Special Features

Hi-Def Tape Transfers Offered on Audiophile CD-Rs

Open Reel Recordings in the Public Domain see new life on CD

Published on May 3, 2006

Hi-Def Tape Transfers Offered on Audiophile CD-Rs
Hi-Def Tape Transfers Offered on Audiophile CD-Rs

Intro & All About Open Reel Tape

As time marches on, many great stereo recordings from the recent past have gone into the Public Domain. Compositions on the recordings have to be published prior to 1924 and the recording has to have been made before 1972. If works published between 1923 and 1964 were not for some reason renewed at the end of their respective 28-year terms, they fall into the Public Domain.  As many as 95% of copyright owners did not renew their copyrights at the proper time, so their music is now available to anyone for reissue and sale. (Evidently the laws are somewhat different in Europe, because there is a recent onslaught of reissues of American jazz from Europe at bargain prices – stuff that was on Verve, Columbia and other major labels.)

The other aspect to this new source of recordings with audiophile appeal is the recording medium you don’t hear much about anymore today – analog open reel. In fact most pop professional recordings are still made to analog tape in the studios – although for a while there wasn’t a single factory anywhere in the world manufacturing blank recording tape any more. The fact is performers feel they sound better on analog tape, and engineers have more flexibility in mixing and processing the sound than they do in the digital domain. Some of us have been tapeaholics for decades now.  Aside from the unfortunate introduction of so-called “new improved” oxide formulations which fell off the backing tape after a few years, some of us feel that a good prerecorded open reel tape (especially the two-track variety – before quarter-track was introduced) when played on a well-tweaked tape deck, can hold its own against the highest-end turntable system, and in some parameters surpass it. In spite of digital’s tarnished promise to provide “perfect sound forever,” The Library of Congress Archive of Recordings still recommends for utmost archival quality in the preservation of priceless recordings of any sort to record them on plain old analog open reel tape!

Audiophile and open-reel tape collector Robert Witrak has launched High Definition Tape Transfers, which is not offering open reel tapes for sale but seeking out audiophile-quality commercial open reel tapes of the past as well as copies of studio masters, determining that they are free of copyright restrictions, and then remastering them using the most advanced audiophile equipment and burning individual CD-Rs at a cost of about $30 each plus shipping – about the same as audiophile xrcds and vinyl repressings. His web site is: www.highdeftapetransfers.com

HDTT’s object is to achieve better sonics than major label CDs which often use similar master tape sources. Most often the HDTT goal is to reissue material which has never been reissued on CD. Each HDTT disc is individually burned on a modified CD burner, using a battery-powered A-to-D converter, the best remastering components and audiophile cables. Minimizing jitter in the digital signal is a prime goal in the mastering process.  The idea is to produce jitter-free CDs with clarity, focus and soundstaging better than any CD you can obtain commercially.  The pressing process for commercial CDs can result in significant jitter, whereas burning the CD-Rs one at a time at low speed on a high-quality writer produces a clearly superior copy.

I asked Robert why he couldn’t also offer DVD-Rs at 96K, which would have both higher resolution and hold more music.  He said he could but hadn’t had demand as yet for that. Since I wouldn’t consider burning copies of my precious vinyl to CD-R but use DVD-R, I reasoned that the latter would be best for the highest-res transfers.  And most users have quality DVD players that can handle 96K PCM playback now.

Auditioning the CD-Rs

The discs are provided in heavier jewel boxes similar to most SACDs, but the cover art and notes are minimal because although copyright on the recording may have expired it still exists on the artwork for the original cover and the note booklet, and the fees due for those would raise the cost of the CD-Rs considerably. The actual optical discs are clearly and neatly labeled – as you can see by the disc label on the HDTT Sampler – and the recorded side appears to be similar to many of the gold discs one occasionally sees.

HDTT SAMPLER, Eight tracks = RIMSKY-KORSAKOFF: Scheherazade excerpt – VSOO/Scherchen; R. STRAUSS: Til Eulenspiegel excerpt – Phil. Orch./Klemperer; BACH: Magnificat excerpt – Munich Bach Orch./Richter; BEETHOVEN: Sym. No. 5 excerpt – VSOO/Prohaska; STRAVINSKY: The Soldier’s Tale excerpts; MOZART: Quintet for Horn & Strings, 3rd movt. – Fine Arts Q.; DEBUSSY: Iberia excerpt – Orch. of the Paris Opera/Manuel Rosenthal; STRAVINSKY: Rite of Spring excerpt – PCO/Monteux – HDTT

Some of the selections are of astounding clarity – as good or better than the best xrcds. This was true of the Beethoven Fifth excerpt as well as the Debussy Iberia. I found the opening Scheherazade rather coarse and blaring sonically, with the solo violin suffering from a digital edginess. But the others were of excellent quality and I was struck by how far down the tape hiss has been taken.  I’ve copied a number of my two-track open reel prerecorded tapes to DAT, Dolby S cassette and recently CD-R, and I know how difficult it is to eliminate tape hiss, even on those original tapes with Dolby B noise reduction.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 – Vienna State Opera Orch./ Felix Prohaska;  HAYDN: Toy Symphony – I Solisti di Zagreb/ Antonio Janigro – HDTT CD-R *****:

As mentioned, this is a recording of amazing transparency. It’s fully as good as versions (by different orchestras of course) that I have on SACD, though of course it’s not multichannel and the sonics – coming from around 1960 – don’t sound quite up to the best of present-day standards.  The performance of the potboiler is compelling and dramatic.  I recall owning this Vanguard open reel tape of the Toy Symphony long ago.  The Fifth and the Toy Symphony were entirely separate reels – the cost-per-minute of prerecorded open reel tapes were very high for the time.  The work is great fun with its many sound effects, which stand out with great clarity on the stereo soundstage.

Erick Friedman plays Violin Showpieces = SARASATE: Zigeunerweisen; WIENIAWSKI: Legende; SAINT SAENS: Havanaise; CHAUSSON: Poeme; RAVEL: Tzigane – with London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent – HDTT CD-R  ****:

Lovely, silky string timbre in these virtuoso violin & orchestra pieces. For me it’s a real achievement to get such a natural, musical and free-of-digital-distortion string tone using the standard 44.1K PCM format, but many standard CDs and xrcds of the last few years have finally been able to accomplish it. I would say 90% of the 44.1K discs in my large collection prominently featuring strings or solo violins set my teeth on edge to some degree. The perfectionist care given to all aspects of these CD-R transfers – from the original open reel playback decks to the D-to-A processors, the CD-R burner and the special cabling – bear sonic fruit in the excellent sonics on most of these transfers.  I compared this disc with a couple SACDs of similar repertory, with my SACD player set on two-channel SACD.  The HDTT disc did not suffer in the comparison.  In fact the violin soloist had more presence and realism on the stereo stage on the HDTT disc, although the orchestra sounded a bit better on the SACDs.

RIMSKY-KORSAKOFF: Scheherazade – Vienna State Opera Orchestra/ Hermann Scherchen – HDTT ***:

As also indicated above, I found this transfer from Westminster (Sonotape) original prerecorded tapes a bit harsh-sounding.  In comparison with a couple of the competing Scheherazades on both vinyl and SACD Scherchen’s performance was consistently exciting but the sonics were not quite up to snuff.

HDTT has promised to do some DVD-R transfers in future and I look forward to auditioning those.  It appears that repertory may be limited to classical works because most jazz compositions are of recent vintage and still under copyright protection.  That’s unfortunate because I have a few Japanese Blue Note open reel tapes that are terrific fidelity but probably cannot be shared on CD-R or DVD-R.

– John Sunier
 




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