Hugh Masekela’s ‘Hope’ from Analogue Productions: how much better can it sound on tape than the already superb vinyl?

Of the five tapes I recently bought from Analogue Productions (see A ramble around the tape catalogue of Analogue Productions), I figured the best place to start review-wise would be Hugh Masekela’s Hope, since I already had the phenomenal Analogue Productions 45rpm vinyl version as a basis for comparison.

So, before we get going, let’s the scene… this is the turntable front-end I’m listening on:

  • Turntable: Clearaudio’s Master Reference AMG Wood turntable atop Clearaudio’s Everest solid stainless steel and panzerholz stand (and the whole assembly sits on Track Audio feet)
  • Tonearm (for stereo): Glanz MH-124S fitted on a bespoke mpingo armboard
  • Phono cartridge: Miyajima Kansui
  • Phonostage: Aesthetix Io Eclipse

The tape, meanwhile, is being played on a fully restored (but otherwise standard) Studer A812 studio tape deck.

The rest of the system, obviously common to both vinyl and tape, for those of you interested, is:

  • Aesthetix Calypso Eclipse preamp and Atlas Signature power amp
  • Kerr Acoustic K100 MkII loudspeakers, on Townshend Seismic Podiums
  • Cables, connections and accessories: Townshend Fractal F1 loudspeaker cable; Gamut Reference interconnect and mains cables; Furutech NCF mains sockets and NCF Booster cable supports; CAD Ground Controls
  • Room treatment panels: GIK Acoustics.

So, introductions made, let’s get to the business of sitting down and listening. Kicking off with the vinyl LP as a reminder… the ambiance around the flugelhorn is immediately spine-tingling, and the drums and voices are so dynamic it’s almost startling. The layering of the backing vocals on top of the powerful thuds of the deep bass drum sets the scene, and a stunning scene it is too, with everything holographically placed within the sound picture. I play the whole album through and enjoy it every bit as much as I always have. It remains one of the best-sounding LPs I’ve heard to this day.

To be honest I’m almost slightly nervous as I load up the tape… can it really sound any better than the album? Will this be the exception, where the album is so good it can’t be topped? This is all bouncing around in my head as I carefully unpack the tape from its box and cue it up – which is all part of the pleasure and anticipation. For starters there’s a really nice long leader: white and of very good quality. These small details wouldn’t make me choose a particular tape of course, but having bought it, they do deliver the cream on top so to speak. The packaging is also first class, which I really appreciate. Top marks to Analogue Productions for an all-round quality product.

Before we start I should add that, using a combination of a sound pressure meter and my ears, I set the tape levels as best I could (the tape being some 8dB louder than the LP with everything set up as it is in my system).

So, with the LP fresh in my ears and mind, I dive straight into the tape. Right from the start it sounds even more dynamic, even clearer and even more holographic in its soundstaging. Those drum hits are like lightning strikes, they’re so viscerally defined in space and the dynamism is quite breath-taking. The deep bass drum thuds are even deeper, more evenly weighted and more finely textured. The space around each instrument is more airy, more real and more ‘live’. Masekela’s flugelhorn hangs there in space, its sound perfectly described. Again, there’s such a strong sense of it being etched holographically into space that I almost have to stop myself wanting to physically reach out to try and touch it. The bass guitar is far more textured and snappy than on vinyl and has a really good ‘twang’. And the cymbals are so fine: subtle, clear, shimmering. Just beautiful. The sax sounds just like a sax. A real, live one right here in my room, and guitars sound like guitars. There isn’t a single area I can discern in which the tape doesn’t improve upon the already fabulous job that the vinyl is doing. Not one. The overall impression is of more reality, and an even more dynamic and life-like performance.

Seeing and hearing Hugh Masekela live at ‘Love Supreme’ festival in 2015

If you’re already familiar with this awesome recording on vinyl, I’m afraid this might come as a bit of a shock to you – as it did me. You might even disbelieve me or imagine that I’m exaggerating subtle differences. If you are, I can totally understand, because this vinyl LP really is one of the best-sounding discs out there. But a direct dub from the new master is still, de facto, a lot closer to the real source than any vinyl LP ever could be – even if a one-step on super vinyl. So I guess all I can say is: if you can, hear this tape for yourself. It’s perhaps one of the clearest and most direct demonstrations of the superiority of tape that I’ve experienced. But, that said, if you can’t or don’t want to stretch to the tape, then don’t hesitate to get the vinyl release.

The tape also comes with a track-by-track commentary by Hugh Masekela, which wasn’t included in my vinyl edition so that’s a welcome extra. The only downside is that the tape is missing one of the album’s 12 tracks, ‘Languta’ but hey, I’ll happily trade off one track for this level of sound quality (and besides, I still have the vinyl version so I can listen to ‘Languta’ on that).

Then again, I had an odd experience there. When I went back to play the LP again, to my surprise and dismay I struggled to listen to it! What had long been a reference-level sound quality for me (and remains so in hi-fi shows around the world, as already mentioned) suddenly seemed, well, not so ‘reference’ any more when compared to the tape. Tape-fan that I am, I honestly hadn’t imagined that anything could sound THAT much better than the already superb vinyl LP.

So, hats off and a deep bow to Chad and everyone who’s worked on Analogue Productions’ Ultra Tape project. I’m off now to get stuck into the other four tapes I bought and, at the same time, I’m saving up for another order! Right now I have a longlist of around seven titles that probably needs to get whittled down into a shortlist of four, otherwise I could be saving for a long time. Then again, it’s not like any of us can go out much or travel anywhere right now, so perhaps I’ll get there a bit faster this time… in the meantime I have some superb music to keep me entertained.

Care to join me? Check out Analogue Productions’ excellent and ever-growing catalogue for yourself over at Acoustic Sounds’ online store.