Putting the ‘ultra’ into analogue: introducing Canada-based UltraAnalogue Recordings (part 1 of 2)

One of the great benefits of my reel-to-reel ramblings, apart from the obvious one of discovering some the most incredible-sounding recorded music out there, is that I get to chat at some length with people who are at the forefront of the pursuit of sonic excellence. One of those people is Edward (Ed) Pong, the man behind Canada-based niche label UltraAnalogue Recordings.

UltraAnalogue focuses on making superb quality analogue recordings of chamber music performances and issuing them on open reel tape as one-to-one master copies. Here, in a two-part ‘ramble’, I’m going to chat a bit about the company’s recording processes (part 1, below), and then I’ll review one of their tapes – the first tape by UltraAnalogue Recordings that I’ve heard: Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata & Elgar’s Salut d’Amour (part 2).

Like many in this beautiful game of ours, Ed Pong is a devoted music lover, an obsessive audiophile, a dedicated pursuer of peerless sound and an ever-curious creator. On the one hand he’s what I’d call a purist, in that he goes right back to first principles throughout the entire musical recording process or chain. But there’s equally a radical side to him, and I rather suspect that there’s nothing he isn’t prepared to explore in his quest for excellence (I’ll give you a startling example in a moment, or at least one that took me by surprise).

At UltraAnalogue Recordings, which is based near Toronto, the whole process begins with the choice of who and what to record. Pong loves chamber music and so this is where he has focused his energies to date, with the goal of “making the most transparent recordings I can of some of the best young musicians today playing some of the world’s highest quality instruments”.

Now, if he’d said that to me a couple of years ago, I’ll admit that I’d’ve felt a slight twinge of compromise. Yes, I’d be listening to a great quality recording, but of ‘unknown’ performers rather than big names and so while we’d no doubt be ticking all of my audiophile boxes, my inner music lover may not be quite so gratified. I’ve since learnt through repeated experience that this is (pardon the language) utter BS. There’s a wealth of ridiculously talented, highly trained and utterly masterful musicians and artists out there who may not be ‘big names’ on the international stage yet, but boy, are they respected by those in the know. In fact, in the classical field several of them are now among my favourite musicians and I’d choose them over a bigger name every time.

I think Ed Pong is pretty shrewd here. His musicians are well-respected young artists with an impressive rack of accolades under their belts, and several are already on the verge of glowing international careers.

Pong is equally savvy when it comes to his selection of musical instruments (yes, his selection – for here, it’s not just a case of the musicians rocking up with whatever they happen to play!). Remember the slightly startling example of radical attention to detail I mentioned earlier? Here it is. Most recording engineers, if their musicians showed up with a Stradivarius or a Guarneri del Gesù violin, a Steinway or a Fazioli piano, would deem that good enough, right? But as a violin maker, Pong is keenly aware of the ways in which an instrument’s qualities can vary under different conditions (temperature, humidity, etc). So he works closely with a renowned local luthier to tailor the stringed instruments to ensure that his recordings capture the ideal level of natural openness, definition and colour. I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve come across a recording engineer who’ll have the strings off your violin or cello, and the hammers off your piano. Now that, friends, is perfectionism!

Next up is the choice of recording venue and again, Pong is 100% on it, having created his own space. If you were going to invent a dream room, do you think it might house a recording studio, a performance venue and a swimming pool all in one? Yeah, me too! All of Pong’s recordings are created in this very space. The room itself is largely cedar wood-lined with a high vaulted ceiling and is designed to provide a natural acoustic that foregrounds the music without adding a character of its own. (Obviously the swimming pool is covered during performances and recordings!).

Anyone for a dip? The stunning recording studio / performance venue / pool

And so, at last, to the recording process. Now, Pong may be working in a studio-type setting but these are very much live recordings in every sense of the term. The musicians are on stage, the audience is seated and every composition is captured ‘as is’ in a single take, with no signal processing, no mixing desk and no subsequent editing of any kind whatsoever.

Just two microphones are used, in this case (the Shostakovich / Elgar recording I’m about to review in part 2) a matched pair of Royer R-122v valve ribbon mics which are connected with custom made silver cables. Given that there’s no mixing desk, Pong carefully positions the mics to naturally capture the musicians in the appropriate relationship with each other and with the room. In a painstaking process of getting it just right, he will often spend up to half a day physically moving the musicians and the mics around in his space until he feels he has the perfect balance. From thereon in, it’s down to the skill of the musicians to ensure that the relative balance between them remains flawless as the music moves through its various moods and movements.

The microphone preamp

The two microphones are fed to a microphone preamplifier which is in itself something of a work of art! It’s a custom-built unit designed and created by valve ace Tony Ma, and is crafted around the Western Electric WE437A input valve and the WE300B output valve (widely considered as two of the best sounding tubes in audio). It’s an all transformer coupled, capacitor-less design with custom-wound silver input step-up, interstage and output transformers. All interconnects use bespoke silver cables with an active powered shielding to reduce interference. All of which adds up to enabling an incredibly transparent recording with a staggering amount of fine detail and dynamic range.

The external record & playback amps for ‘Studer 1’

From the preamp, the feed goes straight to the tape recorder. In this case, the deck is a two-track Studer A80 running at 15ips. Again, the machine has been heavily modified by Tony Ma to enable incredible signal purity and nuanced timbre. It features custom valve-based audio circuits with silver wiring, and uses a separate battery power supply for the audio circuits to completely remove any mains-borne noise from the equalization.

Another interesting point to note is that Pong records his tapes at a slightly higher level than the norm, based on what Decca used to do many years ago. He records in NAB in preference to CCIR and at a level of 396nWb/m, which is around 4dB higher then the usual standard 250nWb/m. The purpose of doing so is to give improved signal to noise ratios. However, if your tape machine is calibrated to 250nWb/m then that extra 4dB can lead to overload or saturation of the audio output circuits and so it’s best to adjust the output level of your deck. Pong includes test tones with his recordings to enable you to do this precisely. But don’t worry if your deck doesn’t allow for adjusting the output level, since Pong will happily make your tape at 250nWb/m.

That’s because every UltraAnalogue master tape copy is made one at a time, in real time (at 15ips).

Copying station: two customized Studer A80s

On which note… having had a good nose around the company’s approach and processes, it’s high I time to get down to some listening. UltraAnalogue has just released three new tapes and I got my hands on one of them, a recording of a live concert of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata & Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, featuring cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Benjamin Smith. Read my review in part 2…

Discover more about UltraAnalogue recordings at http://www.ultraanaloguerecordings.com