Open Reel Tape – The Ultimate Analog Source?

Open Reel Tape – The Ultimate Analog Source?

Written by Adrian Wu

With the advances in digital audio technology of recent years, is there still a role for analog audio?  In my previous article (in Issue 131), I argued that many recordings made during the early decades of stereo still rank as some of the best recordings ever made, from both a technical and an artistic point of view. Many of these recordings have been digitally remastered since the early 1980s.  However, early Red Book CD recordings are inadequate as a high-quality music source. The more recent remasters in high-definition digital formats have improved tremendously, and can be even better than LPs due to the avoidance of compression and other artifacts specific to LPs. That said, even with high-definition digital formats, some people can still detect certain characteristics of digital sound that they find objectionable. Many new releases of old analog materials have also been remastered in such a way so as to accommodate how most music lovers today listen to music, which is through earphones, computer speakers and car stereo. The original analog master tapes should therefore come closest to the original intent of the artists, without whose permission the recordings would not have been released.

Talking about permission, there are certain recordings that were released over the objection of the artists or after their death. I once attended an autograph session after a piano recital by Krystian Zimerman. When I handed him an LP of Brahms Piano Sonatas, he asked me if I could sell it to him. Rather surprised, I asked him if this was a rare LP that even he did not own, and he explained that he had objected to the release of the recording but he was overruled by Deutsche Grammophon, his record company (it was early on in his career). He therefore tried to buy them all back and have them destroyed! I then asked him if he would autograph my copy, and he reluctantly put a tiny autograph on the corner of the jacket (see photo). When my wife handed him another recording, a CD, he put a large signature right across the cover!

Can you see Zimerman’s autograph on the left lower corner?

Another example is the celebrated recording of Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten playing Mozart Piano Concertos no. 20 and 27. Sir Clifford withheld permission for release, and the record was only released after his death. The recording is wonderful, so the reason for his objection remains unclear. I just wonder how many of the reissues today would get the nod from the original artists?

I got into open reel tapes for practical reasons. I started making recordings in the late 1990s after getting to know a couple of friends who had secured the permission to make recordings of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Professional digital recording equipment was expensive in those days and in my view not very good, and one of the partners was really into digital anyway, so we just let him take care of it. Professional analog tape recorders were cheap since all the pros were switching to digital. I bought a Nagra IV-S with a QGB 10.5-inch reel adapter for 2,000 pounds at a BBC sale and had it professionally refurbished. This Nagra and the less reliable Stellavox SP9 were the most portable professional open reel tape recorders available.

Nagra IV-S analog tape recorder.

The reliability of the Nagra is legendary; there is an anecdote of a reporter who dropped the recorder from a helicopter about 100 feet off the ground while covering the Vietnam War. When he retrieved it after it was safe to land, the machine was still recording and with no more damage than just a cracked lid! The indestructibility of these professional machines means they remain a good option for audiophiles, which I will address in my next article. I also managed to buy a large lot of new blank tapes at a great price when Quantegy (formerly Ampex) went out of business. Even after the cost of digital recording and playback equipment has dropped, open reel tape still remains my primary playback source due to its superior sound quality.

The magnetic tape recorder was invented in Germany and was used for recording the speeches of the Führer (and other purposes). This enabled him to make high-quality recordings of speeches for radio broadcasts at the safety of his hideouts while making everyone think that he was in Berlin, as he was paranoid about assassinations. My physics teacher worked at the GCHQ during the war (the British equivalent of the NSA in the US); he was part of the team that developed radar, and he was ordered to investigate the tape recorders retrieved from Germany after the war. Jack Mullin, a US military engineer given the same task, went on to work with Ampex (at the time a small manufacturer of aircraft motors) with the knowledge he gained from these German machines and seed money from Bing Crosby, to develop and distribute tape recorders.

A German Magnetophon tape recorder from the 1940s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/George Shuklin.

These new machines were first employed by the film industry, but the music industry quickly adopted the technology, and commercial pre-recorded tapes started to appear in the late 1940s. Tapes were much more expensive than LPs even in that era, and were meant for serious audiophiles.  These commercial tapes were 1/4-inch wide on 7-inch reels, ran at 7.5 inches per second (ips) and initially had two tracks for stereo in the 1950s. Four-track tapes were introduced in the late 1950s and these tapes contained twice as much program material, but at the expense of a lower signal to noise ratio due to the track width being halved. The tapes were copied at high speed, which compromised sound quality. Nevertheless, when played back on properly maintained machines, these old tapes can still sound excellent. After the much more affordable (but quality-wise much inferior) compact cassettes appeared, open reel tapes faded out of the consumer market. However, analog open reel tape remained dominant in professional audio until the advent of digital recording (and even then, early digital recorders used reel-to-reel magnetic tape).

Some of my 4-track pre-recorded tapes. Unfortunately, I no longer have a machine that can play these.

Open reel tape has never really gone out of fashion in some corners of the audiophile community.  Some people, such as the late Tim de Paravicini (see our article in Copper Issue 127) always demonstrated their equipment with tapes as the music source. These tape aficionados exchange their own recordings with each other, and some studio engineers who possess master tapes of commercial recordings can sometimes be persuaded to make copies. Old pre-recorded open reel tapes can still be found on eBay and if you’re lucky, at flea markets, thrift shops and elsewhere.

Paul Stubblebine, a renowned mastering engineer, came up with the idea of licensing commercial recordings for release on open reel tape format. Together with mastering engineer Michael Romanowski (both of Paul Stubblebine Mastering) and tube amplifier designer Dan Schmalle, he founded The Tape Project in 2007. Recordings were painstakingly transferred in real time to 1/4-inch tape running at 15 ips, which is the professional standard for distribution. They bet on having enough audiophiles with an interest in this format to sustain the business, which was a brave decision, as there were almost no open reel tape machines in production at that time (the only company producing machines that I was aware of at the time was Otari, and these were professional recorders). They sold the tapes initially for too little in my opinion; the first subscription series of 10 titles (20 tapes) cost $2,000 (in 2007), which barely covered the cost of the material.

The sound quality of these tapes is stupendous since The Tape Project obtains the original studio masters from the record companies, makes 1-inch 2-track running masters directly from these precious original tapes, and then copies off the running masters with a bank of Ampex recorders. The tapes sold to customers are therefore the same generation as what is typically used to produce LPs. Just keeping the recorders in top condition must be a full-time occupation. They also did something nobody else has managed to do since; they persuaded Universal Music to allow them to release two Kenneth Wilkinson recordings from the Decca catalog. This license for a time-limited release was negotiated by the legendary Winston Ma of First Impressions Music, but the license has already expired, making these two tapes collector’s items. In addition to the two Decca titles, Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus are must-haves. Both are still available, but there is a waiting list as the company’s production capacity is limited, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the years after The Tape Project started selling pre-recorded tapes, many others have joined in.  These producers can broadly be divided into companies that license commercial recordings, record labels that release materials from their own archives and record companies that produce new materials specifically for release on tape (as well as LP and digital).

The first category includes Analogue Productions, one of the leaders in the field of audiophile reissues. Owner Chad Kassem has been reissuing LPs from major record labels, especially RCA and Mercury, since the 1990s. He works with the best engineers in the business, and took over the mastering facility of Doug Sax’s The Mastering Lab after the celebrated engineer passed away.  With his deep connections in the music business, it is unsurprising that Chad was able to secure licenses for some of the most desirable recordings ever. The list of tapes released so far reads like Harry Pearson’s (The Absolute Sound) Super Disc list.

While the original issues of some of these LPs, in my opinion, do not live up to the hype, hearing the tapes leaves me in no doubt about the greatness of these recordings, and to lament the fact that LPs made during the 1950s and 1960s were too primitive to show the recordings at their best. For the tapes, the original 3-track masters are mixed down to create stereo production masters, which are then used to make the commercial copies in real time. When listening to the tapes, one notices for the first time details that are missing from the LPs (at least on my system). The sheer scale and weight of the sound is breathtaking. Instruments take on a solidity and presence as if the soundstage is a relief sculpted from granite. The rich and natural tonal palette, the awe-inspiring dynamics, the subtle nuances of musical inflections and the ambience together draw the listener into the music.

The one word to describe the sound is effortless. Crescendos going from the quietest to the loudest SPLs do not show any sign of strain, and seem not to have any limit. There is a naturalness that makes you forget you are listening to a recording. Stereo sound just doesn’t get better than this. The one thing I have noticed about the Analogue Productions tapes is that they are transferred at a higher level than usual, taking advantage of the extra headroom of modern tape formulations. Ten RCA “Living Stereo” recordings have been released, including audiophile favorites such as The Power of the Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Scheherazade and Lieutenant Kije, Stokowski’s Rhapsodies and the incredible Witches’ Brew. My other Analogue Productions favorites include Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence and Hugh Masekela’s Hope.

Another source I came across more recently is Reel to Reel Tapes Russia. This company has licenses to reissue some of the recordings from the vast Melodiya catalog. Melodiya was the Soviet state-owned record company and monopolized the recorded output of all the great Soviet artists including Richter, Gilels, Kogan, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Kondrashin and others. Many of these recordings were released by EMI in the West. I was particularly attracted to the recording of Leonid Kogan playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, which is one of the most sought-after vintage classical LPs in existence. The sound quality of some of the Melodiya recordings is excellent, and the company apparently continued to use vacuum tube equipment until the 1980s. I guess their engineers were not happy with the sound of early transistor equipment!

Horch House is an Austrian company with a small catalog of tape reissues from various music labels. I bought several titles when the company first launched in 2014, before the brief hiatus when they reorganized their business. Their reissue of William Steinberg conducting Holst’s The Planets on DGG is excellent. The reissue of the famous Eterna recording of Carmina Burana is a bit disappointing; the solo parts were well recorded, but I feel the full chorus sounds compressed.  These two reissues are no longer available. The two other titles I own, RCA’s The Reiner Sound and Itzhak Perlman playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, are still available. However, The Reiner Sound is not at the level of those RCA Living Stereo recordings reissued by Analogue Productions. The sound does not have the same level of presence and impact as the best examples.  I feel the Living Stereo recordings made by Decca on behalf of RCA (mostly engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson), which The Reiner Sound was not, are generally superior. The Perlman Brahms: Violin Concerto is good, but EMI recordings of that era are less consistent sound quality-wise than the Decca recordings.

Two small record labels have made available their analog recordings in tape format. The copies are made to order. Fonè is an Italian company that makes mostly classical recordings, most notably of the violinist Salvatore Accardo. All the recordings are produced in-house, with a purist approach of simple micing and minimal manipulation of the sound. The other company is Opus 3, a Swedish audiophile label that has been producing classical, jazz and blues recordings since the late 1970s.  Their approach is also purist, relying on the natural acoustics of the recording venue to achieve sonic realism. I have some LPs from these two companies from years past, but I have no experience with their tapes. Judging by the quality of their LPs, I expect their tapes to be of an equally high standard.

There are more than 30 other small music labels that produce new analog recordings that are issued on tape, LP and digital formats.  Yarlung Records and UltraAnalogue Recordings are the two best known, and both produce classical recordings. As their recordings are new, and the tapes are not exactly cheap, I would recommend downloading them in digital format first to familiarize oneself with the recordings before committing.

Here is a list of companies currently producing pre-recorded open reel tapes:

There might be millions of reels of music tapes in the archives of record companies, mastering studios, radio stations and private collectors. Studio masters are closely guarded by record companies, but the fire at Universal Studios in 2008 that destroyed hundreds of original master tapes proved that security is perhaps not as good as it should be to safeguard these cultural treasures. On the other hand, safety masters, distribution masters and production masters are much more readily available. One comes across sellers on eBay claiming that the tapes they sell are genuine “master tapes,” but beware of fake “master tapes” copied from digital sources or even LPs.  Some of the genuine master tapes for sale are not in good shape, and require restoration by a specialist before they can be played. The glue used on tapes produced from the 1970s to the 1990s to bind the magnetic layer absorbs moisture and develops a fault called “sticky shed syndrome.” Also, be aware that some production masters were equalized for transfer to LPs; production masters meant for cassette or CD production can be a safer bet.

A problem that hinders the adoption of this format is the cost of new tape reissues, which is now generally around $225 per reel, and each reel normally only accommodates one LP side’s worth of music. However, ultra-premium LP reissues are not cheap either. The UK-based Electric Recording Company releases 300 copies of each of its title at around $500 per LP, and they sell out within days, with some of these reappearing on the secondary market for as much as $1,500 each.

Audiophiles are willing to spend five- or even six-figure sums on record playback equipment. However, the sound quality of even the best turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination will always be confined by the technical limitations of the LP format. Although I have more than a thousand LPs, there are only a few dozen of them that I play regularly. In that context, I would rather spend the money on the best format for these recordings. And as we shall see in the next article, it is possible to buy an open reel tape machine that will substantially outperform a top turntable system at a fraction of the cost of the latter, and with better consistency of performance.  After all, the music on your LPs was most probably transferred to lacquer with one of these tape machines (except for direct to disk LPs), so the sound of the LPs is unlikely to be better than that of the tapes played back through these machines, however outstanding the turntable system used. In the next article, I will discuss how to acquire a domestic tape playback system.

Header image of UHER SG631 analog tape recorder courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Erhard Barwick, cropped to fit format.

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