Tapeheads

Every so often in the ever-changing world of physical and digital media, there is an outbreak of reel-to-reel fever. Over my years at Stereophile, I've occasionally been approached by a wild-eyed breed of audiophile, the ones who've become devoted to making on-demand tape copies of albums. They are a special group, easy to spot what with their flashing eyes, zealot grin, and maniacal enthusiasm. In a hobby/way of life filled with enthusiasts, no one, not even the folks devoted to 78s or—gulp!—cassette tapes, can match the sheer, all-in passion of the open-reel tape guys.

The latest brave adventurer to spend his evenings running off duplicate copies on half-inch or quarter-inch tape is singer/songwriter, producer John Vanderslice who, in partnership with North Carolina-based Ramseur Records, has launched a new reel-to-reel tape venture. So far Ramseur is offering three records to be put on tape: Under Branch & Thorn & Tree (2015) and You Had Me at Goodbye (2017), both from buzzworthy singer/songwriter Samantha Crain, and Fences from the group Bombadil.

All three albums were recorded at Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone Recording studio in San Francisco, CA. He oversaw the cutting of the lacquers for the original LP releases from the master tape at Bernie Grundman's mastering studio in Los Angeles. But for the tapes, Vanderslice is doing the actual duplications himself. Customers can request tape preference, output level, speed (15ips or 30ips) and tape size (¼" or ½"). According to Dolph Ramseur, the prices vary. For ¼" tape at 15ips the price is $375. For the more-expensive ½" tape at the same speed the price is $525. The cost for both sizes of tape will increase if you choose the faster 30ips though Ramseur says that's negotiable. The good news here is that if you buy all the three albums, at any speed or tape size, there's a discount.

"When you are recording a record or mixing down a record, you start to get very accustomed to the sound of the half-inch tapes," Vanderslice told me from Tiny Telephone studios last week. "It's really the benchmark for the record, the best version. It's all-analog. It hasn't been jammed up by Spotify's codec or iTunes squashing, or whatever happens downstream; you're immune from all that bullshit."

But why tape and not vinyl, whose current revival is proving to have legs? Vanderslice says he has issues with most LP pressing plants, citing only Quality Record Pressing and Pallas as being manufacturers with a consistent level of quality. Even though he's pressed three of his six solo albums at RTI, he's not a fan.

"You become really spoiled by the difference between the best version that's available commercially and the sound of the reel-to-reel. In talking with Dolph, it was really his idea to put this into motion. There's nothing that's close to this sound. And to have a one-to-one copy . . . Whoever is listening to this on a reel-to-reel, they really care, they're absolutely motivated and they can usually tell the difference. So just knowing there are those 100 perfect copies of the album out there makes me really happy--that's why we did it."

"And because we love it. Everything is custom done. Just the hours . . . I'd make more if I drove an Uber. These first three are records I produced and that Jacob Winik engineered, so I really think they work on every level: fidelity, songwriting, singing, performance, execution. They are just really interesting albums."

Although he admits that instead of tape, pressing each record as a pair of 45rpm LPs "could have been better," that process might have bankrupted a small independent label like Ramseur Records whose most notable successes to date have been The Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim and Chuck Mead.

"When I do these duplications, I'm constantly comparing the master to the slave that I'm duping. Fidelity-wise, it's very, very close. There's like a 1% difference between the two. This is for people who are motivated and have the right equipment. These tapes are just on another level. It's incredibly close to sitting in a control room and listening to that first generation version of an excellent record."

Use of the term "first generation" brings up the biggest potential problem with this venture. How many times can a master tape be run for duplication before you have to make a copy, which adds an extra generation? And how durable are the copies? How many times can they be run before the sound degrades? Vanderslice maintains that tape is more durable than most people think. He says that at his studio, tape is reused over and over again.

"It's questionable that I'm making duplications off the master but running it 10 times is fine. Once we hit 10, I'm going to make a duplicate of the master. I have to be responsible."

Is all this time and expense worth it? Listen to the Soundcloud transfers of the tape samples below and judge for yourself. These high-quality sonic artifacts and obvious labors of love can be purchased by emailing Ramseur Records.

https://soundcloud.com/ramseurrecords/sets/bombadil-analog-tape-teaser