Much of the greatest music in recorded history was captured on big reels of magnetic tape. And even if the invention is approaching 100 years of existence, its continuing relevance is implied each time we celebrate the latest album reissue being sourced from “the original analog tapes,” or conversely lament when a “digital copy” was used instead (thanks Capitol for the 2009 Beatles stereo LP box set). Reel-to-reel machines are now commonplace at every audio show, and there are multiple sources of new “mastertape”-quality music available. The fact is this: You can experience the king of analog reproduction in your home. It won’t be a “budget” option, and it will require your involvement to get the most out of it. But if you can properly calibrate all your practical expectations, I can promise you that your performance expectations will be exceeded. Reel analog tape is an enduring reference point for recreated sound. The King won’t die. And he shouldn’t.
For at least one day—April 25th, 2019—Coast Mastering of Berkeley, California, was the undisputed center of the reel-to-reel analog-tape universe. Tim Marutani of Marutani Consulting and Nick Doshi of Doshi Audio sponsored Dan Labrie of ATR Services to lead the Reel Tape Workshop for a diverse audience, with experience levels ranging from beginners investigating the topic to world experts and professionals who have literally written the books and made the parts. Ages of the attendees spanned from 27 to, well, I was too polite to ask.
Speaking of the attendees. My heavens, what an impressive list. The aforementioned Dan Labrie of ATR Services had participants including The Tape Project co-founders Michael “Romo” Romanowski (owner of the host site Coast Mastering) and Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine, Greg Orton of Flux Magnetics (manufacturer of tape heads), David Haynes (an engineer at Ampex from 1977–1984), and Jay McKnight of Magnetic Reference Labs. (Mr. McKnight’s resume related to magnetic tape is too long and distinguished to print here. Suffice it to say that his site is one of the resources for technical information on the subject matter, having worked for Ampex from 1952–1972, along with service as a past AES President and on an Advisory Panel for the Nixon Tapes [Jay, however, is not a crook].)
On the professional use side, there were three generations of mastering, restoration, and preservation engineers on hand representing a Grammy and multiple Grammy nominations. Young and old. Female and male. There was an overall atmosphere of learning from and for each other. If you had a question, it could be answered at the workshop. With authority. No “audiofoolery.”
ATR Services was founded in 1991 by former Ampex Technical Service Representative Mike Spitz with the goal of restoring, repairing, and upgrading Ampex professional tape recorders. Mr. Spitz passed away in 2013, but his apprentice Dan Labrie continues at ATR Services (he joined in 2010) with the same goals and in the same spirit. Of interest to the readers of TAS (and all the end users I spoke to at the workshop are TAS readers), ATR sells completely refurbished 100 Series machines. Record- and playback-capable ¼**, two-channel ATR-102’s start at $16,700 with stock electronics ($18,500 for a ½** deck), but can be ordered a la carte with upgraded or deleted electronics. This niche market has been on the uptick for some years now, enough so that in 2006 ATR Magnetics was formed and started manufacturing all sizes of (blank) open-reel tapes. It’s good to know that there is a support system (information, service, parts, and supplies) out there for people who want to pursue analog at its apex.
Dan ran the workshop in two distinct, morning and afternoon, sessions. The morning was more lecture/question/answer, while the afternoon was an opportunity for a fully hands-on application of the key calibration steps. Though several wonderful ATR-102 machines were on hand for use and demonstration, the workshop was broad in reach. All the information/tips provided applied to any machine one might own. Some in attendance owned prosumer type machines like the Technics 1500/1700 or the Otari 5050, while others either owned or used professionally Studers, ATR/Ampexes, or Sony/MCI’s.
As for the overall theme of the workshop, I’ll quote the great, recently departed Stan Lee: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” The performance potential of reel tape is spectacularly high, but to get there requires a certain degree of understanding and regular attention, adjustment, and upkeep. This applies to the whole machine as viewed from both mechanical and electrical perspectives. Dan’s presentation progressed from a general overview of analog formats and EQ standards to the specific issues involved with inspecting the machines themselves, and finally to all the aspects of setup and maintenance—demagnetization, cleaning, electrical alignment. Discussions were as mundane as which Q-Tips should be used for cleaning to the most technical of subjects including azimuth adjustment (familiar to anyone who has set up a turntable) and the setting of AC bias. Keeping in mind that your machine can be adjusted to each tape that you play back (if test tones are on the tape to enable calibration), it’s fair to say that reel-to-reel ownership has no autopilot function. You will be involved in every possible way if you want to maximize tape’s potential. Great power. Great responsibility.
The productive day ended on the perfect note(s). After all, what’s all work and no play? Two ATR-102 “transports” with external Doshi Audio Tape Stages were set up at two different locations for enjoyment. At the host Coast Mastering, the system included large, very well set-up Focal Utopias paired with Bricasti Design electronics (amongst others—it’s a working mastering room). And at nearby Marutani Consulting, we were treated to Rockport Technology Lyras driven by an all-Doshi Audio tube signal path. In both cases I was reminded of the feelings that started me in this hobby, the same feelings that have become so elusive for me since audio became a “job”—something the audio industry has been for me over the last 20 years. The experience of great, well-recorded music played back on big reels of magnetic tape through precise machinery is something that we should all have at least once or twice a year. Just like the machines themselves, we too need regular calibration.
The Reel Tape Workshop was a wonderful experience with some great people. The King of analog is alive and well. Long live the King!