The Tape Project, on which we reported in our News earlier, is now shipping their very first open reel release – jazz vocalist Jacqui Naylor’s album The Number White. The new company consists of noted mastering engineers Paul Stubblebine and Michael Romanowski, together with vacuum tube maven Dan Schmalle of Bottlehead Corp. The Tape Project brings back a once-popular audio format with a limited number of audio buffs, but in an upgraded version that offers the discerning listener who can afford it a totally analog listening experience coming as close as possible to that of hearing the original master tape.
Reel-to-Reel in the Past
Back in the early 1950s – shortly after the introduce of the LP – a number of different music labels issued recordings on quarter-inch open reel tapes. Most were mono at the start, but they still sound much better than LPs of the era. Soon the first stereo tapes began to appear. There was a format hassle between staggered playback heads and inline heads, but the latter soon won out. Major labels such as RCA and Mercury produced stereo tapes of excellent fidelity – this was years before the introduction of the first stereodisc in 1958. The highest quality tapes were double-tracked at 7 1/2 ips speed, but they were very expensive for the time compared to LPs. To cut costs Ampex developed the quarter-track format, which recorded interleaved stereo tracks in two directions. This used half as much blank tape and could be duplicated faster, but it increased noise, hiss and leakage from the other tracks. Cutting the speed in half to 3 3/4 ips was also used on some tapes. The best open reel decks at the time were the advanced tube models such as the Revox. A few audiophiles still listen to legacy open reel tapes. Although some old tapes have deteriorated – due to what were considered “improvements” in formulations at the time which eventually separated from the backing materials – many still play back well and sound terrific on a properly-adjusted semipro deck.
The Tape Project has pulled out all the stops in their effort to achieve the closest sonic match to the studio tape playback. First, their tapes are 15ips speed, which was generally the standard for commercial analog recording – although some major labels used 30ips on prestige recording sessions such as Arthur Rubinstein. They are two-track stereo (stored tails out and rewound before playing) on 10 1/2 reels, requiring at least a semipro deck which handles the large reels vs. the 7-inch reels used on most home decks at the time. The Tape Project hopes to release ten albums per year primarily on a subscription basis, of a wide variety of musical styles.
First Ten Albums
The first ten titles are to be:
1) ‘The Number White’ by jazz singer Jacqui Naylor
2) Dave Alvin’s ‘Blackjack David’
3) ‘Arnold Overtures’ original music by Malcolm Arnold with the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded by Grammy-Winning engineer and audiophile equipment designer Keith Johnson
4) The album that established Robert Cray as a strong new voice in the blues ‘False Accusations’
5) Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos with the New Philharmonia Orchestra performing Albeniz: Suite Espanola
6) David Oistrakh and the London Symphony Orchestra with concertos by Bruch and Hindemith
7) Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra performing Exotic Dances from the Opera (Saint-Saëns, R. Strauss, etc.)
8) Bill Evans ‘Waltz for Debby’ live at the Village Vanguard in 1961
9) Mose Allison in 1959’s ‘Creek Bank’ engineered by Rudy Van Gelder
10) The incomparable Sonny Rollins in ‘Saxophone Colossus.’
There is also a special Tape Project Alignment Tape, since parameters such as azimuth and polarity are important in achieving the best sound with open reel tape.
A charter subscription is $2000 U.S. for all ten releases; for $1200 a subscriber can choose six of the ten releases, and non-subscribers can purchase individual albums for $329 each. Two reels are required due to the faster 15ips speed, and they come in a custom-designed box with custom tape flanges inscribed with serial numbers for charter subscribers.
Playback Systems Available
There are a number requirements in order to play back these SOTA open reels properly. Of course the tape deck must handle the 10 1/2-inch reels, play 15ips speed and have a double-track playback head. There are several older decks that meet these specs (a list is on the company’s web site), but The Tape Project has settled on adapting the Technics RS-1500 family of semipro tape decks. Advantages of this deck are solid construction, fairly good availability, and a U-shaped tape path that is more gentle on the tapes than most decks.
The Tape Project uses the IEC/CCIR EQ curve on their tapes, whereas most decks will be set to the NAB standard EQ. There is no way to easily switch the playback EQ on the RS-1500, but no matter, because the only route to achieve the required gourmet performance level is to start with the superior tape transport, but to replace the playback head and electronics. Flux Magnetics has designed a 15ips-only 2-track reproduce head with no compromise for slower speeds. It has a frequency response well beyond that of stock playback heads. The new head is mated with new vacuum tube playback electronics developed by Paul Joppa and Dan Schmall of Bottlehead Corp. especially for The Tape Project. The electronics package allows switching between the IEC and NAB curves.
An adapted, refurbished Technics RS-1500 with the Flux Magnetics head and redesigned electronics runs about $7500 total, but used RS-1500s are available online for under $1000 and The Tape Project also offers an entry-level kit of playback electronics for about $375, which with an original playback head in good condition promises sonics very close to the optimum. The Tape Project even offers a remote control for the Technics.
[I’ve been enjoying my library of open reel tapes on my RS-1500 for decades now. They are mostly at 7 1/2ips speed, and when I have done A/B tests with the same recordings, the only format that has surpassed them has been 45 rpm vinyl reissues. I’m told the Tape Project tapes at 15ips with the dedicated head and electronics easily surpass that, bringing the master tape experience into the home. I wish The Tape Project the greatest success with their no-compromise approach to audio nirvana!…Ed.]