The Tape Project: Releasing Timeless Music on Audiophile-Approved Reel-To-Reel

by | May 29, 2015 | Interviews and Features

The Tape Project releases classic albums on reel-to-reel, duplicated from the original master tapes. You would expect these tapes to sound good of course, and you should expect they would sound better than the

LP and digital sources. But you will be shocked at just how much better they do sound. The Tape Project is owned jointly by Paul Stubblebine of Paul Stubblebine Mastering, Michael Romanowski of Michael Romanowski Mastering and Dan “Doc B.” Schmalle of Bottlehead Corp. They’ve graciously allowed us to re-print a Q&A about the company, and why they’ve decided to release open reel tape in today’s market.

Why are you doing this?

Dan: Most people have not had the experience of hearing studio master tapes. Many formats have been introduced with the promise of bringing master tape sound into the home listening room. Yeah, right. We don’t expect that this tape project will replace any of your other favorite formats, so we see no need to dwell on the drawbacks of any other format. Suffice it to say that we don’t offer an “analog-like” listening experience. We are offering a chance to have in your own listening room an actual analog listening experience as close to the original master tape as practical.

OK…but open reel tape in this day and age? This is a truly insane idea. What made you decide to do it?

Dan: I had been putting on this show (Vacuum State of the Art Conference) for several years, and my distraction with show administration meant that I always had an ill-prepared demo room for my own Bottlehead products. So I decided for VSAC 2003 that we needed a really good sounding, dialed-in display. I was talking with Paul and we wound up deciding on tape playback. Paul made a few master copies just for the show. My bud Dave Dintenfass of Full Track Productions put together an Ampex 350-2 for us. Paul and his cohort “Geets” Romo came up from San Francisco, and we played tapes, in addition to LPs and hot-rodded digital front ends.

Paul: I expected the tapes to sound good of course, and I expected they would sound better than the LP and digital sources. But I was shocked at just how much better they did sound. And I shouldn’t have been surprised; I’ve been working with tape masters for 30 plus years.

Dan: Best Sound of Show from three reviewers at that show, and a Best Sound Of Show at the first RMAF (with headphones only, no less!) with tape playback, and then Best Sound of Show at CES 2007 from many of the reviewers at TAS seems to support our approach. So why are we doing this? To share that experience with our subscribers.

Are you saying this is better than any other format?

Dan: We find the sound of 15 ips half-track analog tape to be distinct from the sound of any other format. Mike Spitz of ATR Services always said, “Nothing sounds like tape.”

 How are the tapes made?

Dan: Our duplication process begins with the actual analog master tape. From that we make analog running masters on one-inch two-track format. The one-inch tape format transfer results in an extremely low loss of information, which we consider more like 1/2 generation than one full generation [removed]. These running masters are copied in real time to a bank of finely tweaked Ampex ATR-100 decks, yielding a “1-1/2 generation” copy. You just aren’t going to get any closer to the original master, short of buying a record label or two.

What format do you use?

Dan: We have chosen 15 ips, 1/4″ half-track stereo tape using the IEC playback curve as the format. This format is vastly different from the pre-recorded tapes of yesterday, good as they were. In fact it was the master tape format of choice for many legendary recordings, and is the preferred format of many record producers today.

Why IEC equalization? 

I am asked this question almost daily. Typically, the question is accompanied by the comment that the consumer grade tape machines out there are almost all set up with NAB playback EQ rather than IEC playback EQ. I’ll attempt to give a not-too-technical explanation. My reference, and a brilliant resource for those interested in more detailed discussion, is Jay McKnight’s collection of technical papers on his Magnetic Reference Labs website, home of the high quality MRL calibration tapes.

The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) standard for tape playback equalization was designed by Frank Lennert in 1948 for use with early Ampex tape machines and the then industry standard 3M Scotch 111 formula tape. Scotch 111 is well regarded for its ability to hang onto a signal over many years. But by modern standards it’s a “high noise” formula. And tape heads of the era were limited in high frequency response. The NAB equalization curve was designed to compensate for these factors by boosting the high frequencies above 3150 Hz during playback. The 3150Hz transition frequency creates a “boost” in the high frequencies that is 3dB greater than the inherent loss of high frequencies that occur in the modern day recording process.

Modern tape formulations (and tape heads) have improved so much from the early days in terms of frequency response and noise floor that the high frequency flux now needs to be cut during recording to get flat response during playback with NAB EQ. So a shelf needed to be created in the recording EQ curve to compensate, and this keeps the recording engineer from being able to take full advantage of modern low noise tape formulations. From a modern tape machine designer’s perspective, this is getting messy! Now you’re boosting the highs way more than you should and noise goes up. So we need a new EQ curve that lets us avoid cutting the highs during recording.

Yup, you guessed it, the 4500Hz transition frequency of the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) playback EQ nicely matches the losses of modern tape formulations, and the recording EQ doesn’t need to make unnecessary compensation for overly-boosted playback EQ. Ironically, the IEC curve isn’t even a new EQ curve – it has been used in Europe for mastering almost as long as the NAB standard has been used for commercial playback. It’s a simpler curve to implement and gets the high frequency noise levels down to where noise reduction methods like Dolby and DBX become unnecessary. Sonically it’s a winner, and that’s means it fits right into the Tape Project’s goal of delivering the best possible music in the best possible format.

Studio machines from the likes of Studer and Ampex come with selectable IEC EQ, and some “prosumer” tape machines like the Otari MX-5050BII and the Technics RS 1520 do as well (along with sporting the necessary half-track playback head and 15 ips capability for playing Tape Project Tapes). Some other machines can be modified to IEC EQ by a competent technician, and the ultimate is to have a machine modified to connect the heads directly to custom playback electronics with switchable EQ setting like those offered by Bottlehead.

OK, this all sounds pretty good. BUT – the world doesn’t need the same tired “audiophile” titles in yet another format. So…is the music any good?

Dan: We made an agreement among ourselves from the start that the music must move us, or we won’t put it out. In fact we spend as much time looking for great titles as we do making sure our technical quality is as good as we can get. And we want to hear what you have to say about new titles. You can posts title suggestions in our Tape Project Forum Suggestion Box on our website.

The price seems really high compared to LPs. Why the extra cost for consumers?

Dan: Tape is very expensive, over $50 per reel these days. And there are two reels in each album. Now add in the license fees, production labor, facility costs, custom packaging, custom reels and you get an idea of our costs. And you probably get an inkling that we sure aren’t doing this to get rich.

There is another interesting way to look at this as well. In two eBay auctions that we tracked [a few years back], an original Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus LP sold for $262.57, and an original Bill Evans Waltz For Debby LP sold for $464.99. By their descriptions these are LPs with average wear and tear. For about the same price you can get our noise free 1-1/2 generation master tape dubs – seems like a no-brainer.

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