 ips and lessyour only option is to find a good used
machine. The Revox A77 and B77 are both excellent choices as are the Technics
1500 and the Otari 5050 series. All are three-motor decks with 10-inch
reels available in speeds from 3 3/4 to 15 ips. If you need a machine
that runs at 1 7/8, consider the Tandberg 9000X, which has three motors,
7-inch reel capacity and speeds up to 7.5 ips.
MACHINE HEALTHY: SOME SUGGESTIONS
Tweaking open-reel tape machines triggers a list of things
to remember. Heres the first batch:
1. When threading, make sure the tape is snugly wound around the reel
hub before pressing Fast Wind or Play. (Careless threading leads to stretched
tape, bent or broken guides.)
2. Use water-based cleaners on rubber parts. Do not use stuff that says
rubber cleaner unless you are sure it is water-based. Windex
and Fantastic do a good job. Formula 409 works well on ceramic capstans.
Dont let any cleaners or solvents get into the capstan bearing.
Dilute if necessary.
3. Always observe the tape as it passes through the guides, over the heads
and between the capstan and pinch roller. Tape should not be riding up
and down or buckling where the edges meet the guides. You should not be
able to see the edge tracks of the head.
4. Use 99% anhydrous (or denatured) alcohol to clean the heads in strong
light. Do not use rubbing alcohol because its 30% water.
5. Keep tweakers (fiddlesticks) in pocket protectors unless chaperoned
or until you feel extremely confident.
6. Demagnetize your tools.
7. Odd behavior may be attributable to the machine, but never rule out
the tape. Since the 70s, high-output tapes have been prone to shedding.
Always inspect the heads and guides before calling a technician or grabbing
a screwdriver. The biggest challenge, even for veterans, is not realizing
a tape has deteriorated before carelessly winding end to end. Visit my
Web site, www.tangible-technology.com,
for an article on tape restoration.
to Page 2
Reprinted with permission from Mix Magazine, August, 2000
© 2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved