With the new analog tape fever en vogue, the need for fresh and new tape has also arisen and thanks God for the people of Pyral (former BASF) and the gang of ATR (former Ampex) who continues manufacturing tapes for the open reel recording aficionado. When I started in this hobby, my father gave me a SONY 7″ TC-560D reel to reel deck as a mid school graduation present. It was auto-reverse, inside a wood box and not too big. Anyway, that was the beginning of my long and happy association with the open reel world!
In those days, TDK, Maxell, Scotch were everyday tape brands and easy to obtain at any audio store. AGFA and AMPEX were more professional driven options and not openly available for John Q Public. I loved those brilliant color boxes of TDK 7″ tape, wrapped in cellophane paper for hardly $7.50 each! Later on, I graduated to 10.5″ big reel decks and my first one was a REVOX B 77 MK II. TDK and Maxell, which I still have today, continued to be my favorites until I stepped into the Pro Audio arena. That’s when I started using BASF and AMPEX. In Puerto Rico, Ampex were a long time favorite and easily obtainable among the recording studios and was practically alone until the early 90’s when BASF started penetrating the market with new formulations and a expanded dealers network. I became BASF and AMPEX distributor, among many other brands, in 1994 and since then I have observed the legendary rivalry between these 2 tape giants. It was like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola! The Ampex 456 and the BASF 468 were standards in our industry. Then, the Ampex 499 and BASF 911 arrived offering a little more high-frequency headroom than the former ones. Both brands evolved into newer names and owners with hot formulations like the Quantegy GP-9 and EMTEC SM-900 that I still conserve today, but these alternatives required higher end machines with enough higher bias voltage to set it up properly.
Anyway, both brands suddenly dissapear when the digital realm start replacing the analog behemoths in the recording studios and it was the time when the 1/2″ open reel was no longer the “master” send to the Mastering Studios and was rapidly replaced by the DDP tape, DAT and CD-R. Also, the famous U-Matic format was the favorite media to be send to the replication plants. People started selling their Studers and Otaris for peanuts and never thought that the analog tape would come back; but this time with a vengeance!
In 1995, I bought and almost new 1/2″ Studer A-80 deck from Canada for hardly $5,000. It had less than 400 hours on it! Today, you’ll be lucky if you find that same machine for under $15,000 !!! The Tape Project from San Francisco, CA start placing the open reel tape back on the map again and made it available for those new yuppies looking to expand their expensive “cigar culture” into new horizons. Suddenly, the old Technics 1500, Otari MX -5050, Tascam and Studers re-born again but this time with a higher price tag. Even the old venerable CROWN SX and CX with a $1,800 price tag in the 70’s, are now back again fully restored and sounding better than new. All of this thanks to the analog revival fever.
The New Tapes: There’s no good deck without a good tape and that is a fact. Since the open reel tapes for domestic applications were taken out of the production lines during the 80’s, the professional brands has taken over and has filled the domestic holes left by the Maxell and TDK brands.( There’s an strong rumor going on lately that Maxell is looking to start producing tape again. It seems that they are studying the market and see if this tape revival is the real thing or just another temporary whim. I’ve been told that it also depends on new machines development. At least a new open reel deck is on the horizon). Today, only the succession of Ampex and BASF still active producing analog tapes for the professional and for the recording aficionado as well. Another new kid on the block is been developed as I write this article: CAPTURE TAPE.
BASF: On July 29, 1943, the BASF Magnetophon tape plant in Ludwigshafen was completely destroyed by a non war-related, accidental explosion of a tank car. The disaster wiped out all tape-manufacturing machinery in the factory, including the only coating machine for Magnetophon Type C tape, installed in 1936. After the war, the Wolfen plant, located in the future “German Democratic Republic” or East Germany, became a state film and tape factory called “Orwo”. In 1948, tape experts from Wolfen built a new Agfa tape factory in Leverkusen, near Cologne, which was moved to Munich in the 1970s, and finally merged with BASF AG to form BASF Magnetics GmbH in 1991. Its successor, EMTEC Magnetics GmbH, went out of business in 2004. In 2006, RMGI in The Netherlands began producing some BASF/EMTEC tape types on equipment purchased from the EMTEC bankruptcy auctions. Today, the French company PYRAL took over RMGI and is the one producing the tapes again. On January 2015, the French court ordered the sale of Pyral assets, who was operating under the Chapter 11 protection, to Mulann Industries, a manufacturer of production and testing equipment for the credit card, ticketing and smart card industries. I don’t know you guys but it seems to me that the days of the former BASF tapes wouldn’t be long…hopefully, I could be wrong.
Ampex: Ampex is an American electronics company founded in 1944 by Alexander M. Poniatoff. The name AMPEX is an acronym, created by its founder, which stands for Alexander M. Poniatoff Excellence. At one time public, the remaining ongoing business unit (Ampex Data Systems Corporation) was acquired by Delta Information Systems in October 2014, with the original parent, Ampex Corporation, ceasing operations in October 2014. Ampex’s tape business was rendered obsolete during the 1990’s, and the company turned to digital storage products. They never managed to become a player in this field, and the company was moribund by the 2000’s. In January 2007, Quantegy announced that it will cease production of magnetic tape in April 2007 and is taking orders up until February 22. The only remaining manufacturers of new magnetic tape for sound recording are PYRAL and ATR Magnetics. The Spitz family, famous for their Ampex machines mods and who continues to be prominent in the pro audio business, took over the former Ampex tape production and re-started its production under the commercial name ATR Magnetics. After some years of experimentation, they finally came out with a long play formula called MDS-36 that promise to be well accepted by the domestic recording arena. This is what we got from their website:
ATR Introduces New 1-mil Tape!
MDS-36 is the latest addition to the ATR Magnetics line of audio recording products. MDS-36 is the long-playing version of our ATR Master Tape that engineers and musicians have come to love. We named MDS-36 in commemoration of company founder and industry leader Michael D. Spitz. Coated on the highest quality 1.0 mil polyester film, MDS-36 provides excellent performance and reel-to-reel consistency. Our new formulation offers high output and low noise with improved recording economy, and is bias compatible with ATR Master Tape requiring minimal adjustment for optimal performance. MDS-36 is available in ¼” width and 3,600 foot length on 10.5” NAB metal reels or in flange-less “pancake” form supplied on NAB hubs.
Which One Is Better?
First of all, let’s clarify that we are a distributor for both brands, we have been dealing with these tapes since the Ampex-BASF years during the 90’s, these tests are subjective and for amusement purposes only and we are not conducting a scientific controlled experiment, neither it is our intention to mislead anyone. Always use your own professional criteria.
For this “shootout”, we used one of our perfectly restored Crown CX-822 and try the new tape on recording running @ 7.5 ips and using the 1/2 track pro format. We ordered 5 tapes in the metal reels and were received almost 4 days later inside the archival boxes or what they call now: “Tape Care Box”. It’s been a long time since we have seen this type of box available again! After our first examination, it’s obvious that this tape is a little thicker than the Pyral’s. Hopefully this wouldn’t translate into more oxide residual on the heads. At first sight you may deduct that the ATR is stronger than the Pyral counterpart. We proceeded with our own “stretch” test and definitely the ATR is a hair stronger. No doubt about it. We put the tape on the CX deck and hit the rewind button, as the tape is supplied in the “tails” position.
We proceeded with our “residual” test where we select a higher speed, this time 15 ips, and let the machine run for a while. Let us clarify that Pyral does not endorse their LPR 35 for high speed recording. They specify it for 7.5 ips speed, but we have used it many times for 15 ips master recordings with excellent results. The ATR went first…we took a Q Tip sample of the oxide residual…a little too much for a new tape of this kind. We then repeat the test with the Pyral…the cotton came almost clean. No problem. We proceeded with a short recording session. We selected a high-res file of Keith Richards with very clear highs, strong bass and excellent mid presence. Surprisingly, and just as Dan Labrie from ATR mentioned on a dealers letter, “MDS-36 Product Description”. Recommended operating level is +6/185 with a bias requirement identical to ATR Master. This tape is similar to the the 407, 457, LPR-35 and XLI-35 formulations. This product is intended for the home recordist and general purpose recording”, the bias needed for the new ATR formula is identical to the ones required by the LPR-35! We didn’t even have to bother with the bias adj. on our Crown.
Recording and Listening Test: We proceeded with the recording of a 6:05 duration track with a constant level of 0db and ocassional peaks of +2db. The ATR went first, followed by the Pyral’s. WOW! Both tapes behaved almost identical in our subjective tests: clear highs, punchy and strong bass, in your face mids,etc… The hot levels are easily assimilated by both and with all honesty, we didn’t find any substantial sonic difference among both! Well, if you want me to play the “expert reviewer” game with you and offer “false” pretensions of this tape “this” while this other tape “that”, I’m so sorry. I have never liked the game of BS reports! It is what it is. No more, no less. This is a “duration” battle that will only be solved in the long run: which tape aged better. As simple as that.
During the 80’s and 90’s some reviewers claimed that the Ampex 406 & 456 used to loss some high end after the first 24 hours of storage. Supposedly, the BASF didn’t do that. On the slitting qualities, the original BASF from Germany was also a hair better. Unfortunately, all of these has changed. During my many years as a Mastering Engineer dealing with both tapes on a daily basis, I can say that it was more of a “brand loyalty” issue than the sound itself. I did found in those days the Emtec tape to be cleaner on my heads, but from time to time we found a batch that was not as good. The infamous SSS problem were experienced by all brands during any certain time of their existence. No exceptions!
So, we recorded the same track, from the same source, with the same level, on the same deck and once finished we spliced both tapes together for our panel “blind test”. No one could identify which tape was which until we told them and that was the main idea: to avoid the “cult following” phenomena.
As we already expected, nobody could choose which one sounded better! We could have tell them that both slices were the same tape and everyone could have believe us. The panel consisted of 2 audiophiles, 2 recording engineers and 2 casual listeners. My longtime friend and the most popular Salsa Music recording engineer in the Latin arena told me that “this is just a matter of a personal preference and brand availability”. That’s all. Oh! man, we really enjoy this kind of informal tests that we usually conducts from time to time.
The long recording test: Since we consume at least 10 rolls of LPR 35 monthly, we already know how it behaves and the truth is that we can’t complain about it. We did the same with the ATR tape. We selected 7.5 ips speed and almost 90 minutes of constant music from our High-Res files and set it to recording. For our surprise, after a little more of a 1/2 of the tape, the right channel dropped and the sound became dull. The typical situation when a head gets dirty. Sure enough, we pull the tape out of the head path, cleaned it and identified the culprit: heavy oxide residual on the heads! The same happened when we played it back on our other Crown SX 822: we had to stop the tape once to clean the heads! Could this be tape coating problem? We contacted ATR directly and they attended our concerns with their usual professionalism and courtesy. After all, I don’t want any problems with my customers either!
After talking with Dan Labrie of ATR, a nice gentleman and a person ready to take rapid action in solving problems, he promised to replace any “problematic” reel (if any) with a new one as needed and was very helpful trying to find an explanation for this. Actually, the situation was consistent with more than one deck and I also received 2 emails from reel tape colleagues who insisted that they were experiencing the same issues! Several answers or alternatives were considered: 1- problems with the tape formulation itself, 2- problems with the back coating, 3- problems with this specific batch, 4- problems with the machine alignment, 4- storage requirements or 5- tape width is a “hair” more and the tape guides are “shaving” it leaving a more than usual amount of debris.
Conclusions: As a loyal dealer for both brands, I simply don’t have a personal favorite as long as the quality is good and the sound is superb. I still have over 200 reels from the 90’s of BASF 911 & 900 and Ampex 456 & 499. I can say that the BASF has aged better than the Ampex but it also depends on the storage quality. I have been luckier with the BASF, though. The actual Pyral formula, LPR 35, runs cleaner than its counterpart but sonically speaking they are the same! I’m not able to pick one over the other if talking about sound characteristics alone. Both take high levels without stress, highs are clear and bass is tight. They just reproduce whatever you throw at them with finesse and precision. I think that the sound quality difference that some people claims to hear it’s just a matter of brand loyalty or “golden ear” syndrome. After all, “audio” still subjective and you can choose whatever you want without the fear of going wrong because both tapes are just that good. One thing the MDS 36 is a clear winner over the Pyral is the archival box included in the price supplied with the metal reel. We also know that the tape would be available on 7″ reel and on pancakes in “eco boxes”. They already know that this formula would be heavily used by the non-professional public and for domestic applications. We also have to consider that some tapes play better on a specific deck and that’s a fact.
On another note, the debris issue associated with the MDS 36 is something to deal with and I’m very sure that the ATR people are working on it. If you are not lazy cleaning your heads and in keeping your machines in top shape, this shouldn’t be significant unless the problem gets worse as the tape gets older. This is something to wait and see. If on the other hand you are one of those who clean your deck heads after playing or recording 5 tapes, forget it! My recommendation is to order 1 or 2 reels only and try it for yourself in your deck before a final commitment. Other ATR fanatics have also told me that they have not experienced the same “problem” with their decks, on the contrary, they swear by the ATR MDS-36 tape, so there you have 2 different positions. Let’s be fair and give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, ATR still working on the formula in order to improve it.
My main worry on all this is not the debris issue because I’m sure that ATR is going to solve it. My main preoccupation is that at this moment in time I’m not completely sure how long Mulann, the owners of Pyral, would remain in the tape business. This specific tape product has gone through a lot of situations lately and I think it’s a mater of time before they finally exit the analog tape arena. Hopefully not. In that case, ATR has no other option but to improve its tape formulas to perfection. Who knows who may acquire the former BASF formulas in the future. ATR too? After all, if that ever happens, they will get a perfect professional market dominion for many years to come!
While all this is happening, the people of Splicit from Oregon, USA are working with a formula based on the old Zonal tape. Their intention is not to compete against the 2 tape giants, obviously, but they are just looking to offer an alternative in the recording’s enthusiast niche. I’m going to test their tapes very soon and sure enough we’ll review it and report our findings. (Tape has been reviewed and the article published here and by Mono & Stereo High End magazine).
Incidentally, all my Maxell tapes from the 80’s has aged considerably better than any professional formula, including the TDK LX 50. I just took a Maxell XL-1 from 1987, bulk erased it, clean it and re-record again with incredible results! The usual drops at the beginning of the tape of course, but just after 1 minute of tape I got a clean and strong consistent sound from a 29 years old domestic TAPE!!! (XL-1). Amazing. I’m afraid I have not had the same luck with any other professional formulas.
UPDATE: Before publishing this article, we send our findings to ATR. They kindly replaced the samples with new fresh tape, allegedly with the issues corrected. We tested it and in fact the problem has been fixed! The tape runs cleaner, no slitting problem at all and the sound still superb. What else can you ask from a tape? ATR Company is an example of how to handle constructive critics properly. They didn’t go “defensive” They just listened, re-worked the formula and solved the situation. That’s the way to do it.
We also received the news from Don Morris at Pyral that effective on April the plastic reels would be available in NAB format. That’s really nice. I simply hate those “trident” plastic reels. Now everything would be “standard”. Personally, I acquire my tapes “bulk” or in plastic reels as I don’t believe to pay more for a aluminum reel than for the tape itself. This is something ATR should consider too. By the way; you can buy the plastic reels alone if you need it.
If you want to buy the “archival box” from ATR, you can do so but it wouldn’t have any stickers inside (you know, those where you write the recording’s details).
Carlos J Guzman,