There are moments in a music lover’s life when you know you’re in the presence of something very, very special. It may be at a live gig when the band is on fire and the crowd moves and sings together as one. It may be a chance discovery in a secondhand record store where you hold something in your hands that you never imagined you’d find anywhere, or didn’t even know existed. Or it may be at home, alone or with friends, and an album that takes you right back to that time, those days.
Then again, it may be – and, in my case, very often is – a reel-to-reel tape based experience! This one kind of ticks all of the above boxes…. Luciano Pavarotti’s personal archive of recordings of his own live performances over the years: painstakingly restored and brought back to beautiful, room-filling life by the team at Italian Hemiolia Records.
Before we dive in, let me share with you the story – with Hemiolia’s permission – of how all of this came about, because it’s a good one.
Luciano Pavarotti: “a little bit superstitious”
“All artists are a little bit superstitious, it helps to ease the tension. For example I used to look for a bent nail before going on stage, because once it brought me very good luck!”
So said the maestro himself. Another thing he and his entourage never forgot to do before a live performance, apparently, was to ask the sound technicians for a recording of each concert on magnetic tape. And so he amassed quite a collection of personal recordings over the years.
The tapes were kept in Pavarotti’s personal archive and then later, after his death, in the archives of the Luciano Pavarotti Foundation. Sadly, a few years ago the Foundation discovered that the tapes had suffered from significant degradation over time. Which was a devastating discovery, since this was a piece of artistic and historical heritage of huge value, one that contained many unpublished recordings from a variety of different concerts performed in locations all over the world, and to date had been heard only by the maestro himself (other than those present at the original performances, obviously).
And so the Foundation began a conversation with the team at Hemiolia Records with a view to exploring what could be done. An agreement was made to embark upon an ambitious project to recover and restore this incredible musical archive, and also to work towards making it available publicly available, to be enjoyed by Pavarotti’s many worldwide fans.
The challenge was to create new, high quality master tapes, using only 100% analogue processes.
Pietro Benini, Hemiolia’s sound and mastering engineer, had quite a job on his hands. For starters, the tapes were all two or four track stereo, there were no multitracks. And they all had very different technical characteristics in terms of the physical tapes themselves and also the recording processes used, recording speeds, equalization, etc. Almost all of the recordings presented phase problems and incorrect balances, since they were never intended for sale or public consumption and were made using the stage mixers used for live concerts. Their sonic qualities differed widely, since the recordings had been made over many years by many different people; they spanned many different types of performance and orchestral arrangement, and covered a wide variety of venues, all with different acoustic characteristics. And, perhaps most challenging of all, the tapes were not in good shape. There was significant damage from the deterioration of the binders in the magnetic tape (the glue that holds the oxide particles on the tape) – a problem known as ‘sticky shed syndrome’, and in some cases there was mold damage too.
Oh, and many of the boxes were unlabeled, many of the tapes were incomplete, and in some cases different recordings and even different types of tape were spliced together on one reel!
Sounds impossible? For many, probably yes. But I guess Pietro Benini relishes a challenge! For Hemiolia, the goal wasn’t simply to create a ‘decent’ or ‘restored’ version of the recordings, but to try to recreate what should have been, if the recordings had been made for public enjoyment: to somehow achieve a different result to those original recordings, yet while preserving 100% the original essence of those performances, capturing all of the quality and emotion of the original live event.
And so, there was a long and very difficult process ahead – one that took more than two years of continuous work to complete. Here’s a quick summary of what was involved.
Phase one: Restoration
First off, each tape was physically examined and tested in considerable detail. Then in view of the damage from ‘sticky shed syndrome’, the next step was to ‘bake’ the tapes. The problem occurs because the audio tapes have absorbed moisture over time. Baking the tapes at a precise temperature for several hours can safely restore the tape temporarily, such that it can be copied without being damaged or without damaging the tape player. But there are no guarantees and, after baking, the tape may only remain in copy-able condition for a short while. So it’s a nerve-racking business to say the least!
Here, the baking was carried out in a special oven, maintained at a temperature between 50°C and 55 °C over a period of time which, depending on the level of degradation of the binder in each individual tape examined, ranged from one hour up to several days!
Long story short (and via much baited breath) the process worked. But there was a window of just a week or two before the tapes would begin to deteriorate again, and so the pressure was on to assess the tapes, determine a raft of parameters including the equalization and speed of reproduction of each individual tape, and prepare for the process of making a safety copy of each and every one.
Phase two: the safety copies
Before starting this second phase, the team at Hemiolia worked closely with the experts at the Pavarotti Foundation to select those tapes that would be used in their collaborative project: the publication of the ‘Luciano Pavarotti Live Concert’ on open-reel tape.
However, the aim of the Foundation was still to secure Pavarotti’s entire music archive, and so to that end Hemiolia was asked to digitize the contents of all of the tapes. With that in mind, after baking, every tape (some two-track, some four-track) was played back on their studio Studer and Otari players. All were recorded and saved in digital format. Those that had been selected for the Hemiolia master tape project (two-track only) were also simultaneously duplicated onto tape.
Even the choice of tape player – which may seem like a simple one compared to everything else the team had to tackle – involved great deliberation. Since there was such a wide variety of types of tape and their varying technical issues to handle, Hemiolia’s studio team had to test a gamut of playback and recording machines, to find the optimal match for the job. They went through multiple decks from Studer, Telefunken, Nagra and Otari, before finally settling (after long discussions and reflections, I’m told) on the choice of a Studer C37 ¼” and Studer A812 ¼” to play the two-track tapes, and an Otari MX5050 QXHD ¼” for the four-track tapes.
The C37 Studer was connected to a D&R Merlin 96/96 analogue mixer, to which an Otari MTR15 ¼” was hooked up to record the two-track tapes. And so, for all tapes selected for the Hemiolia Pavarotti project, new safety copies had now been ‘born’. This was a great relief to everyone. And now it was time for the really hard work to begin!
Phase 3: Mastering
Using the safety copies produced in phase 2, each of the original two-track recordings was separated into 8 frequency bands using Hemiolia’s D&A Merlin 96/96 mixer: in other words, 16 tracks in total, 8 on each of the left and right channels. This was recorded using a customized Studer A80 16-track deck onto Recording The Masters’ SM900 2-inch tape.
Each of the frequency bands was then individually mastered, with specific settings according to the needs of each track, using a combination of 7 different machines: studio compressors, expanders and natural spring reverb units – including units by Maselec, Studer, Tube Tech, Orban, Drawmer and AKG.
The goal here was to remove as much hiss and other interfering factors, while preserving the full natural power and timbre of Pavarotti’s voice, as well as the natural sound of his orchestra – “with the full respect for the opera,” says Hemiolia, in true Italian style.
Once each frequency band had been mastered on a standalone basis, then the whole recording was reconstructed – again using the D&R Merlin 96/96 mixer to produce the two final stereo tracks. This new, fully restored production master was recorded onto the ¼-inch Otari MTR15.
Phase 4: Tape duplication
The final duplication of the tapes ready for sale took place in Hemiolia’s production room in Perugia, Italy. In this case, an Otari MTR15 was chosen as the playback machine rather than the usual Studer A80 VU. The Otari was connected to a bank of 12 Telefunken M15A recorders, all recently customized by Hemiolia’s technicians to optimize them in the best possible way for recording.
A job well done
Says Hemiolia, “We have worked with great passion, enthusiasm and commitment to complete this difficult job. Finally, the result we have achieved has compensated for all our efforts. We are delighted now be able to offer something to opera fans that goes way beyond the huge historical and artistic value of its content; something that now delivers sensations and emotions which, in closing our eyes, give us the ability to materialize, in front of us, the presence of an artist who will always remain unique for his talent and charisma. The tape runs and the dream continues…”
The Pavarotti collection: what can you get?
Two tapes have been released so far. Both are available individually at €350 each in pancake form, or €390 each on Hemiolia’s drop-dead gorgeous orange metal reels. The operating level is 320nWb/m, and CCIR or NAB equalization formats are available.
If you really want to push the boat out – and this is the surely the kind of special gem that deserves such treatment – you can buy the individual reels in a sumptuous ‘Special Edition’ version at €480 each, in which each reel comes packaged in a beautiful, luxury hand-crafted wooden box.
If you’re in the market for both tapes, a complete a two-tape boxed set comes at €640 on pancakes or €720 on those delicious orange reels.
Take your seats: the curtain is rising…
Okay so I’m sitting on my sofa and there are no curtains, just my usual window blind. But hey, it kinda feels that way, like I’m in some very special venue about to witness something rare.
So, how do I describe this experience? It truly is an experience, that’s for sure. Not remotely just a case of just ‘putting on a record’, or even a tape for that matter. Pavarotti carried a swathe of adoration before him and to hear these tapes, his own personal recordings of his own live performances is, quite simply both huge and intimate. Intimate with the great man himself – to get such closeness to the maestro, and intimate with the live music experience, with that magnificent sense of travelling in time and space and being there. I mean, somehow, it really does feel like I was there and, in listening to the recording now I’m reliving a memory! And what a memory – of a major happening, a coming together of musical artists, music lovers, the spectacle that is an operatic recital by probably the premier operatic star on the planet at the time!
The two tapes that have been released so far are made up of many short ‘best bits’. Pavarotti clearly knew exactly how to thrill a crowd, and so putting one of these tapes on will give you around thirty minutes of pure joy and utter entertainment.
Mega-crowd pleasers such as ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’ will bring tears to your eyes and goose-pimples to your skin (and if they don’t, frankly you should probably seek medical attention). It’s like I can feel the hundreds of hours of painstaking work done by Pietro, taking me right back to an unforgettable experience; the result is kinda like cocaine for the musical appetite! (I’m not advocating drugs here kids, it’s just a metaphor. But this is a ‘hit’ alright, and an absolutely fabulous one.)
Still, don’t forget that these are old, live recordings, so don’t expect studio-style squeaky clean sound. Expect the lushness of real life, the emotion of a real event, and the utter passion of a true maestro.
Unless you really hate opera, these reels are an absolute essential addition to any master copy collection.
Here are the track listings:
PAVAROTTI TAPE ONE
- O figli, o figli miei! Ah, la paterna mano (3:32) from Machbet – G. VERDI.
- Quanto è bella, quanto è cara! (from l’elisir d’amore – G. DONIZETTI) – 2:19
- Non piangere Liù (from Turandot – G.PUCCINI) – 2:26
- Mamma, quel vino è generoso (from Cavalleria Rusticana – P.MASCAGNI) – 3:31
- Oh! fede negar potessi – Quando le sere al placido (from Luisa Miller – G.VERDI) – 4:59
- La donna è mobile (from Rigoletto – G.VERDI) – 2:16
- Addio fiorito asil (from Madama Butterfly – G.PUCCINI) – 1:56
- Che gelida manina (from La Bohème – G.PUCCINI) – 4:35
- La girometta (from La Girometta – G.SIBELLA) – 2:15
- Recondita armonia (from Tosca – G.PUCCINI) – 2:53
PAVAROTTI TAPE TWO
- Non ti scordar di me (E. DE CURTIS – D. FURNO’) – 3:46
- La mia canzone al vento (C.A. BIXIO – B. CHERUBINI) – 3:35
- È la solita storia del pastore (from l’Arlesiana – F.CILEA) – 4:06
- Una furtiva lagrima (from L’elisir d’amore – G.DONIZETTI) – 4:05
- E lucevan le stelle (from Tosca – G.PUCCINI) – 2:39
- Mamma (C.A. BIXIO – B. CHERUBINI) – 3:34
- Tra voi belle, brune e bionde (from Manon Lescaut – G.PUCCINI) – 1:50
- O sole mio (E. DI CAPUA – A. MAZZUCCHI) – 3:50
- Nessun dorma (from Turandot – G. PUCCINI) – 3:35
Discover more at www.hemioliarecords.com