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My adjustable-azimuth adolescence.
January 19, 2011 4:13 PM   Subscribe

What's the cleanest possible way to transfer a standard-IPS four-track cassette master?

I recently picked up a mighty fine Nakamichi DR-1 tape deck to transfer all my old two-track, direct-to-tape cassette masters. I am extremely pleased with the signal/noise ratio and the adjustable azimuth control in particular. What a life-saver!

However, that only accounts for about half my early musical output. The other half was recorded on a Fostex X-28 four-track. (This is the early, standard-speed X-28, not the later, high-speed X-28H.)

I've had a bear of a time finding a used X-28 anyway, but now that I know what miracles I can work with a higher-end machine, I'm wondering if there's any comparable box for transferring old four-track tapes. I am not at all impressed with the signal/noise ratio on the X-28 in playback mode, so I'd like to do the best possible job on this "archival round" before my life's work completely disintegrates on me.

So, I'm wondering if there's an actual machine designed to do this, or if there's an existing high-end cassette four-track which might serve the same purpose.

(I know I can always transfer the four-track tapes one side at a time in the DR-1, and then reverse/align the stereo tracks on Side B, but I don't trust the variability of playback speeds and I don't want each side to drift slowly and painfully out of sync over the course of 30-45 minutes.)
posted by mykescipark to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Trying to line up separate transfers would be a massive pain.

I'm thinking that the best way to go would be to find an old 4 track deck that actually has the four discrete outputs and run that into a decent multi-track interface into the computer.

A search for "4-track cassette rackmount" (under the assumption that rack gear should be a little better quality than the little portable units) turns up the Tascam 234 (and the 8-track 238). A quick skim of the forum posts I find for those units make it sound like they were both good units.

I found a pic of the back of the 234 and it does have 4 line outs that you could feed to an interface like M-Audio's Delta-44 or any other 4-track interface (Watch out though, lots of companies include the S/PDIF connections in the track count of their devices. For example, the Delta-44 is basically the only M-Audio device that doesn't count tracks like that.)
posted by jjb at 5:55 PM on January 19, 2011


Regarding playback speeds- the capstan controls the playback speed, not the reels, so if your recording is more or less right and your playback deck is more or less right, then you should be good. Speed-wise, anyway. Getting the tracks perfectly aligned will be difficult. But then again, once you have them digitally recorded, you can futz with them as much as necessary.

(One trick for this is to find a spot on the tape where there is a pop or crackle or hum that is consistent on all four tracks. These tend to be simple and distinct waveforms. If you zoom into the waveform, you can align the tracks using them as your guide. 60 cycle hum is great for that in this respect- as long as you can pick out which period to align on, you just move them until they are all in phase.)

Question: you still have the Fostex? Maybe it is broken, or the heads need to be cleaned? Maybe the head has gone out of alignment, or is just shot? Adjusting the head is probably going to be considerably harder in a cassette deck versus a reel-to-reel, but with the computer as a sort of oscilloscope, you might be able to do it relatively easy. I *think* a head that's out of adjustment will show up on the digital waveform. I don't have (almost) any experience with it, but I think lateral adjustment is going to show up as a sort of AC bias on the waveform (the upswings and the downswings of the wave are different heights), and azimuth would show up as low levels and weird phasing. The center tracks (as they are on the tape) would be louder than the outer tracks. Assuming the tracks are 1 2 3 4 on the tape, tracks 1 and 2 would be ahead, with 1 being more ahead, and 3 and 4 would be behind, with 4 being more behind. Or vice versa.

Regarding other equipment- spdif might be your friend, rather than line outputs. It is completely possible for this to not be the case, but the cassette deck with the spdif out could have a better a/d converter than your sound card. And I'd wager it is easier to get a sound card with spdif in versus four analog tracks in. Even if the a/d converter is just as good, or even not as good, the added noise of the analog path might make up for it.

What kind of noise are you getting?

It is possible the noise is on the recording, not the deck. Have you played one of the tapes through the good deck and listened to the resulting tracks to make sure the source is right?
posted by gjc at 6:35 AM on January 20, 2011


Hi fellas - Didn't want to permanently neglect your awesome answers, although I will say upfront that I resolved the problem by finding a brand-new, completely unused X-28 on eBay for under $100!

A search for "4-track cassette rackmount" (under the assumption that rack gear should be a little better quality than the little portable units) turns up the Tascam 234 (and the 8-track 238). A quick skim of the forum posts I find for those units make it sound like they were both good units.

Indeed, they are top-shelf units, although they both play back at double speed rather than the traditional 1⅞ ips. There is a Tascam 238S (where the "S" stands for "Slow") which plays back at the standard tape speed. This is the unit I would have needed.

you could feed to an interface like M-Audio's Delta-44 or any other 4-track interface

Covered there! I have a Presonus FireStudio, which is a rack-mount unit with eight fully-functional inputs.

Regarding playback speeds- the capstan controls the playback speed, not the reels, so if your recording is more or less right and your playback deck is more or less right, then you should be good.

Thanks for that! Good to know. I'm kinda amazed I didn't already know that. :-/

Question: you still have the Fostex? Maybe it is broken, or the heads need to be cleaned?

The motor was shot. I couldn't turn up any Fostex repair places which could install or repair the motor, unfortunately.

What kind of noise are you getting? It is possible the noise is on the recording, not the deck.

Oh, believe me, the recordings are pretty hissy in places, but I have owned some truly terrible cassette decks which add a lot of noise due to poor signal conversion. That's why the Nakamichi was such a revelation ... cassettes I thought were actually a lot noisier now sound pretty damn clean with a higher-quality deck. In this case, since it's been such a nightmare to try and find an alternative deck, I will just have to make do with the noise floor on the X-28 and process it out later with plugins.

Anyway, thanks again for your input, both of you. Some good food for thought here for future Askers, hopefully.
posted by mykescipark at 3:02 PM on February 2, 2011


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