by Ken Kessler
In part 1 – “I’m sorting that for Paul McCartney” – Ken Kessler remembered Tim de Paravicini as a “true god of open-reel tape”. Here, he explores Tim’s incredible contribution to the wider world of recorded music.
It must have been the first time I visited Tim in Huntingdon when I espied a massive, early 4-track Studer tape deck on a trolley in the EAR-Yoshino works. I had only ever seen one before in person, and that was at Abbey Road Studios. “Oh, that,” said Tim. “It’s Paul McCartney’s.” Which means that Tim worked on machines for three Beatles – in addition to Paul’s, he had modified Ringo Starr’s and the late George Harrison’s decks. But it tells you how revered he was in his other life, away from high-end domestic audio: he was adored by professionals.
Then there’s Kavi Alexander at Water Lily Acoustics, responsible for one of the all-time best-sounding audiophile LPs, 1993’s A Meeting by the River, with Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. This won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. It was recorded on a Studer C37 modified by Tim. The guys at Mobile Fidelity have limitless praise for all of his contributions to their projects, especially the One Step process for their no-compromise LPs. And let’s not forget the story related to me by no less than Bob Ludwig, arguably the world’s leading mastering engineer.
No accusations of name-dropping, please. Bob’s studio, Gateway Mastering, is in my hometown and I’ve known him for years because of that. Bob is what’s called in Yiddish “a mensch”, for which there is no exact English translation, though I suppose you might say it’s like that old-fashioned praise of being “a stand-up guy” but without the gangster associations. Like Tim, Bob has been a mentor to me.
On one visit, when we were discussing open-reel tape vs vinyl, I noticed that his two ATR mastering decks had electronics from manufacturers who also work in the audiophile world of domestic hi-fi. One was from Manley, which was no surprise as Bob and Eveanna are great friends, and I once visited Gateway with Eveanna on a rare occasion when both of us happened to be in Portland, Maine.
As for the other, it was fitted with electronics from EAR-Yoshino. Bob told me, “Not only did Tim design and manufacture the electronics, he flew over from England to install it and paid for the travel himself.” Yes, Tim was generous to a fault, a quality often overlooked because of his larger-than-life, commanding nature.
It’s clear that Tim’s reputation in the world of professional audio was based on his expertise in refurbishing and improving both ATR and Studer machines, running in parallel with his work on domestic decks such as Revox G36s and Technics RS1500s. His modifications were conceived to improve signal-to-noise ratios to rival the silences of digital recordings, and it was said that his modified decks could deliver bandwidth in excess of 8Hz-80kHz.
While best-known for working with valves, Tim was not an absolutist and he was comfortable with both tubes and transistors. The latter were used by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab to master their LPs and CDs – but the cutting heads for their LPs are driven by EAR-Yoshino valve amps.
When you add up all of the albums which have gone through Mobile Fidelity and Gateway Mastering, the list of artists whose works have been mastered through Tim’s electronics is probably unmatched. Between Bob Ludwig’s vast CV and Mofi’s catalogue you have to include Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Radiohead, Dire Straits and Frank Zappa, among many others.
When it comes to the new wave of open-reel tape providers, Paul Stubblebine of the Tape Project employs Tim-improved decks for both playback and duplication of reel-to-reel tapes. Tim had lots of ideas about the future of pre-recorded open-reel tapes, but, alas, they died with him.
Pre-recorded tapes and re-mastering, however, come after the fact: Tim’s handiwork is evident even before the albums reached the final stages before preparation for release. Again, the list of musicians equals that of the studios and the audiophile labels. In addition to working on decks for three-quarters of the greatest band of all time, Tim supplied hardware to James Guthrie, producer and recording engineer for Pink Floyd since 1978. He owns an EAR tape deck and other EAR components, which were used to remaster the entire Pink Floyd catalogue. No surprises there, as Dave Gilmour has a Tim de Paravicini tape deck, too, as well as other EAR components, as does Lenny Kravitz.
Tim wasn’t just a modifier: he was totally hands-on at the studios and record labels, and was an unparalleled source of innovations. Mobile Fidelity’s John Wood credits Tim as instrumental in developing the GAIN 2 (Greater Ambient Information Network) LP cutting system for Mofi as well as the analogue section of the GAIN 2 DSD mastering chain. This included the analogue tape deck’s electronics, designed by Tim specifically for Mofi, of which John says “only three sets of them exist in the world.”
His explanation of Tim’s achievements on behalf of the label are dazzling: “At 15ips, the reproducer electronics spec out at 7Hz-43kHz, ±½dB, well beyond the standard 20Hz-20kHz specs most tape machines are measured by. What makes Tim’s designs so unique is that they indeed spec out in a superior way. But more importantly, his designs engage the listener with the music. So you get the best of both words.
“On one hand you can be assured that you are getting all the information off the tape accurately and that can be measured. On the other hand, when listening, the music is extremely engaging and moreover fun to listen to. Usually it’s one or the other in varying degrees. There is gear out there that specs out great, but not a whole lot of fun to listen to, or it may be fun to listen to, but has a sonic signature. And there is gear that is very engaging and fun, but specs-wise, not very accurate. The designs Tim made for Mofi amazingly do both extremely well.”
As for the LP cutting system, Mofi uses Tim’s modified Dolby cards and unit, EQ, custom cutting desk, custom cutting system control units and amplifiers. Says John, “What’s so unique about Tim’s cutting system is that all the units in the chain were optimised and modified to work synergistically. Moreover the cutting system control units address and eliminate the Neumann cutter head’s resonate frequencies in a proprietary way. This ensures a more accurate cut that stays true to the music without any added coloration from the head.”
Tim was instrumental in developing the One Step Series, but John recalls that, “He had cut some records for Stereophile in the 1980s using the One Step method, but unfortunately that project never made it to market. He came to Mofi and we cut some tests with him, and wow, were we convinced immediately! Tim’s passion for audio lives on and is exemplified in every Mofi release. His contributions took us to new levels. We will forever be grateful for his invaluable input and guidance.”
Closer to home, our own Rambler, Dave Denyer, informed me that, “Tim had a great influence on The Reel to Reel Rambler, which we hope reflects his input into the world of tape in general. I first discussed tape with Tim at a Clearaudio Distributor conference in 2014, because Tim’s wife Oliva was the Japanese Clearaudio distributor.
“We were chatting about his Technics RS1500 modifications, which I’d absolutely have loved to have had done to my RS1500. More recently he told me that you [Ken Kessler] were Number One on his list for this and I was next in line. Sadly now this ain’t gonna happen… I’ve never heard one of his RS1500s but I know a couple of people who have and they said it was without doubt the ultimate RS1500.”
At Clearaudio’s 40th Anniversary event in 2018, Dave sat with Tim the entire evening discussing tape. “I told him about my idea for the Reel To Reel Rambler: to come up with the definitive website for all things tape, especially 15ips 2-track, to cut through all the crap out there on various ill-informed sites. Tim was in full support of the idea and agreed to proof-read through the whole site before I went live with it, to make sure that all the technical stuff was correct.
“Without this input from Tim I don’t know if I’d have had the confidence to do this, obviously putting myself up in the public domain and facing the barrage of abuse and bullshit that often goes with that, so having Tim’s ‘OK’ meant a hell of a lot to me. He also told me many cool stories about tape. In fact, until hearing Tim’s story about personally couriering Sheryl Crow’s debut album master tapes, I didn’t realise that album was recorded on tape. As it was never released on vinyl, I kinda assumed it was a digital recording.”
Dave invited me to write this two-part appreciation of Tim’s work because, as he put it, “I know that you have had a lot more contact with Tim, and you having a de Paravicini Revox G36 would be a great thing to include in the feature.” Which is tough, as I am still adjusting to his passing.
My story with Tim would require a few thousand words, so that will wait for another day. I would have to cover everything from nearly 40 years of reviewing his amplifiers, the delights of the aforementioned G36, amazing dinners at the High-End Show in Tokyo, a steady flow of rare soy sauces from Japan courtesy of Oliva, and – most importantly – to Tim’s role as a peerless mentor. He made valuable contributions to my books on Quad and McIntosh, and was a never-ending source of information whenever I, a non-technical sort, was stymied by something about valves, or tapes, or vinyl. And it’s Tim’s fault that I am now addicted to open-reel tape.
But forget all of that: the biggest loss is one of a stalwart friend, the kind who you can count on, no matter what. And I am reminded of that loss daily, every time I spool a tape.
After working as Assistant Editor for the short-lived Stereo – The Magazine, Ken Kessler joined Hi-Fi News & Record Review in 1983, where he still serves, latterly as Senior Contributor. He writes a monthly column for SoundStage and contributes as well to online magazines Tone and Copper. A collector of old hi-fi components with a passion for the history of audio, Ken is the author of Quad: The Closest Approach, McIntosh… For The Love Of Music, and Audio Research – Making the Music Glow, and is co-author of Sound Bites: 50 Years of Hi-Fi News and KEF: 50 Years of Innovation In Sound. He is currently working on another four audio histories.