Wow, I heard things on tape I never heard before

Today I attended a daylong seminar at ATR Services. The first half of the day was in a classroom environment that explained, in detail, the theory of magnetic recording, tape machines and the tape media formulations that are used.

Topics such as such as how the various brands of machines transfer information to magnetic tape, tape speed, bias frequency, tape formulations and tape drive designs all have an effect on the final result. After the theory discussions the floor was open to questions. The first one asked was " Why do you hear things on tape you don't hear on another format?"

The answer Mike Spitz gave was one I've never heard before and I'll pass it on to you for thought. If you have a mind to offer a reply, one way or the other, it will be interesting to hear YOUR thoughts.

The question was posed after a discussion on phase problems that develop when music is recorded with many microphones and passed through and processes by many digital boxes.

A drawing of the stylus in a record groove showed how the right and left channels are reproduced by left and right movement of the stylus. There is another movement of the stylus, vertical, that is the component of phase relationships. That movement doesn't have an effect on the left and right channels but is noticed on a tape recording and adds air that gives the music an effect that won't come across on an LP.

Have those of you that have the same selections on tape and vinyl noticed the sonic difference between the two. If so, what are your thoughts on the subject?

Hmm, dunno about the vertical stylus part, but all media are unique. A stylus tracking a record is limited in its response physically by inertia which affects how dynamics are produced. Inertia does not play a part in tape and digital playback, so the dynamics are different. Tape has this advantage plus an analog signal is encoded, so in a sense it does not have one of the main physical limitations of vinyl playback nor the standard format limitations of redbook CD, in particular in regards to dynamic range. Some of the best sound I have heard in a modern home stereo system has come off a RtR deck playing a modern state of the art master tape recording.
My opinion is that relative phase is preserved on both LP and tape as well as other two channel media.

A stylus works in that the orthogonal grooves on a record (left side and right side) create orthogonal vibrations of the stylus (Up Right to down left) and (Up left to down right.

Tape may have more air because of hiss and/or better channel separatiion. Hiss can help you hear things BELOW the noise floor and channel separation on an LP is lousy anyway.
"The question was posed after a discussion on phase problems that develop when music is recorded with many microphones and passed through and processes by many digital boxes.

A drawing of the stylus in a record groove showed how the right and left channels are reproduced by left and right movement of the stylus. There is another movement of the stylus, vertical, that is the component of phase relationships. That movement doesn't have an effect on the left and right channels but is noticed on a tape recording and adds air that gives the music an effect that won't come across on an LP."

Seems to me the 1st paragraph is unrelated to the 2nd.

The 1st is talking about recording musical components out of phase because of relative distances of the recording mics and time delays in various processors. The end result being the music that is put to tape or to vinyl or to CD does not have the original phase relationships of the components as produced by the musicians.

The 2nd paragraph is talking about the phase between left and right channels. This phase difference would be there regardless of the recording media. And frankly, I have no idea what the vertical movement bit is trying to say in the 2nd paragraph. Pure vertical movement of a stylus simply means that both the left and right channels are in phase, i.e., a mono signal. Any movement other than vertical means that there are out of pphase signals, i.e., stereo.
I have a few first generation copies of some studio master tapes, all 15ips, dual track, produced on Ampex machines. They do sound great but I have no reference to what the material sounds like since I don't have vinyl/cd equivalents. I also have a library of pre-recorded broadcast tapes (Drake, AFRTS) that the source was vinyl. Much of the material on these broadcast tapes I have in both vinyl and cd format. Overall, the tapes do sound 'warmer'. Soon the Miles/Blue will be available on Blu-Ray, sourced from the original three track master tapes. Should provide for some interesting listening.
I have never experienced that before, at least not when making copies of LP's to open reel. That doesn't seem to make sense to me. I would agree that even a second generation master tape is far superior to LP. I use 1/2 track machines running at 15ips (Crown sx822, Pioneer RT 1050, Revox B77). I will say (slightly off topic here) that when recording CD to open reel, the CD suddenly becomes listenable. Something wonderful happens, don't know what, but wonderful. Many of my favorite CD's that are not available in LP have been dubbed on open reel. The transformation is astounding.
Hi Norman,

It's hard for me to know the best place to start with my response but I'll begin with with what I learned on Friday.

I Spent Friday at a Seminar at ATR Services in York, Pa. It is the THIRD time I've been there! I'm a slow learner. I have a number of ATR 100 machines and picked up another on Friday. Being an audiophile, I got to mix with those that make the music we listen to. I hear Pro Tools, $Y*"_P+Jm and all the studio speak that comes from those in the business of making the music we listen to. They leave me in the dust. I'm able to offer my opinion on the Pizza at lunch time, but otherwise , I just sit there like a bump on a log.

Guess what, a few guys, in their mid 30s, that have a studio that only use Pro Tools attended because their clients are now asking if they can mix down to 2 track analog. They left ordering an ATR 1- 2 ready machine for about $14,000.

The discussion centered on how a digital multitrack recording WILL sound better if mixed down to 2 track analog on an RTR machine. ATRs aren't the only RTR machines studios use. HOWEVER, when it comes to recording, the ATR machines have a bias frequency over 450 KHZ which is three times that of the closest competitor. The harder you can drive the nail, recorded sound, into the tape the better reproduction. I'm referring to recording and not reproduction which is easier to do.

Today I took my Krell SACD player and connected it to one of my ATR machines, via balanced interconnects, and recorded one of my favorite songs on ATR tape at 15 ips. I played the song back on tape, it was done in full digital when released, and compared it to the CD. Tape took the digital harshness off the music. I guess I'll be transferring my favorite CDs to tape. I'll be selective as tape isn't cheap, that is if you get the good stuff.

I have the feeling that the studios that are run by the 30 to 40 year old guys will listen to the artists that realize that analog just sounds better.

Pro Tools offer effects that almost no new studio can afford to do in the analog domain. Vintage Fairchild limiters that sell for $10.000 grand are emulated in digital for a few hundred bucks. If the digital harshness can be reduced by doing an analog mix down to analog tape, so be it.

Long live analog, ken

Hello Ken, well you have me wishing I could afford an ATR machine and a Krell SACD player. I do agree, it takes the 'digital harshness' off the music. I too am selective. If I can find NOS maxell UDXL then I buy it. It comes up every now and then on ebay. Other than that ATR is a wonderful tape. I order mine through my local Guitar Center.
Here in Chicago, there are several small 'boutique' studios that are going straight analog. It's kinda cool seeing Refurbished Ampex, Crown and Studers doing what they do best. I love it.
Thanks for the great post.
Hi Norman,

I'm glad you're enjoying your RTR machines.

One of the advantages of tape made by Maxell and other Japanese Mfrs is that when the rest of the world restricted the use of Whale Oil in the binder resin, Japan didn't. They STILL slaughter whales with impunity.

The rest of us switched to urethane resins that are stronger, but are hydroscopic. While it presents a different sets of problems, chemistry seems to have solved those problems.---------

There is another factor to consider. Are you willing to spend more money on machines that will take advantage of tapes that are state of the art -2010?

The only, and correct answer, will be; you do the best with what you have.

Norman, I only use ATR tape . I don't buy it on an ATR reel, and in an ATR box for about $55 bucks, for 1/4 inch tape. I buy pancakes for $33 each and put it on reels I pick up on ebay at about $7 bucks each. A new box is $2 if you buy 75 or so. I get new tape , reels that are cheap and new white boxes all for a total price of $40 bucks. or so , each.

Bette Spitz tells me they are in business to sell tape.. If they purchase reels and boxes from others, they need to add on costs that won't improve the sound of the tape; it just increases the price. The only competitor is RMGI in the Netherlands. RMGI buys boxes from China but their reels from the USA. Freight both ways and they're still about 10% less than ATR tape. I think it's easy to figure out the reason.

RMGI has a large facility, as did Quantegy. In a shrinking market, it will be the Abatross around their neck. ATR Magnetics will become the supplier that those who embrace analog recording will turn to. It's a great ending when the only one left is the best. As Dennis Miller says" It's only my opinion, I may be wrong." I love this quote!!!!!

I'll be driving to ATR Services in a few months and I'll take photos of their tape manufacturing facility and post it on Audiogon. Those that are interested will see why a reel of tape costs what it does.

Your thoughts will be appreciated.

Ken, isn't ATR essentially Ampex 456? Comparing the two, they seem to have the same color, smell (yeah, different brand smell differently..Scotch 206 makes me flash back, but that's another story) texture etc. They also seem to record the same. I have not had to reset my bias when using it as that is a pain on my consumer machines like the Pioneer (my personal favorite) Sony or ReVox. On the Crown it's a cake walk, but even there I don't notice a huge difference between the ATR and a Maxell UDXl.

Interesting story about Maxell and whale oil. I had never heard that before. There was a small studio in Indiana that used to mix down to Maxell tape. Almost all other's used Ampex, a few would use Scotch. I haven't tried the RMGI which I think uses the BASF formulas. So, it should be very good tape. I see that Quantegy is still offering professional 2" tape on there web site. Do you know if they are manufacturing again?
Thanks Ken.

Quantegy 456 is a + 6 tape; it can be biased 6 DB above 0 VU. That just enables you to hit the tape 6 DB above the noise floor to get a better STN ratio.

ATR tape is a + 10 tape due to its formulation but that doesn't mean you can realize that degree of performance on any tape machine. Older machines in particular don't have a high enough bias frequency to excite a + 10 tape.

Even though the ATR machines will excite a plus 10 tape most are biased at a plus 6 or slightly higher. Most studios that use ATR tape or the RMGI 468, also a higher bias tape, stay at the + 6 level for safety sake. Transients can cause problems if you're pushing the tape to it's limit.

Quantegy, regardless of what they say about producing tape again, will never enter into manufacturing again. Their equipment was mostly sold off as scrap metal when the company folded. Their plant in Alabama is sitting on what could be considered a potential super fund site resulting in a building that is not salable. They offer 2 inch tape as that is all they have left and it is not that much in demand. A pancake roll of ATR or RMGI 2 inch tape goes for about $260 without a reel. When you eat up $500 of tape per hour tracking with a 16 or 24 track machine, recording a band paying big bucks per hour, you can't cut corners with tape that might be bad.

FWIW, when Ampex went under the brightest of those working there struck out on their own to keep analog alive. Greg Ortin started Flux Magnetics producing the finest tape heads in the business. Jay McKnight started MRL Labs, Ray Dolby, Dolby Labs and Mike Spitz started ATR Services and just a few years ago ATR Magnetics.

The tape community is really very small as everyone knows everyone else.

Ken, and I thought I was knowledgeable. Thank you for the post and all of the great information. I am going to order a few ATR pancakes, as I have plenty of empty reels laying around.

Keep in touch.