Sony TC-D5M Analog Audiocassette Recorder

February 27th, 2005 | by Jay Allison

TCD5M
We are dedicating this Tools article to the venerable Sony TC-D5M, the analog audiocassette recorder.

In the early days of public radio, we went into the field with portable open reel recorders, like the Sony 800-B, and it was good. We felt like Alan Lomax or Tony Schwartz, shouldering our heavy, delicate gear to document America, back before every sound had been recorded and everyone had been interviewed.

Then, the audio cassette format came along and we carried the mono Sony TC-142, and eventually the stereo TC-D5M, which is the best of the bunch. All metal, reliable, simple, and fixable, it runs on two D-cells, not Satan’s Rechargeables. Noah Adams of NPR just wrote us to say he’s heading out again into the field with his old D5. This American Life staffers still use them. After the tsunami, reporters said their D5s kept on recording when tiny, spinning little minidiscs-and-dats gave up.

Besides our local users, a lot of people in developing countries come to Transom for advice. It is likely they will be able to get the D5 for some time to come. We want to help these machines keep cranking along, living useful and productive lives, like 1950s Chevys in Cuba.

Soon, Flash recorders may eclipse the older portable gear. We’ll be the first to test them. But in the last few weeks before that happens, we’re posting the basic instructions that Atlantic Public Media includes along with the TCD-5M rigs we loan out, plus PDFs of the Owner’s Manual and even the Service Manual. For posterity.

(Notes for Printing: These documents have been set to match dimensions of the original pages. If your printer does not support these sizes, select “Shrink Pages to Paper” (or the like) from the printing menu.)

TC-D5M Manuals

TC-D5M Owners Manual (7.1 mb)

TC-D5M Service Manual

Operating Tips

This thing has good sound for analog. And it keeps on working in rough conditions. It can even be repaired! Read the owner’s manual, and here are some tips on the settings:

  1. Consider keeping the Dolby OFF. After much testing, we tend to like the edgier sound on voice recording and it’s easier to roll-off hiss than it is to add life and legibility to voices.
  2. Tape Select to Normal/Cro2 It will automatically adjust to whichever you are using – use highest quality tape, don’t scrimp. Use nothing longer than 60s or 90s. The tape gets too thin for the 120s, etc. Consider using Metal tape if you can find it, and change the setting if you do. It may give you a little extra quality for a few bucks.
  3. Keep the limiter OFF – CHECK EVERY TIME!!!! If you set levels with the limiter ON, it will trick you into thinking you’ve got a good level, and can cause very squished sound.
  4. Keep “Mic Att” (Microphone Attenuator) at 0db which is off. CHECK EVERY TIME!!! if it’s at -20db, you’ll get virtually no signal. Use it only if you’re recording jet take-offs, explosions, Motley Crue, etc. Hey, check ALL settings from time to time.

REC LEVEL is your microphone input recording level. A setting of about 8 seems to be a good all-round level, say for a close-miced interview of average volume using the Electro-voice RE-50 or Beyer M-58 microphone. Try it out. That’s the main thing: try it out.

Different sounds and frequencies make the meters respond in different ways, but here’s a basic guide which should work, especially for interview recording: You want to aim for peaks of 0 and +3, even the occasional +5. Steady levels of +5 are too hot and you might get distortion, particularly if the little red peak light comes on very much, say during an interview. If it lights up often during a given sentence, your levels are too hot and you’re probably getting distortion. Lighting up on a peak once in a while is ok. A loud constant sound, like a motor, should never light up the peak light. Fade your levels down if it does, and try to re-record the beginning of the sound to get a clean undistorted take, e.g. climbing into and starting a car. Some high frequency sounds, like crickets, show very little movement on the meter. It’s okay. Just record at average levels. Experiment.

You’ll have to get used to what levels work with what sounds. Practice a bit. Ambient sound can print at a lower level and that’s ok. Again, in general, leave your mic input level at about 7 or 8, unless a sound is very loud or quiet. And for sudden changes, you should move the mic closer or further away from a interviewee (say, if they laugh loudly) as a way to control level, rather than changing the dial.

If your recording levels are too high (hot), you’ll get distortion; if your input levels are too low, tape hiss takes over. So, you have to walk the line between signal and noise. As in all things, there is some art to the balance.

Close-mic your interviews, 6 inches from corner of the mouth. If you put it directly in front of the mouth you risk plosive “P-Pops”. And remember to move the mic back a bit (not TOO close, more like 9 inches) towards your own mouth if you want to get your questions on tape too (more tips on using the mic are in the “Whole Earth Review” Interview and Recording Tips article). Watch out for cable and handling noise with the microphone. Those are your enemies. Practice with headphones so you can hear what you’re doing. Keep your fingers and the cable very still. Don’t let the cable plug wiggle in the jack. You may want to try a foam bicycle handgrip slipped over the barrel of the microphone if it’s very sensitive to touch.

Record lots of sound and natural ambience wherever you are. Record going in and out of places. Record the sound of the places themselves. Record from different perspectives. Get plenty of everything. Get “room tone.” When in doubt, record.

The Battery button can be pushed while the machine is in playback or record mode to check your battery level. If the needle moves to the green, then the batteries are still ok. (Note: they fade quickly when they start to fade. Carry spares, 2 D-cells, the best alkaline. You can get. Check the manual for how to insert them. Hell, read the manual for all this stuff.)

The little knob on the front left, MONITOR LEVEL, is for playback volume only — you can set it wherever you want and it won’t affect your input record levels — it just sets the levels for your headphone listening. Re-read this until you understand it. A level about halfway or lower seems pretty good. Don’t let a loud or soft monitor level fool you. Always check the meters, or run the tape back a little and listen to what you recorded.

That last bit of advice is useful. Always try to check and make sure things are working right by rewinding and listening. The AC wall current adaptor is useful for playback to save on batteries, or for emergencies if you run out of batteries. But you should try not to use it for recording since it can present possible electrical noise problems.

After you unsnap the case to get at the controls, you can fold the flap inside the bottom of the case and snap it up through some holes in the leather. You’ll see what I mean.

Electro-Voice RE-50 or Beyer M-58 mics
They are dynamic, omnidirectionals. The RE-50 almost indestructible, the Beyer slightly less so. The Beyer sounds better. Both are good for interviews — quite resistant to wind and handling noise, but you still need to hold them gingerly and watch out for cable rustle, that is, don’t let the cable move around or cause the plug to move inside the tape recorder’s jack. GET THE RIGHT CABLE! Use the windscreen with the Beyer. You won’t need one, except in a hurricane, with the Electro-voice.

When you record with any one of these mics, you’ll hear sound in only one channel through your headphones. That’s because it will be plugged into only one channel of a stereo input. It is only recording on one of the two tracks on the tape. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.

Headphones
I use headphones all the time I’m recording. I think you should use them at least while you’re practicing to see what different recording positions and techniques do with different sounds, but after you’re comfortable with the equipment, you can decide if they’re useful to you. A level of about 5 is pretty good. Again, you don’t want the headphone level to fool you into thinking your ACTUAL recording levels are too hot or too low, so get a good reading on the meters FIRST, then set headphone levels.

Good Luck.


27 Comments on “Sony TC-D5M Analog Audiocassette Recorder”

  • Jay Allison says:
    Nagra

    Speaking of retro gear, is anyone else tempted by the low prices on Ebay to finally buy a Nagra, the erstwhile pinnacle of remote recording, now fallen low in the Digital Age? They are so beautiful.

    It’s getting hard to find reel-to-reel tape, and that may be the nail in the coffin of cassettes one day too, but because it was a semi-popular pre-recorded music medium, they may make them a little longer than reel-to-reel.

    And there’s always Ebay.

  • I’d love a Nagra, at the moment all I can do is dream, but I found an interesting site at http://www.classicnagra.co.uk , the guy started collecting them on ebay as a hobby.

    Chris

  • Jeff Towne says:
    nagra

    I totally understand the desire for a Nagra, in a pure gear fetish kind of way, they are indeed beautiful machines. But I suspect we’re spoiled enough now, that the size, weight, reel changes, etc would make us a little crazy in everyday use.

    Trew audio sells used ones that they clean up and guarantee for 120 days:

    http://www.trewaudio.com/consign_recorders.htm

    Always tempting….

  • Jay Allison says:
    repair

    I told Adam I’d post this here for him. I suspect many will be interested:

    —————————-
    I’d like to make sure you are aware of us — one of our specialties is repair, alignment, and restoration of the Sony TC-D5M (& Pro, Pro II) and the WM-D6C. We have extensive parts stock and have serviced them since 1987. Alignment is done on an Audio Precision System Two cascade, and we restore them to better-than-new performance.

    More information is at:
    http://www.libermansound.com/equipment/sony.htm

    We also service a wide variety of other portable recording equipment, both analog and digital.

    I was also a staff engineer at KPFA radio for many years, and we service items for reporters all over the world. I haven’t added anything to the "discuss" listing because I wasn’t sure what you policy was on comments that might appear to be advertising in nature, but if there was some way to let other radio people know about us that would be great.

    Thanks,
    Adam Liberman
    Liberman Sound

    Adam Liberman
    Liberman Sound
    info@libermansound.com
    http://www.libermansound.com
    510-526-5447

  • xincam says:
    analogue to digital conversion

    I want to make analogue recordings using a Sony TC-D5M. I also want to transfer the recordings to my PC. How is this done? Can it be done directly from the Sony TC-D5M line out (phono) with some type of A/D interaface attachment to connect to the PC or what?

  • Sergio Fucchi says:
    D5M,153SD,158SD,WM-D6C.

    These are all the tape recorders I have.
    I like to record live concert of my foavourites music: jazz, classical and chours. I have 3 of
    D6C and one of the others. I use a Sony stereo
    microphone: now a MS-957S (3), but in the past I had a ECM-999S. The best, for me, is D6C hat I use with metal cassettes (TDK MA-XG) of 90 minute,
    but I have good results also with old Sony FeCr cassettes.
    To digitalize them I use on my PC a SoundBlaster X-Fi audio cards and WaveLab lite program boundled with the card.
    To edit and clear recordings I use the AudioCleanic 2006 dlx from MAGIX.
    To record CD I use Nero7, a Yamaha CRW-F1 recorder and Verbatim SuperAZO CD in AAAMQ.

    Sergio Fucchi
    Macerata
    Italy

    • Claudio says:

      Could you tell me if you can “eliminate” the built in microphone when you record from an external source?
      I just give you an example: If it happens to sneeze next to the cassette recorder while you are recording something from an external source, the Sony item records the sneeze as well because the built in microphone is on at the same time. Can you turn it off somehow and where on the cassette-corder?
      Thank you.

  • Greggory Gannon says:
    Help with MacBook Pro connection to my Sony TC-D5M…

    What about the Mac platform? I have a new MacBook Pro. Can I run my Sony TC-D5M line-in into this computer somehow? I’ve just realized I love my Sony, and analog sound is just superior to the digital I’ve heard and recorded…HELP!

    Gregg in L.A.

  • Phil Andrus says:
    AC-61

    I’ve rescued my TC-D5M from storage and I’m going to begin a session of oral history recording soon. I cannot find the AC power supply (AC-61), which I like to carry with me as insurance. In order to find a suitable replacement, I need to know the polarity of the plug and the approximate power needs of the TC-D5M.

    Thanks,

    Phil
    inthewoods@olympus.net

  • Christopher Milton says:
    Line-in and GarageBand?

    There’s the existing Line-in or a Griffin Tech iMic external soundcard. GarageBand, Audacity, or even the Final Vinyl app supplied by Griffin Tech for use with the iMic device.

    -Chris in Colorado

  • kay collins says:
    TC D5M’s Power Adapter AC-61

    Phil–

    Radio Shack has a compatible adapter based on the description that Sony provided:

    AC61 AC ADAPTOR 800MA CENTER PIN NEGATIVE,
    — no longer available.

    Kay Collins
    kay.kcollinsATgmail.com

  • Lee Blanton says:
    TC-D5PROII shoulder case

    I started recording recently with a Sony TC-D5PROII, and I don’t have a case for it. I usually carry it in a bookbag. It’s not very secure in there, and I spend a lot of time fumbling with my gear. I’d like to have a case that my recorder fits into well, and also has some space for mics/cables/batteries/tapes etc. I know I could probably have a custom case made by porta brace, but are there any cheaper options.

    Lee

  • Richard Gworek says:
    sony tc-d5m

    Thanks for the owner’s manual. I bought a used, beautiful, perfect tc-d5 pro II a few years back without a manual and i appreciate your effort in getting us real knowledge and instruction. Thanks again. Rick

  • Jay Allison says:
    glad to help

    I’m sure you know this, but the D5 Pro is a little different from the D5M.

  • Matthew Johnson says:
    FANTASTIC!!

    I have owned a Sony TC-D5M for 12 years. It still looks as good as new, still sounds wonderful, still as reliable as the day I bought it and what a beautiful, heavy-duty, classy design too. A reminder of the day when Sony designed and built affordable, top quality electronics with the long term future in mind. Actually puts me in mind of their ICF-2010 Shortwave radio which is also a classic and still chugging along happily all over the world.

    Thanks for posting all this valuable information about this wonderful machine and I do hope that you will continue to support the many thousands of people all over the world who wish to continue using these fabulous recording machines long in to the future. Just the Cubans with their 1950s Chevys indeed ;)

  • Jerry Chase says:

    I have a 1980 TC-D5M deck I haven’t used in a long time. Just pulled it out and there is no sound. The last I remember it had an intermittent problem with the inputs (bad noise). What are the options of getting this working again?

    • Charlie says:

      Did you find anyone to repair your recorder?

      • Jerry Chase says:

        Yes, a local TV repair shop cleaned the recorder up and it plays and records well again. But, unfortunately, he didn’t get around to fixing the fast forward feature. I’m wondering if it is worth my while to try to open up the recorder and see if it is something I can fix myself. I’m afraid that if it is a broken belt that I will not be able to find a replacement. Any suggestions? Jerry

  • Toni Hafter says:

    I just pulled out my TCD5 recorder after 10 years….. was thinking to sell it, but I see others still using them and I always loved working with analog… how do I transfer the sound to digital to edit? I may start recording again.. I love the dials and manual parts… still don’t like the numeric little print out on the dig recorders…. I like manual!

  • Ken says:

    The TC-D5M is a classic.

    These reliable commercial units have fantastic sound thanks to Sony’s professional-quality microphone preamplifiers.

    I still use mine, and although I also own modern digital equipment, this machine will still rival any of them (and best most of them)in field recording.

    The reason is that really good mic pres have become very expensive, so you now to spend at least $1000 a channel in order to get pres of this quality.

    My (also older) high speed reel to reel equipment is the only one to better it.

    I am a classical musician.

  • Julian Stargardt says:

    Hi It’s a year since the last comment on this page. First I’d like to thank the folks at Transom.com for hoting and posting these useful pages. I have the TC-D5M and the WM-D6C, both marvellous pieces of kit. I also have a Nagra SN digital recorder, I’ve yet to figure out how to operate it properly :-) And that’s the problem with much of the digital equipment, it lacks the intuitive user friendly controls of older analogue gear. Someone at the start of this series had a wish for a Nagra cassette recorder, actually Nagra did make a cassette recorder, introduced in 1977 it was the Nagra JBR and used dedicated Nagra Cassettes, it was intended to replace the Nagra SN miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders, I’m told the SN series of reel-to-reel recorders use cassette sized tape and that the “easy” way to get tape for the SN series is to dismantle a cassette and feed the tape onto the Nagra reels – careful you don’t twist the tape or get greasy paws on it! But the SN series of tape decks still go for well over US$1,000 on eBay… But a Nagra IV or similar would be very tempting… Having said all that I love the quality of the Sony TC-D5M and WM-D6C…. Just listened to some cassettes on my WM-D6C this morning and did a couple of test recordings, still going strong. Am thinking of getting a Rode NT4 microphone to compliment these bits of kit for use as a field mike, read some great reports of it and called the rode people in Australia this a.m. to get their views on using it as a field mike….

  • Claudio says:

    I would like to find a UK adaptor for my SONY TC-D5M Sereo Cassette-Corder….. any help ??? (luglic@aol.com)

  • DD says:

    Now it’s 2014 and Liberman stopped working on analog machines years ago. Anyone know someone who does?

  • Peter says:

    I have a problem with my TC D5M. I get a high pitch sound in both channels if I use 1 or 2 mics. This always happens when I use 2 D batteries, Duracell is what I am testing it with. If I use the AC adapter the pitch goes away but only if I have the bias switch at I (normal) while using metal tape. As soon as I throw the switch to IV (metal tape) I get the pitch back. Anyone got any ideas, suggestions?

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