Written by 6:01 am Analog

Master Tapes, Native Rates, and Fidelity

How close can we get to the sound of the original musical event? Only the master knows…



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The main goal of audio fidelity is to get as close as possible to
the original recorded event. Anything that distances the listener further away from
the event reduces fidelity. In the analog world each and every added
generation, be it from multi-track to two-track master or master to stamper to
pressed LP disc, reduces the final fidelity of a recording. In the digital
world, although we have “bit-perfect” transfers from one generation to the
next, conversions from the native rate, or from one digital format to another,
like generations in analog, does lower a music file’s final fidelity. The
ultimate example of this would be going from a 192/24 full-resolution file to
128 KBPS MP3.

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In the old days we had the term “master tape” which, depending
on how they were made, could themselves be two or three generations away from
the original recorded multi-track taped event. Companies like Opus 3
, whose
early recordings were primarily live to two-track, had a sonic advantage
because they didn’t need mix-downs from multi-track to two-track. The two-track
original WAS the master. That got their listeners one generation closer to the
musical event.

The purest form of analog recording, direct to disc, where the
mixing board feeds a cutting lathe, so instead of tape-to-master, the master is
cut directly, sounds so good because it eliminates at least three generations
from the analog reproduction chain. The digital equivalent would be a live
recording done at 192/24 or DSD that is played back in the native format that
it was made in. In both cases there is one big creative problem – no editing or
retakes are possible. Obviously if everyone plays their parts perfectly the
one-take, no-editing methodology dictated by the process isn’t a problem. But
for most musicians knowing that there will be no retakes means they will pick
the safest way to play a passage, which may not be the most musically
adventurous or exciting way. Perhaps this is why many direct-to-disk recordings
are not very exhilarating or passionate – the process works against it.

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Obviously, your average MP3 music consumer has no idea what a
master tape sounds like. But even among audiophiles, far too few audiophiles
have heard master tapes. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons so many of us go
gaga every time we are presented with a new format that gets us closer to the sound
of the master tape. Analog enthusiasts have been raving over the new subscription
tape series from The Tape Project
ever since their first tape was released. Why? Because releasing in the tape
format bypasses all the LP-manufacturing steps, which reduce fidelity and
distance the listener from the original musical event. It should come as no
surprise that the Tape Project releases sound better than the original LPs. The
really big surprise would be if any of them sounded worse.

J. Gordon Holt always preferred listening to a 7½ IPS tape over
a record if he had a choice. And his reason wasn’t because the LPs always
sounded bad, but because the tapes were always closer to the original musical
event, and getting back to the moment of creation is what high-fidelity is all
about.

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