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Sony PCM-F1, Sony SL-2000, 2 x Sony AC-F1E, 1 x VMC-330

Sony PCM-F1, Sony SL-2000, 2 x Sony AC-F1E, 1 x VMC-330
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Thanks to "metlay" for this brilliant essay on PCM:

“DAS” legendäre portable Digitalaufnahme Set:Sony PCM-F1, Sony SL-2000, 2 x Sony AC-F1E, 1 x VMC-330

Unten stehend habe ich mir die Arbeit gemacht alles wissenswerte ins englische zu übersetzen (technische Daten sind weiter unten zu finden). Es handelt sich hierbei um Sony´s legendäre Set. Mit diesem System wurde der Weg der digitalen Aufnahme geebnet. Auch heute wird es von renommierten Studios als Mastering-Set benutzt. Sony benutzt hierbei den PCM-F1 (als Analog-Digital bzw. Digital-Analog-Wandler) sowie den SL-2000 als Betamax-Videokassettenlaufwerk. Die Tonaufzeichnung kann jedoch auf jeden x-beliebigen Videorekorder erfolgen. Die beiden Sony AC-F1E sind gleichzeitig die Netzeile sowie die Ladegeräte für Akkus (nicht dabei) für den mobilen Einsatz. Das VMC-330 ist das Verbindungskabel zwischen Wandler und Rekorder.

Nach wie vor können hiermit digitale Aufnahmen in absoluter Profi-Qualität zum Low-Budget-Tarif gemacht werden. Klanglich dürfte es nicht, bzw. nur von Profigeräten der aktuellsten Generation, übertroffen werden. Die Langzeitstabilität dieses Systems würde sich manch ein DAT-Anwender wünschen.

Das Set verrichtet nach wie vor seine Arbeit wie am ersten Tag. Über die Jahre hinweg sind einige Gebrauchsspuren geblieben . Es ist Kinderleicht zu bedienen. Es macht riesig Spaß mit dem Set aufzunehmen.

Falls Sie Fragen haben – nur zu!!!

Legendary portable Digital recording set: Sony PCM-F1, Sony SL-2000, 2 x Sony AC-F1E, 1 x VMC-330

THIS IS A NTSC-Pro Version!!!

This was Sony's second generation digital audio recorder. The first commercially available version was a 6 or 7 unit 19" inch housing containing the AD (analog to digital) and DA (digital to analog) converters, and used a a Sony U-matic video recorder to record the "digital signal in video format" to tape.
Some years later the F1 combination was introduced where the big 19" inch cabinet was replaced by a small portable unit containing an independent AD, and DA converter (unit on the bottom). The bulky U-matic recorder was replaced by sony's first portable consumer betamax recorder (the unit on the top) to record the AD converted signal. Not only was this a much cheaper solution, it also turned out to be a more reliable set-up than the large maintenance intensive U-matic solution. Furthermore it provide the possibility to make digital back-ups, or even overdubs from one betamax to the other as the AD and DA converters operated totally independent. (The DA converter could decode one signal, whilst the AD converter simultaneously encoded a different signal; digital copies can be easily made using two Video machines, and one PCM).

The biggest detail of this F1 set is that it sounds better than all DAT recorders. The high end is in a certain way smoother and more open. This is the perfect recording-machine.

With such a set several great recordings from great performers have been mastered. Many great well-known recording Studios still use it because of it’s unreachable sound!!! The set dates from 1986 and still operates perfectly. It has been serviced regularly and works absolutely perfect!!!

Some Specs:

  • 16 Bit PCM audio-Processor to record Audio-Signals on any Video Cassette Recorder
  • 44,1 kHz Sampling Rate
  • 14/16 Bit linear, uncompressed
  • high-quality semiprofessional Stereo Microphone-Input
  • Two AC Power Adaptors (model AC-F1E – also charger for optional batteries)
  • AC switchable from 110 VAC – 240 VAC at 50/60 Hz
  • Video connecting cord VMC-330 (for Video Cassette Recorder SL-2000)
  • 2 x unbalanced Jack-MIC-Inputs on the front
  • Mic/Line switchable
  • Line in/line out
  • Video in / Video out
  • Emphasis indicator switchable
  • Tracking Indicator
  • Stereo-Headphone-output, with attenuation control on the front
  • Muting and Copy Prohibiting Indicator
  • Copy-Switch for Digital-Copies
  • LED peak program meters from -60 - 0 dB; Overclip indicator
  • Peak Hold and Reset Level Indicator
  • Battery Check Indicator
  • Separate Record LEVEL controls
  • 14 and 16 Bit quantization linear for Record and Playback
  • best S/N at 16 Bit: > 90 dB
  • Frequency response: 10-20.000 Hz
  • Distortion: < 0,005%
  • Service Manual (original) for the processor is included!!!

The auction consists of:

  • 1 x Sony PCM-F1 Processor
  • 1 x Sony SL-2000 Betamax Video Cassette Recorder
  • 2 x AC Power Adaptors AC-F1E (110-240 VAC, 50/60 Hz)
  • 1 x Video connecting cord VMC-330
  • 1 x Service Manual (original) for the processor

If you like - please watch out for my other auctions for more vintage audiophile toys.

Transport charges (Surface post parcel insured) are:

  • Europe: US$ 50
  • US: US$ 75
  • Other: US$ 110

Thanks to "metlay" for this brilliant essay on PCM:

The Sony PCM boxes have a fascinating history, about which I'd like to speak for a moment before I get into the technicalities of how I use them. But even before that, I'd like to explain to the uninitiated (uninitialized? hmmm...) exactly what a PCM box is!

Okay, we all know about DAT, righty ho? Basically, a rotating head digital recording system using a proprietary tape format, yes? Fine fine fine. But what precisely IS a DAT recorder, after all? Well, it's a 16-bit D/A and A/D converter on the front end, and a digital storage medium with error correction and all that other whizbang stuff. The D/A and A/D aren't that innovative with respect to things that've been around for ages, well, years anyway, but the compact data storage is what really sets the DAT apart. Digital mastering decks use the same principles, but different data storage (tape reels), and so will recordable CDs (optical disks). So what are digital recording devices? Basically an A/D and a D/A with something to store the ones and zeroes quickly and accurately.

The PCM box, as invented by Sony, is just such a device. It was designed to do what DAT does, using an already-extant data storage format that was portable, reliable, and cheap: VCR tapes. That's right, kids: the video track of a VCR has oodles of bandwidth for recording sound, so all we need to design is a box that has a D/A and A/D converter and some means for disguising the resulting data as a TV picture! Voila! Recordings with CD quality, and cheap!

The idea was first tested with a gizmo called the Sony PCM-F1. It was designed to be portable, for on-location recordings of concerts with a camcorder tape unit. Plug in two microphones to the mic inputs on the F1, roll tape, and go. It cost around $2000, plus or minus, and was welcomed with open arms in the audio world. And that's when the trouble began....

(The following is not STRICTLY accurate, but close enough to give the reader a feel for the "flavor" of the times....let the credulous reader beware.)

Sony suddenly discovered that sales of PCM-F1s were going through the roof, and sales of their high-end digital mastering decks were dropping like a felled ox. They were strangling their own Pro Audio Division with their own gear! Yikes, went Sales. Off the market, went the F1.

SSSHHHHHRRRRRIIIIEEEEEEEKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!! went the audio industry.

Sony gritted their teeth and held on for as long as they could, as used F1s became a hot ticket item and people STILL refused to buy high-end decks. But eventually somebody knuckled under to outside pressure and sold the plans to the F1 to Nakamichi, who painted it black, changed two input capacitors for a slightly "sweeter" sound, and marketed it as the Nakamichi DMP-100. Nakamichi stock took off, and Sony was REALLY screwed. So they did the only thing they could, which was to start putting out the F1 again, with the addition of the new caps Naka had added since people liked them.

Since then, other people (JVC, Technics, etc) have done the same thing, and Sony is now truly caught between staying enough ahead of their competitors in this little-known but fiercely competitive field, and throttling their other digital formats, like open-reel digital and DAT. It's a bad situation. Bad for Sony, that is; we get the best end of the deal, because they have no choice but to supply us with these boxes!

The usual market pattern is as follows: R&D comes up with new features for the PCM units. A new model is manufactured. Its production run is limited and only takes place once per fiscal year. Most units are wired for Japanese power, and are sold to Japanese users. A select few are wired for US power and exported. The US models are so rare and costly that they vanish essentially instantly. The Japanese models are bought by US companies that export them via the grey market, rebuild their power supplies and RF shielding, and (legally) resell them to voracious American buyers. (It's only illegal if the customer doesn't know about the rebuilding before he buys.) Then the supply runs out, pleas for more from Sony fall on deaf ears, and there's a dearth for months until the cycle begins again....

(End of slightly popularized historical note. The following is straight dope.)

The units are occasionally available used, but they're likely to be costly, and one should be damn sure one isn't being sold a grey-market box without knowing in advance who did the mod and whether they'll guarantee their work.

Sony has, in its history, made the following models:

  • PCM-F1: The original. Portable, with mic inputs. Expensive ($2000 or so?).
  • PCM-701: Essentially a line-input, rack mount F1. Cost about the same.
  • PCM-501ES: Freestanding stereo-component style box. List about $800.
  • PCM-601ESD: The current design. Has PCM-1630 digital I/O. List about $1300.

All of the above are essentially equivalent in design and sound quality, and all will work essentially interchangeably with one another. They operate in two modes: 14-bit with heavy error correction, and 16-bit with somewhat less error correction. In the experience of everyone I know who uses them, including my own, the incidence of pops and clicks is no higher for 16-bit than for 14-bit. There's a noticeable difference in sound quality, too: as Freff once put it, "At 14-bit, it's like looking through a freshly washed and crystal-clear window. At 16-bit, it's like removing the glass."

The Nakamichi DMP100 is identical to the PCM-F1 in every way. All of the other PCM boxes on the market, from Technics, JVC et al., are inexpensive and sound good, but they are all only 14-bit units, so if you're a spec-head they won't satisfy. That includes the Toshiba deck everyone's been screaming about.

Any VCR can conceivably be used with a PCM deck, and many users get by with a low-end VHS consumer deck without any trouble. Remember, the data is stored as VIDEO information! Not audio, not VHS or Beta Hi-Fi, just a picture. So any deck can be used, no matter how primitive. Some people use Hi-Fi to add two tracks of almost equal quality to the PCM tracks. One caveat, though: although most people don't have trouble, there are certain types of decks that give the most flawless results in heavy use. 3/4" U-matic is the choice of pros, and audio types who really care about quality (like me) prefer to use Sony Beta decks, for two reasons: First, no matter what anyone says, Beta is a mechanically superior format, and second, Sony decks almost always have a PCM switch, which optimizes the deck for PCM recording by switching out redundant error correction and doing something arcane to the data transmission (apparently there are subtle timing differences between PCM audio and a real TV picture, although I don't know the details). Everyone I've ever spoken to who has had dropout or click/pop problems with a PCM box was using a cheap VHS VCR, and the people who have used Betas are happy as larks.

How are they normally used? Simple! MIDI instruments are set up to play in real time, run by a sequencer. Roll tape, start sequence, send everything to digital in realtime in one pass. If non-MIDI instruments are to be added, this can be done live or via multitrack analog tape synched via SMPTE. The point is to keep analog recording and bouncing to a minimum, if not at zero. The result is a PCM-box-readable digital master, 16-bit at 44.1kHz, which most if not all mastering houses can transfer painlessly to a pro format for next to nothing. The vast majority (99-plus percent) of users use PCM for either this purpose or for live digital recordings. The other less-than-1 percent use PCM for infinite digital multitracking.

As for my PCM multitracking method, well, let's back up a minute. It isn't true multitracking, and it imposes strong strictures on the recording technique of the user. Few people that I know of use this technique on a regular basis, and no record album has ever been put together with it to my knowledge (which would make mine a first, which I don't mind). The principle is more of a digital sound-on-sound technique, and it takes advantage of an odd design quirk in the Sony PCM boxes: the D/A and A/D converters are two separate entities, that don't communicate with one another directly, so one can be sending one audio signal one way and the other can be handling a different signal in the opposite direction. So the principle is straightforward: one VCR is designated for playback, and the other for recording. They're hooked up to the PCM box accordingly in the digital domain. On the analog side of things, the playback machine is run to two channels of a mixer, and the recording machine isn't hooked up at all, neccessarily. The procedure goes as follows:

  • 1. Set up and record a mix on the record deck.
  • 2. Remove the resulting mix and put it in the playback deck.
  • 3. Play it back through the mixer, and add more stuff to it.
  • 4. Repeat ad nauseam.

Get it? You can do the same thing with analog media, but the generation noise will kill you in no time flat. With digital, if your mixer is clean and your sources don't have a lot of hash in them (no low-res digital synths or effects need apply), you can bounce and bounce to your heart's content. I've heard 24-track mixes of guitar overdubs that sound like they were played live by two dozen guitarists! The disadvantages, of ourse, are equally obvious: you can't edit what you've done, whether by punching or spot erasing, so everything is live and direct to tape. You can't unmerge data, either, so if you're on Tracks 11 and 12 and you suddenly realize there's an unforgivable glitch in your solo that you laid down on Tracks 3 and 4, you've just lost not only those two tracks, but Tracks 5,6,7,8,9,and 10 as well! Eek!

The idea, of course, is to get a complete mix down in as few passes as possible. The primary difference between this method and the "MIDI setup to digital master" is that for every pass you can use your whole setup all over again. So if you own three synths and four effects, two passes gives you six synths and eight effects, and so on. Sync is easy: lay down SMPTE on the linear audio of the VCR, and jam sync and restripe on each pass. It's a very demanding way to work: your sequencer holds all of the data but slelcted bits must be muted, since you can't audition everything at once, and anything you decide to play live immediately takes on the characteristics of the old direct-to-disk sessions. It's rough, but fun, and I enjoy it immensely.

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