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Meet Ze Ripper - Part 1

But where have all the tape decks gone?

[Italian version]

Author: Werner Ogiers

Once upon a time well-heeled audiophiles aspired to owning big tape recorders. With big recorders I mean the upper reaches of consumer brands, such as the Tandberg TD20, Revox B77, TEAC X2000, ... and the lower echelons of the pro manufacturers, think Revox PR99, Tascam 32, Otari MX55.

[who stole the diva's dress?]
Even while understanding (and feeling!) the sheer lust these machines instill, one must find this somewhat puzzling. After all, what use were these recorders, actually? Tape as a distribution medium for music was all but inexistent. Portability and transportability were zero. I imagine not too many people were into the (sometimes dangerous) hobby of recording live music. So all that remained to do with these exponents of a soon-to-die electro-mechanical era was taping quality FM broadcasts and copying LPs, safeguarding the precious vinyl in the best-possible way. After all weren't many LPs mastered on the nephews of these machines? And as a breed, weren't top-quality tape decks a technology and a format with technical capabilities exceeding those of the LP as a mass-distribution format?

But then we had the advent of cassette tape. The popularity of real-to-reel waned: cassettes played back in the car, on the portable, in your niece's walkperson, ... Cassettes could be handled by everyone in the family without much risk for harmony or limb. Cassette decks took less space and made the living room look a bit less like a B52's cockpit. That the general quality of cassette was less than LP could serve up didn't matter. That overall compatibility was largely an illusion didn't suppress the fun, and the situation of having a home recording format capable of doing Genuinely Great Things (tm) virtually disappeared.

Only to return today, be it in disguise.

You see, while DVD-A and SACD are massive flops, and high-resolution music downloads have only a tiny share of the real music market, as opposed to audiophile muzak and arcane classical markets, there is nothing whatsoever to keep you from recording your own high-resolution digital discs or files.

More. With the proliferation of cheap powerful computers, with the availability of good and affordable audio editing software, and with the music industry's practice of totally screwing up releases of new and old material alike (due to the loudness race and over-done compression/limiting), it is now your moral duty to capture those wonderfully natural sounding LPs you have at the highest-possible resolution, lovingly edit-out their blemishes and shortcomings, and archive them as well-recorded audio-only DVD-V or DVD-A discs or files.

There you have the same benefit as from those reel-to-real beasts of yore. With added portability. With added compatibility: everyone can play audio-only DVD-Vs. Everyone will still be able to play them in 2036. Everyone can play CDs. Everyone can play MP3s.

Since the beginning of the millennium I have been searching for a method for archiving improved recordings of my LPs. This article series documents this process. While this isn't intended as a tutorial, I do hope that these writings inspire you.

But why would I want to transcribe my records?

Transcribe: I truly hate the terms 'vinyl ripping' or 'needledrops'. The first sounds so destructive and inept as it derived from CD ripping, the second sounds ... well, you don't wanna know. Anyway, in my case the reasons for spending time and effort on copying LPs are plenty. First the fragile nature of the LP always made me a bit nervous about handling and playing albums. It is much handier and safer to have robust versions for non-critical listening and background music, for those times when the polyvinyl ritual isn't needed. Then there's the iPod. I have one (1), and it is permanently linked into my car's four-letter-word music system. 90% of my listening is in the car, and it would be a shame to do there without half of my music collection.

I could (and sometimes do) hunt for MP3 torrents of albums I own, but somehow this isn't very satisfying: I don't like stolen music (even when I feel entitled to such theft), and further, with the loudness race ever going on so many modern re-issues of my music are vastly inferior to the old masters. And so we come to my last reason: recording an LP and then carefully restoring it brings me closer to the music. Sometimes too close, in which case I get saturated and won't listen to it for many a moon, but often it increases my understanding of the music and the way it was made, such a long time ago.

Recorder history

I've always been a sucker for recording gear. The origin of this goes back to my childhood, when a friend's big Akai CS-F9 was my big envy. Throughout my early audio career I tended to spend disproportionate amounts of money on components that would allow me to capture my LPs for once and for all. Whenever I got a new album, I taped it right away. Whenever I got a new tapedeck, I taped all of them again. Whenever I got a new turntable or cartridge, I retaped them all once more.

Did I listen to those tapes? Yes. Iím not that sad.

Still, even I could see that this was not quite rational, and after the purchase of a Sony DAT which was to continue me on this road of madness but then only ever gathered dust (the format simply made no sense), I pulled the plug. I sold the DAT, mint, at 10% of its original price, including 20 unused tapes, to someone who informed me later that he was not happy with this purchase. I retired my Nakamichis. All of them. I stopped recording. I listened to LPs in the lounge, old tapes in the car, and on the move ... well, the Sony 'Professional' Walkman had self-destructed before I even had gotten any pleasure from it.

Then the advent of cheap computing power, of recordable CD, and ultimately of the iPod and its clones, changed the game. Contrary to DAT, which was a very 'closed' format, archiving albums to CD-R allows to replay the copies just about everywhere, and it allows easy processing of the recordings on a computer with audio editing/mastering software. Doing so makes a lot of sense, as 1) it liberates the music, and 2) allows to compensate for some of those nasty 80s pressings I have around. So after a hiatus of many years I picked up my quest again.

In the past decades I've had between two and five turntables concurrently in possession and in use. While it is practical and convenient to have a dedicated recording setup with its own turntable and preamp, it is rather obvious that only the best combination will yield the best digital copy. This then means that said best turntable moves to the recording place, or vice versa. The former is not very practical with most high-quality record players, so the latter option had to be pursued: I needed something transportable to record onto, something I could bring into the living room.

My first new re-recording rig consisted of a Dell Pentium III laptop (borrowed from the FFactory) and Terratec Phase 26 outboard USB audio box, containing 2 channels of '24bit/96kHz' AD and 6 channels of DA, in addition to SPDIF coax and Toslink IO. On that PC I ran the demo version of CoolEdit.

I put all of this on a small and rickety table next to the main system, connecting the output of the phonostage (a Trichord Dino) straight into the TerraTec. I used spectral analysis of recorded 'silence' (no LP playing) to optimise the system noise floor: in particular the choice of running the laptop on mains or on battery featured here prominently, battery being far worse!

After transferring two albums it became clear that this way of doing it was not attractive at all, due to the addition of numerous flying bits and cables to the standing system in a lounge that was to be shared with the rest of the family. I then moved the recording computer to my home office, driving it with a leftover GyroDec/RB300 with Denon DL-103 and a DIY Naim clone phonostage. This was much nicer to work with, but obviously sounded not as good as the main system. The technical performance of the TerraTec was none too impressive either: it measured a signal to noise ratio of 80dB, which is bad for a 16 bit device, let alone one claiming 24 bit.

The resulting recordings, from either source, were OK, with a tendency for dullness or lifelessness (note that many of my 80s LPs sound dull to start with). While not unacceptable from a sonic point of view, I also wanted to use the setup for audio measurements and there the noise intrusion remained undesired. So I relegated the Terratec to monitor duties on my (new) Pentium IV desktop machine, and bought an M-Audio Firewire Audiophile AD/DA box for the laptop.

This one measured much better than the Terratec (98dB or so, just meeting 16 bit spec), but even after typically audiofool modifications to its analogue signal path it did not really sound different from the Terratec it replaced, and further, with its FireWire interface and external power supply it was a pig to setup, booth, and use correctly with the old laptop.

Software, along the lines, was replaced with Adobe Audition 1.5. I splashed out because the old freebie Cooledit did not run all too reliably on Windows XP. Audition is a very well made package almost worth its asking price even if you use only 10% of its capabilities. In addition, its internal sound processing core and algorithms are mathematically sound so that, provided 32 bit floating point internal processing is enabled and default dithering is disabled, no undue truncation and distortion happens. This is not trivial, and many of Audition's cheaper and more expensive competitors do worse.

The problem of moving the laptop AD/DA box over to the lounge persisted, of course, and things even got worse when I found that the surrounding EM fields in the 'turntable spot' of my study were too high to allow a really hum-free signal path. I ended up schlepping the Gyro to the other side of the room, to the Dell desktop (the old laptop didn't really like gigabyte-sized 88.2kHz/24b files anyway), to record there, and then back to its wallbracket when not in use. Lunacy, yes. (When the Technics SL-1200 was in for review I abused the sample for quickly recording a bunch of worn new wave LPs. It was absolutely a joy to use in this application!)

So back to square one.

What I wanted was something that would allow me to record my LPs in the best conditions (i.e. using my turntable of choice), with the best possible ADC quality (at least 88.2kHz and more than 16 bits effectively), and with the potential for post-mastering work using a PC and software. I initially looked at the various pro and semi-pro solid-state or HD recorders that littered the market since 1994 or so. Examples of these ranged from the affordable M-Audio MicroTrack over the Fostex FR-2, FR-2LE, Tascam HD-P2 and then to the Nagra V and Sound Devices 702. The latter were automatically deleted as, even in this folly (just buying CD issues for all of my LPs would be slightly cheaper and much more time saving than what I ended up doing), I was not quite prepared to bankrupt myself on it. (Although, speaking now in 2010, re-doing this I would be tempted by the Nagra LB!)

The M-Audio also did not cut it, as too restricted in functionality and probably too in quality. The FR-2LE was announced and then left us waiting. And and in-depth investigation of the front-end circuitry of field recorders like the FR-2 and the HD-P2 (thanks to Tascam who were very cooperative in this!) revealed that these machines are built with functionality in mind, far over absolute sound quality. They are excellent for reporters and interviewers, probably so for movie sound capture, but really not suited at all for audiophile recording jobs. In the case of the Tascam the line inputs even were first heavily attenuated and then routed through the mike preamps, adding noise and distortion in the process. (Hifi News' Jim Lesurf did choose the P2 and you can read about his finding on his personal website. He seems to like it. My advice, if you really want a high-end portable, is to try before you buy.)

And that brought me back to rack-mounted gear and essentially one remaining choice: this was at around 2005 and affordable standalone high-resolution recorders were few and far between. There was the Alesis Masterdisk with its in-built hard disk and CD writer, but at that time it only wrote to CD-Rs, and using it would mean a lot of discs wasted as the media carrying the raw recordings would not be re-usable. I opted for the brand-new Tascam DV-RA1000, a two-channel PCM/DSD master recorder that writes DVD+RW media. Moreover, it boasted the Burr Brown PCM1804 ADC chip, which was at the time the most advanced single-chip audio ADC in existence.

Only after making this investment did I learn that the DV-RA1000's DVD transport had its share of problems, and only works properly with a specific type of Sony disks. Even then re-using DVDs for recording is not recommended, although these DVD+RWs can always be re-written for other purposes, of course. The DV-RA1000 has now been supplanted by the 1000HD, which is the same with an in-built HDD and an even stiffer price tag.

The original DV-RA1000 has been reviewed by HiFi News & Record Review. The verdict was along the lines of crappy DAC, decent ADC, hopeless user interface, and PCM better sounding than DSD. Mixed feelings indeed, but note that the ADC quality is the most important asset, and once you have a working flow the Tascam is a relatively solid platform for high-quality recording work. I never regretted my purchase, but I do pray that the DV-RA1000 won't fall apart in the next five years or so and that it won't start again with intermittent and undetected failures of data write operations (as it does with non-Sony disks). I have learned my lesson: optical drives are not a viable solution for recording. Loss of data during recording is unacceptable, and it is better to aim at solid state memory, or at least a hard drive.

Many of the recorders I discussed before, including the little Zoom H2 I once reviewed, have a significant shortcoming: the analogue input level cannot be adjusted. When driving the ADC input by a fixed-output device such as a phonostage this can lead to a recording level that is too low, in which case resolution suffers, or too high, in which case the ADC itself clips horribly. Some sort of level control, operating strictly in the analogue domain, is needed.

Most recorders have input sensitivities for reaching 0dBFS at between 1 and 2Vrms. Most phonostage/cartridge combinations will happily output more than this on musical peaks, so overload is the dominant problem, rather than lack of input signal. The DV-RA1000 has a programmable attenuator in its signal path. I use it when required, and I bypass it when possible. The latter gives a slightly cleaner signal path. If your recorder has no level controls then you'll have to drive it from the line output of a preamp, or perhaps you'd want to put an attenuator resistor between the source and the ADC input. Both solutions are not ideal.

[Go to Part II]

© Copyright 2010 Werner Ogiers - www.tnt-audio.com

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