And everything was fucked up. I mean, EVERYTHING. Nothing but screeching and hissing and deafening bursts of loud clipping white noise interspersed everywhere, with the faint sound of radio jingles in the background from time to time. Heartbreaking.
But, not being a pussy quitter, I decided to take everything apart and find the service manuals online.
Oh shit… the service manual for the tape machine is not online. Had to call Fostex and buy one for $10 plus shipping. Luckily I find the service manual for the TASCAM mixing console online for free.
Now I'm at ($765.00) invested? shit….
I spent the greater part of that summer completely disassembling the tape machine and every single fucking potentiometer on every single fucking channel strip of that fucking board and cleaning every contact while comparing it to the service repair manual schematic (& making whatever simple wiring repairs or reflows) and then reassembling. Luckily, almost everything was fixable with some elbow grease and know-how. I only had to buy one vintage NOS replacement fader ($30, from TASCAM directly, LAST ONE THEY HAD IN THE OLD WAREHOUSE).
($795.00 now invested in this project.)
Actually, more like $900.00 if you count the eleven cans of contact cleaner I went through. Also, all the nitrile gloves, the q-tips, the rubbing alcohol, the wiring and solder, the dozens of capacitors, and the batteries for my headlamp. Probably more like $950.00 at this point. I also had to buy a metric shit ton of different replacement screws because the 35 yr old ones were wallering out left and right in removing them. I spent a lot of time at the hardware store looking for and buying screws that summer.
CUT TO: phase two, nearing end of summer.
Tape machine and board are both working, and sound fucking AWESOME, which wasn't even really my original goal. HELL YES!!!!!!!! AND yes! , to my elated surprise, there really is an even natural compression across all the tracks that sounds really good. I don't know if it's phasing happening on certain frequencies where some tracks bleed a little onto the next or what, but it's there. Where I could hear nothing but chaos before, I know can hear every track in great detail, and I'm loving it. I'm an analog tape convert after just a few hrs messing with it!
CUT TO: a couple hrs later, phase three, the fall
I start noticing things going awry. A track cuts in and out. The motor is acting inconsistent or stopping really hard. A growing hiss. Tracks not erasing completely, tracks bleeding heavily onto other tracks in certain frequencies.
I do some more research... I learn about sticky shed syndrome. Turns out the old ass tape I bought to test it with was shedding it's metal oxide coating + adhesive binder on every part of the machine that made contact with the tape. Apparently this is not at all uncommon.
As it turns out, there's only like two companies that still make tape, and even then it's always on backorder and comes with the looming threat that all production could end at any point, permanently. Even the new old stock that's still good (which is only a few brands and years that you have to learn about on yer own and be able to decode serial numbers before you buy) has shot up on the ebay market, up to people wanting over $100 for about 31 minutes of recording time. I got a good deal and bought eleven good recent NOS reels for about $200 plus shipping. It's not at all easy to find the good tape. I also bought $90 worth of incorrectly labelled data-recording tape that I have to just eat because it's no one's fault.
I'm playing a difficult game now, trying to use tape.
And now I'm about $1,240.00 bucks into this adventure.
Okay…. I soldier on.
So then I decided to do some more research. I learned about degaussing the metal parts of the machine every 6 hours of use. I had to buy a degaussing wand ($30). (now I'm at $1,270..00) And I learned about cleaning the tape path with rubbing alcohol every time I degauss. I learned about what type of tape to buy and how to calibrate the playback and record heads. I bought a bunch more q-tips and rubbing alcohol (oh and also rubber cleaning solvent for the tape machine brake rollers)… ugh...
Calibrating the record and playback heads is very involved. You have to unhook everything and completely disassemble the tape machine, remove the individual channel input cards from the chassis and adjust several trim pots on each card until the frequency range and +/- db rating are equal across playback and record heads as well as relatively even across all tracks. In short, it's a fucking bitch and a fucking half. And if you use a different tape with a slightly different thickness or formula, you have to recalibrate to compensate. I broke a connector off one of the cards and was able to JB Weld it back into place by clamping it overnight. If I hadn't been able to, I would have lost that channel forever. I can't find a replacement input card for my vintage tape machine, and DARE YOU TO TRY for any brand or model without paying out the ass and having it sent from Paraguay. If the motor's belt breaks, I'm done recording until I can find a NOS replacement or have one made custom. If I break the capstan motor itself, I'm done until I can find a NOS replacement, etc. etc. etc.
Anyway, I've been recording with it now for a few months, and it's very cool and sounds amazing, but I'm always nervous because it's so fucking fragile, and I'm always doing maintenance to boot. The whole tape thing is a very fussy and outdated art. It's awesome for precisely those reasons, but it's a huge time-suck and a wallet-suck too if yer doing it on yer own. There's a reason why when tape machines were industry standard, there were also full-time employed tape machine technicians at studios. Seriously, no shit, that's a huge part of how and WHY it used to work so well. If there's one thing you take away from my story, let that be it. put it in some perspective.
Ultimately, I like using tape, because it's extremely focusing, as well as incredibly rewarding. I also am getting more business as a studio (surprisingly) because tape is "cool" now, and bands want to record on tape. But guess what? The bands don't know how to record to tape (aren't used to the workflow and restraints), and none of them expect to have to contribute to the cost of the blank tape. And nowadays, it all ends up getting converted to digital in the mastering for the mp3/website/itunes/bandcamp/soundclous/spotify/whatever- which is the way 99.9% of anyone who is ever gonna listen to your recording is gonna hear it. The analog sound is fucking cool. BUT- you have to hear it off the tape direct from the board into the monitors. After to's mastered and converted, I don't think it really fucking matters at all.
I do love how it's changed my workflow in some ways, but after having spent so many hours and dollars on it, I wonder how much I could have spent instead just making music digitally and not having to constantly troubleshoot and maintain my inherently old and complicated bunch-of--moving-parts-that-are-no-longer-serviced-or-available-ass tape machine. Also, again, a physical medium that is rare and expensive is necessary to do anything with it.
You might get the tape machine and board for a steal, but the tape itself is just getting rarer and more expensive.
The greatest irony here though? I'm still looking everyday for parts, and tape, preemptively. I fear the day this system fails again inevitably, because I've gotten used to working with it. Or the day that tape is done being manufactured anywhere in the world.
As much as I've enjoyed using tape (and still do), I would trade my whole meticulously restored rig for $2,000,
which probably doesn't even cover my labor in restoring it all.
I don't mean to dissuade you from going analog, but, on a budget of $700? Shit I started out with $300, and ended up quadrupling it just to get everything actually running. I think, it just doesn't matter what your budget is. Throw that number out the window, because these old tape machines are living breathing vintage mechanical beings. They don't just plug and play, and unless you really love the sound of tape or are an asshole like me, it will never be worth it.
Unless of course you are a big pro studio in a major metro area and already command high booking rates. Then, it might be worth it to add to option to your stable of tools. But seriously look into it. They charge your ass a shit ton extra for using tape in most places, and for very good reason.