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Really real: Reel-to-reel returns

Make way cool kids, analogue tape is back

The vinyl revival is so 2015. To be a truly modern audiophile, put the turntable away and make room for the reel-to-reel. It’s analogue tape’s time for (another) comeback and Mulann Group has torches at the ready to carry it into the future, writes Erica Basnicki

The ongoing battle to reclaim audio quality from the over-compressed world of MP3s and streaming audio has found a new ally: magnetic tape. Of course, “new” is a bit of a misnomer; the use of tape for sound recording and reproduction has been around for almost a century. The tape we know today was developed in Germany in the 1930s at the Baden Aniline and Soda Factory (BASF) and Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) in cooperation with the state radio Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG).

BASF is still a well-known name in the analogue tape world, and its analogue tape formulations, as well as those of AGFA and EMTEC, are now owned and manufactured by French analogue enthusiasts Mulann Group. Under a new brand – Recording the Masters – Mulann Group hopes to promote analogue tape “as a nice complement to what exists today”, says CEO Jean-Luc Renou.

Having acquired the tape formulations in January 2015, Recording the Masters launched its product line at the recent 140th AES International Convention in Paris this past June. Its catalogue includes three professional and two semi-pro tape formulae. The professional line features the SM900 premium high output studio tape, the SM911 industry standard bias compatible tape and the SM468 high-bias studio and archive tape, all available in 1/4”, 1/2”, 1” or 2” formats.

The semi-pro offerings are the 1/4” LPR90 long-play high-output studio tape and LPR35 long-play standard-bias studio tape.

The key here is complement – not competition. Mulann Group recognises the role of digital in music recording and reproduction: “We have to make sure that we work together; we are not competing at all – we are just trying to optimise our work together and make sure that the community gets the product and the services they want,” explains Renou.

“It’s like heating. In your home, you have heaters in every room – high numbers – and that’s not going to change. That’s digital. But you can also have a single fireplace, and it takes time to experience something different – this is analogue. The fireplace isn’t going to replace your heaters and the heaters won’t forever kill the fireplace.”

An apt description considering analogue’s “warmth” is its biggest selling point, and just like a roaring fire on a cold winter’s day – or perhaps more appropriately, a nice campfire at the end of a long summer’s day – there’s nothing quite like it. The question is: who’s buying? After all, we’ve seen so-called revivals in the magnetic tape market come and go in the last decade, from the likes of Quantegy and RMG International; in the US, ATR Magnetics appears to be the only company still manufacturing the format.

Mulann says, not surprisingly, look firstly to the professional recording studios. According to Nadine Patry, chief marketing officer at the Group, the music industry is (still) recovering from the slump brought on by file-sharing sites such as Napster that hit back in the early 2000s. At the time, studios moved to faster – and cheaper – digital music technology as labels put on the pressure to cut costs.

“Today when you talk to the labels, they’re not bidding on the CD anymore. They’re bidding on downloads and streaming on the one side, and vinyl on the other side. So I’ve spoken to a lot of studios who are revamping (tape) machines, and are getting them back online. In fact, we’ve seen growth in the studio area.”

Patry adds that the recent vinyl resurgence has made a significant contribution to the revival of tape: “Yes, because vinyl records that have been produced from digital masters are of really poor quality. People are starting to refuse vinyl records coming from digital masters. It’s pushing engineers to record on analogue because you can go to vinyl directly with very good sound quality, which is expected from the consumer today. They can also easily digitise for downloads and streaming. It’s changing the world of music.”

Recording the Masters has responded to this demand with a new product, Mix Master, a 3,750ft (1,143m) analogue tape that exactly matches the length of a vinyl record.

Which brings us to the somewhat surprising second big growth market for analogue tape: the consumer market. The truth is when it comes to audiophiles, nothing should really seem surprising. There are people out there willing to pay over €10,000 for three metres of cable, and tens if not hundreds of thousands more for an entire sound system.

The difference here is that while it may be questionable as to how much a cable can improve the overall sonic quality of a home system, reel-to-reel has a definite technological advantage over vinyl: it can handle a much greater dynamic range. Too much bass on a master and the resulting vinyl will send a tone arm flying. Tape? No problem; it just keeps rolling, full bass (and not to mention sparkling treble) and all.

It remains a niche market but it is being catered to by specialty labels such as Washington-based label The Tape Project, who release classic albums on reel-to reel, duplicated from the original analogue masters. At $450 per album it is unlikely to see the same mainstream growth as vinyl, but given the number of sold out albums there is definitely an appreciative audience out there.

Here in Europe, the Slovak company Horch House not only releases tape copies of analogue masters (including a healthy selection of Star Wars soundtracks), but has initiated “Project R2R”: the development of the world’s only current consumer reel-to-reel tape deck. Developed in partnership with Revox, the reel-to-reel is designed by Manfred Meinzer and expected to be available in early 2017.

Meanwhile, on ebay, reel-to-reel listings are in the tens of thousands, with dozens of people watching listings eager to snap up machines (hands in the air, this author already has a collection going).

While we look forward to a new reason to spend our hard-earned cash, we need to look back to tap into tape’s final big market: archiving. As Patry points out, we are still able to listen to listen to recordings made in the 1930s. “That’s why I say the format of analogue is very basic and forever readable, which is not the case with my hard drive with digital photos I put on it 10 years ago.”

In addition to changing hardware and file formats, hard drives also require booting up at least one a month to keep them viable, and are given a useful lifespan of about three years. Even less for optical formats such as CDs and DVDs. Analogue tape can survive without much TLC required for at least 10 times that.

“It’s 30 years definitely for tapes, but we have tapes that have been recorded in the 1930s – a long, long time ago – that are still used today,” says Patry. “We also know how to refurbish it. When you destroy part of a tape, while it does affect several millimetres you can still clean that. On a hard drive, if certain sectors fail, you cannot recover the sound because it’s not linear at all.”

Strong arguments then to keep tape’s fire stoked.

Top picture: Rewind to analogue tapes. Second picture: Slitting machine for 1/4-inch tape. Third picture: Technician qualifying raw materials before production. Bottom: Production – where the tapes are made.