COVERAGE: Krakow Sonic Society,
When the analogue tape ruled
(Master Tape Sound Lab)
Todor Dimitrov ǀ Master Tape Sound Lab
tel.: +302 3920 24373
Country of Origin: Greece
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Pictures: Wojciech Pacuła ǀ Studer (nr. 3, 4)
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.
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”:
(Monika Koperska, ”Mam Talent” dla naukowców. Dlaczego papier jest lepszy od pendrive'a?, rozm. Joanna Pachla, dostęp: 2012-05-24 06:50; read HERE)
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.