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 Owners Manual (7.1 mb)
TC-D5M Service Manual
- Single Pages (5.1 mb)
- Diagram Foldout – pp. 3, 4, 5 (.5 mb)
- Diagram Foldout – pp. 6, 7, 8 (.5 mb)
- Diagram Foldout – pp. 15, 16, 17, 18 (1 mb)
- Diagram Foldout – pp. 19, 20, 21 (.8 mb)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
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.
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.