An “incredible” new tape with a difference: Chasing The Dragon allows listeners to compare recording techniques of Mendelssohn’s Octet

by Neville Roberts

A new tape with a difference from the British audiophile recording company Chasing The Dragon! Mike Valentine, the brains behind the Chasing The Dragon audiophile recording label, is frequently asked about the best way to record music and the differences between various recording techniques. Of course, he has his own definite views but thought it would be interesting to produce a recording that explores a variety of different approaches, so people can decide for themselves. Valentine wanted to use a relatively well-known and popular piece for the main work, and Mendelssohn’s Octet was his final choice. In order to make comparing various recording techniques easier, a short ‘encore’ piece entitled ‘Two Guitars’ was included.

The Locrian Ensemble at the Henry Wood Hall

To demonstrate the various recording techniques, several different microphone configurations were used, some using valve and some using transistor microphones. Also, some recordings were mastered digitally and some were analogue on ½” tape running at 30IPS. As far as I am aware, this is the first time a recording comparison has been attempted.

Having chosen the music, Valentine assembled an Octet of some of today’s finest musicians, The Locrian Ensemble, and then selected a recording venue. The venue was the famous Henry Wood Hall in the Southwark district of London, and I was fortunate enough to be invited along to the recording session on 5 February 2022.

Mendelssohn’s Octet

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his Octet, Opus 20, in 1825 at the age of 16, and this work is universally acclaimed as a supreme masterpiece. Indeed, many commentators have asserted that no other composer has ever written a major piece of music of this quality at such a young age.

The Octet consists of four movements:  an exhilarating Allegro, an Andante, the famous Scherzo and a fast-paced Presto.

‘Two Guitars’ by Ivan Vasiliev

As mentioned above, in order to facilitate comparison of a variety of recording techniques, an ‘encore’ piece has been included. The chosen piece is the delightful ‘Two Guitars’ by Ivan Vasiliev arranged by David Ogden. As with many Russian dance pieces, it starts slowly and develops into an exhilarating and exuberant climax.

The Locrian Ensemble and their instruments

For this recording, the Locrian Ensemble is comprised of eight of the finest musicians in the UK, all of whom are soloists in their own right. Each musician plays a modern instrument for this recording – more about that later!

Jack Liebeck

Jack Liebeck (1st violin): Liebeck’s violin is a Guarneri model by Joseph Curtin that was made in the USA in 2021. The sound is focused, deep and powerful but retains a very pleasing warm quality throughout the registers.

Simon Blendis (2nd violin): Blendis plays a violin by Master Luthier Edgar Russ in his workshop in Cremona, the 2015 ‘Edith Steinbauer’ Stradivarius. The instrument has a beautifully sculpted body and produces a very deep and rich sound.

Alexandra Raikhlina (3rd violin): Raikhlina plays a 2019 Guarneri del Gesù model violin by Spanish maker Gonzalo Bayolo. This violin achieves a rare balance of power and warmth. It speaks beautifully in all registers and the sound is characterised by its resonance and core.

Ariel Lang and Matthew Jones in discussion

Ariel Lang (4th violin): With his colleague Pedro Silva, Lang is the co-founder of MyLuthier, which is an organisation devoted to promoting modern stringed instruments. Lang’s violin is an Alessandro Di Matteo instrument made in Cremona in 2010.

Sarah-Jane Bradley (1st viola): Bradley’s viola was made by Master Luthier Bonten in his workshop in France in 2019. It has a beautiful tone and excellent projection of the sound.

Matthew Jones (2nd viola): Jones plays a superb Paolo Vettori Viola that was made in Florence in 2020. The viola was made out of 200-year-old wood that was taken from a building in Florence and has seasoned and aged beautifully.

Justin Pearson (1st cello): Pearson used a 2020 Stefano Marzi cello from Florence for this recording.

Pedro Silva rehearsing with his cello

Pedro Silva (2nd cello): In 2017, Silva founded MyLuthier with his colleague Ariel Lang. Silva now splits his time between this business and performing. The instrument that Silva plays in this recording was made by Francesco Toto in his Cremona workshop during 2017. The varnish has a rich golden colour and the tasteful and refined choice of wood produces an incredible depth of sound. The cello has a warm, expansive and rich tone that really fills the hall.

More on the instruments: modern masters

It is considered that we currently live in the golden age of stringed instrument making, and all of the instruments used in this recording have been made within the last 12 years. The instruments have been sourced by My Luthier and are some of the finest examples in the world today.

Two of the violins

Vintage instruments often command high prices as a result of their well-earned reputation for the sound they produce. However, modern high-quality instruments that are made to the same patterns as the older instruments can now benefit from new materials and from state-of-the-art techniques that accurately measure the sonic character of the instrument. Combining these modern materials and techniques with traditional approaches that have been developed over the centuries by the likes of Antonio Stradivari and Bartolomeo Guarneri of Cremona, has resulted in instruments that can rival or even out-perform their vintage equivalents – and they sell for a fraction of the price of, say, an original Stradivarius made at the turn of the 18th century.

Alexandra ‘Sashia’ Raikhlina sneaking in some last-minute practice

In fact, a double-blind study was conducted in September 2012 by a French acoustics specialist Claudia Fritz and US violin maker Joseph Curtin, along with strings expert Fan-Chia Tao, at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Paris and at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York.  The experiment was carried out in front of 50 audience members in a darkened room, with 10 renowned violin soloists who blind-tested 6 new and 6 old Italian violins, including 5 instruments by Antonio Stradivari. Surprisingly, both players and audiences preferred instruments with better sound projection, and on average preferred the sound of the modern high-quality Joseph Curtin violin (similar to the one used by Liebeck in this recording) over that of a Stradivarius. These findings, together with further analysis undertaken in 2017, led to the conclusion that the new violins are significantly louder under the ear than the old masters. In the concert hall, new instruments “easily out-projected” most Stradivari violins, both with and without an orchestra, while the most popular Strad “scarcely out-projected” the least preferred new instrument. This challenges the oft-quoted belief that old Italian instruments project more effectively while being softer under the ear.

Changes in thinking don’t happen overnight, so My Luthier is determined to bring these modern instruments to the attention of renowned musicians, such as those performing in this recording. 

The Henry Wood Hall

The Henry Wood Hall is an orchestral rehearsal and recording studio in Trinity Church Square, Southwark, London. It is London’s first purpose-built home for orchestral rehearsals and is named after the conductor Sir Henry Wood.

The Henry Wood Hall

By the mid-1970s, London’s orchestras had been searching for some time for a suitable permanent rehearsal space. As a result, late in 1970, Arup Associates were appointed by the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras to carry out an assessment of various churches with a view to converting them into an orchestral rehearsal hall. Earlier correspondence had referred to the possible use of the hall as a recording studio and this was considered as an additional need in their assessment. Creating a permanent rehearsal and recording hall for London’s two oldest self-governing orchestras and restoring a fine old church offered a unique project opportunity.

Several possible churches in south London were investigated by Arup Associates and Mary Lawrence (whose husband, Harold Lawrence, was then manager of the LSO) during the search to find a building suitable for conversion into a rehearsal and recording studio. A summary of the findings was presented in a preliminary report in March 1971 and concluded: “Holy Trinity Church is a redundant church. It is a classical revival church, rectangular in plan, standing in the centre of an early nineteenth century square, now designated a conservation area.” Holy Trinity Church had been declared a building of architectural merit and is a Grade Two listed building. The report continued “The acoustics are excellent and the church is in one of the quietest and most beautiful squares of South London.”

Since 1975, the Henry Wood Hall has been the scene of constant musical activity. Besides rehearsals for all the leading London orchestras and chamber groups, there has been continuous recording activity covering all types of music in the classical repertoire, from solo pianists to full scale grand opera. Highly-acclaimed orchestras like the St Petersburg Philharmonic have recorded here, and the Japan Philharmonic has rehearsed at this venue, along with many others. The list of famous singers and instrumentalists who have recorded at the Henry Wood Hall includes almost all the great names of the second half of the 20th century.

The recording session

In addition to the Mendelssohn Octet, a single performance of ‘Two Guitars’ was recorded in order to allow the listener to compare a number of different recording techniques. A total of eight microphones were used in different configurations so that the same performance could be recorded in different ways:

  • Two AKG/Flea C12 valve microphones set with an omnidirectional polar pattern were positioned as a spaced pair with a Jecklin disk placed between them. A Jecklin disk is a sheepskin-covered disk that is used to enhance the stereo image when used with omnidirectional microphones.
  • Two AKG/Flea C12 valve microphones were positioned as a Blumlein pair below the other pair of C12s, and set with a ‘figure of eight’ polar pattern with one pointing upwards and the other pointing downwards so that the microphone capsules were positioned as close as possible to each other.
  • Two DPA (Danish Pro Audio) 4006A omnidirectional transistor microphones were positioned as a spaced pair next to the C12s.
  • A Neumann KU-100 dummy head was positioned just below the C12s to produce a binaural recording, which will sound particularly good when listening on headphones.

For the Blumlein pair, the microphones were positioned at 90 degrees to each other.  Ideally, the transducers in the microphone capsules should occupy the same physical space, but since this cannot be achieved, the microphone capsules were placed as physically close to each other as possible, with one centred directly above the other.

The original master recordings were made in analogue on a Studer A820 tape recorder using ½” audio tape running at 30IPS and, of course, no noise reduction systems were used. The tape machine was operated by Petronel Butuc, who is the man behind The Audiophile’s Clinic and knows more about tape recorders than almost anyone else in the UK. The recordings were made onto ½” ATR professional tape with a fluxivity (the strength at which the record head prints the signal onto the magnetic tape) of 540nWb/m, which is about twice as strong as the fluxivity used in the sixties and seventies. This higher level of recording on the tape greatly improves the signal to noise ratio of the recording and is only now possible because of modern tape formulations.

Digital versions of the recordings were made by Matt Satori in DSD128 digital format on a Tascam DSD 2-channel recorder, and in PCM digital format at 24bit, 192kHz on a Nagra VI 6-channel recorder.

The recording quality

Having enjoyed the experience of listening on headphones to the recording and then removing them to be able to hear the music live, I can honestly say that the quality of the recording is incredible! Apart from the physical feel of the headphones when I was wearing them, I often couldn’t tell if I was listening to the recording or to the live performance. Below is a video clip from Chasing The Dragon’s YouTube channel in which Mike Valentine describes the recording setup.

As for which of the recording techniques sounds the best, I must confess that I personally prefer the AKG/Flea C12 valve microphones positioned as a spaced pair. However, Chasing The Dragon has kindly made available two 1 minute 15 second extracts of the ‘Two Guitars’ digital recordings, which you can download from my website at . The file contains the two sound clips at 16bit, 44.1kHz (CD quality) of the identical performance. The first is from the two AKG/Flea C12 valve microphones positioned as a spaced pair and the second is from the two DPA 4006A omnidirectional transistor microphones positioned as a spaced pair. Incidentally, the DPA 4006A mics are used by the BBC to record the Proms concerts.

In addition to ¼” copy-master tapes recorded at 15ips with CCIR equalisation, the recording is available on CD or digital download. By early summer 2022, it will also be available as a double LP special boxed set with a detailed 32-page information booklet and a book on the composer. One LP runs at 33rpm (Side 2 was mastered at half-speed) and the other at 45rpm, so a comparison can be made of the issues specific to vinyl.

As for the copy-master tape, the album quality is incredible when played on my upgraded Studer A810 and through my valve system and my Falcon Acoustics IMF200 transmission line loudspeakers. The dynamic range, instrument positioning and overall sound quality is exactly as I remembered at the live recording and the octet is reproduced perfectly in my listening room. Chasing The Dragon use ATR professional tape for the copy masters – the same as was used at the live recording session – and there is no audible tape hiss of course. Each of the musicians occupy their own identifiable space in the sound stage and the complexities of all the individual instruments are easily distinguishable.  Without giving my views on the best microphone configuration, I will say that the analogue tape is certainly way out in front of the digital recordings, even at 24/192, which I have also listened to. The master analogue-to-analogue tape copy is really as close as you’ll ever get to the live performance. That, coupled with the first-rate musicians and wonderful music, makes this Chasing The Dragon’s best ever recording to date. Wonderful stuff!

The copy-master tapes of the album, which are made to order, can be purchased directly via Chasing The Dragon’s website  priced at £360 for a ¼” 15ips copy-master tape.

Neville Roberts

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, 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.