In the previous episode, we talked about the merits of the MCI JH-110 professional studio tape recorder. Now it’s time to have a look at its not-so-strong points.
Despite its many innovative features and excellent performance, the JH-110, in any of its variants, was not exactly the most long-lasting tape machine out there. The IC (integrated circuit) sockets go bad, the capacitors go bad, the multi-pin connectors used throughout the machine go bad, and so on...
Fortunately, parts are still easy to find (at least in the US), and the JH-110’s modular design makes it easy to get to where you need to when doing repairs. But, make no mistake about it: if you come across one of these machines in someone's damp basement, housing a family of spiders, rats, dinosaurs or worse, you will certainly need to completely rebuild it. Of all the machines covered in this series, this one is the least likely to still work, or to only need a little bit of work, if found somewhere collecting rare species of dust mites for the past few decades.
There's also good news though. Given the frequent need for complete restoration of these units, Chris Mara of Mara Machines in Nashville, Tennessee, does exactly that: he completely rebuilds MCI tape machines (and he also runs the Welcome to 1979 recording studio complex in Nashville, just in case you were about to complain about your hectic work schedule), allowing your time to be better spent using the tape machine rather than fixing it.
I recently asked Chris how he chose the MCI machines as his main focus, and this is his reply: “What first drew me to MCI machines was their sound while using them in the studio. I grew to appreciate the simple design and logical layout of electronics and transport. They are “bolt-on” upgradeable, to [accommodate] all kinds of formats and configurations, and have compatible parts across different models. This has allowed Mara Machines to restore them in a very cost-effective way and offer new add-ons such as transformer I/O [input-output] cards and wireless remote control. This is just the beginning!”
The JH-110 was equally popular in recording and mastering facilities as it was in the broadcasting sector. As MCI was also offering multitrack tape machines, mixing consoles, and even specialized products for use in broadcasting facilities, such as video tape recorders (VTRs) that were popular with film and television broadcasting studios, it was not uncommon to find multiple different MCI products in the same facility. As such, the JH-110 could be found in use as the stereo mixdown recorder, alongside the JH-16 or the JH-24 16- and 24-track multitrack tape machines and a JH-500 or JH-600 Series mixing console.
A JH-45 autolock could also be used to synchronize two JH-24 multitrack recorders, to increase the number of channels available, thereby starting the trend of recording a drum kit using 23 microphones, each recorded on a separate channel so that it could subsequently be processed individually, before being mixed together with the remaining 22 drum tracks. This capability provided the necessary technical background for the development of such anti-audiophile recording techniques as recording a single vocalist using six microphones, or placing five microphones around a guitar amplifier. It was clearly the end of an era, of the ideal of using a pair of good microphones to record an entire symphony orchestra, in a manner which would still be deemed excellent-sounding five or more decades after the fact, and countless shifts in recording industry trends later, on the other hand being largely dismissed as archaic, in favor of a brave new world, enabled through such technological “advances.” More recently and along the same lines, digital audio workstations (DAW’s) have enabled anyone to record 56 channels of drums, 28 channels of guitar, seven layered basslines, and 205 vocal overdubs, edited and Auto-Tuned, all at a very minimal cost and taking up only a keyboard and a mouse’s worth of desk space, dwarfing the capabilities of any tape-based system and analog mixing console. Curiously, this development came at around the same time that the music industry stopped making any serious money out of recordings, although many will maintain that there is absolutely no connection there!
MCI was also known for pricing their products attractively, which undoubtedly contributed to their success. While they clearly were not built to last 100 years, the products were certainly built to last a good few decades and were easily field-serviceable, with a network of dealers and service engineers around the United States readily available to promptly deal with any issues and avoid prolonged downtime.
In view of that, there was nothing really wrong with the reliability of the JH-110 when it was new; in fact, it did much better than what most people consider acceptable nowadays (just think about how fast your smartphone will be considered obsolete). However, few people at the time could imagine that 46 years down the line, these machines would still be found in regular commercial service. The fact that other tape decks tended to survive even longer prior to needing restoration simply proves how differently the world worked back then.
The economic realities of our times would not permit such excesses of engineering to be produced in quantity, as the market for such long-lasting items (not those who would want them, but those who could actually afford them) would be vanishingly small. It is worth comparing the cost of a new tape machine back in the 1970s with the cost of a house, a car, or your salary at the time, to fully appreciate what it took to own one back then. What you will pay for one of these over-engineered professional tape machines nowadays is really just a nominal amount. Yet, in a world accustomed to short-lived, disposable plastic trash, there are people who publicly opine all over the internet that they find tape machines overpriced nowadays. I find that a lot of things are overpriced nowadays, in terms of what kind of quality you will get for your money, but by comparison, audio equipment tends to be more on the underpriced end of the spectrum, considering how much effort and specialized knowledge goes into creating it. Especially when it comes to vintage audio equipment from the era of "built to last forever" – most of it is an unbelievable bargain.
If the world ever goes back to reasonable again, I don't think such items will remain as cheap for very long.
These are interesting times to purchase equipment, both new and old, that under normal circumstances would only be seen in the most high-profile professional establishments. Nowadays, a lot of it is even viable for home entertainment.
In fully restored and working condition, an MCI JH-110 is also one of the machines with the most bells and whistles built in.
As with Ampex tape decks and many other American products, the JH-110 was very popular in the US but relatively rare in Europe, due to the persistent tendency of the Old World to overcomplicate and overtax imports. As such, knowledgeable techs and parts will usually be found on the US side of the pond, although I do know of a couple of MCI tape machines in European studios.
Prices for a working JH-110 range from $3,500 to $12,000, depending on configuration and the extent of the restoration. Low-cost unrestored offerings on popular online auction websites should be considered only as major restoration projects for experienced persons.
A fully restored JH-110 in a tall, high-profile cabinet will certainly be an impressive statement in your studio or listening room. In most cases, though, the smaller variable-profile cabinet will have less of a detrimental impact on the room acoustics. The electronics and transport were designed so that you could easily do away with the industrial-looking trolley cabinet altogether, and build the machine into custom-made studio furniture, possibly made of mahogany, hand-carved by a master craftsman and designed to complement the studio’s room acoustics.
If it would have been a bit more indestructible, the JH-110 might have been my favorite tape machine. But it isn’t.
In the next episode, I’m going to tell you which one is my all-time-favorite tape machine…or not! You’ll have to wait and see.
Header image: The JH-110 in the variable profile cabinet. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.