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Long Live Analog! Great Deals in Used Nagras
by Dan Dugan

Question Bird? - Our resident experts will answer any question you may have on equipment, recording techniques, recording locations, etc.

I've been struggling with the limitations of analog recording for thirty years, and now I've embraced digital with enthusiasm. No more tape hiss! No more generation loss in copying! No more razor blades! But yet, for location recording, the tough job of getting the sound in the first place, the new dawn isn't without some clouds in the sky. I service recorders for motion picture location recordists. Whenever they're shooting a movie, you'll see someone with a mike on the end of a "boom pole." Follow the cable to the other end, and there you'll find a location recordist.

There's a curious situation in the location audio craft right now. Now that almost all film audio is being edited on hard disk work stations, the producers want to get a DAT from the recordist. Consequently, most recordists are buying DAT machines. A few of the "star" recordists, those who do major features, have bought the 4-channel reel-to-reel digital Nagra D, but at $25,000 and up, there are only a few who can afford it. Many of the leading recordists are still using their analog Nagras, and prefer them over any kind of digital deck. Whereas the little guys have to give the producers what they ask for, the stars can insist on using the equipment of their choice, and they choose analog Nagra.

Are these guys just resisting change, or what? The reason they want to keep using their Nagras is because of their rugged reliability. People bring DAT recorders to my shop with their master tape stuck inside! That doesn't happen with Nagras. Nagras can record in the Arctic or in a steaming jungle, environmental conditions where DATs will give up. The batteries, though heavy, are available everywhere and last for two days of intermittent recording, compared to the less than two hours typical of DAT power packs.

Just at the end of the analog era, new tape formulations have come out which push tape hiss down to near digital levels. The A-weighted S/N of a mono Nagra 4.2, which records "full-track" using the whole width of 1/4" tape, is around 76 dB with Quantegy 480 tape. This is equivalent to around 13 bits digital. A stereo Nagra IV-S, recording each track on one-third the width of the tape, gets around 71 dB, about 12 bits digital. Well-recorded tracks in these formats sound very good after transfer to a digital workstation for editing.

There is also a renewal of interest in "Nagra Master," a special 15ips equalization that's available only on the stereo Nagra recorders. It takes better advantage of the capabilities of today's tapes than the standard NAB (American) or CCIR (European) formats, which were established in the 1950's. Nagra Master recordings have about 4dB less noise, giving stereo recordings that are as quiet as the full-track mono tapes.

Most nature recordists are using either DAT or cassettes. DAT can give fabulous quality, but it has serious reliability problems that will never go away because it writes microscopic tracks on a tiny tape and relies heavily on error correction. When the inevitable tape flaws exceed the capability of the error correction, you hear ugly clicks, zips and buzzes. I'm hearing digital crap-outs frequently now when I listen to public radio programs. They are distributed on DAT tapes. Digital is like the child in the nursery rhyme; when it's good, it's very very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid. This is why Nagra decided -not- to make a Nagra DAT recorder; they didn't want to put their name on something with so flaky a foundation as the DAT system.

Cassette tape tracks are also very small, and the tape speed is very slow. The cassette was originally designed only for speech recording. Considering the limitations of the medium, today's cassette recorders do an amazing job, but it's an uphill battle. Everything has to be right for a cassette to be high fidelity. You have to use high-quality tape in perfect condition, have clean heads and a perfectly aligned machine, and still it may not play properly on another machine. The cassette system at its best, even with Dolby S, the latest noise reduction, still has awful distortion and modulation noise compared to reel-to-reel analog or any kind of digital, and it is very susceptible to drop-outs due to the low speed.

The Nagra reel-to-reel analog recorders have none of the problems of DATs or cassette recorders. The large recorded track on the tape ensures reliable recording even in difficult environments, and they can run for years without maintenance (not recommended, of course). All models after the III have a predistortion system that compensates for the tape distortion, making a Nagra recording cleaner, more like digital, than studio analog recordings.

The transition to digital in the film industry has created a unique opportunity for nature recordists to acquire Nagras at bargain prices. Right now, used machines are a glut on the market and prices continue to drop. See chart on the following page for current prices for the more common Nagra models.

*Estimated cost to service and calibrate to a current tape type and better-than-new performance.

Used machines often include a 7" reel cover and the AC power supply, very valuable accessories. I recommend having a Nagra specialist check over a machine before you buy it, so you know what options it has and what it will cost to fix up. This estimate typically costs $100-200.

The 4.2 is the best choice for recording individual species with a parabolic dish or a shotgun mike. Condensor mike power is built-in when the matching mike preamp modules are installed. For stereo ambiences, use the IV-S. It includes built-in powering for all kinds of condensor mikes.

Articles from Winter 1997

  Letter From The Chair

Editor's Note: The NSS Website

Sound Recording Adventures in Antarctica (2): Sounds of Antarctic Glaciers & Rock

Earprints on the Air: New Radio Show Gives Air Time to Nature Sounds

Spring Tech Talk & the Sounds Of Antarctica

Lucky 13! - 13th Annual Field Recording Workshop Review

The Niche Hypothesis: Creature Vocalizations and the Relationship Between Natural Sound and Music

Long Live Analog! Great Deals in Used Nagras

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