Regular readers may recall that back in November I posted in great excitement about an announcement by Hemiolia Records that they were planning to release some ‘Holy Grail’ albums on tape. Well, the excitement just got even bigger – because I have the first three titles!!
One of them is an all-time favourite album of mine, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, but we’ll discuss that one a bit later because right now I’m keen to share with you another title that’s arrived – one that sticks with the ‘blue’ theme – John Coltrane’s Blue Train, which is very much ‘hot off the press’, having only just been released by Hemiolia. I may even be the first customer!
As you might expect, I’ve heard this masterpiece of an album in many and varied formats over the years. Of these, the ‘best’, at least to my mind (and ears), is undoubtedly Blue Note Records’ Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series release of 2022. So it makes sense to make this my reference point for the purposes of evaluating Hemiolia’s new master tape copy.
The vinyl: Blue Note’s Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue 2022
This is Blue Note’s top-of-the-line vinyl series, produced and curated by the ‘Tone Poet’ Joe Harley. It’s a pretty extensive series (lots of ‘goodies’ to be had here) of all-analogue, 180g audiophile quality vinyl reissues from Blue Note’s back-catalogue (and also those of related labels including Pacific Jazz, United Artists and Solid State). These pressings are mastered directly from the original analogue master tapes by Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio – and what a job he does! They also come beautifully packaged with fabulous photographs taken during the studio recording sessions on the day the music was created.
For anyone who isn’t in the market for tape, this is perhaps the closest you’ll get to hearing a master tape-like sound. The sense of presence is real, immense and dynamic as hell here. Joe Harley and Kevin Gray specifically set out to try to get as much of that magic out of the tapes and on onto vinyl, and they really did pull it off.
“Short of having an actual time machine, this is as close as you can get to going back and being a fly on the wall for an original Blue Note recording session,” says Blue Note’s website. “We wanted these to be definitive in every way, from the mastering to the pressings, packaging, and authenticity of the artwork, including the actual labels. Every aspect of these Blue Note releases is done to the highest possible standard. It means that you will never find a superior version. This is IT.”
And it sure is! This album is stunning, superb, incredible in every way – and frankly an absolute bargain at $55/£55 given what you’re getting. You can hear me waxing lyrical about it here:
So, until now, I’ve completely agreed with Blue Note about this being IT. But… until now I couldn’t listen to an actual master tape copy. Could the latter be the new superior version, the new IT? Well, let’s have a listen and find out… (Spoiler alert: it’s a closer run thing than you might expect from a total tape-head like me).
Hemiolia’s new master tape copy 2023
Now, I’m going to open by saying something surprising. Something possibly even contentious. Something which, if you’ve read any of my other posts or heard me declaiming about tape in person, will surely have you raising an eyebrow or two.
On first listen-through, the tape was good – very, very good – but it didn’t blow my memory of the Blue Note 2022 vinyl version out of the water. Seriously??? Yeah, I know, I was as astonished as you! But stick with me here, because this is not the end of the story – far from it – and, beyond my first listen, there was still a lot more to hear, and to say.
My obvious next step was to set up a back-to-back, level-matched listening session. It turned out that in my system, my set-up required around 9dB more gain on the vinyl to level the playing field, so once I’d got that sorted, it was time to clear my diary for the rest of the afternoon, turn off the phone and settle down to a long haul of serious listening.
A versus B: the comparative listening session
First-up, a quick reminder of / introduction to the band (quite some line-up, of course):
- John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
- Lee Morgan – trumpet
- Curtis Fuller – trombone
- Kenny Drew – piano
- Paul Chambers – bass
- “Philly” Joe Jones – drums.
I began with side 1 of the Blue Note vinyl edition.
Track 1 is the title track, ‘Blue Train’. Coltrane’s saxophone is bright and forward. It’s centre-stage. A few minutes in, Lee Morgan’s trumpet joins in clearly behind and to the left of Coltrane’s sax before moving forward and to the centre as Morgan takes his solo. Kenny Drew’s piano remains slightly left with bass and drums to the right. The sound has real swagger, the trumpet sounds fabulous, the bass is tight and fast. Overall the sound has a luminosity and the trumpet really wails! The trombone solo that follows is nice, but it remains slightly further back than the preceding trumpet solo and in comparison, it’s slightly muted. The piano solo that follows sounds great, both hands can be clearly heard playing the chords and the melody. Meanwhile drums are beautifully portrayed with the snare, toms and bass each clearly defined, with the snare springs rattling and the cymbals sounding sweet as a nut. The bass solo is superb, with the instrument captured cleanly: it sounds clear, snappy, still playing with real swagger before the three horns re-enter the fray, all playing in harmonious unison as the song wraps up.
Okay, now let’s try that again – but on tape.
First impressions… even during the brief intro there’s more colour as the three horns announce the song. The bass is still swaggering along as it should. Then comes the sax solo – and Coltrane’s sax soars! The sound is more rounded out, not as ‘thin’ – although I had no perception that the vinyl sounded at all ‘thin’ before listening on tape. When Morgan’s trumpet has its moment, it sounds even more ‘trumpety’ on tape, but it’s when Fuller’s trombone has its turn that the biggest difference shows. It has more presence and more space behind it, you can hear (and almost feel) the space between the trombone and the back wall of the studio. It doesn’t sound in any way recessed like it does on the vinyl.
Track 2 is ‘Moment’s Notice’. I continue with the tape. Here, I can hear the trombone again, echoing off the studio walls. It has weight and presence. What’s becoming more apparent is that there’s an increased weight in the tape over the vinyl, and this is particularly apparent in the bass, the piano and the drums. And all three horns have an additional body to them that just makes them sound even more real.
Now I flick back to the vinyl. Overall the sound is lighter. In a way it sounds clearer, which you could interpret as (or mistake for?) greater transparency. However I feel the ‘clarity’ is actually a loss of the finest air, that air that fills the space between the performers and the boundaries of the studio. The air you breathe, the stuff of life, as it were. There’s no question that Kevin Gray has done a phenomenal job but the vinyl has, for all its openness, less body and weight, especially in the trombone and also the bowed bass solo, so in this respect it loses out slightly to the tape.
Moving on to side 2, I start with the vinyl again, playing track 1, ‘Locomotion’. Then I switch to tape and play this and also track 2, ‘I’m Old Fashioned’. After that I go back to vinyl to play track 2 and also 3, ‘Lazy Bird’, finally followed by the latter on tape. So each format gets ‘first dibs’ on alternate tracks.
Track 1, ‘Locomotion’ on vinyl places the sax up-front and centre stage, but the trombone is again slightly muted, sitting behind and to the left of the sax. In comparison to the tape, it sounds slightly muffled, the way your voice does if you place a hand over your mouth. However, the drums are fast and agile, and the bass is clear and transparent. But then when the trumpet solo kicks in, it leaps forward (in presence, not in space) compared to the trombone, making the trombone seem even more muted in comparison. The piano solo sounds great, but very slightly glassy and coloured. But again, it’s supremely resolved: you can so easily follow what both hands are doing – one playing chords while the other dances around the melody. The drum solo sounds great, again there’s excellent differentiation between the various toms and the snare, and the bass drum is superb. As the song closes and the band all come back in for the finale, the colour and contrast of the ensemble is simply luscious.
So now over to the tape. Wow! The drum intro – oh boy! The vinyl handled this well but the tape – this is something else! Then Coltrane’s sax is fabulous. Now I’m really getting dialled into what’s going on here. There’s more body to the sax and you can feel around it, sense its position in space, feel the space behind Coltrane as soloist. The trombone follows, sounding notably better than on vinyl: it’s not as muted and now has a similar presence to the other horns. Lee Morgan’s trumpet has more immediacy than on vinyl, and the ambiance around the instrument is also better than on the already astonishing vinyl. You can hear the studio more, hear Morgan in a real space. The piano sounds more mellow, with none of that glassiness. The drums, already stunningly clear on the vinyl cut, also have notably more body on tape.
Continuing with tape for track 2, ‘I’m Old Fashioned’, this is a smoochy old number. The sax is soft and seductive, laid over a backing of bass, drums and piano. You can hear every key press of Coltrane on his sax, every breath he blows. And then its Fuller’s turn to solo…. it’s so deep and ‘tromboney’ (sorry!) and again you can hear when Fuller blows and breathes as he plays. The accompanying bass is full bodied and tuneful, as are the drums and the beautifully brushed cymbals. The piano solo is delicious as is the final solo, delivered by Lee Morgan’s trumpet. The whole ensemble sounds balanced, at both individual and collective level. The weighting of each instrument is superb.
Back to vinyl and there’s a thinner sound to the saxophone and less body to the piano. The bass is superbly judged, but it doesn’t have quite the same depth. I think what we’re hearing here is the outstanding job that Gray did to produce what’s undoubtedly a tour de force in vinyl production (mastering / cutting), but compared to the master tape, vinyl has its inevitable limitations. Overall, the sound isn’t quite as dynamic as the tape – not that you’d know it without having the tape to compare against. On vinyl, this song leaves me feeling slightly sleepy. It’s less involving, a bit less utterly real and my mind starts to wander a little. The trombone definitely loses out the most, it doesn’t carry the dynamism and presence it does on tape.
The final track is ‘Lazy Bird’ and I continue here first with vinyl. A drum and piano opening leads into Lee Morgan’s trumpet intro. Overall it’s sounding just a tad flat compared with the tape, which I’m now getting to know. But only a little – please don’t get me wrong, this is still an incredible sounding vinyl album and one I’d highly recommend to anyone. But, in direct comparison to the tape, the trombone still sounds like it has a hand over its mouth, it kind of melds into the rear wall behind it. The sax solo (now slightly to the left) is great, as is the piano solo and then finally the excellent bowed bass solo has a wonderful texture and timbre. In closing, the whole band (behind trumpet Lee Morgan) wraps up the album. What a show!
Finishing up with ‘Lazy Bird’ on tape: from the off, the sound is more full, rounded, and has more body. There’s more of a real-life weight, and the pace feels more intense. There’s absolutely no feeling sleepy with this! Morgan’s trumpet sounds particularly real, in a three-dimensional space. Fuller’s trombone has more presence and you can clearly hear behind it, the distance from the rear wall. Coltrane’s sax also has more ambiance, and the weight of Jones’ drums, Drew’s piano and Chambers’ bass during the solos all add dynamism. Finally, that bowed bass solo comes in with even more body and depth – front to back space, particularly the space behind it, bringing it forward of the rear wall.
So, we’re all done. For a tape devotee like me, it would be easy to read this and think that the tape walks it, and in many respects it does. But it could also be seen as a close run thing, and let’s not forget that, without placing the two side by side and making a direct comparison, I felt (and still do) that the Blue Note Tone Poet Vinyl Reissue is an absolutely stunning release. But then so is the tape, and in both cases this is for good reason, given the quality of the processes that have gone into producing them (more on which below in the case of the tape).
If I had to put a score on these (which I usually avoid doing, but since it’s so close I’m going to give it a go), here’s what I’d say…
Hemiolia’s master tape copy: 9.5. The only reason for not awarding a full 10 is because I believe if Blue Note had provided Hemiolia with the original master to use as source, it would, I imagine, be even better. The Hemiolia tape is made from a first generation, flat production master so is one generation down from the original – so I have left a little ‘headroom’ to imagine what extra there might be in there!
Blue Note Tone Poet Vinyl Reissue: 8.0 / 8.5. Yes, the tape has more body, weight, pace and a more real soundstage and ambiance. However, bearing in mind that this is vinyl and vinyl by definition has its limits, Kevin Gray has done an amazing job of seeking to overcome them.
In conclusion, if you don’t have a tape set-up, then please don’t worry about missing out. Buy the Blue Note Tone Poet Vinyl Reissue which, at around $55 / £55, is an utter steal. This is up there with the best £150-£200 vinyl releases and is a supreme example of the vinyl format. Also the packaging is stunning, as is the quality of the vinyl itself, the cover, the additional disc of studio outtakes – in short, it’s an absolute must-have. Even if you plan to invest in the tape, I’d still get a copy of the vinyl.
If you’re in the lucky position of being in the market for tape, then the Hemiolia master tape copy is a real investment to add to your collection. Yes, it costs ten times more than the vinyl, but what you’re buying is that extra degree of sound quality that eludes even the very best vinyl. You’re also buying, for my money, the new ‘IT’ – the best sounding version of this outstanding recording ever made, or likely to be made, available to the public!
If, like me, you’re a confirmed tape-addict, then you’ll have been crying out for releases like this – official, licensed releases of some of the world’s greatest albums of all time. If your budget will reach, you owe it to yourself to acquire this exceptional tape!
A note on Hemiolia’s tape sources, copyright and production
Hemiolia Records is promising a number of exciting releases going forward – I mean, we’re talking about some wow-level albums here – which you can read more about in the above-mentioned earlier blog post: Hemiolia Records releases Miles Davis’ masterpiece on tape – and there’s much more to come!
In fact, some of the titles are so high profile, and some of the labels so big (eg. Columbia) that my first reaction was to wonder about the copyright situation and the legality of it all. So I had a chat with Hemiolia to clarify.
This ‘coup’ by Hemiolia has come about a result of years of negotiation and legal discussions with Ermitage, an Italian record label with a fairly small but certainly inspiring catalogue of vinyl reissues. Hemiolia and Ermitage have agreed a deal enabling Hemiolia to produce ‘master copy’ tapes for sale. The tapes in Ermitage’s archive are typically first generation ‘flat’ production masters (i.e. the first original mix duplicated in flat mode – meaning prepared for any type of subsequent remastering) and will be used as Hemiolia’s source. Hemiolia’s Pietro Benini will carefully re-master each title specifically for 1:1 duplication, creating probably the most desirable range of 15ips, 2-track ‘master copies’ currently available.
What’s especially interesting here are the titles in the Ermitage catalogue: think Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and so on… this is truly the stuff of dreams!
The first three titles announced for release were: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and John Coltrane’s Blue Train, all of which are now available to buy.
Before anything else can happen, the first bridge to cross is that each title requires full legal investigation. Hemiolia’s Claudio Valieri told me, “The very first thing we do is to very carefully examine the legal situation, consulting specialist music copyright lawyers and making 100% sure we have the appropriate rights to go ahead and produce these tapes. This has to be done not only for the music but also for the cover artwork and any text that may have been included on the original release. Only when this is done, and it needs to be done on a piece by piece basis, can we proceed any further. It’s a long, drawn out process that takes months of work, but is vitally important. If we were to have even the slightest doubt, we wouldn’t go ahead.”
Having confirmed the licensing situation, the condition of the tapes is then checked in detail, after which Hemiolia’s Pietro Benini can get to work on the process of restoration and remastering ready for duplication.
It’s important to note that this is done entirely in the analogue domain. Hemiolia has an established process for this, which they’ve already used successfully in restoring the unique Pavarotti Foundation tapes. Hemiolia calls this its ‘Certificate A4P’ – or Four Analogue Phases – a guarantee that each stage of the entire process is carried out strictly within the analogue domain.
The final stage of producing the 1:1 master copies for sale is then completed, in real time, on Otari MTR15 studio recorders. So, what you’re buying is a copy of Hemiolia’s remaster of Ermitage’s production master, which in turn is a 1st generation copy of the original master. In essence that’s a 4th generation copy of the original – a generation down from what might be considered the ideal, but done well, this should not be an issue – not least given the caliber of the originals in question! And, boy, does Hemiolia do it well.
I’m hoping to have another, more detailed, conversation with Hemiolia’s Claudio and Pietro in the coming months to unpack their processes – and also to possibly question some of my own cherished assumptions about tape mastering in general. Until then, I’ll just say that if (like me) you tend to shudder when you hear the word ‘remastering’ in the context of tape, consider keeping an open mind, since I have the feeling that these guys may be about to challenge some of what we audiophiles think we know….!
Importantly, their attention to quality seems to be 360-degree, extending beyond sound quality to incorporate all aspects of production. The blank tapes used to make the master tape copies are Recording The Masters SM900 tapes. Now, for my money that’s a quality guarantee right there. But Hemiolia goes further: “every single tape that’s sold is first analysed, tested and certified individually, to ensure that the customer always has the certainty of buying perfect tapes, free from dropouts and other potential defects,” says Claudio. “Any blank tapes that don’t meet the required quality standards will be discarded.”
The two Otari MTR15s used for 1:1 duplication are, as you would expect, “perfectly maintained to full efficiency and calibration with a stringent weekly maintenance program, using always perfect heads.” This level of maintenance doesn’t come cheap, especially when applied across their total of six Otari MTR15s which are used in pairs on rotation.
Packaging and inserts also get a similar level of close attention, and all are handcrafted in Italy. The cardboard tape boxes are hand-assembled, while the wooden boxes used for Hemiolia’s special edition tapes are handmade by an expert carpenter. The tapes’ aluminum flanges are cut and worked in Italy, and “even the flange assembly screws are turned one by one from solid brass and then chromed”.
This is obviously a pretty expensive all-round process for Hemiolia, so I’ll say this again to those who decry the price of tapes: look what goes into what you’re buying, and what you’re getting for your money!
Where to buy
On which note, here’s the info you need to become the proud owner of John Coltrane’s seminal Blue Note in the two best versions money can buy.
Top-of-the-top, the peak and pinnacle (tape): www.hemioliarecords.com/en/master-tapes/45-76-blue-train-john-coltrane-stereo-version-2-reels-8050616581259.html#/1-equalizzazione-ccir
Right-up-there, an excellent second (vinyl):
If you haven’t already had enough of my ramblings here, I’ve also posted some thoughts on video on my YouTube channel – which you can check out below.