A ramble around the tape catalogue of Analogue Productions

Many of you, whether you’re a tape head or a general audiophile, will already be familiar with Analogue Productions. Formed in 1992 by Chad Kassem, Analogue Productions is the record label division of Acoustic Sounds, the mail-order hifi and music retail business Kassem founded in 1986. It has since become one of the industry’s major international sources in terms of audiophile music reissues.

“One of those albums”

The first of their offerings that I bought, back in 2008, wasn’t a tape but an LP (I’m a huge vinyl fan and collector too). It was Hugh Masekela’s album Hope, in a 45rpm vinyl release, which is an absolutely stunning live recording of Masekela’s phenomenal 1994 performance at the Blues Alley Jazz Club in Washington DC. 

Hope is one of those albums that most audiophiles will have heard. Turn up at any hi-fi show over the past five or six years and you’ll no doubt have been stopped in your tracks by the sublime sounds of Masekela’s flugelhorn flowing out of high-end demo rooms. There’s a good reason for that: it’s one of those albums on which the sound quality is as phenomenal as the music, which in turn is as jaw-dropping as the performance. No-one walks out during a demo, the captive audience is generally transfixed… every time I heard it I was so enamoured that when I got the chance to see Masekela perform live at ‘Love Supreme’ festival back in 2015, I jumped at it. As anticipated, he was incredible (I also saw Ginger Baker and Van Morrison that day – man, I miss those days). 

Analogue Productions had negotiated the exclusive rights to Hope before releasing it on audiophile quality vinyl as well as on CD. The 45rpm vinyl album was initially released as two discs (which is the version I have) and so it didn’t include the album’s full complement of 12 tracks, but a four-disc box set format has since been added with all 12. Hope is one of my best-sounding LPs, so when I learnt that they were planning to produce an analogue tape release, directly copied from the master tape, well, I got pretty darned excited – and with good reason. In part 2 of this blog I’ll share some of those reasons with you, asking: Hugh Masekela’s Hope: how much better can it sound on tape than the already superb vinyl? But first, a ramble around the genesis and growth of Analogue Productions’ wider tape catalogue…

The arrival of ‘Ultra Tapes’

Let’s rewind back to the end of 2016, which is when Analogue Productions announced the birth of its ‘Ultra Tape’ reel-to-reel album reissue series, sourced from original master tapes.

The first announcement was of two titles: Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence – a superb audiophile favourite (which I’ll undoubtedly buy at some stage) and Ben Webster’s Gentle Ben – a classic of very accessible (digestible) jazz. I already have Old Betsy by Ben Webster on tape from STS Analogue but I may well stretch to Gentle Ben too one of these days. 

A few months later, the next two new releases were announced, including Rickie Lee Jones’ It’s Like This. I absolutely love her first album but I haven’t heard this one yet (in any format), though I have no doubt it’s brilliant, both musically and sonically. And, drum roll… Hugh Masekela’s Hope. OK, instantly there was absolutely no question I’d be buying this one. The sound quality, the live feel and the mind-blowing dynamic range of the LP release are all staggering, so on tape – woah – this should blow the cobwebs away with the roof!

Releases 5 and 6 were announced soon thereafter, and then release number 7 – oh boy, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade – one of my all-time favourite performances of my absolute favourite classical piece (I have around 20 versions on vinyl!!). 

So there were two tapes that instantly went to the top of my ‘must have’ list, though in reality it took me a few years to do the deal. Why the wait? Well, I needed to save up a bit (we all know tape ain’t a cheap addiction) and, since shipping rates and import fees from the US to the UK can sting a bit, I figured it might make sense to wait until there were, say, four titles I wanted to order, to spread the ‘overheads’ (so to speak). So, I kept a keen eye on what Analogue Productions were up to, and sure enough, about a year or so later they announced another batch of tape releases…

First off was Art Pepper’s New York Album. I don’t know Art Pepper, but since I like most jazz, I did a bit of research and, thanks to a bit of digital listening on Tidal, I discovered that this was jazz of a particular flavour that really appealed to me. Next up was Sonny Boy Williamson, an early and influential American blues harmonica player / singer / songwriter who recorded successfully in the 1950s and 1960s, and then ‘the father of modern Chicago blues’, Muddy Waters. Wow, now that was a big name, and the details of the recording really got my attention: a stripped bare ‘right there in the room’ type of production. I was itching to hear what that might sound like, so this one became a definite temptation too.

And then there were some more classical releases including Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony No. 3 (oh boy, what would that sound like? Another temptation!). But hang on – stop press!! Hot on its heels was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, also performed by Munch / the BSO. Woah! I’d only recently discovered this beautiful piece (it was used in the Amazon TV series ‘Mozart in the Jungle’) and it was love at first listen. This one absolutely had to be on the list!

Okay, so now I had three ‘must haves’ from the Analogue Productions catalogue (Masekela’s Hope, Scheherazade, and Daphnis and Chloe), and a handful of ‘definite maybes’ on the shortlist. In the end I couldn’t quite decide between the shortlisted bunch so I put in an order for five titles rather than the planned four, adding both Art Pepper and Muddy Waters!

A week or two later, the catalogue expanded again – oh, man! – and in the next batch were three more ‘must haves’!!! Oscar Peterson’s We Get RequestsNorah Jones’ Come Away With Me, and Oliver Nelson’s Blues And The Absolute Truth. By now I’m thinking that these guys at Analogue Productions are going to be the ruin of me! So the budgeting and saving begins again… and I’m still working on it. But in the meantime, I have the sweet sounds of the first five acquisitions to keep me warm and satisfied.

Analogue Productions’ ‘Ultra Tape’ process

Before I put in my first order, I had a good old dig around into Analogue Productions’ production processes. I was immediately impressed by Chad Kassem’s credentials and his commitment to the industry. He’s been at the forefront of a reissue music label for around 30 years and has professional connections in all the right places. Even before (re)entering the world of tape, Chad had invested in, and developed, the LP repressing process to a whole new level, to the point that he now owns his own pressing plant – how’s that for commitment to doing the job not just properly, but near-perfectly!

Here’s a very quick overview of the essentials…. Once a licence to reproduce a recording on tape has been granted, a new 30ips, ½” master copy is made from the original session or master tapes, specifically for the Analogue Productions project. Your ¼” 15ips tape will be copied directly from that, so what you get is a direct, first generation copy from that brand new master. Each retailed tape is hand-made in real time, dubbed straight off the new master to a bank of six Ampex ATR-100 studio master recorders.

The Ampex decks have been fully restored, modified and fitted with state-of-the-art Flux Magnetics heads. So, thanks to advances in technology over the years, your master tape copy is very likely the best recording of that performance event, ever! 

The new tape used is Recording the Masters’ excellent SM900, their highest ‘level’ studio master tape (in that it can handle higher operating levels). Here, the recording EQ is CCIR and the operating level is 355nWb/m + 6dB peak. This is a very sensible level in my opinion: it allows for massive dynamic range with low noise but avoids getting too loud (which can lead to tape saturation or preamp input overload). 

There’s a couple of interesting videos on YouTube, including the two below.

A quick tour around the ‘Ultra Tape’ process of copying from the original master / multi-track, to a new master, to your copy:

Chad Kassem talks to Michael Fremer about costs, licensing, labels and more:

Of course these excellent tapes are then beautifully presented, with each of the two reels nicely packaged in their own boxes. Each tape sells at an extremely reasonable US $450. Obviously not cheap, but excellent value when you weigh up the costs of production and the quality of what you’re getting.

You can browse the excellent and ever-growing catalogue for yourself over at Acoustic Sounds online store

Next up in part 2: Hugh Masekela’s Hope: how much better can it sound on tape than the already superb vinyl?