As part of my recent virtual visit to Smart Audio Recording Lab in Kirov, Russia, I also ‘met’ (virtually) with Dmitry Alexandrov who blogs for the Russian website www.stereo.ru. Dmitry, who in ‘normal life’ (as he puts it) is an architect, wanted to put a few R2R questions my way and of course I was happy to oblige – any excuse to talk tape!
You can watch our chat on video (scroll down to the end) or, if you’re more in the mood to read than to view, here’s an overview of the conversation along with some further reflections on a couple of things.
Russian speakers can check out Dmitry’s blog: Ramble On II: Магнитофоны, ленты, пираты, обратная сторона Луны и ответы на вопросы.
Will newly manufactured tape decks come down in price?
First off, Dmitry asks me about brand new decks currently on the market, such as those from Ballfinger and Metaxas. These are ‘expensive’ compared to the secondhand semi-professional decks from the 1980 and 1990s. Do I believe, given the ongoing revival of analogue sound, we’re going to see any new decks that are more accessible price-wise to a wider mass market?
It’s an interesting question. In Europe we’re currently looking at £10-£25k for one of the new decks, depending on whether you’re after playback only or you also want to record. But I don’t actually agree that these machines are ‘expensive’ as such. I mean, yes, in literal terms the cost is high and not everyone has that kind of money to spend (I certainly don’t, so my three decks are vintage refurbs – a Technics and two Studers). What I mean is that these new decks aren’t being priced on the basis of being luxury items or branding, or in order to rake off high profit margins since demand is relatively small and there very few competitors in the market. What the price reflects is the quality and complexity of the engineering in these decks, which is directly comparable to some of the finest examples of contemporary hi-end hi-fi on the market. There are single phonostages or turntables, for example, that cost considerably more than a Ballfinger deck! In fact there’s more engineering in a tape deck than in any amplifier, so you see what I’m saying. And with the Metaxas deck, you’re also buying a piece of art, a design icon – like, say, an Eames chair. So you get what you pay for.
With that in mind, how ‘cheap’ can a tape deck realistically get? Well, some years ago I was talking to a potential manufacturer who was looking produce a deck for around 5,000 Euros. But for various reasons it didn’t happen and to be honest I’m not sure whether it’s even possible. The amount of engineering in there is perhaps equivalent to several turntables plus several amplifiers, so imagine producing all that at a high quality level for a few grand! I mean, I’m not an engineer, it’s just my sense that around £10k is a reasonable starting point for a good quality tape deck built with all the benefits of modern tech and engineering.
Which brings me onto the cost of tapes. A blank tape (10.5”) costs around 50 Euros, so by the time you add in all of the other production costs, any copy master tape is always going to be priced at an absolute minimum of, say, £200 – and that’s if it’s produced very cheaply. But of course that’s incredibly ‘expensive’ compared with the price of a CD or vinyl album or digital download, and not accessible to a wide market.
In our consumer society we’re used to expecting many things to be ‘cheap’, or at least affordable and accessible, but the reality for people interested in tape is that you’re not going to get the latest tech at what’s an ‘affordable’ price for most of us. Thankfully, there’s still a stock of vintage gear for the rest of us to rootle out! But we mustn’t get into thinking that the vintage decks are a bargain and the new ones are overpriced. I could buy a vintage Revox deck for £200, like I could buy an old Porsche for £2,000. But I’m not buying the same thing as a new Ballfinger at £10,000 or a new Porsche at £100,000. They’re not like-for-like comparisons, either in terms of inputs (the quality of engineering and component parts, the sophistication of technology) or outputs (performance). And of course when our vintage Revoxes or Porsches were first on the market, their cost at the time would have been the equivalent of today’s £10,000 or £100,000 price tag.
Will we ever see an official copy of Dark Side of the Moon?
Next up, we talk about the music that’s currently available on tape, which broadly splits into two camps: archive recordings and new recordings, the latter mostly of emerging artists. In both cases, much of what’s on offer falls into particular genres, and what we don’t yet have much of is the kind classic rock we’re all dying to hear, those legendary bands from the 1970s – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Do I think any of the labels can or will change this situation, Dmitry asks. Is it possible we’ll ever see an official copy of, say, Dark Side of the Moon?
Yeah, that’d probably be my first choice too! I’ve often pondered this question myself and, to that end, I’ve had some conversations along the way with a couple of record company executives and producers. Much depends on who owns the rights to the music. And then there’s the issue of cost again. If we take Pink Floyd as our example, they can (and do) sell ‘Immersion’ boxed CD/ Blu-ray sets for £200+ a go, so if they were ever to release genuine master tape copies – effectively their original assets, their ‘crown jewels’ – then they would no doubt cost an awful lot of money, I’m talking several thousand pounds. (And then I guess there’s the question of how many illegal copies would then circulate as a result, not only on tape but also copied onto other media?)
I’ve also spoken to a few big artists from the 1980s who signed, say, a 25 year deal with their record company which has since expired so they now own the rights to their music. I asked them about the possibility of releasing copy master tapes and there was some interest, but also a concern about how much they’d have to invest up front in producing and marketing them versus how much they’d realistically sell, it being a very niche market. But I can certainly see this being a possibility (perhaps we need to approach a few artists with a proposition…?!).
Best choice for a first tape deck purchase?
Assuming that most of us will have a budget that steers us towards a vintage decks, Dmitry asks which deck I’d recommend to someone making their first investment in the world of R2R. My first deck was a Technics RS1500, which is great as it plays at 15, 7.5 and 3.75 ips, and both two-track and four-track. But they’re becoming quite pricey now – in the UK you’re probably looking at a minimum of £2,000 for a functioning machine. So, assuming we’re talking about a 15 ips / two-track machine, I’d suggest something like a Revox B77 as a good starting point, or a PR99 which is essentially the same thing but slightly newer. You can pick one up in workable condition for a around £1,000.
Recommended service engineers?
These are listed on the rambler website, and the list is very short because I’m only recommending people I’ve actually used and have had a genuinely positive experience with. So, since I’m based in the UK, this is only going to be relevant to folks here (sorry about that). But of course there are online discussion forums where you can seek out recommendations and share your own experiences in other countries.
I started out with Dave Cawley of www.time-step.com, who sold me my first Technics RS1500 and restored it for me. (Dave no longer does R2R work so he won’t thank me for recommending him, but if you’re in the market for some great hi-fi kit, do check him out as he distributes some excellent brands.) Next, I found Rod Thear of www.theartechnology.co.uk who restored my Studer A807 to factory specifications and did a fantastic job. Petronel Butuc of www.audiophilesclinic.co.uk is now my ‘go to’ man. He’s a brilliant engineer (and a very nice guy!), offers excellent value for money and what he doesn’t know about tape probably isn’t worth knowing! He fully restored my Studer A812 and has since maintained all my tape decks. Both Rod and Petronel do a lot of work for professional studios so that gives you a good indication of their quality of expertise. I’ve also worked with, and can recommend, Jo Fialho of www.chalfont-acoustics.com (who’s the official support engineer for Tascam and TEAC in the UK).
How can you distinguish a genuine ‘master tape’ from a fake reel?
Like, is there a technique to tell a fake from the real thing? “It’s a hard question, I know” says Dmitry, laughing!
So here we’re obviously talking about previously recorded albums re-issued in the form of direct ‘master tape copies’, rather than new contemporary recordings. And yes, there are plenty of fakes out there. While there isn’t one single foolproof method for spotting them, it’s also not too hard…
Your first clue is where you’re buying from. If it’s eBay or similar, be careful. While eBay is a great resource for picking up vintage commercially released tapes (eg. 7.5 ips), it’s far less likely to be the place where genuine labels will be selling their licensed master tape copies (unless of course you’re buying a used tape from someone else who bought it new).
Next up is the price. If you’re being quoted a bargain price, again be very careful. To produce a two-reel album you’re looking at around £100-150 worth of raw tape costs before you even start on factoring in the packaging, and rights and royalties, production time and costs, etc let alone any small profit margin.
Third, and what makes it quite simple in most cases, is the fact that there’s a limited number of reputable companies producing genuine master tape copies of archival albums. These are companies that have negotiated bespoke deals with the copyright owners and are selling legitimate copies of master tapes (perhaps second generation copies), produced at a high level of quality. I have a list of those I’ve discovered so far here on my website, which I’m sure isn’t 100% definitive in its coverage, but it is growing all the time, and I invite readers to send in details of any others they discover.
I’m also aware that there are others that can appear to be genuine but aren’t. These are tapes that aren’t licensed and so what they’re selling are nothing more than home-made pirate copies. Okay, so in some cases the seller might actually have acquired a good master tape (or copy) and may have proper studio-quality equipment to make a copy, but others may be nothing more than a CD or vinyl album copied to tape, with absolutely no guarantee of what equipment was used. In both cases, of course, these are unlicensed pirate copies.
I think that anyone who’s genuine will be happy to discuss their licensing with you, and perhaps even to send you a copy of their license agreement. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Anyway, speaking of questions, here’s the video of our chat.