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Peter Erskine European Trio Live in Genoa, Volume 2
Analogy Records 03
There has been a resurgence in analog magnetic tape as a playback format, satisfied by the availability of high quality products to test, if not challenge, any audio system. International Phonograph has a series of analog-recorded jazz titles at $150 for a production copy duplicated at 15 ips two-track IEC, or $400 for a direct copy of the master. The Tape Project offers a line of vintage jazz, popular and classical titles duplicated from high quality 1" running masters to 15 ips two-track IEC at $450 each.
The newest entries in this exclusive market are from Robert Vigo's Analogy Records in Genoa, Italy: contemporary jazz and pop releases available at a choice of speeds (7.5 ips, 15 ips and even 30 ips), formats (4-track, 2-track), equalizations (IEC or NAB) and tape width (1/4 inch or 1/2 inch). These options provide the opportunity for an audiophile - with any available playback format - to obtain quality source material at prices ranging from €95 ($108) for their Basic line to €270 ($307) for their Premium.
I've heard tapes from the first two companies and they sound excellent. Roberto Vigo provided review copies of one of Analogy's recent releases for an extended listening session. Peter Erskine European Trio Live in Genoa Vol. 2 arrived in both Premium and Basic versions, the former recorded at 15 ips IEC on EMTEC-Pyral SM900 tape, the latter at 7.5 ips NAB on SM438. The Premium comes in handsome deluxe packaging, with a custom aluminum reel, beautifully designed and crafted box with slipcase, full-color liner notes and license certificate. Designed to keep production costs down, the Basic comes on a generic but sturdy plastic reel packaged in a simple, no-frills white box.
Given a choice of titles, I requested the Erskine 2 because of my familiarity with the work of Charlie Haden and, in particular, the inclusion of Thelonious Monk's iconic Panonica, a tune featured on his Brilliant Corners album that, coincidentally, has been reissued in 15 ips 2-track by The Tape Project. In addition to those two tracks, the 30-minute reel also includes an original composition by pianist Rita Marcotulli who performs the work to perfection, accompanied by Swedish bass player Palle Danielsson and Erskine on drums.
Everyone who listened to the tapes (including musicians and audiophiles) found the performances musically compelling and generally well recorded. The Erskine Trio's Monk comes alive compared to the composer's own somewhat staid and depressed take on Brilliant Corners. Marcotulli's piano (a Steinway), captured with an AKG C414 microphone, is astonishingly solid, the bass robust and sensual, and the drums percussive and shimmering, as they should be. The snares, when they enter, seem a bit aggressive, tending to dominate the mix, but this could certainly be tweaked in future mix-downs.
The live session was recorded digitally using a 16-track 192khz/32-bit system, producing a resolution 256 times that of a 24-bit system. The recording was then converted to analog, mixed and printed to tape. Asked why tape as a delivery medium (rather than, say, SACD or high-resolution audio file) Vigo responded that once the recording enters the analog domain in the mixing process it stays there. Technically, then, the recording could be SPARS-designated as DAA (digitally recorded, analog mixed and analog mastered).
Not to prejudice my ears, I played the Basic version first and thought it sounded fine, as one might expect from a 2-track tape using current state-of-the-art technology. The difference between the 15 ips and 7.5 ips versions of Erskine Live, though, is palpable. The Premium sounds incrementally better, with more dimensionality to the instruments, a better defined sound stage, and seemingly greater dynamic range - all very subtle but noticeable improvements. In the end, the choice of format depends on the listener's budget, whether she/he thinks the expenditure of an extra $199 ($6.86 per minute of listening time) is worth it.
Finally, it's tempting to compare the new-technology recordings (from all the companies mentioned above) to their older cousins from the 1950s and 1960s. I did this with The Tape Project's reissue of the Decca/UK classic performance of Bruch's Scottish Fantasia and Hindemith's Violin Concerto performed by David Oistrakh with the London Symphony, playing the $450 version next to the commercial Ampex-manufactured release four-track 7.5 ips. While the audiophile reissue is precise and detailed, the original seems warmer, more spacious, and generally more compelling musically. Similarly, I couldn't resist threading the four-track versions of Columbia's iconic Kind of Blue and Time Out to listen once again to these amazing performances captured so perfectly by Fred Plaut's exceptional engineering. It's no surprise these vintage tapes are commanding such high prices these days.
That said, listening to the Erskine title stimulates the aural and musical appetite; one hopes Analogy will produce an affordable sampler tape that will enable more reel collectors/listeners to hear selections from the broad range of music available in this newest and most welcome incarnation of our favorite format.
Thank you. Good review. I just played my London tape of the Bruch/Hindemith works. Good tape, but hard to believe it wouldn't be bettered by the Tape Project reissue.
The Tape Project bettered the commercial release in some respects, like low wow/flutter and distortion, but overall I felt the London/Ampex was warmer and more spacious. An engineer friend described the earlier tape stock as "softer" than current issue. It's a mystery to me, but I trust my ears. (Incidentally, the tapes were auditioned on Ken Fritz' magnificent system with center channel off. The London/Ampex played on a Technics 1500 and the Tape Project on an Ampex ATR.)
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