Below are two articles, both with an emphasis on perspective and customer service.
In between is a table to help you make contact with Tape Machine manufacturers.
 
 
December’99 Editorial:

AUDIO MILE MARKERS: Replication, Mass Production and Customer Service

ã 1999 by Eddie Ciletti

The year 2000 is not the beginning of the New Millennium but the end of the current one, but when life’s odometer registers more "zeroes" that other digits, it’s hard not to reflect...

I did not attend the ’99 AES convention — in order to assist in the process of human replication — but in September I asked readers to be my "eyes and ears." Through that virtual grapevine, I found that most people were not impressed, "as if" the achievement of more bits and samples — 24 and 96,000, respectively — was no small feat. We must be jaded folk to not fully appreciate the ability to apply EQ and dynamics, etc. — in real time, to each sample with no glitches, all within 1/96,000th of a second!

THE PERSPECTIVE OF TIME

Because the digital revolution has made major advances about every eighteen months or so, we’ve come to expect the next big thing around every corner. For the purpose of making a point, however, let’s equate one digital year with one human year and say that "acceptable" digital recording has existed for approximately twenty to twenty-five years. (I’m including some of the R&D prior to the availability of commercial products.) 

At age five, one year was 1/5th of your life, a time when nothing happened fast enough. At twenty-five, that same year is 1/25th of your life. Once leaving college and becoming more absorbed by the routine of day-to-day adult life, each year seems to march (or groove) to a slightly faster beat as you are less aware of time. Ever notice how your parents always complain about how fast time flies? (And some of them are retired!)

In the sixteen years since I first heard a mass-produced Compact Disc, we’ve gone from straight 44.1 kHz sampling to over-sampling, never mind the price drop that makes recording to CD not only affordable but remarkably reliable. (No recording medium is perfect, so never put all your digital eggs in one basket.) Few newcomers to our industry will recall the Sony 1630 editing system — which included two ¾" U-MATIC VCRs. Now, for the price of creating a "glass master," used to mass-produce CDs, you can buy a standalone CD recorder. 

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

Modern mass production techniques have reduced the body count in manufacturing facilities which, now more than ever, are separate from the corporate offices where marketing and product support are based. (When I worked at MCI in the seventies, all of the work was done in–house, from metal work to board stuffing, design to product support. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that most vacuum tube products are still predominantly "hand made.") 

Affordable high technology comes at a price. At that critical moment of need, we reach for the phone expecting a human being with an instant answer, but that is rarely possible. In exchange for letting the genie out of the lamp, we’ve had to learn patience. Rather than wasting time in a phone queue, however, I highly suggest the more practical e-mail approach to hunting and gathering information (when attempting direct contact with a manufacturer). 

TO THE STRAIGHTAWAY

Each day, the common thread of my e-mail is clear. "Eddie, thanks for your articles in EQ and on the web. Why don’t manufacture’s web sites contain as much useful information?" 

For the past two decades, we’ve all been on a major learning curve — users and manufacturers alike. Manufacturers have been quick to learn production efficiency but slow to take advantage of the web as an efficient way to disseminate information. We simply can’t expect one customer service person for every product sold, but if the technological straightaway is coming, we can expect products that are more self-explanatory and more consistent out of the box. THAT would be an acceptable explanation of a slightly less spectacular AES show. 

What would you realistically like to see in the next eighteen months? I am looking for a little sonic maturity — all around — in terms of user-friendliness (the physical interface), manufacturer responsibility (the spiritual interface) and consumer awareness (the human interface, a.k.a., feedback to complete the circle of knowledge).

PS There is a parallel between feeding the mind and the body. We know that a balanced diet should include less empty calories (marketing hype), the essential building blocks (real information) — Vitamins, Minerals, Complex "carbs," Iron and Protein — plus fiber (maintenance) to help keep our insides clean.


To help improve mental nutrition and provide helpful feedback, here’s a chart to help you get in touch with Tape Machine manufacturers…
 
 
Company
Vox
Fax
Online 

Support + FAQ

Online

service locator

Direct vox parts/

Online parts

Links to 

Eddie

             
Alesis
800-525-3747
310-255-3541
support@alesis1.usa.com 

+ yes

yes
800-5-ALESIS

(first option)

parts@alesis.com

yes
             
Fostex
562-921-1112
562-802-1964
yes
 
800-9 F O S T E X ext 125
 
             
HHB
310-319-1111
310-319-1311
tech@hhbusa.com
yes
   
             
Panasonic
800-833-9626
800-237-9080
yes
yes
yes
 
             
Otari
800-458-6484
800-300-3055
 
service@otari.com.
parts@otari.com.
 
             
Sony
800-686-SONY

201-833-5300

 
bpinfo@info.sel.sony.com
yes
   
             
Tascam
323-726-0303
 
(323) 726-0303 x617 custser@teac.com.
yes
323-727-4840/

parts@teac.com

 

TABLE ONE: Manufacturer Accessibility
 
 
NICE HEAD: Y2K Tape Tips

ã 1999 by Eddie Ciletti

All of the "Random Access" technologies — hard disk, CD/CD-R, DVD, MO and Mini Disc — are challenging what was once the sole domain of Linear Recording Tape, analog and digital. But tape is not dead. From DASH to DAT, DTRS to adat, all of the current formats are still very active. TASCAM introduced one new 24-bit model — the DA-78 HR — and upgraded the 16-bit DA-98 to a 24-bit "HR" version. (Via e-mail, I asked if the old DA-98 could be upgraded, but have not yet received a reply.) 

Keeping older technology alive seems to be almost unique to the audio industry, with Rap and House pumping out the vinyl while the Archivists, our sonic historians, can be found worshiping at the altar of analog tape. (For some of them, Digital is still the anti-Elvis.) No matter what your persuasion, we have the luxury of choice, taking advantage of each format for its strong suit. Tape is good for tracking and (some would argue) archiving, while the Random Access group is ideal for the rough and tumble world of overdubbing and mixing.

Digital is a black box compared to analog, but knowing what’s under the hood has always been the underlying theme here at "Tangible Technology" central. User-fixes dominated the November column, but I forgot to mention one DTRS tip that is particularly applicable to the DA-88 (and might also affect the DA-38 and DA-98). Put your ear up to the cassette loading "port" and listen for a "wacka-wacka" (washing machine sound) when the machine is in Play and Shuttle (both directions). The noise is caused by bad Reel Table Clutches and can contribute to slow sync lock-up, intermittent high error rate and/or error messages.

Based on numerous e-mails and interactions with various manufacturers, I detoured from the original plan for this month (more pictures of naked transport parts). Instead, I have suggestions for improving the dialog between consumers and manufacturers (a.k.a. customer service) plus a few more tips for both adat and DTRS users.

I CAME HERE FOR AN ARGUMENT

Like the classic Month Python sketch, many users are ready to spew venom at manufacturers, assuming the worst — an argument — before making proper contact. In addition, web travelers seem dissatisfied with the "online support" areas provided, in this case, specifically by tape machine manufacturers. I went to each of the sites listed in Table One. Following the highlights of my "tour," are tips for getting the most from what customer service currently has to offer — in and out of warranty.

SURFIN’ USA

Each of the sites offered a taste of the future in terms of online product support. True, first and foremost is the manufacturer’s goal to sell more stuff. But the web has more to offer than that. Mass-production has minimized the head count at most companies, making it difficult to make instant contact with a human being at that critical moment of need. E-mail is the perfect way to initiate dialog with a customer service representative and the web is super-efficient at being the source of, and distributor for, the much-needed information. This is especially true when minimal human resources are allocated to the task. 

The TASCAM site was a bit out of whack when I first visited, but was subsequently fixed after sending a rough draft of this article to their webmaster. It opens with lots of new product information. A MENU bar across the top includes News, Users and Employment options. Click on "SERVICE" and you will find Adobe Acrobat "PDF" files of popular product manuals and "Cliff’s Notes" versions of product features (designated Quick Start). From there, a link to the Authorized Service Center area also includes important access numbers and e-mail addresses. I particularly enjoyed The Tascam Story: The First Twenty Five Years.

For such a large company, it’s obvious that Panasonic’s Pro Audio division is a small part of what they do, but most impressive was their on-line parts ordering system. You don’t even need to know the part number. Their search engine is amazing, calling up all the parts for a specific machine. A service center "locator" is also pretty slick, just plug in your zip code, and the size of the search radius in miles, and voila! Fostex sells their products from the web (at list price to avoid pissing off their dealers) and this service will soon be expanded to include Owner’s and Service Manuals.

The Alesis site is by far the most extensive, addressing a multitude of "Frequently Asked Questions." If that weren’t enough, they also provide a "corner" for Craig Anderton to hang a shingle, sharing his wealth of knowledge ranging from quality control issues to guitar effects, speaker placement to maintenance plus tracking and mixing tips. Alesis also has monthly "Service Specials," encouraging scheduled repairs and overhauls rather than the more typical deferred maintenance. Waiting for the inevitable "meltdown" not only puts you out of biz, but also decreases that bang-for-the-buck on everything from express shipping to rush service rates.

WARREN T. WATCHDOG

To get the best service from a product, you must be sensitive to the feedback it provides no matter how simple "the message." Do not ignore a problem, such as digital distortion, because that can point to a range of problems starting with the simple "clogged head" to the more serious (and costly) defective head assembly (the most expensive part of any tape machine). 

Head life is determined by so many factors — materials, design, environment, the abrasive quality of the tape stock — that it is the one component specified in the warranty. From my own experience, manufacturers are pretty good about accommodating premature failures within the warranty period. They want you to be satisfied. Contrary to popular myth, products are not designed to fail "the morning after" the warranty expires. When this does happen, there are more options than you might think. IF you are organized and approach the customer service rep without weapons of mass destruction there is more than a good chance your experience will be positive. Be Cool! Be Patient! Buy, rent or borrow a spare machine!

THE STEPS TO SUCCESS

Table One (above) will help you connect with the popular digital tape machine manufacturers. Next — locate the sales receipt and, if your machine has a head-hour counter and error rate display, query them NOW. Then, look in the manual, read the fine print regarding the warranty and keep all that in mind in the event of trouble. The next three steps will serve as a refresher course as well as prepare you to interact with the manufacturer.

ONE: Keeping A Cool Head

Whenever your tape machine misbehaves, start by checking the error rate — detailed in the manual, on my web site or in back issues of EQ (also available via the web). High Error Rates may point to dirty heads and you can easily rule out a "clog" with a thorough cleaning. A "dry" cleaning tape is worth trying once (on a DTRS machine) and twice on a DAT deck. Alesis recommends two cleaning tapes, one is available from ART Technologies ( 800-527-9580 ) part number ADAT-311B and the other is 3M "Blackwatch," model HC ( $17.46, retail). I don’t use WET tapes. 

NOTE: Head cleaning is not the answer to longer life, just better performance.

My preferred method for cleaning "helical" heads — the heart of DAT, adat and DTRS machines — is by hand. Buy a pack of lint-free cloths from an audio supplier and cut them into 1-inch by 2-inch squares. Dampen the cloth with low-moisture, 99% alcohol. It is more environmentally friendly than the more volatile solvents — but does not evaporate nearly as fast, so do not "soak" the cloth and ALWAYS follow-up with a dry lint-free cloth to absorb any un-evaporated liquid. I am not comfortable using hazardous chemicals or pre-moistened wipes (with anything but alcohol), or chamois (cloth or stick), or foam sticks.

If I seem just a little extra emphatic about doing it "my way," it’s just because a reader recently attempted to reinvent the wheel and ended up with tape wrapped around the heads. Such a disconcerting e-mail while in the midst of preparing this column gave me "Pause." No sooner had I resumed "Play" and another e-mail requested a service manual for a TASCAM 32 / 32-2. These two models are grouped together on my web site, but are actually quite different, quarter-inch analog recorders. I asked whether the machine in question had one or two pinch rollers. The user didn’t know a Capstan from a Captain Crunch…

TWO: Czech Mate

Apres cleaning, check the error rate. If the problem still exists try another known good tape or format a new tape and check the rate again. The best way to resolve a suspect tape is to make a clone on a known-good pair of machines. If the problem still persists, at least you’ve done enough homework to share the details with the manufacturer.

THREE: Call Momma

If your machine is ill, contact the manufacturer to learn more about their in-house services as well as to locate service centers that are closer to home. Service rates and warranty issues are the variables. Here’s an example…

Alesis will cover the cost of any head-stack if the drum-on hours are 250 or less, regardless of the age of the machine. This does not include non-warranty recorders with drum hours reading 9999 or units with broken heads or obvious signs of user tampering. When a unit reads 9999 drum-on hours, users are advised to have this benign problem resolved so that the head hours more accurately reflect actual use in the event a real problem occurs. Otherwise, Alesis will evaluate the past repair records and the transport parts to determine the approximate hours.

Alesis warrants all head-stack replacements for a period of 90 Days, or 500 drum-on hours, whichever comes first. It is the customer’s responsibility to report the complete details of any and all problems to the Technical Support Representative at the time the original Repair Order (RO) number is generated. Do not send any product to Alesis without first receiving an RO; otherwise the shipment will be refused.

Note: This policy applies only to units repaired at the Alesis factory. Service center and international distributor policies and rates may be different from those outlined above. 

Additional Note: Contact Alesis for service center recommendations regarding adat clones, particularly the Fostex RD-8. 

Alesis only recently authorized my company to service tape machines under warranty. I have been authorized by TASCAM for many years and their "head" policy is similar in scope and intent to the competition. I recommend contacting the manufacturer first for their in-warranty policy and authorization (warranty extension) if your machine is out of warranty. Then, contact a local authorized service center and weigh the options of turnaround time and what minimal costs may apply.

SHIPPING AND RECEIVING

This one is simple. Double box your machine. If you don’t have the original packing, bubble-wrap the deck after attaching the trouble report to the top. Put it in a snug-fitting box, followed by a larger box filled with either bubble wrap or peanuts. (Please do not drop the machine into a box of peanuts and do not send any terminators, power or sync cables!!!) 

USED MACHINES FOR SALE

While on the subject of head hours, tape machines — like cars — should not have their "odometers" reset by the unscrupulous, so all manufacturers make "time travel" as difficult as possible, even for us techno-geeks. Such Top Secret information is distributed on a need-to-know basis to authorized service centers only. This explains how some machines get new heads sans reset, confusing users and technicians alike. (I wish I could share some of the more humorous procedures but if I told ya, I’d have ta kill ya.)

When negotiating to purchase a used machine (especially via internet), ALWAYS factor in the worst-case price of head change — $650 ~ $850, parts and labor — and compare that price with a new machine. I rest my case.

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