Neville Roberts listens to Chasing The Dragon’s ‘España’ – live, on master tape and direct-cut vinyl

Last year, hi-fi journalist Neville Roberts headed to London’s AIR Studios to witness audiophile label Chasing The Dragon’s recording of a new album, España. The recording was simultaneously captured direct-to-disk and on master tape. Here, Neville shares his impressions of the day and of the resulting vinyl LP and copy master tape. 

There’s something rather special about holding a copy master tape in your hands ready to load onto your open reel machine for its first audition. This excitement was heightened when I first received a tape of the España LP from audiophile label Chasing The Dragon. Was it because Chasing The Dragon has rather an enviable track record of producing fantastic recordings? Well, yes, partly. However, it was mainly because I had actually been present at the recording session!

Winding back to 2017, on a cold and damp February morning, I found myself standing outside the world-renowned AIR Studios in London. Chasing The Dragon’s Mike Valentine had arranged to record the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Debbie Wiseman MBE with the mezzo soprano Rosie Middleton.

AIR Studios

The plan was to record a direct-to-disk stereo mix of the music and also make a high-quality master tape recording of the performances that would be released as a professional ¼-inch half-track 15ips stereo tape with IEC equalisation. Alongside the conventional microphone setup for the direct-to-disk LP and tape recordings, Mike also used his newly-acquired Neumann KU-100 dummy head to make a binaural recording of the performance at the same time, which would be recorded digitally, to satisfy the needs of audiophile headphone listeners. The result was to be a recording entitled ‘España’, which is a tribute to Spain and includes pieces by Rimsky Korsakov, Bizet, and Chabrier.

The recording day

Studer half-inch tape recorder

The conventional multi-microphone setup used a combination of a Decca Tree of three microphones, plus a plethora of individual microphones positioned throughout the orchestra, feeding the studio’s Neve mixing deck. A Neumann U47 valve microphone was used to record the mezzo soprano. The output of the desk was a conventional stereo mix, which was fed directly to a Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe to make the direct-to-disk LP and to a Studer A820 ½-inch tape deck running at 30ips to produce the analogue master tape.

In the control room (L-R Rupert Coulson recording engineer and Mike Valentine with Michael Fremer)

Following an hour or so of morning rehearsals, it was time to make the first recording for Side 1 of the LP. This consisted of ‘Habanera’ and ‘The Gypsy Song’ from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, featuring the voice of Rosie Middleton, followed by Chabrier’s ‘España’. In the control room I was able to listen directly to the output of the mixing desk on headphones while the actual recording was being made. At the same time, I was able to watch the orchestra through the panoramic glass window of the control room. I was amazed to have the impression that the sound was actually coming from each individual instrument, even though I was listening on headphones. The balance of the instruments was excellent and I could see why they had decided to situate the bass drum behind a screen to stop it from potentially overpowering the other instruments!

Although the recording was being made on analogue tape, the requirements of a direct-to-disk LP meant that the recording of each side had to be achieved in a single take. During my discussion with Debbie Wiseman after the recording, I asked what additional challenges a single take had put on her as a conductor.

Debbie Wiseman conducting

She replied that for her it was all about getting the atmosphere right. She explained that the pressure to ‘get it right’ in one go creates a concert atmosphere and this was precisely what she was aiming for. Under these conditions, the orchestra feels that it is giving a real performance to a real audience. This results in something that is less dry and sterile than a conventional recording, which can be edited and tweaked afterwards. In my opinion, she certainly achieved her goal of creating a concert atmosphere. Incidentally, this is not the only time that Debbie has had to cope with a unique challenge: as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 she conducted an orchestra on an open barge going down the River Thames in London. She told me that even though it was raining hard and everyone was getting soaked, no one let that spoil the day and it turned out to be a hugely enjoyable event for all concerned. The result was a wonderful musical extravaganza.

Rosie Middleton

To get a performer’s perspective, I spoke with Rosie Middleton after the recording. She too had been very well aware that there was no chance to get anything wrong. As always, when preparing for performances, Rosie found herself muttering the words of the pieces everywhere she went for the previous month and a half. She also worked with répétiteurs to make sure that everything was vocally perfect. As for working ‘nose to nose’ with a dummy head, Rosie said that she had forgotten the head was there until she noticed it about thirty seconds into the recording – and it was a bit of a shock! However, once she has got over this initial reaction, the dummy head became just part of the furniture. As a lover of the vinyl medium, she was really looking forward to hearing the LP.

The recording quality

As far as the LP is concerned, Rosie certainly won’t have been disappointed. The quality of the vinyl is nothing short of superb, thanks to the expert skills of mastering engineer John Webber. The recording captures beautifully all of the excitement and immediacy of the live performance that resulted from the requirements of a direct-cut LP recording session. The world class musicians gave an outstanding performance and Rosie Middleton’s singing was note-perfect.

My Studer A810 with the Espana tape

However, when I switch over from the LP to playing the tape on my Studer A810 professional recorder, it really is as though I have been transported back to the recording day and am standing in front of the orchestra during the recording. The articulate singing by Rosie of the Habanera from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is crystal-clear and I can even follow her singing in French of the lyrics of the piece that I found on the internet (and I don’t even speak French!) . The orchestral performance of ‘The Gypsy Song’ is another brilliant one and they are clearly located behind the vocals from Rosie, which demonstrates the superb depth of the recording, and the exuberant and emotional singing is really stunning.

Rosie leaves the studio for the final two tracks – the first of which is the album’s eponymous ‘España’ by Chabrier, which the orchestra plays with great gusto. One can almost identify every instrument in the orchestra as occupying their own physical space on the sound stage, yet they all play together harmoniously. The final track – Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Cappriccio Espagnol’ – literally gives me goose-pimples with excitement, right from the powerful opening bars of the piece and through to the rousing conclusion.

This recording really is a ‘must-have’ tape for anyone’s collection. Even if classical music is not your thing, the sheer energy of the performance and quality of the recording is, in my opinion, bound to win over everyone and it will really bring out the best in your audio setup.

Mike Valentine making the copy master tapes

Chasing The Dragon’s España album is available as a direct-cut vinyl LP, copy master tape, digital download, on CD and as a binaural recording for headphone users.

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Neville Roberts is a man of many interests and talents. As well as being a regular contributor to Hi-Fi Choice magazine, he’s a retired UK National Health Service (NHS) director, electronics engineer and physicist. He’s also a lifelong audio enthusiast with a particular interest in valve/tube audio design, and a devotee of vinyl and tape. Neville enjoys an eclectic range of music including classical, especially baroque, light orchestral and jazz. He lives with his wife near Bournemouth in Dorset, UK, where he grows orchids and is a keen photographer.