Test Drive: The Otari MTR-15 2-track Recorder

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by Jerry Vigil

Otari-MTR-15Hold on to those grease pencils! Don't toss that reel of tape! Analog is alive and well in the digital nineties! Combining the latest advancements in analog recording with today's microchip magic, Otari brings analog recording up to date with the MTR-15 2-track recorder.

Want to convince your engineers the MTR-15 is the right machine for your studio? That's easy. This paragraph should do the trick. Alignment and calibration procedures that would take a GOOD engineer a half-hour to complete can now be done by your receptionist in about sixty seconds, with computer accuracy! A pop-up door adjacent to the VU meters on the MTR-15 accesses the unit's Alignment Panel. A few quick selections from the menu on the LCD display initiates the alignment program which was originally developed for Otari's top-of-the-line multi-track recorder, the MTR-100A. Hit Play and Record and the unit will automatically set levels, EQ, phase compensation, and bias, all for the particular kind of tape you happen to have on the machine, at the particular tape speed you happen to have selected. If you want it to, after the short alignment procedure, the unit will automatically shift into reverse, erase all the tones it placed on the tape, and stop at the point where you started, ready for recording on clean tape. Want to save those settings for, let's say, Ampex 456 at 15 ips? No problem. You can store up to sixteen settings in the MTR-15's memory. (The MTR-15 accepts four different head assembly types, and each head stack has its own sixteen memory locations for storing settings.) Of course, you have the option for the alignment to be only partially automatic or completely manual if you prefer. The options available for the alignment of the unit are numerous. We'll spare you the technical jargon and simply say that the automatic alignment feature of the MTR-15 is the best thing to come along since ITC's ELSA (automatic azimuth adjust, erase, splice locate) function on their 99 series cart machines.

Now that your engineer loves the machine, let's take a look at what it can do for the prodo guys and gals. One unusual item on the control panel is the silver Cue Wheel among the transport controls (something seen more often on digital recorders). The SHTL/JOG button next to it switches the function of the wheel between the Shuttle mode and the Jog mode. In the Shuttle mode, the tape moves forward or backward at a speed proportionate to the amount the wheel is turned in either direction. A quarter-turn in a clockwise direction sets the machine into a fast-forward mode. Another quarter-turn increases the speed. The wheel must be turned the opposite direction to stop the machine. In the Jog mode, movement occurs only as long as the Cue Wheel is being turned. The faster you spin the wheel, the faster the winding. Stop spinning the wheel and the tape stops. Cuing a tape in the Jog mode seems a little clumsy at first and takes getting used to (no more so than with the wheel on a digital editor), but it effectively works to cue audio sufficiently without touching the reels.

A 2ND FUNCTION button on the panel is a blessing for those of us who do way too many agency dubs. Don't you hate threading up a reel only to find it has been wound tails out? You switch the reels and thread it up again. Then, when you're through with the dub, you have to switch the reels once again for the next dub that's heads out. On the MTR-15, pressing the 2ND FUNCTION and PLAY or STOP buttons reverses the playback. Tails out dubs? Piece of cake! Why didn't they call it the REVERSE button? You guessed it. The button serves more than one function. More on that later.

The picture shown is the model MTR-15-N. The model we actually played with is the MTR-15-NM. The latter model comes in a roll-around cabinet complete with a place to put your edit pencils and splicing tape. This "NM" model also comes with an external meter bridge instead of having the meters actually in the unit as shown in the picture of the "N" model. If the unit looks small, don't be too deceived. Those are 12.5 inch reels!

The Transport Control Panel offers the usual STOP, PLAY, RECORD, REWIND, and F.FWD buttons. You also have an EDIT button for "dumping" tape when editing. A CUE button retracts the tape lifters and lets you hear audio on the tape when in the Fast Wind modes. When pressed, the audio output is attenuated and high frequencies are rolled off to protect your speakers (not to mention your ears).

If you can see it on the photo, one of the transport buttons is unlabeled. The function of this button is assignable and can perform one of four different tasks. 1) It can enable the Fader Start function of the unit if the optional Fader Start kit is installed. 2) When pressed, the Review function is enabled, and the tape can be monitored in rewind "spooling" speed. When the button is released, the unit enters the PLAY mode. 3) There are three memory SEARCH buttons above the transport controls. The assignable transport button can act as a fourth cue point. 4) When Search Start is the selected function, the button causes the machine to search for the last point at which the PLAY button was pressed.

The 2ND FUNCTION button is used in conjunction with other transport controls to perform various functions. When pressed simultaneously with the STOP or PLAY button, the MTR-15 goes into a Reverse Stop or Reverse Play mode as mentioned earlier. When pressed with the F.FWD or REWIND button, the unit goes into its "spooling" or "library" wind mode. (This is nothing more than a slower rewind and fast forward which winds the tape onto the reel with a smooth surface on the tape edges so the reel looks like it's brand new.) When used with the RECORD button, the 2ND FUNCTION button places the unit in the Spot Erase mode, making it possible to do spot erasures without removing the tape from between the capstan and the pinch roller.

Above the transport controls are the unit's tape time display and search buttons. Tape time can be displayed in hours, minutes, and seconds; hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths of seconds; or hours, minutes, and frames (for use with time code). A DISPlay button switches the display mode between tape time, tape speed, and percentage of change from the selected speed (for use with the vari-speed). You get a SEARCH ZERO button and three SEARCH buttons. If you have the assignable transport button enabled as a fourth cue point (as described earlier), together with the SEARCH ZERO button, there are actually five cue points available on the MTR-15. A REPEAT button enables the unit's "shuttle" mode which will search to cue point 1, play to cue point 2, rewind to cue point 1, begin playback again, and so on. The CLR (clear) button cancels the REPEAT mode and clears stored cue points. The SET button lets you enter a tape time for the machine to search. The SPEED button selects one of four tape speeds from 3.75 ips to 30 ips.

Now we turn our attention to the little computer hiding under the pop-up door on the MTR-15. Again, this is where the Auto Alignment function is accessed, but there's more. Lots more. Under the door is an LCD display and a set of buttons. Beneath the 2-line, 16-character-per-line LCD display are four "soft keys" which have different functions depending upon which menu happens to be in the display. Many abbreviations are used on the MTR-15's small display, and the manual is necessary to figure out most of them. Below the "soft keys" is a MORE/MODE button which serves mainly to access additional menu items. A LAST button causes the display to return to the previous screen. A STOP button takes you back to the "main menu" which is the alignment screen. The OSC button accesses the unit's internal oscillator and provides, among other things, user selectable frequencies for any number of purposes. The STORE/START button is used to store displayed values of a parameter in memory. It also engages the machine's Reproduce Auto Alignment function. Two CHANNEL buttons let you select either or both channels for alignment. The TYPE button switches between four stored alignment settings for each of the four tape speeds for a total of sixteen possible settings. Each press of this button illuminates one of four LED's on the Transport Control Panel which indicate whether type A, B, C, or D is selected. The METER SENSitivity button switches the VU meter sensitivity between 0, +10, and +20 dB. The MONO/STEREO button switches the unit between the two modes if this option is installed.

Finally, the SPEED MODE button sets the unit in the FIX, EXT, VARI, or VEM modes. In the FIX mode, tape speed is selected with the SPEED key on the Transport Control Panel. In the EXT mode, speed is controlled via an external source such as the Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer's Time Squeeze program. In the VARI mode, tape speed is adjustable up to 50% in either direction in increments as small as .01%. Adjustment is made with the Cue Wheel. The VEM mode is the optional Voice Edit Mode which employs a pitch shifter that will allow playback at variable speeds without altering the pitch of the audio -- handy for editing long voice tracks such as interviews.

As expected, the micro-processor control of the MTR-15 makes it possible to easily change many of the ways the machine operates. For example, you can select how the Punch In/Out function of the unit operates -- whether you need to hit PLAY and RECORD to punch in or just RECORD. You can limit the number of tape speeds selectable with the SPEED button. For example, if you know you'll never use 3.75 ips, the SPEED button can be set to only switch between 7.5, 15, and 30 ips. You can set the hub diameter of the reels you use so that the MTR-15 will slow down during fast rewind and forward modes when the end of the tape is near. This avoids damaging tape ends when the end of the reel is reached. You can adjust how the reel brakes function or whether or not the RECORD LED flashes when the unit is in the RECORD READY mode. You can set the SPEED button to require two "clicks" to change speed or just one. The same goes for the SEARCH button. You even have the ability to change the layout of the transport buttons. Three options are given. Once you've made the changes, you physically switch the transport buttons with one another to have the new layout properly labeled. The mini-computer of the MTR-15 has dozens more functions. Things you never thought of as being adjustable can be adjusted. Things, as a production person, you'd never WANT to adjust are adjustable! The MTR-15 can be customized to suit the users preferences in many aspects.

Speaking of changing the layout of the transport controls, if you don't like the transport control panel on the right side of the machine, the entire panel can be removed and placed on the left side of the machine (for lefties)!

Frequency response using Ampex 456 tape at 15 ips is 30Hz to 22kHz on the record side and 40Hz to 18kHz on the playback. At 30 ips the response is 40Hz-28kHz and 60Hz-20kHz for record and playback. At 30 ips, the ANSI "A" signal-to-noise ratio is 74dB. Wow and flutter at 30 ips is a maximum of ±0.04%. Ins and outs are balanced XLR connector type and levels are adjustable. The unit can be switched for unbalanced operation if necessary.

You get a built-in monitor with headphone jack and monitor level control. You get the popular Dolby HX Pro bias optimization circuitry that improves high frequency headroom. There are tape reel sensors that automatically detect reel size and make the appropriate tension adjustments. For maintenance purposes, your engineer will love the "wear meter" which provides total power-on time, total head wear, and total lifter wear, all measured in hours. The internal PC boards are easily accessed just beneath the transport control panel.

You and your engineer will both love the MTR-15 even though your GM may cringe at the price. This isn't your basic, no-frills 2-track recorder. The MTR-15-N pictured lists for $9,250. The "NM" model we had with the roll-around cabinet and meter bridge lists for $10,650. If you're going to spend that kind of money, you might as well get the optional CB-120 remote control. You get ninety-nine locator points, auto-punch in/out, rehearsal mode, head and tail guard points, pre-roll, and more for an additional $2,145. For still more bucks, you can get the MTR-15 with time code capabilities.

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I am glad found this web address, for my Otari MTR-15 without VU meters, which just about one month in my home.
I would like to share with members in this group, who have experience in open reel tape players.
I also have Otari MX-55, Studer A807 with VU meters fitted on top of the box, and another Studer A807 with VU meters fitted on the bottom side, Revox B77 Mkii.
All these Open Reel Tape Recorders are all in good working condition.
I also have another not working:
- AEG Magnetophon 21R
- Studer A-810
- Teac X2000R

Wempie Pauned
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