Listening #114 Page 2
Taken on its own, the sound of the Tektron Mono phono preamp was workmanlike. There was decent musical flow and decent texture, plus good bass extension and a nice, single-ended-triodelike sense of presence. The Tektron had a tonal balance that was lighter and very slightly brighter than the other two Robyatt products (although that individual characteristic tended to disappear in the context of its stablemates). Other phono preamps, including the phono section of my Shindo Masseto, seem capable of larger and more impactful sound, but the Tektron certainly did well enoughall the while offering very good value for the money, even at its full, non-bundled price.
What's Old is New Again
Sometimes I think I'm just kidding myself. Yes, LPs are on the upswing. Yes, CDs are on the downswing. Yes, every now and then a big, fancy turntable finds its way onto the set of a popular movie or TV show and we all get excited. Yee-frigging-haw: Analog rules.
Trouble is, the majority of LPs that are sold to audiophiles are old titles. Very old titles. A catalog in which one sees an overabundance of such Christian names as Miles and Jimi and Ella and Pink: Great old stuff, but we already have it.
Some great new stuff is available on vinyl, too: onnie Prince Billy, the Spoons, Joanna Newsom, Punch Brothers, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Trouble is, almost all of them are digital recordings. And while I'm grateful whenever a record company prints a small percentage of their titles on vinyl, that miracle is scarcely different from when book publishers print a small percentage of their titles as large-print editions. (A true story: When I was in Philadelphia last yearfor eye surgery, of all thingsI bought the large-print edition of Keith Richards's autobiography for pennies on the dollar when the downtown Borders store went out of business. An irony wrapped in an irony.)
But even that's not such a big deal: I may be thin-skinned, but as long as I can buy what I want, I don't particularly care why it's being sold. The problem is, an analog pressing of a digital recording is still a digital recording. And the "better" the mastering job, the more digital the results will be. If you leave a pointillist watercolor out in the rain, dots will run. But they're still just dots.
The problem behind the problem: Decades after the last professional-quality analog tape recorders rolled off the assembly line, the manufacturing of magnetic tape all but ceased. In fact, from 2005 to 2006, no one on Earth made magnetic tape at all. And magnetic tape is the lifeblood of analog sound.
In 2008, an American company called ATR began making tape, primarily for the pro market. Now in its fourth yearthe company also services and remanufactures Ampex ATR102 studio decks, and has done so since 1991the tape division of ATR has yet to make a profit, but a number of grateful engineers and recording artists have praised their work.
ATR founder Mike Spitz, who learned his craft while working as an engineer for Ampex, is optimistic. Today, he told me, the enduring scarcity of professional analog studios has far less to do with the scarcity of tape than the scarcityand rising costof recorders: "We've actually reversed the trend. For about 18 years, an ATR102 wasn't that hard to find; now, finding even a worn-out one is getting tough."
I asked if there were a chance we'd ever see a new pro-level analog machine appear on the market. "It's not inconceivable at all," Spitz said, "but such a thing would take a great deal of money. The average studio today is strapped for cash, and small digital projects keep them in business. Studios all want to be analog, but it's a matter of who can afford to be."
Is there resistance among younger engineers in a field where everyone thinks that good enough is good enough? "That's a small part of it," Spitz replied. "Everybody's got a studioeven kids. And most kids haven't heard good analog. But when they do, they get it!"
According to Spitz, ATR's new tape is, indeed, good analog. "Magnetically," he said, "It's different from what used to be made. Our noise floor is about 3dB lower than anything else that's out there, and it's definitely better than [Ampex] 456." But he admitted that such a technical advantage can be a double-edged sword: "Our print-through is better, too. But since our noise floor is so low, what print-through remains is more audible!"
Absent the prospect of bringing analog technology back to the new-music industry any time soon, Spitz is most encouraged by the small but "dynamic" movement to reestablish prerecorded open-reel tape as the foremost source format for audio perfectionistsas spearheaded by the Tape Project (footnote 2): "When audiophiles hear tape, jaws drop. Even older guys, who think they know tape: They hear 15ips and they're shocked. A good, modern 15ips copy from a master tape is a shock to someone who's never heard a master tape in a studio. And 30ips should be illegal!"
And all this time I've been worried about the provenance of my LPs? Perhaps I really have been kidding myself. I'll share more of my conversation with Mike Spitz later this year, when I intend to return to the subject of analog tape.
Footnote 1: Have you ever noticed the similarities between the melody and chord progression of the Beau Brummels' brilliant "They'll Make You Cry"the chromatic guitar riff in the intro and outro was way ahead of its time in 1965and Leonard Cohen's "The Law"?
Footnote 2: See www.tapeproject.com, www.stereophile.com/content/tape-project's-piper-payne, and other of our online show reports.