Monday, January 13, 2014

REVIEW: Otari MTR-90 II

NOTE: Now, of course, we’re really into ancient history. When I wrote this, in 2003, there could have been some argument about which tape deck company would last the longest; Studer or Otari. It turned out to be a moot point. I bet Otari, but I was wrong only because one of the dumbest fucking hostile take-over companies in the history of dumb fucking companies, Harman International, bought Studer and pieced out the last production run of the 827 over almost a decade. Otari, on the other hand, simply tossed in the towel and vanished into audio history.

otari_mtr90The Otari MTR-90 II multitrack deck is an industry workhorse.  From Disney Studios to Lucasfilm to hundreds of professional studios around the world, the MTR-90 II is one of the most common recording tools in the history of the art and business.  For years, Otari fought the reputation of "Japanese junk," until releasing this product.  Suddenly, the performance of Otari's multitrack 2" machine easily rivaled the best German hardware.  Since the Otari electronics had arguably surpassed Studer's performance several years earlier, this was a major crossroads in the world recording competition. 

The control circuitry, best demonstrated when you use otari_remote the MTR-90's remote control.  The remote is incredibly powerful and flexible (outside of the incomprehensible and useless "Search Zero" functions), even compared to today's DAW and hard disk recording systems.  There are ten markers with associated one-button locate buttons.  A sixteen-key keypad allows full control of the tape and vari-pitch speed control is available from the remote. 

This unit was released for production in 1987 and remained an active product until 1991, when Otari ceased production on analog recorders (except for their two-track deck).  In the limited form the company currently exists, some service and parts are still available for the MTR-90.  There are a few support companies still making service parts and doing specialty repairs on this deck, but it's becoming increasingly more difficult for studio owners to justify and maintain their analog multitracks. 

Part of the reason for this difficulty is that an analog deck requires regular maintenance.  Unlike the use-it-and-toss-it digital equipment world, an analog deck can be expected to last for several decades.  However, that won't happen if regular maintenance isn't performed.  Head maintenance, transport maintenance, and general mechanical hygiene is necessary for optimal operation of any analog deck. 

The Otari is as easy to service and maintain as the expensive spread, Studer.  When it comes to calibration, it's possible to tweak the MTR-90 to tighter performance specifications than any but the absolute highest resolution digital systems.  The clean, natural sound of analog tape is well in evidence with this machine and it's a shame to consider its eventual demise. 

It's that kind of world, though.  Analog tape is expensive, hard to edit and handle, and tape machine maintenance is a discipline that is vanishing from the recording business.  Thirty years of equipment development created an ergonomic machine that is reliable, easy to use, and durable.  We'll never see the like again.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.