In Part One (Issue 134), J.I. Agnew profiled the legendary Studer A80 open reel deck. Part Two (Issue 135) covered the equally-storied Ampex ATR-100 Series tape machines. In Part Three, J.I. interviews Greg Reierson of Rare Form Mastering.
One of the most impressive Ampex ATR-100 decks lives, among several other tape machines, at Rare Form Mastering, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Greg Reierson, the owner, has an impressive collection of tape machines, including a preview-head equipped Studer A80, as well as a Neumann VMS 70 disk mastering lathe, with which he cuts master lacquer disks for vinyl record manufacturing, entirely in the analog domain.
His 1/2-inch stereo Ampex ATR-100 was modified by Jeff Gilman at MDI Precision Motor Works, to have the Ampex MR-70 vacuum tube electronics on top!
In Greg’s own words:
JIA: How did you get into tape to begin with?
GR: I took an audio production class in college. That’s where I first learned how to splice tape. By the end of that course I decided to change my major, went to work for the local NPR affiliate and spent the rest of my college years in the studio.
J.I. Agnew: How many tape machines do you have and what models?
Greg Reierson: Let me count…I guess I have 15! The decks that get regular use in the studio are:
- Studer A80 MK I preview (1/4-inch and 1/2-inch, 2-track):
- Ampex ATR-100/MR-70 hybrid (1/2-inch 2-track):
- Otari MTR-10 (1/4-inch 1/4-track, 1/4-inch 2-track, 1/2-inch 2-track):
I also have a bunch of decks at home and in storage:
- Studer A80 MK IV master recorder (1/2-inch 4-track)
- Otari MTR-12 (1/2-inch 4-track)
- Three Revox B77 (1/4-inch)
- Two Revox A77 (1/4-inch)
- Studer A67 (1/4-inch, in parts)
- Ampex 351 (1/4-inch, in parts)
- Nagra III (mono)
- Teac A-3340S (1/4-inch, 4-track)
- Teac Tascam 32 (1/4-inch)
- I've also had an MCI-JH110, Otari MX-5050, Technics RS-1500 and a few others.
JIA: What sets your Ampex ATR-100/MR-70 hybrid apart from the rest of the tape machines in your collection?
GR: Both the MR-70 electronics and the ATR-100 transport are legendary. With the MR-70, Ampex was trying to make the very best, spare no expense tape deck of the day. It’s tube-based but designed to be very clean. It has a silky, creamy sound that is unlike any of the other machines in my collection. The ATR-100 transport may be the very best analog transport ever built. The marriage of the two is quite something to hear.
JIA: Do you also cut masters from the ATR-100/MR-70, or do you only use the Studer A80 preview head tape machine for that?Greg presenting a freshly-cut lacquer master disk, in front of his Neumann VMS-70 disk mastering lathe.
GR: I primarily use the A80. I have cut directly from the ATR-100/MR-70 but only for short sides when fixed pitch disk mastering is possible. I mostly use the ATR-100/MR-70 for creating cutting masters when doing 100 percent analog cuts. In that case it goes like this: client mix tape on the A80 → analog mastering chain → ATR-100/MR-70 → EQ’d cutting master. Then it’s back on to the A80 and directly into the Neumann VMS 70 cutting lathe.
Here’s a video shot at Rare Form Mastering, using the Studer A80 preview head tape machine, plenty of custom mastering electronics of Greg’s own design, a Neumann VMS70 lathe and loads of other gear:
JIA: How does it affect your workflow and the quality of the end result if you are cutting with or without preview, from tape?
GR: Since the ATR-100/MR-70 is 1/2-inch it only affects jobs in that format. If the side is short enough to use fixed pitch then it’s an ideal solution. But if it’s a long side, or if it needs pre-mastering/editing/assembly as previously described, cutting from the A80 with preview makes more sense.
JIA: How does the Ampex ATR-100 transport compare to the Studer A80?
GR: The ATR transport is very sophisticated. Very smart. It’s a servo controlled, direct drive, pinch roller-less design. It’s the most stable tape transport available. Of the two, this is the modern supercar with traction control and paddle shifters. The A80 transport is very stable and extremely well built. Of the two, this is the classic sports car with a manual gearbox and no power steering.
JIA: Many thanks!
GR: You are welcome! Thank you for keeping analog alive!
Greg’s Neumann SX74 stereophonic cutter head, on the Neumann VMS-70 lathe. The little tube at the front delivers helium to the cutter head, to assist with cooling the drive coils, which operate in a helium atmosphere. (Helium has a higher thermal conductivity than atmospheric air!)
Made in the USA, the Ampex ATR-100 is popular among American audio professionals and (more recently) audiophiles, but these machines are very rare in Europe. European policymakers were very slow in understanding the concept of the free market. Following WWII and up until the creation of the EU, most European countries had strict currency controls and import restrictions. Even nowadays, importing goods from the US is prohibitive for most small to medium businesses, due to the outrageously complicated and costly import procedures. It is much easier and cheaper to import European goods into the US than to import American goods into the EU. As a result, Ampex tape machines were deemed uneconomical by European studios, with European offerings much easier to acquire. The situation is similar to this day in the second hand market. Tape machines are occasionally being shipped across the Atlantic, but it is usually the other way around, from Europe towards the US. This is not limited to tape machines, of course. How many Volkswagens, Audis and Volvos do you see in the US and how many Buicks in Europe?
ATR-100s are generally not as easy to find as Studer tape machines in the second-hand market, presumably because those who own them are not selling them! Parts and techs for the ATR-100 are also not as easy to find as for other machines and near-impossible to locate in Europe. At least there are still a few knowledgeable techs for these machines in the US. A restored example will easily set you back USD $15,000 or more nowadays (considerably more for the Ampex ATR-100/MR-70 hybrid), but will reward you with countless hours of smooth, reliable operation and excellent sound. Several specialist companies used to offer vacuum tube playback electronics (to replace the original solid-state electronics) that will work with the ATR-100, although most of these are now discontinued. Many Ampex ATR-100 machines are still in active service in recording and mastering facilities, as well as home listening rooms, around the US.
The Ampex ATR-100, with its electronic servo control system, is more demanding of accurate adjustment than other machines. If misadjusted, it will let you know by seriously underperforming. If you are thinking of getting one, make sure you also have access to a good tech (or be prepared to become one). Once set up properly, it is one of the finest machines money can buy!
In the next episode, we will look at another very interesting and rare Ampex ATR-100 machine in professional use.
Header image: Greg Reierson of Rare Form Mastering at his Neumann VMS70 record-cutting lathe.