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Krakow Sonic Society
COVERAGE: Krakow Sonic Society,
meeting #84:
When the analogue tape ruled
(Master Tape Sound Lab)


Contact:
Todor Dimitrov ǀ Master Tape Sound Lab

tel.: +302 3920 24373

e-mail:
mastertapesoundlab@yahoo.com

Website:
www.mastertapesoundlab.com

Country of Origin: Greece

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Pictures: Wojciech Pacuła ǀ Studer (nr. 3, 4)

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Published: 1. August 2012, No. 99




Future is a strange thing. On one hand it's, at least to some point, predictable, on the other it surprises us a lot. You can try to foresee it by analyzing trends, patterns, relations basing on historical records, but to do it right you need to be creative, you need to think out-of-the-box. Because no matter how probable scenario you create, lots of what really happens is simply beyond our imagination. When reading science-fiction novels written in the 80s of 20th century, you can see that than writers expected us to be exploring the space by now, that we would be traveling at least to the nearest stars. But it did not happen. Human kind focused rather on what's beneath their feet, rather than what's above their heads. On the other hand when reading those novels one has to smile once in a while when reading about sending letters (paper letter in envelope) to space station from Earth, or about the means of communication on our planet. Who could have had imagined how significant role would Internet play in everybody's life? Or how mobile phones would revolutionize few industry branches from telecommunication to watch manufacturing.

A typical picture of a recording studio in 1970-90ties, and even bit later: a large console with lots of sliders, push-buttons and knobs, at the side large number of different devices placed in racks, and somewhere nearby a mighty, multitrack tape recorder. An analogue tape recorder let me add. Such a studio was usually filled with tones (literally) of equipment. It is mostly gone. 99,99999% of recording studios nowadays are digital ones, mots of them purely digital, and a recording device is a computer, again usually with Pro Tools system, that allows to record, edit and mix recordings. Lots of those full systems can be fit onto top of a desk.
But the truth is that for a long time it wasn't clear which way would studio technique go. The first trials with digital technique did not go that well. The digital recording devices were as huge as analogue ones. Also mixing consoles and peripherals. Today you could have a recording studio in your laptop. And many artists take advantage of it. As example I might point the last recording of Pieter Nooten (guy known as member of Clan of Xymox) Here is why (Rocket Girl, rgirl71, CD [2010]). As you can read on digipack: „This album is composed and mixed at home using Mac Book Pro. No additional instruments or outboard gear used, except guitar on Fading by Gill Lopez”.
The digital technique turned the whole music scene upside down – starting with recording process, distribution, sales, up to playback. It miniaturized it, popularized it. Everybody can now have his own recording studio. That's why we have some many new bands, vocalists, „do-it-yourself” artists, „self-men”, promoting themselves on „You Tube”, who took the whole process of recording, promoting and selling music, in their own hands. There are upsides and downsides too. On one hand it's a wonderful opportunity for artists not to be restricted, limited by the label, that always makes final decision about how the final version of album sounds like. On the other hand this might mean a lower quality of recording, lesser responsibility, and fragmentation of the market that no one is able to control anymore. Nowadays promotion, popularity of an independent artists depend rather on coincident than anything else. That's the price we pay for decentralized music market.

As I already mentioned one of the key elements of „digital revolution” was moving the recording process from huge, external, mostly analogue devices to the inside of a computer. The supporters of „new era” argue that moving from analogue systems to digital ones allows to eliminated several distortions produced by the former like crosstalk, wow & flutter, noise, and so on. Plus you might get rid of magnetic tapes that are expensive, difficult to handle, and, as many thought, they seemed to degrade fast. So (almost) everybody got rid of analogue problem. Today music is recorded directly on a hard drive, and stored on server's HDD or optical disc. But there are some important questions that can't be ignored anymore. Like for example: haven't we, while chasing something new, or to be honest more convenient, lost something important? Was this change from analogue to digital really a progress, or maybe a regress? I think that everybody who had a chance to listen to a good recording on properly set up turntable would admit, that a CD was a dead end. Significantly improved over time, nowadays quite good actually, but still a dead end. Even the high resolution did not allow to deal with all problems (although some like Steven Rochlin, chief editor of „Enjoy The Music.com”, claim it's the other way around; you can read and interview with Steven in the same issue of „High Fidelity”). The same applies not only to sound (and video) carriers, but also other forms of record. Meanwhile…

Less then a month ago every newspaper in this country published information about Monika Koperska, a PhD student of Chemistry Department of Jagiellonian University. Ms Monika first won polish edition of FameLab International, and than came second on an international level in Great Britain. SO that you know what I'm talking about I should quote a small fragment of Ms Koperska's interview for „Tech.Money.pl”:
Tech.Money.pl: During the final stage of FameLab you were proving that paper was a better the best data carrier. We live in computer era so it sounded like a heresy.
Monika Koperska: No, it's quite reasonable claim actually. Everybody talks about technological novelties: recording data on Blu-ray discs, magnetic tapes or pendrives, that are so small that it is sometimes easier to lose them than to store data on them. And nobody talks about the time period our data are save on those carriers.
That is why everybody thinks they will last forever.
And that's a common mistake. If you record a CD at home you will start losing date after just 5 years. CD bought in shop with data on them will last longer. If you are lucky it might work for 50 years. Same goes for magnetic tape although it is not that reliable carrier according to many. All American libraries are told to put all the data to new carriers every 30 years, even if their expected live length is 50 years. The experts simply realize that it is safer to start backing up data sooner rather than lose some of them.

(Monika Koperska, ”Mam Talent” dla naukowców. Dlaczego papier jest lepszy od pendrive'a?, rozm. Joanna Pachla, dostęp: 2012-05-24 06:50; read HERE)
It's about carriers durability. Ms Monika talks about paper, but you've probably noticed what she said about CDs and tapes? It turns out that data on both CD and HDD start to degrade already after just few years. And while this process has a different meaning for data and different for sound, the latter might lose in this process even more. As we know today, tapes even 60 years old, if only stored properly, are still in very good shape. While the digital carriers would have already turned to dust.
There is of course another aspect of digital revolution, that affect what's most important to us – sound quality. And it affected us totally. There are labels like Telarc, ECM, or ACT, that really care about sound quality even though they, from the moment it was possible, did their recordings in digital domain. And I have to admit they did quite well. On the other hand older recordings, analogue ones sound so much better when played from vinyl, without any digital intermediaries. But before we start fighting defending our preferences I would suggest realizing one thing – neither CD, nor vinyl, nor hi-res files could really compete with master tape, a they are barely faint shades of it.

Master Tape Sound Lab

You might remember Greek company Master Tape Sound Lab from an interview I did with it boss Mr Todor Dimitrov (read HERE). MTSL was founded to promote Mr Kostas Metaxas recordings, done for the 80ties, and done on analogue tapes. This company offers not only copies of master-tapes, but also upgrades and renovations of Studer tape recorders.
Of course this is not the only one, nor the first company founded in recent years to promote the idea of absolute sound, the sound of analogue master-tapes. I should name at least few: The Tape Project, SonoruS and there are more of them. The latter offers even more – new tape recorders that are based on Revox PR99. If you take a look at issue no 61 of „Positive-Feedback Online” (May/June 2012) you'll see 3 texts about tapes, including one describing another company offering modified tape-recorders (Tascam), United Home Audio. Also Opus 3 Records presented 25 titles offered on tapes, copies of master-tapes (see HERE).
As you can see there is something going on here, something that nobody would expect to happen. Tapes seemed to be obsolete, used by very few, but they seem to make a nice come back to audiophiles systems…

Meeting

I must say that I already knew that both vinyl and CD are just shades of what's recorded on master-tape. When I worked as sound engineer in Juliusz Slowacki Theater, they use three Studer A807 and three ReVox PR99 MkIII tape-recorders. What's more the whole recording studio was based on analogue devices – we had a 16-track analogue Tascam (Dolby S, 1/2” tape) recorder and another one, 8-track Tascam, with dBX. We recorded mostly theatrical music, but also soundtracks for movies. For multi-session recordings we used multi-trackers, than mixed the material and finally recorded it on two-track Studer. And finally copied it to DAT (16/44,1), to store it or to further process in on a computer. The difference between DAT (digital master-tape) and analogue one was ridiculous. And despite that, because of handling issues, Studer was only treated as intermediary element. Finally the music during spectacle was played from tape but after recording it was also digitally processed.
But we did also recordings of Cracow Opera performing in our theater, and that was it! Just two mics placed on an extension over orchestra, no additional elements, and just two track recording on Studer. Unfortunately I have no idea whether any of those recordings still exist.
Bottom line – I know what an analogue tape means, or at least I knew, as I forgot a lot. I haven't been working in theater anymore for several years and since then I dealt for vinyl and digital mediums only. Analogue tape was just a faint memory for me.

So what does a regular audiophile, CD user, know about analogue tape, a guy for whom the only analogue medium is a LP? Nothing, null, zero. It is a common assumption that what we get from vinyl is the closest sound to the mother-tape we could get, and we forget some much processing must be done before sound from master-tape lands on vinyl. We can start with compression, mechanical changes inflicted by the process of vinyl preparation, and end with the process of playing a record. And since I have to admit that vinyl can give you some idea about what's really recorded on tape, it is still only an idea and nothing more. So to remind myself whatever I forgot about tapes, to show my friend a real tape-recorder, to tell them some anecdotes, to show them what's all the fuss is about I decided to organize a special Cracow Sonic Society Meeting.

Assumptions and methodology

Assumption no 1: to use a high quality tape, a copy of master-tape if possible using top-performance tape recorder. Tapes were already there – two titles from Master Tape Sound Lab: Aaron Searle - Jazz Quintet, a live recording of BMW Edge (Melbourne 2005) concert, and Pascal Schumacher live performance in Ormond Hall (Melbourne 2004). Both recordings were taken by Stellavox tape-recorder, battery powered, and copied from master-tape with 15 ips (CCIR) speed using Studers A820. So that was taken care of. Now the second challenge – a top-performance device to play those tapes.
If you take a look at reports from high-end exhibitions from last 2-3 years you will realize that some of the exhibitors actually used tape-recorders. In Europe these were mostly ReVox devices – like tube B77, or the last one released by the company - PR99 Mk III. ReVox is a Swiss brand of Studer, created to manufacture professional and semi-professional gear. Oversees they mostly used Tascams, and usually modified by United Home Audio.
For me the true „king of a studio” is only one - Studer. These are huge machines delivering remarkable sound. So I wanted one of those for this meeting.
For some time I thought that we would have to use ReVox despite all my efforts. It would be great of course. But than one day my friend Piotr, who still works for Slowacki Theater, called and said that a short term lease of Studer A807 should be possible. That's exactly the model model we worked with years ago (it is a A807-0.75 VUK, stereo version).

Carrying it from a car to the apartment was quite an experience. We put it on the floor, plug it in to Nordost Thor with Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version power cable. I don't think that this Studer has ever been treated co nice before…
So, we had a very good player.
It would be great though, to compare the tapes with something. Luckily I had already 3 Mr Kostas Metaxas digital copies of master-tapes, waiting for the right moment. These were as puristic copies as possible – taken directly from Stellavox, from master-tapes. Mr Metaxas copied them to digital tape in 16 bit/48 kHz format, that he recognized as the best one, offering as close sound to the master-tapes as possible. And those tapes were than copied to DVD-Rs. In one case copy was done on regular DVD. I have three such samplers:

  • Path to epiphany. Kostas Metaxas Recordings, DVD,
  • In Concert. 20 High Definition Samples, DVD-R,
  • Reference DVD Recordings, 2 x DVD-R.
And even though we had only one recording available to us on both tape and DVD, we could at least compare recordings done by the same man, using the same equipment and same techniques.

System

System, we used for this listening session wasn't just randomly chosen. At the very end there are huge Dynaudio Sapphire speakers, fully capable of delivering large dynamics, these are driven by tube amplifier McIntosh MC275 Mk IV. There is no separate preamplifier in the system because Ryszard (the owner) uses preamplifier integrated in SACD Player. That was not a problem as Studer has both regular, and adjustable outputs, and the level of output signal is high enough to drive amplifier directly. Also S-3, Ayon file player, that we already knew from another Meeting (see HERE), has a preamplifier integrated in it. So we could send the signal from tape-recorded and file player (one at the time) directly to amp's XLR inputs. To show my friends how the work i n studio looks like I brought also Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro Limited Edition (excellent cans!) with me, as I used them with Studer in the past. Guys listened to them a bit and that was a „foretaste” of analogue experience to come.

Ryszard's system:

  • power amplifier – McIntosh MC275 Mk IV; review of Commemorative Edition HERE,
  • SACD Player – McIntosh MCD301,
  • XLR IC – Tara Labs ISM The 0.8; review HERE,
  • speaker cable – Tara Labs The 0.8,
  • power cable AC (power amp and player) – Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100; review HERE,
  • power conditioner (for player only) – Nordost Thor,
  • speakers Dynaudio http://www.dynaudio.com Sapphire.

Additionally::

  • files player: Ayon Audio S-3, read HERE),
  • power cable Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, read HERE,
  • headphones Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro Limited Edition,
  • tape recorder Studer A807-0.75 VUK.

Sound

When we brought Studer to Ryszard's room, everybody was truly impressed. Even though we did not bring a stand it is usually used under it, Studer A807 still made a hell of impression. And you need to remember it is one of the smallest product from this manufacturer! Mr Todor sent tapes on color reels (red and gold) so this machine looked simply great. In studios metal reels were hardly ever used – usually it was a special aluminum plate with a special ring in the middle – tape was rolled on it. That's the version Piotr brought from theater but to make it look better I brought my own, original Tascam's reel.

First thing we noticed was how different these recordings were. Mr Metaxas worked out his own puristic recording method based on placing a pair of stereo microphones on an extension in front of performers and running signal from them directly to battery operated tape recorder. No limiters, compressors, equalizers. It reminded me the way that Naim, Chesky and Opus 3 did their recordings. But the final result is different.
Mr Kostas managed to preserve enormous, unbelievable dynamics. Phantom images have a large, though very natural sizes. There is a slight downside though – lots of reverberation. Janusz said something like: „sometimes they (recordings) come like from a well” and he was right. „Instruments – he said than – don't show such palpable texture, as I'm used to with other recordings, and positioning of musicians on the stage is not so precise”. „But – Ryszard replied – during live concert you also can't point each musician exactly, as there is lot of reverb”. Well, I have to admit that Ryszard was also somehow right. But what Janusz said made sense, I had to second his opinion. Most of us already got used to recordings taken with microphones placed very close to sound sources and it comes easier to accept downsides of that solution. Because we got used to it. In case of Kostas Metaxas recordings, that are so different, you need to adjust, get used to them first.

And yet what we heard from tape astounded us all. There it was, the dynamics comparable to what we knew form live performances, and spacing was also so realistic! When the vibes entered it was like a vibe performing live in front of us. Never before, except for live performances, have we heard something so impressive. As Janusz said „for me it was an amazing experience! On one hand I miss what my CD Player offers me – resolution, spacial definition of instruments, but on the other... that's amazing, unbelievable! I haven't heard such a great dynamics in my life, nor from CD, nor from vinyl.” „I can't really agree that we got poor resolution – said Rysiek B. [our host was Rysiek S.] – but I agree it sounded like live performance. I attend many jazz concerts in smaller and bigger halls and I here sometimes I thought that it even sounded better than during live concert. All this reverberations get a bit on my nerve, but apart from that – it is great. The vibes really sound like live performance.” „I went to Handel’s Julius Caesar, opera performed by Capella Cracoviensis in Slowacki Theater, I got seats somewhere under balcony and the sound was quite thumpy, blunt. But here, despite reverbs I feel like I sat in front of the band!”
And I have to agree – that's how it sounded. The sound was really open, relaxed, powerful. Bass was simply put - perfect. „I never realized that my system had it in it, that there is so much information in the lowest region” – said Rysiek S. „I wasn’t prepared for that…” „Yes, it was actually something totally different…” – that's Tomek.

All those comments were made before we even started to compare tapes to digital copies. The presentation was simply so different from we we were used to that we were able to comment what we heard on spot. But of course we waited also to hear how would S-3 with files copied from Kostas Metaxas DVD and DVD-R. As I already said – he prepared those copies personally, trying to achieve as close results as from master-tapes, so I assumed these was the best material for our comparison we could get.
And to be honest, there is not much to write about. It was simply ridiculous When we played digital version we thought that something in our system broke. Marcin said quickly „let's not waste any more time”. The presentation was so flat, so small that – „I have no idea how it is even possible” said Tomek. And while he wanted us to give S-3 more time „for tubes to properly heat up”, we couldn't believe that it could significantly change the level of performance. These very no small difference, not just some accents shifted. It was more like day and night. And while Rysiek B. tried to convince us that not everything in this sound was so bad, that files also had some upside, we simply wouldn't listen.
What were the changes? First of all the scale of presentation, its dynamics and palpability that made same music played from tapes so real. When played from files all that was gone. It wasn't big, open sound any more. Bass was not so rich. Rysiek's system surely did not lack bass extension. But tapes showed us how the energy coming from bass might sate the air – it was more like compressed air, more essence in the same volume of air. „Do you neighbors still talk to you?” somebody asked Rysiek, our host, and even though he smiled he looked like he was worried about future... Because what we experienced wasn't just a good, well extended bass. It was like a live event and live event would be heard by all neighbors, like a drum set put in a room and played hard…

Summary

Analogue tapes will not return to audio systems, it's not possible anymore. At least to „classic” systems. But both, my personal experience, and the experience coming from described meeting, prove one thing beyond any doubt: if you haven't heard some good quality analogue master-tape you have no idea what you loose. That sound has nothing to do with digital. Vinyl can, to some extend, render this dynamics, size and so on, but it is still only some approximation of what analogue tape delivers.
So the ultimate system must include a good quality tape-recorder, otherwise it will never be complete. Tapes are expensive, you say? Not so durable as we wish it would be? Well – audiophiles life is hard and expensive and if you want to be one, get used to it. After such experience no one will ever say again that vinyl offers the ultimate performance…

Worth reading:

  • Studer Und ReVox, webpage with tones of information on Studer and ReVox tape-recorders (in German), see HERE
  • Arian Jansen, The Reel-to-Reel Movement: The SonoruS Holographic Imaging Process, “Positive-Feedback Online”, Issue 61, May/June 2012, see HERE
  • Greg Beron, Real to Real is... Real, “Positive-Feedback Online”, Issue 61, May/June 2012, see HERE
  • David W. Robinson, The Higher End: The Reel-to-Reel (RTR) Movement Rocks! Part, the First: Initial Reflections on the "…World That Then Was…", “Positive-Feedback Online”, Issue 61, May/June 2012, see HERE
  • Jeff Jacobs webpage with modified J-Corder tape-recorders, see HERE
  • INTERVIEW: Few short questions: Todor Dimitrov, Master Tape Sound Lab, conducted by Wojciech Pacuła, „High Fidelity”, No. 98, June 2012, see HERE

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