KK finds out that embracing a dormant format is full of surprises.
Audiophiles come in many flavors, and I am not even remotely bothered by those who are, say, equipment junkies with $100,000 systems and only three LPs. There are scientific types who probably hate music and live for specifications. There are quasi-religious proselytizers who think digital causes cancer, or transistors are a substitute for Viagra, or other benighted souls. I love ’em all, which is why the buzz for me is about the history of audio, as much as it is for my all-consuming love for music. Like 8 to 10 hours every day.
It never occurred to me that I was an historian, but that was how I was described after writing five books on the subject, and it beats being called a hi-fi hack or other contemptuous slight. Suffice it to say, I am overly fascinated by the forgotten tales of hi-fi, in part because the audio industry has the worst record of any in respecting its past. Google the number of lavish books about electric guitars, fountain pens, tractors, or whiskey, if you don’t believe me.
What has been occupying me of late are not only reel-to-reel tapes in general, but those from out of left field in particular. Some of the discoveries so revelatory (at least, that is, to me) that I wish I had a platform with which to share them outside of our community. Not that I believe the R2R format can be revived beyond the current cult.
When I first renewed my interest in open-reel tape, nearly five years ago, it was only about sound quality. Repertoire? That never even entered the equation because I knew that I only had a dozen or so tapes, most crucially a copy of the Capitol 7-1/2 ips version of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Why “crucially?” Because it was the very tape played by Tim de Paravicini at the 2017 Tokyo International Audio Show which started me on the journey that would end up with me scouring eBay for other tapes – obsessively. Ultimately, I called it quits when the total passed 2,500 or so.
This passion for tape didn’t creep up on me slowly: it was immediate. Among the tapes I did own were copies of Aretha’s Gold on Atlantic and The Very Best of Roy Orbison on Monument, both in excellent condition. As re-introductions go, along with Sgt. Pepper, it was not unlike how I got sucked into worshipping Italian red wines: after 20 years as a true teetotaler, my first taste of vino was a late-1980s Tignanello. And to think that it could have been Manischewitz….
It didn’t take long for me to want more. My first open-reel purchases, prior to embarking on the eBay addiction, were acquired at the UK’s AudioJumble. There I found a half-dozen tapes on one of the stands, at £10 ($14) apiece. What I soon learned was that open-reel tapes – even at 40-years-plus, and/or those of the generally lower quality 1/4-track, 3-3/4 ips variety – bettered any vinyl equivalent.
(Note: if you’ve read this far, may I respectfully assume you accept that bold, perhaps even absurd statement, or that you are at least willing to allow me to believe it? Please do not bombard Copper with emails about how Kessler is full of s***, how vinyl is superior, yada yada yada. I have already exhausted the R2R-vs-LP debate with no less than Michael Fremer, resulting in a friendly stalemate as I am always happy to let the deliciously misguided Mikey believe what he likes. Moreover, I can count as allies on my side of the argument this organ’s Jay Jay French, the dear, departed Tim de Paravicini, and the legendary Bob Ludwig. So, as the Eagles sang: get over it.]
I was schooled enough in the history of recorded music and the myriad formats which existed to know that there were two coherent epochs of pre-recorded, commercially-available open-reel tapes. The first age, the tapes of which caught my ear and to which I am devoted, commenced with the dawn of hi-fi and was concurrent with the birth of domestically-accessible stereo playback, circa 1950 – 1957. It ended, as far as I can determine, in the mid-1980s, after which major labels ceased the release of pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes.
As for the second era, it’s the period we’re in now. A number of forces turned open-reel tape into a tiny niche appealing to intrepid enthusiasts: the absence of new affordable, and/or real-world tape decks, the diminution of the number of manufacturers of blank tape, the high costs, the dominance of cassettes for home recording, the vagaries of owning used tape decks. As a result, the pre-recorded titles now on offer are, as far as I can tell, only 1/2-track tapes and with precious few exceptions playing at anything other than 15 ips. This means 10-inch spools swallowing lots of raw tape. It also means big bucks, and I know of no new pre-recorded tapes under $150 – $200.
Far more discouraging – and this is really gonna rile those of you who are hyper-sensitive, politically correct, or woke in any way – is the material, which has been discussed before. To reiterate, aside from the few known artists and albums on offer from The Tape Project, Analogue Productions and one or two others, the vast bulk of what is available from current sources certainly doesn’t encourage parting with money that otherwise would pay for, say, a Mobile Fidelity One-Step LP by Stevie Ray Vaughan or Charles Mingus or Janis Joplin or Santana. Sorry, but hugely expensive tapes by artists of whom one has never heard, producing music that may or may not be worth hearing – it takes either an open mind or an open credit limit. And I suffer neither.
Instead, I have embarked on a period of discovery which surprises and delights me on a weekly basis. It starts with the nostalgia most directly associated with American baby boomers, and, if they’re still so blessed, their surviving parents or relatives. It is a period of mostly forgotten names, or those enjoying rediscovery. As a displaced expat from Maine, even after a half-century I have to remind myself that most of my British friends haven’t a clue as to the existence of Howdy Doody or Captain Kangaroo, any more than US contemporaries have an awareness of the Goons or Muffin the Mule.
Occasionally, events shake things up a bit and music I thought hadn’t crossed the Atlantic proves otherwise. For example, a recent TV ad in the UK has a soundtrack supplied by Louis Prima. I still don’t know where he fits in the scale of global recognition, but I’m intimately familiar with his music because my father adored him. The younger among you, and for that matter the British of a certain age, might know his music because you or they are fans of David Lee Roth or Brian Setzer, or grew up loving Disney’s (original animated) The Jungle Book.
It is the post-war cultural pool of the initial half of the first reel-to-reel epoch which I find to be yielding so many aural thrills. It’s a litany of names that may or may not trigger bouts of nostalgia, quite irrespective of any seeming audiophilic value – which, as it so happens, they all possess: Steve and Eydie Gormé. Mitch Miller. Rosemary Clooney. Jackie Gleason. Lawrence Welk. Peter Nero.
What stopped me dead in my tracks was some small print. Although I am old enough to remember all of those named in the above paragraph, primarily via The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and the like, I was too late to the game to know about the releases from the labels which were the audiophile companies of the day. I discovered Everest, Command, Bel Canto, Audio Fidelity and the rest decades after they established the standards for sound quality in the home. Thus it was a real thrill to find evidence of Mobile Fidelity’s achievements long before it was a source for deluxe pressings from, say, Supertramp or Pink Floyd.
Seasoned audiophiles know that Mobile Fidelity’s roots go back to 1958 or so, beginning with Brad Miller’s recordings of steam trains (a curious penchant shared with Audio Fidelity). Most of us are familiar with the later period, from Herb Belkin’s time to its current ownership under Jim Davis and recall how the label made its mark for modern (post-1970s) audio enthusiasts with The Power and the Majesty on both vinyl and CD. What had eluded me was the importance of the Mystic Moods Orchestra due to my own ignorance-cum-snobbery.
One of the benefits (or side effects) of over-indulging in pre-1980s open-reel tapes is the appreciation of genres which otherwise one might have ignored or avoided. These included, for me, what sneeringly has been referred to as “Muzak” (no offense to the owners of the trade name), mood music, lounge music, easy listening, middle-of-the-road or any other generic epithet which is the antithesis of anything ranging from Anthrax to ZZ Top, Aretha to ZZ Hill, America to Zebra. Mea culpa.
Time for me to grow up, and to realize and understand that every single musician directed by the baton of Lawrence Welk was world-class. That Barney Kessel must be mentioned in the same breath as Jimmy Page. What Brad Miller brought to the (turn)table, via that weird mix of mood music and rainfall and thunder and, yes, steam trains, was sonic worth to rank with the best audiophile-grade sounds ever issued.
Among the tapes acquired in my bulk purchases were One Stormy Night (Philips PTX 600205) from 1966 and The Mystic Moods of Love (Philips PTX 6260) recorded in 1968. The former is a 3-3/4 ips tape, the latter 7-1/2 ips. Ordinarily, when curating my tapes, unless it’s something like a Ray Charles or Beach Boys or Youngbloods album, I just let them play out in the background. The magic occurs when, from time to time, the sound is so extraordinary (in the true meaning of that word) that I stop what I am doing and cannot help but concentrate on what is being played.
Both of the Mystic Moods Orchestra tapes caused interruptions to my reveries, but it was only when filing them alphabetically that I grasped that the two were from the same performers, and on the same label. It was then that I was driven to study the liner notes, jarred by buzzwords such as “Buffalo Springfield” – enough to cause palpitations, as I rank that band only a whisper behind the Beatles – and that embodiment of superb recording, “Herb Alpert.”
My eyes dropped down to see “Brad Miller” and “Mobile Fidelity.” The constraints of this being a family publication prevent me from quoting what I uttered aloud after the word “holy,” but it rhymes with “schmuck,” for that is what I had been. It went on: Lincoln Mayorga. Earl Palmer. Victor Feldman. This was proving to be an unanticipated audiophile goldmine. I was ashamed that the Mystic Moods Orchestra had eluded me, for the musicianship and the sound quality were enough to earn Recordings of the Month, regardless of the publication.
If acquiring humility is a reward – and surely that is a contradiction – consider me confused, enlightened and above all grateful. These two tapes, lost in the mists of time, proved as educational as any experiences I can recall in my 54-year journey as an audiophile. But even if the music wasn’t utterly transcendent, who could resist an album with a track called “Hot Bagel” followed by another aptly dubbed “Local Freight”? The bad news is that my completist nature means a craving for the Mystic Moods Orchestra’s other 20 recordings…