Review: RMGI SM900 and SM911 Analog Recording Tape

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With 1/4-inch analog tape sales on the rise, RMGI hits the market at a great time with its Emtec/BASF-formula products.

While most of us merrily bounce along at the “speed of DAW” with our all-digital recording sessions, a significant counterculture still practices the comparatively archaic art of recording to analog tape, arranging those magnetized iron oxide (rust) particles into delightfully wonderful patterns. Whether it’s an artsy indie rocker bouncing tracks onto an 8-track machine, budget-unlimited rock stars cutting basics to 2-inch, or texture-minded mixers summing digital tracks onto half-inch for one last shot of attitude, each testifies to the aural or procedural advantages of analog tape even in this modern age. Don't dismiss these biased practitioners; one of them -- the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl -- is doing pretty well with his band’s celebrated, Grammy-winning “analog” release.

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Amongst those who do a lot of analog recording, tape preferences and loyalties are generally very strong sentiments. Those who’ve preferred Emtec/BASF tape will be glad to know that those formulas are still available, now manufactured by RMGI. In fact, the factory producing these formulas has been moved from the Netherlands to Pyral, France, and into a new $2.5 million facility specifically for audio tape (RMGI also makes magnetic foil for credit cards and recording media for medical apps, etc.), where they churn out 2-, 1-, 1/2- and 1/4-inch widths of SM900, SM911 and SM468. 

Features 

RMGI SM468 is the formula that closely compares to Ampex 456, with fairly low bias-current requirements allowing use on most any tape deck. SM911 is RMGI’s standard bias formula, the exact equivalent of the classic BASF 911. SM900 is RMGI’s premium high output formula.

For this review, I was supplied with SM900 and SM911 tape, 2500 feet of each on 10.5-inch reels, for use on my custom refurbished Ampex AG440 1/2-inch tape machine (featuring NOS Nortronics heads and a mod allowing 30ips operation).

In Use

From here on out, things get highly subjective as opinion is quite necessary in evaluating this storage medium. Historically, BASF 911 has always worked well for me, an opinion shared by artists and mastering engineers I've worked and consulted with who frequently choose my analog mix submissions over the digital ones. I try to exercise best practices with a MRL calibration tape (mine for 30ips, 355 nWb/m, AES EQ), proper head and tape path cleaning, head demagnetization and a tendency to over-bias to spec. Finally, I will not comment on how well a tape formula breaks up when slammed with level, as I do not use a tape machine as a fuzzbox; I pursue artistic color that is much subtler and achieved through machine set-up/calibration, not levels.

All this said, SM911isBASF 911. It sets up and sounds just like 911 to my ears, and I like it. There was a little needle bounce during calibration (where a very stable VU meter indicates good slitting of the tape stock, a requirement for nice smooth wraps on the take-up reel and consistent high-end reproduction), but that is typical on my vintage machine. Oxide left on the heads were at amounts normal for my machine; nothing alarming. The overall sound was bright, but slightly compressed and massaged on the top end, with that certain undefinable “smooth character” through the mids and a lean bottom end with non-linear bulging at some frequencies (at 30ips with no noise reduction). 30ips keeps tape hiss down, but isn't as fat and chunky as 15ips would be (at the penalty of increased hiss).

One of my regular clients -- the reggae-rocking band Bums Lie -- chose my 911’ized mixes for half of their new EP (the other half remained digital), as the 900 wasn't as voluptuous on the bottom end as the 911 and seemed a little hard and strident through the high-mids. For what it’s worth, my 440 doesn’t work well with Quantegy’s premium, high-output GP9 either, thus I think these modern formulas would likely work better on a newer machine.

So, I visited Dave Harris of Studio B Mastering for some additional testing on his masterfully refurbished Ampex ATR-102. First, we set up the machine for SM900 at 15ips, +6/185 nWb/m output, IEC curve, no noise reduction and over-biased to 3.2 dB, as recommended. I must say, what a rock solid machine and tape; I don't think I've ever seen such steady levels, even at 50 Hz! There was virtually zero residue left in the tape path. We dumped a nice country ballad to the 900 and noticed only the slightest bit of audible differences from the tape; the 900 was nearly linear with an unfettered low end, true mid frequencies (with true dynamics) and very little compression and colorization up top. I believe that many modern audio pros would not be able to tell that this was analog; it was just that flatly clean and gentle.

Next, we re-biased the ATR-102 for the reel of 911. This time, transferring the same country ballad, we noticed a touch more color, with some additional bottom end bump and a seemingly more open top end; Dave and I agreed the top end boost was due to more output around 4kHz. We also completely concurred on all points of compare: both RMGI tape formulas sound fine and both created sonic options we could accept; neither of us felt the tape response was hugely influential (we both found both formulas to be rather subtle, and much subtler than on my 440 machine); and we both ever so slightly preferred the SM900‘s sonics to either the 911 or the digital mix for this song.

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Summary

All things considered, one needn't worry about availability of tape stock anymore. Even though Quantegy is not available, American-made ATR Magnetics is, and RMGI’s new factory is making product that measures up to the original BASF standards. These 2500-foot, 1/2-inch reels go for about $80 street, and there's plenty of tape machines out there with low price tags and the need for some TLC, so cost considerations aren’t bad. In fact, RMGI tells me that 1/4-inch sales have seen a large increase in the last year … that bodes well for a stable future.

Frankly, there are several capable new plug-ins and tape emulations that can simulate the tone of tape. But this RMGI stock is enjoyable to handle and thread up; it smells good as it rolls through the transport; and clients truly feel like they've experienced something different in “going analog.” So, logic be damned -- let's “roll tape” as they used to say in the good old (analog) days!

Rob Tavaglione has been the owner and operator of Catalyst Recording (Charlotte NC) since 1995.catalystrecording.com

Price: $74.95 list (either SM900 and SM911, 2500’ of 1/2” on a 10.5” reel)

Contact: RMGI America | rmgi-usa.com