HD PCM to Analog Tape

A good friend and the local representative of Symth-Research (a company that makes the “Room Realizer” box that can reproduce the sound of my 5.1 surround room through a set of Stax headphones…topic for another later post) was in my studio yesterday and noticed that there were a number of analog tape machines strung up with tape. I have an old Ampex 440C deck in my lobby and my newly refurbished Nagra IV-S with QGB (large reel adaptor) in the studio. He inquired about them.

I told him that I was planning an experiment. Recognizing that there seems to be a fair amount of interest in reel to reel as a format for consumer music reproduction AND the phenomenal success that The Tape Project has had with their tape reissues, I thought I would explore the same market…with a twist. Would fans of analog tape embrace a source recording that was made using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM and then transferred through one of the best DACs currently available (a new Benchmark DAC2) to my Nagra?

My friend was doubtful and the feedback that I’ve gotten from a couple of reel-to-reel online groups has pretty much agreed with that sentiment. It may make some sense to license older analog master tapes and make copies for distribution. The thought is that if a recording started life as an analog master (which according to the fans of analog tape is an “infinite” resolution format), then it is still valued as a third generation copy (it could even be more generations but let’s go with 3).

It is important to realize that each analog one to one copy from analog tape to analog tape diminishes that SBR by about 6 dB. The Tape Project transfers the original master to a 1″ 2.0 channel stereo machine and then makes copies of that copy to a bank of ATR-100 1/4″ machines. They call it “one and a half generations down because the copy to the 1″ machine is better than a straight 1/4″ to 1/4” copy and they are correct. Still the original master that they get from the licensing label is most definitely not the master. No label lets these tapes out of their control. You might get access at their own mastering facilities but it’s highly unlikely that they would Fedex or even hand deliver them to anyone.

I actually did a bunch of this type of work for HiRes Music, a label that took older analog tapes and then made them available on DVD-Audio/Video discs. HiRes Music won a lot of recognition for their releases, which included albums from Ray Brown and Monty Alexander. I would get safety copies of the masters and digitize them at 96 kHz/24-bits. They sounded great.

So why not try to market a fabulous sounding HD-Audio recording transferred to analog tape using state-of-the-art equipment? My sources have more dynamic range and frequency response than any analog tape master. And if fans of reel-to-reel like the “sound” of analog tape, then my analog “copies” will be bona fide first generation masters. It can’t be much better than that, right?

So we’ll see. I’m preparing a sampling of tracks that I will transfer to analog tape copies. Then I’ll send the copies around free of charge to a couple of reel-to-reel groups and hopefully get some positive feedback. I’ll be very interested.

If you happen to own a reel-to-reel machine and would like to receive a copy, write to me. I’d also be interested in receiving any feedback in the comments below. Does this sound like a good idea to you?


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.

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