As both a refurbisher and seller of pro tape machines, the name Mara is synonymous with tape. When I saw they were entering the iOS app world with their Mara tape calibration program, I was both excited and curious. To many of us, tape machine calibration comes across like some form of dark art, and I'd be lying to say that I wasn't a bit skeptical. Going into it, I figured that, if all went well, I could finally get my Tascam 22-2 calibrated. Turns out, I was wrong. It seems that most prosumer machines were designed to keep people like me from tinkering around in them. Only after having it lying shamefully scattered in pieces on my floor for three nights did I finally admit defeat. I could just about hear the collective scoffs of analog tape forum members everywhere. The MaraTapeCal app is designed to be universal, but I found it impossible to use with my machine, which doesn't have clearly marked and accessible pots. The machine pictured as an example throughout the app is the MCI JH-110, a machine a level (or two) above the Tascam and Fostex decks that I own. I really wanted to try this app and thankfully, Reed Black over at Vinegar Hill Sound in Brooklyn had an Otari MTR-12 he agreed to let me calibrate using this new tool.
The app first asks you to choose between Start From Scratch or Do A Quick Touch Up. I started from scratch and then entered my tape speed (15 or 30 ips), the MRL tape used (250, 320, 355, 500), and the alignment details (low, medium, or high output tape). From there I was taken through the steps of calibration using tones from the MRL. There's no hooking up of any cords unless you need to use an external tone generator. You simply follow the directions, which I found to be fairly straightforward. I did run into a problem when told to adjust controls like Level and Cue/Synch gain but then not being able to locate them on the Otari. Small things, like having those pots labeled differently between machines had me scratching my head. Those with prior experience would be undeterred by these variations, but as a beginner unversed in what a lot of these controls actually do, I was a bit thrown and it took me a while to figure things out.
But that's where I find this app will be of great use, throwing the inexperienced head first into an otherwise intimidating process. At first, it will be challenging, but I found that after successfully completing all the steps, I became much more confident, and the next time around I knew it would be easier. That's the real value of the MaraTapeCal app in my opinion. I slowly began to form an understanding of something I previously couldn't appreciate without doing it myself. If I didn't have its owner close by, I would've been forced to take advantage of the Skype session option offered (for an additional price) through the app. Hey, nobody said using analog tape was going to be cheap. Buy the ticket, take the ride, right?
This brings me to my last point – the cost of the app (and MRL tape) compared to having it done by a professional. Both will be comparable in price but, if like me, you want to learn calibration and have it as a skill, it's an investment. Now, all I need is a better tape machine.