Analog Tape Fantasies

I want to state right out front that I’m not anti analog tape. It was the format we had and it served the music industry very well for a very long time. I made my first recordings (when I was around 11 years old) on a cheap, rim drive reel-to-reel machine before graduating to a Wollensack that I used through college. This was prior to my professional career. I currently own and use my Nagra IVs and Ampex 440C machines and have used Sony, Ampex, Studer, Revox, Stephens, and Otari machines in various studios.

As I’ve been researching show reports and writing my posts about AXPONA, I’ve run into some amazing statements and articles. Here’s one of my favorites from the United Home Audio website attributed to Jonathan Valin, a writer for The Absolute Sound and a decidedly analog audiophile. He’s the gentleman that trashed my presentation at last year’s AXPONA show because I stated that analog tape and vinyl LPs can’t equal the fidelity of high-resolution digital…which is as true today as it was a year ago when I told an assembled crowd in our demo room…and which Dr. Sean E. Olive Head of R&D at Harman and former president of the Audio Engineering Society has supported.

“Given a truly high quality tape, the UHA-HQ Phase12 is simply the highest fidelity source component JV has heard: phenomenal bass, matchless dynamics, unrivaled resolution, astonishing transient speed, and simply gorgeous tone color.”

And according to the UHA website, the United Home Audio Tape Decks won a prestigious “Editor’s Choice Award 2015” in issue #251 earlier in March of 2015. As a side note, I routinely use a quote from issue #218 written by another senior editor at the same publication who wrote:

“But the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format. Mark Waldrep knows what he’s doing.” Andrew Quint visited the studio a few years ago and was absolutely blown away by what he heard. I can only imagine a conversation between Andrew and Jonathan and how they would make their cases for their respective digital vs. analog preferences. I do take special notice of the statement, “from any source format”, because JV believes that a 2nd or 3rd generation analog tape “is simply the highest fidelity source” he’s ever heard. All I can think is that he doesn’t do a lot of listening outside of his analog comfort zone. He obviously prefers the “sound” of analog tape but that not the same thing as believing and stating that it is the “highest fidelity possible”.

As recently as 2013, TAS gave UHA a “Product of the Year Award” for the UHA-HQ Phase 11 tape machine, which, by the way, will set you back between $17,000 and $22,000. The category was “Tape Player of the Year”. I have to assume that they didn’t evaluate one of Fred Thal’s overhauled and highly tweaked Studer machines, which beat the specifications of all UHA machines running away AND which are available to audiophiles.

Once again, the passage from the magazine is full of glowing bromides. I have to share it:

“All of his life JV has been an analog hound, and will remain one because, next to tape, vinyl is the most realistic medium. But the record player, even the very greatest ones, is no longer the king of sources. Given a truly high-quality tape, the UHA-HQ Phase 11 is simply the highest-fidelity source component he’s heard. The sonic improvements UHA’s Greg Beron has wrought over earlier iterations of this highly modified, 15 ips, two-track TASCAM disc are so many and so large that there would be no end of listing them, but several stick out. For one, there is bass such as JV has heard in the concert hall but never before from a stereo system. Then there are the dynamics, which run like a ramp from soft to loud, just as they do in real life. When you add unrivaled resolution, astonishing transient speed, and simply gorgeous tone color to the package you get playback that cannot be bested by any other source.”

It’s pretty clear that JV loves the sound of analog tape…when he can get his hands on a “truly high-quality tape”. Since the professional mastering guys that I know can’t get their hands on the original masters and are forced to work from safety copies, I wonder whether there are any great analog tapes available and at what price? Mentioning “resolution” in the context of analog tape machines indicates that someone doesn’t really understand the fundamental differences between analog and digital recording systems. There is no resolution for analog tape machines. And finally, if the “ramp from soft to loud” of an analog tape and UHA deck tops out at about 55-65 dB, how does it capture the dynamics of “real life” when real life maxes out at 130 dB or so? Come on.

Analog tape can be “bested” by a variety of digital formats including high-resolution PCM and even DSD.

How long do we have to suffer pronouncements of opinion as facts? JV is certainly entitled to love analog tape and vinyl LPs until he passes from this world, but he and plenty of others need to learn to separate personal opinion from factual, scientific reality. High-resolution PCM digital has the potential to outperform any analog tape machines on the planet.

We demonstrated that in the Lakeshore B Ballroom at AXPONA.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

7 thoughts on “Analog Tape Fantasies

  • May 3, 2015 at 11:45 am
    Permalink

    Hi Mark,
    As to JV, when his whole “professional ” life is confined to writing second rate blurb what can you expect. I like the sound of tape too via Otari MX5050 and MTR90 and others but as I am not delusional use mostly Lyngdorf digital equipment. Likewise LP’s via Triodes and the rest but for purity, digital.
    Keep up the quest!
    Regards
    Chris

    Reply
  • May 3, 2015 at 5:54 pm
    Permalink

    Wow Mark, you took me back in time over the past week. The guys yakking it up about 2nd or 3rd generation reel to reel tapes being so “dynamic”, “beautiful tonal color” along with the usual metaphor laden BS hype reminds me of one thing-the ass whipped look of my Hi-Fi salesman’s face upon realization that I was returning yet another box of tape full of drop outs cost me way too much time, money, and frustration. You wee spot-on about the religion of audio. It’s obvious that people remember only what they want and have a hard time with changes, especially involving their “religion”. The coloring of the mind only needs some suggestions that relate to “better times” and the mind erases the cha-chunk of the 8 track changing azimuth, er, I meant tracks. I remember when I realized audio had been forever improved by better technology , I’ve embraced it many times. My A/V dealer / salesman is much happier too.

    Reply
    • May 4, 2015 at 7:32 am
      Permalink

      The passion that audiophiles have towards a particular format or attachment to accessories and tweaks is part of the hobby…but it gets so harsh sometimes.

      Reply
    • May 4, 2015 at 1:41 pm
      Permalink

      I read this and watched the AV Showroom AXPONA wrap up panel. The best of the show was analog tape and DSD, big surprise. However, my favorite thing was that an adhesive button from Synergistic Research dramatically improved the MBL room from one day to the next!

      Reply
  • May 13, 2015 at 1:42 am
    Permalink

    It’s not so simple.
    Analogs resolution exists, like the grain of photo paper, however it is not sampled, it’s real time, it’s quality is just limited by mechanics (vinyl, tape, tone arm, cartridge, bearing, motors and so on) The failures are clear, however of the kind your brain understands. Digital music, however, is a twice or more converted analog signal( analog (soundpreassure into the mic, analog soundpreassure out of the loudspeaker, all kinds of digital processing in between)
    Analog is like a non photoshopped photo, digital cuts the picture into millions of pieces, all clever organized to reassemble again later. Should one believe that the cut up, re glued , photo looks better than the analog version?
    Digital however is way better for further processing, streaming, compressing and what not. I love manipulating my compositions digitally as it is the only practical way for a studio. But principally better?
    Sorry.

    Reply
    • May 13, 2015 at 7:08 am
      Permalink

      I can’t say I agree with anything your stated here. There is no “resolution” in analog…it is a term associated with sampling and digital system. Film grain and the density of magnetic domains are not resolution issues but physical. Digital sampling is not evident in the analog output after the processing…this is a myth. A high-resolution digital photograph or audio clip can be identical to the analog version…you judge whether it’s better or not. I like knowing things are accurately represented…from there I can change things.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

nine + eighteen =