Why we're building state-of-the-art analog tape playback hardware in 2018.
Record companies began transferring their back catalogs to digital thirty-five years ago. Unfortunately many of those transfers were audibly compromised.
It's not true that a legacy master tape is best played back on the same recorder that made it. That will only add distortion. Achieving highest quality transfer is not trivial. Every step is important and the first one especially so.
As long as the original master tapes still exist, thousands of bad transfers must now be re-done.
First, do no harm!
Using the wrong tape machine for playback can damage or even destroy irreplaceable master tapes. Any tape machine having fixed-pin lifters, or a forced guidance tape path, or unnecessary fixed path elements causing high tape tensions is damaging to tapes. Yet many archives continue to replay important master tapes on vintage studio recorders.
Huge numbers of surviving polyethylene terephthalate (Mylar) film based master tapes exhibit an oxide binder chemical degradation known as soft binder syndrome. Older, acetate based tapes suffer from another type of age-related chemical degradation that results in those tapes becoming brittle and extremely fragile.
Tape recorders are designed to record tapes. They can't provide the best playback.
You cannot use a tape recorder if you want highest quality playback. One reason is that the playback head of a tape recorder is positioned to permit monitoring while the recording is taking place. But this is the wrong position for lowest scrape flutter.
MQA can't fix bad transfers.
Today's advanced digital signal processing affords the audio mastering engineer powerful new tools. But processes like MQA encoding cannot repair sound quality issues resulting from compromised master tape playback occurring in the analog to digital transfer stage. Imperfect transfers must be re-done.
Highest fidelity playback requires a reproducer.
Reproducers are tape machines designed for optimal playback. A reproducer consists of only a transport (together with its control electronics), a headblock and an audio playback amplifier. There are no erase or record heads in the headblock of a reproducer.
Tape transports can contribute audible distortion.
Almost all tape transports corrupt the audio signal with audible time base perturbations known as wow and flutter. The result of flutter is unwanted frequency and amplitude modulation. Flutter commonly emanates from the transport itself, while higher-frequency scrape flutter originates mainly from inside the headblock.
The transport's primary job is moving the tape at a constant linear velocity. Because a near-perfect time base is essential to highest quality analog playback, flutter must be kept vanishingly low. Achieving this requires a costly, precision guidance, servo constant tension transport. Due to the high cost of manufacturing, less than one-tenth of one percent of all transports ever made were true precision guidance designs. Widely regarded as the finest were the A80, and its successor, the A820, from the maker Studer in Switzerland.
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 a variety of age-related component failures. Our internal cost for Studer transport mechanical re-manufacturing can exceed thirty thousand dollars per unit. Deep knowledge of transport design theory and flutter analysis is required in this specialized engineering discipline.
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.
Precision-guidance headblock design that eliminates scrape flutter while providing excellent dynamic azimuth stability is its own engineering discipline. ATAE was the originator of single-head-read-only (SHRO) ultra-low scrape flutter headblock architecture. We manufacture our own headblocks here in California. Their extreme high-precision assures rapid interchangeability without needed adjustments.
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.
It's not a burden that we ask purchasers of our professional tape playback systems to attend an owner training course at our factory in northern California.
It's an experience that they’ll appreciate for their lifetime.
Our acclaimed operator instruction covers essential concepts including track formats, equalization standards, the whys of a read head azimuth adjustment and the common misconceptions about it, the technical differences between the music industry's vintage studio tape machines and our state-of-the-art reproducers, and the physics of achieving precision web guidance under servo tension control.
Participants train hands-on with the exact machine that we’ve built for them. At the conclusion of their course they’ll watch their new machine being expertly crated for shipment inside our facility.
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 actually know how good legacy master tapes can sound. We hope the state-of-the-art tape playback hardware we're building now changes that. ATAE professional products are sold under a comprehensive five-year warranty. Reproducer system pricing starts at $90,250. We are located in northern California.
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