Revolutions Per Minute

The Giants of Tape: The MCI JH-110, Part One

Issue 138

In the last few installments in this series, California was in the spotlight, with discussions of Ampex and their ATR-100 series of tape machines (see Issue 135, Issue 136 and Issue 137). This time, we will move to the other side of the USA and visit Florida. During the 1950s, in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Jeep Harned was starting out in what was to develop into a long and prosperous career in audio. It started with custom recording consoles, took off with the development of aftermarket solid-state electronics for the Ampex 350 tape machine, and soon thereafter escalated into a full-blown manufacturing operation, mass-producing entire tape machines and mixing consoles.

In 1975, MCI (Music Center Incorporated) introduced the JH-110, which was to become one of their most successful products. It was available in several versions that catered to different tape formats and applications. It remained in production up until 1984, when the entire series was discontinued by Sony management, following the acquisition of MCI by Sony in 1982.

The JH-110 was followed by the JH-110B and the JH-110C, with the later models being as fully-featured as things could get in the 1970s. They could run at any of three speeds, 7.5 ips, 15 ips and 30 ips, with a low-speed transport also on offer, which would start at 3.75 ips (with 15 ips as the top speed). Head blocks were available both in the NAB stereo configuration (with 2 mm track separation, popular in the USA), as well as the DIN stereo configuration (0.75 mm track separation, common in Europe), and in monophonic versions, with combinations of mono and stereo heads, with a 1/4- or 1/2- inch tape width, and in one-track (mono), two track, four track, record/playback or playback-only versions.

An MCI JH-110, in the variable profile cabinet. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

An MCI JH-110, in the variable-profile cabinet. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

 

The electronics featured switchable equalization to cover both the NAB and IEC standards. The transport was available in two reel-size capacities, 10 1/2 or 14-inch. The machines could be purchased in two different cabinet versions: The tiltable “variable profile” cabinet, with the electronics located under the transport, and the “high profile” overhead bridge cabinet, with the electronics placed above the transport. The MCI RTZ III, a transport control system offering a “return to zero” function along with location memories to fast-wind to, came as standard on all JH-110 machines.

The JH-110 was one of the very few tape decks offered in a “preview” configuration, for use with disk mastering systems (where the signal from the tape to the record cutting lathe needed to be previewed by the lathe control electronics prior to it reaching the cutter head). The preview version was known as the JH-110M and had a few key differences compared to the rest of the JH-110 range. The head block was configured with two playback heads, without a record or an erase head. This was typical of preview head tape machines, but the head block also offered a not so common feature. The head azimuth adjustment was accomplished by means of levers, requiring no tools.

This was a smart idea, found in few other tape machines. In a professional disk mastering setting, especially back in the 1970s, recordings would arrive on tape, recorded on all manners of tape machines, not necessarily maintained to the same standards, or even maintained at all! It was common to have to adjust the azimuth of the tape machine to each tape coming in (which is probably why many mastering engineers were happy to adopt digital formats as soon as these became commercially available, to not have to deal with the hassle of inconsistent tapes, day in, day out), so having to reach for a screwdriver or Allen key and adjust a tiny screw five or six times a day was simply too much of a waste of time on a busy day, which meant that this step was sometimes (read “almost always”) skipped, unless a lever was provided for this purpose.

“Hands-on”! MCI JH-110. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

“Hands-on”! MCI JH-110. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

 

In addition, the equalization calibration controls came as knobs on the front panel of the electronics drawer, instead of trim pots that required a screwdriver for adjustment. The rationale for providing these knobs was the same as for the inclusion of the lever: incoming tapes were also all over the map with respect to their equalization, so if a convenient means of adjustment was not provided, it would be too tempting to settle for “well, it sounds about right I guess” at the end of a long day. This feature of providing knobs to adjust the EQ was even rarer than the azimuth adjustment levers on the head block, and not adopted by the competition.

While it is questionable if the levers and knobs had any effect on the workflow in most mastering facilities, they certainly saved time for those who did care enough to use these features. Well at least MCI tried. Jeep Harned could at least rest in peace knowing that he had done the right thing. And he earned the best tombstone I’ve ever seen for his efforts!

A most appropriate tombstone for Jeep Harned, with an MCI multitrack tape machine on top! From the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording website. If anyone knows who took the photo, please let us know and we’ll add a photo credit.

A most appropriate tombstone for Jeep Harned, with an MCI multitrack tape machine on top! From the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording website. If anyone knows who took the photo, please let us know and we’ll add a photo credit.

 

The M-type had the 14-inch reel capacity as standard and a 7.5 ips to 30 ips speed range.

The four channels of playback electronics (two for audio and two for preview/lathe control) were housed in two electronics drawers, filling up the space available in the cabinet.

The M version also features an optical sensor on the tape path to sense a special leader tape used for automatic banding (the visual gap between the songs on a record, which on most systems prior to the 1970s was done manually), allowing the cutting engineer to go get a cup of tea, or when the music was particularly bad, to turn it off and listen to something better instead, while the cutting was still in progress… The tape machine provided a control signal every time it “saw”  the special leader tape, and the lathe would then create the spirals (gaps) between the songs automatically.

In such cases, the customer would most probably also not bother listening to the test pressings (can’t we have them shipped together with the final product to save time? Or perhaps skip them entirely?), so any defects arising out of nobody caring enough would pass on to the final product, which nobody might buy anyway, so better to save your energy for the next project to be cut, in hope that it might be better. Especially for the type of customer (record company) looking for the cheapest price for a cut. This is the reality of it: Nobody will bother listening to your recording made at the lowest cost anyway. (The cynicism of nearly 20 years in the industry may be evident, but it doesn’t change the fact. It merely highlights it…)

The later and final generation disk mastering systems, along with digital audio workstations, took this to the next level. You still needed someone to press the “start” button and change the disks on the record-cutting lathe, but that was about it. I still get asked occasionally if the process can be automated even further than that. Yes, it can. It is called CD. The step after that is called lossy free streaming. There’s also the option of not listening to music at all, and not trying to make any music or produce recordings. There you go. Problem solved.

Another important feature of the JH-110M were its multiple tape rollers, which enabled the machine to provide the correct preview delay time at any of the three tape speeds, for both 33 1/3 and 45 RPM disk speeds, and for two of the common standards of preview delay time used by the pitch and groove depth control systems of the disk mastering lathes then in use. There were three different, incompatible standards for such systems, but the competing preview head tape machines available could only work with one of the three. Their manufacturers would usually offer a separate version for each standard, with the transport configured specifically for the one specified. Additional parts would be available, to be purchased separately, to convert the machines to a different standard, in case a new lathe had been purchased and the tape machine was to remain in use.

The JH-110M could cater for two of these standards with no need for purchasing or fitting any additional parts. This made it compatible with the Scully lathes (and the aftermarket options for pitch control systems available for them), as well as the Lyrec lathes available at the time. Interestingly, the JH-110M also turned out to be compatible with the Neumann VMS-80 lathe, which had not yet been introduced when the JH-110M entered the market. However, it was not compatible with the Neumann VMS-70 and earlier Neumann lathes, which ended up being the most commonly-encountered machines in professional use to this day, with the VMS-80’s production being too short-lived and with Scully going out of business around the same time as the introduction of the JH-110M.

Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.

 

All this, along with the fact that the JH-110M was the last preview head tape machine to be developed (at least by a manufacturing concern aiming to sell significant numbers rather than a one-off), resulted in the almost complete extinction of the JH-110M. As of my last count, a couple of years ago, there were only three of these machines surviving in the world. Most were either sold for their weight in scrap metal (135 lbs., or about $2.50 on a good day at the local scrapyard, if the manager is in a good mood), or converted to a standard, non-preview machine.

There aren’t that many disk mastering systems in the world to begin with, so losing the majority of that small niche market due to lack of compatibility with all the Neumann lathes made up to 1980 was probably not the best idea. It also came at a time when the industry was largely trying to avoid tape-based preview systems in disk mastering altogether, having gotten a bit too excited about the ease of use provided by the lack of things to adjust on the new digital recording systems. Not many people wanted preview head tape machines anymore and even fewer wanted one that would not work with their VMS-70 lathe.

Somewhat ironically, the pitch control system of the VMS-70 (and earlier Neumann lathes) was not famed for its reliability or performance, so many of the older Neumanns have been fitted with one of the aftermarket pitch control systems that use the standard that was supported by the JH-110M, and tape is now back in fashion, so cutting engineers are now looking for preview head tape machines again.

The JH-110M would be the right tool for the job, but with only three left in the world, the supply is grossly inadequate to cover the current demand. As a result, the price for a functional JH-110M machine has skyrocketed.

The moral of the story: Don’t scrap complex industrial machines for $2.50; you’ll end up spending $25,000 to buy them again ten years later, if you can find any. Don’t even get me started on all the scrapped disk mastering lathes and record presses…!

One of the three surviving JH-110M machines lives in my own disk mastering facility. It was a pain to bring it back to life.

One of the author’s custom disk mastering lathes, with an MCI JH-110M preview head tape machine in the background. Note the tape threading over the multiple rollers between the threads. Photo courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

One of the author’s custom disk mastering lathes, with an MCI JH-110M preview head tape machine in the background. Note the tape threading over the multiple rollers between the threads. Photo courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

 

In the next episode, we will discuss the biggest weakness of the JH-110.

Header image: Chris Mara of Mara Machines.

One comment on “The Giants of Tape: The MCI JH-110, Part One”

  1. As the last VP of Sales at Ampex / Quantegy Tape Division (1994-2005), these articles are bringing back very fond memories of what I consider the “golden era of recording” – nothing sounds like tape (and that’s a good thing). Thanks for making me smile.

    Steve Meyers

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