The best analogue recorder out there.

by Tim Moss
(London )

During the mid eighties I worked in one of the few UK studios that owned a couple of Ampex ATR124s. They were massive machine capable of holding 14" spools without overlap and spooling them backwards and forwards at fearsome speed. Sound quality was superb, I remember them having a clean, more detailed and open sound than there Studer equivalent in spite the Studer being a superb tape machine. They are essentially the next stage on from the excellent ATR100 series In multitrack format, with transformerless electronics containing according to the Ampex rep " capacitors specifically selected for low distortion". Its was used with Telefunken CD4 noise reduction and when well lined up and using the CD4 noise reduction I measured it's frequency response as flat from 30Hz to 42KHz - 3db on with a dynamic range of 110db!.

I recall Sony suggesting we might like to go digita and confidently bringing in one of their PCM3324 digital multitracks for a 70 piece orchestral session. On comparing the output of the Neve desk to the off-tape return from the ATR124 there was a slight loss of detail, as there was with the Sony in e to e / line in mode. Comparing the two recordings later during a tea break the difference between the two was chalk and cheese! The Sony sounded flat and lifeless compared to the ATR124 which sounded lively and dynamic, with the original sense of depth capturing the sound of the room along with the instruments and musicians. The Sony had lost all that detail and sounded flat and lifeless by comparison.

The guys from Sony agreed with us that the Ampex was clearly sounding better and far closer to what came out of the desk, so thought there must be a fault with the 3324. They spent the next couple of days realigning and testing their machine then on the third day, spoke to the chief recording engineer saying "I guess your not interested in buying one are you?" "No sorry" came the reply "oh well, I suppose I'd better take it away then" said the Sony rep. This is not to say the PCM3324 was a bad product, it wasn't, it was just no match for a really good analogue machine like the ATR124.
The ATR124 did have some faults however, the membrane keyboard was horrible, it became unresponsive after a while and you couldn't change individual switches. Spares were more expensive than for other machines such as the Studer machines and it was not the best for reliability. It was not unknown for the massive power supply to literally go up in a puff of smoke, which would then be blown around the room by its cooling fans! I also remember being called to the control room during an overdub session as tracks 1 to 8 were no longer playing back. Instead there was a muffled crackling sound. I thought I recognised that noise as the sound produced by a severely magnetised tape head and guessed the problem. There were three head preamp boards each handling eight tracks and with their own +ve & -ve supplies, one had lost its -ve supply and was feeding +18 volts into the sync head, magnetising it and so erasing tracks 1 to 8 as the tape was spooled! Luckily the engineer and band were incredibly calm and understanding about it all, the machine was repaired, the head demagnetised and the session continued.

The unreliability and rarity of the ATR124 was the reason they were finally replaced with Studers, they didn't sound quite as good as the ATR124s at their best, but they weren't far off and they always worked when you came in in the morning and switched them on.

Tim Moss

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