First Reel-to-Reel title from MA Recordings

Gary Koh takes us into the analog heaven of the real to real...

When Todd Garfinkel made the recording of Ito Ema playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, he had two complete recording chains in place - one pair of handmade, titanium capsule battery powered, line-level output miss for the digital chain and a pair of Bruel and Kjær 4006 mikes for the 1/2 inch analog tape version into a Studier A820 Master Recorder with 1/2-inch head assembly. The tape used was 3M 996 at 30ips.

I had the CD for years and it was one of my favourite solo piano recordings. A couple of years ago, Todd was doing this title as an LP and when he sent me the test pressing to evaluate, I remarked to him that it sounded more lush and had far better ambience than the CD. I thought it was the medium. However, he told me about the two different recording chains, and how he decided to use the analog one for the LP.

I asked for (and received) a CD-ROM with a copy of the analog version, and loved it. It’s interesting comparing the same performance based on two different recording chains. Later, he also gave me a copy of the high-res 24-bit/176.4kHz files which were taken direct from the analog tapes.

For MA Recordings first Reel-to-Reel title, Todd is going to release the analog recording. I persuaded him to let me help him with reproduction, and persuaded Tape Maven Ki Choi to help. Little did I know that this was going to turn into a project that spanned almost a year.

Ki decided that just getting any recording machine to make copies wasn’t good enough for this first effort. Todd’s albums are unique in that almost no processing is done (except for a couple of edits) after the recording. This, and his recording technique, contribute to the excellent ‘you are there’ feel of his albums. And we wanted the copy to be as close to the master as was humanly possible.

When I last met with Todd during the Newport Show, he handed me the master tapes to hand-carry back to Seattle. Two reels of 1/2-inch 30ips tapes.

As the Studer A820 was used to make the master tape, the best possible reproduction of the master would be another A820. Ki Choi was determined to make the best possible playback A820, and stripped down one of his machines for this purpose.

The record and erase heads were removed and recording electronics were discarded, even the playback electronics were removed and the head direct-wired to external head amplifiers.

All bearings were replaced with brand-new top quality ones, a brand new playback head installed, and everything was complete refurbished. This resulted in the best build of a playback-only Studer A820 possible - with tape heads direct-wired to a tape-head preamp: the ultra-ultra-rare Cello. A Manley was also available for service, just in case additional eq was needed.

I am format agnostic, a full-time music-lover and a part-time audiophile. I listen to as much digital as analog, and I work hard at hunting down the best sounding copy of the music I love. Most of the time, I prefer the analog when both are available. But *sigh!* having had the chance to listen to a 1/2-inch 30ips mastertape, I also know what's left on the cutting room floor.

The recording machines had to also be in tip-top shape, so Ki ended up having to refurbish a total of four Studer A820's - two configured as 1/4-inch machines and another 1/2-inch machine to make recordings on. All perfectly calibrated, or as perfectly as the best tape-machine tech in the USA (possibly the World) is able to do.

Here's the production line of FOUR Studer A820s - two with 1/4-inch head assembly, and one with 1/2-inch head assembly. All tuned to tip-top condition for this project.

"Just-in-case" three Studer A80 machines were also tuned-up as back-ups.

Mono & Stereo friend Gary Koh of Genesis Advanced Technologies, Inc.