Nagra IV-S TC
Stellavox SP 8
Uher 4200 Report Monitor
The Swiss-made Nagra III and IV, in their various iterations, ruled film sound, and were used for many great stereo music recordings, over a 25-year period, and now that digital has finally taken over, most are still in use, many now coming into the hands of avid recordists like me.
They never break, and rarely need parts replacements, built to a standard that car manufacturers have attempted, but never achieved. A IV-S, with its optional ruby tape guides, and arguably the best tape transport ever conceived, will meet its specs easily after 30 years of hard use. Unlike Studers and ReVoxes, with their notoriously soft heads, a Nagra rarely needs head replacements.
I’ve come to these open reel recorders after having lived with various professional portable cassette decks over a 30-year period from such names as JVC, Marantz, and Sony, followed by a few portable DAT recorders from, most notably, TEAC and Denon. Many of these were reviewed in these pages, and most are still in my possession, mainly, those that survived. The Marantz PMD 430 is remembered elsewhere on the site, and I also have two of the Denon DTR-80P DAT recorders. With no apologies to Nak lovers out there, either of these will burn the scales off any Dragon ever hatched, and these pro open reel decks then take us into another realm entirely, one never adequately occupied by the Revox, Tandberg or other European names, and not even approached by such Japanese makers as Akai, Sony or TEAC, to name just a few accepted by consumers and respected by professionals.
Ranking The Veterans
As with the car mags in their competitor shootouts, I’ll start with #3 in the running, the Uher 4200 Rport Monitor, which was the ultimate in a long line of portable machines dating back to the Report L model (and perhaps beyond in the mists of time) that I knew and sometimes cursed in my university radio days. The quintessential Uher is a quirky beast, with nail breaking piano style keys that are firm and slippery at the same time.
It evolved from an ugly, heavy thing that tended to bang into doorways and mar table tops into a no-more-svelte, but quite sexy looking machine, with large peak-reading meters that glowed in gold at the flick of a lever, and could be decked out with a fancy leather case, snappy looking microphones, D-cell replacing internal battery, and an AC “Charger & Power Supply”.
I bought the whole package, not all at once, but in stages, after the first purchase of the recorder itself, which did come with the very nice brown bag, which has a large pocket for tapes and accessories. Then I bought a power supply/charger, only to find that it, while it charged internal batteries (if they were rechargeables), it did not operate the recorder without charged batteries. In the meantime I had made up an external 6-volt power supply that worked fine by attaching it to the main internal in/out battery connections.
And then there are all the DIN adaptors you need (which I later realized were just preparation, as was much else to do with the Uher, for the recorders to come), and the figuring out of what goes in and what comes out, signal-wise, of the 4200. I won’t go into all that here, but one out carries the same signal as the headphone feed, which goes through the front-panel tone control, while the other, coupled with the line input in the front DIN on the right side puts out enough signal to drive a truck. I also acquired manuals, operating and service, on CD, printing out the former to help figure out its specific German sensibilities.
And let’s turn to the transport, with its silver keys, the biggest of which is Stop, flanked by Pause to the left, and Record on the right, with Rewind and Fast Forward at either end. It’s pretty logical, and the mechanical system works well, if rather clunkily. However, the whole electronic function is harnessed to these keys, the result being loud thumps when Play, in particular, is engaged. During testing for frequency response with levels set rather high, I managed to instantly fry 4 Energy Veritas 6 1/2″ woofers, a setback which cost me more than twice what I paid for the recorder originally to repair! However, the new ones, once broken in, were cleaner, tighter, and deeper than the originals, so, hey, it was just an upgrade! Thanks, Uher. I think…
But that was just the first of the travails with the 4200 to report. Next came the speed discovery: the BBC, from whom the deck came originally, had modifed the machine to operate at a single speed, and seeing the mechanism set to its highest adjustment, I assumed it was 7 1/2 IPS. But when I tried a tape at that speed from one of my other recorders, it ran slow. A tape made at 3 3/4s ran fast. What was going on? Tapes made at the recorder’s own speed sounded fine, with good frequency response, quite low noise, and generally clean sound.
With the help of a bit of deductive mathematics (and I mean a bit), I determined the 4200’s BBC-adjusted speed to be 5.7 IPS, a ratio of 1.28 over 7 1/2 in terms of recording time. This makes some sense, because it quite successfully combines longer recording and better frequency response fitting nicely (and almost equidistant) between the two speeds. Maybe because of mounting frustration with the quirks of this German (and ultimately, as well, British) piece of recording technology, I didn’t keep the response measurements (or at least, can’t find them in the chaos of my computer), but they were pretty decent, response to 13 or 14 kHz, and a nice affinity with both European BASF, AGFA, etc.) and Japanese (Maxell, TDK, etc.) tapes. And I knew that the Uher 4200 Report Monitor was not to be a permanent fixture in my recording and broadcast arsenal.
That became evident, notwithstanding the perseverence of technicians Boris and Klaus at All-In-One Electronics of Toronto, not to mention the patience of proprietor Rob Tracy, also North American Dual distributor, as well as the guardian for Denon warranty service across the continent. There were belts and motors to be replaced, reel tables to be fixed, and various other transplants from an earlier generation 4000 Report L, as partially admitted above.
Frankly, I was relieved when I finally had the Uher 4200 Report Monitor fully refurbished and back up for sale on eBay. I also made sure it was offered not only calibrated and operating well, but also with a matched stereo pair of dynamic Uher microphones, a rechargeable battery and multi-voltage recharger, the 4000 carcass for parts, and a generous supply of TDK and BASF 1 mil and 1/2 mil tapes, respectively. Thanks Rob, for all your understanding of analog tape dementia (which I think you share in a milder version). Klaus, of course, knows these “Cherman” machines, though when confronted with the Swiss Nagra, he commented, “Never seen von of zeez before…” I saw Boris at the TSO/Maxim Vengerov blockbuster concert (Shostakovich 1st Violin Concerto in all its silvery glory), and when I later mentioned to him that I’d also been there, he told me a bit about his days as a sound engineer at the Kirov ballet. My, but aren’t we an eclectic country in our imported talent!
So the Uher 4200 was but a prelude to my reintroduction to the glories of analog tape at its highest realization. As with all technologies, analog recording reached its greatest flowering as it was being superseded by digital. The same overlap occurred with the LP, and happens regularly in the worlds of video and film. The Nagra IV-S, the 4th generation in the noble line of Swiss engineered-and-built professional recorders, has dominated the latter industry’s live sound capture sector since its introduction 20 years ago or more. But as digital has taken over in fits and starts: from PCM-F1, DAT, Hard Disc, and now, DVD, Flash Card and MicroDrive), the post-production houses have demanded WAV files instead of timecode tapes, and Nagras, in all their iterations still extant, have been coming into the consumer marketplace, along with a whole generation of portable DAT machines, most typically, the TASCAM DA-P1), which I reviewed a few years back.
The superb semi-pro TEAC DA-P20 was my main recorder for the Bellingham Sessions and other CD masters until I wore out its heads; it served me very well, indeed! So the next step for such duties (perhaps a step back, but what a step!) became a Nagra IV-S TC, the timecode version of the classic, which I bought from consignment through Trew Audio, now the major sound supplier to the film industry in Canada and the US. The purchase was made in Spring 06, and thereafter supplemented by acquisition of various accessories, including a super Porta-Brace carrying case. It’s a sound man classic, with all its extra pockets, Velcro-protected strain release openings for the various indigenous cables, and clear vinyl window flap over the front control panel, these amid all the cushioning and protection for the classic recorder.
But before detailing the glories of that technological wonder (the Nagra, not the Porta- Brace), I must maintain my automobile review sequence of ranking with another eBay purchase, the Stellavox SP 8 recorder, which also had a broadcast origin, its first owner being the CBC in Montreal.
Touted over the years by its cult of aficionados as a “better Nagra“, the Stellavox has a huge audiophile reputation which is well earned. One US cult member carries his SP 8 around audio shows, to use as demo source with the new high-end electronic gear and speakers being displayed.
Australian recordist and high end audiophile Kostas Metaxas swears by his SM 8 machines, and the matching AMI 48 mixers, both of which he has heavily customized. But he has also recently sold at least one of each on eBay; either he has to put his kids through college, or he’s moved on to something better. My SP 8 (and I won’t share with you the ridiculously low price I paid for it) was obviously used at CBC as some kind of high quality logger, its head block custom designed for 1 7/8 or 3 3/4 IPS optimum operation with a no-longer-available formulation of audiotape 1/4″ standard bias tape. The mechanism was sound and operational, though with a clicking noise coming from the supply reel, and some intermittence in the Play/Record function. The electronics were in great shape.
One thing I’ll say for truly professional gear, is that good parts are used, especially capacitors (essential in the storing and generating of proper record bias and other current), so that they don’t become dysfunctional after a couple of decades or more. Both the Uher and the Stellavox electronics functioned at original specifications. Too bad the former’s transport isn’t better. And the Stellavox lost its clicking sound with continued use; I think it had been lying around too long at the Corpse without use. It’s a great tape mover. That’s one area where the Stella’ shines like starlight in its cool, silvery machined aluminum. As seen above, the supply reel feeds tape to a silkily friction-free strobe-topped roller, then to another opposing arm mounted roller before meeting tape guides and, in sequence, erase, record, and play heads, the latter very close to the also arm-mounted pinch roller that drives the tape at precise speed supplied by the servo-controlled direct-drive motor. It is a quite simple, but very precise mechanism, that Nagra engineers might deem too simple, but more on that below.
The two swing arms move up, mechanically driven by a gear mechanism that engages the capstan for play. When Rewind is switched in on the front panel, these arms lift the tape away from the heads, a clever alternative to the solenoids that suck juice in non-portable pro machines.
That’s the quick bits on the very Swiss Stellavox mechanism. The result is an amazingly low level of wow and flutter at 3 3/4 IPS, the intended nominal speed of this particular iteration of the SP 8, which begs for explanation. While the IV-S has a 6-position switch for bias setting on its top panel, Stellavox chief engineer Georges Quellet (once at Nagra) decided that bias adjustment should be decided by finely tuned head blocks that could be quickly switched in and out for various speeds and their exact record bias current needs. Inside these modular head blocks (see previous illustration) was a pair of bias trimmers accessed by removing the black top cover, that allowed precise adjustment to specific tapes at a given speed. Therefore, I can adjust bias precisely for various tape types, including the BASF and AGFA formulations that this machine is designed for. But to accommodate the same tapes at 7 1/2 IPS, or even 15, a new head block that reduces bias currents overall is required. Unfortunately, I am still searching, worldwide, for a used 7.5/15 IPS block, hopefully the SM 8 one with the wider 2.7mm tracks that improve S/N ratio substantially. Getting it will be the good news, but the bad news will be, I’m sure, that it costs quite a bit more than the whole machine did initially. Ca va…
But this shortcoming does not stop my Stella from being the best analog tape recorder ever made to operate at 3 3/4 (or 3.75) IPS. Without readjusting bias, I did some tests at roughly -10 below 0 VU (which on these machines is at a very high 540 nanowebers, several dB above NAB 0), and these are shown at right. It is nominally biased for the standard BASF LP formulation, which I have lots of, having scored a coup in a bulk purchase from Trent University of obsolete archive reels that had been transferred to more recent media.
Figure 1, at right, shows this tape, which can be seen to be dead flat to 10 kHz on the Audio- Control 1/3-octave analyzer, down a couple of dB at 12.5 kHz, with some energy seen at 16.5 kHz with program material, though not here. Now, I hasten to point out that we’re not talking cassette magnetic flux levels here, but much higher, and open reel tapes tend to saturate less as level increases than cassettes, with much lower distortion. And, of course, there is no noise reduction whatsoever here, and it’s not necessary, with a basic S/N ratio of over 65 dB before the additional near-10 dB of headroom analog tape offers.
My Philips LN tape, which I also acquired in bulk from Trent, provides identical results, the audible result just a slight softening of top end with music, but very clean sound with a very relaxing quality of great clarity and openness, like, if I may say so, nothing you’ve ever heard from a Nak. Moving up to BASF LH (figure 2, at right below, without any bias trim), we see higher output, as well as greater extension, with 16K just a few dB down, and I noticed occasional flashes of 20 kHz energy when playing jazz recordings (not off air, of course, with the 15K FM upper limit), such as the ride cymbal of Jimmy Cobb on Kind Of Blue. This recorder doesn’t just chop the upper harmonics like a cassette deck, but renders them without distortion at a lower level, making for a truly clean, sweet top end. BASF LH Super (Figure 3, below again) improves the higher frequencies, with a little extra 8-10 kHz energy, which can be tamed with a tiny turn of the bias trimmers for flatter response. I’ve experimented with newer BASF and AGFA tapes, like PER 368 (both tape brands identically numbered in this one case), which not only extend the upper octaves, but provide 3 or 4 dB higher output (hence S/N ratio) in the process.
What else can I offer about this little Swiss piece of jewellery? Well, it’s awful purty, nicely portable, and very easy on batteries, running about 20 hours on a set of 15 NiMH (Nickel- Metal Hydride) batteries. And with my recently acquired matching APS 9 power supply/charger (also from my friends at Trew Audio), I can run it in my studio off AC while keeping the AAs fully charged for field trips to rural railway crossings and Fall Fairs. And I’ve been doing quite a bit of that lately. Look for upcoming recording releases and site downloads.
Worth crediting in the refurbishing of the SP 8 is one Terry E. Witt, of Sparta, Michigan, whose side business is refurbishing rubber pinch rollers for all manner of tape machines. He redid my degenerated sticky brown Stella roller into a new perfect black drive device. Not surprisingly, his company is reachable at www.terrysrubberrollers.com or (616) 696-3625 by more quaint means, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or even email@example.com. He sure did the job for me, at a modest $40.00US including air mail postage, but prices can vary with the type of roller, from, say Akai to ZX-9. Just check with Terry to see if he can handle the specific brand and type before sending it off.
And the best [tape] handling machine is… The Nagra IV-S is arguably (and, frankly, I don’t see much real argument coming from any quarter!) the best 2-channel analog tape recorder ever made. There may be studio machines, notably the company’s own all-format T model, that surpass it, but few others can combine sheer virtuosic performance with such a combination of operational ruggedness, longterm durability, and utter precision that is otherwise unknown. To expand the analogy with automobiles, you will probably never see a car that combines this maintenance of performance over three decades with only nominal service and repair. You will probably spend damn near what you paid for a Mercedes over that period only to keep it running and, hopefully, distantly approach your original investment in its actual value after all that.
And, as a final thought on all this, I do appreciate my Omega and Seiko chronographs, too, with little personal regard for the gilded baubles made by such snob-satisfiers as Rolex and Philippe Patek. There, I said it, and I’m glad. If it glows in the dark or shines in the sun, I want it to do so for a purpose. In fact, I’ve just bought myself a Casio Atomic watch that checks in with the US time signal in Colorado twice a day, and runs off its own solar panel. Time is of the essence. Cost is not.
The meter itself, called a Modulometer, is a brilliant piece of intuitive ergonomics engineering, with two needles, mounted front-to-back, for right and left channels, respectively. Being mildly dyslexic, I have a reminder, “LFT R” posted on mine to ensure that I get my channels right, or more correctly, correct, that is, LeFT (needle) Rear and right Front. Do I make myself somewhat clear?
The purpose of this orientation is to allow the simultaneous display of channel balance (the meters move as one) or stereo information (moving individually), and there is a front-panel selectable setting for the Modulometer to show channel difference information to aid in LP mastering to gauge potential groove depth. Clever, these Swiss! So you always know where you’re at, level and balance-wise, with this recorder. Its scale is usefully broad, with the 0 point not at 12 o’clock, but over to the right, with 6 dB of headroom shown beyond; and, of course, it’s a peak reading device, with fast up and slow down ballistics, a little more useful than the wildly gyrating peak readers of the Stellavox.
But enough about that. The audio performance of the Nagra starts with a basic signal-to-noise ratio of 75 dB plus headroom of about 10 dB, with a little soft analog saturation on top of that, to easily put it into digital S/N territory without the terror of quantization noise, just a little hiss, well below the noise floor of any concert hall or outdoor location I’ll ever encounter.
Noise reduction? Well, that’s a story for another time, but I’ll sum up by saying that the choice between absolute quiet and absolute sonic transparency is always there, and one I’ve made in the direction of the latter. So the accompanying Dolby SR outboard device went to a deserving home other than mine. Besides, it didn’t fit into the Porta-Brace case. The Nagra did surprise me in frequency response measurements by having slightly less extended top end at 3 3/4 IPS than the Stellavox as a rule, the measurement shown with BASF LH (figure 4, at right) taken at what looked like the most suitable of the 6 bias positions. We see a little rise in the upper mids, which allows extension to 12.5 kHz, and a slight dip in the lower midrange, which can be heard. It does sound very nice at the slowest speed, with utterly inaudible wow or flutter from the superb transport, but there are these mildly audible colorations. At 7 1/2 IPS (figure 5, right), we see excellent linearity, the increasing bouncing balls, so to speak, a function of the faster variations with decreasing frequency of the display; to camera capture on an averaged basis blurred the pictures, so I had to shoot several shots and pick the best. You’ll have to trust me on this. With LH again (figure 5) the IV-S is pretty flat to almost 20 Hz, with the slightest hint of rolloff above 15, and with exceptional linearity in the overtone octaves that gives it such a natural timbral quality in listening to music. At 15 IPS (figure 6), this only improves, and the better bounce with descending octaves only underlines the increased transient response provided at the highest speed, which provides even greater acoustic transparency. This can be audibly improved by the use of the Nagra Master EQ position, which is designed to be used with the best tapes, such as BASF 468 or 911 mastering formulations. I could have shown this recorder with such tapes, as I have a good stock of the former, but I wanted to show its exceptional capabilities with average, everyday reels, since the true capabilities can’t really be seen on even a 1/3d octave display, but must be heard.
Both the Nagra and Stellavox have exceptional transports, with unusual care taken in getting the tape from one reel to the other with minimal disturbance or vibration. Which is better? Well, by a slim margin it is the IV-S, whose more precisely detailed tape path exhibits notably less of a phenomenon which can only be seen on a scope that shows phase, like my vintage Panasonic 4-channel model. I use it for setting tape azimuth and for quadraphonic display. I call this phenomenon skew, because it represents the lateral movement of the tape as it passes the record and play heads, which can be seen and, to a lesser extent, heard as a slight wobbliness not of speed, but of image stability, and at worst, audible distortion. In a surround system, this is most pronounced in matrix derived rear channels. Below we see the off-tape signal, first as stereo, then as mono next pic down. Let me explain: a mono signal, either sine wave or pink noise, should ideally appear as a straight line, which is vertical on my scope. If there is skew in the tape path, movement laterally appears, a kind of spreading in a jittery fashion. We see more of this from record/ play in the Stella because of its fewer and slightly less precise guides in the tape path. There are so few guides in the tape path of the Uher that it is a constant phenomenon that causes quite audible modulation distortion and noise in the sound (worse, of course, with poorer or older tapes, like seen at bottom), a muddiness that I found cumulatively intolerable. This is also true of most of the consumer machines produced over the last 30 years. By comparison these machines look good, to say the least. The seemingly indigenous attention to tape skew by the Swiss has in just this one performance area put them ahead of most tape recorder designers, with the exception of those at Studer (originally Swiss) and a few other companies. I give TEAC/TASCAM honorable mention in this area, and should note that my recently acquired Fostex Model 20 has Teflon guide rollers on either side of the heads to reduce skew and the attendant scrape (read friction) flutter typical in most analog tape transports. Have I lost you yet? Don’t worry, I’m almost done.
So the ‘champeen’ in the movement of tape handling, as it were, is the Nagra, and I’m sure the precision Ruby guides (an innovation in tape recorders borrowed from the Swiss watch tradition, of course) have a significant role. Other advantages of the Nagra tradition that carry through here are a 10 dB superiority in S/N ratio. And then there’s greater than 85 dB erasure capability, so you never have to worry about sticking to virgin tape again, because they just don’t get noisy the way they do with other decks when re-used.
And the transport is so gentle that the stretching and warping of the mylar tape backing (that cumulatively increases skew with use) is also minimized. By this point I’ve probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about analog tape recording, but then I’ve been studying it for about 30 years, along with acoustics, and a few other things unrelated to audio at all. And maybe I’ve gotten wise enough to know when to shut up about something, so let’s conclude this analogical essay this way:
I do embrace also digital recording technology, though I think I’m a little ancient to get buried in the computer for it; I already know too much about computer magazine production graphics to want to extend it into my favoured recreational activities. I’ll leave the programmable Flash Card, MicroDrive and other pro digital recordo Aaron, who is already using them in his work, though I did have fun with the TASCAM HD-P2. And of late, I’ve acquired a ZOOM H4, recently reviewed here.
And I do enjoy working with my 96 kHz DAT recorder, the Pioneer D9601, which was sold only by pro supplier HHB in Europe and North America. But I must say, the Nagra and Stellavox machines are still a blast, the ultimate extension of a passion that started with that first experience of watching those big reels go round. In fact, I used to take Aaron into the “Tooey” (my home studio from my radio days) and sit him on my knee watching the big TEAC reels revolve until he’d go to sleep. Maybe soon I’ll sometimes do the same with little Jackson (the next analog generation?). Me, I could watch those reels go round forever.
Here’s a static look (the video is in your email) at how they hook up together on a flat surface. I use the Nagra/Lyrec system to record off air all the time, and have also set it up on location when doing CD sessions, most recently for an organ CD at St. James Cathedral in Toronto last May (07). I originally used an additional tape guide, cadged from my TEAC box of goodies, but eliminated it because I needed to reduce extra tape-path friction as much as possible, especially for fast wind modes. The exceptional tape handling characteristics of the FRED definitely come into play here, and the addition of its dead-on-accurate realtime tape counter is an incredible bonus.
The trick is, of course, to use the variable speed options on FRED to set proper tape tensions for the system as a whole, that is, to balance feed with takeup, the FRED speed just a little faster than that of the IV-S to ensure that the tape does not develop a desire to wrap itself around the capstan, a definite concern as one uses thinner tapes. I have had good success with 1- and 3/4-mil tape thicknesses, but 1/2 mil is a definite no-go because of static electricity attraction concerns, the tendency of the tape to wrap around whatever it can.
There are big reels, and there are BIG reels, namely 12 1/2″ ones, of which I managed to score 11 on eBay. These allow another doubling of record/play time over 10 1/2″ reels (think of how much tape is going around at the circumference of the bigger reel!). This is another major asset of the FRED over the grossly overpriced Nagra QGB reel extender. My favourite recording reel is Maxell UDXL 1-mil, which gives me just over 5000′, good enough for over 2 hours of continuous recording, and for longer challenges, 3/4-mil BASF DP-26LH provides about 7200′ and over 3 hours of recording time. Going beyond that poses the already noted mechanical problems, as well as the meeting of the tape-head-cleaning vs recording time threshold; in other words, at about 3 hours, with most tapes, the heads will be sufficiently coated with oxide that you’ll have to stop for a cleaning, anyway. Otherwise, you’ll have a distinct (or not so distinct) mellowing of the last act of the opera.
It’s the threading that’s critical, since the capstan-free tape path of the Lyrec must not be interrupted. Therefore, any variation from that shown is a no-go. Also, you always have to start FRED first, and then put the IV-S into gear with the transport lever. This is a sacred sequence, which, if reversed, leads to excessive use of the provided editing block, and alteration of beloved masters…what’s the old B-film phrase, “half human, half heartache”?
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