Why we're building state-of-the-art analog tape playback hardware in 2018.
The "Big Three" record companies began transferring their back catalogs to digital over thirty years ago.
Unfortunately many of those transfers were compromised, evidenced by widespread complaints that an album's original release on vinyl sounded noticeably better than the modern re-issue.
Thousands of bad transfers must now be re-done.
Achieving highest quality analog to digital transfer is not trivial. Every step is important and the first one especially so.
First, do no harm!
Huge numbers of surviving master tapes are exhibiting some form of the oxide binder chemical degradation known as soft binder syndrome. Yet many recordings archives continue to replay those tapes on machines having fixed-pin lifters and forced guidance tape paths.
To understand the problem, examine any new, virgin tape oxide coating surface under microscopy. Then transit the tape once through a transport with fixed-pin lifters in fast wind mode. Most people are shocked at the oxide surface damage that occurs. It is several times worse on tapes exhibiting soft binder syndrome.
Older, acetate-based tapes can suffer from another type of age-related chemical degradation that results in those tapes becoming extremely fragile. As reported in the press, a priceless Frank Sinatra original master tape was destroyed when played back on a popular vintage professional tape machine. Not reported are the thousands of other irreplaceable master tapes that have been similarly damaged or destroyed.
Tape transports can contribute audible distortion.
Almost all transports corrupt the audio signal with time base perturbations known as wow and flutter. The result is unwanted frequency and amplitude modulation. Flutter commonly emanates from the transport itself, while higher-frequency scrape flutter originates from inside the headblock.
Bad tape transports can damage or even ruin irreplaceable master tapes.
A popular tape machine widely used for playback in transfer sessions in the USA was a professional recorder having fixed-pin lifters and extreme forced guidance through the headblock. This machine, the Ampex ATR-102, is not only potentially damaging to fragile master tapes, it also contributes audible scrape flutter. Due to ready availability and low cost, ATR-102's are still found in mastering suites today .
MQA can't fix bad transfers.
Today's digital signal processing affords the audio mastering engineer powerful new tools. Yet processes like MQA will not repair sound quality issues resulting from compromised master tape playback occurring in the transfer stage. Imperfect analog to digital transfers from master tapes must always be re-done.
Tape recorders are designed to record tapes. They can't provide the best playback.
Placed downstream of the erase and record heads, the playback head in a professional tape recorder is in the wrong position for lowest scrape flutter. The playback head is there to permit monitoring "off tape" while the recording is taking place. You cannot use a vintage studio tape recorder for the master tape playback if you're seeking a highest quality transfer.
Highest fidelity playback requires a modern reproducer.
Reproducers are tape machines designed solely for optimal playback. They consist of only three components: the transport (together with control electronics), the headblock and the audio playback amplifier. There are no erase or record heads in the headblock of a reproducer.
The transport's primary job is moving the tape at a constant linear velocity. That means there can be no flutter. Although individual sensitivity varies, all flutter is audible. For highest audio fidelity, a near-perfect precision guidance transport fitted with a low scrape flutter headblock is mandatory. Only a few such transports were ever designed and manufactured. The A80 and its successor the A820 from the maker Studer in Switzerland stand out as the finest.
To build our reproducers, ATAE exactingly re-manufactures Studer A80 and A820 transports in-house. Total re-manufacturing is necessary because any A80 or A820 is today more than thirty years old and will exhibit high flutter due to age-related component failures. Deep knowledge of transport design theory, including forced-guidance versus precision-guidance, servo constant tension and wide-band FFT flutter analysis is required in this specialized engineering discipline. Our internal cost for Studer transport mechanical re-manufacturing can exceed thirty thousand dollars per unit.
Completed transports are fitted into new modular furniture. The transport control electronics are also painstakingly rebuilt into new rack-mounted components for long life and easy serviceability. Important professional operator adjustments for tape tensions and speed trim are easily made with ATAE front-panel mounted precision controls.
Some people think of head re-lapping shops for expertise on headblock modifications. But the practice of installing additional repro heads into headblocks to make them "multi-format" capable is poorly thought-out. Precision-guidance headblock design that eliminates scrape flutter while providing excellent dynamic azimuth stability is a science.
ATAE was the originator of SHRO (single-head-read-only) ultra-low-scrape-flutter headblock architecture. We manufacture our own headblocks right here in California. Their extreme high-precision affords rapid interchangeability.
The Playback Amplifier
The playback amplifier (also called the reproduce electronics) must be closely matched to the specific play head installed in the headblock. This interdependent system must then accurately align to the standard playback equalization curves. Each of our five different models of tape playback electronics delivers industry leading performance and sound quality, in large measure because they are the designs of recognized analog tape circuitry experts.
Playback on our Model One and Model Two ultra-low-flutter reproducers enable analog master tapes to be heard in the highest possible fidelity.
For over 30 years our mission has been to help preserve the treasure from the golden age of music recording, half a century's worth of original analog master tapes stored in record company archives. Few people know how good legacy master tapes can actually sound. We hope the state-of-the-art tape playback hardware we're building changes that. Reproducer system pricing starts at $81,000.
ATAE professional products are sold under a comprehensive five-year warranty. We are located in northern California.
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