At this point, it is safe to say that analog tape recording is not going away. Tape machines still have a loyal and enthusiastic user base all around the world, ranging from professional engineers and audiophiles to basement analog warriors. One of the people leading the charge of this analog resurgence is Chris Mara, owner of Welcome To 1979 Studios and Mara Machines, the later well known for refurbishing MCI tape machines and selling them to happy tape users worldwide, including myself.
The latest offering from Mara Machines is a transformer-based I/O option card for the MCI JH-110 B/C series tape recorders. Mara Machines' Transformer-Based I/O cards replace the OEM MCI I/O cards and allow users to have the option of either the stock electronically balanced circuit, or a transformer balanced input and output. Both the input and output transformers can be selected independently using push button switches, allowing for a variety of color variations during record and playback.
I must admit I was a bit skeptical. I have owned a Mara Machines JH-110C for several years, and love the way it sounds. However, I am always willing to listen, and upon unpacking the Mara Machines cards, they looked impressive were are well built. Installation was simple, and I immediately did a full calibration of the machine to see how they compared to the stock cards. Somewhat surprisingly, I barely had to adjust anything in the calibration process, other than a small tweak in the low frequency.
After calibration, I printed a song that was up on the console to the tape deck with and without transformers selected. In blind listening tests, it was pretty easy to hear the differences, and I strongly preferred the sound of the transformer-balanced audio path. The sound stage felt bigger, while the low end was more cohesive with a seemingly smoother top end. I then did the same test with a different style of music, and once again found myself preferring the transformer option. They seemed to embellish the sound in a subtle, pleasant manner. Next, I played random songs through the machine experimenting with switching the transformers in and out to familiarize my ears with what they were doing to the sound. The input transformers are transparent and change the sound very little. However, the output transformers impart more color, mostly noticeable in the low end. I also performed tests using tones to see what differences in measurable frequency response exist. The main difference is that the output transformer gives a small boost between 35 to 60 Hz.
After thoroughly testing the cards, I decidedly preferred the sound of the transformer audio path more often than not. Since then, I have mastered several projects using the tape machine as a color device in an attempt to breathe life into somewhat sterile tracks. In these instances, the transformer option has been fantastic for adding extra girth and glue to somewhat anemic mixes. One of the best features of the cards is the ability to switch both transformers in and out for quick auditioning. On one particular mastering project, most of the songs felt weak in the low end and the transformers were perfect for giving them more weight. However, one of the songs was randomly quite bass heavy, so having the option to switch the transformers out was very useful in that instance.
If you own an MCI JH-110 B/C tape machine, it is worth your time to take a listen to these new Transformer-Based I/O cards. Obviously Mara Machines has put a lot of thought and effort into designing them, and to my ears they are a clear improvement sonically over the stock I/O. The transformer's sound reminds me a bit of the old Ampex machines I used to own. Tracks simply sound bigger and better running through them. Mara Machines has always been a great company that sells reliable, excellent sounding analog gear, and these new cards are no exception. I already loved my Mara Machine. Now love it even more.