Master Tapes - Genuine or Fake

astrotoy

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May 24, 2010
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I am posting this on the basis of my experience as a collector and listener of 15ips 2 track tapes for the past 15 years. I am not a professional and appreciate additions, corrections, etc. from others, including several professionals, in this thread.

First, what is a master tape? Typically it refers to either the original master that comes out of a recording session or a copy of the original master used for producing the media.
So an original master may be the original tape, often a multitrack, or the resultant mix down from multitrack to two tracks. I have in my collection only one set (7 reels) given on semi permanent loan to me from the engineer who did the recording in 8 tracks on 1/2 inch tape and did a mix down to 2 tracks which he has loaned me. This was from a jazz festival that he recorded (close to 4 hours of music) back in 1980 on contract from a producer. The producer stiffed him on the job and he kept the tapes. He used dolby A to encode the tapes and I ended up buying a pair of Dolby 361 decoders to be able to play them. Typically, the master tape has a data sheet with the logo of the recording engineer's company and the details of the recording, date, speed, number of tracks, equalization, noise reduction used (like dolby A), type of tape, recording level, test tones included and their level, etc. These are the crown jewels of the company doing the recording and normally stored very safely and almost never make their way into the hands of dealers or consumers. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Universal_Studios_fire for the disaster that destroyed over 100,000 original master tapes). They are used to make the next level of master tape.

The next level are production (sometimes called running) and their companion safety masters. These are copies of the master tapes and are used for cutting lacquers for vinyl records, digitizing for CD's and digital files, and for most dubbing to make consumer tapes. Both the production master and the safety masters are shipped to a mastering engineer. The safety master is a back up which is made to be identical to the production master if there is a problem with the production master. Normally the production master is returned to the entity that sent the tape. Often the safety master is kept by the mastering engineer, typically a souvenir of the job, for their collection. So most of the master tapes that make their way into the hands of consumers or dealers are safety masters.

Production and safety masters can be produced over a number of years, recording records, cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes, CDs and/or digital media produced for sale in different countries or regions, even over decades, depending on the longevity and popularity of the album. My safety master of Miles Davis "Cookin'" album was done in the late '80's, more than thirty years after the original recording, either for a vinyl or CD reissue. They are used by a mastering engineer to make the lacquers for a vinyl release, digital files for a CD or digital release, etc.

How does one know that the master tape (almost always a production or safety master) they have obtained is genuine or fake. First, it is impossible to be absolutely certain that it is genuine. It could be a carefully made fake. However, there are many clues that should be good evidence that the tapes are genuine. Here are some characteristics (most master tapes have at least several of these, the more the greater the certainty.)
A. Provenance – If the source of the tape is the actual mastering engineer, that is the best. An unknown seller on ebay is the worst. I never buy tapes, master or otherwise on ebay.
B. Original Data Sheet - if in pencil or pen, the writing should smear if a small amount of moisture is applied. The sheet may be taped to the box or included separately. It should have the name of the studio printed on it, with the various data typically written and not typed. There should be lots of information on the data sheet, including date, initials of the engineer, what test tones are included, equalization of tape, speed, number of tracks, tape type used, sometimes the tape recorder used to make the copy, what noise reduction was used if any (like dolby A). Copy machines today can make excellent copies of data sheets. Condition of the paper or other signs of age are helpful.
C. Test tones on the tape - normally at least 1K, 10K, 100Hz (usually at 0db) and normally at the head of the tape, sometimes channel identification beeps - left and then right. Sometimes there are more test tones than the standard three. In any case, the test tones on the tape should match the test tones marked on the data sheet.
D. Leader tape at head and tail and sometimes between songs on the tape. It takes quite a bit of work to splice leader tape between songs, so this is a good indication of a genuine master tape. However, most safety masters I have seen don’t have leader tape between songs. So absence of the latter is not a good indication of a fake.
E. Reel and box of the proper vintage on the data sheet.
F. Sometimes the type of tape is shown on the backing of the tape. If this matches the tape type listed on the data sheet this is very good. However, many tapes of the proper vintage don’t have markings on the backing. I showed one of my safety masters ("Katy Lied") to a person who had worked with Steely Dan on the 1990 reissues of their albums. He said, where did you get this? He opened the box and took a long whiff of the tape, pronouncing it genuine. Not sure exactly what he was smelling.
G. Sometimes the tapes have the songs in a different order than the commercial release. The mastering engineer may change the order of the songs for the actual commercial release. I have a few master tapes like that.
H. I normally make digital copies of all my tapes at 192/24. I can analyze the frequency response of the recording (I use Izotope RX3 software). One strong evidence of a fake tape is that there is a very sharp cutoff at 22kHZ on the tape. This is evidence that a CD was used as the source of the tape copy. There are some genuine tapes that have a cutoff around 22kHz, but those are normally more gentle in the cutoff and not exactly at 22kHz. People making fake masters may have a copy of the tape, so that the lack of sharp cutoff doesn’t mean it is genuine.

Finally, tapes are quite sturdy if kept well. I have tapes that are approaching 70 years old that sound fantastic. However, they can deteriorate or if recorded with the wrong tape (like the infamous Ampex 456 or others that suffered from sticky shed syndrome) and they can be worn from overuse or misuse. I have had quite good fortune in my tape purchases, including many safety master tapes. However, I have been quite careful where I buy. Also prices of these tapes is never cheap, and often very expensive. The joy in playing can be well worth the effort.

There are probably other hints that others can make to the thread. As always corrections, comments, additions are welcome.

There are at least two sources of commercial tapes which are made from copies of the original 2 track mixdown masters or even the multitrack master that I have experience purchasing. These are the same generation as production or safety masters. I understand there are others who provide this generation of copy. However, the vast majority of commercial tapes for sale are copies from a production or safety master generation (or sometimes later).

First is Jonathan Horwich who owns IPI (International Phonograph Inc) in Chicago. He records mostly small jazz combos, and some classical music. He sells both direct copies of his recordings as well as copies made from a production master. The direct copies are a bargain at $250 per reel and even less if you buy them during the initial week or two of their release. I own close to 40 of Jonathan’s releases, most of them direct copies.

https://www.internationalphonographinc.com/master-tape-copies

Second is Opus 3 Records, a Swedish company who has been making albums for close to 50 years. They have released a fair number of their analogue recordings on tape, copies made directly from their original master tapes. They have limited the number of tapes made to prevent the original masters from excessive wear. They list how to order at a link at the bottom of their webpage. I own 12 Opus 3 albums, 24 reels in total. In the US, they can be purchased through Elusive Disc (Kevin Berg is their tape person).

https://www.opus3records.com/am_list.html

Happy hunting and listening. Larry
 
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Steve et.al. If you feel this is valuable, feel free to make it a sticky. Took some time to write. Thanks, Larry
 
Have you tried recording from the 24/192 files and comparing it to the original tapes?
 
Rumor is that Katy Lied studio result was somehow frequency impaired due to faulty dbx processing:
"Most serious SD fans know that the sound on Katy Lied was hampered by a faulty DBX machine on the 24 track tape. It was cleaned up on the Citizen Steely Dan boxset and sounds very good to me. Not quite as good as Royal Scam but much better than before. As this is my favorite SD album, I wanted to know how you all feel about this version? Is there another cd version that you think is better? Thanks."

"I just listened to a new detailed interview with Gary Katz and Bob Lefsetz. He addresses the Katy Lied story in depth, and reiterates that after the recording and mixdown, they realized they were f'd due to the DBX issues, with the only options being re-record the album or release as-is. They chose the latter."


How does your tape sound?
 
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Thank you very much for this tutorial, Larry!
 
Have you tried recording from the 24/192 files and comparing it to the original tapes?
Yes. With my current digital system, the sound gets very close. I use my Pacific Microsonics Model Two with Merging Technologies Pyramix software to do the A to D. Then I use my Lampizator Horizon for the D to A. This has given me the closest I've come to the original tapes. For both playback and digitizing of the tapes I use a separate tape preamp (Merrill Trident) from my 2 Ampex ATR-102's (both 1/4" and 1/2' tapes). This combo of tape and digital have been very satisfying for me.

Larry
 
Rumor is that Katy Lied studio result was somehow frequency impaired due to faulty dbx processing:
"Most serious SD fans know that the sound on Katy Lied was hampered by a faulty DBX machine on the 24 track tape. It was cleaned up on the Citizen Steely Dan boxset and sounds very good to me. Not quite as good as Royal Scam but much better than before. As this is my favorite SD album, I wanted to know how you all feel about this version? Is there another cd version that you think is better? Thanks."

"I just listened to a new detailed interview with Gary Katz and Bob Lefsetz. He addresses the Katy Lied story in depth, and reiterates that after the recording and mixdown, they realized they were f'd due to the DBX issues, with the only options being re-record the album or release as-is. They chose the latter."


How does your tape sound?
When I bought my large collection of safety masters, which included Katy Lied, I did not know much about pop/rock music, having focused on classical music for most all of my life. It was an opportunity to obtain a large collection at one time, so I didn't know most of the titles and only heard of most of the artists. One I didn't know was Steely Dan - didn't know whether it was someones name, or whether it was a group, and I had never heard any of their albums. I even thought the Katy Lied was a German song about Katy ("Lied" is song in German). So I don't have a comparison point of what the tape sounds like versus the record. I mentioned it because it was the only one which was smelled by a professional who at least worked on the reissue.

BTW, I've gotten to learn much more about pop/rock (still don't know the different subgenres) and I do like Steely Dan (as well as the Doors, Supertramp, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and some others.) I haven't gotten to appreciate Led Zeppelin, but have been told that the music is worth listening to, and quite a few others. These and many others are part of my expanding and already too expansive collection of tapes.

Larry
 
Yes. With my current digital system, the sound gets very close. I use my Pacific Microsonics Model Two
Yes. With my current digital system, the sound gets very close. I use my Pacific Microsonics Model Two with Merging Technologies Pyramix software to do the A to D. Then I use my Lampizator Horizon for the D to A. This has given me the closest I've come to the original tapes. For both playback and digitizing of the tapes I use a separate tape preamp (Merrill Trident) from my 2 Ampex ATR-102's (both 1/4" and 1/2' tapes). This combo of tape and digital have been very satisfying for me.

Larry

with Merging Technologies Pyramix software to do the A to D. Then I use my Lampizator Horizon for the D to A. This has given me the closest I've come to the original tapes. For both playback and digitizing of the tapes I use a separate tape preamp (Merrill Trident) from my 2 Ampex ATR-102's (both 1/4" and 1/2' tapes). This combo of tape and digital have been very satisfying for me.

Larry
Thanks! I don't have master tapes to compare with my digital recordings, but I'm very happy with the sound. I have a Studer A80 RCMKII, 1/2”, HS and I switched from the original cards to Jeff and Charles' NextGen. The sound is incredible!
 
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I have the NADAC mch which I use for multichannel files. No power or clock however. Both Claude and Dom were at my home back in 2010 before they branched out into consumer electronics. We talked about what they were thinking about in that market. Then in 2015 I went to Geneva and saw Dom and his wife. They hosted us for a very lovely lunch and we went to see their garden plot and then went to a demo of the new NADAC. I think I bought the first NADAC sold in the US. Larry
 
@astrotoy

Larry, thanks so much for sharing this. I really appreciate it. Never owned any good RTRs, but my buddy in high school, back in the late 70s, early 80s, had a Pioneer RT707 and it was great fun to record very good copies of some vinyl that we listened to a lot. They were fun times for sure.
 
Yes. With my current digital system, the sound gets very close. I use my Pacific Microsonics Model Two with Merging Technologies Pyramix software to do the A to D. Then I use my Lampizator Horizon for the D to A. This has given me the closest I've come to the original tapes. For both playback and digitizing of the tapes I use a separate tape preamp (Merrill Trident) from my 2 Ampex ATR-102's (both 1/4" and 1/2' tapes). This combo of tape and digital have been very satisfying for me.

Larry
Larry, I do get close copying tape to DSD X 4 and somewhat with 24/96 but I never get that organic presence of tape. You can hear the natural space around each instrument and generally in the room with a good tape. I can't get that yet with digital. I love digital too but for different pluses.
 
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I am posting this on the basis of my experience as a collector and listener of 15ips 2 track tapes for the past 15 years. I am not a professional and appreciate additions, corrections, etc. from others, including several professionals, in this thread.
Thanks for this Larry. Positive Feedback published a short article I did on nomenclature of tape generations that might supplement your excellent observations in this thread.

 
Larry, I do get close copying tape to DSD X 4 and somewhat with 24/96 but I never get that organic presence of tape. You can hear the natural space around each instrument and generally in the room with a good tape. I can't get that yet with digital. I love digital too but for different pluses.
Thanks, Jonathan. Very close, but no cigar. And the cigars in this case cost a lot more, but are so satisfying. Larry
 
Thanks for this Larry. Positive Feedback published a short article I did on nomenclature of tape generations that might supplement your excellent observations in this thread.

Folks, Harold knows so much more than I do about this subject. We've been friends for quite a few years, and he has taught me so much. Larry
 
Thanks Larry, and I have learned a great deal from you about the great engineers of stereo recording.
 
Agreed. Something about that organic presence that is so real and different from other kinds of audio presences.
Thanks, Jonathan. Jonathan is a real pro. Larry
 

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