The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CVII: Reel Love
About a decade ago, just after I bought my Subaru WRX during what my ex-wife called my rather milquetoast version of a midlife crisis, I found myself hanging out with a crew of import tuners who came straight out of a casting call for the next installment of Fast and Furious. I was introduced to this ragtag army of adrenaline junkies by a co-worker of mine named Luis, a guy who bought a Skyline GT-R engine for his mid-nineties Nissan 200SX so he could easily win all the drag races at Irwindale. Anyway, we'd all start talking about quarter-mile times and top speeds and how for a mere $96,000 I could turn my WRX into a 1001 horsepower beast that was legally required to have a chute in the back because it was so insanely fast.
Sooner or later, however, someone would make the inevitable comment about motorcycles, and how most $20,000 bikes can easily blow even a million dollar Bugatti off the road. That, of course, would always be the end of the discussion. It's hard to wax rhapsodic about Ferrari Enzos and Porsche Carrera GTs and McLaren F1s when you're talking to a guy who just got out of jail for doing nearly 200 miles per hour on a used Kawasaki that he bought for two months' pay (I still remember that guy boasting that "they had road blocks and helicopters out after me... I just wanted to see how fast I could go!"),
It's the same thing with analog. I can have long, detailed discussions about the greatest turntables I've heard, and how they are able to reproduce musical performances with an uncanny sense of realism. Then someone will pop up and say something like "the master tapes still sound better."
It's true. You can go back and review all 106 of my previous Vinyl Anachronist columns and you'll probably find many, many instances where I call LPs the best-sounding format available, even better than the latest digital formats. But I'd be wrong. The best-sounding analog rig available does not consist of a turntable, tonearm and cartridge, but rather a couple of huge spinning reels and miles and miles of thin, delicate magnetic tape. If you want to hear the finest audio playback you've ever experienced, you'll need a high-quality professional reel-to-reel tape deck and the original master tapes.
This shouldn't be a big surprise to most. LP's, after all, are pressed from those master tapes, so it makes sense that this earlier version of the recording, taken at the actual recording sessions, would offer the most fidelity. It's the same concept as first pressings for LP's--each copy made is a sonic compromise as another layer of recording technology is applied. A reel-to-reel deck, blessed with a small selection of early-generation transfers, offers the same enjoyable analog sound as the finest six-figure turntables, but with a complete absence of surface noise. It's what the compact disc was meant to be, but wasn't.
I've been lucky enough to be in a recording studio once or twice, watching the original master tape used for an LP pressing. The sound was like nothing I'd heard before. One of the engineers at the recording studio told me, "I feel so lucky to have access to the master tapes and to hear music like this. I'm spoiled. At home, in my personal system, I only use reel-to-reel as a source. Everything else sounds like a transistor radio." I've also owned a couple of reel-to-reel decks in my life. I had a Pioneer in my college days, but I sold it because it was fussy and kept breaking down. I also had a TEAC a few years ago that had been completely restored, but I gave that up when someone offered me a completely foolish sum of money for it. So I can vouch for the claims of sonic fidelity.
I bet you know what I'm going to say next, that reel-to-reel is making a huge comeback. Well, it is. Just like vinyl. Just like vacuum tubes. Just like cassettes and 8-tracks, the machines originally responsible for almost killing R2R in the ‘70's. Digital recording technologies notwithstanding, reel-to-reel formats have always been the gold standard, and their only undoing was that they weren't as user-friendly as other formats. The magnetic tape itself was brittle and prone to breakage. The decks were complicated machines that often needed maintenance. And if you've ever had a tape jam in the machine, causing the rest of the reel to spill out all over the floor, you'll understand why some people exclaimed, "Screw this, I'm getting a turntable."
Reel-to-reel tape also has a few obstacles in its path that prevent a comeback on the order of the LP. Even during the Dark Ages of the LP, the late ‘80's and ‘90's, a number of manufacturers still made turntables, tonearms and cartridges, and they were probably sold in the town where you lived and you didn't even know it. Reel-to-reel decks, on the other hand, aren't really being made in volume. In the Wikipedia entry for reel-to-reel machines, the authors say that decks are still being made by Nagra, Otari and Mechlabor. Also, companies such as Studer, Stellavox and Denon still built decks up until the ‘90s. But when you spot a reel-to-reel deck in a system today, it's probably not a new machine. It's probably an older deck that has been meticulously restored by a qualified technician. Or it might be something that was found in a milk crate at an estate sale and is waiting for the chance to destroy some more magnetic tape.
This may change soon. Judging from recent hi-fi trade shows, I'd say that reel-to-reel machines are becoming the preferred way for manufacturers to make a statement about quality—namely, our stuff is so good that we aren't the least bit concerned about using the most revealing source material known to mankind. I've commented recently that we'll probably see a new generation of reel-to-reel decks on the market, and I'm not sure that isn't already happening. At the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last October, I briefly saw a machine on a folding table that looked surprisingly modern. The main body of the deck was made from clear Plexiglas, so the reels seemed to float in mid-air. All of the electronics were placed in a neat, stylish box at the base of the unit. I don't know if it was a prototype, a one-off or a comprehensive modification, but I wanted it. It was beautiful.
But for now, exploring this format will require that you find a deck that works and will not drive you crazy. That means you'll need to find someone who, like a Ferrari mechanic, will keep your fabulous machine running in the 21st century. I knew a guy in LA who used to fix old decks for a living. For $150 plus parts, he'd take any old deck you gave him and bring it back to its original specs. Before you decide to take the R2R plunge, you'll need to ensure that you have one of those guys living nearby.
Second, and this is the hard part, you'll need to find reel-to-reel tapes to play. There are still quite a few pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes available in places like eBay, but chances are they're worn and perhaps even demagnetized. And the last time I checked, original masters weren't available at Amazon. So unless you're going to build a recording studio in your basement, chances are that you won't find the kind of reels that possess that same high level of sound quality as master tapes. But that's changing as well.
A few years ago, I stumbled into an exhibit room at a high-end audio show where they were playing and selling R2R tapes that were sourced from the original masters. The company called themselves The Tape Project (http://tapeproject.com/), and they offered reels of 15 ips half-track analog tapes sourced from the masters. Pretty soon, these guys were showing up at all the shows, and they kept winning "Best Sound of Show" awards as well. The only downside was that these tapes cost $450 each, and that's a lot of money.
It is a lot of money, but no more than an extremely collectible and rare LP. I don't know about you, but I've purchased rare records before and they still had plenty of pops and ticks on them. For the same price, you can have an absolutely clear window into the original recording, one relatively unfettered by recording artifacts (Tape hiss will always be present, of course, as it was on the original master. But to paraphrase one remastering engineer I know, tape hiss is good. Tape hiss is real).
So will I take the reel-to-reel plunge again? I'm tempted. The cost of getting started is fairly expensive, although a quick scan of eBay shows that many quality machines are available for just a few hundred dollars at most. I'm not a fan of gear that constantly needs to be fixed, however, and part of me wants to wait for a new generation of machines that may or may not come. I'm also really nervous to spend $450 for a pre-recorded tape, even if it is the best-sounding version possible. I can spend $30 to $50 on an audiophile LP and probably be 90% as happy for 10% of the cost.
But to this day, I think about being back in that recording studio, listening to the master tapes of Wes Montgomery, James Taylor, the Doors and a few more, and thinking that it really doesn't get any better than this. It's as if turntables and LPs are my Subaru WRX, and I really like WRXs. They're new and technically sophisticated and they are extremely reliable for a car that likes to go fast. But secretly, I wouldn't mind another day in Luis' utterly exhilarating '96 Nissan 200SX with the Skyline engine pushing close to 500 horsepower to the wheels, the world beyond the front bumper turning into a shaky and transient blur.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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