Tape Recorders: The New Models

If this year turns out to be epochal in the history of tape recording, as it may, it will not be by reason of any awesome scientific breakthrough. It will be because of a Japanese invasion, now massively and gleefully under way.

I used the word invasion talking to Yohei Fukuchi, electronics association representative at the Japanese Trade Center in New York. He responded with deprecatory Nipponese laughter but did not deny the reality. The Japanese are now exporting to the United States 150,000 tape recorders a month, and the volume is growing. Sales are unprecedented.

As a patriotic Japanese businessman, Mr. Fukuchi, of course, had to be proud of this. Speaking as an audio expert, however, he became more deprecatory than ever. Of this twirlspool deluge, about 90 percent consists of what he called, with pained charity, toys. American high fidelity salespeople, less euphemistically, call it junk.

Let’s accept Mr. Fukuchi’s nomenclature. These small, whirring Japanese devices, the size of a candy box and just about as durable, are toys in the same sense that the Eastman “Brownie” Kodak was a toy when it was introduced a generation and a half ago.

These toy-type recorders are priced at about $10.00, F.O.B., according to Mr. Fukuchi. They reach drugstores and discount appliance shops with tags ranging from $14.95 to $29.95, and bear such exotic oriental names as Craig, Ross, and Cypher. This is not deceitfully meant; the makers are merely aware that Americans cannot remember Japanese names. They do not use orthodox capstan drives, so they have no standard speeds. The appropriate control simply says “Slow” and “Fast.” Makers of better-quality recorders regard this with horror, but children enjoy it since it enables them to make Daddy, possibly reciting “Barbara Frictchie,” sound like either a wounded walrus or a hysterical chipmunk. It also makes it unlikely that a tape recorded on one of these gadgets can be played back intelligibly on any other machine. This doesn’t matter. The purpose of the recorders is not art, or even serious commemoration, but simply diversion.

In a sense, however, they afford as valid an introduction to tape recording as that made at the rarified other end of the purchasing scale. I refer to the acquisition and use of a recorder — a high-priced precision model — as a phonographic appurtenance, a purely musical device. A machine like the new Ampex F-44, the Sony 777, the Viking 88, or the Tandberg 64, hooked into a good high-fidelity sound system and recording a live FM stereo concert from a metropolitan “good music” station, is probably storing in your home the purest and most realistic music you can capture for your delectation. T his cannot and need not be disputed. Still, there is a tendency to confine these machines to musical activity alone. The reason is partly psychological: they are so good at it. I do use my Ampex to record desultory discussions with a fellow writer about a book we are working on. But I always feel a little like apologizing to the courteous machine because we are not Mozart and Mahler, for whose sonic subtleties it was designed.

Between the toy and the paragon there is another category, perhaps so broad it should be subdivided. Herein, other factors are recognized. One is variety of use. Another is economy. Except for the Viking, the machines mentioned above are priced between $500 and $1000, without accessories. Down to a little under $150 there is a myriad of general-purpose recorders, able to deliver Beethoven or Belafonte with respectable fidelity but equally at home in more prosaic areas of the world of sound: weddings, amateur theatrical rehearsals, parties, conversations. This middle area is the hardest to shop in since it is the most various and since the shopper, though serious in intent, may know little or nothing about the products he seeks. (The high fidelity man is usually well informed, and the toy buyer need know nothing, because there is nothing to know.)

Bear in mind that at least seventy companies, here and abroad, are in the tape recorder business, and most offer several models. For leisurely home shopping I can suggest some literature. From Audio Devices (one of the three leading tape manufacturers), 444 Madison Avenue, New York, one may have for twentyfive cents their Tape Recorder Directory, which lists and pictures most of the models on the market, with makers’ specifications. For those really in earnest, I should advise raising the ante by $1.50 and ordering How to Make Good Tape Recordings. This is a sort of recordist’s bible, edited and mostly written by C. J. LeBel, one of the authentic oracles of the art. To supplement these is the catalogue of Harvey Radio Company, 103 West Forty-third Street, New York, with information not only on recorders but on accessories, such as microphones and earphones, which the Audio Devices directory does not list.

The usual shopper in the middleexpenditure area will probably be interested in informal recording at home and in the field, so to speak, but will want musical use out of his machine as well. This means that it must accommodate the commercial recorded tape that the record companies put out, which is all four-track stereo played at seven and a half inches per second on seveninch reels. This eliminates the miniature, battery-driven portables, some of which are very good at everything else. Possibly the middle-cost buyer may also want built-in audio amplifiers and monitor speakers, even if he owns a high fidelity array into which he can plug the recorder when at home.

It is ticklish choosing makes and models as good buys just now, since at the time of this writing their manufacturers are diabolically planning to supersede them in September. Good buys in the variety I have described will fall mostly in the $200-$300 area. I rather like the Viking 77 ($325) and the Sony 200 ($240). The former is probably a little sturdier, though lighter (20 to 27 pounds), and its self-contained sound components are better. Both are portable, luggage-style; the Viking’s chassis can be taken out and mounted in a home sound system. There are various worthy competitors of this pair. It is a good idea to go shopping by ear, if you can. Have the salesman play you a recorded tape and let you record on a blank tape in the shop.

Of all-purpose miniatures, the most nearly irresistible is the German Uher 4000-S Report, at a price of almost $400. This tiny marvel, built like an eight-pound battleship, can do almost anything (except perform in stereo; it is straight monophonic). At 7½ i.p.s. it can deliver flawless high fidelity sound. At 15/16 i.p.s. it can record for eight hours, very intelligibly, on one fiveinch tape reel. It even has a dial to tell the condition of its rechargeable battery. Less extravagantly, one could try the Concord 330, Japanese, precision-built at $199.95, weighing twenty-two pounds, and with fine-speed variation, so that it can be synchronized with home movie machines. There are other good competitors. When buying anything less expensive in the miniature line, it is wise to require a free-trial time or a refund guarantee.

For the pinchpenny high fidelitarian, whose name is legion, I suggest the Sony 263-D. This costs $120. As a supplement, if needed, is a nicely boxed dual preamplifier for $100 more. This is a beautiful, true high-fidelity mechanism, and Sony is a manufacturer of which Mr. Fukuchi can be justifiably proud. In fact, in sensing owner needs, it seems to me the canniest company going, though Viking of Minneapolis is a very close second.

None of the salesmen I consulted had any comment on the more or less new RCA and Minnesota Mining-Re ve re tape-cartridge players. Neither do I, except that they do not seem to be in final form and that there is little yet to play on them.

There is plenty to play on seveninch reel-to-reel tapes. The Harrison Catalog of Stereophonic Tapes (quarterly, thirty-five cents per issue from dealers, $2 by subscription; 274 Madison Avenue, New York) has grown to nearly seventy pages. Tape dealers are not numerous, so of interest may be the Citadel Tape Club, 545 Fifth Avenue, New York. A very reputable organization, Citadel sells tapes (all labels, and returnable) at so-called cost price. It makes its profit on subscriptions; the fee is $4 a year. Interestingly, its president, Allen Gross, reports a steep rise in membership this year and credits it to the Japanese invasion, even though the toys cannot play four-track stereo tapes — a sort of indirect stimulation, no doubt.

Any recorder dealer sells blank tapes for your own recording uses. Some come in what the trade calls “white boxes” at drastically cut prices. Manufacturers cheerfully describe these as “garbage.” They are rejects. For tape of reliable quality, you will have to pay from $3 to $4 for 1200 feet. Cellulose acetate tapes, incidentally, are in some ways better for home use than fancier plastic-based grades; they break, cut, and mend more neatly. This is important; nearly everyone will want to do some splicing and editing. To this worthy end, a good investment is an Editall splicing kit (about $7). Joel Tall, former CBS tape editor, says this device is unfair, since it makes novices as good as experts. But he does not say this very sadly, because he manufactures Editalls.

For the home recordist, and with special emphasis on fidelity, C. J. LeBel has a solemn warning, derived from speech experiments at Brooklyn College. The human speaking voice, in full character, is a highfidelity sound source, he says. And if the so-called “musical” high frequencies are cut off, by a cheap microphone or otherwise, a Brooklyn accent will disappear.