Just a quite personal note about playback open reel decks.  I wrote that I prefer the sound of the Ampex ATR-100s over other decks.  Tape handling is another matter entirely.  In general, I find the tape transports on Studer machines to be farmore gentle on tape, and to have far fewer problem with splices than ATRs do.

Jon Samuels

On Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:15 PM, Tom Fine <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Hi Fred:

Interesting and well-stated information. But you need to name names when you say things like:

> I wish this were so, but sadly it isn't. Witness that a fragile (and
> obviously irreplaceable) Sinatra master was destroyed just last year,
> simply by being played back on the wrong equipment. The machine in
> question is regarded by some as being very modern, in relative terms.
> Sadly, there are many such cases, although understandably not widely reported.

First of all, what is "the machine in question"?

Second, can you cite specific "many such cases" or are you repeating rumors you've heard?

You go on to say:
> ... Or needlessly
> pulling the fragile tape over an erase and then a record head? First,
> do no harm.

I agree with this! What made me agree is that I can hear the difference of not dragging tape over 
extra surfaces on my own Ampex machines (which you probably scoff at because they feature "forced 
guidance" as you call it). Also, Richard Hess and others have mentioned increased stiction with 
older tapes, possibly from the surface "drying out" and "stiffening up", possible from early 
sticky-shed or loss-of-lubricant effects that don't gum up the tape yet, possibly other chemistry. 
Whatever the case, older tapes can "move rougher" over fixed surfaces, so fewer fixed surfaces is 
good, in my experience. I also prefer "pointier" heads, for instance a Nortronics full-track head 
rather than a "wide and flat" Ampex older-style full-track head.

There's also an issue of repro-only electronics being simpler to maintain, easier on the power 
supply, etc etc. I think you like stock Studer electronics, I do not from the stock Studer machines 
I've heard. To me, they sound "brittle" and "transistory." I do like the Aria solid-state 
electronics, mated with either make of transport. I don't know if you make your own electronics, in 
any case I haven't heard them and can't comment. What I like about the Aria is that it sounds 
accurate but not "cold" and has a good solid bottom end (but not exactly like people loved on the 
vintage machines with tubes and transformers -- no matter how they look on a scope with tones, 
people love that sound quality with music).

We might disagree on this, but I do think it's very important for a remastering producer to very 
carefully consider and pay homage to the original sound qualities of popular/beloved recordings. He 
or she who does not do this faces the wrath of the marketplace and no future remastering budgets 
from cash-strapped record companies.

If you want to get insight into marketplace demands and record company thinking along these lines, 
it's very worthwhile to view Mike Fremer's interviews with Don Was and Bernie Grundman (at about the new Blue Note transfers and reissues. Listen carefully to what Don Was, 
who controls the purse strings for the remastering, expects to hear out of the new playbacks and 
transfers. A great deal of effort was taken to analize and at least reference, if not match, the 
sound of the original Blue Note LPs. Don Was made this a priority and demanded it of all the 
engineers. Bernie Grundman went to some efforts to come up with customized EQ and some pretty 
radical tape-repair tricks.

To understand the market for high-quality analog tape playback, one has to understand the thinking 
of record companies. These tapes are first and foremost business assets, that must justify the 
expense of expensive playbacks.  And, reissues must succeed in the marketplace to justify their 
expense. Consumers (and music-oriented record company executives, as opposed to bean counters and 
consultants who just as soon sell socks) view the contents of these tapes as artworks, not just as 
magnetic particles to be coldly and precisely rendered. So there has to always be consideration of 
the art when working on the science. I'll add that Blue Note is very similar to Mercury Living 
Presence, RCA Living Stereo and Riverside in that it's a body of work largely produced and recorded 
by one group of people and with a distinct sound quality that buyers and critics expect to hear, 
even if that sound quality may be deemed "wrong" in some sort of scientific analysis. Modern 
playback can definitely enhance some of the things people like best (crisp dynamics, high-quality 
musicianship as far as tuning/pitch and intonation, good mixing/stereophony -- for instance low 
noise playback electronics and low scrape-flutter playback audibly enhances the depth and width of 
the stereo field and can "deepen" the textures in a monophonic mix), but one has to be careful not 
to "analize the life out of it" and come up with something too "cold" and "clinical." There are 
things about great musical recordings, the things that grab and engage active listening, that are 
not explained in acoustical/electronic engineering terms. The fans know it when they hear it, that's 
the best way I can say it. And they sure as heck vote with their wallets and their comments when 
they don't hear it.

I agree with your points about a modern playback system needing to have lower scrape flutter than 
the original recorder.

As for your comments about the design of the ATR, I am not about to step into the Studer vs. Ampex 
peeing match. You guys have at it! To be honest, when it comes to playing the kind of old tapes I 
might ever play, I'm much more worried about a gooey splice hanging on a guide in the ATR transport 
and the reel motors going medieval on my tape!

-- Tom Fine

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Fred Thal" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Thursday, March 27, 2014 9:39 AM
Subject: [ARSCLIST] classifying tape playback machines

> Hello Tom Fine,
> Let me comment on some of your good observations, which I have pasted-in below.
>> The idea of "playing vintage tapes on vintage tape machines" is a mute point nowadays.
> I wish this were so, but sadly it isn't. Witness that a fragile (and
> obviously irreplaceable) Sinatra master was destroyed just last year,
> simply by being played back on the wrong equipment. The machine in
> question is regarded by some as being very modern, in relative terms.
> Sadly, there are many such cases, although understandably not widely reported.
> By the way, couldn't we argue that all analog tape machines could be
> termed vintage today?
> Wouldn't it be more useful to define some of the basic tape transport
> architecture classes that distinguish these machines from one another,
> and then classify the various machines accordingly? For example:
> Recorder/reproducer or reproducer? Servo constant-tension or constant
> torque? Servo-capstan or hysteresis synchronous capstan? Force-guided
> or precision guided transport path? Pin lifter or roller lifter at
> headblock?
> For practical examples of what these differing machine architectures
> might mean in historic transfer work today, consider an acetate master
> that has the oxide layer falling off. Or a mylar master that is
> exhibiting soft binder syndrome.
> Would mounting either of those master reels and re-winding on a
> transport with fixed pin lifters be responsible practice?
> What about edge-forced guidance through a headblock? Or needlessly
> pulling the fragile tape over an erase and then a record head? First,
> do no harm.
>> By the time of all the later-generation professional tape machines,
>> things like speed stability and scrape-flutter were well understood,
>> so playback was more precise.
> Yes, achieving satisfactory speed stability was in many cases
> accomplished by adopting constant-tension and servo capstan designs.
> But as I see it, the matter of scrape flutter is not so simple.
> The project leader for the Ampex ATR-100 certainly understood scrape
> flutter, but he knew that precision guidance through the transport
> would add tremendously to the manufacturing cost. Further, he
> correctly understood that you could not insist that customers use only
> certain brands of tape. (Especially if these were tapes not
> manufactured by Ampex!) So forced guidance through the headblock was
> designed in. It was a huge scrape flutter generator, yet regarded as a
> necessity. And it remains difficult to argue that his approach was
> wrong.
>> It adds up and it's audible.
> Correct. Scrape flutter is audible and the components of flutter add
> vectorially. This makes the choice of the reproducer quite important,
> exactly as you have observed. We have been saying (for about 20 years
> now) that ideally, the reproducer's flutter contributions should be
> lower than the recorded flutter on the tape, by an order of magnitude.
> I hope that re-issue producers always first listen to a historic
> master played back on an ultra-low flutter reproducer, before
> committing to trying to fix something with subsequent processing in
> the digital domain. People are often surprised at what can be
> retrieved from an old tape when it's played back on a great
> reproducer.
> Fred Thal