“Mike Valentine is to blame”: falling in love again or how I came to be a reel-to-reel rambler

In my previous ramble I introduced you to Mike Valentine. Then again, chances are you knew of him already. To some, he’s a renowned underwater film cameraman credited on an enviable list of A-list movies. To others, he’s the owner of the excellent UK audiophile record label, Chasing the Dragon, with quite a reputation for his stunning quality direct-cut vinyl albums. To me, however, he will always be the man who is to blame. Or, to put it another way, the man to whom I shall be eternally grateful. For what? For my near-religious conversion to open reel tape and the enormous amount of listening pleasure I’ve enjoyed since. Can I tell you the story? Go on, indulge me….

If not for Mike Valentine, I doubt I’d be the proud owner of three (and verging on four) reel-to-reel tape machines. My hi-fi system might still fit neatly on its rack rather than spilling out over many and varied surfaces. The floor-to-ceiling shelves in my living room would almost certainly still house books in place of tapes. You, dear reader, would be spared the trouble of ploughing through these long and winding reel-to-reel ramblings of mine. And, best of all, my bank balance would possibly be better equipped to look a financial adviser direct in the eye.

Got the t-shirt: total tape devotion

But would I be happy? Well I’d like to think so, but I doubt I’d be enjoying myself anywhere near as much as I am now!

First encounters

I’ve known Mike Valentine for around a decade and, while he’s certainly a great guy to know, our acquaintance wasn’t a life-changing one to begin with. Our paths initially crossed when Mike was a customer of a high-end audio brand for which I was working as PR. He had both excellent taste and an enviable budget – the latter thanks to his aforementioned successful career as an underwater film cameraman.

“Mike Valentine is often asked about the size of Leonardo DiCaprio’s member,” wrote Campaign magazine after he filmed the love scene for the movie ‘The Beach’, which gives you an idea of just how successful his film career is. In fact you’ll find Mike’s name in the credits of an impressive list of high-profile movies spanning several decades, from James Bond to Star Wars and beyond.

Screenshot from http://www.valentinefilms.com

So how did Mike come to launch audiophile record label Chasing the Dragon and end up blowing the ears and mind of this particular audio nut, among others?

Perhaps a clue to the answer lies in another quote from that same Campaign magazine interview. When asked about his success in underwater filming, Mike replied that the key is combining physics with art: “Water is a sensuous, velvet-like medium through which the camera can be transported smoothly. But before you interpret it or use artistic impression, you have to overcome the physical elements.” Sounds a bit like the world of audio to me. Add to that the fact that Mike’s “spent years – and a small fortune – designing and collecting equipment,” and again, the audiophile world springs to mind!

As it turns out, Mike’s working life actually originated in audio. After leaving school at 17 he worked part-time in a Manchester hi-fi shop, then at 18 joined the BBC as a sound engineer where he remained for some 14 years before moving into filming. Then in 2012, several decades and that enviable raft of A-list credits later, Mike was holidaying in Italy with his wife and business partner Françoise. While in Venice, the pair went to a concert given by chamber orchestra Interpreti Veneziani and Mike was so captivated by their performance, he asked if he could record them.

Interpreti Veneziani

An audiophile label is born

And so, with that, Mike’s UK audiophile label Chasing the Dragon was born. But hang on, how do you go from hearing an orchestra you’d like to record to actually launching a record label? The clue, dear reader, is in the label’s name.

‘Chasing the dragon’ is of course a slang phrase (of Cantonese origin, from Hong Kong) for a method of smoking opiates and, as loathe as I am to admit it, it describes most audiophiles to a tee! “It’s an addiction,” says Mike with no qualms whatsoever, “exactly like a drug. We’re always looking for the next high – the next piece of kit, the latest preamp, a better cable. It never stops, we’re always seeking. We’re hooked and always hungry for more.” Hmm, can’t argue there.

“Back then, I was writing some hi-fi reviews for a Turkish magazine,” he continues, “and then they started getting published online. Like any addict, I got hungry for more – how could I be a better reviewer; how could I really sort the wheat from the chaff and get under the skin of what really makes a musical recording sound great? What better way than to make my own recordings, then I’d know exactly what they should sound like when replayed. That would give me the ultimate yardstick!”

Little did I know…

Chasing the Dragon’s first album release

The first Chasing the Dragon LP was released in 2012, first on CD and then on vinyl – and little did I know that it featured a recording that would later turn my audiophile world around.

To be honest, when the label first launched I didn’t exactly sit up and take notice. Sure, the music was wonderfully well-recorded and it clearly proved that Mike’s infamous passion and craftsmanship extended from filming into sound recording. But at the time, I was neck-deep in rifling through Bob Dylan’s back-catalogue and exploring a raft of his early influences, from The Clancy Brothers to Hank Williams, so wasn’t really in the market for albums featuring unknown (to me) contemporary musicians.

But fast forward a few months and all that changes.

“…he does something I can recall so clearly it’s as if it was five minutes ago”

It’s September 2013 and I’m at the UK’s National Audio Show. Mike has a big exhibition room for Chasing The Dragon and he’s set up an epic-looking high-end system fronted by a Studer A812 tape machine and a Nagra digital audio recorder – both professional, studio-quality kit. The Studer is a thing of absolute beauty and the sight of it lures me into the room. Before I know it, my butt lands on a chair in the middle of the front row and I’m transfixed by one of Mike’s infamous and brilliantly entertaining presentations. Then, mid-talk, he does something that I can recall so clearly it’s as if he did it five minutes ago.

National Audio Show, Whittlebury, 2013

Mike plays a single track from the aforementioned album, Chasing The Dragon’s first (now discontinued, but simply called ‘Chasing The Dragon’). It’s a solo improvisation played by saxophonist David Graham. The more important details for me, however, are those relating to how it was recorded: in Mike’s local church, using two Neumann U47 valve microphones feeding into a Nagra microphone preamplifier. There are two outputs feeding straight from the latter, one into a Nagra 6 24/192 digital recorder and the other into a Studer A812 ½” tape recorder running at 30ips. So for the first time ever, I have the opportunity to properly and fairly compare analogue with digital – with exactly the same recording.

Mike plays the digital file on the Nagra first and, despite being a self-confessed analogue guy, I can’t deny that it sounds awesome. Like the best CD you’ll ever hear, it’s extremely impressive – clean, detailed and ‘natural-sounding’.

But then he plays the analogue tape…

While Mike’s busy switching to the Studer I turn to Timestep’s Dave Cawley who’s sitting next to me to comment on my surprise at the wonderful sound of the digital file. I’m mid-sentence when the analogue tape starts and that moment changes everything for me.

Mike Valentine’s Studer A812

I’m not kidding you. It’s a seminal moment and one I’ll never forget. Even before the first note is played, even though I’m still turned 90 degrees away from the speakers, and even though I’m mid-conversation and not really concentrating, suddenly I hear the performance venue. Not in that geeky audiophile kind of a way, by which I mean that it wasn’t a difficult or tenuous thing to hear. It was visceral. As if I’d been tele-ported through space and time and planted firmly in the time and place of the live recording.

Now, the holy grail of high-end audio and all who sail in her is to deliver a musical experience that mirrors being there in the flesh. Plenty of hi-fi manufacturers and recording engineers allude to coming close to that, but this was without a doubt the closest I’d ever come.

“hi-res, MQA… they’re all missing the same point”

Ever since that moment confirmed it so clearly for me, I’ve stood resolute in my conviction that the difference between analogue and digital recording is profound. It really doesn’t matter to me about high-res digital, MQA, etc, etc. Within the world of digital audio those differences are no doubt relevant, but when you’re talking about a comparison with analogue, then they’re all missing the same point as far as I’m concerned. What the analogue tape picked up but the digital recording missed was something key to both the essence of sound and the essence of reality. As Mike’s demonstration so clearly demonstrated, you can capture that essence on tape but not digitally. Not even using the same live recording, the same microphones, the same cables and the same mixing desk. The only difference between Mike’s two recordings was that in one case, the feed from the microphone preamp was fed into an analogue studio master tape recorder, and in the other, it was fed into a digital studio master hard disk recorder. As a result, the evidence was absolutely clear: as soon as you make a recording digitally, the ‘essence’ of the musical event has already gone – hence by definition it can’t be retrieved at any point later in the chain.

Which is why that moment changed everything for me. The digital versus analogue debate ceased to be a debate. And tape became my format of choice by a country mile.

So does that mean that I now spend my days denouncing all things digital? Have I’ve thrown away half my vinyl collection and replaced it with tapes? Not at all! I’m an avid audiophile and my ‘phile’ remains very much in tact for all things audio – the whole gamut. But there’s definitely an order of preference and I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone by saying that it goes like this: tape first, vinyl second and digital third. Just my luck, then, that the order of high-to-low cost follows the same pattern! But there are reasons for that and, as with many things in life, we get what we pay for. Thanks a bunch, Mike!

Preaching to the happily converted: men with matching trousers, talking tape (me left, Mike Valentine right)