Master Tape Sound at Home

Out of all the audiophile phrases, none stirs the hearts of music lovers like "true to the master tape"—not even "the absolute sound" of the original instruments, which even audio idealists realize is simply too much to demand. But true to the sound of the recorded master tape, now surely that's a goal within reach.

Lord knows people have been promising that for years, from direct-to-disc recording to half-speed mastering to redithered CDs, yet the goal has remained tantalizingly out of reach—until now, perhaps. Linn Records and The Tape Project have recently proposed different ideas for delivering the master tape experience.

The Tape Project takes an analog approach, delivering 15ips 10" open-reel tapes struck directly from the original EQ'ed master tape recordings of the titles specially selected for the program. The Tape Project is the brainchild of mastering engineers Paul Stubblebine and Michael Romanowski (Paul Stubblebine Mastering), as well as Dan Schmalle of Bottlehead; they describe TTP's goal as "to make available to the discerning audiophile an analog listening experience that comes as close as possible to the experience of hearing the original master tape."

The original recordings must be analog and the music must be great, TTP says. Other than that, there are no rules about what will be issued, other than that TTP must be able to secure the rights and, of course, the master tape. Among the releases scheduled for the first year are Roy Rogers' Slide Zone, Dave Alvin's Blackjack David, Jacqui Naylor's The Number White, Malcolm Arnold Overtures (Reference Recordings), and the legendary New Philharmonia recording of Suite Espanola.

TTP offers two subscription models: charter ($2000) and selective ($1200). Charter subscriptions deliver all ten titles released in 2007 with low, matching serial numbers. A selective subscription lets the subscriber choose six titles from the complete release. The first titles should roll out by late March or early April.

Linn Records is taking a slightly different approach by offering select titles from its catalog as "Studio Master" 24-bit WMA lossless downloads. The label says the recordings "are what we used to produce the production version of our CD releases." No DRM is attached (yay!). The cost per track is $2.75; whole discs cost $24, no matter how many tracks are involved, which makes the 138 minute Messiah (Dublin version, 1742) by the Dunedin Consort a stone bargain.