An Old Analog Friend

APR5003v in front of APR-24

Let me introduce you to my old friend: Umm... Pictured above is a Sony APR5003v 1/4" two-track professional analog tape recorder. It represents about the penultimate stage of analog two-track tape recorder evolution. In 1982, Sony bought out Jeep Harned's MCI Professional Audio Corporation and began marketing and developing his highly successful line of equipment. In 1989, the Sony APR5003v was the ultimate result of his analog tape development. Besides the usual two tracks of audio, the APR5003v records and plays back a phantom center stripe of SMPTE time code. It generates that timecode, can jam-synch its TC generator to match and reproduce incoming code, and can independently synch itself to any other machine's timecode without help of an external synchronizer. That's pretty sophisticated for the time period in which it was built. Looking at the audio side of the machine, the setup and bias facilities are equally impressive: The unit's setup is controlled by a microprocessor, allowing easy tweaking and storage of three setups. There are many uses for this: It is possible to store a setup for each brand of tape you use or mutiple setups for one brand of tape with different bias and EQ settings to produce different sounds. My typical setup with one of these was one setting each for a medium-level tape, a medium-bias, high-level tape, and a high-bias, high-level tape. That would be Ampex 407, Scotch 250, and Ampex 456. This capability was also simply marvelous in professional operations because various bias and EQ settings could be A/B'd very quickly.

APR5003v set up to accept a "hub" of tape on the flange on left
to be recorded and stored to the reel on right, "tails out."

How did this unit stack up when compared to others from the golden age of analog? I've worked with four generations of professional analog recorders at this point. From a purely technical standpoint, as a representative of the final generation, the APR5003v was a joy to work with and a giant leap forward in reliability and ease of maintenance. As an editing deck, it was a pretty big step backwards from the queen of the previous generation, the Ampex ATR 102 from 1976, which was the undisputed champion analog editing deck.

Ampex ATR102

The ATR102 had no capstan motor and instead had three DC servo motors that were locked up into perfect sync. As a result, the ATR102 was always in cue mode and could be audibly scrubbed by simply twiddling the lovely big cue knob with a couple of fingers.

Early ATR-100 cueing knob
The early ones were hand-turned, the later ones cast.
Knob courtesty Michael Spitz at ATR Services

By contrast, the Sony APR5003v featured a standard capstan-driven transport requiring you to punch a button to put it in edit mode, put down your chinagraph marker, and "rock the reels" using both hands. Oh, well, you can't win them all. But don't dispair: There were some speed control and scrub tricks this machine could pull off that no deck before or since has managed. For instance, its microprocessor-controlled speed management with memory allowed two-level speed changes for those times when you were attempting to create special effects.

The little ramp to the left of the head stack aligns the tape with the tape path as you thread up.
Note the integrated splicing block.

And how about sound? The fidelity of this unit was pretty darned scary. The high-end response was outstanding, extending the treble response by about an octave over the ATR102. The low-end head bump was the lowest of any deck I ever worked on. This deck was the closest analog thing to digital sound ever created. And therein lay a controversy: some maintained that it was too clean and its reponse was too flat. I know that I missed the round sound of the ATR 102 when I moved over to the Sony but I loved the Sony's low noise floor. In a perfect world I would have had two or three of each, but with each unit costing nearly $9000 and requiring hours of maintenance each quarter, that wasn't gonna happen. We replaced eleven ATR102s with APR5003vs in 1990 and I found a buyer for all our lovely old Ampexes. Then I learned to love this machine on its own terms.

The meter bridge
Channel record ready and monitor controls are on left,
monitor speaker and its channel selector on right.

So, why I in the world am I telling you all this? Our 5003s gave us ten years of really good service. Over that time, as we watched the analog event horizon approaching, we combined some machines with casualties to keep seven machines operating. Finally the digital revolution completely overtook them. We moved over first to digital and then to non-linear and most of our analog machines became virtually inactive. From that point, as they failed, rather than spending hours repairing them, we pulled out an unused but working unit and stored the failed unit. A few years later we had accumulated several hangar queens. Eventually, the storage space they occupied became more valuable than the spare machines themselves. Recently, I was brought into a conversation where it was revealed that four APR5003vs had been "de-assetted" and were going to the crusher within minutes. I was invited to take my choice from the bunch. I picked the best-looking one that didn't have any repair orders hanging off it and quickly rushed off to verify that it worked. Alone in the machine room, I pushed the heavy, recessed rocker power switch and heard the reassuring clunk of the power supply relay and the whine of the cooling fans whirring up to speed. I slapped up a tape and checked it out quickly. By the time I verified its status, the other three machines had already been crushed. But what a find I made. I ended up with a machine with low hours on its transport and heads and very little cosmetic wear. On further testing, I discovered that it both recorded and played back well and its setup was still true. I checked the bias card on the setup panel and found that it was filled out in my own hand. I set up this baby. We had history, this machine and I. As it turned out, we worked together in my control room for years. With a little effort I was able to dig up its operation and shop manuals, a remote control, plus extender cards and harnesses for service. All and all, a tidy little trove was given me.

Yep, that's my handwriting on the bias card.

We've still got a small stash of the last production of Ampex 456 professional tape in house that has been kept hermetically sealed and stored in cool and dry conditions. I did some trial recordings that yielded surprising results: While the recorder functioned wonderfully, the virgin tape had decayed to the point where it couldn't be played back for more than a few seconds without shedding gooey residue. I had to track down some better stuff and get my hands on some setup tapes.

People asked me, "What did your wife going to think when you came through the door with a console tape deck?" Good question because this deck is a monster! Frankly, I couldn't hold in my excitement and blabbed all about it to her immediately. Being amazingly tolerant (as usual), she gave me the green light to bring it home. I kept it there for a while but it eventually became clear to even me that it was too big a beastie for my home. Oh well. One can always dream. Another day, another challenge. I found a home for it in another facility where it is loved. But for a while there, it was actually mine!