Making our show program with Analog Tape

Internet radio is becoming highly popular because it’s easier to start a cyber radio station and because most of the broadcasting music is non-commercial, rare and full of collector’s selections. The quality is usually very good. Even at their truncated 192 kbps or 160 kbps, the sound is better than a regular FM station. Some opt to go up to 320 kbps where even the purists must admit “Not bad for an MP3”.

Here at Sketsoteric Audio in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, we produce a radio program weekly that goes on air every Saturday on Frission Radio, Ireland (https://frissionradio.com/). The show is called “Eclectomatik” and, as the name implies, the music is diverse and full of different genres and styles. We specialize in soul, world, Latin and jazz music, but from time to time even some good old rock classic is included.  Let’s get an inside view of how we do it.

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Skets Radio at Sketsoteric Audio in Puerto Rico.

Procedure

The first thing you must do before anything else is research. You have to choose the material accordingly and must be appropriated for the target audience you are aiming at. We posses a nice selection of music books on our private library, but the internet is also a rich source for researching new material. Studying other colleagues’ shows help you to discover new material and new groups too. The thing is that you need to plan ahead  in order to make a proper musical programming.

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The use of books is very helpful. 

After the research is done, you proceed to create your playlist with the material you have just chosen. CD’s, vinyl, digital files and tapes are the most common sources. Since the material must be digitized before uploading it on the broadcasting schedule, you need a software where you can arrange your material. As a professional Mastering engineer, I use complex and professional mastering platforms, like Sadie or Sequoia. You don’t need to go that far as there’re many other “Free” software which are good options for this purpose as well. Even the broadcasting software lets you arrange selections from your MP3 library.

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For editing and digital recording we use the Sequoia Mastering Platform.

At our studio we go an step further seeking for better audio quality, and just to sound different we include analog recording in the process. We use one of the many decks from our collection and match it with the best tape available in the industry: Recording the Masters Analog Tape. Since our shows are one hour long, the SM 468 or the SM 911 proves to be a good choice. Having Otari, Studer, Revox and Crown decks here, is easy for us to change tapes in minutes without going through the calibration process as some are calibrated to 468 and others to 911. Anyway, on the Studer and Crown the bias cal is just a breeze.  For our application, the SM 900 is an overkill so we don’t usually work with it. We may use an LPR 90 from time to time, though. On machines like the A-810 or MTR-15 where you can store many different tape parameters and recall it later as needed, then it’s a piece of cake!

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A 45 years old CROWN CX-822 with a RTM SM-468 tape.

We record everything on tape. Then we upload to the Sequoia, do all the editing and cross-fades needed, add the voice and select the plug ins to be applied. Once the bounce is done, the conversion to MP3 takes place and on the Sequoia is really easy and fast. We make the conversion to MP3 using the highest resolution possible at 320 kbps. Some stations use this bandwidth and others, like Mixcloud for example, stays at 192 kbps. I have found, though, that keeping the best possible quality up to the last minute before conversion, yields a better quality so, I upload at 320 to Mixcloud and let their system truncate the material down to 192 instead of doing it myself. I like the results. You should try it yourself.

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Here we have the SM-911 on the Otari MTR-12

Adding the voice over is fun! We use a Blue Spark microphone and the Mackie board, together with the Big Knob, are more than enough for our purpose. On many other ocassions we use cassette tapes and play it on any Nakamichi or Revox cassette decks we have. We hope that RTM start making good cassette tapes really soon!

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A Revox B-215 Special Edition recording a show.

Tips:

1- Keep your machines perfectly calibrated and aligned for each of your tape formulations to be used. If your machine is a PITA to calibrate, just choose a good tape, like the SM-468, and stick with it!

2- With a good tape and a good machine, recording at 7.5 ips is more than enough to obtain a crispy and clear sound without any significant hiss. Want to use 15 ips? Be my guest, as long as you can afford the tapes, no problem, but not needed.

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A good source is recommended. Here’s our Linn Sondek LP-12

3- Avoid using over-compression. Just want your program to sound powerful but not with every bit squashed. Don’t ruin your analog material with over processing. Again; is not needed.

4- Since many people are going to hear this trough their I phone and using “el cheapo” headphones, you’ll have to add some 1.5 or 2.0 db of extended highs. Over 15 Khz. Be careful not to over-bright the product. Use your professional criteria.

5- For Mixcloud, keep your playlists no longer than 1 hour. 45 minutes is usually better. Remember to start with an impacting tune. That would keep the listener on the edge!

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The use of a good microphone is imperative.

6- Choose a good microphone. No need for a $2,000 Neumann, but don’t use a $25.00 crap either. Mics are the most important part when voices and instruments recording takes place. Condenser mics are better. Just be sure that your board or mic pre has phantom power to operate it. Good ones for this kind of application could cost you between $150.00 to $300.00. Headphones are also part of the equation. There’re many good choices under $250.00

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The beautiful and excellent sounding CROWN SX-822

7- When finish with the tape, store it properly inside the plastic bag supplied with it and on “tails” position. Avoid highly humid places as this could promote mold. In case where you have to re-use a tape, be sure to erase it completely with a handheld eraser before the recording. We use an old Radio Shack. If the tape has been stored for a long time, you’ll have to clean it while winding it. Some people use cotton, others an special rag and we just use a clean, dry towel.

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Nakamichi ZX-7 (top) and the fabled Nakamichi CR-7. Two of the best ever made.

Finally, just do it for the fun of it and not looking for bigger audience, If you do it right, your public will eventually grow to new levels.

Enjoy!

Carlitos Guzmán

Sketsoteric Audio records on RTM tapes exclusively.

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Cyber Radio: the “new” fever

As a long time music aficionado and professional audio Mastering Engineer, high quality audio and good music has been my passion since I was 12 years old when my father gave me a Lafayette receiver to be married later with a Technics turntable and  a Sony open reel deck. I remember very clearly the speakers: Criterion. These were also made by Lafayette Radio and in those years Lafayette were a well respected brand among audio and DIY hobbyists.

When you love recording as much as I do, you also have the desire inside yourself to share the music you like with the rest of the world. It’s just part of the hobby, I think. Anyway, back in the days the only way you could do this was by sharing tapes by mail with a rest of like minded tape heads like you. I remember while been a member of the Nakamichi club, Nak. com, we created the now famous Marathon Tapes series where every member send a tape with a preferred tune for me to mastering and do CD copies to be distributed later among the participants as a compilation of all our selections. We did this 2 years in a row. The funny thing is that years later I found someone trying to sell the CD’s at ebay for $100.00 !!! Nakamichi fanatics from Russia, Australia, South Africa, England, USA and Puerto Rico made this happen and we enjoyed it a lot.

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Marathon Tape Project: http://www.angelfire.com/wi/blueswapper/nakmarathon.html

Time Changes

With the arrival and fully development of the digital era and downloads, this is now easier than ever. Yes, I know that many believes this has also killed the music, but hey; either you adapt yourself or you die! For the unknown little artist this a one in a lifetime opportunity because this venue serves as the perfect way to let the rest of the world know your productions, group and recordings. On the other hand, for the big fish and powerful music labels this may be seen as a “legal piracy” act. I say “legal” because as far as I know the use of Soundcloud, Mixcloud, House of Mixes, Spotify, Tidal, Deezer et,al are permitted by law and many labels take advantage of their services indeed!

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A glimpse of Spotify platform

All these music streamers restrict its users from downloading audio content from its website for licensing reasons. For example Mixcloud is compared to its competitor Spotify and it’s very similar to the Spotify model where downloading is illegal and only offers streaming as an alternative. According to the Mixcloud’s main website, the platform is licensed only to provide its audio content through streaming, such that royalties are attributed to their respective artists. Mixcloud also requires its users to attribute their audio uploads with correct artist and song metadata in order to preserve intellectual property rights. At least that’s what they say, but…yeah right! Taking into consideration that there’re millions of persons using these streamers, I’m sure that many downloads happens daily. How are we going to be so sure that everybody is playing legal? Are the artists been paid properly? I don’t know how it works, but all I can say is that due to royalty issues hundreds of tracks are been pulled out from these sites daily! That’s why a playlist you made today, has 4 or 5 “non playable” tracks the next. Go figure.

Users

Mixcloud, for example, allows all users to browse and stream audio content uploaded on its site. Registered users can upload content such as radio shows, DJ mixes, and podcasts, as well as promote and distribute their content through Mixcloud’s own social networking widget. They allow uploads of unrestricted size. Registered members may join a group with other users who share a common interest, which will periodically update the members when new content related to the group becomes available. Since the audio format used is the truncated MP3’s, the purists are not so fond of these services, except for Tidal and his Hi Fi lossless data. Now with their “Masters” series, they are even using MQA codec and allegedly it enhance the listener’s experience with a sound quality “similar to the masters”.  Well, that’s what they say. I use Spotify Premium with its full 320 kbs MP3, Apple Music and Tidal Premium with its “Master” thing and let me tell you that the quality is really good. Some purists claim that it surpass their CD’s quality. I’m not so sure about that, but at the end it all depends of the recording quality and the original form of the track in question. For a person listening music through “el cheapo” headphones, using an iPhone, makes no sense to pay the extra amount for Tidal, but, for those like me who listen music on a Hi End, high definition system, the difference is there. Not as abysmal as many claims it to be, but it’s certainly there!

The way I have compared both is like this: I open Spotify and Tidal streamers at once. Choose the same track, artist, song. Play back and forth and listen carefully. On good recordings the sound is almost the same with minor differences on the sound stage and mids’ focus. The better the quality of the source, the most difficult it is to detect the difference and many people don’t even care about it! I care and pay for it, but…it could be better.

Now, on Mixcloud and other similar streamers the sound quality is even less as MP3 192 kbs is the allowed “bandwidth”. Don’t let this figure discourage you! Again, if the recording was good, with good sounding material, you’ll be surprised as I was, how good it sounds! I mean, it’s not for a critical listening but for a party and office background music while you do your thing it is perfectly OK.

How they do it?

There’re a lot of people around the globe who share DJ mixes at Mixcloud, which suddenly has emerged as the favorite platform for this kind of exercise, even over Soundcloud (which has experienced serious financial difficulties lately) and House of Mixes. Mixcloud tends to be more refine, aiming at people with more esoteric taste, while House of Mixes is mostly for urban, hip hop, dance, rap,etc. I upload my mixes on both. Curiously, the same mix has more listening on House of Mixes than on Mixcloud. The funny thing is that I just have a few followers on House of Mixes, and every time I get more “plays” there than on the other site! This issue has been discussed on several occasions by different users, but the answers I have read from MC are vague and unclear.  Go figure.

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We use Recording the Masters analog tapes exclusively.

Most of them download files from the net, combines it with some CD’s and do their playlist. Others, like me, uses vinyl, tape and Hi Rez digital files as our main music source. First, I need to define the kind of music I’m going to select. I’m mostly into Soul, Jazz and Nu Jazz. I do the research using my vast music encyclopedia collection or the internet, choose the tracks and record those on one of my many analog tape recorders. I mainly use my Crown CX-822 or my recently acquired Otari MTR 12. I also use cassettes and record on my Nakamichi CR 7 or ZX 7. Once the tape is ready, I proceed to upload the material using a Focusrite A/D converter to my DAW, where I use a Sequoia Professional Mastering platform. Once there, I edit, arrange, mix and leveled the tracks. I try to make the cross-fades as smooth as I can and the rest is history. I either use a 60 minutes tape or 90. It’s better to keep it short as most people gets tired of listening after a mere 45 minutes or so. That’s how I do it and I should be one of the very, very few who still records on Analog tape. We only use “Recording the Masters” analog tape. SM-468, SM-911 or LPR-90.

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RESEARCH your material. That’s the first thing you have to do.

Of course, not everybody do it this way as it is more difficult and more expensive. The tape is not cheap, you know. I’ve been fortunate enough as to be sponsored by RTM, but still. Others simply download files, use any of those DJ’s Pioneer arrays (which are not cheap, by the way) add some CD’s to the story and make a file on their computers using Sonar, Sonic Foundry, Platinum Notes,etc. They upload the material and that’s it. Some do research and others simply “copy” the artists from fellow members, download and do their playlist. Nobody that I know has a collection of 100,000+ CD’s…you know. Again, it’s considered illegal to download any track from the streamers, ok?

The general ambient among the members is of camaraderie and sharing. Some has created venues for others to expose different kind of music styles, like Weird Jazz Collective, Valternativa Radio and Soul Cool Records, among others. Then you have the cyber radio stations, which are now en vogue, who uses Mixcloud to expose their radio programs as well. My show is at Frission Radio every other Saturday at noon. Once it’s aired, they upload the show on Mixcloud for others to enjoy. Every year a cyber committee choose “the best this” and “the best that” and the winners are recognized. I could care less about awards because music is the essence of all this, but, there’re others who believe they own the music they upload and gets finicky and selfish with intellectual material which are not clearly theirs. Ego shit happens everywhere and for some guys it is more about getting “followers” and “likes” than the real purpose of all this: sharing music.

How it works?

You already have the material and has uploaded it on Mixcloud. Now you need “followers”, otherwise your precious work would pass by unheard. Unfortunately, this is the most difficult part as it could take you years for developing a group of followers to support your mixes. I have seen folks there with over 100,000 followers and others over 60,000…of course; they have been there since Mixcloud started, and everybody knows that there are other ways to get it (we recently read articles on the newspapers talking about how the “influencers” promote and sell followers’ list, etc). 100,000 may sound like a lot but with all honesty, if we take into consideration the millions of people in this world who are streaming music, that sum becomes minimal.  The trick is that the most followers you have, the most listening your mixes would get and it would assure you an automatic privileged place on the “charts”! Yeah! It works like the “Top 40’s” but in this case the top 100 of each week are selected. How? Well, honestly speaking I don’t know how the parameters are because I had one mix once occupying the # 17 position on Nu- Jazz, while there were many others with less listening and re-postings than mine on a upper position! I send an email to the Mixcloud lords and their answer was so comical that even today I’m still laughing out loud about it! I mean, it looks like a childish shit, but it gives you some kind of boost to continue doing it better! Ha! Anyway, once you have a lot of followers, no matter what you upload, you can be sure it would have a lot of likes and listens.

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OTARI MTR 12: instead of a computer, I use this machine to compile the mix.

Curiously, about 10% of the amount of followers you have seems like the only steady audience who listen to your mixes most of the time! I mean, don’t  expect that the guys with 100,000 followers are always heard by the same amount. No way José. It doesn’t work like that. Perhaps 25,000+…2 or 3 years later. Ha! It is , what it is, but it is fun! On the other hand, I have seen people with 25,000 followers who has uploaded just one mix! How they do it? I don’t simply know… So, because of the “followers” thing, many other better and elaborated mixes pass inadvertently, while those with a bigger public gets the attention…and not always with the best material.

If you still wants more exposition, then you have to pay! Again, Mixcloud seems like more expensive than the others. I tried it once at House of Mixes for $20.00 and for 2 weeks my playlist was featured on their main Soul page. Surely enough I got over 100 listens in no time. On MC is about $50.00 or something like that. Does it worth it? Well, it works, but it’s just a whim to get more audience because it does not translate in any compensation, besides personal pleasure, for you. It’s up to you to decide.

The Sound

Generally speaking, most of the mixes sound very good indeed. If we take into consideration that we are dealing with limited 192 kbs MP3’s, truncated sources using also MP3’s and the eternal over-compression tendency, these cats are doing miracles! Unfortunately, many has been putting too much attention to volume and compression squashing the bits to the maximum, with distorted results. Plenty of  good music are sacrificed everyday by this practice in the music business and it seems to me that here at MC and HOM is the same. You can raise the volume of the material without compression but you need to know how to and employ the proper tools. Not everybody is a Mastering Engineer, you know.

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This is the tape we prefer: Recording the Masters analog tape.

Many uses Vinyl as a source but don’t have the means to restore the records,so you hear a lot of clicks and pops instead of the music itself. A typical tendency I have observed in these kind of sites is that many exponents try to impress others with obscure and unknown selections. This is not bad by any means, but sometimes they simply over-do it. They mainly choose tracks that were practically unheard of when the record came out, unknown artists that didn’t even have a “one hit wonder” and other similar material. I like to do that as well, but some folks just don’t get it and keep doing the same over and over again until their audience gets bored. Unless your audience target are collectors and connoisseurs, you have to be careful with the material selection and keep a balance to avoid converting your mixes in a museum…or a cemetery vault!

What’s next?

Cyber media is here to stay. We’ll continue to see more quality and faster streaming speed in the near future. The producers, labels and artists must start to find ways to get benefits out of all this because very soon would be the only way to distribute music. Hypocrisy is always present and some of those same labels who use to hate the digital revolution in the past are now firmly advocates of the streaming realm.

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This is one of the many mixes I have upload at Mixcloud

The real purpose of Mixcloud and likes are to share music and to connect like minded people from all around the world. Unfortunately, as in every place were too much talent is crowded in “one place”, ego wars and people looking for fame is very present. Some guys go to the extreme as to believe they own the copyright material they play and becomes selfish with their mixes. The funny thing is that 99% of the time this is all a work of love and usually for FREE. I know, though, some who has a lot of audience and becomes sponsored by companies related to the media, and that’s ok , but I’m sure that as soon as this practice grows the streamers would be asking for their share as well. Money and politics has always been the main discordance factors in play.

So, next time you sit on your computer search for some of these sites. You’ll discover new music and artists you never knew they exist. You can do your own playlist to take it with you “on the go” using your phone and play your mixes at a party or even at your favorite bar. Some purist may object the quality, but hey, from time to time you just need to forget about Hi End audio and enjoy the music!

Cheers!

Carlitos Guzmán

Images: the Mushroom Jazz image are from Mark Farina Mushroom Jazz series
Mixcloud and Recording the Masters logos are copyright material.

Analogy Records

“The goal of all my recordings has always been the highest quality, as well as the care in microphone techniques, the creativity in mixing, the emotion that a song can arouse in the listener… I’ve felt the urge to produce artists and albums for a refined and demanding audience, who pays attention to details and nuances, by using the best available analog media: the tape.

Analogy Records is the world’s first record label to produce contemporary artists at its recording studio, distributing ORIGINAL MASTER TAPES.

Instead of producing copies from any pre-existing master, for each order Analogy Records produces an original master directly from the multi-track recording system, thus removing an additional stage. No first generation copies but only original Master Tapes, in order to ensure the best listening experience ever.”  Robbo Vigo, Owner

There you go, from the own words of the Analogy Records tape owner, Roberto “Robbo” Vigo, a seasoned recording veteran from Italy. He also owns a nicely equipped recording studio in Genoa, Italy -“Zerodieci”- and he’s also member of the AES. Names like Al Schmitt, Eddie Kramer and Tony Maserati among other legendary producers has been related to Robbo Vigo and his projects.

In 2014, he decided to establish Analogy Records, claiming to produce an original master directly from the mixing console to the recorder (all Studers), instead of copies made from “running masters” like the rest of the pre-recorded tape producers. Each tape you receive is like having a “Master” in your hands and not a copy, from a copy! Well, at least the exquisite sound I heard in my studio testifies this. When I asked Robbo to send me a sampler in order to review his products, he was kind enough as to send not one tape, but three! One 15 ips sampler on a trident plastic 10.5″ reel, one 7 1/2 ips sampler same as the big one , but at a slower speed and finally a complete “master” of Peter Erskine “Live in Genova”, Vol. 2. The 7 1/2″ version is what they call “The Basic” and it’s a genuine attempt to introduce customers to their products at a lower price and for those who can only playback small reels on their domestic decks. For you to have an idea a Premium version, on a aluminum 10.5″ NAB reel and running at 15 ips price is almost $400.00! The Basic is less than half. They even offer an Special Edition, custom made Master for over $1,000.00 but for me that’s way too much.

IMG_1702“Fatman and Littleboy”: same samplers, different formats. 7.5 & 15 ips

The packaging of the Premium reel is very well made and represents what you are paying for. I have seen other products where you pay $250.00 for it and all you receive is a generic aluminum reel with a color photocopy for a booklet. This is a classy product.

High Class, quality packaging included with colorful booklets.

The Sound

Nice reels, fancy presentation and hefty price tag. What about the sound? Let’s talk about it. Since 1978, when my father gave me a Sony TC-560D open reel deck as a gift, I have been an inveterate tape user and have specialized in almost every tape format. I have never stopped using audio cassette and open reel tape in my life and I still conserve a lot of DAT’s as well. Same as vinyl, tape has never died. Some people has been footling about the “tape revival” and others fanfaronade about the superiority of digital and Hi Rez downloads. Good for them! On the other hand we have started to see vinyl yeasayers admitting that the most close you can get to the “real thing” is through a master copy pre-recorded tape, running @ 15ips on a perfectly restored and aligned deck.  Analogy Records claims that they have eliminated this step because they record the tape direct from the multitrack station itself. I assume it’s a Pro Tools and not a 2” tape master. The tape used is the kind of standard RTM 468: the legendary option for high speed recording.

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The little reel running on my Crown SX-822

I started with the “little boy” 7.5″ plastic reel to see what’s all the fuss about. Better to start with something less ostentatious and leave the caviar for later, at least that’s what I thought…until I hit the “Play” button. All doubts and preconceptions for little boy dissipated! To begin with, hiss noise from the tape itself were almost none. It was o low that I double checked the volume knob to see if it was up. Suddenly the voice of Andrea Celeste inundated my room I knew immediately that I was hearing something special. Her voice was clear, the presence natural without being offensive and liquid highs. It was a complete frondescence audio spectrum with everything in place. No dull, not bright. Just the right amount. Compared to some other tapes I have reviewed before, this is full of life. On Peter Erskine drum solo you could even feel the affination of the drum skin every time Peter hit on it. It was time to move to the big leagues. I took the 15 ips sampler version and after some tests, decide to play it on a different ambience and deck to avoid been spoony. I choose the Crown CX-822 on my recording studio and listened…

 The “fat man” running on my CX-822

This is the real deal. If the small one has no hiss, the 15 ips is completely darkness. More details and a little bit more extended highs, but to be honest,because I’m not a footling person, people could be perfectly happy with either version. Both sounded spectacular.

Recording Test

This is something I do with all samplers I receive. Since the hiss noise is cumulative and increase copy after copy, unless you use noise reduction artifacts (a sacrilege among audiophiles) it’s inevitable. I make a direct copy from the CX-822 to one of my many cassette decks on my collection. This time I choose the fabled and very vintage Nakamichi 700 ZXE. As expected, the cassette copy using a brand new Maxell XL II tape without NR came out excellent, but of course with a hint of hiss and this is natural. So, just for testing, I did side B but this time using Dolby C on the Nakamichi ZX 7…WOW!

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Nakamichi 700 ZXE: one of two I have.

Since audio cassette has been on the revival tape fever and has many advocates, I have spoken to all these companies and recommended them to start contemplating the production of cassette tapes as well. The guys from Hemiolia Records as well as Robbo Vigo himself has demonstrated a genuine interest to do so soon. If only they could listen to my test I guarantee you the skepticism would come to an end!

Conclusion

Pre-recorded tapes are now the new kid on the block for audiophiles. Fancy reproductions running on fully restored 30 years old decks is something you could never predict 5 years ago. The revival of the open reel and audio cassette tape was something more obscure than a urban legend. Now it’s a reality and it’s stronger than ever. Unfortunately, the unavailability of new decks, the cost of restored TOL decks and the scarcity of new popular music available on these media make it difficult to be adopted by the masses. Some attempts have been trumpeted by few companies about coming with a new open reel deck, like the failed Revox project and the unaffordable Ballfinger, but I’m afraid that’s not enough.

Besides all these shortcomings, not many people are able to pay over $250.00 for an unknown artist. John Q Public is looking for his favorite group and not for an equipment demonstration costly tape. At least the music recorded by Analogy Records is more contemporary and has not been castigated by the same “strange” music selections, without any animadversion, of other similar companies. If you want this saga to be successful among new public, you better change the idea and concept. It’s hard to sit a young guy in front of a system and induce him to listen exotic music from drums and mallets which are more suitable for audio demonstration than for real listening! The music I heard from these masters are not only meritorious of demonstrate the virtues of any system, but it’s also the kind of music anyone can listen to. Compared to those copies made from production tape masters, these from Analogy are a kind of lean and with less body on the lower regions but not by far. They are clean, fast and with a lot of impact. The recording level is not shy and as far as your machine is well aligned, prepare yourself for a paean experience! Robbo Vigo and Analogy Records are on the right track for sure.

Highly recommended!

Carlitos Guzmán

 

International Phonograph Inc.

0139562e28d267fac31893c4b43b4c96361361df8bInternational Phonograph Inc. (IPI) was formed over 25 years ago with one thing in mind: to create the highest sound quality possible in the service of creative musicians.

The owner of IPI, Jonathan Horwich, has been recording, producing and mastering jazz and classical music since the mid 1960s. He has worked with such musicians as Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Ravi Shankar, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Gary Peacock, Clare Fischer, Carmell Jones, Tony Williams, Richie Beirach, and many others.

Drawing on his extensive experience with high quality analog equipment, Jonathan conducted his own research and testing, uninfluenced by other opinions, to locate the finest equipment available. He has incorporated this superior equipment into the construction of IPI Studios, an analog and digital state-of-the-art facility that is second to none.

The focus at IPI has always been and will always be the music and the artist. We believe that a studio and its equipment exist only to serve the musician and help him or her achieve a musical concept or goal. Hence, when a master is created for manufacturing at IPI studios, it is to the highest industry standards, preserving the artist’s vision, concept, and yes, even the joy and enthusiasm that he or she invested in the music. (From their website)

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When we inquired about their tape recording reproduction, this is what they have to say:

There are two categories of tape I produce for International Phonograph, Inc. The first is jazz newly recorded specifically on tape for this tape program. These performances are recorded using analog tape recorders. Normally, I record about 30 minutes of music so that it fits on one reel of tape. These recordings can be created with two microphones or multi microphones. The second category of tapes produced for IPI is master tapes from my library of jazz recorded over the years by me or those I associated with. These are more for the jazz aficionado who loves jazz as a priority and enjoys hearing jazz on the best media, analog tape. In some cases (almost a third, sub-category of the second) there are technical faults in the recording and I don’t post those for sale on the website. For instance, I have a master tape of Warne Marsh which is a brilliant performance but which has technical glitches. I find it stunning and exciting but some tape people do not as their priority is not the performance. Please email me about any of these unlisted recordings if you are a jazz buff. I will let you know what is available and what the technical bugs are in each case. I find the ones with the technical glitches as exciting as anything available today in jazz.

All tapes are ¼” two track, 15ips, IEC (CCIR), on 10.5 inch reels, at 250 nanowebers.

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Jonathan Horwich is a music passionist and knows a lot about recording. He lives, breath and predicates audio, music and tape!  I asked him for a sampler to evaluate and without hesitation he send me a nice aluminum 10.5″ reel inside an archival box with all the information needed.

My main listening room, which is 30′ long x 25′ wide and 10′ high, has professional acoustics installed where it were required and the actual room proof to be very flat and neutral. Early reflections has been properly controlled without resulting in a dull environment. My reference speakers are the Tannoy System 15, DMT II that I used in my Mastering business years ago. Many Gold, Platinum and Grammy awards were done with this pair. At this moment, I’m using a Crown Reference Amplifier, the Audiophile edition, full of power and dynamics. In this room, I have a Crown SX-822 custom made for me by Chuck Ziska, the Crowndoc himself, in a 1/2″ format with 7.5 and 15 ips speeds. I also have a Studer deck and 3 Nakamichi cassette decks.

Following the recommendations of the well known reviewer and audiophile Myles B. Astor concerning IPI tapes, I began my audio journey listening to Jonathan’s tape. As expected, the sound is superb, the miking technique is excellent and the “being there” sensation has been effortlessly obtained. Immediately, the selections played by Roebke, Konitz and Colby respectively, attracted my musician instincts. I felt the music, not just the sound,  but the whole music experience which only an exceptional group of musicians together with a very experienced audio engineer could get.

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Usually, with these kind of tapes, the levels are either very low and noisy or on the other extreme, way too high. In this case the levels were right where they’re supposed to be. A very dynamic, wide and natural ambience. Nice performance and nice recording. Who could ask for more?

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Now I understand why the IPI recordings has a high group of followers among the audiophile circle and the reason why some of their tapes occupies a privileged position on the “best of the best” audiophile tape copies list. Besides this, you can usually get a nice material from IPI for just $150.00, hardly covering their cost, and from time to time special offers are available for those tape lovers in their emailing list.

I highly recommend these tapes for any Jazz lover and for those looking for the “best of the best” meal to feed their precious and vintage decks all around the world. Magnificent work, Jonathan. Kudos to you and your musicians. Your years of experience has paid off!

You can get more information about International Phonograph, Inc. at:

http://www.internationalphonographinc.com/

Tell Jonathan I send you…he may give you a discount!

Carlos J Guzmán-Senior Contributing Editor

Mono & Stereo High End Magazine

Cassettes Anyone?

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One of my 2 Nakamichi Dragons

With the new tape revival around the world, more and more audiophiles are getting into the exclusive, and sometimes expensive, hobby of open reel playback. Many companies have resurrected the old “pre-recorded” reel tapes market but this time with exclusive music and performers dubbed on high quality tape from ATR or RTM, running @ 15ips on a 1/2 Track format and with such a high sound quality that right now this is the best media to take you closer to the “real thing”. In the past, the pre-recorded tapes were duplicated on poor stock tape, 1/4 tk format and 3 3/4 speed. The hiss was always high, but even though I can recall a nice and acceptable sound from many of my older brother’s tapes he brought from Vietnam. Today this is a complete different story. The copies are duplicated on real-time, direct from the duplication masters and using the best recorders they could afford from Studer, Telefunken, Philips and Nagra. Having such a copy is like having a “piece” of the Master Tape itself and I’m not kidding.

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NAD 6300 with the companion Tuner. 

Well, all this noise has been growing lately and it was inevitable that the cassette tape would take the opportunity to jump on the train as well. One of the main advantages the cassette has over the open reel is the prolific abundance of nice units still working around the world and for relative good prices. On the other hand,  the audio cassette players are more complex machines than their bigger relatives and just a small number of capable techs are still dealing with these. To make things even more interesting, some brands requires specific gadgets to be serviced, like Nakamichi for example, making the available techs list even more reduced. I know a lot of good technicians that can’t properly service a Nak simply because they don’t have the required aligning tools and tapes. Those who are adventurous enough as to attempt a service without the Nak specific tools, ends in the same way: recommending a Nak tech to their customer after the damaged is already done…

Other models require a lot of inventive and imagination on behalf of the service tech because many parts and replacements are no longer available. That’s why you have to be careful as to which deck you are going to buy and from who. For example; I collected all Teac “Z Series” decks (only 3 models were done). Later, I discovered the hard way that this specific decks are a pain in the ass to work with and only 3 or 4 techs are willing and capable to serviced it. The Z 7000, a beautiful, impressive and heavy machine is highly complex and prone to problems. At the end, I got rid of all three since every time I needed a service, in shipping cost alone, I use to spend a fortune due to its weight! (over 50 lbs)!

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My former and like “new” Teac Z-7000

Many unjustified criticism has been made to the cassette media. Every time I read something on the press about the cassette revival I have noticed the writer’s prejudice towards the cassette. They usually mention the hiss, low quality and bad sounding characteristics of the cassette tape. Sure! When you deal with a low quality, commercial duplicated tape on a crappy shell and playing it back on an even crappier machine which has not seen a Q Tip with alcohol on the heads since who knows when, hey!, that’s not a fair accusation! That’s not the same cassette tape myself, and many other cassette lovers know! Unfortunately, this handicap is similar to that of the Vinyl. Why do you think the CD took the market like a storm? Simply because even with a “cheap” player you could obtain a fair sound quality (excellent quality for John Q Public) no matter where. With cassette and vinyls you need to have the proper set-up to get the most out of it and that takes time, knowledge and money! The general consumer is always looking for ease of use, flexibility and bargains. No wonder why the CD took over, just to be displaced later by the stream and download services. Who wants to bother now with the old tape again? Only us, the remaining tape lovers who knows where the real quality and music enjoyment is…

The Machine

It has always amazed me the grade of quality and perfection the cassette tape evolved to, running at the very slow speed of 1 7/8 ips and using a 1/4 tk format in such small surface of tape! When was the last time you listened to a good recorded Chrome tape played in a high quality deck? Many people have not had this opportunity and all they remember were those tapes from dad’s car, beaten by the sun and playing in a cheap Kraco unit! How many of you have experienced a custom recorded TDK metal tape playing back on a properly aligned Nakamichi Dragon? You’ll have to hold on to your pants and I’m deeply serious. The best cassette decks can even surpassed the sound of a modest 1/4 tk open reel. Take a Tandberg 3014 A, any Nakamichi TOL model, Revox B 215 or even a NAD 6300 and compared it to a regular reel to reel deck. You’ll see what I’m talking about. I know of a former Creek engineer, Alex Nikitin, who takes a specific Tascam model cassette deck, modify it to run at a faster speed with a handful additional mods and it’s been said that it supersedes in sound to most of the open reel decks out there, and that folks is something else.

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My Revox B-215 Special Edition

Which one to buy? I wouldn’t fall into that trap because this an issue that the cassette hobbyists are never going to concur, but since I’m the author of this article, I’ll take the liberty to recommend my favorites, which are not necessarily the best by all means! Anyway, it all depends on your preferences. Are you a die-hard recording aficionado like me or are you just looking for a good playback machine? Do you want just a “deck” or are you looking for a serious machine? How much do you want to spend? You know, the usual questions to be considered in this and/or any other kind of hobby.

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One of the two Nakamichi 700 ZXE I have. We call it “the toaster”.

Let’s suppose that you are just interested to play those 300 pre-recorded cassettes you are keeping since 1988 in the closet. You’ll rarely use it for recording. You are just looking for a nice machine with nice playback capabilities and your budget is healthy. I’ll immediately refer you to a machine where the azimuth could be manually or automatically adjusted. Why? Because no matter where those tapes of yours were recorded, re-adjusting the playback head angle of your actual deck (azimuth) to the original’s recording head where the duplication took place, could guarantee a crispy and the best sound possible you could get out of any tape every time, unless your tape is such in a bad shape that it’s completely hopeless. The king of all auto-azimuth adjustment decks, and the only one with certain attributes in that department, is the Dragon. Period. You just have to insert the tape and hit the play button. She’ll gets the correct azimuth automatically and will also do the same later on side B once she goes into the auto-reverse direction if you choose that option! Yes, auto-reverse too with one of the best transports ever designed and fully direct drive. One of the most successful models ever made and marketed with over 20,000 units sold, the Nakamichi Dragon is widely recognized among the Hi End circle and even by those who are not related with the hobby. The cons are that she needs to be properly serviced  and a fully refurbished unit will cost you over $1,000.00 easily. My advice: don’t fall for the so-called “working and fully functional” Fleabay description unless it was serviced by a real Nakamichi tech! Sellers think that if they change some belts, clean and lube some things here and there, the machine is “excellent”. Not with a Dragon. Not with a Nakamichi. So, just buy a cheap one and send it to Willy Hermann in California. Prepare to invest at least $600.00 on a full refurbish service and weeks later you’ll receive back a deck working like “new”. A nicely serviced one could cost you $1,500 anyway,so, I already gave you a hint.

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My second Dragon singing!

For manual playback azimuth, Nakamichi offer other models as well and for a lower price tag: Cassette Deck 1 and DR 1. The best in this manual cal realm is the CR-7 but the price is up there with the Dragon, so, it’s up to you.

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Nakamichi ZX-7 (top) and CR-7 in my recording studio.

The NAD 6300 has a playtrim adjustment that what basically does is to increase the high frequencies of a tape. It’s like adding Treble to the sound. Unfortunately, if the azimuth is completely out of adjustment, no matter how much Treble you add, the sound could still be muffled. This deck is one of the best bang for the money in the second-hand market and you can find a good one for under $300.00 easily. The soundstage is it forte, but it is a little bit on the bright side for my taste. Still one of the best if you are on a restricted budget. There are many others from other brands as well, but this article is not a buying guide bible,so, let’s move on. By the way; for those of you who are more technical oriented, you can always adjust the azimuth of your cassette deck with a small screwdriver, as this adjustment screw is usually accessible from the front. This way your selection would be endless: Pioneer, Aiwa, Technics, Yamaha, JVC, Aiwa, Sony, you named it!

How you do it? There are specific tapes recorded with a 10 khz tone for azimuth adjustment. You play the cassette and rotate the screw until you have the strongest signal on both channels. Another method is by ear and it’s very useful for these old tapes: play your recorded tape, preferably one with high energy cymbals and high frequencies, move the screw until you get the best possible “highs”, then, with the Stereo/Mono button of your receiver, go back and forth until you hear a similar sound quality on both modes. When you have multiple decks like me, for example, I always have one main recording unit, what I call the “Master Recorder”. I do a homemade azimuth tape with the Master deck and adjust all the others to this standard. This way I can play all my tapes on any of the decks I have with excellent results.

Recording:

The rules for recording on cassettes are the same basic rules that applies when dealing with any kind of tape. You try to record as high as possible without getting the tape saturated (distortion) in order to obtain a better signal to noise ratio. Depending on the tape formulation, is the signal level you could get. Normal Bias tapes, as a general rule, are best between the “0” and +2db. For Chrome tapes you can go up to +4dB with occasional +6db and Metals up to +8db. This, of course, depends on your deck and to what kind of tape it was originally calibrated. Many variables have to be considered, but at least this is just a basic guidance. It’s  best for the user to familiarize with the deck and experiment with its capabilities and limitations. I always record at the highest possible level, but that’s me. Be sure that the heads and tape path are fully clean. It’s also recommended to de-magnetize all these from time to time. I’m not a fully believer of demag, so, it’s up to you.

What about filters? The famous and useful Dolby is included in every modern cassette deck. The original Dolby B, Dolby C and even the latest Dolby S works in a different way, but with a common purpose: reduce hiss. The last one arrived kind of late into the hobby as to be a serious contender. Based on the studio standard, Dolby SR, the Dolby S supposed to be the most advanced but not many decks has this option. DBX, Dolby competition, were also available in some decks but it never equaled Dolby’s popularity. Additional Dolby “enhancers” were developed to increase headroom,  extend the high frequencies and reduced distortion.

Teac Z 7000

Tandberg  Dyneq/ActiLinear and Bang & Olufsen HX PRO plays an important role in the high quality sound of the cassette decks. The Danish Bang & Olufsen improved the Dolby HX “head room extension” system for reliably reducing tape saturation effects at short wavelength (high frequencies) despite higher bias level. This advanced method was called Dolby HX Pro. HX Pro was adopted by many other high-end manufacturers, except Nakamichi because it really didn’t need it! Dyneq is an anti-saturation circuit, whereas ActiLinear is a headroom extension circuit, according to Tandberg technical staff.With HX PRO, the HF content is monitored & bias adjusted dynamically in accordance, inversely related. When large level HF signals are present, less bias is needed since the HF signal acts as bias for the lf/mf signals. In ActiLinear, this process takes place in the previous amp stage. The transconductance amp driving the record head outputs a current to the head, as opposed to traditional record amps which output a voltage. The bias is mixed with the audio signal ahead of the record amp. In other words, the current drive to the record head which includes bias & signal, is optimized as HF’s content varies, extending headroom. Actilinear is the HX counterpart, whereas Dyneq simply limits the hf boost during record. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s how I understand it. Be sure to look for more information and corroborate it.

Tandberg 3014A with its Dyneq/ActiLinear feature.

The problem with some of these filters is that if the deck is not working properly, Dolby mistracking can take place and the sound would be compromised. Some people opts for No Dolby at all and others prefer Dolby B or C. I have use it all and for me the most “forgiving” is the B because even without decoding  you can still listen to the tape. Not so with the C or dbx. If you are not sure, go straight with no filters at all!

What decks for recording? Anyone you like and can afford. From the Nakamichi stable I like the ZX-7. Why? Because you can still grab a good one for $500.00 or less, it’s very similar in sound to the considerably more expensive and difficult to get ZX-9, has the famous Nakamichi classic transport, the recording parameters as well as the recording head azimuth are manually adjusted and the sound is just wonderful. If you are on the “cost no object” bracket, by all means, go to the big leagues of the ZX-9, CR-7 or Dragon.

If you are looking for a more exotic piece, then a Tandberg 3014A or a Revox B-215 could be your choice. Both are excellent machines, but the Revox is easier to find service and parts for, at least in the USA. A Tandberg in good condition could go as high as $2,000. Personally, I wouldn’t go that high.

What about the classic Naks? 1000 ZXL, 700 ZXL/ZXE, 682 ZX,etc… A 1000 ZXL is the holy grail for the Nakamichi collector. A complex machine, not easy to deal with and very expensive. Over $3,000 easily for a good unit. The golden Limited…forget it! I have seen this one over $8,000 ! Does it really worth it? Ah, eh, …it’s up to you if you really like the golden finish. I sold both many moons ago, the original and the limited, because it was expensive to maintain and my wife never liked the Golden color! One thing must be said: this is one of the best cassette decks ever made in the history of audio and the sound is simply exquisite. Want a taste of the 1000’s without breaking the bank? Go for the 700 ZXL or ZXE. Similar in sound, but still over $1,000 if you find a good one. I have (2) 700 ZXE because there’s something in the sound of these classic behemoths difficult to find in other models.

Nakamichi 1000 ZXL

The NAD 6300 is the best bang for the money. Sings beautiful and record excellent. The price is good also. This model has the Sankyo transport, similar to the CR-7’s, so parts and techs are widely available. Other brands have specific models that are well accepted among the recording aficionados circle: Yamaha KX 1200, Aiwa ADF 800 (very affordable and surprisingly good), Sony,  Technics, ADS, Teac, Akai, Tascam, etc.

Buying Advice:

First, if you are serious about this forget about buying those new units available from Teac or Crosley. No good. If you want to get into this hobby you’ll have to get a good serviced, refurbished and nice cosmetics classic one, like those mentioned above. You’ll be tempted to go for the usual “nice condition, fully operational” ad of Ebay. Forget it. Ask the seller when was the last time the machine was serviced and by who. Those serviced by Willy Hermann tends to cost higher. Sometimes too much. Try to find a nice looking one for less and send it for repairs. The more complex the machine, the most expensive to refurbish would be. What you have to keep in mind is that we are talking about 30+ years old machines here and NONE could be perfectly working if service is not performed. ALL of these machines need service. Sooner or later and there’s not an alternative solution for this. You may find one that still working…until it get to your hands and start using it. Before the month ends the machine would stop working. When I buy a unit I like, I tell the seller to ship it directly to the repair shop. That way I’m sure I’m going to receive a “working like new” deck for years to come. That saves me time and money.

Top view of the ADS C-4 with its famous drawer (Atelier Series)

Conclusion:

This article is not a buying guide, neither covers all needed information about cassette decks, but at least it’s from an owner’s point of view and someone who has been dealing with tape for over 35 years now. Almost every famous audio brand from the 80’s developed its own cassette deck versions but there’s no secret that only few of those excelled in this arena. Some people hates the Nakamichi cult due to personal preferences or simply because they could never afford one. The truth is that, besides Nakamichi, there has been other brands with excellent alternatives, BUT, for me and thousand others Nakamichi rules! They were over-priced and continues to be, that’s for sure, but nobody can deny the importance this brand has in the history of the audio cassette and all the innovations that came with it. Some original inventions were introduced by others, that’s true, but on many occasions they were improved and exploited by Nakamichi in their own applications. What really amazes me from this brand is that even those 2 head modest models sounded better than many 3 head designs from other competitors. Nakamichi were seen as the leader in cassette deck technology and perhaps that’s why every other brand used their comparative Marketing against one name and one name only: Nakamichi. Always. I never saw an ad of Pioneer comparing theirs to a Technics or Sony. The same still going on today. Take a look of a second-hand “for sale” ad of a Tandberg, Revox, Aiwa,etc. The heading usually goes like this: “Tandberg 3014: The Dragon Slayer” or “Revox B-215: better than a Nakamichi” and “Aiwa 9000: a Dragon killer” Have you seen it? I’m kidding not!

Nakamichi, Tandberg, Revox. For me these are the true heavyweights of the cassette deck hey era. I know it would bring many objections, but it is what it is. You also have the rare Eumig, BIC and ASC from Europe. Or the usual and more affordable Japanese alternatives from the most popular brands. Yeah! Even Harman Kardon and their famous CD 491 was a nice one too or the ADS C-4, Luxman, Technics RS M95…OK! But let’s be honest: none of these could get the general public acceptance as “the best” like the first 3 names mentioned. At least this is the truth in cassette deck technology.

Make your final decision. I’m sure that sooner or later one of the open reel tape producers would start looking into audio cassettes as well and when that time comes you better be ready. I am. Are you?

Carlitos Guzman

 

Tape Talk: STS Digital

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…we like music very much, it is a wonderful way to express feelings and communicate with other people on a same level. We like also the sound of musical instruments, played in fine acoustic surroundings, they sound so pure and warm. Unfortunately most CD, LP and Reel to Reel tapes are bad recorded, with a harsh sound to close and without ambience. For this reason we started with STS Digital twenty years ago to do something totally different and the results are our recordings with a fine selection and series like: Extended Dynamic Experience, Celebrate the Art & Spirit of music, Siltech Test Demo CD, The Absolute Sound Reference lots of LP’s and Reel to Reel tapes.

There you go folks, Fritz and Netty de With are a couple of entrepreneurs from the Netherlands deeply involved with the audiophile world and recording as well. These fellows breathe and live music all the way and has been brave enough as to embark on this tape masters saga, now en vogue almost everywhere. They know that they wouldn’t become rich with this limited business, but at least they are enjoying what they love to do and that’s what counts!

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The Product: To begin with, the tapes are supplied in a custom, high quality made aluminum reel with the “STS” logo. The design is innovative and the color is beautiful. The very small “windows” make it difficult to thread the tape on the hub without leaving a “tape flag” protruding out as I like to thread my tapes, but this is just an small detail. The reel by itself if a collection piece.

The tape is a LPR35 from Recording the Masters (former BASF) and comes neatly packed in the reel. Then, you have this nice looking cardboard box with the production cover picture labeled to the box. It’s a high class presentation, second only to the extremely fancy “Open Reel Records” package. The STS box is a reminiscence of the glorious pre-recorded tapes of the 70’s and their 7″ boxes with the picture on it.  It’s easier and cheaper to just send a tape inside a generic box, but NO. STS prefers to spend a little more in order to give the customer something worth of the investment they do on this kind of products.

Inside, you’ll also find the “quality control” certificate, that also serve as the track list and a detailed description of their tape copy process.

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The Recording: The copies are made from the master running on a Philips EL3501 to a bank of 6 Philips N4522. The equalization is to CCIR standards, 320 nWb, half track format and the sampler I received runs @ 15ips. The recording level was right on the money: not too low and not too loud. Just where it’s suppose to be.

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They don’t use Dolby, but the noise floor were extremely quiet!

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The Sound: The sound quality is very good indeed. The instruments timbre is very accurate, the recording space is neatly distributed and you can pin point where’re every musician, the stereo image is wide and well distributed with a very detailed presence and transparency. The illusion of “being there” is extremely realistic. I have the impression that this tape was meticulously mastered and if it’s so, it was a great Mastering work. As a Mastering Engineer myself, I have found many nice recordings ruined by the Mastering process. Not this one. Well, Fritz has been doing this since the 70’s, so, he must know a thing or 2 about recording and sound quality.

Conclusion: The main complaint from John Q Public about the so called “hi end” master tapes is that on many occasions the recordings are made by obscure artists and the music they play, besides the classical titles, are a little hard to listen to for more than 15 minutes. I understand them. For a person just looking to enjoy the music and not trying to constantly evaluate their systems using these tapes, it’s hard to stick on a chair listening to esoteric pieces of music, full of ornaments, dissonances and counter tempos. They want mainstream music. Something more commercial and easier to digest. They want to listen to their favorite musicians and not to “someone” from who knows where, pounding with a mallet on a Conga drum. If these labels want to survive, they’ll have to evolve.

There’s nothing wrong with original recordings from new and upcoming talents, but hey! Sometimes enough is enough, if you know what I mean. This is what I’m constantly hearing around my circles and not only from Joe Mid Fi, but also from seasoned audio professionals as well. The de Witt’s has found a niche where they could offer the interested party the sonical quality of hi end, but with a more pleasant music from artists they can identify themselves with.

Kudos to Fritz and Netty, that by the way is a very friendly and easy going woman in charge of the administration and relationships part of  the STS equation. With Fritz behind the console and recorders and Netty on the Public Relations department, I augur a bright future for the STS label for years to come!

Carlitos Guzmán

Senior Contributor Writer

About the author:

Carlos J Guzman has been involved with the audio business for over 35 years. He has participated in many audio and music segments, including: recording, duplication, high end audio sales, musician and mastering engineer among many others. He was the owner of CopyTech Corporation, what used to be the biggest media duplicator in the Caribbean. In his mastering suite, Carlos performed over 1,000+ projects earning several gold and platinum records including a Grammy in 2002. He’s an avid vintage gear collector and specializes in cassette and open reel decks.

You can also visit his audio-related websites at:

http://mortechpr.wix.com/cassetteadventures

http://mortechpr.wix.com/cgmasteringservices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tape Talk: Yarlung Records

GRAMMY® Award winning Yarlung Records brings fresh musicians to the classical music world using minimalist audiophile recording techniques to deliver sound as close to living performance as possible. Rather than using recording studios, engineer Bob Attiyeh produces these albums in concert halls famous for their acoustics, including Walt Disney Concert Hall  and Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Los Angeles. Yarlung uses both analog tape and high resolution digital media for CDs made with special alloys, high resolution digital downloads including Native DSD, and 180 Gram vinyl, mastered by Steve Hoffman.

Yarlung Valley

Yarlung Records takes its name from the Yarlung Valley in Central Tibet, where the royal houses buried Songtsen Gampo and Trisong Detsen (two of the great early Kings in the historical record) in the Tibetan “Valley of the Kings.” Legends claim the Yarlung Valley as the magical birthplace of the Tibetan people and as a meeting place between heaven and earth. It is in this valley, at the site of  Yambulakhang Castle in our Yarlung Records logo, where Heaven and Earth touched in order to transform humanity…img_0093

“Young, Provocative, Engaging” is the slogan of this fantastic exclusive audiophile label. They have been constantly growing up to the point where they already earned a Grammy Award and has become an standard for systems evaluation in audiophile circles. It’s very hard to visit a room at any Hi End show without hearing the “Smoke and Mirrors” production playing on a open reel deck. The passion for music from which this company is driven, is highly noticeable.

When I asked them to send me a sample for review, I noticed how deeply involved they are with what they do and it was difficult not to like Bob Attiyeh, producer and recording engineer, right from the start. We connected immediately as Bob knows I’m a percussionist. We engaged in a friendly conversation by email and just as he promised me, the tape arrived weeks later, just after he returned from a business trip.

The tape and booklet were supplied in a 1/2″ tape box and it was really kind of him to send me a classic Ampex 456 aluminum open reel with the tape! Perhaps he guessed that I’m also an avid classic gear collector and decided to contribute as well. Ha!

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I proceed to get my Studer ready for the expected musical banquet. I dim the lights and hit the “Play” button on the remote control…wow! The varied repertoire full of surprises, together with a diversified gusto, is a clear example of a very careful and minimalist recording approach which evokes the era when the music performance as well as the sound quality were of equal importance for the listener.

SonoruS:

Yarlung is connected with the SonoruS Audio Project. The SonoruS ATR 10 uses Revox tape heads and motors, but SonoruS engineer Arian Jansen designs and builds everything else, from the transport to the all-vacuum tube electronics. They promise a superb performance, but at $17,500 in its standard version, certainly this is not for everyone. I wish I can hear one myself to see what’s all the fuzz about. I guess it’s a serious contender because the quality of Yarlung Records’ tapes attest for this.atr10_product_page_03_front_njpr

The Tape:

As with all these new open reel productions en vogue, the sound of this production is exquisite. A great ambience is captured in this tape and the effortless flow of music is graciously submitted with precision and focus. The instruments timbre are accurate and the performance is second to none. The piece “Game of Clocks” is a valuable tool for audiophiles evaluating Hi End equipment as it’s capable to exhibit the weakness and strength of the gear in question. The “Geographical Fugue” is highly adventurous and novel. I was so engaged in the Game of Clocks flow that when the next track opened with a loud “TRINIDAD” I jumped up in my sofa and said: “What the hell…” Ha! Very ingenious combination of percussion and vocal performance. The use of AKG tube mics add to the recording quality and in this case, it’s clearly demonstrated.

Conclusion:

The resurrection of the tape media has given a new venue for dauntless producers like Bob Attiyeh, an opportunity to explore alternative kinds of music and performers that would never show up to a wider audience around the world through mainstream labels, and for me, that’s is highly valuable. The quality achieved by the Yarlung’s team is excellent and their commitment to their label is clearly expressed in their recordings. The use and combination of new and classic technology is a delicious proposal for those who demands only the best. Bob is not playing games, folks, he’s very serious about his musicians, performance and sonic quality. Who can ask for more?

Highly recommended!

Carlitos Guzmán-Senior Contributor Writer

Mono & Stereo Hi End Magazine

Tape Talk: UltraAnalogue Recordings

UltraAnalogue Recordings was formed to record chamber music, in a natural acoustic, with custom tube electronics and analog tape – to allow you to experience the ultimate in recorded sound. Hearing analogue tape will completely change your concept of Hi-Fi sound. The master tape duplicates you receive, all 15-ips 2-track, will be as close as possible to the master tape and when played in a fine system, will bring you closer to the live musical event and allow you to experience the raw emotion in the music. http://ultraanaloguerecordings.com/wpsite/home/

This is how Dr. Edward Pong introduce you to his Hi Fi recordings realm, and let me tell you: he’s very passionate about it!

img_0070 1/4″, 1/2 Track Format @ 15 ips sampler

When I started in this Hi End magazine as a contributor, I asked Matej if I could write a column about analog tape and tape decks since this has been my specialty for many years. When my late father gave me my first open reel deck back in 1978, it was the beginning of a long and happy association with tape that has endured over 35 years. It was a SONY TC-560D. Since then, I have graduated into bigger formats like 1/2″ Masters running @ 30ips and 2″ recording tape as well in recording studios from all around the world. As a Mastering Engineer with over 1,000 projects under my belt, I had the opportunity to work with 1/2″ tape masters from all the biggest commercial labels during the 90’s: SONY, BMG, Polygram, Universal, MCA, Fania, you named it! The best Latino recording engineers from PR, USA and South America were my everyday bread. Working with these gentlemen was a privilege and a real life education that I’ll never forget. Some of them jumped into a plane in Colombia, Miami or New York after finishing their mixes, arriving in Puerto Rico hours later for me to take care of their projects while they sleep on the carpet. They already knew the quality of my work and the bond we formed along the years were enough as for they to trust their works on my ears. That was the biggest satisfaction in my career, as well as the good money, of course!

From the almost 20 tape companies specializing in the “master copies” niche, now “en vogue”, Ed Pong was the second one to answer my petition (first one were STS) and without hesitation he went to make a fresh sampler of his label, UltraAnalogue Recordings, for me. He said: “I only make 2 tapes at a time,so, give me a chance”. Talking with this guy is a real nice experience. His enthusiasm about analog sound, tube equipment, vintage mics and recording is contagious! He talks about his Studer A-80 machines as part of his family and even send me a photo of his tech, Roger, aligning one of his gems. Tony Ma is the genius behind Ed’s tube gear.

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His recording studio is right in his living room and he records straight from his Royer vacuum tube microphones to his tubed pre-amp and then to one of his A-80’s. Nothing could be more pure than that since he doesn’t use any console or sound processors while recording his projects. Now you can realize why he call his label “ultra analog” and it’s because it is simply that! Up in Canada, Ed bring his talents to his home and do the recording sessions with this simple, but effective analog chain. I have been told that he also held live presentations by his pool at home. I’ll try to get invited to one of those as it could be a good excuse to write another article…perhaps the magazine’s owner could invest into this…Ha!

Western Electric pre-amp and other analog gear connected to the A-80.

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The Sampler:

Two weeks after asking Ed to mail one of his samplers, the tape arrived at our facilities and without hesitation I opened the expected box. Inside, I found the white box with the 10.5″ aluminum reel inside, a CD and instructions giving you the specs of the tape on hand.

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The enclosed instructions specify that the tape comes on “tails” position, needing rewind and also advise you of the 1 KHz tone behind the leader in order for you to calibrate the output of your deck to O VU if your machine has that feature (pro’ decks has it). If your machine does not provide for this, Ed can supply you with a tape recorded to NAB standards. Remember that this tape is calibrated to 396 nWb/m instead of the common 250 nWb/m, meaning that your meters would be pegging all tape long and distorting on “hot” passages. Be sure to specify how do you want it before ordering.

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We thread our tape on my Crown SX-822, perfectly restored by the very well known Crown’s guru, Chuck Ziska, and rewound the tape to the “heads” position. The machine has been warming up for about an hour before the session started.  Please, be aware of the tone and be careful with your system volume. You can easily blow a driver if the volume is too high (it happened to me back in 1985 when I blew a pair of IMF Professional Monitors midranges with the cal tone of a Revox B-225 CD Player!, SHIT!).

Crown SX-822 winding the tape. Yeeepeee!

Minutes later we dim the lights and the show began. The sound filled the air with the strings and piano of chamber music as if they were playing in front of me! The presence and imaging of the performance were just excellent. My wife Carolyn asked me to try to match a live performance volume just to appreciate the sound’s nature better. My Tannoys DMT 15 System II came alive with the effortless music emanating from the Crown 15ips master copy of the UltraAnalogue sampler. I use these monitors for critical  listening because these are the ones I used to make all those many Masterings years ago. I won a Grammy with this pair, so, it’s my preferred choice. They are just very honest, natural and free of reflections thanks to my big room and professional acoustics. Even at those fortissimo passages, my Crown Studio Reference amp with its 760 watts per channel didn’t even blink while handling the strong demand of this excellent performance.

Yes! The performance. What can I say? These young and talented musicians are not playing games. They are deeply as serious as the recording from Ed Pong is. They are very articulated, with excellent tempo and technique. For those of you who loves chamber classical music and regularly attends this kind of concertos, would be just fascinated with what you are going to hear. This is a “chamber’s banquet”! I have to congratulate Ed and his visionary mission. What he’s doing with his label, which started from zero years ago, has become a favorite among the new tape reelers!  Besides, at the price he sell the tapes, we can qualify it as one of the best values out there.

Other Details:

When compared with the flashy Open Reel Records fancy box and glossy graphics, Ed’s tape looks strictly “commercial”. Similar to the masters you receive from a recording studio to make a Mastering or duplication. Nothing feisty here, except for the high class music and quality of the tape (RTM 900). This tape is the correct one since Ed records 4db+ over the NAB “0” and needs a tape that could take it all. There’s no bells and whistles. Your money is well invested just on the “core” and Ed aware me of this. For a person like myself who doesn’t belief in paying more for the reel than for the tape itself, this is just right. I don’t see how they make money for the amount they charge (I believe $250.00).

The CD Test:

Incidentally, Ed Pong included a CD with music from 2 of the main performers in the sampler: Yun-Yang Lee (piano) and Sietse-Jan Weijenberg. img_0069

Well, since I’m an avid recordist, I couldn’t resist to commit the sacrilege of recording a piece of the CD to my Crown SX-822 @ 15 ips on a virgin ATR tape. I said: “Well, let’s see what the hell is going on here”. I took the outputs of the CDP directly to my Crown…and hit record/play. Mmmmmmm, close but not the same, as the CD itself does not compare with the tape’s sound. No way José. I even found that the CD has more hiss than the tape itself. The hell with it! If you have a good tape deck don’t loose time with the CD. Go straight to the tape (am I sounding a little bit biased for the tape?) Wonder why! Ha,ha,ha!

Conclusion:

As I explained on another review, these tapes are not for everyone. Not cheap and requires a good playback system to appreciate the investment as it should be. I can buy a case of Capture 930 tape with that and record over 250 tracks…but unless I have access to one of Ed’s masters, it would never sound as good,so, why bother?

The package is not fancy, neither the aluminum reels. You wouldn’t receive a glossy plastic box either or a free ticket to the next Ed Pong’s concerts by the pool. What you are going to receive are years of cumulative experience recording excellent performances using a minimalist technique that will transport you to a “live concert” at home. Of course, it is not a live presentation and it has its limitations, but; what is perfect in this hobby? I did found the sound a little darker than the tracks from Open Reel Records tape and this could be due to the system used or perhaps the tape formula itself. That’s not better or worse, just different and completely superior to any heavily processed new recording around.

If you have the dinero, by all means, go ahead and try one yourself. The good thing about quality products is that you don’t need to mortgage your home and invest on a $100k+ system in order to appreciate it. With a reasonable and decent audio system any of these tapes would make it sing. You’ll be surprised how a good reel to reel deck with a nice recording can squashed even a vinyl’s. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen.

Long Live Analog!

Carlitos Guzmán-Mono & Stereo Hi End Magazine Senior Contributing Writer

Producer Comments:

Dear Carlos:
Wow – I’m speechless! Your words are so eloquent! You really said it all …. My focus is to record the most engaging performances with the best sound I can get, from the most enduring music of all time for the audiophile to enjoy. It’s really about the music. In fact I only record the music I love ….

Actually, I make just 1 copy at a time…. Because the recording amp for the Studer is based on the Bendex Red Bank Gold Pin 6900 tube. (Very rare, very expensive, but wonderful sound character) I just bought 2 pairs of vintage Western Electric 300b, the 1956 pair I’m going to try in the microphone pre-amp… I hope to do my next recording session with Japanese virtuoso, Tatsuki Narita in November, with them, if the sound is better…. I actually record in an indoor pool ( water covered) that is 40 x 50 , lined with cedar and high ceilings… The acoustics have a nice natural reverb…I’ve had other engineers recording here… Solo cello…

I’m not really sure I have anything to add, except ” thank you for listening & appreciation my efforts & music….”

My Thank you for writing such a wonderful review!
Best,
Ed

UltraAnalogue Recordings

 

Streaming Music: Good or Bad?

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The services of Tidal, Spotify and Deezer has been widely analyzed, compared and criticized by many. Audiophiles specifically, seems not to take it seriously but the reality is that  millions of persons stream their favorite music everyday through one of these services (there’re more, but these 3 are the most used). The majority of the subscribers are young people who engage in their listening experience using their i phones with “el cheapo” headphones and seems to be perfectly happy with it.

As a professional Mastering engineer myself, recording since 1978, I have enjoyed the flexibility, availability, ease of use and abundance of tracks available from these servers. Surprisingly, sometimes the access of thousands of songs at the tips of my finger tips supersede the audio quality while the music transcends the service limitations, I mean; do you listen to music or do you use music to keep analyzing your expensive gear all the time? On my personal case I do both, but music goes first.

If you have a great audio system and want to stream high-quality music, Tidal is one of your best choices, besides Deezer. Spotify still mp3, but when paying for their premium service the streaming quality goes up to 320/kb, but still inferior to the lossless streaming service of the above two, or at least that is what you expect, no? “What are the differences?” asked a friend of mine and I replied: Supposedly a better stereo spread, crisper at the top end (listen to the hi-hats), less ‘muddy’ in general. Subtle differences and nothing like night and day as some people argue but yes, noticeable if you know the track well and if the original recording is of high quality. This last, folks, is the most important one. If the original recording was a disaster, no matter if you use Tidal, Spotify or Mickey Mouse streaming service, the results would not be good anyway. Even Hi Rez files you download from high resolution digital servers are not impressive when the original material sounded awful in the first place.

Now, let’s cut the “Hi End” stuff and get into “reality mode” so that we can analyze these services objectively. I know that as soon as you read the word “lossless” FLAC, your Hi End instinct would kick in and just immediately you’ll say “this should sound better”…sure! But how much, really? If the 320/kb streaming of Spotify Premium sounds very good,when I A/B test on familiar songs I can hear the difference but I am not sure how well I could do on a scientifically blind test on unfamiliar music. This difference is not detectable even if you have an above average stereo or decent headphones. The better your audio system, more pronounced the difference is. So, unless you are the obsessed audiophile type who spend onerous money on your audio gears, I don’t see a compelling reason to use Tidal’s lossless streaming for double the cost, but if you have a good system, lossless is definitely worth it. By the way, this test were already conducted by a well known magazine and for each 3 attempts, only one out of three were chosen correctly, the same rate as if they were guessing! In the real world, how many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio? “Basically none, because they know that the difference between FLAC and 320/kbps MP3 is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording. This is what happens when you use these services to make compilations on a tape. Once you record it on a tape, then is even more difficult to distinguish the difference. We have done this test many times and when the recording is good, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two, that is; if you are only listening to the music! Some tricks make it easy to distinguish almost immediately, but that is something I would keep under my sleeve…sorry!

The fact is that Tidal sounds louder than any of the other services and it’s widely understood in the audio community that an increase in loudness of even just 1 dB can result in a higher perceived quality, all else being the same. It’s advisable, then, to take with a huge grain of salt their claims of audio quality. Bitrate doesn’t mean much when the underlying source has been bastardized. You have to listen it yourself. One of the biggest things with Spotify is the developer community. The add-ins, plugins, etc which turn it from an ordinary web stream player into your own personalized music vault. However I don’t think Tidal lossless is worth twice the Spotify premium subscription cost. That’s also up to you. One thing I must say is that Tidal is a decent service, with a lot to like about it. I’m fond of their editorial curation and the audio quality, but the apps aren’t as mature, nor as usable as Spotify’s, besides the catalog seems smaller, (admittedly infrequent) buffering is annoying, and to get Hi Fi, you’re splashing out an extra $10.00 per month. Tidal’s main differentiation is also, ultimately, a single feature. If Spotify switched on a FLAC option tomorrow, Tidal would be nowhere. That’s for sure!

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I love to use these services to make my own compilations on tape. I don’t care if it has the ultimate sound quality as long as I can find the music I want and for the music style I like, Spotify Premium offers the best selection. Where in the world could you access thousands of tracks in a matter of minutes and build your own playlist from just one source? If you take into consideration that in order to make a mix open reel tape of 95 minutes, you’ll need several CD’s or Records, for just $9.99 a month Spotify is hard to beat.

I was asked by a fellow member of a forum I also write, “Why are you wasting precious tape recording from Sporify and not play direct from it?” Well, to begin with, my first reply was: “Are you paying for the tape?” I do this because once you transfer these digital files to a very good tape, using an stupendous deck like my Crown CX-822, the quality is transformed and the sound is immediately better. Again, as long as the original recording is of good quality, transferring it to tape makes it even better, or let just say that I like it much more! I just love the Analog quality combined with the digital flexibility. Also, I only use Spotify in my personal studio to make my own playlist on tape and then listen to it in other systems and decks around my house. That’s the main reason. Try it yourself. It’s fun, easy to use and cheap!

Long Live Analog

 

 

 

The Cassette Tape Project

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Remember last week I told you about this book and how I will record a song of each of those albums from the 1980’s section? Well, I did it! It took (8) C-92 CRO2 cassettes, 187 tracks, 12 Hours and 15 minutes of the best 1980’s music representation. It was a very interesting journey, full of music and groups I didn’t even know they existed.

I used my dedicated “super-server” my youngest son custom made for me and look into each and every album of the book’s 1980 section. I selected a song of each one based on the popularity of the track and the book recommendations.

I used my Nakamichi CR-7 for this specific project because of the excellent sound and the automated features, specifically the auto-fade at the end of the cassette tape. That way, after presetting a proper level, I just left the machine and server do the rest. Later on I listened to all of them at my office’s system consisting of a Nakamichi 700 ZXE, Jolida 202 tube integrated and a pair of Mordaunt Short monitors. I programmed cross-fades of 10 seconds for a non-stop experience.

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I recorded the tapes on my basement recording studio at home. Besides the powerful server, I have some other peripheral equipment as well. Platinum Audio Studio Monitors, KRK Pro mixing powered monitors courtesy of my son William, a classic Crown and member of the AES Hall of Fame prize the fabled DC-300 A II, Nakamichi CR-7, Nakamichi ZX-7, Crown CX-822 open reel, EAD 1000 DAC, Arcam One CD Player,etc…

It took me about a week, but now I want to take my own favorites and record a long play reel tape with my Crown CX-822, using the new ATR Tape MDS60.

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I must say that the open reel sound compared to the cassette is by far superior in sound stage, presence, blackness behind the music, space and everything else, BUT, if we take into consideration the cassette tape properties against the 1/4″ open reel tape and speed difference I must say that the cassette tape developers achieved a historical angular stone in the history of audio. Of course, this Nakamichi CR-7 is not what you can call a “common” cassette deck, but still, a very nice sound indeed!

Long Live Analog!

Carlitos Guzmán, Senior Contributor Writer